Archive for December, 2010

Season’s Greetings and a Happy New Year from the Healthymemory Blog

December 23, 2010


Enjoy the season, but consider making a New Year’s Resolution not to be a cognitive couch potato. Now “couch potato” has become a cliché for not going out and exercising. A cognitve couch potato is someone who does not exercise his cognitive abilities. Just as failures to exercise the body can lead to physical failures and premature and exacerbated effects of aging, the failure to exercise the mind can result in declines in cognitive performance and premature and exacerbated effects of aging. The Healthymemory Blog provides recent information on the brain and cognitive performance, and how to enhance cognitive performance and and avoid or reduce the effects of aging. Blog posts to this effect can be found under the category of “Human Memory: Theory and Data.” It also provides information of specific techniques used to improve memory performance, mnemonic techniques. Blog posts on the topic can be found under the category titled, appropriately enough, “Mnemonic Techniques.” The category “Transactive Memory” refers to the use of technology and your fellow human beings to grow cognitively. New technology, the internet for example and old technology, books and journals for example, provide the basis for cognitive growth. Moreover, interactions with your fellow human beings can aid not only cognitive growth, but also social growth. As you can see, there is a feast of offerings under each of these topics.

Sometimes I make the claim that you might be able to improve your memory over what it was when you where young. This is especially true it you have never used mnemonic techniques before. Mnemonic techniques might well improve your performance over when you where young. Similarly, you can learn new topics, perhaps even master another language and become someone who has managed to grown head and shoulders over what they once were. So do not become a cognitive couch potato. Either start or continue on the path of cognitive improvement over the coming year.

© 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.

Why I Write This Blog

December 15, 2010

Sometimes I ask myself this question, “Why DO I write this blog, Healthymemory.” Surely there are better ways I could spend my time. However, on December14th I came across an article1 in the Washington Post that provided justification for spending the time. Now the Washington Post is a newspaper I respect. I have been a subscriber ever since I moved to the D.C. Area twenty years ago.

But this article contained misinformation and, more egregiously, missed important information.

For example, it presented a test, which it called a measure of short-term memory. It consisted of a shopping list of twenty items each with a specified amount to purchase. First of all, this was not a test of short-term memory. Although there are technical disputes among experts, the most common example given of short-term memory is looking up a phone number and then needing to keep rehearsing it until the number is dialed. There are two features of short-term memory: it has a small capacity, and it needs to be actively rehearsed or the information will be lost. A shopping list of twenty items exceeds the capacity of short-term memory. And unless the plan is to keep rehearsing the information until all the items are purchased, more than short-term memory needs to be involved. The shopping list needs to be transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory. The article notes that it is good to know that if people practiced, they could improve their memory. Although this is good to know, it is even better to know that there are memory techniques that can greatly facilitate the recall of lists like this one. These techniques can be found under the mnemonic techniques category on the healthymemory blog ( Some specific blog posts bearing on this task are “The Method of Loci,” “The One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic,” “Remembering Numbers,” and “More on Remembering Numbers.”

There is also a test on associating names with faces. Again, the article states that it is good to know that practice tends to improve performance. But it is even better to know that there are specific techniques to enhance performance on this task. A specific blog post bearing on this task is “Remembering Names.”

For each of these tests norms are presented for different age groups. The justification for this is that we live in a competitive culture, and that we like to keep score. But what if a person falls below what is expected for a given age group? Does that person start to worry that she is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia?

What is completely missing from this article is the new research that has documented the remarkable plasticity of the brain, and techniques that might not only forestall the effects of aging, but might also produce memory performance that exceeds that of her performance earlier in life. This is the news that should be reported.

1Are You Acting Your Age?, Washington Post, Health & Science Section, E1, 14 December 2010.

© 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.

