Archive for October, 2010

Hypermnesia

October 27, 2010

If asked, most people would respond to the question, “What happens to memories over time?”, the answer would be that they are forgotten. Whereas practically everyone has heard of amnesia, few have heard of hypermnesia. This blog post was inspired by a recent article written by Matthew Hugh Erdelyi.1 He cited a monograph written by Ballard2 published almost a hundred years ago. He found that children who were reputed to have poor memory actually recalled a partially mastered poem better—sometimes perfectly—on a second test after a two day interval. In extensive research Ballard found that if the recall of a partially learned stimulus, like a poem, is tested twice with an interval between the two tests, say two or three days, it is found that the second test fails to include some of the items recalled in the initial test (Ballard termed this oblivescence). However, it is also found, perhaps surprisingly, that the second test includes some stimulus items that had not been recalled on the first test (Ballard termed this reminiscence). When reminiscence exceeds obliviscence, hypermnesia results. When obliviscence exceeds reminiscence, Ballard termed it amnesia (which should be distinguished from clinical amnesia, which is usually quite severe).

What determines whether hypermnesia or amnesia prevails is the nature of the stimulus. Pictures, or stimuli that elicit imagery, such as poems will result in hypermnesia. Nonsense syllables or other meaningless material will result in amnesia. Generally speaking, meaningfull material result in hypermnesia; meaningless material results in amnesia. Once material, which was initially low in meaning become meaningful, hypermnesia results.

Mnemonic techniques, which are designed to improve material, often involve imagery, and are strategies for transforming inherently meaningless material into on meaningful material. In other words, mnemonic techniques are designed to promote hypermnesia. You should note that one of the categories in the Healthymemory Blog is labeled mnemonic techniques. Blog posts on mnemonic techniques can be found by clicking the “Mnemonic Techniques” category.

Prior Healthymemory Blog posts have also recommended trying to recall information as a means not only of studying more efficiently, but also for improving brain health (To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First!, “The Benefits of Testing”, “SQ3R”, “If We Know So Much More When We Are Older Why Do We Have Difficulty Recalling It, and More Importantly, What Can Be Done About It”, “Recalling Information That Is Difficult to Remember”, “More On Common Sense Approaches for Improving Memory”, “Common Sense Approaches for Improving Memory”).

1The Ups and Downs of Memory. (2010). American Psychologist, 65, 623-633.

2Ballard, P.B. (1913). Oblivescence and Reminiscence. British Journal of Psychology, 1(No. 2, Monograph Supplements). Preface-82.

© 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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Positive Results for Mnemonic Training of the Aged

October 24, 2010

A meta-analytic study is an analysis of a large number of experiments on a given topic. Meta-analyses not only indicate what works and what does not, but they also provide a quantitative estimate of the benefits. A meta-analytic study of the benefits of mnemonic training of the aged provides some highly promising results.1 This study measured the pre-posttest gains in memory tasks that required the memorization of lists of items for healthy people aged 60 or above. The overall mean age was 69.1 years, but the mean age for some experiments was as high as 73. The summary of all the results indicated that the average elderly person can be expected to perform at the 77th percentile of the performance distribution of his or her age group. This means that the average elderly person can be expected to move from the 50th percentile to the 77th percentile as a result of the memory training. So that is 27 percentile points. That means that if you were in the mean center of your group before memory training, you would move to the upper quarter of the group as a result of the memory training.

A variety of mnemonic techniques were used in the different studies that were meta-analyzed, mnemonic techniques that have been covered in the Healthymemory Blog. They include the method of loci (The Method of Loci); the pegword technique (The One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic). The name mnemonic (Remembering Names); Paired Associates Imagery (Paired-Associates Learning: Concrete Concrete Pairs, Paired-Associates Learning: Concrete Abstract Pairs, Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Concrete Pairs, and Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Abstract Pairs), and Relaxation (The Relaxation Response) You can find these blog posts by entering the blog post title in the search box, or by clicking on the Mnemonic Techniques category and perusing the blogs in that category, You will find additional blogs on remembering numbers, remembering foreign words, remembering historical dates and appointments, to name just a few.

It is the belief of the Healthymemory Blog that using these mnemonic techniques accomplishes more than improving your memory. They also provide mental exercises that help build healthy memories (hence the name for this blog). This be of benefit to everyone, but especially to baby boomers who need to start preparing to counter any adverse effects of aging.

1Verhaeghen, P., Marcoen, A, & Goosens, L. (1992). Improving Memory Performance in the Aged Through Mnemonic Training: A Meta-Analytic Study. Psychology and Aging, 7, 242-251.

