Science on Tap discussion to focus on technology and the brain

June 8, 2012

LAWRENCE — Smartphone, tablet, e-reader: All of them are technological innovations that are useful, attractive and fun. But are they also harmful?

New research has begun to show the costs of our “wired” society and the incompatibility between our brains and our gadgets.

Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, will lead a talk and conversation on the subject at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 12, at Free State Brewing Co., 636 Massachusetts St. The free event is part of the KU Natural History Museum’s Science on Tap series of informal “science café” events.

Atchley will discuss the limits of human attention, the costs of technology and the myth of multitasking. He will also offer information about promising research that shows that a return to nature may be good for how we think.

Atchley’s research focuses on the interaction between attention and perception, and how these two aspects of cognition are influenced by dual-tasking, such as using a smartphone and driving.

For more information about the event, please visit online.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus. | (785) 864-3256 | 1314 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045

Contact: Jen Humphrey, Natural History Museum, 785-864-2344, from

Cognitive Prosem: “New Studies in Discrimination Learning”

This Friday, as part of the Cognitive Prosem schedule for the Spring term, Dr. John Colombo, Professor of Psychology, here at the University of Kansas will give a talk entitled, “New Studies in Discrimination Learning”. It’s the last prosem of the term; see you there!

The Cognitive Prosem is from 12:00-1:20 pm in Fraser 537.

KU researchers find time in wild boosts creativity, insight and problem solving

April 23, 2012

LAWRENCE — There’s new evidence that our minds thrive away from it all.

Research conducted at the University of Kansas concludes that people from all walks of life show startling cognitive improvement—for instance, a 50 percent boost in creativity—after living for a few days steeped in nature.

Ruth Ann Atchley, whose research is featured in this month’s Backpacker magazine, said the “soft fascination” of the natural world appears to refresh the human mind, offering refuge from the cacophony of modern life.

“We’ve got information coming at us from social media, electronics and cell phones,” said [Ruth Ann] Atchley, associate professor and chair of psychology at KU. “We constantly shift attention from one source to another, getting all of this information that simulates alarms, warnings and emergencies. Those threats are bad for us. They sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of—things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood.”

The researcher said that nature could stimulate the human mind without the often-menacing distractions of workaday life in the 21st-century.

“Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses,” said Atchley. “Therefore, we have resources left over—to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve—that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.”

Atchley led a team that conducted initial research on a backpacking trip in Utah with the Remote Associates Test, a word-association exercise used for decades by psychologists to gauge creative intelligence. Her fellow researchers included Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at KU, and David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah.

Intrigued by positive results, the researchers partnered with Outward Bound, the Golden, Colo.-based nonprofit that leads educational expeditions into nature for people of many backgrounds. About 120 participants on outings in places like Alaska, Colorado and California completed the “RAT” test.

“We worked with a number of backpacking groups that were going out last summer,” Ruth Ann Atchley said. “Four backpacker groups took the test before they hit the trail, and then four different groups did it on the fourth day just like we had done before. The data across age groups—regular folks from age 18 into their 60s—showed an almost 50 percent increase in creativity. It really worked in the sense that it was a well-used measure and we could see such a big difference in these two environments.”

Best of all, she said that the benefits of nature belong to anyone who delves completely into wilderness for an amount of time equivalent to a long weekend.

“There’s growing advantage over time to being in nature,” said Ruth Ann Atchley. “We think that it peaks after about three days of really getting away, turning off the cell phone, not hauling the iPad and not looking for internet coverage. It’s when you have an extended period of time surrounded by that softly fascinating environment that you start seeing all kinds of positive effects in how your mind works.”

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus. | (785) 864-3256 | 1314 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045

Contact: Brendan Lynch, KU News Service, 785-864-8855, from

MIND Lecture by Dr. Michael Kane on March 6th

This is a reminder of Tuesday’s MIND Lecture by Dr. Michael Kane, entitled: “What mind wandering reveals about executive control & its variation”. The lecture will take place at 3pm, Tuesday, March 6th in the Alderson Auditorium (KS Union). Dr. Kane is a cognitive psychologist who has strong collaborations with social and clinical psychologists. His talk should be interesting to many in the department! 

