Archive for May, 2012

Healthymemory’s 300th Post

May 30, 2012

There will be a very short hiatus until post 301. Still, there should be plenty of interest here. The Healthymemory Blog is for anyone interested in the processes of human memory and in maintaining and growing a healthy memory. As someone on the leading edge of the baby boomers, I think that this is one demographic group that should be especially interested. The three main categories are Human Memory: Theory and Data, Mnemonic Techniques, and Transactive Memory. Human Memory: Theory and data includes posts about memory experiments and theories about memory and related cognitive processes. Mnemonic Techniques includes posts about classic memory techniques, as well retrieval strategies and study techniques. Different meditation practices are also included here as they have beneficial effects on memory. Transactive Memory includes posts about how technology and interactions with your fellow humans can not only help in maintaining a healthy memory, but also how to grow your memory and enhance your life.

Interested in a specific topic. Try using the search box. Enter “retrieval” and see what you get.

Enter “dreaming” and see what you get. Enter “cognitive exercise.” Baby Boomers, try entering “retirement.”

Enjoy, and maintain and grow your memories.

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Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?

May 27, 2012

Personally, I am very large on technology. In my view, technology, properly developed and applied, can leverage human potential. That is one of the underlying views of the Healthymemory Blog, that technology can grow and enhance human potential (see the “Transactive Memory” category). Some of my primary interests and supposed areas of expertise are in human factors and engineering psychology. These areas are concerned with the interactions of humans with technology and in how technology can be designed so it can achieve maximum use. Had anyone asked me many years ago if hand held devices would become popular, I would have opined that they would not, because the keyboards and displays would be way too small. It’s a good thing that no one ever asked me!

I am thrilled by certain types of technology. Email is one of my favorites. In my world, there is no protocol involving email other than not to spam or otherwise annoy people with messages that are not of interest to them. So they can be short or long and can be sent at anytime. You do not have to be concerned about the time, because the recipient can view them at leisure. When you send an email there can be no question of what you wrote and when sent it. Of course, there is no guarantee that the recipient either read or understood your message. A few years ago I learned from a young lady that my protocol was out of date. If a message was short, email was inappropriate, whereas a text message was. I still do not understand why there was a need to complicate matters.

I don’t understand texting. I never text and I never read texts. When I receive a text message on my phone that I have received x number of text messages and asked if I want to read them now, I invariably respond “no.” These messages will never be read. I find inputting a text to be a nuisance. If time is of the essence, then I’ll phone. Otherwise, I much prefer waiting until I can get to a computer with a decent keyboard to texting.

So I have admitted to having a mobile phone. And I do like them, but mostly when I’m traveling. They most definitely should not be used when we are driving (see the Healthymemory Blog post “Phoning and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving”), but I must confess to using the phone briefly while driving in certain situations. Although I have a mobile phone, it is not one of the smart ones. It is a rare circumstance when I have not gathered all the information I need before leaving my residence to go or do something. I was awarded one of those navigation devices for so many years of service with my company, but I have not installed it and my wife has no interest in my installing it. I like to have my directions in advance, with an accompanying map in the event that things go wrong. I don’t like getting my directions on the fly, particularly in the dynamic (or more accurately, chaotic) traffic in which I usually drive. Perhaps I am adapting to a diminished ability to multitask as I age. But even with a younger person at the wheel, I am not comfortable as a passenger when the driver is consulting the navigation gizmo in rapidly changing traffic. I suspect that some traffic accidents occur as a result of drivers interacting with their navigation devices.

There is a popular notion that due to the prevalence of all these devices, the brains of young people have been rewired for multitasking. Although young people might be more prone to multitasking, they do pay a cognitive cost (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Dangers of Multitasking”). It is important to realize that we are very poor at gauging our ability to multitask. There is an inverse relationship between the perceived ability to multitask and actual multitasking performance. So the unfortunate tendency is that those who are poorest at it, tend to do more of it.

To return to the title of this post, “Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?” Am I missing out on technology that is of potential value to me? Or am I adapting my use of technology to my waning attentional abilities? Please enter your comments, recommendations, and advice.

© 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.