© 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.

Beware the Irresistible Internet?

October 20, 2010

The title is taken from the New Scientist1. I turned their title into a question. One of the themes of the Healthymemory Blog is that transactive memory, of which the internet is a very large part, is good for you. It provides resources not only for maintaining a healthy memory, but also for personal growth and enhancement. Consequently, I might be unduly sensitive about articles that are critical of the internet.

One criticism is that people can become behaviorally addicted to the internet. A behavioral addiction is a recurring compulsion to act in specific ways which may be detrimental on the person’s well being. Psychiatrists, however, are not happy with the notion of a “behavioral” addiction. For them, addictions need to be physically based like alcohol or heroin addictions. So they use the term “impluse control disorder.”

The New Scientist article cites the case a court in Hawaii allowing a 51 year old online gamer to proceed with a case against NC Interactive. He claims that NC Interactive’s online game Lineage II contained insufficient warnings regarding its addictiveness (make that impulse control disorderliness for any psychiatrists reading this article). He claims to have spent 20,000 hours playing this game since 2004. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw conclusion regarding a court that would allow such a lawsuit to proceed, but I find it ludicrous to portray the user as a helpless victim.

I do not deny that there are people who, due to their abdication of personal responsibility, do engage in maladaptive behaviors (or impulse controls). And I am pleased that there are programs designed to help people get over these maladaptive behaviors (or impulse controls). But I believe that any effective program has at its core the willingness of people to accept responsibility for their behavior.

Although I am a strong advocate of the potential of the internet for cognitive health and personal development, I do not believe that all internet behavior is beneficial. In most cases, I think the result is the simple wasting of time; nothing dramatic like a behavioral or impulse control disorder. It is a good idea to conduct personal audits periodically to assess whether we are using are time wisely. I would include time spent on entertainment, recreation, or relaxation as time spent wisely, provided there are no adverse effects.

1Marks, P. (2010). Beware the Irresistible Internet, 11 September, 24-25.

© 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.

What is Incubation?

October 17, 2010

Let me be more specific, the question is what is incubation in the context of creativity or unconscious thought. The French mathematician Henri Poincare developed a four stage model of the creative process based on his own introspections regarding how he made his mathematical discoveries. Here are the four stages:

  1. He put in a great deal of conscious work until he became stuck and put the problem aside.
  2. At this point his unconscious took over. His unconscious worked beneath the surface. This is incubation
  3. The solution emerged into consciousness.
  4. At this point he checked the solution and found that it was correct.

Some psychologists debunk this theory because they have been unable to replicate it in their laboratories. Unfortunately, the vast majority of psychological research is done with college students. Moreover, the duration of an experiment is typically only one or two hours—sometimes even less. This reminds me of when I was a graduate student. At that time there was debate about whether we could control our own autonomic nervous systems. For example, could we learn how to control our heart rate (apart from running to increase it)? Most psychologists argued that we could not control our autonomic nervous systems based on short term studies with college students. The fact that Hindu mystics, among others, had already demonstrated a phenomenal capacity to control their autonomic nervous systems and alter their heart rates was ignored. The same situation seems to be prevailing with respect to creativity. The four stage model introduced by Poincare has been confirmed with a variety of creative individuals.

I certainly am no genius, but I have experienced incubation, most often when I am trying to recall a name, event, or vocabulary word. After a prolonged period of failure in which I was unable to recall what I wanted, hours, sometimes days, later the answer pops to mind.

Today it is generally believed that the vast majority of mental activity occurs below the level of conscious awareness, so it is not surprising that these efforts continue after your conscious mind moves on to something else. The implication is that you can continue to exercise your mind after you consciously abandon the exercise. The important part is that you need to start thinking about something. Incubation does not occur without an initial conscious effort.

That is why the Healthymemory Blog encourages you to try to remember things that you think you know, but that you cannot quite recall. This initiates the use of memory circuits that have been inactive for long periods of time. Trying to remember these items reactivates them. This reactivation should continue after you have abandoned your conscious attempt to recall the information. If it has not popped into memory after several days, retry your conscious attempts. If there is still no recall after days, then take recourse to transactive memory and attempt to look up the information.

© 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.

Brain Boosts

October 14, 2010

A recent article1 has presented some of the most recent research methods for boosting the performance of the brain. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is one of these methods. The current is very small, from 1 to 2 milliamps. This method is much safer than other types of brain simulation as tDCS does not cause neurons to fire directly. It must makes the neurons more excitable. When tCDS is applied over the right parietal lobe of the brain, mathematical ability is boosted. When it is applied to the right anterior temporal lobe, visual perception and memory is boosted. Bear in mind that tCDS is still in a research mode. You cannot go to your doctor or educator and request tCDS to boost the brain of yourself or your child. But is do, blue es offer the possibility of that potential for the future.

