Archive for January, 2012

Thinking, Fast and Slow

January 29, 2012

Thinking, Fast, and Slow is the title of the current best selling book by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman has won the Nobel Prize, not in psychology as there is no Nobel Prize in psychology, but for his work with Amos Tversky in Economics. This work ushered in the era of behavioral economics and further debunked the myth of the rational human being. Kahneman has been misinterpreted for arguing that humans are irrational or seriously flawed. What he has been arguing is that our information processing capabilities are limited, and that we use clever heuristics to deal with this limitations. These limitations lead us astray.

The title refers to two systems we use for processing information. System 1 is fast and allows us to cope with high rates of information in a dynamic environment. Without System 1, we would not have survived as a species. But this fast processing speed has its costs, which sometimes lead to errors. System 2 is slow, and is what can be thought of as thinking. If you know your multiplication tables, if I ask you what is 6 time 7, you’ll respond 42 without really thinking about it. But if I ask you to multiply 67 times 42 you would find it difficult to compute in your head, and would most likely use a calculator or use paper and pencil (which are examples of transactive memory). This multiplication requires System 2 processing without or most likely with technological aids.

System 1 requires little or no effort. System 2 requires effort. It is not only faster, but also less demanding to rely on System 1 processes. Consider the following question.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

The number that quickly comes to mind is 10 cents. But if you take the time and exert the mental effort you will note that the cost would be $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). If you do the math, which takes a little algebra, you will find that the ball costs 5 cents (the bat costing a $1.00 more than the ball would be $1.05 and $1.05 and $0.05 is $1.10). System 2 must be engaged to get the correct answer. This question has been asked of several thousand college students. More that 50% of the students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong, System 1, answer. At less selective universities more than 80% of the students gave the wrong answer. Good students tend to be suspicious of a question that is too easy!

If this example does not strike you as relevant, Kahneman provides many examples with clear relevance throughout the book. We shall be hitting some of these examples in future Healthymemory Blog posts. Kahneman’s Two System Theory is not new to the Healthymemory Blog (enter “Two System View” in the search block). Kahneman has already had a clear influence on economics. Additional behavioral and brain imaging research has further enhanced his view. Unfortunately it is still not the dominant view in economics, which still embraces the model of the rational man. An argument can be made that our current economic problems are due to an outdated paradigm in economics, and the wholesale adoption of behavioral problems could help us avoid these reoccurring disasters. I also think that the two system view is relevant to Political Science. I think a compelling reason why people do not vote in their own best interests can be found in the two system view. System 1 is automatic, whereas System 2 requires effort.

The Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain fits well within the two system view. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis, we have learned so much as a result of our aging, that we rely on our old habits and do not make as many demands on our attentional resources. In other words, too heavy a reliance on System 1 at the cost of not engaging System 2 causes cognitive decline because we are not exercising System 2. It’s a matter of use it or lose it.

Thinking, Fast, and Slow is a must read for anyone interested in human cognition. Actually everyone should be interested because it provides examples and insights regarding the errors we make everyday. Although Thinking, Fast, and Slow is certainly not a cure all, it provides us with awareness and does offer some means of coping with our information processing shortcomings.

Note that the book is a best seller, so it is an easy read and not an imponderable academic tome. Kahneman also includes personal stories, especially of his relationship with Amos Tversky, that are interesting and entertaining.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

Paraprosdokians and a Healthy Memory

January 25, 2012

Probably the first question is, “what is a paraprosdokian?” A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that caused the reader or listener to re-frame or re-interpret the first part. Here are some examples1:

I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.

If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.

Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others whenever they go.

I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.

When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

You’re never too old to learn something stupid.

Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

I didn’t say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.

Dolphins are so smart that within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish.

So what do paraprosdokians have to do with a healthy memory? First of all, the show how your memory processes sentences. It is doing it bit by bit constructing a meaning which leads you to expect a certain kind of ending. A paraprosdokian leads you to a different meaning, hopefully humorous, than you expected. So picture what is happening to your brain, certain circuits are being activated, but new circuits must be found to interpret the meaning correctly, and, we hope, appreciate a joke. So it is this activation of memory circuits that can foster memory health.

Now we can think of two ways of processing paraprosdokians. We’ll call one passive because it simply involves reading or hearing a paraprosdokian. Of course, active processing by your brain is required to interpret the paraprosdokian correctly, and, we hope, get the joke.

