Archive for November, 2010

Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving

November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving is the holiday devoted to being thankful for all the good things we have and all the good people we know (more commonly called blessings). It is a positive holiday when we should focus on the positive features of our lives. Continuing to focus on the positive contributes to a healthy memory. Consequently, it is good to carry the positive frame of mind fostered by Thanksgiving throughout the entire year.

Positive thinking fosters more positive thinking. The expression is “neurons that fire together wire together.” So thinking positive thoughts activates circuits that will be more likely to fire together in the future. How you feel is affected by how you interpret your environment. You see a glass with water at the halfway mark. Do you interpret that as half empty or half full? The interpretation is up to you, and this interpretation will affect the way you think and feel. In other words you have the capacity to change your brain if you choose to exercise it.

Paying attention to the internal sensations of your body can also have effects. The insular cortex is a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body. When a person meditates, her insular cortex becomes thicker as a result of neurons making more and more connections with each other. (See the Healthymemory Blog posts “The Relaxation Response,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention”). The insular cortex plays a role in emotion, homeostasis, perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. A malfunctioning insular cortex can lead to psychopathology. In addition to meditation activities such as paying attention to your breathing, yoga, Tai Chi, and dancing can put you in touch with the internal sensations of your body.

Remember the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” If you think negatively, you are reinforcing negative circuits and the further promotion of harmful negative thoughts. So foster positive circuits by thinking positively. I hope you had a happy thanksgiving and I hope you continue this happiness throughout the entire year.

© 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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Healthymemory Blog Wishes You a Happy Thanksgiving!

November 24, 2010

And, of course, a healthy memory. The Healthymemory Blog pursues this objective via three themes. One is to provide theory and data about human memory and cognition. Another theme is to provide memory techniques and results bearing upon the effectiveness of these memory techniques and how they may facilitate a healthymemory. A third theme is called Transactive Memory. This theme explores how technology and our fellow human beings can enhance memory health.
     The author of this blog is at the leading edge of the Baby Boomers. Although this blog should be of special interest to Baby Boomers, it should be of interest to anyone interested in the workings of memory, in techniques for improving memory, and in how technology and fellow humans can enhance memory health.
     Look under “Categories” in the right hand border of this blog. One category, Overview, provides a general overview of the Healthymemory Blog that is quite similar to this current blog post. Human Memory: Theory and Data provides information about human memory and cognition. Mnemonic Techniques presents specific techniques for improving memory. It is also thought that employing these techniques, in addition to improving memory, provides exercise to the brain that promotes memory health. One can find an entire memory course under this category. The category, Transactive Memory, provides information on how our fellow humans and technology can promote brain health. You will also find here topics regarding how the internet works and problems and dangers regarding the internet.
     Just click on the category to get to your current topic of interest, Remember that blogs are presented in reverse order. So to get to the beginning of the category, you need to go the the bottom and start from there.
     You should be able to find something of interest. There are 151 postings for your perusal.

© 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.

Hope for an Aging Population: STAC

November 21, 2010

By 2050 in wealthy, developed countries it is estimated that there will be many more older adults (26%) than children under 15 (about 16%). Today adults aged 85 and older have a dementia rate of nearly 50%. Projecting this into the future yields a frightening prospect. It portends a large percentage of underproductive older people. Beyond that, there would be a large percentage of older people living unfulfilling lives.

Looking at both the neurological and behavioral changes that occur in the aging brain can also be discouraging. There are decreases of volume in the caudate nucleus, the lateral prefrontal cortex, both cerebral hemispheres, and the hippocampus. There are also decreases in processing speed and in the ability to focus and screen out extraneous information. Fortunately, not everything declines. The primary visual cortex and the entorhinal cortex suffer minimal or no loss in volume. Similarly our vocabularies and expertise typically do not decline. Although sometimes it might be difficult finding a word, it usually comes to mind eventually.

Fortunately there is evidence that there are compensatory mechanisms to counter or ward off this decline (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “HAROLD”). And it is clear that these mechanisms work. Many people function quite well even in to advanced old age. What is even more remarkable that some people show little or no evidence for cognitive decline in spite of a great deal of pathology discovered during autopsies.