Passing 66

May 23, 2012

A couple of weeks back I passed my 66th birthday. This occasion caused me to reflect on the retirement advertisements I see on TV. There is one where a couple is flying in a private plane to a lakeside villa as they view whales playing on the water. The underlying theme here is with adequate retirement funds, this is what your retirement will be; with the proper retirement plan, this can be yours.

The problem is that there are two factors critical to retirement planning that are unknown. The first is how long we will live. We might expire later today or we could live to be well into our hundreds given future medical advances. We also don’t know what will happen to our investments. The regulations that were made to our most recent financial catastrophic were fairly modest. There is also the prospect of the financial system collapsing as a result of cyberwarfare. Then there is also the prospect of a Coronal Mass Ejection wiping out all the electronic systems for over a decade. Now there is the idea of a bucket list that includes everything we want to do before expiring. This can work given adequate resources, our living long enough, and the absence of cataclysmic financial events.

My least favorite advertisement is of someone waking up on the first day of retirement joyful that they did not have to get up and that they have nothing to do. I’ll grant that person, one joyful day, perhaps two. But to live life without meaningful challenges is to increase the likelihood of dementia and to put one foot in the grave. There is a Japanese word Ikigai which roughly translated as “the reason for which we wake up in the morning” (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Importance of Ikigai”. Countries that have lower retirement ages tend also to have lower ages for the onset of dementia. If you retire from work it is important to have activities that keep you both physically and mentally active.

A Healthymemory blog reader emailed me an article “Working 9 to 5 – at 75”1 (thank you Healthymemory Blog reader). There was a story about a 73 year old who was commuting 90 miles each way, and enjoying it. The article states that “…working well into one’s seventh decade is a scenario that has become—seemingly overnight—relatively commonplace.” Although financial pressures seemed to be the major motivating factor, they were enjoying the work they were doing. It was fulfilling. It provided Ikigai. It is also likely extending their lifespans and extending or warding off dementia.

So passing 66 is not particularly significant. I am continuing in my job. The best means of surviving a financial collapse is by having and keeping a job. More importantly, it is keeping me mentally and socially engaged, but I do need to do more physical exercise. Regardless of my employment status, I plan to stay mentally and physically active.

1http://finance.yahoo.com/news/working-9-to-5—-at-75.html

Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness

May 20, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with nonjudgmental awareness.

Dr. Davidson recommends open-monitoring meditation, in which your attention is not focused on any particular object. Instead you cultivate an awareness of awareness itself. Before beginning this type of meditation, Dr. Davidson recommends beginning with focused-attention meditation such as breath meditation to to give you a level of basic attentional stability. This should make open-monitoring meditation.

He provides the following basics of open-minded meditation:

“1. Sit in a quiet room with a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep your eyes open or closed whichever is more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.

      1. Maintain a clear awareness and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid and transparent.

      2. Lightly attend to whatever object rises to the top of your consciousness, but do not latch on to it. You want to observe the thinking process itself, perhaps saying to yourself, Oh, I notice that the first thing I think about as I sit down to meditate is…

      3. Give your full attention to the most current salient object of consciousness, focusing on it to the exclusion of anything else, but without thinking about it. That is, you are simply aware of it, observing it as disinterestedly as possible, but do not explore it intellectually.

      4. Generate a state of total openness, in which the mind is as vast as the sky, able to welcome and absorb any stray thought, feeling, or sensation like a new star that begins shining. When thoughts arise, simply let them pass through your mind without leaving any trace of it. When you perceive noises, images, tastes, or other sensations, let them be as they are without engaging with them or rejecting them. Tell yourself that they can’t affect the serene equanimity of your mind.

      5. If you notice your mind moving toward thought or feeling, let it do so, letting the newcomer slip into consciousness. Unlike in attention-strengthening forms of meditation, you do not try to shoo away the “intruding” thought, but allow your mind to turn to it. The key difference between breath-focused attention discussed previously is that in open-monitoring meditation there is no single focus to which the attention is redirected if it wanders. Rather, you simply become aware of whatever is in the center of attention at the moment.

      6. Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.

      7. Do this for five to ten minutes.2

Dr. Davidson lists the following meditation centers that offer courses, books, and CDs on open-monitoring meditation: Insight meditation Society in Barre, MA; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodcare, CA; and Tergar Meditation Group in Minneapolis, MN.

