Scarcity is the condition of having insufficient resources to cope with demands. This condition presents significant challenges to the human cognitive system. For example, having limited financial resources requires the meticulous calculation of expenses with respect to a budget. Likewise, having limited time requires the stringent management of schedules with respect to a deadline. As such, scarcity consumes cognitive resources such as attention, working memory, and executive control and elicits a range of systematic and even counter-productive cognitive and behavioral responses as a result. Specifically, scarcity induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand, which facilitates performance by enhancing cognitive processing of information relevant to the problem, increasing the efficiency of resource use, and stabilizing the perception of value. Such prioritization of the problem at hand may seem advantageous, but it can produce undesirable consequences. For example, scarcity causes myopic and impulsive behavior, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term gains. Ironically, scarcity can also result in a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment that alleviates the condition of scarcity. More detrimentally, scarcity directly impairs cognitive function, which can lead to suboptimal decisions and choices that exacerbate the condition of scarcity. Thus, scarcity means not only a shortage of physical resources (e.g., money or time) but also a deficit of cognitive resources (e.g., attention, executive control). The cognitive deficits under scarcity are particularly problematic because they impair performance and lead to counter-productive behaviors that deepen the cycle of scarcity. In addition, people under financial scarcity suffer from stigmas and stereotypes associated with poverty. These social perceptions of poverty further burden the mind by consuming cognitive resources, weakening performance in the poor. Understanding the cognitive and behavioral responses to scarcity provides new insights into why the poor remain poor, identifying the psychological causes of scarcity, and illuminating potential interventions to stop the cycle of scarcity. These insights have important implications for the design and the implementation of policies and services targeting the populations under scarcity.
Jiaying Zhao and Brandon M. Tomm
Aidan Moran, Nick Sevdalis, and Lauren Wallace
At first glance, there are certain similarities between performance in surgery and that in competitive sports. Clearly, both require exceptional gross and fine motor ability and effective concentration skills, and both are routinely performed in dynamic environments, often under time constraints. On closer inspection, however, crucial differences emerge between these skilled domains. For example, surgery does not involve directly antagonistic opponents competing for victory. Nevertheless, analogies between surgery and sport have contributed to an upsurge of research interest in the psychological processes that underlie expertise in surgical performance. Of these processes, perhaps the most frequently investigated in recent years is that of motor imagery (MI) or the cognitive simulation skill that enables us to rehearse actions in our imagination without engaging in the physical movements involved. Research on motor imagery training (MIT; also called motor imagery practice, MIP) has important theoretical and practical implications. Specifically, at a theoretical level, hundreds of experimental studies in psychology have demonstrated the efficacy of MIT/MIP in improving skill learning and skilled performance in a variety of fields such as sport and music. The most widely accepted explanation of these effects comes from “simulation theory,” which postulates that executed and imagined actions share some common neural circuits and cognitive mechanisms. Put simply, imagining a skill activates some of the brain areas and neural circuits that are involved in its actual execution. Accordingly, systematic engagement in MI appears to “prime” the brain for optimal skilled performance. At the practical level, as surgical instruction has moved largely from an apprenticeship model (the so-called see one, do one, teach one approach) to one based on simulation technology and practice (e.g., the use of virtual reality equipment), there has been a corresponding growth of interest in the potential of cognitive training techniques (e.g., MIT/MIP) to improve and augment surgical skills and performance. Although these cognitive training techniques suffer both from certain conceptual confusion (e.g., with regard to the clarity of key terms) and inadequate empirical validation, they offer considerable promise in the quest for a cost-effective supplementary training tool in surgical education. Against this background, it is important for researchers and practitioners alike to explore the cognitive psychological factors (such as motor imagery) that underlie surgical skill learning and performance.
Jeffrey J. Lockman, Nicholas E. Fears, and Emily A. Lewis
Spatial ability is manifest across different psychological domains, including perception, action, and cognition. The development of spatial understanding originates in the perception-action skills of infants. When infants act on the world, either during object manipulation or locomotion, one may begin to glean the foundations of older children’s and adults’ efforts to think, reason, and solve problems more symbolically and abstractly. Even during infancy, different actions, such as reaching and locomotion, may incur different spatial demands, requiring infants to use spatial information flexibly. In the preschool years and beyond, as symbolic skills become more developed, children’s spatial abilities become more abstract, which are reflected in their abilities to think about the layout of environments and to use maps to learn about environments. Besides differences in spatial ability as a function of developmental level, individual differences in spatial ability have also been documented as a function of gender, daily experience, and blindness. Collectively, research on individual differences in spatial development suggests that training procedures can reduce differences in spatial skill that may arise in different individuals. Finally, to understand spatial development more fully, research is needed on the neural bases of spatial development, cross-cultural differences in spatial development, and the impact of technology on spatial behavior.