Our guest for this year’s Cognitive Psychology Mind Lecture Series, Dr. Michael Kane, investigates the role of executive functions in mind wandering. Some of his other areas of research include: attentional control and working memory capacity. His research “explores the nature of WMC’s predictive power, in order to understand cognitive individual differences and the functioning of the core attention and memory processes that are broadly important to ‘real world’ cognition”. His work has appeared in Psychological BulletinJEP: GeneralPsychological Science, and Memory & Cognition, to name a few. He is a current recipient of an NIMH grant looking at executive control and schizotypy.

This lecture is made possible through the support of the Mind Lecture Series Endowment. A reception will follow after the lecture. 

Individual differences in working memory capacity (WMC) predict complex cognitive capabilities (e.g., reading, reasoning) as well as performance in relatively simple attention tasks. Our executive attention theory of WMC argues that shared variance between WMC and higher-order cognition reflects primarily variation in attention control. In this talk, I will explore the WMC-attention relation by focusing on goal-neglect and mind-wandering phenomena. Goal neglect refers to momentary failures to respond according to goals despite knowing and appreciating them. I’ll argue that goal neglect (and WMC variation therein) sometimes results from mind-wandering, the subjective experience of off-task thought. Via daily-life and laboratory studies, I’ll suggest that mind-wandering research can inform theories of WMC and executive control.

Lecture with KU researcher to offer strategies to alleviate depression

Feb. 21, 2012

LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas professor who has developed a depression treatment based on lifestyle changes will share his research in a lecture called “Banish the Blues” on Thursday, Feb. 23, at Douglas County Senior Services in downtown Lawrence.

The presentation will feature Steve Ilardi, an associate professor of clinical psychology at KU and author of “The Depression Cure.” The event starts at 4 p.m. and is open to the public.

Ilardi will discuss his findings that humans were never designed for the modern pace of life, which can be both sedentary and frenzied, sleep-deprived and fast food-laden. As a result, depression rates have increased more than 20-fold in the last century. Pharmaceuticals are a common treatment, but Ilardi suggests there are other options that may be more effective.

In Ilardi’s work, he has created an alternative treatment borrowed from elements of the primitive human lifestyle. His research suggests that helping people reclaim healing habits from a way of life that was more physically active and socially connected can be an effective treatment for depression. Ilardi heads a large treatment study, dubbed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change project, which calls for patients to adopt six healing elements from the ancient past.

In addition to positive results from his own ongoing research study, Ilardi points to low rates of depression among contemporary peoples whose lifestyles mirror those of our ancestors. The American Amish, for example, have rates of depressive illness far lower than that of the broader American population.

Ilardi’s research career has been focused on investigating the phenomenology and the successful treatment of depression. He is the author of more than 40 professional articles on mental illness. Through his active clinical practice, he has treated several hundred depressed patients.

“Banish the Blues” is part of the CLAS Acts lecture series sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which aims to take KU research off campus and into the community. Ilardi is a faculty member in the College. The event is co-sponsored by Douglas County Senior Services.

For more information about the event, contact Jessica Beeson by email or at 785-864-1767.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers dozens of diverse majors in natural sciences and mathematics, social and behavioral sciences, humanities, international and interdisciplinary studies, and the arts. More than 60 percent of KU students are enrolled in a major in the College, making it the largest academic unit on campus.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus. | (785) 864-3256 | 1314 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045

Contact: Jessica Beeson, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, 785-864-1767


KU researchers work to create safer, smarter dashboards

Dec. 19, 2011

LAWRENCE — “Keep your eyes on the road” has always been the most important rule of driving.

But nowadays, it’s awfully tempting to break that rule, thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, music players and GPS devices, which nearly all automakers have integrated into today’s vehicles to make driving more fun. Additionally, most automakers have integrated these toys using a one-size-fits-all dashboard design approach that doesn’t allow customization for different drivers or different driving conditions. The result, researchers say, is an increase in distracted driving, which can lead to dangerous accidents.

