The as the ability to focus one’s mind

The
human mind’s capacity to perform cognitive tasks hugely depends on the
selective functions of attention as well as the ability to retain information
through memory. The areas of the brain responsible for one’s attentive ability
are the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex. The areas securing the
functioning of one’s memory are the hippocampus and the amygdala, located in
the frontal portion of the temporal lobe. There are many different approaches
to measuring both of these characteristics of the cognitive functions. These
tests are usually tasks which require behavioral reactions to changes that are
visualized on a screen. For example, the tests assessing attention are the
Psychomotor Vigilance Test, the Change Blindness test as well as the Dot Probe.
In addition, the N-back, the Delayed Free Recall and the Eyewitness Recall
tests are used to evaluate one’s capacity to store, retain and recall
information. However, there are certain mental states that satisfy a criteria
for memory impairment and can be categorized as different types of dementia. On
the other hand, damages to parts of the brain responsible for attention are
bound to cause diseases manifested with an attention deficit (along with
additional disruption of the impulse control mechanisms).

Introduction

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The
ability to process and encode information (attention) as well as subsequently
storing it (memory), is essential for the way we shape the narrative of our
lives due to attention and memory being very important aspects of our
cognition.

Attention

As a vital
characteristic of our cognitive capacity, attention can be referred to as the
ability to focus one’s mind into concentrating on only one aspect of one’s
surroundings, simultaneously disregarding other things. One of the most basic
characteristics attention has is the fact that it is limited in its potential
as well as duration. The other two attributes of attention are that it is
selective (as mentioned before, the ability of focusing on one particular thing)
and plays a big part in the cognitive system.

The two brain
areas activated when one is paying attention are the prefrontal cortex (this is
located at the front of the brain and is responsible for willful concentration)
as well as the parietal cortex (this is found above the occipital lobe and is
activated during a sudden change in the environment).

Attention can be
measured using many tests, including the ‘Psychomotor Vigilance Test’ (or PVT).
This test activates the prefrontal cortex and can be completed by tapping the
space bar on the keyboard whenever the circle (shown on the computer screen)
changes to a number. The ‘Change Blindness’ test is concluded by counting how
many passes the basketball team (in the video shown) makes. This takes one’s
attention off of the moonwalking bear behind the people in the video, meaning
this experiment requires selective attention. Another experiment measuring
one’s attentive capacity is the ‘Dot Probe’, where one has to press the ‘F’ or
‘J’ key on the keyboard once the images on the computer screen disappear (the
person experimented on also has to remember the pictures shown).

ADHD

An example of one
of the many disorders that have an effect on one’s attentive capacity is
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD affects children and
adolescents and may persist into adulthood. Having ADHD almost curses one with the inability to control
certain impulses, making it harder to deal with the obstacles their day-to-day
life sets upon them. The symptoms in children are categorized into three
different sections: inattention, hyperactivity as well as impulsivity. However,
these symptoms may be altered as the child progresses into adulthood (these
include anxiety, procrastination, mood swings and depression). Modern
technology has evolved so drastically, it is now able to enable us to marvel
upon the structure of one’s brain and the changes that come upon it during or
due to the development of a mental illness. For example, MRI scans indicate
that the brains of children with ADHD were 4% smaller than the brains of boys
and girls without ADHD. This means a severely afflicted child suffering from
ADHD would have a smaller frontal lobe (responsible for creative thinking and
problem solving) and cerebellum (responsible for controlling and coordinating
the movements of muscles).

Although there is
no known cure for ADHD, scientists have discovered that a 20 minute walk was
almost equivalent to the effect of various drugs (these findings indicate that
nature promotes self-discipline).

Schizophrenia

Another example
of attention deficit takes the form of schizophrenia. This mental disorder is
not only long term, but affects the person in such a way that they lose the
ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. Scientists
have found that attention is distorted in schizophrenic patients when they have
to perform tasks requiring stimuli. As the dysfunction of the frontal and
temporal lobes (as well as the basal ganglia) is one of the characteristics of
schizophrenia, attention is one of the cognitive impairments that lead to a
poor performance in attentive tasks. For example, people diagnosed with the
disorder may show signs of distraction caused by hallucinations as well as a
lack of motivation in completing certain tasks (they may also show suppression
of verbal responses).

Memory

Memory is yet
another fundamental aspect of our cognition and can be interpreted as the way
the mind encodes various aspects of personal experience into many different
forms of representation.

There are nine
types of memory, these include: semantic memory, episodic memory, procedural
memory, declarative memory, implicit memory, explicit memory, long-term memory,
short-term memory and, lastly, sensory memory.

Short-term memory
consists of three major aspects: a limited capacity (meaning its storage limits
the number of items it can store to seven), a limited duration (loss of
information can be caused by progression of time as well as distraction) and,
lastly, encoding (the visual information the occipital lobe stores is
translated into sound). Long-term memory is when the information is always
there, even though there may be some impediments as to how accessible it is
(for example, revising for a test a month before it actually is and
subsequently storing the information you need to remember). Sensory memory
retains information (acquired by the five senses of hearing, seeing, smelling,
touching and tasting) regarding our surroundings, allowing us to briefly focus
our attention on relevant details (an example of this may be hearing an
ambulance go past while doing homework). Conscious thought is very important
for explicit memory (which often creates links between different memories). An
example of this would be recalling who you had dinner with two or three days
ago. Implicit memory, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of explicit
memory as conscious thought isn’t needed (remembering song lyrics is an example
of this). Declarative memory involves the conscious recall of specific facts
and events. For example, knowing your grandad’s birthday. Procedural memory is
responsible for automatic actions (or motor skills such as knowing how to play
an instrument), storing information on how to perform basic tasks. Episodic
memory is a unique perception of an event that would be different from someone
else’s experience of that same event (an example of this may be someone’s first
day at a new school). Lastly, semantic memory consists of concepts that aren’t
perceived from one’s own experience but by general knowledge (for example,
knowing that the sky is blue or that pure water is clear).