Dr. Davidson did a study in 2009 in which it was found that practitioner of open-monitoring meditation showed phase locking in their EEGs. That is, their brain waves were modulated to make them more receptive to outside stimuli. It is somewhat ironic to note that this phase locking is also an indication of selective attention as we noted in the “Attentional Style” Healthymemory Blog Post. But as it was noted in that blog post, these two types of attention complement each other.

You can also alter your environment to expand your attentional awareness. Put books and magazines around to tempt yourself to read something new. Keep your room or office open to the outside world. Place photos of loved ones on your desk so you can glance at them as you work. Set the alarm on your cell phone or computer to chirp every twenty to thirty minutes to cue you to think of something else.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. pp. 240-241.

Improving Selective Attention

May 16, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with improving selective attention. Selective attention involves the enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.

Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation for improving selective attention. The following section, copied for your convenience from the immediately preceding Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Self-Awareness”, is how Dr. Davidson recommends that you begin mindfulness meditation.

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

He also recommends the Body Scan, which is also copied from the preceding Healthymemory Blog post for your convenience.

Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

      1. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

Dr. Davidson also recommends the following focused attention meditation, also known as one-pointed meditation.

“1. In a quiet room free of distractions, sit with you eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that your focus of attention be visual, rather than on your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.

      1. Focus all your attention on this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.

      2. If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.”2

        He recommends that you do this daily for about ten minutes. Once you are able to maintain your focus of attention for most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month until you reach one hour.

You can also modify your environment to improve your selective attention. Minimize distractions, clear out your environment eliminating as many distractions as you can. Close your door. AND DO NOT MULTITASK!

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2 Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. p.239.

Improving Self Awareness

May 13, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Self-Awareness”, it would be good to do so before reading this post on improving self-awareness. Self-Awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable in that there can be too much or too little of it. People with high levels of Self-Awareness have greater activation of their insula, whereas people with low levels of Self-Awareness have low activation of their insula. However, more than the insula is involved. How outputs from the insula are interpreted are also critical. For this reason mindfulness meditation provides a good method of achieving an optimal level of self-awareness. The following advice is taken from Dr. Davidson’s book.1 This advice can also be found in the “Improving Resilience” post.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

Dr. Davidson also recommends what he calls the “body scan”.

        1. Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

        2. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

        3. Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

A 2008 study found that people who had practice mindfulness meditation every day for about eight years had larger insula that people of the same age and sex who did not meditate.2 This apparent paradox of a practice that increases the size of the insula but does not produce pathological levels of self-awareness is resolved when it is realized that these meditative practices also improve and modulate the messages from the insula.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Holzel, B.K., Ott, U. Gard, T. Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K., Vaitl, D. (2008). Investigation of Mindfulness Meditatin Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affeciive Neuroscience. 3, 55-61.

Improving Your Sensitivity to Social Context

May 9, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context,” it is recommended that you do so before reading this current post. This post will deal with ways of diminishing or eliminating social contexts that make you feel frightened or uncomfortable. It is based on The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a pathological condition in which a person, due to past traumatic experiences, becomes frightened inappropriately in a relatively innocuous environment. Exposure therapy has proven successful in treating this disorder just as it has with phobias of specific objects or situations. Exposure therapy involves progressively more direct exposure to cues that are associated with the trauma, but in a safe context. For example, if someone had a fear of flying you might first have them watch movies about flying. Then you might drive them to the airport. You might make several trips each involving more exposure to airplanes. Then you might arrange sitting I an airplane while its on the ground. Finally, you might arrange a series of progressively longer flights in an airplane.

Dr. Davidson recommends the following exercise for gradually inuring yourself to cues that make you anxious or angry.1

1. To help you relax, start with a breathing exercise from hatha yoga. With your eyes closed attend to your breathing as you would in mindfulness meditation, counting the duration of each inhalation and exhalation.

      1. Once, you have counted several breaths, lengthen you breathing cycle so that it takes one more second. Keep increasing their length as long as it feels comfortable.

      2. Pay attention to whether inhalation and exhalation are the same length. If one is longer, try to increase the length of the other so that they both are about the same length. Do this for five minutes and then open your eyes.

