Archive for September, 2010

Prospagnosia

September 29, 2010

“I have difficulty remembering names, but I always remember a face.” This is a common expression. Most of us have difficulty remembering names (see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Remembering Names” for tips on how to remember names), but little difficulty remembering faces. Prospagnosia refers to the inability or difficulty in remembering faces. I was surprised to learn when I read the article “Face-Blind” in the New Yorker1 that two to two and a half percent of the US population, that’s six to eight million people, suffer from prospagnosia. What is especially interesting is that the author, Oliver Sachs, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University and a highly successful author, suffers from prospagnosia. He also suffers from topographical agnosia, which is a difficulty in identifying landmarks that can make navigation extremely difficult. The article relates humorous anecdotes regarding experiences these shortcomings have led to.

I was further surprised to learn that it was not until 1947 that this difficulty in recognizing faces was recognized clinically and given the name prospagnosia. I wonder why if so many people suffer from the problem, then why are most of us unaware of it. Given its prevalence in the population, we must all have encountered a reasonable number of people with this condition and remained unaware of this fact.

Perhaps one reason is that propagnosiacs try to high their condition. I have been reading Oliver Sachs for years and remained unaware of his condition. Jane Goodall, who gained fame from her extensive studies of chimpanzees in the wild, suffered from a degree of prospagnosia. She was often unable to distinguish individual chimps by their faces, particularly when they had common faces. The accomplishments of these people are even more amazing when you consider that they had to cope with prospagnosia.

The artist Chuck Close has severe prospagnosia. He copes with this by doing gigantic portraits of faces. This process enables him to commit these images to memory. This coping mechanism has led to artistic success. Close is famous for his gigantic portraits of faces.

Close’s coping mechanism is rather unique. More common coping strategies include recognizing people by an unusual nose or bear, or by their spectacles or a special type of clothing. Voice, posture, and gait are other feature used for recognition. They also take advantage of context and expectation. That is, they expect to encounter people in certain situations, or certain people are usually met in a particular context. Presumably transactive memory aids could be used, for example, notes on a Blackberry or pictures on a cell phone.

To date, no instances of neuroplasticity have been noted. Perhaps it is just a matter of time before something along the lines of what was reported in the Healthymemory Blog post, “A Most Remarkable Example of Neuroplasticity.”

1August 30, 2010, 36-43.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Internet Risks?

September 26, 2010

A book being published this month, Surfing Our Way to Stupid”, by Nicholas Carr raises the common theme that the internet is making us stupid. One might wonder how this can be the case given that the global internet traffic for this year is projected to be more than 20,000 petabytes (1 petabyte = 1 million gibabytes). The complaint is that the effect of all this information is for us to juggle many bits of information instead of focusing on one thing. First of all, let us concede that being entirely preoccupied with one topic is not a good thing either. The complaint is that all this information forces us to dilute our attention onto so many topics that we do not achieve any depth of understanding on any one of them.

Apparently this book portrays us as being victims of the internet. If we are truly victims of the internet I would argue that the fault lies within ourselves and not with the internet. Now should you be someone who clicks on what is trending now, wants to know what is currently “cool,” and needs to know the current “buzz” on all these topics spewing forth, then I would strongly suggest that you get a copy of Surfing Our Way to Stupid and reevaluate yourself.

There will always be a conflict, with or without an internet, between breadth of knowledge (knowing a wide variety of topics) versus depth of knowledge (understanding a topic or topics in detail). We all have limited attentional capacities and need to spend our attention as we see fit. It is also wise to step back and assess whether we are expending our limited attentional resources wisely.

What is often missed in tirades against the internet is the ubiquity of links. Links provide the opportunity to explore a topic in more depth. Terms and topics that are unfamiliar can be clicked on to gain access to resources elaborating on this topics. Moreover, they can be used to increase our depth of knowledge in any topic of interest.

So the bottom line is that the problem is not the internet, but rather how we choose to use the internet.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Elder Wisdom Circle

September 19, 2010

The Elder Wisdom Circle is a group of more than 600 elders (aged 60 to 105) who dispense advice. The have a website, www.elderwisdomcircle.org, which is a large success. Although they provide advice to anyone who asks, most of the users are in the 15 to 35 age range. It is good to know that so many young people value and seek the wisdom of their elders. And it is good to know that there are elders willing to go on to the internet and dispense their wisdom. Given the age range of the elders, there are already baby boomers in the group. The percentage of baby boomers in the group should grow as the years go on.

Generally speaking, western cultures are not known for their appreciation of the wisdom of the elderly. Popular knowledge says that this appreciation is found in eastern cultures. But the wisdom of the elderly is worldwide and should be used. There is evidence that companies with a decent proportion of older workers are more productive that those that consist primarily of the young. This is known as the Horndal effect. The name of the effect comes from a Swedish steel mill where productivity grew by 15% as the workforce grew older. This is good news for aging societies.

However, for the elderly to be productive it is incumbent upon them to continue to learn as they age. Indeed, it is important for everyone to continue to learn throughout their lives. Elderly who become set in their ways and spend most of their time reminiscing about “the good old day,” will be limited in what they can contribute. But the elderly who continue to learn are invaluable. The older the person is the richer the context into which new information is incorporated. So it is not only how much knowledge one has as a function of age, but the richer context into which new knowledge is incorporated. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Interesting and Inspirational Website

September 15, 2010

The Healthymemory Blog periodically revisits the www.fletchplatt.com website. There are two reasons for doing so. First of all, it is an outstanding website with access to many interesting resources. The second reason is the webmaster himself, Fletcher Platt Sr. Fletch is a retired automotive engineer in his nineties. He has remained active and engaged throughout his retirement. His website is but one example of this activity.

