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Neurotic people have noisier, more chaotic minds, say researchers
Study finds that neurotic people deal with more "mental noise" than others.
- Neuroticism is characterized by emotional instability and lack of resilience.
- People who score high on neuroticism are at an increased risk for mental health problems and relationship woes.
- New research suggests that neurotic people deal with more mental noise.
Of the main personality traits, Neuroticism (characterized by emotional instability and lack of resilience) is probably the one with the least going for it.
High scorers on this trait are impulsive, tend to worry a lot, and they struggle with low moods and short tempers. Thanks to personality research, we know a lot about what lies in store for people who score high on neuroticism, such as increased risk of mental health problems and relationship turmoil. But as Robert Klein and Michael Robinson note in their new paper in Journal of Personality we know a lot less about the psychological processes that underlie the trait. From an emotional perspective, neurotic people are said to be more sensitive to threat and punishment, but what about the cognitive side? Across four studies, Klein and Robinson present evidence consistent with what they call the mental noise hypothesis — "neurotic people have noisier, more chaotic mental control systems," they write.
The four studies involved hundreds of undergrad students, who filled out personality questionnaires and then took part in a simple tracking task, in which they had to use a computer mouse or joystick to track a horizontally moving on-screen target with their cursor as accurately as possible. Each tracking trial, of which there were up to 60 per person, lasted between 30 seconds or as little as 5 seconds.
The researchers were able to examine participants' tracking accuracy with high temporal precision, using the task to assess "micro-momentary disconnections between the mind and its control of the external environment." Given the shortness of the trials, plus the fact the task did not require storing or manipulating information in working memory, and that there was no need to adjust to different instructions, Klein and Robinson said it was too simple and easy to be considered an "executive function" task (involving more complex mental processes) and was instead best characterized as a "form of mindfulness task that requires intention, attention and awareness concerning a simple activity."
Notably, previous research has found an inverse correlation between trait neuroticism and trait mindfulness — neurotic folk are often so fretful and distracted with worry about the past and future that they find it difficult to be in the present. However, according to past findings, this distracted state doesn't manifest in lower IQ or worse job performance. This paradox may be explained by neurotic people compensating by investing more effort than average, the researchers suggested (after all, anxiety-prone people would hate to fail or underperform). Part of the rationale for the tracking task, then, was that it would be so simple that performance would not vary with greater effort — in a sense providing the researchers with a pure measure of their participants' mental control, or what you could think of as their levels of mental noise.
True to their predictions, the researchers found that across all the studies, higher scorers in neuroticism were less accurate at tracking the on-screen targets. Also, the link between neuroticism and poorer performance was consistent, being no greater during earlier or later trials (discounting the influence of factors like fatigue). "A task with excellent temporal resolution appears to possess considerable value in documenting the sorts of lapses and slips thought to be somewhat endemic to neurotic forms of self-regulation," the researchers said. In contrast, the other main personality traits, such as extraversion and conscientiousness, were not associated with performance.
The researchers also blasted the participants with annoying loud white noise at periodic intervals, to see if this had a greater adverse effect on more neurotic participants. Although the noise blasts impaired performance (affecting accuracy for about a second), the degree of impairment wasn't any greater for more neurotic people. This may be because the distraction of the noise was so immediate and unavoidable that personality differences were not relevant.
In the final study, after completing the tracking task, participants were also asked to keep a two-week daily diary of their feelings of distress and nervousness, as well as any daily stressors, such as feeling like they had too much to do. Poorer performance on the tracking task correlated with more frequent daily experiences of negative emotional states, regardless of any actual stressors. Klein and Robinson said this was consistent with their task being a kind of implicit personality measure: "even brief lapses of attention can reflect the sorts of processes that give rise to longer term affective consequences," they said.
If the researchers are correct in their characterization of neuroticism — and we need more studies with more diverse participant samples to test their theory — it could open up avenues for interventions to increase emotional stability, for example through training to increase mental control and so reduce mental noise.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.
- Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
- Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
- Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.
Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.
The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.
An odd find
Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock
Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.
"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."
Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.
The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."
Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.
"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."
Why understanding memory matters
Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock
"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.
If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."
Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock
Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.
Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."
Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia
At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.
Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.
In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.
Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."
He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.
If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.
- Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
- Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
- One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.