How flexible is your brain? Give it a 5 second test: quickly identify the color of each of the above words (don’t read them). Say the colors out loud.
How accurate were you? How long did it take? The above task, called the Stroop Test, is much more challenging than it first appears. It’s significantly harder to correctly identify a color when it’s different from the word than it is to identify when the two match. The challenges in this test highlight some very important brain processes—processes that you can improve.
Brief history of the Stroop Test
In 1935, John Ridley Stroop became the first to publish in English on the current version of this cognitive task. Developed as part of his dissertation at George Peabody College (later part of Vanderbilt University), the interesting effects of this task later became the basis for the Stroop Test, a widely used neuropsychological assessment.
What happens in your brain during the Stroop Test
The Stroop Test challenges selective attention, or one’s ability to carefully choose which environmental stimuli to focus on—and which ones to ignore. The kind of mental flexibility needed to switch between multiple stimuli is absolutely essential: without good selective attention, it’s easy to make errors—for example, reading a word instead of saying its color.
The task also involves recognizing and inhibiting incorrect responses while responding quickly, capacities associated with the brain’s executive function. And indeed, brain imaging studies show that performing the Stroop Test correlates with parts of the brain involved in executive function, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
In fact, individuals with ADHD and depression—who struggle to attend to select stimuli and control their reactions— often have increased difficulty performing the Stroop Test.
The Stroop task
Fortunately, no matter how maddening the Stoop test may feel, you can work to improve your mental flexibility. There is evidence that training with response inhibition tasks like Stroop can transfer to other cognitive skills.
A cognitive training program developed by researchers at the Open University of Israel, which included a significant component of Stroop-like training, was found to significantly improve reading comprehension in children compared to a control group, as well as parent-reported measures of inattentiveness.
Lumosity has its own version of the Stroop task: Color Match. If you haven’t trained with it in a while, give it another try: this decades-old assessment may just give your selective attention and executive function a boost.
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