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Improving Executive Functions Through Real-World Interventions: The Role of Social Media. Betty Glisky Department of Psychology University of Arizona. Background. Laboratory training on cognitive tasks is often effective but highly specific:

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Improving Executive Functions Through Real-World Interventions: The Role of Social Media

Betty Glisky

Department of Psychology

University of Arizona

  • Laboratory training on cognitive tasks is often effective but highly specific:
    • Improves performance on trained tasks and other highly similar tasks, but
    • Does not transfer to other cognitive domains
    • Generally little transfer to everyday life
  • Carrying out interventions in the real-world environment rather than in the laboratory might be more effective
  • The rationale for our study came from 2 sources:
    • Intervention studies in which “social interaction” provided cognitive benefits equivalent to or greater than cognitive training or aerobic exercise (e.g., Park et al., 2013; Mortimer et al., 2012)
    • Longitudinal studies suggesting that
      • An active lifestyle may reduce age-related cognitive decline (Fratiglioni et al., 2000), but also
      • Declining cognitive function may lead to social disengagement(e.g., Seeman et al., 2011; Small et al, 2012).
    • We decided to see if connecting socially-isolated older adults through social media would improve their cognitive function

Three Groups of Older Adults Average age = 79; lived alone

Group 1

(N = 13)

Group 2

(N = 13)

Group 3Waitlist

(N = 14)

  • Pretest-posttest Design
    • Tests of working memory/ executive function, memory, and processing speed
    • Given before and after the Facebook/Penzuintervention
  • Interventions
    • 6 hours of training over a week
    • 7 weeks of daily postings in Facebook or Penzu


Myrhe & Glisky, 2013


What we’re looking for is differential changes in performance on the cognitive tests from Time 1 (pretests) to Time 2 (post-tests) 8-weeks later as a function of the intervention

Pretests Training Home-Use Posttests

2 weeks 1 week 7 weeks 2 weeks


executive function tests adapted from miyake et al 2000
Executive Function TestsAdapted from Miyake et al, 2000
  • Shifting
    • Number-Letter Task
    • Global-Local Task
  • Updating/Working Memory
    • Consonant Updating
    • Keep Track Task
  • Inhibition
    • Stroop Task
    • Simon Task
updating tasks
Updating Tasks

Consonant Updating

Participants were shown a serial list of letters and were required to continually recall out loud only the last four letters presented. The number of letters presented during a trial varied from 5 to 11.

updating tasks1
Updating Tasks

Keep Track

Participants are shown a list of 15 words from different categories and were asked to keep track of the last word from one or more specified categories. There were three trials of 1, 2, 3, and 4 categories.

shifting tasks
Shifting Tasks



inhibition tasks
Inhibition Tasks

Simon Task

Stroop Task

Name the Ink Color




changes in updating
Changes in Updating

Significant Group x Time interaction, F(2,37) = 5.95, p = .006

The Facebook group showed a significant increase in performance compared to no significant change in the other two groups.

global shifting costs
Global Shifting Costs

Significant Group x Time interaction, F(2,33) = 4.01, p = .028. Only the Waitlist group showed a significant change from Time 1 to Time 2

processing speed
Processing Speed

Trails A

Trails B

Significant Time x Group interaction, F(2,38) = 3.40, p = .044, for Trails B; similar trend for Trails A performance, F(2,38) = 2.52, p = .094. No differential slowing for Trails B across groups

  • We found a specific cognitive benefit associated with using Facebook
    • Only the Facebook group showed improvements in updating/working memory
    • There were no changes in the other measures of executive function or in memory
  • Both intervention groups showed increases in processing speed
what accounts for the improvements in the facebook group relative to the penzu group
What accounts for the improvements in the Facebook group relative to the Penzu group?
  • Increased social interaction in Facebook group relative to Penzu
  • Facebook may be more cognitively challenging than Penzu or may place greater demands on working memory or the updating component of executive function.
  • Social interactions in general may involve working memory and executive control and may present real-world opportunities for maintaining cognitive function
specific advantages of online social networking
Specific Advantages of Online Social Networking
  • People who are truly socially isolated can stay connected, reducing the likelihood of cognitive decline
  • People who are experiencing cognitive decline can continue social interactions at their own pace
  • People who may be experiencing declines in vision or hearing can make adjustments so that they can remain socially connected
specific advantages of online social networking1
Specific Advantages of Online Social Networking
  • People can be selective in their social interactions, maintaining those that are positive and discarding those that are negative
    • Some evidence suggests that negative social interactions increase stress and have negative effects on cognitive function (e.g., Tunetal., 2013)
  • Ultimately, older people can age in place for a longer period of time, remaining socially connected and cognitively challenged
  • Social interaction is likely to be beneficial and may be a very acceptable way to reduce cognitive decline, whether it occurs in face-to-face interactions or through online social media
  • Training programs that focus on real-world functional tasks that require executive control and working memory may be more effective than laboratory tasks, and they don’t require transfer to make a difference.
  • Training in the use of new technologies for solving everyday problems may be a meaningful way to keep people engaged and cognitively healthy.

Ivy Bean, 104 years old, has 4,000 friends on Facebook



Thanks to all of the older adults from the Tucson community and from La Posada in Green Valley who contributed their time to this study.

Annual Conference on Successful Aging 2013

  • Thanks also to the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation for support.