I encourage you to go www.fletchplatt.com, bookmark it, and spend some time exploring it. Although some topics should be of primary interest to the retired and the elderly, most should be of interest to many. Some are highly pragmatic, explaining how to get things done and how things work, while others are primarily of intellectual and artistic interest. There is much medical information as well as information on injury prevention. Fletch provides his own thoughts and ideas and invites his readers to engage in dialogue. One can look on the website as a vehicle for cognitive growth. Explore the website in both breadth and depth. You’re likely to become a regular visitor to some of the links, and the time you spend visiting the site and its links should lead to a healthy memory and cognitive growth.

Fletch has not simply gone on the defensive as he has grown older. He has been proactive and continued to grow personally and cognitively. Moreover, he has shared his growth via his website. This is a splendid example of transactive memory. Remember that transactive memory consists not only of all the information and knowledge store in technology, but also all the information and knowledge store in our fellow human beings. It is a vehicle for cognitive growth and enrichment. And Fletch and his website provide a splendid example. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dementia and Mental Stimulation

September 8, 2010

A recent article in The Economist1 presented a report on the benefits of mental stimulation in warding off dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The research was lead by Robert Wilson of the University of Chicago. Research participants were asked how frequently they engaged in cognitively stimulating activities such as reading newspapers, books, and magazines. They were also asked how frequently they played challenging games like chess and visited museums. They also included watching television and listening to radio, which are typically not regarded as mentally stimulating activities. Then they followed these participants to learn what developed. They found that frequent activity of this sort seemed to slow the rate of cognitive decline. But they also found that in those who did develop Alzheimer’s Disease the decline was more rapid. This they regarded as bad news.

A number of points need to be made about this study. Most importantly, it should not be regarded as conclusive. More definitive studies will be done, and I would not be surprised if more specific types of mental activity were found that actually did ward off Alzheimer’s. But even if we take these results at face value, they provide strong evidence for the benefits of mental activity. From my perspective, even what they term as bad news, that the decline after Alzheimer’s is more precipitous, I regard as beneficial. Were I to suffer from Alzheimer’s, I would want my suffering to be as short as possible.

The Healthymemory Blog is dedicated to promoting mental activity not only to preclude or ward off mental decline, but also to provide cognitive enrichment. Although the primary audience for this blog is comprised of baby boomers, all should benefit. There are three basic categories of blog posts. The first category, Human Memory: Theory and Data, provides information on how memory works and how cognition both functions and malfunctions. Tips are provided on how to avoid common information processing errors. I find the field of human memory very interesting and I use this category to share my interests.

The second category is on mnemonic techniques. Mnemonic techniques are specific strategies for enhancing memory. In addition to enhancing memory, they also provide mental exercise. It does not appear that this type of mental stimulation was included in the Rush research. When you access this category it is important that blog post are ordered from most recent to the oldest. For this category in particular, it should be more beneficial to read them from the bottom up.

The third category is transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to external sources of information. These external sources can be found in either fellow humans or in technology. Although the newspapers, books, and magazines used in the Rush study are included, no uses of the internet were mentioned. The Healthymemory Blog believes that the internet provides resources for both mental stimulation and cognitive growth.

So mental stimulation should be regarded not only as a defensive mechanism to prevent or ward off mental decline, but also as an offensive, proactive practice to promote cognitive growth to lead to a richer and more fulfilling life.

1Brain Gain.(2010). September 4-10th p. 88.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Consciousness

September 1, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain in the past, consciousness was regarded as a mystery. Today, consciousness is regarded as a mystery. And in the future, consciousness will still be regarded as a mystery. I strongly agree with the assessment and with the prediction. The most that can be said about consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon. That is, it is a byproduct that emerges from the complex operations of our brain. But this is not an explanation. All it says it that it just happens.

There is also the question as to what is the role of consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it does not play a causal role, that causation occurs below the level of consciousness, and that we are just along for the ride. Although one can make this argument, it does not provide a pragmatic view. If you live your life simply taking what comes along and not playing an active role, the results will likely be disappointing. To the extent possible, you want to use your consciousness to some end, to achieve outcomes that are desirable.

We know that effective learning requires conscious attention. Although there are accounts of scientific discoveries apparently occurring out of thin air when the individual was sleeping or musing about something else, it has always been the case that the scientist had spent countless hours working on the problem previously. I’m sure there are similar accounts in other cognitive endeavors. I frequently have the experience of after having failed to remember an item, that I will recall it at some later time when I was not thinking of it. However, in all cases I had spent considerable conscious effort trying to recall the item earlier. Presumably my unconscious mind continued to try to recall the information after I abandoned my consciousness effort. Nevertheless, it was the previous conscious activity that apparently initiated this unconscious effort.

Predictions have been made that in the future we shall be able to download information directly from computers and the internet into our brains. First of all, before this information could be transformed into a format usable by our brains, enormous advances would need to be made in brain science. But suppose this problem is solved, what would that mean? Unfortunately I purchase many publications that I never get around to reading. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is information in potential transactive memory that I have made available. What is the difference between this and information that might be downloaded directly into my brain. I need to read the material consciously before I can understand the information and relate it to other information I have processed.

So the big question for the future is whether consciousness can be expanded. Can we learn how to expand our short term and working memory capacity? To do so, we need to have a thorough understanding of consciousness. And the prospects for such an understanding developing are dim.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

 © Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.