Archive for March, 2012

What is the Analogy Between Mental and Physical Exercise?

March 28, 2012

There is a clear analogy between mental, or cognitive, exercise and physical exercise. Athletes will engage in mental exercise that benefits their physical performance. So ice skaters and gymnasts will mentally rehearse their routines. Divers will run through their dives in their mind. Batters might imagine hitting that hanging curve ball out of the park. Physical exercise can enlarge your hippocampus (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”. The mental demands of memorizing and navigating all the streets of London enlarges the hippocampus of apprentice London cab drivers preparing for their licensing exam.

So both cognitive and physical exercise assist in keeping and enhancing a healthy memory. A modern society provides many devices that keep us from doing physical exercise, so some people decide to by pass these devices and walk to the store and climb the stairs to derive the benefits of physical exercise.

Similarly, there are many devices that help us avoid cognitive exercise. Spell checkers were discussed in the immediately preceding blog post. But we can rely on digital devices to relieve our memories of needing to remember phone numbers, addresses, or appointments. We can look up information as needed on the internet. So our cognitive demands have been reduced substantially analogous to our physical demands.

So why not consider eschewing some of this technology to afford cognitive exercise similar to taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or walking rather than driving to some destination? Use your personal memory rather than transactive memory. You will find a host of techniques for remembering information under the Healthymemory Blog category “Mnemonic Techniques.” There are also free websites to help you master these techniques see

http://www.neuromod.org/ and http://www.thememorypage.net/. Still, for very important appointments I recommend that you use transactive memory as a backup and either write it down or enter it into your digital device! (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “An Embarrassing Failure of Transactive Memory,” and “Another Embarrassing Failure of Transactive Memory)

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

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Do We Still Need to Know How to Spell?

March 25, 2012

Well, we need to know how to spell enough to give the spell checkers something with which to work. But beyond that, do we really need to know how to spell? Can’t we rely upon transactive memory (technology)? We could, but there are reasons why we might not want to.

One of these reasons is for mental exercise. The neuroscientist Richard Restak provided these observations he made while watching a spelling bee.1 He noted the looks of effortful strain whenever they were asked words in which the pronunciation provides little information regarding their spelling. Words like that are difficult because the contestant must activate a different part of the brain in order to spell the word correctly. These words activate areas of the brain that process word meaning, such as the frontal and parietal lobes, which process printed text. Regular words preferentially activate part of the superior temporal lobe that is devoted toe spelling of words in which the sound corresponds closely with the letters.

You might think that you left these spelling bees behind when you left school. Be advised that there are spelling bees for adults. The National Adult Spelling Bee is held yearly in Long Beach, California (www.adultspellingbee.com). Dr. Restak contacted the winner of the 2007 winner of the National Adult Spelling Bee, Hal Prince. He wasn’t especially interested in words or spelling until his early fifties. Here is the explanation Prince provided about his methods: “First, I went through the dictionary recommended by the Bee page by page. I made a database of words for drilling and also made tests of the words for listening while commuting or running. I borrowed or bought every book about words that I could find and went through them to find words that looked interesting.”

When Dr. Restak asked Prince if he attributed his success to a “gift” for spelling, Prince responded,”While I think that I do have a facility for words and spelling, I suspect that it’s more like a top10 percent rather that a top .01 percent. Mostly, it’s just a matter of being interested in words and taking the time to study them.”

So spelling can provide mental exercise and contribute to brain and memory health. Is there any other reason? It can contribute to your understanding of etymology (the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time). This, in turn, can increase your understanding of English (or whatever language you’re spelling in) and increase your communication skills.

Searching for “Spelling Test Online” in your browser will provide a variety of possible resources.

1Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books., p. 132.

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

Peripersonal Space

March 21, 2012

Peripersonal space (PPS) is defined as a force field that can be thought of as a virtual envelope around the skin’s surface that expands the body’s boundaries.1 It is PPS that provides a margin of error that enables us to consistently avoid walking into people as we pass by. This PPS actually extends to machinery and technology we use and is a factor in reducing collisions between motor vehicles. When we say that a person has become one with her cell phone or iPod, we mean that it has become one with her PPS. In baseball, the bat becomes part of the batter’s PPS (as does the glove when on defense). When we are eating, our PPS extends to our eating utensils.

