Archive for May, 2011

Can Optimism Be Bad?

May 22, 2011

Optimism and positive thinking are heavily advocated as means to not only happiness, but also to better physical and mental health. A recent article1 calls these beliefs into question. According to the authors, “…positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.”

It should be appreciated that it is difficult to conduct research that does provide hard evidence that a positive attitude is beneficial. Most of the research is correlational and that can make it difficult to distinguish cause from effect. Obviously if you question a group that is healthier, happier, or more successful and rate their optimism or positivity scores against a group lacking in any of these attributes, it should not be surprising that the former group has higher ratings than the latter. It is also difficult to conduct controlled experiments on this topic. Suppose one group is given training on optimism and positive thinking and another group is not given this training and serves as a control. If the group given the training does score significantly than the control group, it could be the due to their being given special treatment, rather than the treatment it, oneself. This artifactual result is known as the Hawthorne Effect.

I think it is useful to make a distinction between the optimism/pessimism dimension, and the positive/negative thinking dimension. I think that the optimism/pessimism dimension is best regarded as a personality trait. That is, whether people see the glass as half empty or half full is basically determined by a personality trait. I tell people that I am a congenital pessimist. I definitely have a tendency to see the downside. There are benefits to being a pessimist, however. For example, pessimists have been found to be less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death. Although I need not extol the benefits of being an optimist, one obvious benefit is that optimists are more likely to persevere. It seems like most successful people have typically undergone failures, sometimes many failures, be before achieving success. Pessimists, however, having given up early, rarely achieve success.

Regardless of one’s innate disposition with respect to the optimism/pessimism dimension, I think it is important that everyone engages in both positive and negative thinking. Pessimists need to engage in positive thinking so that they will not overlook possible opportunities and will not give up prematurely in the pursuit of opportunities. If they like being miserable, fine, but positive thinking can make one happier and be more pleasant. The important point for pessimists is that they also activate the positive circuits in their brains (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Optimists need to engage in negative thinking to keep them from pursuing foolish or unrealistic events. I remember reading about a married couple who were so energized after seeing the movie Rocky (the original, not one of the numerous sequels) that they put their entire wealth on a lottery tickets. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I think you get the idea, to be sure to activate the negative circuits of your brain (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Unfortunately, positivism is oversold. I become angry when I hear someone tell a child that they can be anything they want provided they put their mind to it. While it is true that most people can probably achieve more than they think they can, a substantial contributor to success is opportunity, If opportunities are not available at the appropriate times, success is likely to be stunted. For example, the famed football coach, Vince Lombardi spent many years as an assistant coach before finally being offered the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. If memory serves me correctly, I believe I saw a movie2 in which Lombardi was ready to quit coaching before being offered the Packers’ job. As a result of this opportunity, he went on to become one of the most famous coaches of all time and had the Super Bowl Trophy named after him. This is a conjecture on my part, but believe that there were many potential Lombardi’s in the NFL assistant coaching ranks who never got the chance. Similarly, I think that there were potential Hall of Famers at the quarterback position, who either never were drafted, or who never got a chance at a starting position. There is nothing special about professional football. I think you can find examples in any endeavor you choose. Although you can and should prepare yourself for opportunity, you might need to realize that the opportunity might not come. And if it does not come, you should not view yourself as a failure, but rather as someone who did fulfill their existing potential.

1Lilienfeld, S.O., & Arkowitz, H. (2011). Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? Scientific American Mind, May/June, 64-65.

2I understand another movie is scheduled to come out in February 2012 with Robert DeNiro playing the role of Lombardi.

© 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.

Two Brains, One MRI Scanner

May 18, 2011

The New Scientist reported that Ray Lee of Princeton has developed the first dual-headed fMRI scanner.1 Up until now these machines had been unable to handle more than one brain at a time. And for reasons that I don’t understand (because I don’t understand the technology), they cannot synchronize two or more scanners to scan different individuals at the same time. Although they can scan people in different machines and link them by video. But Lee has designed his scanner that scans two brains at the same time in the same scanner.

In one of the first tests, Lee asked couples to face each other and to blink in unison. The fusiform gyrus, which is involved in facial recognition, was tightly correlated in the two brains. He also had couples embrace, which revealed similar synchronous brain activity.

