BMe Research Grant
Situations associated with potential harm for somatic and/or mental health elicit lower or higher levels of anxiety by most people. These people try to control their negative feelings in different ways. Some of them excessively focus attention on threatening situations and information, others try to repress bothering thoughts. Some people are prone to interpret information in an abstract way, whereas others experience strong feelings associated with their thoughts. Attentional and memory mechanisms underlying such emotion-regulation strategies are in the focus of our research.
The Department of Cognitive Science deals with many – maybe all – aspects of cognitive science. Coworkers of the Department investigate how information is processed and encoded by the human mind and how these processes are implemented in the brain. The PhD school associated with the Department was founded in 2004.
Modern theories of emotion emphasize the role of cognitive appraisal in the development of emotions (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) and the regulation of emotions by cognitive processes (Gross, 1999). Our research is aimed at the exploration of attentional and memory processes underlying two specific emotion-regulation strategies (Borkovec, Ray, Stober, 1998).
One of these strategies, the cognitive aspect of anxiety is worrying, which can be defined as a chain of thoughts focusing on future threatening events. It is part of our everyday life but chronic and excessive worrying can be regarded an emotion-regulation strategy, which paradoxically aims at avoiding and inhibiting the arousal and tension associated with emotional processing. According to "cognitive avoidance" theory, during worry the possible threats in the future are dealt with in an abstract way, using verbal thoughts (inner speech), and the arousal-evoking emotional processing and the associated mental imagery is avoided and inhibited.
Two of the related concepts are sensitization and repression: the former reflects the tendency of the person to focus on the possible threats in the future, whereas the latter shows how he/she represses his/her thoughts associated with future threats. The particular strategy applied largely depends on whether a given person can better tolerate the tension and arousal associated with sensitization or the uncertainty about the future associated with repression (Krohne, 1993).
We interpret the information-processing aspects of the emotion-regulation strategies described above in the framework of episodic inhibition (Racsmany & Conway, 2006): according to this theory, in the course of storing experience-like, episodic memories referring to past events, the attentional patterns that existed during this event are encoded in the memories and are activated upon retrieving them. As both described emotion-regulation strategies are associated with distinct attentional pattern, we can hypothesize that these patterns will be activated on later retrieval of the situation.
The aim of our research is to identify the attentional patterns activated by various emotion-regulation strategies (focusing or avoiding threatening information, processing of emotional information at an abstract level) and to investigate how these patterns are embedded in the episodic memories of the actual situation.
1. Is there any specific attentional pattern associated with the described emotion-regulation strategies in the processing of threatening information?
Attention can be divided into an early, automatic and a latter, controlled component. During sensitization, both processes are characterized by orientation toward threat, whereas repression is associated with early vigilance and latter avoidance of the threatening information (Derakhsan, Eysenck, Myers, 2007). One aim of our research is to test this hypothesis and to investigate the attentional patterns associated with worrying.
2. Does abstract, verbal processing style of the people prone to worry affect their episodic memories?
Worrying can be characterized by the abstract, verbal processing of threatening situations, however, according to our hypothesis this processing style affects information-processing in general, and we assume to encounter them in the case of emotionally neutral episodic memories as well.
3., Are the attentional patterns associated with emotion-regulation strategies encoded into the episodic memories of threatening situations?
According to our hypothesis, attentional patterns being active during the processing of threatening situations are encoded into episodic memories and can influence our memories of that situation.
In our research we combine the methods of cognitive psychology with the tools of psychometrics. In data interpretation, we strongly rely on the multivariate statistical methods.
There are several experimental methods in cognitive psychology capable of obtaining unbiased observational data (e.g. reaction time) on the behaviour of subjects, so we can draw conclusions on the characteristics of the underlying information-processing. The experimental procedures used in my research has been designed for testing attentional and memory functions and performance and can be implemented on a usual desktop computer.
Attentional processes can be investigated through the phenomenon of inhibition of return. In our experiments we show squares in both sides of the screen: one of them displays a picture (or some other stimulus), a so-called "cue", followed by the appearance of a green dot (the so-called "target") in either or both of the squares. The person should indicate the location of the green dot by pressing the right or left button of the mouse, respectively. Reaction times for target and cue being on identical sides are larger than when they appear on opposite sides (at least 300 msec should be allowed between displaying cue and target). This phenomenon is known as the inhibition of return, and is attributed to the inhibition of recently attended location.
In memory tasks, the remembering of details of past situations is modelled by presenting a subjects list of words or a series of pictures. There are several ways to retrieve the memories: in the case of free recall the subject is simply asked to recall to words/pictures previously seen, whereas in recognition tests the old words are mixed with new ones, and the subject has to decide for each word whether or not he/she had already seen it before.
