Archive for April, 2011

Search Tips from a Google Scientist

April 27, 2011

Transactive memory refers to information that is not resident in one’s own biological memory but resides externally. This external source could be human, a knowledgeable person whom you ask. Or the external source could be technological. Technology can range from a note on a postit pad, to someplace in cyberspace. Memory theorists make a distinction between information that is accessible and information that is available. Memories that are accessible are memories that can be recalled with little or no effort. Available memory is a superset of accessible memories (all accessible memories are available). Information can be available, but not accessible at the moment. Often we know that we know something, but just cannot recall it. Metamemory refers to our knowledge of our own memories. Sometimes long after we have expended great effort in trying to recall something, it will suddenly pop into our minds. Your brain can continue to search after you have abandoned your conscious attempts.

Similarly, transactive memory can be divided into three sets. The superset being potential transactive memory. Potential transactive memory includes all information stored in any form of technology and/or in any human being. Available transactive memory is information that you know exists and have probably accessed previously, but need to search for it know. Accessible transactive memory is information that you know how to access immediately without having to search for it.

So there are two circumstances when you have to resort to your search tool. One is the available case, in which the know the information exists, but have forgotten how to access it. And the other is the potential transactive memory case, in which you think the information might be available, but you are not sure. The APS Observer published a piece by a Google scientist offering search tips.1 The article pointed out that searching that there are similarities between searching on the internet and searching in your own mind. The author used the term “framing” the query. So a successful search involves finding the correct context and retrieval cue for the desired information.

Difficult search tasks are called “long tail” problems because they are tasks that require more than the usual number of searches to find. Most searches are accomplished quickly. But difficult searches can take a long, long time in to find the successful key term. These difficult search tasks are more commonly found in the technical literature. Popular searches tend to be easier. Once you have done a search on Google, you will receive a list of many potential responses. If you don’t find a good response on that first page of results, you can look at the left column for a variety of options. Clicking on “Search Tools” will provide a variety of options. Clicking on “related searches” will provide a list of searches made on this or similar topics. This can provide an aide for refining your search. It also might lead you to some serendipitous site with some interesting and useful information.

Google has an advanced search option that is quite easy to use. Many who have had bad experiences trying to search databases with arcane formulae might be scared off this option. It is quite easy to use. You can specify sites that contain all the words, you specify, some of the words you specify, and you can even include words that would exclude the site for consideration. There are also options on language, file type, and even reading level.

If you know the website where the information is located, you can put that in your search. For example if you were on google and looking for something on this blog you could simply enter method of loci and you would be find a variety of listings specific to this topic and this blog.

1Russell, D.M. (2011). Making the Most of Online Searches. Observer, 24, April, 3-4.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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.

To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus

April 24, 2011

A previous post, “If You Do Not Like Mnemonic Techniques, Try Walking”, was a little thin given the importance of the topic. So I’ve gone to the original article1. The hippocampus is a component of the brain that is critical to memory function. Unfortunately, the hippocampus shrinks 1-2% annually in older adults without dementia, and this loss of volume increases the risk of developing cognitive impairment. This experiment was undertaken to assess whether exercise and what kind of exercise might mitigate this decline.

Participants between the ages of 55 and 80 years old were recruited, who did not have any pertinent diseases or disabilities. 120 participants were randomly assigned: half to a stretching and resistance training control group, and half to an aerobic walking group. Sessions for each group were held three times a week and lasted roughly one hour. Participants in the aerobic group started walking for ten minutes the first week and increased walking durations by five minute increments until a duration of 40 minutes was reached by week seven. Each session began and ended with approximately 5 minutes of stretching. The control group engaged in four muscle-toning exercises using dumbbells or resistance bands, two exercises designed to improve balance, one yoga sequence and one exercise of their choice. The program lasted for one year. MRIs, fitness, and short term memory were assessed before the program began, 6 months into the program, and at the end of the one-year program. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the program.

Aerobic exercise (walking) increased hippocampal volume by 2%. This increase effectively reverses the expected age-related loss by 1 to 2 years. Moreover, increased hippocampal volume was positively correlated with improvements in short term memory performance. Increased hippocampal volume was also associated with greater levels of serum Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps support the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.

Hippocampal volume did decrease in the control group, but higher preintervention fitness partially attenuated the decline. The control group also exhibited improvement in short term memory performance.

