Archive for June, 2010

Attention: Its Different Roles

June 30, 2010

The importance of attention comes up repeatedly in the Healthymemory Blog. The most common reason for failing to remember is the failure to attend to the information. The failure to remember people’s names, to pick up items from the store, information on a test, and so forth is usually due to the failure to pay adequate attention in the first place. One of the primary reasons the mnemonic techniques discussed in this blog work, is that they force you to pay attention in the first place.

A recent article1 has expanded the concept of directed attention to include self-regulation. Directed attention is often termed selective attention. Selective attention refers attending to one source of information and ignoring, or selecting out, other sources of information. Selective attention is contrasted with divided attention when we attend, or try to attend, to multiple sources of information at the same time. These days a more common term for divided attention is multi-tasking. Sometimes it seems that in today’s world multi-tasking, especially among the young, has become the norm. I remember seeing a television program on PBS about students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It appeared that they were all multi-tasking practically all their waking hours. They all seemed to be of the opinion that there were no costs to multi-tasking and that they could perform multiple tasks at once without any of the individual tasks suffering. This opinion reflected a basic ignorance, even among these extremely intelligent MIT students, that our attentional resources are limited. Well our species, including MIT students, have a limited supply of attention. Moreover, the act of switching between tasks itself requires attention. MIT students can be disabused of their conviction that multi-tasking does have costs by examining the results of their performance comparing how well they did while multi-tasking against how well they did while single tasking.

Sometimes it is convenient to multi-task. I like to read while watching sports on TV. I do, however, realize that my comprehension and reading speed suffer as a result of multi-tasking. If it is important for me to understand and learn certain material, then I try to shut out all distractions.

One of the main contributions of the above cited Kaplan and Berman article is that it establishes a link between these cognitive activities and self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to pitting one’s intentions against one’s inclinations. The best example here is dieting. You’re intention is to lose weight, but your inclination is to eat a great deal because you are hungry. Similarly you might intend to eat a healthier diet, but your inclination is to eat tastier foods. Or your intention might be to study for an exam, but your inclination is to go to the movies. According to Kaplan and Berman, these self-regulation activities draw upon the same resources as do your efforts to attend to particular information or tasks. In other words, the reason we do not do as well as we might in both our cognitive and self-regulatory efforts is that they both require expenditures from this common pool. Moreover, continued expenditures from this pool result in fatigue, decrements in performance, and relapses in our intentions.

For example, when research participants were forced to eat radishes in the presence of more attractive cookies they were less persistent in solving puzzles and less effective in solving the puzzles than research participants who were not required to eat radishes in the presence of attractive cookies.

Other research has shown that either requiring research participants to ignore extraneous stimulation (selective attention) or to stifle emotional distress responses resulted in poorer performance as measured by intellectual aptitude tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). All these studies can be found in the Kaplan and Berman article.

One should recognize these relationships and limitations when planning personal goals. Planning to lose a significant amount of weight and master a difficult subject matter should not be attempted at the same time. It would be better to accomplish them sequentially or to pursue each more modestly. This is probably the reason that most of us who lose weight manage to find it again. While we are expending the resources to discipline ourselves we manage to lose the weight. However, later, as other demands are made on our attentional/regulatory resources, the weight returns.

1Kaplan, S., & Berman, M.G. (2010). Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5:43.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can Transactive Memory Foster Healthy Relationships?

June 27, 2010

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know that transactive memory refers to memories stored outside one’s personal biological memory. There are two generic types of transactive memory: other humans and technology. Most of the research on transactive memory has involved other humans. For example, the role that transactive memory plays in team performance1, or the relationship between couples given the quality and nature of their transactive memory2. Not surprisingly, the quality and nature of transactive memory is beneficial in both cases.

An article in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine considered both types of transactive memory in a marital relationship.3 The author of the article hoped that by looking at the Web sites her husband had visited, she could learn something new about him. After looking at these Web sites she concluded that she had learned something new. She found that his internet searches quietly illustrated his affection for her. She also reciprocated by forwarding some of her favorite web sites to him.

The author recognizes the risks into looking into one’s partner’s online life. Boredom is one potential risk. Some sites could be unsettling. Or they could reveal that your partner avidly supported causes you didn’t believe in. Or that your partner wasted time on stupid things or was just really dull.

Fortunately her husband didn’t disappoint her. He also told her that he liked knowing what she was reading, and he felt that it helped him understand her better, but there still were limits.

Now this was a married couple in a successful relationship, but this viewing the web sites seems to have a good deal of potential for those considering entering into a relationship, or those in a relationship who are considering taking it to the next level. Tags on websites such as can be used to explore not only specific topics, but also the interrelationships of those topics to gain further insights into your partner. The goal here is not to learn everything or to psychoanalyze your partner. Rather it is to gain insights into their interests and beliefs to assess your compatability. This has the potential for the early termination of relationships that are destined for failure. On the other hand, it provides further basis for developing those successful transactive memories characteristic of couples in happy, healthy relationships.

