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Psychophysiology of individual differences in the processes of sensory attention, perception and executive control

Priority areas of development: humanitarian
Department: Centre for Fundamental Studies
The project has been carried out as part of the HSE Program of Fundamental Studies.

Research object: Psychophysiological mechanisms of individual differences supporting cognitive processes – attention, perception and executive control.

Goal of research: The study of psychophysiological patterns of individual differences providing the functional stability and adaptiveness of attention, perception and cognitive control during performance of tasks with high cognitive load.

Methodology: The current study involved four experimental studies, during which the participants performed specially designed behavioral tasks with high cognitive load, while psychophysiological measures of brain activity (electroencephalogram, magnetoencephalogram etc.) were recorded. Additionally the participants were offered to fill in psychological questionnaires aiming at measuring temperament dimensions and other individual psychological characteristics.

Data analysis was based on modern mathematical methods including time-frequency analysis, analysis of averaged activity, construction and comparison of activity topograms, brain source localization etc. All data underwent advanced statistical processing including permutational statistics, threshold-free cluster enhancement, statistical parametric mapping, etc.

Empirical base of research: The studies were conducted in volunteers who signed the informed consent to participate in the experiment. Studies were carried out in full compliance with ethical standards in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent amendments thereto. During the experiments physiological parameters (electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography and others) and behavioral parameters (response time, correctness of response, etc.) were recorded, as well as the participants completed standard psychological questionnaires.

Results of research: The present study produced the following main results.

We found three basic factors that determine inter-individual differences in behavioral measures during performance of tasks with high cognitive load:

  • the first factor is related to the overall speed of performance;
  • the second factor is related to the dominant cause of error commission and the choice between strategies, which differ in the balance between either a tendency for pre-error speeding and the tendency for slowing during error commission (with both strategies providing a comparable level overall performance effectiveness);
  • the third factor is related to the ability to raise motor threshold under conditions of uncertainty.

We found the following inter-individual patterns of post-error adaptations:

  • augmentation of the frontal midline theta rhythm as an individual psychophysiological predictor reflecting error detection;
  • depression of the parietal alpha rhythm as an individual predictor of successfulness of task performance and attentional reconfiguration;
  • depression of the somatosensory alpha-rhythm as a predictor of post-error slowing and motor inhibition.

We have found that individual differences are manifested within all time scales of cognitive processing – in the prestimulus time period (the background state), in the early poststimulus time period (related to automatic, preattentional processing), in the late poststimulus time period (related to attention and perception), as well as during the time period of processing the response results.

The studies carried out allow extending the current knowledge both of the internal mechanisms of cognitive processes as well as of individual differences and individual adaptive strategies in implementation of cognitive processes.

Novelty, importance and practical applicability of the results:

The novelty of this study at the methodological level is that we for the first time used a condensation task for the study of the cognitive processes within the methodology of cognitive control. This constitutes an important extension of the functionality of this approach, since unlike the tasks commonly used within this methodological approach, the condensation task does not require overriding a dominant response; thus, the condensation task allows studying a wider scope of adaptations – not only motor threshold increases, but also the enhancements of attention and amplifications of sensory processing.

The theoretical novelty of this study is that we for the first time described the patterns of cognitive control implementation during a cognitive task presented in the auditory modality, while in the current scientific literature only the visual modality has been described. Thus, the data obtained for the first time allow distinguishing general patterns of the phenomena under scrutiny from particular patterns specific to a single visual modality. Moreover, the data obtained within our studies extend the current knowledge concerning the error-related behavioral adaptations and corresponding theta and alpha modulations during performance in a task that does not involve inhibition of automatic responses – i.e. to the kind of tasks that have not been used in similar studies, thus allowing studying greater number of aspects of executive control phenomenon.

We for the first time found and described an inter-individual balance between strategies of task performance. Moreover, we demonstrated that the alternative strategies used by individuals are adaptive since they allow performing effectively while relying on each persons’ individual peculiarities.

The current study is significant for the theoretical development of the fundamental issues related to the internal mechanisms of cognitive processes and human individuality.

The current study is significant for solution of a number of problems in applied areas including labor optimization in science, education, manufacturing, transportation, as well as for the development of artificial intelligence


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