Archive for December, 2011

Happy Holidays from Healthymemory Blog!

December 24, 2011

The Healthymemory Blog will be taking a brief hiatus until 2012. Although there will be no new posts until 2012, there are 258 posts for your perusal. As its name implies, the Healthymemory Blog is devoted to the promotion of healthy memories. Posts are divided into three categories:

Human memory includes relevant posts regarding how memory works, its strengths and failures, as well as factors and practices that benefit memory.

Mnemonic techniques includes relevant posts on techniques that not only improve recall, but also provide beneficial brain and cognitive exercise.

Transactive memory includes posts on how to interact with fellow humans and to best use technology to promote cognitive growth.

The overall objective is to promote cognitive health throughout our lives, and not to just reduce or stop cognitive decline, but to continue to grow mentally as we age.

Advertisements

Why Are New Year’s Resolutions So Difficult to Keep?

December 21, 2011

It’s that time of year when we choose and make our resolutions for the new year. Although making New Year’s Resolutions is a splendid idea, the problem is that we fail to keep most of these resolutions. A recent book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, explains why. Keeping New Year’s Resolutions results in ego depletion. You can think of ego depletion as being a loss in will or mental energy and it can be measured by glucose metabolism. Whenever you are trying to resist temptation, make a decision, or need to concentrate on certain tasks, there is this loss in willpower or mental energy, such that it is difficult to resist additional temptations, to make more decisions, or to concentrate on additional tasks. So it is unwise to try to give up two vices at the same time. The probability of success if much greater if you address one vice and then later address the other vice.

So the more resolutions you make, the less likely you are to keep them. And the more difficult a given resolution is, the more difficult it will be to keep it. So here is a strategy for your consideration. Decide upon only two resolutions. One should be fairly easy, and the other more difficult. You are more likely to keep the easy resolution, so you will have one in the win column. Should you also keep the second resolution, then you are entitled to a YAHAH moment. This strategy should produce at least a .500 win percentage.

As for what resolutions to make, the Healthymemory Blog has some suggestions.

Taking at least a forty minute walk at least three times a week.

Learn at least three new words a day (or 21 words a week) in the language of your choice.

Contribute to a Wikipedia page on a topic of interest and continue to build you knowledge in that topic or a new topic.

Find several new friends with a similar interest and pursue that interest with a passion.

Engage in deliberate practice in a skill of interest (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “Deliberate Practice”)

Develop and practice mnemonic techniques on a regular basis (Click on the Category “Mnemonic Techniques” and you find a comprehensive listing of mnemonic techniques along with descriptions of the techniques and exercises. Try starting at the bottom of the category and proceeding up. There is a specific Healthymemory Blog post, “Memory Course”, which suggests an order in which the mnemonic techniques should be approached). There are also some websites for learning and developing proficiency in mnemonic techniques. One is www.NeuroMod.org. Click on the Human Memory Site. Then click on the “read more” link under your preferred language. You can open up an account and record and track your progress. Another site is www.Thememorypage.net. Both of these websites are free.)

Good luck.

© 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.

How Using Mnemonic Techniques Exercises the Brain

December 18, 2011

The Healthymemory Blog has a category labeled “Mnemonic Techniques.” Not all of the posts in this category are strictly speaking mnemonic techniques. Posts on specific activities you can do to foster a healthy memory, meditation, for example, are also included here. But the mnemonic techniques specific to remembering specific items of information are touted as being doubly beneficial as they not only directly improve memory, but they also provide good mental exercise for the brain. Today’s post elaborates on how the different parts of the brain are exercised.

The first action that needs to be taken on information that you want to remember is to pay attention. Paying attention involves using working memory. This involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Maintaining information here requires glucose metabolism. The initially encoding is done in the hippocampi (there is one hippocampus in each of the two brain hemispheres) from which it is distributed throughout the rest of the brain. This distribution is needed to determine the meaning, or lack of meaning, of this information. Where there is meaning, this meaning is used to elaborate the meaning by relating it to other associations in the associative cortex. When there is little or no meaning, then the mnemonic provides a means of making the apparently meaningless information meaningful. This involves recoding, which involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activating other associations found in the associative cortex. Often the technique involves the formation of a visual image which activates associative networks in both cerebral hemispheres via transmissions across the corpus callosum. There is no central memory center in the brain. Rather information is stored throughout the brain. Sensory information in the sensory portions, motor information in the motor portions, and verbal and semantic information is the associative portions. Information that you know well likely has many many links to other items of information, the job of the mnemonic technique is to establish solid new links to this new information you want to remember.