1Michinov, E., Olivier-Chiron, E., Rusch, E., & Chiron, B. (2008). Influence of Transactive Memory on Perceived Performance, Job Satisfaction and Identification in Anesthesia Teams. British Journal of Anesthesia, 100, 327-332.

2Wegner, D.M., Giuliano, T., & Hertel, P. (1985). Cognitive Interdependence in Close Relationships. In W.J. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and Incompatible Relationships . New York: Springer-Verlag

3Hesse, M. (2010). Recent History. Washington Post Sunday Magazine, June13, 20-24.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Trying to Recall Benefits a Healthy Memory

June 20, 2010

The May 1020 issue of the Smithsonian has an interesting article of memory1. It’s about the research of a neuroscientist, Karim Nader. According to the article his research is unconventional and has caused researchers in neuroscience to reconsider some of their most basis assumptions about how memory works. Nader believes that the very act of remembering can change our memories.

Although this might be a new or unconventional idea within neuroscience, it has been understood and adopted within psychology for some time now (See the blog post, “The Seven Sins of Memory). The article goes on to say, “For those of us who cherish our memories and like to think that an accurate record of our history, the idea that memory is fundamentally malleable is more than a little disturbing.” Well be disturbed, the malleability of memory has been long established within psychology, and the notion that our memories are an accurate record of our history has been long debunked. The article does mention the research of the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has been one of the foremost debunkers.

This is not to say that Nader has not made a genuine contribution to the scientific study of memory. Essentially, he is demonstrating the neurological basis for this malleability. Consider what happens when you are thinking about a topic. You recall information that reminds you of other information. Further thought can form links to new information, new ideas. This basic activity underlies our intellectual and creative processes.

The Healthymemory blog has long advocated trying to recall in a variety of contexts. Trying to recall various facts reactivates old memory circuits and establishes new memory connections. Moreover, the research of Roediger has indicated that it is beneficial to to answer questions about a topic before even seeing or hearing about the topic (see Healthymemory blog posts, “The Benefits of Testing,” and “To Get it Right, Get it Wrong, First”). My wife and I have a game we play trying to remember different things such as the names of actors and actresses, or the names of movies. Very often the names seem to be irretrievable, but we continue. What is interesting is your unconscious brain will keep working on the problem long after your conscious brain has given up. These supposedly forgotten names pop up, apparently from nowhere as the strangest times. So. we can assume brain activity is taking place even when we are not aware of it. But you need to put it to work on the task in the first place.

The blog post, “A Life that Leads to a Healthy Memory” describes some additional beneficial activites that place a heavy burden on recalling information. These activities should be enjoyable and lead to additional benefits.

1Miller, G. (2010). Making Memories. Smithsonian, May, 38-43.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Can Technology Be Harmful to a Healthy Memory?

June 13, 2010

A piece by Nicholas Carr in the Outlook Section of the Washington Post, “In Google we trust, a bit too much,” (June 6, 2010 B3) raised some interesting questions about the possible harmful effects of technology. The specific Google feature addressed in this piece was the directions one can request from Google. Of course directions can be found in a variety of sources besides Google, but the general concern was using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigating ourselves. The Healthymemory Blog previously presented the study (“How Memory Works”) regarding the size of the hippocampi of London cab drivers. The hippocampus (its plural being hippocampi) is a brain structure essential for effective memory, particularly for the storage and retrieval of new memories. To receive a license as a London cab driver there is a test that requires the candidate driver to commit to memory the entire map of London. Drivers who earn this license had hippocampi that are larger then normal. The neuroscientist who led this study, Eleanor Maguire, fears that if London cab drivers adopt satellite navigation, their hippocampi will shrink with the consequent loss of much of their remarkable navigation sense. She is quoted as saying “We very much hope that they don’t start using it.”

So one expressed fear is that increasing reliance on GPS systems will result in the loss of our navigational skills (personally, I have little in the way of skill to lose here). Carr raises the larger fear that shrinking hippocampi, due to an increasing reliance on technology, could result in increases in Alzheimer’s Disease and senile dementia.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog might regard this as a contradiction of the one of the premises of the blog that technology can results in increases in brain health. There is no real contradiction here. Whether technology is helpful or harmful depends on how technology is used. When one considers the potential of future technology, for example, the translation of written and spoken foreign languages, there is the possibility that we could become mental weaklings all too dependent on this technology. One can find a ready analogy to physical fitness where some of us are obese and/or in poor physical condition due to the many options in transportation that technology offers as well as the many options in sedentary entertainment.

