Enhancing Mood and Performance with Distraction

To begin, a reminder that I do not sign your timesheet, nor am I responsible for your pay or promotion. So you may want to discuss these research findings with your supervisor before hitting the play button.

That said, have you seen any funny videos lately? Like the “OK, Go” on treadmills video? young friends image
Or maybe you have one of those cartoon-a-day calendars, or a coworker with the best laugh in the world? It may be time to indulge.

Whatever the source of happiness, recent research says that a positive mood can make us more creative, and help enhance our cognitive flexibility. So unless you’re hauling large sacks of concrete (and laughter might make your knees weak) ‘Run, don’t walk’ to find something entertaining to watch or listen to.

The Theory
Mood is believed to affect mental processing, a fact of which you are already aware. If you’re at work but concerned about whether your best friend, child or parent is ill, you’re probably not fully engaged in the task at hand.

A positive frame of mind has been shown to enhance cognitive flexibility associated with the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These regions of the brain, in turn are essential for hypothesis testing and rule selection types of mental tasks.

The Study
The research was conducted by Rudy Nadler, Rahel Rabi and John Paul Minda of the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, and published in the journal Psychological Science, in the fall of 2010. They worked with 87 student subjects (61 females, 26 males), first determining what music and video clips put the students in a happy, neutral or sad mood. A particular Mozart piece and video of a laughing baby was the best at creating a happy mood, while a piece of music from Schindler’s List (a movie about the Holocaust) along with news of an earthquake, created a more somber mood. In addition, a piece of music and video that elicited neutral emotions was identified.

All music and video clips were from YouTube.

The subjects were then exposed to one of the three mood-inducing music /video categories, happy, sad or neutral, then asked to work through either a rule-described (RD) or non-rule-described (non-RD) category set.

For optimal performance, the RD set required the students to use skills such as hypothesis testing, rule selection and response inhibition for best performance, while the non-RD task set was performed best by associating regions of perceptual space with responses.

More information on category learning here, for those that enjoy the details.

The Findings
Nadler et al. found that a happy mood enhanced RD learning, while a neutral or sad mood had no effect on this type of learning. On the other hand, happiness had no effect on non-RD learning.

In addition, a comparison suggested that “positive-mood subjects displayed a greater degree of cognitive flexibility compared with neutral- and negative-mood subjects by adopting an optimal strategy early in both RD” and non-RD learning.

A Definition
The authors define “cognitive flexibility as the ability to seek out and apply alternate strategies to problems (Maddox, Baldwin and Markman, 2006) and to find unusual relationships between items (Isen, Johnson, Mertz and Robinson, 1985).”

So, if you are capable of having a little fun, before getting back to work, you might find that the distraction/fun results in more ‘cognitive flexibility’.

Puppy video, anyone?

Nadler RT, Rabi R, & Minda JP (2010). Better mood and better performance. Learning rule-described categories is enhanced by positive mood. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (12), 1770-6 PMID: 20974709 .

See also, Sciencedaily: “Positive Mood allows human brain to think more creatively”.

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".

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