Friday, April 05, 2013

Training our emotional brain - improving affective control.

Schweizer et al. suggest that our ability to keep a cool head in emotionally charged situations can be enhanced by working memory training, because both functions are associated with the same frontoparietal neural circuitry, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), the inferior parietal and the anterior cingulate cortices, that can exert downregulatory effects on experienced emotional distress through projections to the amygdala and midbrain nuclei from the lateral and medial PFC components. Here is their abstract, followed by a description of the emotional working memory (not regular working memory) training that was evaluated.
Affective cognitive control capacity (e.g., the ability to regulate emotions or manipulate emotional material in the service of task goals) is associated with professional and interpersonal success. Impoverished affective control, by contrast, characterizes many neuropsychiatric disorders. Insights from neuroscience indicate that affective cognitive control relies on the same frontoparietal neural circuitry as working memory (WM) tasks, which suggests that systematic WM training, performed in an emotional context, has the potential to augment affective control. Here we show, using behavioral and fMRI measures, that 20 d of training on a novel emotional WM protocol successfully enhanced the efficiency of this frontoparietal demand network. Critically, compared with placebo training, emotional WM training also accrued transfer benefits to a “gold standard” measure of affective cognitive control–emotion regulation. These emotion regulation gains were associated with greater activity in the targeted frontoparietal demand network along with other brain regions implicated in affective control, notably the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. The results have important implications for the utility of WM training in clinical, prevention, and occupational settings.
A description of the training:
The emotional working memory training... comprised an affective dual n-back task consisting of a series of trials each of which simultaneously presented a face (for 500 ms) on a 4 × 4 grid on a monitor and a word (for 500–950 ms) over headphones. Each picture-word pair was followed by a 2500 ms interval during which participants responded via button press if either/both stimuli from the pair matched the corresponding stimuli presented n positions back; 60% of the words (e.g., evil, rape) and faces (fearful, angry, sad, or disgusted expressions) were emotionally negative with the others affectively neutral in tone. Trial presentation order was randomized across training sessions.


  1. Anonymous4:44 AM

    I hear so much about the possible benefits of this dual n-back training in various cognitive tasks that I've been thinking if I should actually start doing this training regularly.

    What is your view on this subject? In what extent n-back training can help you and how transferable is the benefit of the training to tasks other than solving puzzles (i.e. learning new subjects, coding, etc.)?

  2. Its turning out that more careful studies have contested, not replicated the claim that brain training in one area improves other function. You should have a look a a great New Yorker blog piece on this at:

  3. Brilliant, would love to hear more about this. Very interested how emotional response and memory are centered in/around the same part of the brain, at least in humans.