Archive for June, 2011


June 29, 2011

A recent article1 extolled the benefits of bilingualism. It stated that recent research found that it can enhance multitasking (by helping you focus) and stave off Alzheimer’s. Although the research was based on lifelong bilinguals, it stated that scientists say that late-life learning can exercise your mind and help you maintain cognitive function. The Healthymemory Blog agrees.

In addition to the benefits of mental exercise and the learning of new information, there is the benefit of meeting new people and broadening social networks, activities in and of themselves that promote healthy memories. The article relates the story of a 59 year old man who decided to learn Arabaic. Two years later he now Skypes with a new friend who lives in Egypt.

The article notes that 48 percent of Rosetta Stone’s customers are 50 plus. So Baby Boomers are availing themselves of technology to learn new languages. Learning a new language in and of itself is a demanding activity with promises of cognitive enhancement. But there are associated activities that also can be beneficial. Learning about new cultures is one. The benefits of meeting new people has already been mentioned. But there is also the prospect of travel in which you would be able to communicate with the people you are visiting in their own language.

The Healthymemory Blog provides many suggestions for mental growth and enhancement. Mnemonics techniques include one broad category. There is also cybertechnology that offers the possibility not only of cognitive growth through the learning of new material, but also through meeting new people and the resultant social interactions. In the aggregate the recommendations and suggesitons of the Healthymemory Blog are overwhelming. They are way more than a single individual could pursue. These offering are made in the spirit of a menu offered at a restaurant. There is way more there than could be enjoyed even after many visits to the restaurant. So it is a matter of picking and choosing a sample you find enjoyable. It is in this spirit that the offerings of the Healthymemory Blog are made.

Please continue reading even after you have filled your plate. The posts are short and can be quickly enjoyed. New material is constantly being offered, so it is good to review, learn something new, and perhaps change the selections on your plate. So consider subscribing so you never miss a post.

1Wooldrige, L.Q. (2011). Say Hello to a Second Language., AARP The Magazine, July/August, 14.

© 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.

An Amazing Example of the Neuroplasticity of Memory

June 26, 2011

The Washington Post published an article1 about a woman, Su Meck, who lost her memory when she was 22. A ceiling fan fell on her head, erasing her memory. After a week in a coma she awoke with the mental capacity of a young child. She did not recognize her husband or her two baby sons. She could no longer read or write, walk, eat, dress, drive, and she could barely speak. An MRI scan revealed that her brain was suffused with cracks. It was said that it looked like shaken Jell-O. She had complete retrograde amnesia, the inability to remember the past. Initially she could not learn new information, so her hippocampi apparently had also been damaged. She had lost her personality.

Fortunately she had a very supportive family. They patiently worked with her. Her mother assembled a photo album filled with images of the childhood she had completely forgotten. She actively tried to regain her lost capacities. She relearned her muliplication tables from her children. She volunteered in her children’s school library so she could hide in the stacks and read. During the first few years talking on the telephone was disorienting, so she communicated with her family using letters. She had the spelling and penmanship of a small child.

When she left the hospital she completed a checklist of tasks that she wanted to accomplish such as riding a bicycle, preparing a meal and reading a children’s book. The first book she read was Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop.” Her functionality gradually returned. When she drove home, she had difficulty remembering where home was so she would click her garage door opener looking for a hint as to which address was hers.

Nineteen years after the accident Su started Montgomery Junior College. Her children gave her tips on what to bring to class, how to take notes, how to ask questions, and how to write papers. Learning was difficult and slow. But she persevered and struggled along until she learned. And she learned well. She earned her associates degree with a 3.9 average and became chapter president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Su and her husband are planning to move to Massachusetts where she will enroll in Smith college as a transfer student and start working on her bachelor’s degree.

This is the most remarkable example of neuroplasticity of which I am aware. How could she possibly do this? I think there are two essential elements. She had a very supportive family who perservered under adverse circumstances and stuck with her all the way. Su also deserves most of the credit herself. She believed in herself under the most adverse circumstances and persevered to where she was able to return to her own self and continue her life. Lesser individuals likely would remain in a vegetative state or only achieve modest degrees of recovery.

