Archive for November, 2011

The Adult Brain

November 30, 2011

The brain reaches its maximum size (by weight) in early adult life.1 It decreases by about ten percent over the remainder of the life span. It ways about three pounds and contains about one hundred billion brain cells (neurons). There are about a million billion connections (synapses) linking those cells together. As a person ages the number of synapses generally decreases, but the commonly cited figure of 50,000 cells a day is no longer believed by most neuroscientists. The loss of neurons that does occur is not evenly distributed across the brain. There is little or no significant loss in many cortical regions used in normal cognition.

More important than the loss of neurons and the thinning of synaptic connections that occurs as we age, is the loss of cells from cluster of cells (nuclei) about the size of a pinhead located in the brain stem. This brain stem is about the length of an adult forefinger. The neuroscientist Paul Coleman calls these nuclei “juice machines.” They send ascending fanlike projections to many parts of the cortex. The brains neurotransmitters travel along these projections. Reductions in levels of these neurotransmitters leads to many of the infirmities that inflict us as we age: memory loss, depression, decrease in overall mental sharpness, and inefficient mental processing. Fortunately these infirmities can be improved by drugs that increase these neurotransmitters.

Although the loss of neurons occurs normally with aging, this loss can be compensated for by increases in the networking capacity of the remaining neurons. Although the number of neurons decreases from birth onward, fewer but stronger and more enduring connections form among the remaining neurons (see the healthymemory blog posts “HAROLD,” “Is Dementia an Inevitable Part of Aging,” and “Hope for an Aging Population: STAC”).

“This capacity to compensate for the loss of its components makes the brain the only known structure in the universe that works more efficiently despite a loss of its components. To this extent the brain is unique among both biological and mechanical structures: over the years it doesn’t ‘wear out’.”2

1Much of this blog post is abstracted from Restak, R. (2009).Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2Ibid. p.21

A Quote Worth Pondering

November 27, 2011

“To remain mentally sharp, you have to deal with familiar things in novel ways. But most important of all, you have to have a sense of curiosity. If interest and curiosity stop coming automatically to you, then you’re in trouble, no matter how young or old you are.”Art Buchwald

That is Art Buchwald the Pulitzer Prize winning humorist offering a profound insight. He’s written many books and many, many columns. My favorite book is his last, Art Buchwald: Too Soon to Say Goodbye. He wrote this book while he was in a hospice waiting to die. He had had one of his legs amputated and was told that he needed to go on dialysis if he wanted to continue living. He decided that he had had enough and did not want to go on living. So he moved to a hospice where he lived much longer than anyone would have expected. He lived long enough to write his last book.

I found this quote on the page before the introduction to Richard Restak‘s book, Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. He regards Art Buchwald as one of the most intelligent people he has ever met. Dr. Restak has written many interesting books and this one certainly does not disappoint. The book is divided into six parts followed by an epilogue. They are

Part One Discovering the Brain

Part Two Care and Feeding of the Brain: The Basics

Part Three Specific Steps for Enhancing Your Brain’s Performance

Part Four Using Technology to Achieve a More Powerful Brain

Part Five Fashioning the Creative Brain

Part Six Impediments to Brain Function and How to Compensate for Them

Epilogue The Twenty-first-Century Brain

Some Healthymemory Blog posts will be on excerpts from this book. But there is no way that I can do this book justice. I highly recommend it.

And please ponder Buchwald’s quote and give it the attention it deserves.

Happy Thanksgiving 2011

November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. As its name implies, this is the time of the year to be optimistic and thankful. Among our many blessings are our memories and cognitive abilities. They are many and remarkable and we need to be thankful. One of the best ways of giving thanks is to not only take care of your abilities and keep them healthy, but also to grow and develop them. These are the objectives of the Healthymemory Blog. It provides information on our brains and cognitive faculties as well as advice on how to keep them healthy and to grow them.

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.

The Importance of Fiction

November 16, 2011

An Article1 in Scientific American Mind extolled the value of fiction in understanding others and in learning to empathize with others. It presents a variety of data, both behavioral and brain images, that support this contention. I also find this intuitively plausible. Fiction takes one into the minds and feelings of others. You develop a sense of the characters in the piece as to what motivates them and why they do what they do. The article reminded me of an old television series, Remington Steele, about two private detectives, one who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movie plots. Any given case they need to solve reminds him of a relevant movie plot which led to the solution of the crime.

I’ve long thought that an understanding of Shakespeare’s plays would provide an very thorough understanding of humans and their interactions. Certainly, Shakespeare is not required, but I don’t think that all fiction provides this understanding. Tom Clancy writes thrilling novels, but his character development is a tad thin. The fiction that is beneficial in helping us to understand and to interact well with others has characters who reveal their thoughts and feelings.