However, technology can be used to enhance healthy memories. There are so many opportunities to learn new and interesting information and skills that do exercise our hippocampi. Getting information into our brains so that is retrievable exercises our hippocampi. Even learning how to find and retrieve information from transactive memory exercises our hippocampi. Moreover, we can exercise our hippocampi directly by using the mnemonic techniques presented in the Healthymemory Blog to learn new information.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Life that Leads to a Healthy Memory

June 7, 2010

Examples are most helpful in achieving goals. So I like to provide examples of people who lead lives that promote healthy memories. In previous blogs I’ve written about a remarkable senior citizen in his nineties, Fletcher Platt, Sr. I’ve provided his website,, not only as a valuable source of information, but also as an example of an activity that maintains and builds a healthy memory.

In the same vein I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine who is a fellow baby boomer.

We were both born in 1946 and are at the leading edge of the baby boom. When he married in 1968 he started keeping a log of the family’s activities. When children arrived he moved up to a monthly journal. Remember that this was in the time before personal computers. So this involved manual writing or using a manual typewriter. When the personal computer era arrived he transferred all this information to his PC. He also built this material by adding old photos. He found that this activity stimulated other memories. Sometime he used the internet to check the correctness of these memories to assure he was placing them in the right time period.

A few years ago he started to make a story beginning with his childhood and covering the years up till his marriage. He now has at least one page for every years since 1950. This makes sense, since he turned four in 1950 and our memories prior to age four are extremely sketchy, at best. He uses the internet to check on the things that happened during those years and this stimulates his memory further. It also increases the accuracy of his memory. He is able to check when Howdy Doody with Buffalo Bob aired, when Johnny Tremain appeared on Disneyland, etc.

So why does he do this? The simple answer is that it is enjoyable. And it is always good to capitalize on things that we enjoy that are good for us. This activity provides exercise for the brain. Memory searches trace circuits that have not been activated for a long time. These memory searches further consolidate memories. It also increases the accuracy of his memory. Not only are memories lost, our become more difficult to retrieve, over time, but they tend to drift and fill in the blanks with inaccuracies. So memories become more memorable, if you will, and in the process of consolidating these memories, the brain becomes healthier and less vulnerable to potentially damaging aging processes.

He is also transferring these internal memories to transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to the external storage of memories. This record is of interest to his family and friends. His grandchildren and his descendant of future generations will find this record interesting and worthwhile. Perhaps many centuries into the future, scholars will find this a valuable source in trying to understand how we lived and how we thought.

The Prosecutor’s Fallacy

June 2, 2010

There are 175 accredited law schools in the United States. Only one of these schools requires a basic course in statistics or research methods.1 This is unfortunate as this deficiency in education has had adverse effects on justice. Prosecutors have even had a statistical fallacy named after them, the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. Here is the Prosecutor’s Fallacy:

p(match) is mistaken for p(not guilty|match).

 Suppose that you have been charged with first degree murder, a capital offense. You undergo DNA testing. Your DNA is found to match a DNA sample taken from the scene of the crime. The expert witness testifies that only one person in 100,000 would be able to match the DNA sample. You might conclude that it is all over for you. Many prosecutor’s would conclude that they had an open and shut case. But suppose that you lived in New York City and that the crime took place in New York. I believe that the population of the metropolitan New York is around eight million. So within the metropolitan New York area there are about eighty other individuals who could provide matching samples. So, given no other evidence against you, the probability is only 1/80 (0.0125) that you are the murderer.

DNA evidence can be more beneficial to the defense than than to the prosecution. For example, if the DNA from the semen sample taken from a rape victim does not match that of the accused, it is fairly certain that the accused is not guilty. It is difficult to understand how judges, if they are truly interested in justice, would ever deny DNA tests for rapists convicted before DNA testing had advanced to its present state.

A related fallacy in statistical reasoning can be found in the O.J. Simpson case. Simpson’s lawyer, Alan Dershowitz presented the data that as many as four million women are battered annually by husbands and boyfriends in the United States in 1992. In 1992 913 women were killed by their husbands and 519 were killed by boyfriends. So out of these four million cases of abuse, there were only1,432 homicides. From this Dershowitz concluded that there is less than 1 homicide per 2,500 cases of abuse. If you do the computations, you will find that this is still a conservative estimate. Although this is a conservative estimate, it is the wrong statistic. What we need to know is of the battered, murdered women, how many were killed by someone other than their husband or boyfriend. When this is considered we find that 89% of these women were murdered by their husband or boyfiend and only 11% by someone else. This statistic casts a dramatically different light on the probability of Simpson’s guilt. Yet the prosecution let this past without offering this relevant statistic.

Courts are frequently given the responsibility of determining whether violent people should be released back into the community. Psychiatrists are given a difficult task when they need to render an opinion as to whether a violent or potentially violent person should be released. The American Psychiatric Association provided this statement to the Supreme Court of the United States: “our best estimate is that two out of three predictions of long-term future violence are wrong.” Still the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that such testimony is legally admissible as evidence. Here is their reasoning, “mental health professionals are not always wrong…only most of the time.”

1Faigman, D. L. (1999). Legal Alchemy: The Use and Misuse of Science in the Law. New York: Freeman and Co.