Joan N. Vickers and A. Mark Williams
Considerable debate has arisen about whether brain activity in elite athletes is characterized by an overall quieting, or neural efficiency in brain processes, or whether elite performance is characterized by activation of two simultaneous networks. One network exercises cognitive control using increased theta activation of premotor and cingulate gyrus, whereas the second reduces alpha activation in an inhibitory network that prevents the intrusion of debilitating thoughts emanating from the temporal lobe and other areas. Also, there is controversy about how a long-duration “quiet eye” (QE) can fit within a single efficient neural system, or whether a dual system where both increased cognitive control and reduced inhibitory processes has advantages. The literature on neural efficiency, the QE, and theta cognitive control, suggest that a long-duration QE promotes both an increase in theta band activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate and reduced activation and inhibition of the temporal regions during high-pressure situations when a high level of focused, cognitive control is essential.
Human visual development is a complex dynamic psychological/neurobiological process, being part of the developing systems for cognition, action, and attention. This article reviews current knowledge and methods of study of human visual development in infancy and childhood, in relation to typical early visual brain development, and how it can change in developmental disorders, both acquired (e.g., related to at-risk births) and genetic disorders. The newborn infant starts life with a functioning subcortical visual system which controls newborn orienting to nearby high contrast objects and faces. Although visual cortex may be active from birth, its characteristic stimulus selectivity and control of visual responses is generally seen to emerge around six to twelve weeks after birth. By age six months the infant has adequate acuity and contrast sensitivity in nearby space, and operating cortical mechanisms for discriminating colors, shapes, faces, movement, stereo depth, and distance of objects, as well as the ability to focus and shift attention between objects of interest. This may include both feedforward and feedback pathways between cortical areas and between cortical and subcortical areas. Two cortical streams start to develop and become interlinked, the dorsal stream underpinning motion, spatial perception and actions, and the ventral stream for recognition of objects and faces. The neural systems developing control and planning of actions include those for directed eye movements, reaching and grasping, and the beginnings of locomotion, with these action systems being integrated into the other developing subcortical and cortical visual networks by one year of age. Analysis of global static form (pattern) and global motion processing allows the development of dorsal and ventral streams to be monitored from infancy through childhood. The development of attention, visuomotor control and spatial cognition in the first years show aspects of function related to the developing dorsal stream, and their integration with the ventral stream. The milestones of typical visual development can be used to characterize visual and visuo-cognitive disorders early in life, such as in infants with perinatal brain injuries and those born very prematurely. The concept of “dorsal stream vulnerability” is outlined. It was initially based on deficits in global motion sensitivity relative to static form sensitivity, but can be extended to the planning and execution of visuomotor actions and problems of attention, together with visuospatial and numerical cognition. These problems are found in the phenotype of children with both genetic developmental disorders (e.g., Williams syndrome, autism, fragile-X, and dyslexia), and in acquired developmental disorders related to very preterm birth, or in children with abnormal visual input such as congenital cataract, refractive errors, or amblyopia. However, there are subtle differences in the manifestation of these disorders which may also vary considerably across individuals. Development in these clinical conditions illustrates the early, but limited, plasticity of visual brain mechanisms, and provides a challenge for the future in designing successful intervention and treatment.
Dyslexia, or a reading disability, occurs when an individual has great difficulty at the level of word reading and decoding. Comprehension of text, writing, and spelling are also affected. The diagnosis of dyslexia involves the use of reading tests, but the continuum of reading performance means that any cutoff point is arbitrary. The IQ score does not play a role in the diagnosis of dyslexia. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. The cognitive difficulties of dyslexics include problems with recognizing and manipulating the basic sounds in a language, language memory, and learning the sounds of letters. Dyslexia is a neurological condition with a genetic basis. There are abnormalities in the brains of dyslexic individuals. There are also differences in the electrophysiological and structural characteristics of the brains of dyslexics. Hope for dyslexia involves early detection and intervention and evidence-based instruction.