What is needed is a theory to understand the mechanisms that ward off this decline. The Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition (STAC)1 provides such a theory. Some of the basis of this theory comes from brain imaging, fMRI especially. This imaging has revealed differences in the pattern of neural activation between young and older adults. Whereas young adults show focal left prefrontal activity when engaged in certain cognitive tasks, older adults show activity in both the left and right prefrontal areas.

It should be understood that scaffolding is a process that occurs across the lifespan. It is not just the brain’s response to normal aging; it is the brain’s response to challenge. For anyone acquiring a new skill an initial set of neural circuits must be engaged and developed to provide the structure for task performance in the early stages of skill acquisition. With practice, performance becomes less effortful and the neural circuitry becomes more specific to the task.

The basic idea underlying STAC is that this same mechanism can compensate for losses in brain structure and function as we age. So what can be done to activate this mechanism? The answer is to challenge the brain and then address this challenge. As we age it becomes easier to rely upon old habits and ways of thinking and to avoid new challenging activities. But it is these challenging activities that activate the STAC process that can ward off cognitive decline.

One can regard the Healthymemory Blog as a means of providing this cognitive challenge. First of all, it provides information and data about human cognition. This can be new learning that can provide challenge in itself if not insight into the working and malfunctions of human cognition. It also presents mnemonic techniques that not only can improve cognitive performance, but offer cognitive exercise and challenge in trying to implement them. Finally, there is transactive memory, where there is knowledge from fellow humans and from the internet (and more traditional sources of knowledge) to challenge the mind.

1Park, D.C. & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The Adaptive Brain: Aging and Neurocognitive Scaffolding. Annual Review of Psychology,60, 173-196.

© 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.

Coping with Complexity

November 17, 2010

I’ve just finished a book1 by Donald Norman that I highly recommend. (more…)

More on Dangers of the Internet: Are We Incurable Infovores?

November 14, 2010

An article1 in the New Scientist compels me to address this question. An analogy is made between our obesity problem and an internet problem. The problem of obesity, not only in the United States but in most advanced countries, is well known. One reason offered for this problem is that our evolutionary history has made us predisposed to crave fat and sugar. Long ago when food was scarce it was adaptive to consume these high energy foods. Unfortunately, now when such foods become easily accessible we tend to overeat them with the resultant obesity.

The New Scientist article argues that we are similarly predisposed to seek novel information because it was biologically adaptive. So we are infovores just as we are carnivores (more properly omnivores with the exception of those who have chosen to be vegetarians or vegans). And with the arrival of the fire hose of information provided by the internet we are being placed in danger from the consequences of information overload.

According to the article, in 2009 the global data traffic was around 15,000 petabytes (1 petabyte equals 1 million gigabytes). The projects is that this volume will exceed 20,000 petabytes this year and will grow to more than 50,000 petabytes in 2013. Of course, no individual will encounter even a small percentage of this information. And as is frequently argued in this Healthymemory Blog, one should use the internet wisely not only to avoid the dangers of addiction, but also to enhance the prospects for cognitive growth.

This article makes no mention of what percentage of this so-called information is quality information. I would not be surprised if a majority of this so-called information is incorrect and is not truly information. Then there is hateful traffic, which cannot be rightfully called information. I would like to see some breakdowns on estimates of the quality of the information on the internet. If anyone knows of any such sources on internet information quality, please provide the names, URLs, addresses of these sources in the comment box. I am thanking you in advance.

1Parsons, P. (2010). Ignorance is Bliss. New Scientist, 16, 38-39. 

© 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.

Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention

November 11, 2010

Vigilance tasks require an observer to note when a target occurs. Much research has been done in this area due to important military and security applications. For example, an observer might need to detect enemy planes approaching on the radar scope. Or it might be security personnel monitoring baggage at an airport. Moreover, there is need to distinguish dangerous from benign targets on the scope. Although this is obviously a very important task, it would also appear to be a very simple task. The problem is that over prolonged periods of time performance drops off. In spite of all the research that has been done, techniques for sustaining attention have been found lacking. A recent article1 presented research that found that intensive meditation training can aid sustained attention. Other research2 has found that vigilance requires hard mental work and is stressful. Research using questionnaires and measurements of cerebral blood flow velocity have documented that vigilance is stressful and hard mental work. Attentional resource theory has been used to account for the vigilance decrement. The notion is that attentional resources are rapidly depleted by the demands of the vigilance task.