The PPS of blind people includes the cane such as the space around the tip of the cane is as sensitive to touch as the space surrounding the hand. Neurons that detect both sound and touch also operate such that the blind person reacts as quickly to a sound originating from the tip of the cane as he would if it occurred close to the hand. An experiment by Italian scientists had sighted subjects use these canes to find objects placed on the floor of a darkened room. In this short ten minute experiment the PPSs of the sighted subjects came to resemble the PPS of the blind who regularly use the cane. The sighted subjects became as sensitive to touch and sound events originating at the tip of their canes as to similar events occurring near their hands. Unfortunately, this extended PPS did not last long after the experiment ended.

One of the most effective means of enhancing PPS is through the Chinese exercise, tai chi. Tai chi is an exercise in which slow choreographed movements are performed. These slow motions are performed as the practitioner is simultaneously focusing attention on specific body areas, especially the hands and the fingers. Experienced tai chi practitioners develop a tactile acuity in the fingers similar to that of certain musicians and blind braille readers. Tai chi may create a plasticity in the brain similar to musicians who play keyboard and string instruments, read Braille, or perform other activities that require finely toned fingertip sensitivity. “There is a strong connection between tactile spatial acuity at the fingertips and measures of brain function,”2

It should be noted that the benefits of tai chi extend beyond PPS. There are also benefits to psychological and physical health. You can learn tai chi by purchasing DVD videos, or by visiting a tai chi center in your local area. These can be readily found via Google searches.

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

2 Kerr, C.E. et al.(2007). Tactile Acuity in Tai Chi Practioners. Society for Neuroscience, presentation 74.1.

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

Attend to Your Senses

March 18, 2012

Failures of memory are primarily due to failures in attention. Either you were distracted and did not pay attention or you were just failing to attend and registering what was going on around you.1 It is true that typically more is going on around you for you to attend to all of it, but, if you are like me, you often fail to attend to any of it. According to Dr. Restak, “…the first step to an enhanced memory involves exercises in sharpening our senses.”2

Actors are encouraged to perform sense-memory exercises. Here is an example. After filling a cup of coffee conduct a detailed sensory analysis of every aspect of a cup of coffee for fifteen minutes (this exercise is recommended to be repeated on a daily basis). Every visual aspect of the cup was to be examined in detail, to include the height of the cup, its diameter, its color, its material composition and the dimension’s of the cup’s handle. Look for the ridges of the cup’s lips, and note the shape and color of the artwork or ceramic design on the cup. Also check for the shape and color of any reflections from the lights of the room that might be visible on the cup. After every possible question regarding the visible aspects of light have been considered, repeat the exercise with the other senses smell and touch.

For a sound memory exercise, focus on the ambient sounds around you. You want to do this in a quiet area that allows you to distinguish individual sounds clearly. How many sounds can you hear? Can you identify them. Concentrate on one sound at a time and try to write down as many features as you can that enables you to distinguish it from other sounds. You can try the same exercise with bird songs. CDs are available of bird songs, which you can play and learn. There are also CDs of other animals such as frogs. Also listen to human speech and try to distinguish and identify different nuances. Record a conversation and try to mentally recall everything that was said in its correct sequence.

Do not forget the sense of touch. Arrange articles of clothing made with different materials on a bed and try to identify them by touch alone. Try to identify objects in your closet by touch alone. Randomly set out similar-sized objects, and sort them with your eyes closed, trying to identify each one by touch alone.

Nor should you forget taste and smell. Exercises can be found in the nearest garden, spice rack, or wine tasting group. Take a number of spices at random and set them on a table. Try to identify each spice by smell alone. Sometimes you might need to add the sense of taste to make the identification.

Sensory motor exercises can also be quite beneficial. No part of the body is more functionally linked to the brain than the hands. Any activity requiring finger dexterity enhances the brain. So, playing a musical instrument (particularly keyboard and string instruments), and hobbies such as knitting, model ship or train building, bike repair, painting, carpentry, painting and drawing are quite beneficial.

So attend to and sharpen your sense memory!

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

2Ibid., p.78.

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

Forgetting Is Important to a Healthy Memory

March 14, 2012

The common complaint is forgetting. Consequently the importance of forgetting is overlooked. A recent article1 provides a strong reminder of the importance of forgetting. The famous study of someone who remembered everything he experienced or tried to remember is recounted in a book by the Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist. Although this person made a good living giving demonstrations of his phenomenal memory, he regarded his exceptional talent as a curse. He wanted to forget, but he could not. His was truly a pathological case.