1de Vise, D. (2011) Gaithersburg Woman Earns a College Degree Two Decades After Complete Memory Loss. Washington Post, 21 May.

© 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.

Are Our Memories Becoming Too Dependent on Technology?

June 22, 2011

My recent attendance at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) brought this question to the forefront of my mind. Traveling to the meeting on the metro, many, many people were engrossed with their mobile devices. Although people were meeting, greeting, and conversing at the convention, many were interacting with their mobile devices. Even during presentations at the convention, attendees were still working with their mobile devices. Now in the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, these mobile devices are examples of technical transactive memory. Concerns with technical transactive memory are not new. Socrates was concerned that the introduction of the Greek alphabet would lead to the decline of civilization. As technology has advanced through the printing press up to today’s cyber technology, people have continued to raise these concerns. Although all these advancements in technology have lead to advances in civilization, I still think it prudent to ask if our memories have become too dependent on technology.

The major risk is that the capabilities of our personal biological memories will decline. This loss would be analogous to the loss in physical fitness and increase in obesity that has resulted from technological advances that have reduced our physical activity. We, or at least some of us, engage in physical activity in an attempt to reduce these losses in our physical fitness. Do we need to engage in similar activities to exercise our biological memories? (See the Healthymemory Blog posts, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” “How the Memory Champs Do It,” “Remembering Poems,” “The Talented Tenth,” and “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Bottom Line”).

There is the view that eventually transactive memory will supplant our biological memories (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “Achieving the Max in Technical Transactive Memory.” Ray Kurzweil maintains that in the future there will occur a singularity in which biology and silicon will become one. This is highly speculative and it might never occur, so don’t give up on your personal biological memory. Carefully consider what it means to you and what you might want to do to maintain and enhance it.

© 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 Joy of Theorizing

June 19, 2011

“The Joy of Theorizing’ was the title of Daniel Wegner‘s William James Fellow Award Address, which he presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). Wegner’s forte is developing theories and, as the title implies, he enjoys it. He has developed four theories of note. Action Identification is a theory of what people think they are doing. Ironic Process Theory is a theory about how our minds turn against us to produce unwanted thoughts. Apparent Mental Causation is a theory of how our minds create the feeling of conscious thought. Clearly Wegner’s thinking on this topic is at odds with Michael Gazzaniga‘s (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “We Are the Law: The Human Mind, Free Will, and the Limits of Determinism”). In my view his most valuable is his theory of transactive memory.

It should not be a surprise that transactive memory is my favorite theory as it is one of the healthymemory blog categories. Wegner proposed two types of transactive memory. One type refers to external technical storage (note pads, books, journals, computer files, the internet, etc.) The other type refers to our fellow humans. Now both types of transactive memory are important, and the healthymemory blog discusses both types. But it is only the second type of transactive memory, fellow humans, that he has developed. Moreover, this is the only type of transactive that has received attention from other researchers.

I have taken it upon myself to develop the former concept of transactive memory as I think it is an important concept, particularly in our technological age. Historically, technical transactive memory has undergone several stages. One of the first steps was the development of the alphabet. Few people realize that Socrates  fought against the development and adoption of the Greek alphabet. For Socrates, it was only human transactive memory that mattered, and the reliance upon this external crutch would depreciate human transactive memory. Socrates was wrong about this, as external storage allowed the advancement of the human intellect to new levels. The printing press was another technical development that caused a major leap in transactive memory and the enhancement of the collective human intellect. Today we have the internet which comprises yet another major leap in transactive memory.

I think it worthwhile to distinguish different types of transactive memory. Accessible transactive memory refers to information that we cannot recall, but know how to find quickly. This information can be resident in other humans, in a library, or in cyberspace, but we can access it quickly. Available transactive memory refers to information that we know exists, but cannot find it quickly. So we need to find someone who know the information, or search for it via technical means or on the internet.

Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide is this worth knowing. If it is, then we need to decide whether to commit it to memory or to some form of external storage. Bookmarking, or Favorites, provide a means of making this information accessible if we do not need to remember it. If we don’t take these actions, then we are confronted with the possibility of knowing the information exists, but being unable to find it so we have to search for it.

Potential transactive memory refers to all the information and knowledge resident in other humans or available in some technical storage medium. I term it potential as this information offers the potential for cognitive and social  growth.

I have been disappointed that Wegner never developed his concept of technical transactive memory. I have also wondered why he did not develop what I regard as a valuable concept. Now I think I understand. Wegner’s strength lies in his breadth of theorizing, not in its depth. He prefers moving on to new areas rather than mining further the brilliant concepts he has developed.

© 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.

Improving Cognition

June 16, 2011

Improving Cognition was the title of the presentation John Jonides made as his William James Fellow Award address at this year’s meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). The specific cognition Jonides sought to improve was fluid intelligence (see the blog post “Fluid Intelligence and Working Memory”). Typically intelligence is broken down into two generic types: crystalized intelligence and fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence is comprised of everything we know. This component of intelligence, absent pathology, typically remains intact as we age. As we age, it might take longer to remember certain information, but we typically can recall it given enough time and cues. Fluid intelligence is the component that deals with processing new information and novel problems. Fluid intelligence consists of the capacity of working memory (the amount of information it can hold at one time) and the attentional processes that work on this information and solve the novel problems. It is this component of intelligence that tends to decline as we age.

Jonides reported a program that after seventeen days of training produced an average gain of six IQ points in fluid intelligence. I will not get into the specifics of the training program, but it was quite demanding . The general characteristics of this program were as follows. It energized all processes of working memory. It did not use material specific processes. Task difficulty was increased as performance became better. However, performance needed to reach a stable level before difficulty was increase. If performance fell, then the task difficulty was decreased. Practice periods were spaced.

fMRI of the brains of research participants was also done. The trained regions brain requied less blood flow indicating that the trained brains had become more efficient.

This was great news, but the question remains whether this training can remediate age-related loss in cognitive skills. Jonides intends to address this question in future research. I think we can count on him following through on this research. He is a baby boomer so this research is of personal significance to him.

© 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.

Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind

June 12, 2011

“Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind” was the title of a presentation given by Richard J. Davidson at this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychological Society (APS). This was part of a Theme Program titled “Consciousness: From Neural Systems to Phenomenological Experience.” Davidson’s presentation is in the new arena of contemplative neuroscience or contemplative practice (see the Blog Post “Buddha’s Brain”). The goal here is to use contemplative practices to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the brain and produce enduring changes in the habits of the mind. They are looking for neurally inspired behavioral interventions that put the brain back into biomedicine, a pathway back to the mind.

He described a study that assessed the effects of meditative expertise on the regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion.1 Both fMRI and subjective reports were collected. The specific neural structures and circuits involved in the circuitry of emotion were identified. The data indicated that the mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion alters the activation of circuits previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be well aware of the importance of attention and the ability to selectively attend to desired information. The famous psychologist, William James, noted that the facility of voluntarily bringing back wandering attention over and over is extremely important. Research indicates that meditation develops this facility. Meditation in Sanskrit means familiarization. So meditation is a matter of becoming familiar with our own minds. There is a positive correlation between gamma activity in our brains and clarity ratings.

There are a variety of Healthymemory Blog Posts on meditation such as “Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory,” “Is Daydreaming Bad for You,” “Costly Gadgets or Software are Not Required for a Healthy Memory,” “Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving,” “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability of to Sustain Attention,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources, “The Relaxation Response,”, and “How to Avoid Temptation.”

1Lutz, A. Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R.J. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation> Effects of Meditative Experience., PloS one,, March, Volume 3, Issue 3, e1897.

© 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.