Musical training is another method for boosting the performance of the brain. The primary auditory region involved in hearing can be boosted by musical training. The primary motor area involved in fine motor control can be boosted by musical training. Bear in mind that a music lesson will not suffice here. This is a matter of prolonged and intensive musical training.

Perhaps the simplest means of boosting the brain is by turning on the lights, bright lights. The article reports research in which people with normal vision were given a variety of test while exposed to bright light during the day. Performance in visual searches, mathematics, logical reasoning and reaction time all improved with exposure to bright light. Brain scans have revealed that just a few seconds of light exposure activates an area in the brain stem, the Locus Coeruleus, that play a role in alertness. Moreover, blue light appears to be more effective in sustaining cognitive performance than green light.

With respect to diet, the flavonoids appear to be effective brain boosters, specifically the hippocampus, which is essential to effective memory. The flavonoids are found in fruits such as blueberries and blackcurrants, and also in cocoa, green tea, and red wine. (BDNF) BDNF stimulates the growth of axons linking one brain cell to another.

Regarding exercise, numerous studies have shown that moderate exercise can slow age-related cognitive decline. A study done at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that daily walking improved executive functions such as planing and abstract thinking in younger adults. It is thought that physical activity might spur the growth of neurons in regions important to memory, such as the hippocampus, and improve activity in areas responsible for executive function. It is thought that BDNF is involved here along with the vascular endothelial growth actor (VEGF), which aids blood vessel growth.

Meditation is another method for boosting the brain. You can find meditation discussed in the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Relaxation Response.”

1Thomson, H. (2010).Mental Floss , 2 October, 28-32,

© 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.

Your Brain, Your Heart, and Cholesterol Medication

October 10, 2010

The motivation for this blog post is several fold. The common wisdom is that anything that is good for your heart is good for your brain. Cholesterol has only negative connotations in the popular mind. The heart is the most important organ. I wish to debunk the first two and to express a personal opinion regarding the third.

A recent article in Scientific American Mind1 bears upon the first two items. The article sites the case of a former NASA astronaut returned home from his morning walk, but did not recognize that he was home and did not recognize his wife. When he tried to understand what might have caused this amnesia only one thing came to mind. He had recently taken the statin drug Lipitor to control his cholesterol. He stopped taking Lipitor and there were no further cases of amnesia. A year later his doctor convinced him to try Lipitor again. He did. The amnesia reoccurred. So he stopped.

The article notes that it is not surprising that there is a relationship between cholesterol modifying drugs and amnesia. One quarter of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain. Cholesterol plays a crucial role in the formation of neuronal connection that are the underlying links for memory and cognition. Cholesterol also helps insulate neurons that speed up electrical transmissions.

The Scientific American Mind article notes that there is not a straightforward relationship between statins and dementia. It appears that only a small percentage of statin users experience cognitive losses. Moreover, there are even a few studies indicating a possible beneficial relationship. The relationships are complicated because of genetic and epigenetic differences among users and differences in the chemical formulations of statins. Nevertheless, there can be harmful effects.

So to reiterate my first two points, not everything that is good for your heart is good for your brain, and cholesterol is important and provides the basis for important functions. It is not simply some evil substance that needs to be removed. Now on to my third, personal point.

I can understand why most would argue that the heart is the most important organ. When the heart ceases to function, we cease to live. However there is the state where the heart is functioning fine, but there is no indication of useful electrical activity in the brain. What should be done in this case? If the patient has had the foresight to write a living will, that will can express the patient’s desires. Otherwise, the relatives must decide. As we have seen, in these cases disputes can arise, disputes that occasion public, religious, and political debate. As I am arguing that the brain is the most important organ, you should know where I stand in this debate.

Personally I would like to take this debate to another level. For the past few years I have been visiting an assisted living facility. Some residents are there because of physical impairments and frailty that limit their ability to assist themselves. Others are suffering from Alzheimer’s. Others do not understand where they are. Many have lost large portions of their personal memories. Others can stare at a television, but not be able to comprehend the story or the event. When I reach the level of cognitive impairment where I am unable to understand and interact with my environment, I no longer wish to live, regardless of the health of my heart. Again, this is my personal preference. I have no desire to impose it on others.