Traumas, in particular, and unpleasant thoughts, are things we want to forget. There unwelcome recall makes our lives unpleasant and can lead to depression and serious mental problems. We should all be aware of the benefits of optimism, and these memories make it difficult to be optimistic.

Fortunately, we can learn to forget and Michael Anderson and his colleagues have developed an experimental paradigm that not only shows that we can, but shows how to forget more effectively.2 Here’s how the experiment works. The first stage is simple paired associate learning. Words are paired and the research participants learn to recall the second word when the first word is presented.

In the second stage some of these same word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked to think about the second word when the first is presented. However some of the word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked not to think about the second word when the first word is presented. And some of the word pairs are not presented and serve as controls for the third stage of the procedure.

In the third stage the research participants are given the first word of all the three sets of the word pairs that have been presented. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked to think about both words in the second stage recalled the most words. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked not to think about the second word remembered the fewest words (showed the most forgetting) and the word pairs that were not presented during the second stage were recalled second best. So even those words that were seen less than the words with the forget instructions were better remembered. It is also interesting to note that forgetting increases as a function of the number of “not think” trials. So we can control our forgetting.

According to the theoretical account of these results that have been substantiated by brain imaging studies, the prefrontal cortex is the executive control area that inhibits the activity of the hippocampus, which is a primary subcortical structure for learning and apparently also for forgetting.

You might still be curious as to how to make yourself forget things you don’t want to remember. Well, technically you are not forgetting them. Rather you are instructing yourself not to think about them, so they will not pop up unwanted in your consciousness. In the experiment the research participants were implicitly recalling the words but instructing themselves not to think about them. This led to the nonintuitive finding that the more times they did this, the less likely they were to recall them.

Anderson and his colleagues have also presented research indicating that our ability to exercise this voluntary forgetting declines as we age.3 However, other research has failed to find this result and concluded that there was no difference in the ability to forget between old and young research participants4. The only difference I could find between the two studies, besides the second study using German research participants, and the first study using U.S. research participants, was that the elderly research group was slightly older in the U.S. than in the German study.

Regardless, I am not impressed by research showing that older research participants perform more poorly than younger research participants without providing any suggestions as to how the deficit might be remediated. Given the importance of the prefrontal cortex for deliberate forgetting I would suggest the possible benefit of exercising the prefrontal cortex (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Working Memory”).

1Wickelgren, I. (2012). Trying to Forget. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 33-39.

2Anderson, M.C. (2009). Suppressing Unwanted Memories, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 189-194.

3Anderson, M.C., Reinholz, J., Kuhl, B., & Mayr, U. (2011). Psychology and Aging, 26, 397- 405.

4Alp, A., Bauml, K-H, & Pastotter, B. (2007). No Inhibitory Deficit in Older Adults’ Episodic Memory, Psychological Science, 18, 72-78.

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

Supertaskers

March 11, 2012

What is this? After a couple of blog posts on the dangers of multitasking comes a post on supertaskers? Well, the extensive research by Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah (my alma mater) has identified certain people as supertaskers.1 In their database of research participants, they found individuals who had virtually identical scores for doing either just one or both activities. Out of a database of 700 participants, only 19 (2.7%) met this criterion.

They did a follow up study with 16 of these supertaskers and a group of control participants matched with respect to single-task scores, working-memory capacity, gender, and age. Then they had these participants concurrently maintain and manipulate separate visual and auditory streams of information while they imaged their brains. Significant differences were found between the two groups in their patterns of neural activation. Supertaskers showed less activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. The control participants showed more activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. Supertaskers seemed to be able to keep their brains cool under a heavy load. Supertaskers differed most from controls in three frontal brain areas that had been identified in earlier neuropsychological research: the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers found that the frontopolar cortex to be the most intriguing brain region that separated the supertaskers from the controls. They said that comparative studies with humans and great apes indicate that this area is relatively larger and more richly interconnected in humans, whereas other frontal cortical areas are more equivalent in size and connectivity. They speculate that “The emergence of human’s multitasking ability, however flawed, might be a relatively recent evolutionary change in hominid brains, helping to distinguish humans from other animals. In addition, neuropsychological patients with more extensive frontopolar damage have been shown to be more impaired in multitasking”2

The authors go on to speculate about the possible role of a particular gene. They note that whether multitaskers are just an extreme on a continuum or are qualitatively different remains an open question. It should be remembered that these are supertaskers in a relative sense, that is they are supertaskers with respect to other humans. I am curious to know what happens when the total information load is increased. Does the performance of both tasks suffer equally or does the supertasker become similar to the rest of us humans, sacrificing one task for the other. I am also curious as to whether appropriate training and deliberate practice (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice”), more of us might become supertaskers.