We Are the Law: The Human Mind, Free Will, and the Limits of Determinism

June 8, 2011

The title of this post is identical to the name of the presentation Michael S. Gazzaniga gave at the recent annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). Some are convinced that the world, indeed the universe, is deterministic. Albert Einstein did not believe in free will. One of the founders of the DNA helix, Francis Crick, does not believe in free will. Richard Dawkins, the ethologist, evolutionary biologist, atheist, and author of The Selfish Gene, does not believe in free will. Benjamin Libet conducted experiments in which he demonstrated that measurements in the brain indicated that the action to move a finger occurred before the individual realized that her finger was moving. Some have taken this as proof of determinism, that there is no free will, and that consciousness is only along for the ride. It is interesting to note that Libet himself did not take this position. He spoke of free won’t, in which consciousness can reject an action proposed by the brain. That is conscious volition is exercised by the power of rejection.

Results from brain imaging research also can be interpreted as being supportive of determinism. For example, juvenile impulsivity can be attributed to the low level of utility in the medial prefrontal cortex. So are delinquent juveniles to be excused on the grounds that their medial prefrontal cortices are not performing correctly. Actually, one can go further than this. The medial prefrontal cortex does not reach its full maturity until the mid to late twenties. By this time, most of us have already needed to make important decisions that could have adverse effects on our lives. Do we all have this excuse for the poor decisions of our youth?

On the other hand, there remains much to be said for free will. Although Einstein with his deterministic bent said the “God does not play dice with the universe” findings in quantum mechanics by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg indicated that quantum mechanics did behave in a probabilistic manner and, at least at the subtomic level, God did play dice with the universe.

There is also the notion of emergent properties. These are properties that occur as a result of underlying processes. So consciousness can be regarded as an emergent property that emerges from the underlying psychophysiological processes. In the case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and consciousness can exert its effects on underlying psychophysiological processes.

Gazzaniga’s own work with Roger Sperry on split brain phenemona support this notion. In these split brain studies the corpus callosum is split (for medical and not research purposes). Because of the wiring from eye to brain, stimuli can be selective presented to the respective hemifields that go to the left or right hemispheres. So different stimuli can be sent to the left and right hemispheres. Under normal viewing circumstances this does not present a problem as the different stimuli would go to both hemisperes. But in the experimental condition the two hemispheres are unaware of what the other has seen. In this situation the experimental participant is asked what is seen. Different reports will be made for each hemisphere. No matter how bizarre the differences, the experimental participants are able to make sense of what they have seen. In other words, consciousness is making sense of the different reports of each hemisphere.

Gazzaniga notes that cognition is both parallel and distributed. Cognition is also modular, yet it is modular with apparent psychological unity. He also noted that there exists innate notion of fairness. This has been demonstrated with experiments involving infants.

Gazzaniga concludes that the notion of free will is a bad idea. He asks “Free from what?.” He notes that while brains might not be free, people are free. There exist notions of fairness and responsibility and that we need to have a contract with our fellow humans.

Essentially Gazzaniga is a pragmatist. William James, the famous psychology and philosopher, was also a pragmatist. He also believed in free will. When free will is contrasted with pragmatism, it is clear that free will is the more pragmatic notion. It is much better to adopt the belief in free will and believe that we can affect our brains and our lives via the exercise of our free will. Determinism can promote passivity via the belief that consciousness is only along for a free ride.

What Makes a Nation Intelligent?

June 5, 2011

There were many outstanding presentations at the recent meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). One of the best of these outstanding presentations was one by Earl Hunt with the title, “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?” This was his James McKeen Fellow Award Address. Hunt, who has a rich and diverse background in Physics, Business Administration, and Computer Science as well as Psychology, is currently a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington.

One of his primary interests is intelligence, and he published a book last year on the topic titled, appropriately enough, Human Intelligence. The approach he takes to intelligence is that of a cognitive psychologist rather than the traditional psychometric approach to intelligence. The psychometric approach provides estimates of the percentage of intelligence that is inherited versus the percentage of intelligence that is a product of the environment. The psychometric approach is primarily descriptive and offers few ideas for improving intelligence with the exception of eugenic approaches. The cognitive approach is interested in the cognitive processes that underlie intelligence as well as artifacts and interventions that can improve intelligence.