Please feel free to comment and leave your own opinions regarding this issue.

1Wenner Moyer, M. (2010). It’s Not Dementia, It’s Your Heart Medication. Scientific American Mind, September/October, 14-15.

 © 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. 

World Memory Championships’ U.K. Open

October 6, 2010

The Washington Post reported on the Memory Championships that were recently completed in England.1 Some of the feats reported were memorizing the order of 930 binary digits in five minutes, the order of 364 playing cards in 10 minutes, and the order of a deck of playing cards in less than 25 seconds.

The competition consisted of ten categories of competition, some of which were, in addition to the memorization of play cards, abstract images, random words, and photographs of strangers. Contestants scored points in each of the ten categories and awards were presented for the winners of each category.

The U.K Open is preliminary to the World Memory Championships, which will be held in China this year. The winner of that competition will receive a $92,000.00 cash prize. The rumor is that the Chinese government has been conducting a memory boot camp for its competitors. If so, the competition will likely be especially intense.

The tenor of the Post article was that these memory competitions were fun, but of little practical value. Given today’s PDAs, smart phones, and ubiquitous technology, such skills have little value. I beg to differ.

First let me provide some historical context. Memory skills were trained and highly valued in Ancient Greece and Rome. These skills continued to be valued until paper became more generally available and Gutenberg invented the printing press. As technology advanced, memory techniques became less and less popular. These lost or forgotten skills can be regarded as a casualty of technological advances.

I submit that these skills are still valuable. And the feats do not need to equal or even come close to these competitive mnemonists to be valuable. Both human memory and technology are vulnerable. Sure, human memory is vulnerable, you say, but how is technology vulnerable? First of all, due to hardware or software problems, technology is not always available. Then, there are data entry errors that yield incorrect information when you try to retrieve it. And what about all the logons and passwords you need to remember to even gain access to the technology? And what about credit cards? Should you write the numbers down, someone can always find them, but if you commit them to memory? Remembering names and personal information that goes with the names is invaluable, especially during unanticipated encounters.

But there is an even more fundamental reason that the Healthymemory Blog recommends mnemonic techniques. They provide splendid exercise for your memory to keep it healthy. Not only is your memory exercised, but your creativity and both hemispheres of your brain also receive workouts.

These memory techniques can be found under the Category mnemonic techniques. Remember that a blog is presented in reverse order, so you might want to start at the beginning, bottom, of the category.

1Moyer, J. & Omonira-Oyekanmi, R. (2010). Memorize 364 Playing Cards? In Ten Minutes? Piece of Cake, Style Section Washington Post, C9.

© 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.

How Do We See?

October 3, 2010

The study of visual perception is difficult because it happens so fast. Somehow light comes into our eyes, makes contact with our memory and, lo and behold, we see a meaningful scene. A recent article1 in the New Scientist provides an overview of how this occurs, or, at least,with out current state of knowledge how we think this occurs.

Since perception happens so quickly, agnosias, specific disorders, can be quite informative. The previous blog post explored Propagnosia. Other types of agnosias include:

Simultanagnosia – seeing one object at a time when viewing a scene comprised of many items.

Integrative agnosia – Inability to recognize whole objects, tending instead to focus on individual features of an object.

Visual form agnosia – Inability to describe the shape, size, or orientation of objects, but still being able to manipulate them.

Optic ataxia – Ability to report the shape and size of an object, though manipulating the object clumsily.

Pure alexia (aka agnosia for words) – inability to identify individual characters or even text, although sometimes being able to write.

Topographical agnosia – Inability to recognize known landmarks or scenes.

Color agnosia – Ability to perceive colors without being able to identify, name, or group them according to similarity.

Research using brain scans can be quite useful in identifying the specific areas in the brain that accomplish these functions. Brain scans have revealed that people with visual form agnosia tend to have damage to the ventral (lower) part of the brain’s visual area. However, people with optic ataxia tend to have damage to the dorsal (upper part) of the brain’s visual area. So it appears that we have two streams of visual processing. The ventral pathway recognizes the object, while the dorsal pathway determines where that object is located in the visual field.

Some neuroscientists think that the brain binds all the different features of the ventral stream to a “master map of location”, which is held in the dorsal stream. They believe that this binding process is so fundamental that this link needs to be formed before an image can pop into consciousness.

So our perceptual system seems to be highly modular with many different modules contributing to conscious experience. All this activity occurs below the level of consciousness to yield the conscious world we do experience.

1Robeson, D. (2010). Seeing Isn’t Believing. New Scientist, 28 August, 30-33.

© 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.