Mnemonic techniques require you to pay attention. Paying attention increases the glucose metabolism to the brain. This, in turn, activates the all important hippocampi and activates memory pathways throughout the associative and sensory cortices of the brain.

Click on the Category “Mnemonic Techniques” and you find a comprehensive listing of mnemonic techniques along with descriptions of the techniques and exercises. Try starting at the bottom of the category and proceeding up. There is a specific Healthymemory Blog post, “Memory Course”, which suggests an order in which the mnemonic techniques should be approached.

There are also some websites for learning and developing proficiency in mnemonic techniques. One is www.NeuroMod.org. Click on the Human Memory Site. Then click on the “read more” link under your preferred language. You can open up an account and record and track your progress. Another site is www.Thememorypage.net. Both of these websites are free.

© 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.

Deliberate Practice

December 14, 2011

Deliberate practice is a term coined by K. Anders Ericsson1 to define the type of practice needed to achieve superior performance or expertise. He wrote, “ For the superior performance in any field the goal isn’t just repeating the same thing again and again, but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of performance. That’s why they (experts) don’t find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time. Intense solitary deliberate practice is the hallmark of the superior in every competitive field that I have studied over my forty year career.” He contrasts the practice method of professional versus amateur golfers: Most amateurs participate almost exclusively in recreational play with others. When they ‘practice’ they tend to do things that they are comfortable with and can do with minimal control, such as whacking buckets of golf balls at a driving range. Professionals, in contrast, engage in practice activities that require full concentration to improve specific aspects of their performance, Further, they voluntarily choose practice routines in which they initially experience difficulties in order to improve a specific weakness…The expert golfer’s ability to perceive minute differences and exert control of the ball trajectories does not emerge naturally but through the process of acquiring refined mental representation for perceiving, monitoring, and controlling the muscles involved in the various required movements.”

The pianist Angela Hewitt wrote, “In my recording sessions I find that the improvement comes not in endlessly repeating a piece, but in listening intently to what has been recorded and then thinking about how it can be done better. The editing process then becomes an art in itself and requires intelligent musical decisions.”

In formulating his theories of relativity Einstein needed to master non Euclidean geometries. Acquiring expertise requires constantly going beyond what you know and mastering new material.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “How the Memory Champs Do It” to understand the fantastic feats of memory that they can perform as well as the types of deliberate practice they employ to build these phenomenal skills.

Remember the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice man, practice.” This needs to be changed to, “Deliberate practice, man, deliberate practice.”

It is remarkable what you can do. But true expertise requires deliberate practice.

1Anderson, K.A. (2007). Deliberate Practice and the Modifiability of Body and Mind: Toward a Science of the Structure and Acquisition of Expert and Elite Performance. International Journal of Sports Psychology.

© 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.

Are We Becoming More Intelligent?

December 11, 2011

The Flynn Effect1 refers to the substantial and long-sustained increase in intelligence test scores that has occurred over the last one hundred years in the industrialized countries. The average score for an IQ test is 100. Periodically these tests are redone and renormed (that is the average is recomputed with a standard deviation of 15). When the scores of people taking the new test are compared against the scores of the same people taking the previous test, the scores are typically higher. One estimates is that an IQ of 80 today would equate to an IQ of 100 in 1932. How can this be? Are we becoming more intelligent? If we are becoming more intelligent this increase is occurring much more quickly than could be explained by genetic evolution.

According to Flynn, statistical estimates are that genes account for 36 percent of the IQ variance and that environmental and experiential factors account for the remaining 64 percent. The problem is that it is impossible to conduct a study where genetic and environmental factors are independently controlled. The reality is that there is an interaction between these two factors, and it is this interaction that explains the Flynn effect.

