Focusing out of Distraction into Attention

Investigating the role of working memory capacity and executive attention in real-life situations

Imagine you just received an important phone call from someone while reading an email from your boss asking for assistance on updating Excel spreadsheets immediately. As you try to manage the three different tasks altogether, the doorbell rings and there is a mailman standing outside requiring your signature. Meanwhile, the fire alarm goes off as the pizza you are baking is burning in the oven. This may be an extreme scenario where multitasking, a crucial corollary of working memory capacity and executive attention, is demanded, but we exercise these abilities everyday in following verbal and map directions, solving complex problems, and carrying out similar daily activities. Multitasking, an indicator of a high working memory capacity and executive attention, is undoubtedly one of the most desirable skills that people in the age of the Information Technology can have, and is consequently increasingly sought after by companies looking to hire adept individuals who will help increase their business capacity, productivity, and efficiency. Dr. Randall Engle, Professor in Psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, studies individual differences resulting from limitations in working memory capacity and executive attention (i.e. WMC/EA). Through his research, he hopes to understand how those limitations impact performance of complex cognitive tasks, and whether and how those limitations in information processing can be ameliorated.

Based on his previous work, Dr. Engle has created various simple, unbiased tasks that evaluate individuals’ WMC and EA abilities that can predict their performance in complex, real-world situations. These tasks were then used in numerous significant agencies like the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Security Agency that he worked in tandem with to measure candidates’ mental capacity as well as predict their level of performance under highly stressful, dangerous real-life circumstances demanding complex reasoning. In the future, Dr. Engle’s task will be used to evaluate people with better WMC/EA capabilities for a variety of different occupations outside of these government agencies. Dr. Engle’s work has thus already made substantial discoveries about the impact of limitations in WMC/EA on a huge array of real-world tasks in children and normal adults, and now he and his team are investigating genetic and biological mechanisms responsible for these individual differences and the extent to which the limitations can be reduced.

Dr. Engle and his team’s current focus of research includes:

  • The role that working memory capacity and executive attention play in the real world: Working memory capacity refers to the amount of information one can keep active and in their consciousness at any one time, and executive attention refers to the ability to focus and sustain attention even when there are events in the external world or internally generated thoughts and emotions that can distract thoughts away from the contents of working memory important to doing complex cognitive tasks. At the early stages of their work, Dr. Engle and his team have discovered that individual differences in WMC/EA are reflected in differences in performing a huge array of real-world tasks such as reading and listening comprehension, complex learning, doing basic arithmetic, and acquiring new vocabulary. Dr. Engle now understands that individual differences in these two mental abilities are crucial to what we think of as fluid intelligence, or the biologically determined aspect of intelligence, which is directly related to our ability to do complex reasoning and problem solving in novel situations. We now have a reasonably clear idea about the brain structures, neurotransmitters, and brain pathways leading to these differences in working memory capacity and executive attention, and it is also clear that numerous environmental factors such as sleep deprivation and fatigue reduce this capability and that various psychological states such as depression, schizophrenia, and drug states also lead to reduced capabilities of working memory and executive attention. Thus, WMC/EA reflects both a genetic trait and a state condition that is crucial to many different real-world tasks, and Dr. Engle continues to research ways that people differ in these limitations and capabilities, ultimately hoping to find ways to help people improve their cognitive abilities.
  • How various conditions - namely Schizophrenia - affect working memory capacity and executive attention: All of us - whether we have a high or a low working memory capacity - are affected by things like sleep deprivation and other conditions like sickness, stress, etc. One important mental state that Dr. Engle studies is Schizophrenia, a biological mental disorder that most people encounter in their early twenties and is found all over the world. One of the five big symptoms of Schizophrenia is cognitive decline, where a huge difference is apparent in a Schizophrenic individual’s cognitive abilities between premorbid and postmorbid stages. Dr. Engle has found that this change in the cognitive capacity from premorbid period to postmorbid is hugely important in predicting whether someone can be remediated and with treatment, brought back as a functioning member of the society. Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, is using Dr. Engle’s task as a way of evaluating drugs to treat Schizophrenia, to find out which drug will improve cognitive capability based on these measures.


Dr. Randall has always been interested in what gave rise to the way he thinks and the limitations on that process for him as well as other people. He originally thought of his cognitive abilities in terms of the amount of information that he could think about or represent at any one time. However, his research soon led him to conclude that his ability to attend to that information was the critical variable and that we as individuals differ greatly in our ability to focus and sustain attention.

Outside of his research, Dr. Engle is a pretty serious woodworker who has built all of the furniture in his daughter’s house and a lot of the furniture in his own. He keeps an entire folder of photos of furniture that he’s made. When his five-year-old grandson and nine-year-old granddaughter who live nearby come over, the first thing they like to do is to run to the woodshop where he would already have pieces of wood already cut out for them to piece together. Together, they have built bird houses amongst many other things, and Dr. Engle is delighted to see that both his grandchildren are both really eager to become better woodworkers.

For more information, you can visit his website here:


Mortar Board Excellence in Teaching Award, 1988 and 1994

Invited address to American Psychological Association, Division 3, 1996 annual meeting

Chair of Executive Board of Council of Graduate Department of Psychology

Elected to Executive Committee of Division 3 of APA

Elected to Governing Board of Psychonomic Society