Erica H. Wojcik, Irene de la Cruz-Pavía, and Janet F. Werker
Language is a structured form of communication that is unique to humans. Within the first few years of life, typically developing children can understand and produce full sentences in their native language or languages. For centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and linguists have debated how we acquire language with such ease and speed. Central to this debate has been whether the learning process is driven by innate capacities or information in the environment. In the field of psychology, researchers have moved beyond this dichotomy to examine how perceptual and cognitive biases may guide input-driven learning and how these biases may change with experience. There is evidence that this integration permeates the learning and development of all aspects of language—from sounds (phonology), to the meanings of words (lexical-semantics), to the forms of words and the structure of sentences (morphosyntax). For example, in the area of phonology, newborns’ bias to attend to speech over other signals facilitates early learning of the prosodic and phonemic properties of their native language(s). In the area of lexical-semantics, infants’ bias to attend to novelty aids in mapping new words to their referents. In morphosyntax, infants’ sensitivity to vowels, repetition, and phrase edges guides statistical learning. In each of these areas, too, new biases come into play throughout development, as infants gain more knowledge about their native language(s).
Jennifer L. Etnier
There is substantial interest in identifying the behavioral means by which to improve cognitive performance. Recent research and commercial ventures have focused on cognitive training interventions, but evidence suggests that the effects of these programs are small and task-specific. Researchers have also shown interest in exploring the potential benefits of physical activity for cognitive performance. Because the effects of physical activity have been found to be small to moderate and to be more global in nature, interest in physical activity has been growing over the past several decades. Evidence regarding the efficacy of physical activity is provided through cross-sectional studies, longitudinal prospective studies, and randomized controlled trials. When reviewed meta-analytically, small-to-moderate beneficial effects are reported for children, adults, older adults, and cognitively impaired older adults, and these effects are evident for a wide range of cognitive domains, including executive function, memory, and information processing. Researchers are currently focused on identifying the mechanisms of these effects. Most of this research has been conducted using animal models, but there is a growing body of literature with humans. From this evidence, there is support for the role of changes in cerebral structure, hippocampal perfusion, and growth factors in explaining the observed benefits. Thus far, however, the literature is quite sparse, and future research is needed to clarify our understanding of the mechanisms that provide the causal link between physical activity and cognitive performance. Research is also focused on understanding how to increase the benefits by potentially combining cognitive training with physical activity and by identifying the genetic moderators of the effects. These lines of work are designed to elucidate ways of increasing the magnitude of the benefits that can be obtained. At this point in time, the evidence with respect to the potential of physical activity for benefiting cognitive performance is quite promising, but it is critical that funding agencies commit their support to the continued exploration necessary to allow us to ultimately be able to prescribe physical activity to specific individuals with the express purpose of improving cognition.
Laurence B. Leonard
Children with specific language impairment (SLI) have a significant deficit in their ability to acquire language that cannot be attributed to intellectual disability, neurological damage, hearing loss, or a diagnosis of autism. These deficits can be long-standing, and adversely affect other aspects of the affected individual’s life. There seems to be a genetic component to SLI, but the disorder is not likely to be traced to a single gene. The problem appears to be universal, but symptoms vary depending on the language being learned. Current attempts to account for SLI have increased our understanding of the most salient symptoms of the disorder, but a full understanding of SLI is not yet within reach.
DeMond M. Grant and Evan J. White
Cognitive control is the ability to direct attention and cognitive resources toward achieving one’s goals. However, research indicates that anxiety biases multiple cognitive processes, including cognitive control. This occurs in part because anxiety leads to excessive processing of threatening stimuli at the expense of ongoing activities. This enhanced processing of threat interferes with several cognitive processes, which includes how individuals view and respond to their environment. Specifically, research indicates that anxious individuals devote their attention toward threat when considering both early, automatic processes and later, sustained attention. In addition, anxiety has negative effects on working memory, which involves the ability to hold and manipulate information in one’s consciousness. Anxiety has been found to decrease the resources necessary for effective working memory performance, as well as increase the likelihood of negative information entering working memory. Finally, anxiety is characterized by focusing excessive attention on mistakes, and there is also a reduction in the cognitive control resources necessary to correct behavior. Enhancing our knowledge of how anxiety affects cognitive control has broad implications for understanding the development of anxiety disorders, as well as emerging treatments for these conditions.