Flynn uses an analogy with basketball to make his point. Suppose a pair of identical twins genetically endowed to play basketball are separated at birth. Regardless of the different environments under which they are raised, they are both likely to play basketball and to practice assiduously. Consequently they will excel at basketball and eventually attract the attention of coaches who will further foster their talents and abilities. A similar interaction between genetic inheritance and environmental factors can be found with identical twins with high IQs who are raised in different environments. Regardless of their respective environments they are more likely to be drawn to learning and will perform better in school. They are more likely to be admitted to competitive universities where their IQs will be increased even more.

Flynn says, “There is a strong tendency for genetic advantage or disadvantage to get more and more matched to a corresponding environment.” Accordingly, the environment will always be the determining factor of whether or not a genetic predisposition gets expressed. This applies to all our cognitive powers, not just IQ. So we can increase our own cognitive powers by our own deliberate efforts. This calls to mind what Thomas Edison said about genius, that it was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

So the answer to the question, “Are We Becoming More Intelligent?”, the question to the answer is “What is Intelligence?” But we do have the ability to increase our cognitive powers throughout our lifetimes through our own deliberate efforts.

1Flynn, J.R. (2007). What Is Intelligence? Cambridge University Press.

© 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.

Review of The Washington Post’s The Aging Brain

December 7, 2011

This piece1 is informative and offers some good advice, but is woefully deficient in some areas that should have been included. The article is basically an annotated diagram that begins with the first step of the eye seeing something. The second step is the information arriving at the visual cortex that identifies what the eyes see. The third step is the information flowing through the associative cortex to develop further understanding. The fourth step is the information arriving at the hippocampus (actually it should be hippocampi as there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain. Information must be processed by these hippocampi if it is to be recalled later. People who have lost their hippocampi via surgery, accidents, or dementia, are unable to learn/remember new information. But it is the prefrontal cortext decides whether this new information warrants processing by the hippocampi for later use. The prefrontal cortex is an important part of the brain as it not only decides what is worth remembering, but it is involved in all the decisions we make and is responsible for regulating our behavior. Unfortunately, it is late maturing (not until our twenties) and early to decline (sometime after age 50). So far this description is accurate and it is understood that there would be similar, but not identical stages of processing for other modalities of information.

There is another section of the article on how to slow the effects of aging that provides the following advice:

Calm Down – this is good advice as the piece correctly states that stress can destroy synapses , it fouls up the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. It does not mention that the various types of meditation are beneficial in helping us to calm down.

Exercise – this is good advice as the increased blood flow and oxygen uptake it engenders is beneficial to the brain.

Make friends – more good advice. There have been a number of Healthymemory Blog Post extolling the benefits of socialization.

Sleep well – more good advice. Getting adequate sleep is important not only to general health, but is also critical to important brain and memory processes.

Ask about estrogen – Ladies, you can judge this one for yourselves. This recommendation is based on one study. Given the somewhat uneven results from estrogen therapies, some skepticism might be in order.

Do what you do best – Although it is true that expertise is maintained well into old age and that you are less likely to lose what you know well, it is a somewhat misleading strategy for slowing the effects of aging. Although it is fine to continuing growing in your area of expertise, it would be a mistake not to expand into some new areas. Research has indicated that maintaining brain and cognitive health should not be a reactive, defensive matter, but rather a proactive effort to continue growing cognitive competence.

An interesting question to ask, is why does the prefrontal cortex start to decline after age 50? Is it solely a matter of aging? There is the Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain (See the Healthymemory Blog posts, “More on Attention and Cognitive Control,”, “Passing 65,” and “Memory and Aging.). This hypothesis fits well with the Two System View of Cognition (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Two System View of Cognition.”). According to this view, there are two primary means of processing information. System One is fast and automatic. It is the result of prior learning. This is the system that is doing the majority of the processing when we converse, drive a car, etc. System Two is slow, effortful, and demands attention. This is what is at work when we are trying to learning something new, to solve a math problem, or recognize something that is illogical or contradictory in what the person we are conversing with has said (or in our own conversation if we recognize something illogical or contradictory in what we have said. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis as we age we increasingly rely on System One processing because we have learned much and don’t need to do as much processing as a younger person who does not have such a wealth of experience to draw upon. The problem is that since we do less System Two processing we use our prefrontal cortex less. The use it or lose it advice that we know from physical exercise also applies to cognitive exercise. When we use our prefrontal cortex more glucose is sent there. So the loss in the functioning in the prefrontal cortex might not be solely do to aging. It might be in part, perhaps in large part, to a loss in the frequency of its use.

