Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Effects of sleep on Remembering to Remember

Prospective memory is a class of memory that is unique in that it involves the future rather than the present or the past. Various examples of prospective memory include remembering to buy a pet monkey, or remembering to break up with your girlfriend or remembering to do that blasted thesis that you have been putting off for the umpteenth time. Hence, some researchers have called it the act of "remembering to remember" (Winograd, 1988). Although prospective memory is quite important for daily functioning and goal fulfilment, research on it has been quite sparse in comparison to other forms of memory. One big question remains: how do we remember to remember? Do we devote some resources to maintain this intention? Or is it maintained without anything being devoted to it?

You know you want it.

One theory of prospective memory suggests that prospective memory can be both effortful and automatic. One way in which prospective memory can be automatic is when cues in our environment alert us to something we have to do. Kvavilashvili and Fisher (2007) has found that individuals often encounter cues related to a goal (eg, seeing a monkey in the magazine, receiving a text message from the girlfriend) and these cues spontaneously remind participants of their goal. Another way in which prospective memory is maintained is through conscious retrieval. Other researchers have also found that prospective memory surprisingly is better after 15 minutes than 3 minutes, one interpretation being that participants consciously retrieve and rehearse the goal prior to and up to the point when they are going to execute it (Hicks, Marsh & Cook, 2005).

One question that arises from these findings is that, what happens when we sleep on something? During sleep it appears that both automatic and effortful mechanisms are absent; we don't consciously retrieve and rehearse goals, and we aren't exposed to cues from the external environment. In such a case we might expect that prospective memory would weaken. However, given that a huge amount of literature has also shown that sleep improves memory, we might expect that sleep would improve prospective memory. These contradictory hypotheses form the basis for Scullin and McDaniel's study, "Remembering to execute a Goal: Sleep on it!" (2010)

The researchers had participants do a series of tasks (too lengthy to cover), while remembering to do a particular action at a particular time ("press the Q key when you see the word table or horse"). In one set of participants, this target came after a short delay (20 minutes) while in the long delay condition, participants were told to come back after 12 hours for another series of experiments and the target came there. The other crucial manipulation was time of day, the experiment for one set of participants was started in the morning, and the other set at night. The study was between groups, so participants were spread out across 4 conditions.

1. Short Morning Delay

2. Short Evening Delay

3. Wake Delay (from morning to night, during which time the participant was awake)

4. Sleep Delay (from night to morning, during which time the participant was sleeping)

What the researchers found was that sleeping improved the ability to remember to do something, as compared to being awake. In some of the tests, the performance was almost as good as if one was tested after 20 minutes. One important possible confound in this experiment was that the sleep and awake conditions also differed not just in amount of sleep but also when the experiment was conducted. The authors eliminated this confound by comparing performance for prospective memory during the day and night after a short delay and found that time of day had little effect.

So the results are inconsistent with the idea that sleep might undermine prospective memory by preventing conscious retrieval or exposure to environmental stimuli. It seems like prospective memory might not rely heavily on these 2 processes, as suggested by some proponents of the theory above. The implication being that if you need to remember to do something, you might as well sleep on it.

But how does sleep improve prospective memory? The authors suggest that sleep increases associative binding and that it amplifies weak goals or links. In this case, it seems like prospective memory might not be very much different from other types of memory. However the authors find that sleep improves prospective memory for only certain types of tasks, thus raising new avenues for research into different kinds of prospective memory and how they are affected by different variables.

One problem which I found in this paper was that the participants were engaging in quite an unnatural prospective memory task, in which case environmental cues present during the awake phase would not help the participant in remembering to do the task. On the other hand, in the real world, such environmental cues would be present and abundant (like seeing your thesis supervisor). So in that sense, the authors can't make the claim that sleeping improves prospective memory more than staying awake and being exposed to constant pictures of monkeys.

Another interesting idea that this paper raises is the implication of sleep on prospective memory in old people. It has been found that prospective memory is one memory that is especially impaired and gets worse with old age (they keep forgetting to get the groceries for instance). Old people also get less sleep, especially sleep of the slow wave kind. Coincidence? :)

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Scullin MK, & McDaniel MA (2010). Remembering to execute a goal: sleep on it! Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (7), 1028-35 PMID: 20519489

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jealousy, Turning Saints into the Sea?