Changes in fitness are associated with increased hippocampal volume. The aerobic exercise group showed a 7.78% improvement in maximal oxygen consumption (VO2) after intervention, whereas the stretching control group showed a 1/11% in VO2 max.

So although both exercise regimes were beneficial, the aerobic regime appeared to be more beneficial, especially with respect to its beneficial effects on hippocampal volume. Given the importance of the hippocampus to brain and memory, this finding is extremely important. Moreover, this aerobic exercise regimen was fairly mild and undemanding.

1Erickson, K.I., Voss, M.W., Prakash, R.S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., Kim, J.S., Heo, S., White, S.M., Wojcicki, T.R., Malley, E., Viera, V.J., Martin, S.A., Pence, B.D., Woods, J.A., McAuley, E., & Kramer, A.F. (2011). Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory. PNAS Early Edition,

Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?

April 20, 2011

An interesting article1 in AARP online describes the benefits of meditating. It cites a study done by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2005. It found that a group practicing meditation for about 40 minutes a day had measurably thicker tissue in the left prefrontal cortex. This is an area of the brain important to cognitive emotional processing and well-being.

At the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging the brains of experienced mediators were compared with a control group of nonmediators. The mediators’s brains contained more gray matter than those of the nonmediators. This gray tissue is responsible for high-level information processing especially in the areas associated with attention, body awareness and the modulation of emotional responses.

In a study published in 2010, neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received eight weeks of training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). They found growth in the hippocampus and shrinkage in the amygdala. As readers of the Healthymemory Blog probably know, the hippocampus is an important part of the brain that is critical to memory and learning. The amygdala is a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress.

An MRI study at Emory University showed that experienced meditators were much better than a nonmeditating control group at ignoring extraneous thoughts and focusing on the matter at hand when bombarded by stimuli. This capability to focus at will is especially important in today’s multitasking world when we are constantly bombarded by information, often noise, from a variety of sources. This capability grows more important as we age, because research has indicated that the elderly have more difficulty focusing their attention that those who are younger.

Meditation along with positive emotion might even result in a healthier immune system.

This quote from Dr. Richardson is worth remembering. “We know that the brain is the one organ in our body build to change in response to experience and training. It’s a learning machine.”

It should be understood that meditating does not require going to an ashram or sitting in the lotus permission. Here are some guidelines for meditating that were provided in the AARP article.

  1. Sit in any position that’s comfortable for you; a chair is fine. Or, and this is my personal favorite, you can lie down.

  2. Start with a 5-minute session and then gradually increase to longer times.

  3. Start by just feeling your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. You don’t need to adjust the breath to make it deeper or finer; simply notice it as it is and as it changes.

  4. Sometimes thoughts or emotions come up and sweep us away, or we fall asleep. Know that your mind will wander, just notice where it went and then gently bring it back to the breath—every time, over and over.

  5. Above all, have patience with yourself. The more you practice meditation, the easier it gets to stay focused. So don’t get discouraged by your wandering mind. Eventually, it will get easier to return to concentrating on your breathing.

I would add that whenever you feel stressed or upset, it is a good idea, if possible, to go someplace where you will no be noticed and try to meditate. Even five minutes can be helpful in such situations.

1Salzberg, S.…, February 25, 2011

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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.


If You Don’t Like Mnemonic Techniques, Try Walking

April 17, 2011

So you don’t like mnemonic techniques (Click the Mnemonic Techniques Category to see blog posts). Even though they improve memory. Even though they provide cognitive exercise involving creativity, recoding, imagining, and focusing attention. Even though they exercise both hemispheres of the brain. Then try walking.

Kirk Erickson did an experiment1 on the effects of aerobic exercise on 120 adults with an average age around 60. Different groups walked around a track, did yoga, or resistance training. They continued this exercise for a year. All groups performed better on spatial memory tests after exercising, but walking provided the greatest benefit. Brain scans were also done on the experimental participants. The brains of those in the walking group increased in volume by 2 percent on average. The other exercise groups decreased in volume by 1.4 percent on average. You should not infer that their exercise decreased their brain volume as a 1.4 percent is normal for sixty-year-olds. But the walking group increased by 2 percent over the normal 1.4 percent loss that was expected.