That is not to say that the psychometric approach is useless. Hunt points out that the correlation between IQ and occupational success is about 0.5 (the coefficient ranges with 0.0, no relationship, to 1.0, a perfect relationship, with a positive or negative sign indicating whether the relationship is direct or inverse). He said that this relationship is about twice as high as various personality measures. IQ tests measure what IQ tests measure, which is what is easy to measure. They’re good at assessing tasks that require speed, but they tend to miss culturally important skills.

To return to the question “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?”, one of his responses is cognitive artifacts. One example of such a cognitive artifact would be written records (e.g., cuneiform tables, papyrus, paper), where both business transactions and ideas could be recorded. I would call these examples of technical transactive memory, he calls them explicit artifacts. Hunt also uses the term implicit artifacts to refer to communication systems and personal trust. I would call these examples of human transactive memory. Regardless of what they are called, they are essential to a Nation’s intelligence.

Nation’s also need to respond to and adopt beneficial new ideas. Ideas spread along the Silk Road Trade Route and countries along this trade route tended to benefit from this intelligence and prosper. However, their needed to be an openness to new ideas. Japan initially closed up and ignored new ideas in favor of their own traditions. This was also true of China and Korea. These countries did not prosper until they opened up to new ideas from foreign cultures. This increased their respective national intelligence and led to increasing prosperity.

So what contributes to a nation’s intelligence? Of course there are explicit and implicit cognitive artifacts, but factors such as nutrition and environmental pollution cannot be ignored. Nutrition is essential to the development of intelligence, whereas environmental pollution degrades intelligence. The family and a formal education system are important. As Diane Halpern noted, “You learn to do what you practice doing”

Cultures, such as the Jewish culture and Northeast Asian cultures, that place a heavy emphasis on education do well on intelligence tests. Although there are sleight differences in mathematical performance between males and females, this gender effect is overwhelmed by practice. In other words, females who work at mathematics to very well on mathematics.

Hunt noted that when three outlier countries were removed, they was a correlation of 0.65 between IQ and financial success. As he put it there is an interaction between intelligence and financial success, the rich get smarter and the smart get richer.

Hunt advocates the creation of a cognitive elite, which he defines as college graduates. But he lists the obstacles to fostering this cognitive elite such as:

Lack of trained teachers and equipment.

The economic costs of a college education (this needs to be affordable and not require the acquisition of heavy financial debts).

The opposition of education aimed at modern cognitive skills.

The opposition to scientific ideas such as the opposing to vaccination because it is not in the Koran (or in our society the opposition to vaccination based on faulty scientific evidence and reasoning).

His conclusion: It is possible, although difficulty, to create better interactive environments to improve national intelligence.

Taking Advantage of Nature to Build a Healthy Memory

June 1, 2011

This post is intended to encourage readers to take advantage of pleasant warm weather to build a healthy memory. Research indicates that nature offers benefits in restoring those attentional resources that are essential to effective cognitive functioning (See the Blog Post, “Restoring Attentional Resources”). Research has also indicated that walking enhances brain health and memory performance (See the Blog Post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”).

So be sure to take advantage of the good weather and take some nature walks. I walk with my wife and she is frequently asks me questions about birds, insects, various animals and plants. My typical response is “I don’t know, you should have married an ornithologist, entomologist, zoologist, or botanist. Such an answer is not beneficial either to her or me. Better I should try to find the answers using transactive memory and look them up on the internet or in a more conventional reference. That enables me to grow my own memory and to satisfy my wife’s curiosity (of course, she would benefit by undertaking the same activity). I could benefit further by studying up prior to these walks and perhaps using mnemonic techniques to memorize content and to amaze my wife with my mastery of these esoteric topics.

There is also a potential social benefit here. My wife and I comprise a very small, but compatible social group. By joining larger groups, more people are engaged which is beneficial to both physical and cognitive health.

So we should be sure to take advantage of the opportunities that nature affords us.

© 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.