Emotion-regulation strategies can be measured by self-report questionnaires. Worry is measured by means of the Penn State Worry Questionnaire developed by Meyer et al (1990). It contains 16 items, and the subject has to judge the extent of excessive worry that is characteristic of her/him in everyday life. Repression and sensitization is measured with Mainz Coping Inventory, a questionnaire consisting of 80 items to survey the ways we react in various threatening situations (Krohne et al., 2000).
The current phase of research uses a correlative approach, i.e. we try to detect possible associations between the scores earned from the questionnaires and the performance measured at attentional and memory tests. In the future, we plan to investigate causal links as well, through the manipulation of anxiety or worry levels or by latent variable analysis.
Although we have already started studying all three research questions, mainly results related to question 2 were conclusive. In a series of experiments, we tried to answer how worry was associated with memory performance – and more closely, with episodic memory.
In Study 1, the link between worry and memory was measured by means of self-report questionnaires: the subjects rated their worry-level and the frequency of their memory failures. The results show that worry has a beneficial effect on memory performance, but only when the subject have to rely purely on himself/herself (for example, to recall the TV programs on the previous day without any help), and there is not a single environmental cue or point of reference to rely on in the remembering phase (for example, to recognize that the current TV program was already seen the previous day).
In Studies 2 and 3, the tasks directly measuring memory performance confirmed these results. In both studies, a list of 12 words had to be learnt and retrieved after 8 minutes by the subjects. In Study 2, no help or cue was provided for the retrieval (free recall), whereas subjects in Study 3 were shown the same words previously presented them, but at that time mixed with new words (recognition). Only the level of worry in Study 2 had a positive impact on memory performance, and no association could be observed during Study 3. at all between the two constructs. This result is in full accord with the pattern found in Study 1.
Study 4 provided us with the same results as Study 2, but this time the subjects had to recall no words but pictorial stimuli (faces of famous people). Level of worry again correlated with the number of famous people recalled, when they had no support from the environment to facilitate the recall process. Currently, the replication of Study 3 test is in process with pictorial stimuli.
The pattern of results indicates that the people prone to worry demonstrate superior memory performance in the absence of any remembering aid from the environment, like in recognition tasks. Presumably, this is a consequence of the fact that abstract information processing associated with worrying promotes the binding of the elements in the episodic memory.
Research on cognitive characteristics of anxiety and on the ways and strategies people deal with it can improve the feasibility of existing models on anxiety disorders, which in turn may improve the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. Especially relevant is the fact that both worry and repression are associated with psychosomatic diseases and medically unexplained symptoms (or somatization), which represent huge and expensive problems for modern health care systems.
Therefore, our further research will involve these two focus areas:
1. To integrate result into existing models of anxiety;
2. To investigate how these emotion-regulation strategies are connected with the physiological stresss-system.
List of own publications
Pajkossy, P. (2010): Aggodalmaskodás kapcsolata az emlékezettel és a figyelmi gátlással. Előadás a Magyar Kognitív Konferencián (MAKOG) (Connection of Worrying to Memory and Attentional Inhibition. Presented at the Hungarian Cognitive Conference – in Hungarian)
Pajkossy, P., Racsmány, M. (2010): Worry is associated with enhanced memory performance. Poster presented on the II. Dubrovnik Conference on Cognitive Science (DUCOG II)
Borkovec, T. D., Ray, W. J. & Stober, J. (1998): Worry: A cognitive phenomenon intimately linked to affective, physiological, and interpersonal behavioral processes. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 22, 561–576
Derakshan, N., Eysenck, M.W., Myers, L.B. (2007): Emotional information processing in repressors: The vigilance-avoidance theory. Cognition & Emotion. 21:8, 1585–1614
Gross, J. J. (1999): Emotion Regulation: Past, Present, Future. Cognition & Emotion. 13:5, 551–573
Krohne, H. W. (1993): Vigilance and cognitive avoidance as concepts in coping research; in: Attention and Avoidance: Strategies in Coping with Aversiveness. Edited by H.W. Krohne, H.W. Seattle: Hogrefe and Huber. Chapter 2
Krohne, H. W., Egloff, B., Varner, L. J., & Burns, L. R. (2000): The Assessment of Dispositional Vigilance and Cognitive Avoidance: Factorial Structure, Psychometric Properties, and Validity of the Mainz Coping Inventory. Cognitive Therapy and Research , Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 297–311
Lazarus, R.S. & Folkman, S. (1984): Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer Publishing.
Meyer, T. J., Miller, M. L., Metzger, R. L., & Borkovec, T. D. (1990): Development and validation of the Penn State Worry Questionnaire. Behaviour Research and Therapy , Vol. 28, Issue 6, pp. 487–495
Racsmány, M., & Conway, M.A. (2006): Episodic inhibition Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition 1, 44–57