"Not so long ago jealousy was considered a pointless, archaic institution in need of reform. But like other denials of human nature from the 1960s, this bromide has not aged well. ... The rock musician who wrote 'If you love somebody set them free' also wrote 'Every breath you take, I'll be watching you.'"

- Steven Pinker, on David Buss's The Dangerous Passion

Have you ever felt threatened in the presence of others you perceive to be superior to you? I recall one time when I was a teaching assistant in an introductory psychology course and, in the middle of a discussion about how jealousy is experienced when your partner interacts with someone else who appears to have higher mate value than you, an eager student asked, “Professor, but how do you know if that person has a higher mate value than you?” To which the professor smiled and cheekily said, “Oh, you just know.”

To humour the bemused student, the professor gave some scenarios. If you’re a guy, just imagine this. Some other socially dominant male is talking to your girlfriend or wife, and he’s trying to make her laugh. Worse, she actually laughs along and looks like she’s having a very comfortable and enjoyable time. If you’re a lady, imagine the reverse – your boyfriend or husband has met a younger and physically attractive woman, and now he’s the one trying to make her laugh, and she’s playing along and being very reciprocative. That creeping feeling of alarm bells and jealousy becomes just a tad more resonant.

In the dating and mating game, what exactly are those social cues that get us to be on our guard, to experience inferiority and to feel threatened? Gutierres, Kenrick and Partch (1999), researchers looking at the issue through an evolutionary perspective, explored the oft-cited mating preferences of men for physical attractiveness and women for status and social dominance, and elucidated interesting sex differences in contrast effects.

The researchers gathered data from 91 undergraduate females and 99 undergraduate males and primed the men with either physically attractive men or socially dominant men while, on the other hand, priming the women with either physically attractive women or socially dominant women. Exposure to physically attractive men or women was done by showing participants photographs of people, while exposure to socially dominant men or women was done by getting participants to read a descriptive profile of a person with high dominance.

Interestingly, their study found that men’s self-assessments of desirability were adversely affected by exposure to highly socially dominant men and were relatively unaffected by exposure to physically attractive men. Conversely, women’s self-reports of their mate value were more affected by the physical attractiveness than by the social dominance of the women to whom they were exposed. This demonstrated that humans are sensitive to the selective mate preferences of the opposite gender. If we consistently fail to match up to the quality of our rivals, this can have an effect on how we perceive our own desirability!

More recently, another set of experiments conducted by Maner, Gailliot, Rouby and Miller (2007) also looked at how our state of mind affects the level of attention we give to stimulus objects in our environment.

A total of three studies were done on undergraduate students to explore how this interacts in the scene of human mating. It was found that when participants were primed with feelings of romantic and sexual arousal, a ‘mate-search’ psychological mechanism was activated which resulted in greater attentional adhesion* towards attractive members of the opposite sex. On the contrary, when participants were evoked with feelings of jealousy (imagining a scenario that perhaps closely resembles the one that the professor had painted), a ‘mate-guard’ state of mind was primed which led to greater attentional adhesion to attractive same-sex targets.

So is jealousy simply a manifestation of insecurity? Perhaps the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because it does seem apparent that the mind is designed to experience jealousy when the environment provides feedback on where you stand. If there are many people of the same sex as you in the room who are far more attractive, that’s good reason to feel insecure especially when being evaluated by members of the opposite sex. But jealousy isn’t only just a manifestation of insecurity because it serves an important adaptive function – to alert us to the potential dangers of losing your mate, telling us to be aware of snakes and wolves in the environment, and getting us to turn on our A-game where necessary. As David Buss writes in The Dangerous Passion, jealousy is as necessary as love and sex.

* Attentional adhesion refers to how readily a person tends to a particular stimulus. In most documented cases, this is determined by measuring participants' reaction time taken to respond to stimulus.
Maner JK, Gailliot MT, Rouby DA, & Miller SL (2007). Can't take my eyes off you: Attentional adhesion to mates and rivals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93 (3), 389-401 PMID: 17723055

Gutierres, S., Kenrick, D., & Partch, J. (1999). Beauty, Dominance, and the Mating Game: Contrast Effects in Self-Assessment Reflect Gender Differences in Mate Selection Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25 (9), 1126-1134 DOI: 10.1177/01461672992512006

Buss, D. M. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is As Necessary As Love and Sex. New York: Free Press.