A second way of processing paraprosdokians we shall call active. This is when you create a new paraproprosdokian. Now this places special demands on your brain circuits and creativity, but it can lead to your perception as a humorous individual who can make friends and influence people.

This activity is similar to punning, but it is less demanding and much less likely to elicit groans than puns do.

Feel free to enter any new paraprosdokians as comments.


A Cognitive Safety Net

January 22, 2012

Prospective memory is the memory “to do” list, that is the memory to do things. A number of Healthymemory Blog posts have addressed failures of prospective memory, some which have been personally embarrassing (“An Embarrassing Failure of Prospective Memory, and “Another Embarrassing Failure of Prospective Memory”), and others that are quite tragic (“Prospective Memory and Technology”), such as leaving a child unattended for a day in a car and returning to find that the child has died. Atul Gawande is a surgeon who has addressed the problems of medical errors during surgery. These errors are documented in his book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Frightening numbers of surgical errors have been taking place every year without being systematically addressed. Dr. Gawande and his fellow researchers have addressed them and come up with a solution that markedly reduces these errors, but only if it is employed. That is the World Health Organization (WHO) safe surgery checklist.

The solution is the humble checklist. Unfortunately, the checklist is too humble, resulting in it being ignored by highly esteemed professionals, such as surgeons. The checklist encompasses both types of transactive memory. It is an external prompt, which can employ one of the simplest technologies, ink or graphite on paper. It also encompasses the social aspect of transactive memory, the memories of fellow human beings. Although checklists can be used by single individuals, it is also frequently used by duets or teams, with each party being responsible for different items on the checklist. For example, a surgical team will introduce themselves to each other and identify the portions of the checklist for which they are responsible. Gawande also gives a detailed account of how checklists were used by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew in safely landing their airliner in the East River.

It is clear that I need to get my personal house in order and start using checklists. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right is highly recommended. It is both entertaining and informative, although perhaps a bit scary in its documentation of medical errors. But reading this book could save your life if you inquire whether they are going to use the World Health Organization (WHO) safe surgery checklist during your surgery. This checklist can be found at

As for checklist applications, searches indicate that a variety are available. If you have any experience with these APPS, please leave comments.

Words With Friends

January 18, 2012

Alec Baldwin is responsible for a large amount of publicity going to the word game Words With Friends, So the Healthymemory Blog does not want to miss the opportunity to say that Words With Friends exemplifies both types of transactive memory, technical and human. As the Healthymemory Blog advocates both types of transactive memory for fostering both memory and brain health, it seems that a few words are in order given the opportunity that Alec Baldwin’s inappropriate behavior has afforded.

The game itself fosters vocabulary building, activates brain circuits searching through memory for appropriate words, as well as strategic thinking. All of which contribute to a healthy memory. Add to this the interaction with your fellow players that in itself is beneficial to a healthy memory.

It would be interesting to see brain imaging studies during the playing of Words with Friends. I would envision a large degree of activation of the hippocampus, the associative cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The competitive aspect of the game might activate the amygdala. I would also wager that glucose metabolism would increase during the playing of the game, but would gradually decrease during the playing of the game as proficiency was gained.

It should be understood that this blog post in no way endorses the behavior of Alex Baldwin, and when the flight attendant tells you to shut down the game, shut down the game.

For readers who might not be so technologically oriented, I would suggest that an older form of technology, a scrabble board, would provide similar benefits.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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 Working Memory

January 15, 2012

As readers of the Healthymemory Blog well know, the primary constraint on cognitive performance is our limitation in working memory. The simplest way of thinking about working memory is that it is the information you can hold at one time. Phone numbers are a common example, although they are less relevant with today’s technology than they use to be. But suppose someone shouts out a phone number you want before you can get to your desk and either write it down or dial it. It is likely that you will need to keep rehearsing the number or it will be forgotten before you return to your desk. Phone numbers might appear to be trivial, but working memory limits the number of ideas you can keep active in your memory at one time. In other words, it limits the number of things that you can actively think about at the same time. Unfortunately, working memory is a function that tends to decline as we age. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the physiological substrate where working memory takes place. It requires glucose to operate. As working memory improves, the rate of glucose metabolism decreases (that is, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex functions more efficiently).