So the bottom line is that most any physical exercise is good for memory, walking seems to provide the best protection against aging-related brain shrinkage.

Of course, there is no need to wait until you are sixty to start walking. Clearly walking is beneficial to physical health, brain health, and a healthy memory. This also applies whether or not you use mnemonic techniques. Using mnemonic techniques likely add to healthy memory in addition to improving memory performance.

1In press in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Also summarized in Monitor on Psychology, April 2011, 42, p. 18 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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.

Moonwalking with Einstein: the Bottom Line

April 13, 2011

The preceding five blog posts have been based on Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1. This book relates an extraordinary example of participatory journalism in which the author trained himself in mnemonic techniques to the point where he was able to compete at the World Championship level. Historically humans have developed extraordinary memorization skills. With advances in technology, these skills have diminished as increasingly reliance is placed on external memory storage (transactive memory). The question is whether this heavy reliance upon external sources of memory is mistaken.

Foer explores this question in the Epilogue. One of the first decisions that confronted Foer was whether he wanted to continue to compete in national and world memory competitions. Given the extraordinary speed of his memory accomplishments, he did have the prospect of becoming a world champion. He had the option of a career change and become a professional mnemonist who would not only compete, but give exhibitions, provide training, write books and develop courses for memory improvement. He admits that his competitive instincts had been whetted and that this option was quite tempting. However, he decided against this, because of the time commitment required, and his desire to work primarily as a journalist.

So, was it all worth it? He tells of an incident when he met his friends for dinner that occurred after he had become an accomplished mnemonist. He returned home via metro and only then realized that he had driven to the restaurant! But he does understand why this happened (he failed to attend) and how it could have been avoided (to have paid attention). Even though he knows how to commit phone numbers to memory, he still finds it easier just to punch them into his cell phone. The following is a direct quote from the Epilogue. “The most important lesson I took away from my year on the competitive memory circuit was not the secret to learning poetry by heart, but rather something far more global and, in a way, far more likely to be of service in my life. My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.”

So, what is the importance of our own internal memories? To quote from the Epilogue again. “How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory.” And later, “Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture. All these essential human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.”

Moonwalking with Einstein is an outstanding read. I have not done it justice. I highly recommend it.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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.

Achieving the Max in Technical Transactive Memory

April 10, 2011

As you probably know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, transactive memory refers to external memory storage. There are two varieties of transactive memory: human, where the information is held by other humans, and technical, where the information is held in some type of technology, be it paper, book, journal, computer file, or on the internet. In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1, Joshau Foer relates the story of Gordon Bell, who regards himself as the vanguard of a movement that takes the externalization of memory to its logical extreme. Bell is a seventy-three year old computer scientist who now works at Microsoft. He has advanced his ideas in his book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything2. Bell has gone well beyond writing a book and has started to code and store all information that he can find and that bears upon his life. For the last decade, Bell has kept a digital “surrogate memory”, a lifelog, to supplement the one in his brain. He is keeping a record of anything and everything that might be forgotten. He uses a SenseCam, a digital camera, that dangles around his neck and records every sight and sound that passes before his eyes. He uses a digital recorder to record every sound he hears. Every phone call received by his landline is recorded and every piece of paper he reads is immediately scanned into his computer. A pack rat with boxes of stuff, he has digitized all of his photo, engineering notebooks, and papers. Today his lifelog takes up 170 gigabytes of memory and is growing at a rate of about a gigabyte a month. This includes over 100,000 emails, 65,000 photographs, 100,000 documents, and 2,000 phone calls.

Now as readers of the Healthymemory Blog know, storing information is half the battle. The other half is being able to retrieve, access, the information when it is wanted. This is the basic distinction between available and accessible memory. Just as information can be available, but not accessible in biological memory, information can be available, but inaccessible, from transactive memory. Bell has a search engine to accomplish this retrieval. However, to use this he needs to us his biological memory and senses to re-input it into his brain through his eyes and ears. His vision of the future is that there will be electronic chips implanted in the brain to accomplish this automatically.

A couple of issues need to be considered here. First of all is what is the utility of storing everything? Is this truly adaptive or is the efficiency of information retrieval being damaged by much extraneous and irrelevant bits of what might technically be regarded as information, but have little bearing upon knowledge.