The meditation training used in the first article was quite intensive. It involved going to a retreat. Shamantha3 meditation training was used in at least five three day retreats. The meditation training was found to sustain vigilance for a longer time, presumably by increasing attentional resources.

You might ask, so what? My job does not involve vigilance tasks. The relevance to you is that meditation apparently does increase attentional resources. Meditation training has been found to be beneficial to temporal attention, attentional alerting, and visual discrimination. Moreover, readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be well aware of the critical role of attention in cognitive performance, and that many failures and breakdowns in cognitive processing are due to limited attentional resources.

See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Relaxation Response,” “Attention Its Different Roles,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “More on Restoring Attentional Resources.”

1MacLean, K. A., and many others (2010).  Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention.  Psychological Science, 21, 829-839.

2Warm, J.s., Parasururaman, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). Vigilance Requires Hard Mental Work and is Stressful. Human Factors, 50, 433-441.

3Wallace, B.A, (2006). The Attention Revolution. Boston: Wisdom 

© 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 Many Friends Are Too Many?

November 7, 2010

There are people who boast of having more than a thousand friends on Facebook. A blogger once indicated that he was following over a thousand blogs. Does this make sense? An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, has come up with an hypothesis that provides an answer.1

The hypothesis is called the social intelligence hypothesis. Dunbar notes that social relationships make demands on cognition that are reflected in larger brains. Apes and monkeys are social animals that have a particularly large neocortex, a region of the brain that regulates language abilities, emotion, and the awareness of others. Our social relationships are much more complex and that is reflected in an even larger neocortex. Our brains consume about twenty percent of our energy. Dunbar has come up with a number called, oddly enough, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one tine to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people that we speak with frequently. Personally, I find this number to be a tad low. At the other extreme we have about 100 acquaintaces we speak with about once a year. Although we can quibble about these numbers, I would hang my hat on 150 being the maximum number of people we can call friends.

If you count the number of friends you have had over a lifetime, you might well exceed 150. But it is likely that most of these friends have dropped out and you no longer interact with them regularly. Of course, you are glad to see them again and are happy to chat up old times. However, human relationships take time and cognitive resources, so the number of true friends with whom you interact is limited. Although you might have more acquaintances, know more people, they are probably not adequately characterized as friends.

I would argue that there is a trade-off between the number of friends you have and the quality of these friendships. The number of true friends you have might be much lower than the 150 maximum, but they are likely of high quality. Again, the limitation is one of cognitive resources.

I would also argue that online friends can well be true friends. But they make the same demands on resources and you should spend your cognitive resources wisely.

1Dunbar, R., (2010). How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. Harvard University Press.

© 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.

Efficacy of Group Memory Training for Older Adults

November 4, 2010

Given the importance of memory for successful aging, programs for improving memory that work for older adults are especially important. A recent article1 provides evidence for just such a program. The program involved the training of groups of 15 people with an average age of 67.8. The training involved the types of techniques discussed under the Mnemonic Techniques category in the Healthymemory Blog. The training consisted of ten sessions lasting 90 minutes each. Two sessions were conducted each week. Here is a synopsis of what was covered in each session.

Session 1 – Introduction to the course and instructor. Discussion of stereotypes and beliefs about memory. Attention exercises and homework assignment.

Session 2 – Explanation and exercises on the visualization technique. Application of the technique to daily life. Attention exercises and a homework assignment.

Session 3 – Visualization exercises. Explanation of the different tion of the types of memory and states. Attention exercises. Homework assignment.

Session 4 – Group comments on the application of the visualization technique in their daily lives. Visualization of text and visualization of things they were going to do (prospective memory). Homework assignment.

Session 5 – Explanation of the cognitive simulation concept. Perception, language and attention exercises. Homework assignment.

Session 6 – Cognitive simulation exercises. Homework assignments.

Session 7 – Explanation of the association exercises. Group discussion on the use and application of the technique. Homework assignment.

Session 8 – Association as a technique to remember names. Name recall exercises. Homework assignment.

Session 9 – Strategies to overcome everyday forgetfulness. Practical exercises for everyday forgetfulness. External cues. Homework assignments.

Session 10 – Review of memory types and stages. Review of true and false beliefs about memory. Participants’ comments on what they learned in the workshops.