Aging, Age-Related Cues, and a Healthy Memory

December 12, 2010

A recently published article1 provides evidence regarding the effect of our minds on our health as we age. The article presented the effects of a variety of age-related cues. The presence of these cues may prime diminished capacity; the absence of these cues may prime improved health. Here are their findings:

Women who think they look younger after having their hair colored/cut show a decrease in blood pressure and appear younger to independent raters who view their photographs in which their hair has been cropped out.

Clothing is an age-related cue and uniforms eliminate this age-related cue. Those who wear work uniforms have lower morbidity than than do those who earn the same amount of money and do not wear work uniforms.

Baldness cues old-age. Men who bald early see an older self and accordingly age faster. Prematurely bald men have an excess risk of getting prostate cancer and coronary heart disease than do men who do not prematurely bald.

Women who bear children later in life are surrounded by younger age-related cues. Older mothers have a longer life expectancy than do women who bear children earlier in life.

Large differences in ages between spouses result in age-incongruent cues. Younger spouses live shorter lives and older spouses live longer lives than do those in a comparison control group.

What has this to do with a healthy memory? The message here is that what we perceive in our minds affects our bodies. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that a positive young looking attitude will have a similar effect our our memories. So maintain a positive attitude. DO NOT ADMIT TO SENIOR MOMENTS. The memory you remember having is not as good as you thought it was. Memory failures occur at all ages. So do not assume and casually attribute memory failures to aging. Maintain a positive, youthful attitude as you age, and engage in proactive activities such as those advocated in this Healthymemory Blog.

1Hsu, L.M., Chung, J, & Langer, E.J. (2010). The Influence of Age=Related Cues on Health and Longevity. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 632-648.

An Interesting and Helpful Book

December 8, 2010

I apologize for this long overdue book review of Brain: the Complete Mind, How It Develops, How it Works, and How to Keep It Sharp by Michael S. Sweeney. It is published by National Geographic. The following is from the foreword by Richard Restak: “…here is the most inspiring of insights about the brain: We can enhance our brain’s performance by our own efforts. Thus learning about the brain provides a wonderful mix of instruction, amazement, and self-improvement. As you gain knowledge, you’re in a better position to improve its functioning and thereby increase the quality of your life.” So I think that this book should be of interest to anyone following the Healthymemory Blog.

To give you an idea of the breadth of topics, here is a rundown of the chapter titles:

The Amazing Brain

The Nervous System

Brain Development

The Senses


States of Mind

The Feeling Brain

Learning and Memory

The Aging Brain

Future of the Brain

Each chapter is divided into subsections. Each chapter has a glossary that defines key concepts within each chapter. There are diagrams showing the inner workings of the brain, its processes, and functions. There are fast facts that present bits of information that are not only informative but which you can pass on when you’re speaking. There are tables, fact boxes, and cross references. There are sidebars explaining what can go wrong. Flow charts illustrate processes and functions. There are Breakthrough Sidebars that describe the amazing discoveries that deepen our understanding of the brain. This is another source for interesting conversation. There are history sidebars that tell the stories behind historical neuroscience beliefs and practices and the men and women who shaped them. And there are Staying Sharp Sidebars that document smart practices and strategic tactics for keeping the brain healthy. These should be of special interest to readers of the Healthymemory Blog.

Take a Nap: Sleep is Important for a Healthy Memory

December 5, 2010

A recent article1 in the SharpBrains blog relates a study by Matthew Walker presented at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convention. Young adults were separated into two groups: one that napped and one that didn’t. At noon, both groups performed a learning task. At 2 PM the napping group took a 90 minute nap while the other group remained awake. Then both groups performed more learning tasks. The group that had napped performed better than the group that remained awake.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be familiar with the role of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical for learning. These researchers interpreted their findings as supporting the notion that a function of sleep is to clear away all the clutter stored in the hippocampus to make room for new information. Walker said “Sleep is critical to learning. It’s like the brain is a sponge. Sleep wrings certain key regions out so you’re able to soak up new information the next day. It’s as though the e-mail box in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail. It’s just going to bounce until you sleep and move it to another folder.

