ScienceMatters - Season 3, Episode 1: All About Control

September 17, 2019
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What can Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” teach us about paying attention? Are daydreamers really more intelligent and creative? Eric Schumacher, professor in the School of Psychology, talks about his research into the brain process known as cognitive control, and what it could mean for the future of communications, work, and education.  



ScienceMatters Podcast Transcript - Eric Schumacher 

(Music open) 

Renay San Miguel: 

Hello and welcome to ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m Renay San Miguel. 

In this episode, we’re all about…control. 

Outer Limits intro: “For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure.” 

Rush song “2112:” “We have assumed control. We have assumed control. We have assumed control.” 

Sports anchors: “What they have up front, they will control the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.” 

Renay San Miguel: 

Believe it or not, those examples from popular media are indeed the kinds of control we’re talking about; that is, cognitive control, or controlling your thoughts to accomplish something. It’s when your brain makes decisions based on what YOU want it to do because of your goals and desires.  

Here’s how Eric Schumacher, professor in the School of Psychology, explains it: 

Eric Schumacher: 

 “For relatively simple tasks, or for tasks that we have a lot of practice that we’ve done a lot, there are direct or nearly direct connections from the sort of perceptual system to the motor system. So we can make those responses. We can perceive the stimuli and make those responses relatively quickly without a lot of engagement of central processes or processes like attention or working memory.” 

Renay San Miguel: 

Those tasks can be done with little attention, thanks to brain habits and instincts. But what happens when that task becomes a little more difficult? In that case, Schumacher says ... 

Eric Schumacher: 

“Our information processing system is confronted with lots and lots of environmental stimuli, lots and lots of material, and there’s many, many different ways you might response to those stimuli. 

“So there are a set of processes in the brain that allow us to winnow down that stimulus response information, the amount of information that’s out there, so we can make the right response to the stimuli to achieve our goals.” 

Renay San Miguel: 

Scientists like Schumacher are studying this because it could have an impact on education, work, the military, entertainment; any effort where attention must be paid.  

Schumacher’s goal? To learn as much as possible about cognitive control. It’s been his goal for 20 years.  

Schumacher is the principal investigator for the Cognitive Neuroscience at Tech research lab. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, he and his research team chart the areas of the brain involved in the kinds of decision-making involved in cognitive control. 

It all goes into helping science explain how the magnificent-but-messy computer known as our brain deals with responses and commands. Neuroscientists used to think individual areas of the brain acted alone when called upon. Now they believe larger-scale “networks” of separate brain regions work together during cognitive control. 

In fact, one of those networks, called the default mode, is involved when we’re awake and at rest. That’s when we’re tempted to take our thoughts internally, and that leads us to a Schumacher study that got plenty of coverage in mainstream media in 2018. 

(Music break) 

Renay San Miguel: 

Remember Ralphie, the BB-gun-loving kid in the 1983 holiday movie A Christmas Story? You know, the one who was always daydreaming in class? 

“Christmas Story” scene: 


*No answer, kids in his head still yelling* 


*He turns to his teacher* 

“Is there something you want?” 

“I was just turning in my theme.” 

“Well you can take your seat now.”  

Renay San Miguel: 

Ever been caught daydreaming by a teacher, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story? 

Schumacher’s 2018 study was sweet revenge for many a former bored grade school student.  

Schumacher and his team found that daydreaming may be indicative of a more intelligent, more creative mind.  

Eric Schumacher: 

“We know there's individual differences in the propensity to mind-wander. Some people mind-wander more than others. Can we identify those people and then identify brain network differences associated with that propensity to mind-wander?” 

Renay San Miguel: 

How often do you daydream during work meetings? Schumacher and his team asked that question and others of study participants. Then they were given behavioral tests to measure creativity, and something called “fluid intelligence” which is closely related to IQ. 

Eric Schumacher: 

“So we had these behavioral measures related to creativity and related to intelligence and some other measures. And we also collected brain scans to measure the activity in these brain networks that we've talked about. 

“And what we found was that there was a positive relationship between propensity to mind-wander and creativity, intelligence, and efficient brain processing. 