My degrees are in psychology, and I believe that many students choose psychology as a major because they want to understand and interact well with others. I think these students would both benefit more and enjoy more a major emphasizing literature. I think that too many of us psychologists are not as well practiced in interpersonal skills as we should be (I exclude clinicians and counselors here). But I do think that psychology is a good major for someone who wants to understand science. Psychologists study everything from individual neural cells to large groups of people, and they need to know experimental design, statistics, and mathematical modeling. Unfortunately, the understanding of students in the physical sciences and engineering tends to be constrained to their respective disciplines. I hurry to add, however, that I know many personal exceptions to this statement.

I become extremely annoyed when I do not here psychology in the category of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math ) disciplines as it is regarded as a soft discipline. Psychology is involved in all these disciplines. Moreover, when you consider the critical problems we face today, you should find that most fall into the so-called soft areas of science.

1Oatley, K. (2011). In the Minds of Others. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 63-67.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lucid Dreams

November 13, 2011

Lucid dreams are dreams that are extremely intense while the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. Approximately eight out of 10 people have had a lucid dream at least once in their life and a small fraction of these have them as often as once or twice a week.1 Lucid dreams are of interest as their study can inform us about both dreaming and the functioning of the brain. There is evidence that lucid dreaming is useful for treating chronic nightmares and perhaps even anxiety.2

One of the first problems is studying lucid dreaming is to have a method for determining whether a lucid dream is occurring. Sleep researcher Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University came up with the technique of instructing research participants to move their eyes a certain way when they realized they were dreaming. These eye movement signals enabled the researchers to distinguish them from REMs that occur during regular dreaming. Later Ursula Dross and her research team discovered another electrical signal from the brain that distinguished lucid dreaming. This was increased activity in the 40-hertz range(the “gamma band”), that occurred primarily in the frontal lobe. These are the same high frequency waves we generate when we concentrate on a particular object. The coherence of electrical activity in the brain is increased, whereas it is generally decreased during REM sleep. You can thinkof the brain’s activation during REM sleep as being similar to a party where all the guests are speaking simultaneously. In lucid dreams, the party guests tend to converse with one another with lower overall background noise.3

Lucid dreaming has been found useful in treating people who suffer from nightmares. People who learned how to increase their frequency of lucid dreams reported fewer nightmares. It is also hoped that lucid dreaming might alleviate anxiety or phobias, but more research is needed. Lucid dreaming has been helpful for creative endeavors such as creating metaphors, but not for rational exercises such as solving brain teasers.4 Much more research into clinical and practical applications is clearly needed.

It is said that people who follow the following regimen regularly are able to have one or two lucid dreams per week:

Throughout the day, ask yourself repeatedly if you are awake. When this habit becomes ingrained, you might find yourself asking the same question in a dream—at which point your chances of realizing you are dreaming skyrocket.

Look in a mirror or read a bit of text every so often as a “reality check.” In dreams our appearance is often altered and the written word can be hard to pin down. You may carry the habit of checking for these dream signs into sleep, where they could alert you to the fact that you are dreaming.

Keep a dream journal by your bed and jot down the dreams you remember immediately upon waking. Studies who that this practice makes you more aware of your dreams in general, and people who are more aware of their dreams are more likely to have a lucid dream.

Before falling asleep, focus intently on the fantasy you hope to experience in a much detail as possible. Research show that “incubating” an idea just before bed dramatically increased the likelihood that you will dream about it . And if you suddenly notice that you are dancing with a moving star you hoped to meet, you might just realize you are having a dream and be able to take control of what happens next.5

Leonardo da Vinci is said to have practiced this “incubation” before he went to sleep.

1Voss, U. (2011)/. Unlocking the Lucid Dream. Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011, pp. 33-35.

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Adapted from the Lucidity’s Institute Web Site, www.lucidity.com.

Dreams Can Work For You

November 9, 2011

An article1 by Deidre Barret recounts incidents in which dreams resulted in creative discoveries. Perhaps the most famous is the dream of a snake of atoms biting its tale that lead to his discovery of the benzene ring. Others include Mendeleyev’s dream enabling him to come up with the final form of the periodic table. A dream enabled Loewi to design a neuroscience experiment that ultimately lead to a Nobel Prize. Paul Horowitz dreamed of the designs for laser telescope controls and Alan Huang dreamed of laser computing.

It is not just science and engineering, bu dreaming has had beneficial impacts on the arts. Mary Shelly‘s dreams helped her write Frankenstein. Dreams also helped Robert Louis Stevenson write Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. As for music, Beethoven, Paul McCartney, and Billy Joel all awoke with ideas for new themes and tunes. An in the area of social activism, Mahatma Gandhi reported that it was a dream that lead him to call for a nonviolent protest of British Rule of India.

Leonardo da Vinci made it a practice to mull over a problem before falling to sleep.

That dreaming can be productive should not be too surprising to readers of the Healthymemory Blog, as a large part of mental activity takes place below the level of conscious awareness. Our minds are actively working even when we are not aware that they are working. Dreaming is just another cognitive state; one that can result in productive results. Barret reports a variety of studies that report some success in setting up people so that their dreams will solve problems. Often, the results are nil, but sometimes they are fruitful.