To address this issue, University of Kansas researchers are developing new Adaptive Information Displays – or “smart dashboards” – designed to minimize distractions and maximize the amount of time drivers keep their eyes on the road. The multidisciplinary “Driving Without Distraction” (DWD) team includes KU researchers in design, mechanical engineering and psychology, working under the umbrella of KU’s new Center for Design Research.

“Automakers are adding more bells and whistles to modern cars, and they’re adding them to standardized, non-customizable dashboards that don’t adjust for different drivers or conditions,” said Greg Thomas, KU professor of design and director of the CDR. “By not integrating all components into a customizable, easy-to-read, ergonomically centric console, the auto industry continues to add to the safety issues relating to distracted driving. That’s what we’re trying to address with these smart dashboards.”

Individual drivers have different skills levels and attention capacities, Thomas explained. In addition, roadway conditions change, placing different demands on drivers from moment to moment. For example, a driver’s capacity to process information is different when she’s driving on a suburban street in the morning, as compared to when she’s driving on a busy highway at dusk, as compared to when she’s transporting unruly kids to a pizza party at night.

But today’s cars dumbly assume that a driver’s attention capacity stays the same at all times and under all conditions – which is why there’s such a need for the smart dashboards being developed by the KU team.

“Our goal is to develop a new class of adaptive smart systems that can intelligently assess road and driver conditions and adjust the driver’s in-car experience to anticipate their safety needs,” said Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at KU and a member of the DWD team. “We want the dashboard to be smart and change according to what’s happening outside the car.”

How smart can the dashboard be? By integrating Bluetooth, Wifi, flash drives, GPS and other technologies, the smart dash could potentially tell the difference between city and rural environments, nighttime and daytime driving, and dry pavement versus ice-covered roads. The instrument information could change size and shape accordingly – and even disappear or become prominent depending on input by various sensors and other tracking devices.

“For example, we could have gas tank gauges that are displayed small when your tank is full, but get larger and brighter as you get close to empty,” Thomas said. “Or we could have speedometers that know what the speed limit is on a particular road and change colors if you’re driving too fast or too slow. Essentially, the dashboard display would adjust to environmental factors, which would make it easier and safer to read. It would maximize or minimize information depending on what the driver needs most at any given moment.”

The potential doesn’t stop there. USB flash drives are already able to store personal preferences and preset programming of seat positioning, air temperature, music and other customized settings. Using the flash drive to store and configure various dash information configurations could play a major role in the personalization of the vehicle. And as “apps” development continues, more individual customization of the dash becomes feasible.

“Imagine logging into iTunes and downloading an app that can make your drive safer and less stressful,” Thomas said. “That’s where we’re headed.”

Some automakers have made reasonable efforts to bring computers and consumer electronics to the dashboard in a safe way through big screens and voice-command systems. Ford, for example, placed a large bet on this trend in 2007 with its Sync system, which is designed as a way for drivers to do things like chat with their kids and make dinner reservations, all while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

But it’s unclear how successful these efforts are because vehicles are becoming more and more complicated, adding to a driver’s workload. For example, the safety benefits of a voice-command system might be offset by the dozens of new features that the voice-command system is controlling.

“We need to be smart about what is allowed to co-exist in the driver’s domain,” said Bob Honea, director of the KU Transportation Research Institute, which is funding much of the DWD team’s research. “Some of the things that get added to cars as safety features might actually be making the car less safe.”

Also, some automaker’s interfaces are so complicated that they present a steep learning curve. Many of these systems have been given unfavorable reviews by organizations such as Consumer Reports. And none of them are truly “smart” in the way the KU research team envisions them to be.

“Dashboards have come a long way since they were created in the horse-and-buggy days to protect passengers from mud and slush,” Thomas said. “We’re excited that KU is developing the next generation of adaptive information displays – dashboards that make us better, more efficient, safer drivers.”

What should drivers do until these smart dashboards become the norm? The answer, Thomas said, is the same as it’s always been.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” he said, “and your hands on the wheel.”

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus. | (785) 864-3256 | 1314 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045

Contact: Joe Monaco, KU News Service, 785-864-7100, from