James Coan of the University of Virginia has some interesting ideas on how to use this device. He notes that “People distribute neural processing across multiple brains when solving problems. …You essential contract out part of a given problem to someone else’s mind. Lee’s work would give us the opportunity to see two brains reacting to a problem simultaneously.” Using the terminology of the Healthymemory Blog, this activity involves transactive memory, memories that are stored in someone else’s brain.

Many of our activities involve, either implicitly or explicitly, transactive memory. When you are trying to communicate with somebody or some group, successful communication requires that the material be pitched at the appropriate level. This entails knowing something about what the other party(ies) knows. When you are trying to persuade somebody, it is extremely helpful to know what that person knows and believes. And it games, you are constantly trying to decipher what the other person is thinking. Transactive memory is a big player in many activities.

1Ferris jabr (2011). At last, an MRI scanner for the man with two brains. New Scientist, 29 January, 12. 

© 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.

Passing 65

May 15, 2011

Just recently I passed my 65 birthday. Being at the forefront of the Baby Boomers, many more will soon be passing this milestone. For those who are younger, let me warn you how quickly this age descends upon you.

But what exactly is the significance of reaching 65? At one time it indicated that you were eligible for full Social Security Benefits, but not for us Baby Boomers. For us that age has been increased to 66. It also was the traditional age for retirement. Some people were forced to retire when they reached this age. So this meant leaving the productive workforce and beginning the pursuit of leisure activities.

But the significance of reaching 65 has changed and it involves more than the year increase in the required age to receive full Social Security Benefits. There are a variety of reasons for this change. One is demographic. People are living longer. This, in turn, has financial consequences. As people live longer a greater burden is placed on Social Security. A greater burden is also placed on the individual as Social Security Benefits were intended as a safety net and not as a guarantee for a comfortable retirement. So the retiree is confronted with the dilemma of how quickly to spend down whatever has been saved for retirement. There is the risk of outliving one’s money. There is also the risk of outliving the ability to enjoy one’s retirement nest egg. Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia have the prospect not only of outliving one’s ability to enjoy retirement, but also of outliving one’s ability to understand what is going on or even one’s personal identity. That is, the risk of outliving one’s memory.

My Mom is living in an assisted living facility. I visit her a couple of times each week. For the past several years I’ve watched her cognitive decline. Once we were able to enjoy watching television programs together. We were able to watch both sporting events and stories. I saw her ability to understand both the sporting events and stories slip away. When I gave her a Mother’s Day card, she thought she needed to sign it and send it on to her Mom. Now my Mom will be 99 in a couple of months, yet she thought that her mother was still alive. She confuses me with my brother who passed away some time ago. And I know that it is only a matter of time before she will no longer either recognize me or confuse me with my brother.

My primary objective is to die with my cognitive facilities intact. The psychologist Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.1 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span. .  Stine-Morrow argues that cognitive effort can directly impact cognitive change in the form of attentional engagement and indirectly as it alters neuronal changes that give rise to component capabilities.  Her ideas coincide nicely with those of Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscienses at the University of California at San Diego.  In turn, Dr. Merzenich’s ideas fit nicely with Kahneman’s Two System Theory (see blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System One processes are effortful and require attention.  System Two processes, which are the product of learning and experience, are relatively effortless.   The older an individual is, the more developed are those System Two processes that facilitate cognition.  Consequently, there is a great temptation to rely upon these System Two processes and become a creature of habit.  Merzenich and the Stine-Morrow Hypothesis warn against relying too heavily on System Two Processes.  Effortful engagement of System One processes can be beneficial in warding off cognitive decline.  System One processes are engaged whenever we try or learn new things.  Thus engaging in new activities and in new areas of knowledge can be quite beneficial. 

Consequently, I am continuing to work and I plan on continuing to work as long as possible. My primary reason for working is that it forces me to use my System One processes and to learn and understand new concepts. Although I make use of my System Two processes that have developed over the years, I continue to learn new topics, new activities, and to meet new people. Yes, social engagement is critical to maintaining and growing a healthy memory. I also try to grow cognitively outside of work. This Healthymemory Blog is just one of those activities. I also engage in physical exercise and mental exercise. I try to maintain a positive attitude. I also try to watch my diet, although this item is engaged with less enthusiasm.  