So the new idea is to challenge our minds and to continue to learn new things as we age. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “A Quote Worth Pondering.”) It is not too late to learn a new language, or new subject matter. These activities will engage the prefrontal cortex. Mnemonic techniques have the benefit of not only being a technique that enhances memory, but are also means of providing cognitive exercise that exercises the prefrontal cortex and activates both cortices of the brain. So aging should not cause us to be reactive and defensive, but we should go on offense, be proactive, and continue to grow cognitively.

1Berkowitz, B. & Cuadra, C. (2011). The Aging Brain in The Washington Post Health & Science Section, E1, 6 December.

© 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.

Memory and Its Underlying Brain Structures

December 4, 2011

A variety of Healthymemory Blog posts have discussed the various brain structures underlying memory. As a book1 I have been reading has provided a succinct overview describing the interacting structures and areas of the brain that are responsible for memory I have decided to write the following post.

The initially encoding is done in the hippocampi (there is one hippocampus in each of the two brain hemispheres) from which it is distributed throughout the rest of the brain. This distribution is needed to determine the meaning, or lack of meaning, of this information. This takes place in short term or working memory. Meaningless information is quickly lost without further processing. Even the current instance of meaningful information will be lost without further processing (for example I need to meet Fred for lunch or I need to remember this for the examination). This working memory is maintained in an active mental state within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes. Maintaining information here requires glucose metabolism.

This glucose metabolism is the physiological indication of paying attention. So when you are performing a task that requires you to pay attention, glucose metabolism is required. It is interesting to note that as you become more proficient in performing the task, the rate of glucose metabolism actually decreases. This indicates that you need to pay less attention due to your increase in proficiency.

The successful storing of information in long term memory via the hippocampi requires the establishing of links to other items in long term memory. Mnemonic techniques are developed to make what appears to be inherently meaningless into something meaningful so it can be linked to other items I long term memory for later retrieval. There is no central memory center in the brain. Rather information is stored throughout the brain. Sensory information in the sensory portions, motor information in the motor portions, and verbal and semantic information is the associative portions. Information that you know well likely has many many links to other items of information. Some memory theorists have likened human memory to a hologram. Holograms differ from photographs in that the entire image can be reconstructed from portions of the hologram. So if you break a hologram into two pieces, the entire hologram can be reconstructed from either piece, but the resulting image will be less distinct.

Memory theorists make a distinction between information being available in memory and information being accessible in memory. Information that can be readily retrieved is said to be accessible. However, if you cannot retrieve something at a given time, it is likely that that information is still not available in memory, but it is still accessible. Moreover, even after you have consciously given up trying to recall this information, it sometimes happens that at a later point in time when you are consciously thinking about something else, that this apparently lost memory pops into consciousness.

So how does this relate to maintaining and growing a healthy memory? Engaging in activities requiring significant amounts of attention increase the metabolic activity going to your working memory. This metabolic activity will decrease as you become more proficient in the activity. In many respects this is analogous to the effects of physical activity on cardiopulmonary activity. It should be noted that this practice effect is the result of transferring information to long term memory so less attention is required.

To maintain and grow long term memory developing new associative pathways throughout the brain is required. This will not be done by simply surfing the internet (which is primarily a working memory exercise). Long term memory growth is a matter of pursuing knowledge and skill in more depth to develop and strengthen associative pathways so that they are more resistant to forgetting. In other words, increasing the accessibility of the information. The very act of retrieving information is beneficial even if your initial retrieval attempts are unsuccessful. The searching for information activates memory pathways, some of which might have been long inactive. The memory search can reactivate them. Moreover, your memory will likely continuing working even after you have consciously given up the attempt.

1Restak, R., (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Brain Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

© 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.