Recalling an Academic Career Researching The Mystery of Memory

Randall Engle has spent his career researching working memory, what he defines as “the management of information flow, and managing what captures your attention. It’s a system of recently activated memories,” also known as short-term memories.

Yet it’s a long-term memory of Engle’s that he says had a significant impact on his life: His undergraduate years, which were spent studying at West Virginia State College (now University), an Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

“No one on either side of my family ever went to college,” says Engle, 74, professor and former chair of the School of Psychology, and principal investigator for the Attention and Working Memory Lab. He grew up just a few miles away from the school.

That setting, as well as his friendship with its students, whom he credits with being good academic competitors, would give Engle the best foundation for his own science career, one highlighted by transformative research into working memory.

Awards and recognition have followed that research, including his induction into the National Academy of Sciences in 2020. His latest comes from the Society of Experimental Psychologists (SEP), who in January presented Engle with its 2021 Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award.

In a statement about the award, the SEP honored Engle “for his work uniting cognitive psychology with psychometric testing and individual differences, in a manner that clarified the role of attention in working memory … this re-characterization of working memory span has had a profound effect on how the field conceives of working memory and cognition: working memory helps the individual focus on task goals and exclude distractions.”

Engle allows that awards can provide their own distractions, and he’s aware that lifetime achievement awards usually come near the twilight of careers. Just not his.

“I’m not through yet,” he says. “In any given field, you’re doing the work because it’s interesting to you and it’s part of your job. The awards aren’t what drives us, but if you do this long enough these things sort of follow. 

“I could retire, but I like what I’m doing. I’ve got great grad students and postdocs. I still like what I’m doing, and I still have questions.”

Remembering early research on working memory

Back in his undergrad days, Engle had slightly different questions. “I was the first high school graduate from my family. I didn’t know what to do with two forks on one side of my plate,” he says with a laugh.

The professors at WVSU made sure Engle’s time there “was one of the peak experiences of my life, with all these really smart faculty there who couldn’t get jobs in white universities prior to 1956.” One professor graduated from Harvard; another from the Sorbonne in Paris. “Many of them were older, and they retired not long after I graduated. Just brilliant scholars. I was able to get an amazing education from these incredible people.”

The students also kept him on his toes, academically and socially. “A lot of the kids at this black school were from upper middle class families. These kids were sophisticated, erudite. The students and the faculty and the experience there were different. They had a sophistication to them that I hadn’t seen in many white people. It really just pointed out to me the differences in one’s experiences in life, and how you grow up.”

Engle graduated from West Virginia State College in 1968 with a B.A. in Psychology. He received in M.A. and Ph.D. from Ohio State University, and that’s where his interest in how the mind and memory work started to capture his attention.

As it turns out, working memory is all about attention.

“One of my strengths as a researcher of the mind is that I’m constantly thinking about how my own mind works. I’m not talking about intuition; that’s not science. But it gives me ideas about how to do my science. Let’s say I’m in the middle of doing something, and my attention gets captured away. That’s something for me to think about. How did that happen? What caused that?

“I can’t have direct exposure to your mind,” he continues. “I cannot measure your mind. The closest I can come is to get a sense of how my mind is operating.”

Technology vs. tasks

Engle started his research on the mind in earnest when he landed his first teaching job in 1973, at 330-student King College (now King University) in Bristol, Tennessee. That also meant using mid-1970s technology to conduct that research. “Everything we do now is done on a computer, but when I first started I had a slide projector and a tape recorder, and that was pretty much it,” he says. When he did his first study with pupillometers, which lets researchers measure an eye’s pupil diameter — “that tells us a lot about what’s going on in your mind” — the machine was “as big as a Volkswagen,” he recalls. “Now it’s a small gadget that connects to your desktop computer.”

Contrast that to the methods he uses in 2021 to research working memory, attention, and cognition, and in some ways it’s still a low-tech affair. Occasionally he and his team will use electroencephalograms (EEGs) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but “mostly what my lab is trying to come up with are tasks, things we can get people to do that tell us something about attention, working memory and cognition and the way they perform in real world tasks. 

“One of the things we discovered years ago was that if we can come up with tasks that measure working memory capacity, and all it does to control your attention, that tells us an awful lot about the biological side of intelligence,” or what happens organically within the brain’s grey matter, he says. “It’s one of the reasons why the military has been so eager to fund my work over the years.”

Indeed, one of his current projects involves developing tasks that will help the U.S. Navy select pilots for training at its Pensacola, Florida Naval Air Station. The goal is to cut down on spending millions of dollars a year to train pilots who will eventually “wash out” of the training.  

“We’ve developed a number of tasks in our lab” for the Navy, he says, “and a couple of them are now going to be used to select pilots starting in the fall, by their ability to control one’s attention.”

What Engle’s studies uncovered is that the ability to keep one’s attention focused on a task is a critical part of human intelligence, a crucial aspect that can predict performance in all manners of jobs. 

“Those are the individual differences in that,” Engle says. “If your ability to focus and maintain your attention is better than mine, you will do better.” Finding out who has that ability is why the military is helping to pay for the research.

That ability can possibly be inherited, he adds. “We have a reasonably good idea about the brain mechanisms involved, and also a reasonably good idea about the genetic components. It’s a trait, like height or weight.”

A vision for the Center for Advanced Brain Imaging

Engle came to Georgia Tech in 1995 to not only teach and research, but to also serve as chair of the School of Psychology. Georgia Tech lured him by emphasizing the “science” portion of psychology — exemplified by the discipline of experimental psychology — and because “Georgia Tech really wanted its administrators at the chair and dean level to be involved in scholarship. That’s what really attracted me to Georgia Tech.”

Engle stepped down as school chair to take over as founding director of the Center for Advanced Brain Imaging. Georgia Tech ended up partnering with Georgia State University to establish the $6 million center on the western edge of campus, near 10th Street and Northside Parkway.

Now that Georgia Tech has developed a neuroscience department, and with the discipline playing a bigger part in other arenas like engineering, “the Imaging Center is still going to be a very important part of the School,” Engle says. “We now have a sharp, young neuroscience faculty.”

That faculty, along with Engle, will continue to research metrics, with an eye toward improving tests that measure intelligence by removing all cultural bias from them. “One of the things about our measures of attention control, they avoid culturally derived knowledge,” he says. 

In addition to coming up with more efficient ways to train pilots, Engle and his team are also looking at air traffic control, which is “not as hard as training pilots, but it’s almost as expensive.” 30 percent of applicants will quit training before completion. And tweaking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test that the U.S. military gives its applicants can also benefit from attention control research, he adds.

“That test is almost entirely culturally derived knowledge. One of the questions might have to do with what a carburetor does. Modern cars, like electric vehicles, may not even have that.” 

A study Engle published in 2020 contrasted testing measures, and “our measures of attention control were much better at predicting control than other tests.

“These assessments we’re doing are going to lead to a fairness in assessment that the older tests don’t have, and I think that’s a very big thing. These measures we’re working on, the ability to avoid racial, ethnic, and gender bias, that’s going to be a very big deal.” 

Aptitude assessments are used in a wide variety of industries, not just the military and law enforcement. “When Walmart hires somebody, they give something like these tests,” Engle says. “Making these better will have a great impact on society.”