1Stine-Morrow, A.L.  (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16,  295-299.

© 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.


Is Googling Sufficient?

May 11, 2011

Googling has become synonymous with internet searching, but is googling sufficient? What about other search engines? I did a search using the keywords “healthy memory” on,,, and The first item returned was the same for all the search engines. After that, discrepancies appeared, although there was notable commonality among the four lists. I found it disturbing that all four searches also returned urls for foam mattresses. I also was disturbed, but not surprised, to see that the healthymemory blog was not among the items returned on the first page. This similarity in search results is not surprising as the search algorithms are quite similar and apparently companies can buy their way to a higher listing. I find it particularly annoying when you search for a tax form for a particular state and still see commercial firms at the top of the listings. It would be nice to have a search engine that did not allow firms to buy their way to the top of the listings. If anyone know of such a search engine, please comment.

I have maintained a standing query on Google to send me notices of entries on healthy memory. The returns I receive are slim. I find this depressing because I think this would be a topic of general interest, particularly among baby boomers who are facing the prospect of losing their memories. For a while I did receive notices occasionally about postings I had made to the healthymemory blog. Google changed some of its search criteria and I have not seen a single return regarding the healthymemory blog since. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a hot topic. Its objective is to recommend keywords that increase the probability of your blog or website being picked up by a search engine. I would like to increase the readership of this blog. But I don’t want to compromise it by trying to work “Lindsay Lohan” into my postings, nor do I have the resources to pay for high placements. On the other hand, I have little difficulty finding most of my published professional papers on the search engine.

So how does one find websites and blogs like healthymemory? Using Google’s blog search,, has some chance of catching one of healthymemory’s postings. Using the regular the following query will yield healthymemory postings

The bottom line is that search engines are driven by a sites popularity and by commercial payments. Quality, by itself, does not come in to the search. So users need to use their wits, multiple search engines, and clever search strategies.  

© 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.

Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease

May 8, 2011

A preceding post (“Our Neurons Make Up Only 15 Percent of Out Brain Cells”) highlighted the importance of glial cells to brain function. It was based on an article1 in Scientific American Mind, on which this current blog post is also based. The discoverer of Alzheimer’s Disease, Alos Alzheimer noted that microglia surround the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of the disease. Recent research suggests that microglia become weaker with age and begin to degenerate. This atrophy can be seen under a microscope. In aged brain tissue, senescent microglia become fragmented and lose many of their cellular branches.

One more sign of microglial involvement can be found in the way Alzheimer’s courses through the brain. Damage spreads in a predetermined manner. It begins near the hippocampus and eventually reaches the frontal context. Microglial deneneration follows the same pattern but precedes the advance of neuronal degeneration, Alzheimer and most experts had presumed that microglial degeneration was a response to neuron degeneration. This new research suggests that the senescence is a cause of Alzheimer’s dementia. The hope is that once researchers learn why microglia become senescent with in some people but not in others, new treatments for Alzheimer’s could be developed.

It is also interesting to note the path of progression of the disease. It begins near the hippocampus, a cortical structure critical to memory. Memory loss can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s. The disease then progresses through the cortex to the frontal cortex. So more memory loss occurs as more cortex is destroyed. The frontal cortex is where most planning occurs. It plays an important role in focal attention. The executive functions of the frontal lobes include the ability to recognize future consequences from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions, to override and suppress unacceptable social actions, and determine similarities and differences between things and events. In short, it is key to higher mental functions.

1Fields, D.R. (2011). The Hidden Brain. Scientific American Mind. May/June, 53-59.

Our Neurons Make Up Only 15 Percent of Our Brain Cells

May 4, 2011

So what makes up the rest of our brain cells—glial cells. When I was a graduate student no one had a good idea what glial cells did. Glia comes from the Greek word for glue, so the best bet was the glial cells helped hold the brain together. An article1 in Scientific American Mind brought me up to date and demonstrated how woefully ignorant we were at that time. There are different types of glial cells. Astrocytes ferry nutrients and waste and mediate neuronal communication. Oligodendrocytes coat axons with insulating mylein, boosting signal speeds. Microglia fight infection and promote repair.