We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. So sleep must serve some important functions. There is much theory and conjecture regarding why we sleep, but experiments such as this one provide empirical evidence. It is well established that sleep is good for you. Getting the appropriate amount of sleep is tied to a better immune system, metabolic control, memory, learning, and emotional functioning.

It is said that pulling an all-nighter the night before an exam can decrease the ability to remember information by about 40 percent. Personally, I worked my way through the entire educational system receiving a Ph.D and I never pulled an all-nighter.

As we get older, we tend to sleep less. Learning proficiency also declines. Walker is interested in investigating whether there is a cause and effect relationship here. It is also interesting to speculate regarding the direction of any cause and effect. If we continue to learn and remain mentally active as we age, will our sleep increase proportionately. Perhaps this observed relationship is due to disengaging from life and new experiences when we age, which results in reduced sleep and perhaps even neurogenerative decline. Remaining mentally active, as advocated by the Healthy Memory Blog, might reduce or eliminate this decline.


© 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 Review of Brain Exercises and Training Induced Learning

December 1, 2010

This post in based on a review article in Psychology and Aging.1 This article notes that there are volumes of evidence that even as we age, training in specific tasks generally results in improved performance on those tasks. The problem is that most of this research indicates that improvements are specific to the task and do not generalize to measurable benefits in daily life. This does not mean that this training is worthless. It can still provide beneficial exercise to the brain. Consider doing push-ups for physical exercise. Undoubtedly, doing push ups regularly is beneficial to your health. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find that doing them provided measurable benefits in daily life outside your exercise regime.

So providing measurable benefits in daily life, say an overall increase in the rate of learning, is a difficult goal to achieve. Yet certain programs have provided evidence to this effect, and the authors of this article sought to capture the features of these programs that lead to generalizable results. They identified the following characteristics: Task difficulty, motivation and arousal, feedback, and variability.

With respect to the characteristic of task difficulty it is important to begin with an easy level of difficulty and then gradually advance through levels of increasing task difficulty. Obviously, if the task is too difficult to begin with, people become discouraged and learning suffers. However, if people are able to accomplish the task fairly easily, then can gradually increase their skill while advancing to increasing levels of difficulty.

Perhaps it is obvious, but if people are motivated to learn, they are more likely to succeed. Arousal goes hand in hand with motivation. Aroused learners, within limits, learn faster. So tasks that are enjoyable and rewarding increase arousal levels, and so forth, and so forth.

Feedback is important so that people know that they are performing the task correctly. This also relates back to motivation, arousal, and task difficulty. When task difficulty can be accommodated, the feedback is positive, which is arousing and increases motivation. Now task difficulty can be too easy, in which case the feedback is trivial, not rewarding and does not lead to arousal and increased motivation. So task difficulty is what is termed a “Goldilocks” characteristic—not too easy and not too difficult, but just right.

Variability is the final key characteristic. The training program should exercise a wide variety of skills. It is this variability that increases the likelihood that the benefits will transfer to everyday life and learning.

Unfortunately, too many Baby Boomers and looking for the magic exercise, the magic program, or the magic vitamin or dietary supplementary to ward off the effects of aging. There is no magic exercise or pill. What is required is a range of activities and exercises to ward off the effects of aging. The Healthymemory Blog recommends such activities. Its blog posts provide a variety of mnemonic techniques (click on the category mnemonic techniques) that increase the efficiency of memory and provide mental exercises that make requirements on creativity, recoding, and both hemispheres of the brain. The Healthymemory Blog provides information on human cognition, that provide both exercise and insight into cognitive processes. Transactive memory provides for cognitive growth via the technology, the internet, books, as well as for interactions with your fellow human beings.

1Green, C.S., & Bavilier, D. (2010). Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning. Psychology and Aging, 23, 692-701. 

© 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.