Why do attention and working memory fail us when we need them most?

Attention and working memory are limited in capacity. Factors that hijack attention away from the task-at-hand and/or overload working memory lead to their suboptimal functioning.  While critical for surviving and thriving, our findings suggest that attention and working memory are fragile and vulnerable to degradation due to a variety of factors such as affective distraction (e.g., Paczynski et al., 2015, Witkin et al., 2019), mind wandering (e.g., Krimsky et al., 2017, Denkova et al., 2018), aging (Zanesco et al., 2021), PTSD (Witkin et al., 2021), and protracted periods of high stress and high demand (e.g., Jha et al.,  2010; 2020). Our current projects on this topic aim to determine if there are qualities such as individual differences in decentering that may protect against such vulnerabilities.


Witkin, J. E., Denkova, E., Zanesco, A. P., Llabre, M.M., & Jha, A. P. (2021). Higher self-reported PTSD symptoms are associated with poorer working memory in active-duty service members. Neuropsychology, 35(7), 718–730. https://doi.org/10.1037/neu0000755

Jha, A. P., Zanesco, A. P., Denkova, E., Morrison, A. B., Ramos, N., Chichester, K., Gaddy, J., & Rogers, S. (2020). Bolstering cognitive resilience via train-the-trainer delivery of mindfulness training in applied high-demand settings. Mindfulness, 11, 683–697. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01284-7

Zanesco, A. P., Witkin, J. E., Morrison, A. B., Denkova, E., & Jha, A. P. (2020). Memory load, distracter interference, and dynamic adjustments in cognitive control influence working memory performance across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 35(5), 614–626. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000434

Denkova, E., Brudner, E. G., Zayan, K., Dunn, J., & Jha, A. P. (2018). Attenuated Face Processing during Mind Wandering. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 30(11), 1691-1703. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01312

Krimsky, M., Llabre, M. M., Forster, D. E., & Jha, A. P. (2017). The influence of time-on-task on mind wandering and visual working memory. Cognition, 169, 84-90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2017.08.006

Paczynski, M., Burton, A., & Jha, A. P. (2015). Brief exposure to aversive stimuli impairs visual selective attention. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27(6), 1172–1179. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_00768

Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54–64. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018438


Witkin, J. E, Denkova E., Zanesco A. P., & Jha A. P. (2019). Self-Reported PTSD Symptoms are Associated with Task Performance in a Delayed-Recognition Working Memory Task with Affective Distracters in a Military Cohort. Poster presented at Social & Affective Neuroscience Society Meeting, Miami, Florida.