An implicit assumption underlying Bell’s thesis is that information does not need to be attended to, it merely needs to be stored to be useful. I question this assumption. All that I know about memory is that information needs to undergo conscious processing for it to be useful. That is, it requires attention. Although it is true that out unconscious minds are constantly at work, and that information and solutions sometimes simply pop into consciousness, I would argue that at some time this information received conscious attention.

So the future that Bell sees, might not work as he thinks, and could even be counterproductive.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press.

2Bell, C.G., & Gemmel, J. (2009). New York: Dutton 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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.

The Talented Tenth

April 6, 2011

The Talented Tenth is the title of a chapter in Joshua Foer‘s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 . The Talented Tenth refers to a class in Raemon Matthews’ class in the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School. This school in located in the South Bronx in New York City. In this neighborhood nine out of ten students are below average in reading and math. Four out of five are living in poverty, and almost half don’t graduate from high school. Matthews named his class the Talented Tenth after W.E.B. DuBois‘ notion that an elite corps of African Americans would lift the race out of poverty. He teaches his students mnemonic techniques and how they can be used to learn the names, dates, and places in the content he presents. He does not only use mnemonic techniques. He does not even use the word “memory” in his class. Matthews says that education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher-level learning, you cannot analyze, without retrieving information. Mnemonic techniques are useful in enabling the students to quickly assimilate names, dates, and places so they can more readily think about the historical events, their context, how these events developed, and why they developed as they did. He also places demands on his students in his tests. Every in-class essay his students write must contain at least two memorized quotations.

He also uses mind maps. Mind maps are drawings where information written in boxes is linked to other information. Each of his students creates an intricately detailed Mind Map of the entire history book.

His methods are successful. Every single member of the talented tenth has passed the New York State Regents exam in the last four years, and 85% of his students have scored ninety or better. It is not surprising that his students do well on advanced placement tests. And they come across as quite impressive individuals. Matthews has a little over forty students in his class. He brings the best twelve students along with him when he attends the U.S. Memory Championships where they compete.

At this point a reasonable question is why are mnemonic techniques not commonly employed in classrooms. One reason might be that teachers don’t know them (and if they had known them, they probably would have done better in college). You might want to read, or reread the Healthymemory Blog Post “Pseudo-Limitations of Mnemonics.” There are pronounced biases against using mnemonics in instruction that are ill-founded. Mnemonics are not to be used for all materials, but rather to provide a means of making initially meaningless material meaningful. It expedites the efficient coding of material so that it can be used for more meaningful higher level cognitive processing.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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.

Remembering Poems

April 3, 2011

According to Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1 memorizing poetry is a standard task for memory competitions. I find this a tad ironic. One of the reasons for poetry, at least poetry that rhymes and has a specific meter, is to aid memory. Epic poems originated in preliterate societies before there was a written language. There are mechanical techniques used to memorize poems that are used by many competitors in memory competitions. But remember that mnemonic techniques are intended primarily for material that has little or no inherent meaning. The material might be meaningful, but the learner has not advanced far enough to decipher that meaning, so mnemonic techniques are called upon.

Some people in these memory competitions use the meaning and the emotion inherent in the poem to memorize the poem. To me, this is the appropriate technique for poetry. Using a mechanical technique circumvents the inherent meaning, emotion, and beauty of the poetry. I find using poetry in memory competitions somewhat obscene. Random digits, playing cards, names and faces are fine, but not poetry. It encourages the skirting of the essence of poetry.

Poetry should be read for enjoyment and savored. True, there are educational situations when one is forced to read and sometimes to memorize poetry. Make an effort to understand and feel poems on their own terms. This reminds me of one of my friend’s opinions regarding speed reading. He said that for technical material, speed reading did not work because the material would not be understood. And when he was reading for pleasure, he saw no sense in rushing through it. True, there are times when it is either necessary or convenient to skim material, but skimming should be done to find meaningful material that should be read more slowly.

I find an analogy between poetry and the way that most actors learn their lines. Some may use mnemonic techniques, but these are the exceptions. Most use what are termed “beats.” This is referring to the motivation and feelings of the character when the actor is delivering the lines. The actor is really into the script. And if an error occurs, it might even be an improvement to the script!

So if there is meaning or feeling in the material to be learned, use that meaning or feeling to aid memorization. Mnemonic techniques are appropriate when no meaning of feeling is apparent in the material.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press.