Barret provides the following tips on how to intentionally try to dream about a problem in the hope that it will lead to a solution:

At bedtime, imagine yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening, and writing on a notepad besides your bed.

If possible, arrange objects connected to the problem on a bedside table or on the wall across the room.

Write down a brief description and keep this note close to your bed. Also keep pen, paper, and a flashlight besides it.

Then review the problem for a few minutes before actually going to bed.

When in the bed, imagine the problem, as a concrete object if possible.

Convince yourself that you want to dream about the problem before your drift off to sleep.

Lie quietly when you awake before you get out of bed. Try to recall as much of the dream as you can and write it down.

If you are interested in this topic, Barret has written a book, The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving__and How You Can Too. Crown (Random House) 2001. The International Association for the Study of Dreams also has a website: www.asdreams.org.

1Barrett, D. (2011). Answers in Your Dreams. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 27-33.

Brain Conversations

November 6, 2011

For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world. These people would be surprised to learn that for many psychologists and philosophers, consciousness is an epiphenomenon, meaning that it is not real. They would argue that we do experience consciousness but that it is a byproduct of cognitive processes that have already occurred at an unconscious level. In other words, consciousness is just along for the ride. Articles1 in a recent Scientific American Mind present this view.

Although it is true that the vast majority of cognitive processing does occur below the level of consciousness, does that mean that consciousness is irrelevant? The purpose of consciousness has been and continues to be a hotly discussed topic. Baumeister has provided perhaps the most compelling explanations of the purpose of consciousness. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events. (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Conscious Thought”)

An article2 written for a different purpose provides support for Baumeister’s ideas. This article dealt with awareness. This topic is important in the context of trying to diagnose patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Misdiagnosis rates here can be as high as 40 percent. A neural correlate for consciousness is much needed. For many years theorists thought that the prefrontal cortex was key and that neural thoughts that reached this area emerged from unconscious obscurity into awareness. However, new research supports the notion that consciousness is a conversation rather than a revelation, and that no single brain structure leads the dialogue.

The neuroscientist Simon van Gaal conducts experiments in which he asks participants to push a button every time they see a certain symbol flash on a screen, except when they see a different symbol that means “stop.” On some trials the stop signal is presented below the level of conscious awareness. Although participants do not see the stop signal, they do hesitate to push the button as though some part of the brain perceived the information. Brain activity is recorded during the experiment via functional MRI and electroencephalography (EEG). The unconsciousness inhibitory signal seems to make it all the way up to parts of the prefrontal cortex despite the participants not being consciously aware of the signal.

Another study supports the claim that awareness emerges when information travels back and forth between brain areas rather than from an ascending linear chain. EEG signals were recorded in patients with brain damage as they listened to stimulating tones. All the patients were awake and alert but exhibited different levels of responsiveness. Mathematical models derived from the data suggest that feedback between the frontal cortex and lower-level sensory areas are crucial to producing conscious awareness. Similar results have been obtained with monkeys and healthy human participants.

Although these studies do not prove Baumeister’s notions regarding the role of consciousness, they do seem to provide supportive evidence.

1Nichols, S. (2011). Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientific American Mind, November/December, 18-19.

and

Koch, C. (2011). Probing the Unconscious Mind, Scientific American Mind, November/December,, 20-21.

2Peck, M.E. (2011). A Conversation in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 12.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Importance of Ikigai

November 2, 2011

Ikigai is a Japanese word roughly translated as “the reason for which we wake up in the morning.” In other words, having a purpose in life. Knowing your purpose in life is important to your well being.1 Many studies have purported to show a link between some aspect of religion and better health. For example, religion has been associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, blood pressure, metabolic disorders, better immune functioning, improved outcomes for infections such as HIV and meningitis, and lower risk of developing cancer. Of course, it was not possible for any of these studies to be Random Controlled Trials (RCTs), where participants were randomly assigned to religious and non-religious groups. So it is possible that there is a strong element of self-selection here.

However, there are other possible reasons for these results. Religious people tend to pursue lower risk lifestyles. Churchgoers typically enjoy strong social support. And, of course, seriously ill people are less likely to attend church. However, there was recent study that tried to statistically control for these factors and concluded that “religiosity/spirituality” does have a protective effect, but only for healthy people.2 Some researchers attribute this to the placebo effect (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “”Placebo and Nocebo Effects”). Others believe that positive emotions (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Optimism”) associated with “spirituality” promote beneficial physiological responses.

Still others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Presumably knowing why we are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events making them less stressful. Remember the study by Saron that was reported in the Healthymemory Blog Post, “The Benefits of Meditation.” The increase in the levels of the enzyme that repairs teleomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. The meditators were doing something they loved and provided a purpose in life.

So, it is important to have a purpose in life when you awaken in the morning. This is important throughout one’s life and is something that needs to be considered before retiring (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Second Half of Life,” and “Could the AARP Be Telling Us Not to Retire?”).

1Much of this post is based on an article, Know your purpose, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, p. 35.

2Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 78, p.81.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.