After you feel comfortable with this exercise, you can move on to context training.2

      1. Make a list of the cues or behaviors that upset you. Form images of these cues or behaviors. Be as specific and as detailed as you can.

      2. In a safe context conjure up these images in as much detail as possible.

      3. At the same time, practice the breathing exercise described just before this one. Continue to do this until you feel comfortable with the images you formed. Continue at this for about fifteen minutes.

        Dr. Davidson writes that you should experience from doing this after four sessions, and that the hour spent doing this is well worth it.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Ibid.

Improving Social Intuition

May 6, 2012

If you have not yet read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context” it is recommended that you read about it before considering improving it. These recommendations for improving social intuition can be found in The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley. It you have already read “Social Intuition” then you might anticipate that he would advise you to pump up your fusiform activity and quiet your amygdala activity. In practical terms he offers the following advice:

“1. Start with strangers. When you are out in public pick a couple or a small group of friends and discreetly watch them. Pay particular attention to their faces, which communicate so much social information. Remind yourself to look at other people’s faces when you watch them, and, particularly when you interact with them.

  1. See how well you can predict how they will touch each other (or not), how close they will walk together, whether they will look into each other’s eyes when speaking.

  2. Get close enough to overhear them (assuming you can do this unobtrusively. I recommend doing this is a crowded public place such as a party, a packed department store, or a jammed movie theater lobby). See if their tone of voice seems to match their body language and facial expression.

  3. If not, then you are probably misunderstanding something. Take note of that and apply this lesson to the next people you observe.

  4. Once you feel confident that you can tell what people are feeling, try it with friends or colleagues.”1

    I have the utmost respect for Dr Davidson, but I would strongly advise against staring into a stranger’s face or eyes. This can lead to uncomfortable situations. I also cannot understand why he recommends working with strangers rather than friends first.

    He also offers exercises for becoming proficient at interpreting specific cues.

    1. When you are in a public place where friends are chattering or at an airport terminal close you eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune in to specific voices and focus on the tone rather than the content.

      1. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys. The open your eyes and see what comes next. Were you able to anticipate it based on your interpretation of the tone.

      2. Now repeat the exercise with posture and body language (without closing your eyes, of course).

      3. Designate one channel, tone of voice or body language, and concentrate on it throughout the entire day.

      4. The next day switch to the other channel and repeat the exercise.

Dr. Davidson write that you should see results after a short period of time.

Now some people might be too tuned in to social cues. For example, someone might be excessively tuned in to social cues and will always be trying to please other people. Dr. Goldman would say that such people need to give their fusiform a respite. They should try to focus on other parts of the environment and increase their amount of introspection.

The next Healthymemory Blog post will deal with improving your sensitivity to context.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

© 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.

Improving Resilience

May 2, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Resilience,” it is suggested that you do this now. Before it can be improved you must understand what resilience is and roughly where you stand on the resilience dimension. Resilience is one of Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1. Dr. Davidson stresses that you can adjust your emotional style and provides suggestions as to how you can do so.

If you are slow to recover from emotional setbacks, Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness produces emotional balance and helps you recover, but not too quickly, from emotional setbacks. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and wallowing in a setback. Mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala promoting equanimity and braking the obsessive associations.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

  1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.
        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Goldman writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

If mindfulness training does not work for you, Dr. Goldman suggests cognitive reappraisal therapy.

On the other hand, if you are too close to the fast to recover end of the resilience dimension try a type of meditation from Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen,which means “taking and receiving.” This meditation is designed to foster compassion and involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in that suffering and transforming it into compassion. This is very effective at fostering empathy. Dr. Goldman recommends doing the following exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

      1. Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. The closer this person is to you , the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. You can also visualize a generic sufferer, such as someone starving in Africa, or a cancer patient in a hospice.

      2. Imagine the suffering leaving this person as you inhale. Conjure an image of the suffering leaving this person’s body like fog dissipating as the sun burns it off.

      3. On each exhalation imagine that the suffering is turned into compassion. Direct this compassion towards this person. As you exhale imaging your breath flowing towards this person with a gift of empathy and love that will assuage the pain.

You can also arrange your environment to accommodate variations in resilience style. To speed up recovery from adversity leave the situation where the adversity occurred and go to a place les emotionally charged. To slow down your recovery, do the opposite.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.