Previously, the neuron doctrine governed our understanding of the brain. According to the neuron doctrine all information in the nervous system is transmitted by electrical impulses over networks of neurons linked through synaptic connections. Recent research has demonstrated that some bypasses neurons completely, and flows without electricity through networks of glial cells. It has shown the role of glial cells in information processing and learning, as well as in neurological disorders and psychiatric illness.

In contrast to neurons, which communicate serially across chains of synapses, glia broadcast their signals widely throughout the brain, similar to cell phones, In contrast to the rapid communication throughout neural networks, the chemical communication of glia is very slow and spreads like a tidal wave through neural tissue at a pace of seconds or tens of seconds.

New brain imaging techniques have shown that after having engaged in such activities as learning to play a musical instrument, to read, or to juggle, structural changes occur in brain areas that control these cognitive functions. What is remarkable is that changes are seen in regions whee there are no complete neurons. These are “white matter” areas that are formed from bundles of axons coated with myelin, a white electrical insulator. All theories of learning had held that it is solely by strengthening synaptic connections is how learning occurs. As there are few synapses in while matter, clearly something else is happening that involves glial cells.

With respect to neurological and psychological illnesses, glial cells have been found to play a role. Alzheimer’s Disease is one of these illnesses, but the discussion of Alzheimer’s and glial cells will be postponed to a subsequent post. Glial cells account for the mystery of why spinal cord injury results in permanent paralysis. Proteins in the myelin insulation that oligodendrocytes wrap around axons stop injured axons from sprouting and repairing damaged circuits. Chronic pain is the result of microglia do not stop releasing the substances that promote the healing processes after healing is complete. Consequently, sensitivity to pain continues after healing is complete.

It is not surprising that glia play a central role in neurological disease as astrocytes and microglia are first responders to disease. Compulsive behavior, schizophrenia, and depression might all have there roots in the glial cells. Epilepsy is also regarded as a prime-candidate for glial-based therapeutics.

1Fields, D.R. (2011). The Hidden Brain. Scientific American Mind. May/June, 53-59.

© 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.

How to Avoid Temptation

May 1, 2011

An article1 in Scientific American Mind presents a theory regarding how temptation works. It states that there are two different information processing systems in the brain: impulses that lead to immediate gratification and reason, that is aimed at our well-being and long-term objectives. This is very similar to the two system view of cognition (see the blog post, “Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 is named Intuition. It is very fast , employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. For the most part System 1 works outside conscious awareness. System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is close to what we commonly regard as conscious thinking. One can think of this two two process views as being identical but working in different domains.

Unfortunately, impulses that lead to immediate gratification are System 1 processes that operate very quickly and can operate outside your conscious awareness. So you might buy a candy bar without thinking about it. No effort is involved in immediately yielding to temptation. Resisting temptation, however, is a System 2 process, so it is effortful and depletes cognitive resources. This might seem like an unfair match, and that is why avoiding temptation can be so difficult. You need to understand how temptation works and that it takes cognitive resources to avoid temptation. When you are under stress, say studying for an exam, your cognitive resources are depleted and you can more readily yield to temptation.

Since it does require mental effort to avoid temptation, and since mental resources are depleted when you try to avoid temptation, you need to marshal your mental resources carefully. It is a bad idea to try to give up more than one bad habit at a time, as it takes mental resources to give up this habit . Try to avoid stressful situations and undertake activities that restore mental resources, such as taking a walk in nature or meditation (see the blog posts “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources,” “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention,” and “The Relaxation Response”).

Another article2 in the same issue of Scientific American Mind provides a curious technique to help you when you are dieting, or when you simply don’t want to gain wait. The technique is to imagine the act of eating what you want to eat. This might seem counter intuitive, but for it to be successful you must vividly imagine eating what you want to eat. The reason this does work is that imagining an experience evokes the same physiological responses as the real experience. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University had study participants think about eating a specific food, either M&Ms or cubes of cheese, one morsel at a time. A control group imagined putting thirty quarters into a laundry machine. Those who imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate half as many candies as those who pictured putting thirty quarters into a laundry machine. The thought was specific to the type of food that was imagined, with those thinking about eating cheese consuming about half the amount of cheese as those who thought about eating M&Ms.

1Hofmann, W. & Friese, M. (2011) Control Yourself. Scientific American Mind, May/June, 43-47.

2Solis, M. A Thinking Persons Diet, p.11 

© 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.