As I cautionary note, I would advise against self assessments as to your supertasking abilities. Remember that those who think they are good multitaskers, tend to be the poorest multitaskers.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

2Ibid.p.29

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

Phoning and Driving Is As Dangerous as Drinking and Driving

March 7, 2012

Perhaps the multitasking that presents the most immediate risk to the most people is driving while speaking on the phone. Phoning while driving is as dangerous as driving while drunk (BAC >0.08). This has been demonstrated in David Strayer’s laboratory at the University of Utah.1 I’m especially proud as I received my doctorate from the University of Utah. His laboratory includes a sophisticated driving simulator.

It is important to realize that it is the attentional demands of phoning that distract from driving that make it dangerous. Somehow it was thought that if phoning were made hands free it would be safe. It does not, as it is just as dangerous. A recent study could not find any benefits of state laws requiring hands free phone well driving. These results were not surprising as the use of hands is irrelevant. State legislatures did a lot of work to produce a law that did not address the problem. Most people tend to be defensive and not accept this finding because it is convenient to phone and drive. For example, they might argue that they converse all the time in their cars and have yet to have an accident. There is a critical difference between conversations that take place within a car and conversations with someone in a distant location. People in the car tend to have situation awareness regarding the driving situation and can even offer help. A remote individual has no idea of what you are dealing with on the road. Or someone might argue that they sometimes have to deal with unruly children while they are driving. I am always amused when someone cites something that is just as dangerous or more dangerous for doing something dangerous. One could argue that texting while driving is more dangerous than phoning while driving, so therefore it is justified. Phoning and driving is dangerous. DON’T DO IT!

It is true that under normal driving conditions with nothing unexpected happening, it is not likely that you will have an accident. However, it is also true that most people driving with BAC’s close to the driving under the influence threshold also would be unlikely to have an accident. People with BAC’s at that level are unlikely to be found weaving across the road. It would be nice if our legal system were consistent; but it appears to be, for the most part, arbitrary.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

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

The Dangers of MultiTasking

March 4, 2012

A common notion is that young people who have grown up with technology have effectively rewired their brains for multitasking and are proficient at multitasking. This common notion is wrong according to research.1 A group of psychologists at UCLA led by Karin Foerde conducted an experiment to determine whether multitasking impairs learning. They trained 14 participants to perform a single task, predicting the weather based on certain cues. Their brains were scanned while they did this. Their brains were also scanned while they did this task and had a secondary task added to it, keeping count of the number of high pitched auditory tones in a series of auditory tones.

The participants were able to perform both tasks, but they paid a cognitive cost when they performed both tasks. When they performed the weather task alone they used a region of the brain that enables us to apply knowledge gained to other situations when needed (System 2 processing). However, when they performed both tasks at once, they activated a part of their brain linked with habit learning (System 1 processing), The psychologist William James knew this more than one hundred years ago when he wrote that “we can’t easily do more than one thing at once, “unless the processes are very habitual.”2 So if anything surprising or unusual is encountered, it is likely to be missed.

Subsequently, a group of researchers at Stanford classified a group of participants as whether heavy or light multitaskers. They administered a series of cognitive tests, each designed to measure some aspect of distractibility to see which group handled the load better. They were surprised to find that compared to light multitaskers, the heavy multitaskers did a worse job filtering out irrelevant distractions, had a harder time ignoring irrelevant memories, and took a longer time switch from one task to another. Now both groups performed the same on tasks when there were no distractions. But it appears that the heavy multitaskers “may be sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information.3

The problem is that people typically are not aware of this loss in performance. Other researchers4 found that people who were high in real-world multitasking not only had lower working-memory capacity, but also were more impulsive and sensation-seeking. Worse yet, they rated their own ability to multitask as higher than average. So their perceived ability and actual ability to multitask were inversely related. It appears that overconfidence rather than skill drives this proliferation of multitasking. The fear is that academic activity will receive less focused time, resulting in cursory processing of information and shoddy outcomes.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Rewired: Cognition in the Digital Age. Observer, 25,2, 16-20. A Publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

2James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psycholog. NY: Holt.

3. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, E.D., Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583-15587.

4Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

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