The two brain
regions responsible for all of these types of memory are the hippocampus (this
is needed in order to form new memories however it only temporarily stores
information) and the amygdala (responsible for memorizing and responding to
emotions, especially fear).

Memory can be
assessed using many tests, such as the ‘N-back’. This test assesses short-term
memory and can be completed by pressing the space bar on the keyboard when a
number, which was shown on the computer screen two numbers previously, is shown
again. The ‘Delayed Free Recall’ test assesses episodic memory and is concluded
by remembering eight items previously placed in front of the person, and then
attempting to recall them about ten minutes later. Lastly, the test that
assesses nearly every type of memory there is (the ‘Eyewitness Recall’ test) is
completed whilst watching a video and consequently answering specific questions
about it.

Dementia

One of the major
mental illnesses (that lead to an impairment of one’s memory) is called dementia;
a disorder known to cause a decline in the ability to perform certain
day-to-day actions. The word itself illustrates symptoms that include mood
swings, memory loss and difficulties with problem-solving, language and
thinking. Shrinkage of brain tissue (in almost ‘restricted’ parts of the brain)
has been discovered amongst people diagnosed with dementia. However, as the
damage extends to other parts of the brain, symptoms involving a lot of different
types of dementia may become more similar.

Alzheimer’s

An example of a type of dementia is Alzheimer’s
disease. The hippocampus (as well as its attached structures) is one of the
first areas to suffer damage caused by this disease. This results in difficulty
with formation of new memories as well as the intake (or encoding) of new
information. A person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s may even find themselves forgetting
what they said earlier in the conversation, leading to a large amount of
repetition. However, they are more likely to remember where they went on
holiday as a child. This is because the hippocampus is essential for the
retrieval of memories although those made a longer time ago require less of the
hippocampus, meaning a damaged one would only effect short-term memory instead
of long-term. The second, later affected area of the brain, is the amygdala,
meaning someone with Alzheimer’s is more susceptible to the recall of the
emotion they gained at a certain event instead of the event itself.

As the disease expands throughout the brain,
other areas of the brain (like the lobes) become impaired. For example, damage
caused to the system responsible for vision in the temporal lobes, would make
recognition of faces and objects much harder. One may even forget who one of
their family members are (however one may remember them once that family member
speaks because visual and hearing routes are separate). In addition, impairment
caused to the right parietal lobe would provide difficulty in activities such
as navigating stairs. The cortex is affected as well due to becoming thinner,
influencing the long-term memory. Overall, one’s whole brain gradually becomes
smaller. As a compensation to all of these losses, numerous abilities
(especially those acquired in the past) are retained. Skills relying on
procedural memories (for example, playing the violin) are maintained due to
being stored deeply within the structures of the brain. In Alzheimer’s, skills
like these are known to be sustained the longest.

Korsakoff

Another example of a mental illness involving
memory loss is Korsakoff’s syndrome; a chronic memory disorder which is
substance-induced (meaning its problems are caused directly by the effects that
substances provide). It is known to be associated with excessive intoxication
and thiamine deficiency (thiamine/vitamin B-1 helps brain cells in producing
energy from sugar however when thiamine levels fall too low, the brain cells
are stripped of their ability to generate energy, leading to them stopping
working properly).

The first phase of Korsakoff’s syndrome is
known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, people experiencing its symptoms usually
suffer from mental confusion, eye movement disorders and poor motor
coordination (the most fundamental symptom is said to be mental confusion as
well as memory problems). Eye movement disorder is usually caused by paralysis
of the muscles which control eye movement itself. This means that if patients
diagnosed with this were to be tested on, they would find it difficult to move
their eyes in following some sort of a visual stimulus. Poor motor
coordination, on the other hand, (also referred to as ataxia) would cause
problems with keeping balance while standing or walking.

Even though most of these symptoms have a
chance of resolving spontaneously, memory disorder still sustains its role as a
characteristic of Korsakoff’s syndrome. Upon first look, a person diagnosed
with Korsakoff would look quite ordinary due to having the ability to lead a conversation.
Individuals with the syndrome are also able to recall incidents taking place
prior to being diagnosed with the disorder as well as recognizing familiar
faces of either friends or family. However, it is nearly impossible for a
person to form new memories.

Researchers have also discovered that the
syndrome does not affect one’s implicit memory (as mentioned before, this type
of memory is one that does not require conscious thought). This has made
researchers want to explore how classical conditioning is involved in
remembering specific people. Classical conditioning is the process in which the
linkage between two stimuli creates a freshly learned response in either a
person or animal. Ivan Pavlov tested this conclusion by ringing a bell prior to
serving food to his dogs. After doing this time and time again, he found that
the dogs salivated when he rang the bell, even if there was no food served.

Unfortunately, researchers have also found
that 80% of the people diagnosed with Korsakoff’s syndrome will never
completely recover, meaning they would permanently lose the ability to intake
new information.