“This why it was particularly popular, is that it's telling a story that people want to hear, right? That you know if you find yourself mind-wandering all the time, it may be that you have all this excess capacity. So you're processing the professor, you know what he's going to say, so you don't have to listen to him anymore.  

“And that may be true, but of course, there's also a negative aspect to mind-wandering. You're going to miss what is being said, and so if you find yourself doing well in classes or doing well at your job and you're also mind-wandering, then maybe you're one of these people with extra capacity. But you know, if you're not doing well in classes or you're not getting your work done, then maybe it's a different sort of problem. 

Renay San Miguel:  

 “I would love to take this to my sixth-grade teacher who kept wondering, ‘What are you looking at out the window, Renay’? And tell them, ‘Look, I'm just more efficient in how I'm listening and how I'm paying attention.’” 

Eric Schumacher: “You could’ve said, ‘I'm waiting for you to tell me something I don't know.’” 

Renay San Miguel: 

“Which would have sent me right to the principal's office.” (Laughter) 

Secret Life of Walter Mitty scene: 

 “Gaylord Mitty, riverboat gambler.” 

“And in real life, Walter Mitty, the lovable henpecked dreamer.” 

 “Sometimes Walter can’t tell where the dream ends, and where the nightmare begins.” 

(Music break) 

Renay San Miguel: 

An earlier Schumacher study related to another aspect of cognitive control involved different nightmare scenarios – the kind you might find in suspenseful movies. 

North by Northwest movie scene: 

 “That’s funny.” 


“That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” 

Renay San Miguel: 

The U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, supported Schumacher’s 2015 research.  

The military and intelligence agencies are very interested in how the brain responds to certain stimuli and temptations on its attention, and the effect on decision-making. A Washington Post story on this research said defense officials wanted to see if it could lead to better, more trustworthy ways to relay vital information.  

All of that meant that some Georgia Tech students, in assisting Schumacher with his research, got to watch some of the finest thriller films ever made, including Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. 

Renay San Miguel: “If I had a chance to see North by Northwest and get credit for it, are you kidding me?” 

Eric Schumacher: “One of the great tragedies, I think, is that almost none of our participants who were college-aged students reported ever seeing any of the films we showed. And we showed things like North by Northwest and Alien.  

(Screams and sounds from Alien) 

Eric Schumacher: 

“The reason we did that study, what we were interested in, goes back to one of the things we talked about in terms of trying to make this research relevant to more real-world situations. So it is kind of funny for me to say that watching movies is a real-world task, because people watch movies to escape from the real world. But it's realer than, you know, the Stroop Task, right?” 

Renay San Miguel: 

OK, let’s shift our brains’ attention for a second to talk about the Stroop Task.  

It’s a test from the 1930s designed to challenge the brain’s attention and measure so-called executive function, or the ability to focus and adapt.  

Brain Games excerpt: 

“We are about to give you a list of colored words. As they appear, say the font color of each word aloud.” 

Renay San Miguel: 

The Stroop Task is given to viewers of this episode of National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games. The word “blue” is shown in the color blue, the word “yellow” in yellow, and so forth. 

Then they change the colors of the words, but you are still supposed to say the font color as fast as you see it 

Brain Games excerpt: 

“It can take people 50 percent longer to say each color. This is called the Stroop effect, and it relies on interfering signals in your brain that compete for attention.” 

Renay San Miguel: 

Schumacher’s suspense research delves deeper into this process.  

Eric Schumacher: 

“So you've got this complex audiovisual stimuli that's unfolding over time and there's different things that are happening in it. So we were interested in what's happening in the brain? What's happening to these control processes as this narrative unfolds as you watch these clips?” 

(North by Northwest airplane sounds) 

Eric Schumacher:  

“North by Northwest was one of them. So the scene we used in that you may be familiar with it.  

(Airplane sounds from North by Northwest) 

“There was the plane diving on character Roger. And he doesn't know why and it’s shooting at him.  

(Machine gun sounds) 

“When the plane is diving, that's a moment of high suspense. And then when the plane sort of is banking for another strafing run, that’s a moment of lower suspense.  

(Plane sounds receding) 

“So what we were interested in is what happens. As we become more engaged in a film, as suspense increases, how does our information-processing system change to capture that information from the more engaging stimuli?” 