Given the importance of working memory, exercising it to improve its efficiency is highly recommended. Fortunately, there are exercises that do just that. Paul Verhaegen published a paper titled “A Working Memory Workout: How to Expand the Focus of Serial Attention from One to Four Items in 10 Hours or Less” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 30. no.6, 2004. Suppose you toss a handful of coins, somewhere between 10 and 15, and then count the number of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The easiest way to do this is to count each denomination before moving to the next. Unfortunately, this places minimal demands on working memory. If you want to expand your working memory, begin by tossing two denominations of coins. Rather than counting them systematically, count them randomly removing each coin as you count it. Here you need to keep a running count of each denomination in working memory. This should be easy, but do this until you can count each denomination without error. Then move on to three denominations. This will place much greater demands on working memory as you need to keep track of three tallies. Keep doing this until you can do it accurately consistently. This might take some time, multiple days, weeks even. When this is mastered move on to four denominations and keep working until you can keep count of four denominations accurately. This will probably take even more time. But once you reach this point you will have reached what is currently as the capacity of working memory, four items. You can be proud to have a highly efficient dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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 Google Effect and Transactive Memory

January 11, 2012

A brief piece1 in Scientific American Mind reports on some of the results of experiments done by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow. In one of the experiments two groups of undergraduates were presented with trivia statements. One group was told that they could retrieve this information later on their computers, and the other group were told that they could not retrieve this information on the computer. The former group exhibited worse recall than the latter group. This finding should not surprise anyone. Sparrow said that this finding does not mean that the internet is dumbing us down. Rather we are adapting to an internet world.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should realize that relying on the internet is an example of transactive memory. When we can readily access the information on the internet, that is referred to as accessible transactive memory. When we need to search for information on the internet, then that is an example of available transactive memory. All the information that is resident on the internet is part of the vast amount of information in potential transactive memory.

I can imagine tests in the internet age allowing students to bring their computers to class and to access the internet while taking essay examination. The capacity to find and assemble this information into coherent essays should easily be accepted as a valid measure of understanding. It is understood that the essays should include references and links to references.

Still, there are dangers to relying too heavily on transactive memory. There is useful analogy here to physical exercise. Currently, there is technology available to allow some of us to avoid all physical exertion. Unfortunately, making heavy use of this technology can have adverse effects on physical health. Similarly, placing too heavy reliance on transactive memory might have adverse effects on brain health. There are also questions regarding epistemology, how do we know what we know. A reasonable assumption is that information that can be recalled from our personal memories is more deeply encoded and better understood, than information we need to look up in some external source. Too much reliance on transactive memory can led to us becoming familiar with a large amount of information, without having anything akin to mastery with any of it. Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide how well we need to know it. Transactive memory is a great convenience. Committing everything to personal memory would slow us down and limit the breadth of our knowledge. There is this tradeoff between breadth and depth of knowledge that needs careful consideration.

1Casselman, A. (2012). The Google Effect. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 7.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012

January 8, 2012

“31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012” was an article in Newsweek, (2012) Jan 9 & 16, pp. 31-34.  This Healthymemory Blog Post summarizes and categorizes them into the Healthymemory categories:

Human Memory: Theory and Data

Mnemonic Techniques

Transactive Memory

Human Memory: Theory and Data

Eat Tumeric. Turmeric is a spice that contains curcumin, which may reduce dementia’

Tak Tae Kwon Do. or any physical activity that raises your heart rate and requires a lot of coordination.

Eat Dark Chocolate. Chocolate is supposed to have memory improving flavonoids as does red wine.

Join a Knitting Circle. Refining motor ability can benefit cognitive skills.

Wipe the Smile Off Your Face. The act of frowning can make you more skeptical and analytic.

Eat Yogurt. Probiotics may benefit your brain as they have in studies on mice.

Refine Your Thinking Understand how your systems of memory work (System 1 fast; System 2 slow), and learn how to use them for maximum benefit. (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Two System View of Cognition,” “Review of the Washington Post‘s “The Aging Brain,”, and “Disabusing the Myth that Older People Do No Have New Ideas”)

Hydrate. Dehydration forces the brain to work harder and can hinder its planning and decision making ability.

Play an Instrument. This can boost IQ by increasing activity in parts of the brain controlling memory and coordination.