Memory was assessed by both objective and subjective assessments. The objective memory test was the Rivermead Behavioural Memory Test (RBMT)2. This test evaluates associative memory (remembering first names, surnames, and faces), prospective memory (tasks to be performed)memory with both visual and verbal material, and topographical memory (getting around a room). The subjective memory test was the Memory Failures in Everyday Life (MFE) questionnaire.3 This was a subjective report by each individual with respect to the frequency of common memory errors.

These tests were administered three times: before the training course, just after the training course, and 6 months after that. For comparison purposes there were two control groups. A Placebo Group attended the same number of sessions, except that they were on health and did not involve memory training. A second control group simply took the two tests at the three different testing intervals.

On the RBMT scores between 0 and 3 indicate severe memory impairment, between 4 and 6 moderate memory impairment, 7 and 9 weak memory impairment, and between 10 and 12 normal memory. For the memory training group the average scores were 7.66, 9.93, and 10.84, for the Pre, Post, and 6 month tests, respectively. This improvement is impressive and continued to increase 6 months after completion of the course. The comparable scores were 7.40, 7.66, 8.78 for the Placebo Group, and 8.06, 7.60, and 7.30 for the Control Group.

For the MFE higher scores indicate more forgetting and lower scores less forgetting. The Pre, Post, and 6 month scores for the training group were 74.80, 56.26, and 50.75, respectively. These decreases in incidents of forgetfulness are impressive. The comparable scores were 67.46, 66.66, and 56.92 for the Placebo Group, and 61.33, 57.33, and 62.46 for the Control Group.

This is impressive evidence for the effectiveness of this group memory training. Benefits lasted and grew well after the end of the formal training.

1Postigo, J.M.L., Viadel, J.V.H., &b Trives, J.J.R. (2010) Efficacy of Group memory Training Method for Older Adults Based on Visualization Techniques: A Randomized, Controlled Trial with a Control Group. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 956-968.

2Wilson, B.A., Cockburn, J., & Baddeley, A. (1985).The Rivermead Behavioral Memory Test. Titchfield: Thames Valley Test Company.

3Sunderlan, A., Harris, J., & Gleave, J. (1984). Memory Failures in Everyday Life Following Sever Head Injury. Journal of Clinical Neurology, 6, 127-142.

© 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.

Aging and Productivity

November 1, 2010

A recent article1 on aging and scientific productivity motivated this blog post. This article should have relevance beyond academia and science. It should be relevant to all knowledge workers. And as a healthy memory is a key component of productivity, it is thought to be relevant to the Healthymemory Blog.

It was long thought that scientific productivity followed an inverted U-shaped curve. That it took time for young researchers to acquire sufficient experience and knowledge for their productivity to to reach its peak, followed by a decline as the researcher aged. Many assumed that it was aging that contributed to the decline that was mostly cognitive. However the Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which was passed in 1986 and applied to colleges and universities in 1994 outlawed mandatory retirement. Consequently, academics could work as long as they wished. After the policy of mandatory retirement was removed 24% of faculty aged 70, 19% of faculty age 71, and 17% of faculty aged 72 retired. So many faculty opted not to retire.

It is interesting to consider why there was a mandatory retirement age in the first place. Underlying the notion of mandatory retirement was the assumption that older people were less productive and that they needed to exit from the workforce to make room for more productive younger people. Of course, if older people were indeed not less productivity, then this assumption was invalid.

To jump to the conclusion of the research article, it turns out that scientific researchers can be productive well beyond the mandatory retirement age and that the assumption was indeed invalid for academics. I would contend that it is not much of a leap to extend this conclusion to all knowledge. Indeed, it would appear to apply to all knowledgeworkers, except, perhaps, for those whose jobs have a significant physical component.

This post is not arguing against retirement. Indeed after many years of work, people have earned the right to retire. Two questions should be asked. Does the person want to retire? If the answer is “no”, and the individual is still productive, then that person should definitely not retire. If the answer is “yes”, the second question is what are you going to do in retirement. There are anecdotes of people dying shortly after they retire, or of their becoming nuisances to their spouses because they have nothing to do. Unless you have have some activity that keeps you engaged and mentally active you risk increasing the probability of cognitive decline.

1Stroebe, W. (2010). The Graying of Academia: Will It Reduce Productivity. American Psychologist, 65, 660-673.

© 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.