Renay San Miguel: 

To find out, Schumacher had his subjects lie in an fMRI machine with a video screen over their heads. First they were shown a blank screen with a cross in the center, and distracting, flickering checkerboards all around the screen. The subjects were to count how many times the cross changed colors. 

Then they were shown the suspenseful movie excerpts, and were told to watch it as if they were in a theater. What Schumacher was looking for from the fMRI scans – red areas for increased brain activity, blue for less active -- was data on the parts of the brain that process what’s noticed on the periphery, or edges, of their vision.  

Eric Schumacher: 

“What we found was that activity to the neurons that process the periphery become less active as suspense increases. Neurons in the occipital cortex that process the center of the screen become more active. So as you become more engaged in the film, as the film becomes more interesting, the neurons that collect information from the film become more active and the neurons that collect information from the world around outside the film become less active.  

“We also found activity in regions that allocate attention, regions that move attention around that are involved in moving attention around the visual field are also more active as suspense increases.  

“And we mentioned the default mode network, this network of brain regions that are more active when you're internally focused, when you're sort of not engaged in the world. That became less active. 

“The final point is we tested subjects, participants, after the scan for information that was presented in the movie. So we asked them questions about like, what color was the truck at the end of that clip with Roger? We found that they remembered more after the scan. They remembered more information that was presented at moments of high suspense and low suspense.” 

 (Music break) 

Renay San Miguel: 

Schumacher and his team are also trying to find out more about what they call active representation. 

Eric Schumacher: 

“When you're engaged in a task, you activate knowledge representation. “And so you activate visual information. Visual information is relevant. Responses that might be relevant. Memories that might be relevant and attention is guided then through this knowledge representation to achieve your goals.  

“So the daydreaming is sort of an example of when that breaks down. 

“You've got this active representation. You're trying to achieve some goal. We have multiple goals, so sometimes you end up daydreaming because, although you wanted to study here, you actually at that time didn't want to study. Your goal was actually to think about something else.”  

Renay San Miguel: 

In addition to the potential military and defense applications for this research into cognitive control, Schumacher also sees possibilities to refine teaching methods for attention-challenged students, and to improve productivity in the workplace. 

What about multitasking, that 21st century, information-age skill? 

Eric Schumacher: 

“So we have another study that came out last year, where we had the same set of stimuli. We used images of faces and buildings and the same set of responses. They push buttons with their left and right hand. And we organized it so that under some circumstances, participants thought of the face task and the place task or the building task as separate tasks. So and sometimes they had to do one of those and sometimes they had to do both of those. 

“And we found, not surprisingly, that there was a multitasking cost when you saw two stimuli and you had to make two responses. You were slower than if you saw one stimulus and had to make one response, OK. So that's no surprise. There is a dual tasking, a multitasking cost of doing two things at once. It's harder, it takes longer, you're less accurate than when you are doing one thing.”  

“We're investigating now the sort of brain mechanisms related to that. If that could be expanded outside of laboratory, there is a potential application of that. Could you create situations where in a multitasking situation where it's difficult? Is it possible to change that situation somewhat so it's no longer multitasking? There's just this larger complex one task. 

“In many situations, that won't be possible. You can't combine driving and talking on your cell phone. Those are different and there's a cost to doing those.” 

Renay San Miguel: “But how many years did it take for us to come to that conclusion?” 

Eric Schumacher: “Well, if you drive on the roads you realize that enough people haven't yet made that decision.” (Laughter.) 

(Music break) 

Renay San Miguel: 

My thanks to Eric Schumacher, professor in the School of Psychology. Please check out the Cognitive Science at Tech Research Lab website at, appropriately enough, control-dot-gatech-dot-edu. 

Our thanks also to Metro Goldwyn Mayer and MGM/UA Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Fandango, National Geographic Channel, and RKO Pictures for use of the film and TV clips. 

Siyan Zhou, formerly a research associate in the School of Psychology, composed our theme music. 

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our podcast from Apple podcasts or SoundCloud. 

This is ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m Renay San Miguel. Thank you for listening. 

(Music to end)