Write By Hand. Brain imaging studies had shown how handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing. It might also help you remember what you have written.

Drink Coffee. Studies have shown that coffee can bolster short-term memory and assist in warding off depression.

Delay Gratification. This can help you focus your attention and increase the probability of achieving your goalss

Mnemonic Techniques.

Build a Memory Palace. Mnemonic techniques can both boost memory and provide cognitive exercise. The Memory Palace is described in the Healthymemory Blog Post “How the Memory Champs Do It.”

Zone Out. Strictly speaking Zoning Out and Meditation are not mnemonic techniques.
They are include under mnemonic techniques as they are specific processes that can enhance memory.

Transactive Memory

Play Words with Friends. Transactive memory involves using both your fellow humans and technology to maintain and enhance a healthy memory.

Get News from Al Jazerra. Using unused sources of information broadens your view and enhances cognition.

Toss Your Smartphone. This involves getting rid of technology that can disrupt your focus and sap your productivity.

Download the TED APP. On the other hand there is information available in technology that fosters cognitive growth.

Go to a Literary Festival is an example of an transactive memory activity that involves your fellow human beings in your cognitive enhancement.

Learn a Language can involve both humans and technology and can genuinely enhance cognitive health.

Play Violent Videogames. Well, perhaps not violent videogames, but appropriately chosen viedogames can quicken reactions and improve multitasking.

Follow These People on Twitter. Although this is an example of transactive memory, the Healthymemory Blog respectfully disagrees and urges you to avoid Twitter (so never mind the “who” part).

Install Supermemo. This software can help you catalog new data and then remind you to remember it before it slips away.

See a Shakespeare Play. Viewing the work of the bard is an example of transactive memory involving interactions with your fellow humans.

Check Out ITUNES U. Top schools put their lectures online at iTunes U in subjects ranging from philosophy to astrophysics.

Visit MOMA. That is the Museum of Modern Art to enhance your cognitive experience.

Become an Expert. Becoming an expert in a subject involves interactions with both your fellow humans and technology.

Write Reviews Online. Be proactive in your use of technology.

Get Out of Town. This involves interacting with humans but remember to bring along your laptop.

In Summary

This should give you some ideas. Feel free to substitute relevant appropriate activities of your own choosing.

Disabusing the Myth that Older People Do Not Have New Ideas

January 3, 2012

A valuable article1 by Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post argued against the common misconception that the best entrepreneurs are young. The article began with a quote from the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla who said, “People under 35 are the people who make change happen. People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.” This is a common misconception.

Wadhwa counters this misconception with research of his own. He and his research team explored the backgrounds of 652 chief executives and heads of product development in 502 successful engineering and technology companies established from 1995 to 2005. The median age of successful founders was 39. Twice as many founder were older than 50 as were younger than 25, and there were twice as many over 60 as under 20. Another researcher, Dane Stangler, analyzing Kaufman Firm Survey Data and the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity found that the average age of U.S. Entrepreneurs is rising, and that the highest rate of entprepreneurial activity shifted to the 55 to 64 age group.

Wadhwa provided further evidence that people do not stop being creative when they reach middle age. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod when he was 44, discovered, electricity at 46, helped draft the Declaration of Independence at 70, and invented bifocals after that. Henry Ford introduced the Model T when he was 45. Sam Walton built Wal-Mart in his mid-40s. Ray Kroc built McDonald’s in his early 50s. Ray Kurzweil published “The Singularity is Near” in his 50’s. Alfred Hitchcock directed “Vertigo” at 59. The architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater, was built by Frank Lloyd Wright when he was 68. Wadwha goes on to note that the most significant innovations of the highly celebrated Steve Jobs, the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, came after he was 45.

Reader’s of the Healthymemory Blog should be aware that these examples of successful aging are due to their continuing to engage their attentional and System Two processes (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts “Review of the Washington Post’s The Aging Brain, More on Attention and Cognitive Control,”, “Passing 65,” “Memory and Aging,” and The Two System View of Cognition.” ) (Note that clicking on the hyperlinks will take you to other articles and not the Healthymemory Blog Posts.  To read the posts, enter the title in the blogs Search Box.)

1Wahwha, V. (2011). Who says the best entrepreneurs are young? Not the numbers. Washington Post, 11 December, G4.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.