Archive for July, 2012

VENs: the Key to Consciousness?

July 28, 2012

VENs stands for Von Economo Neurons. Constantin von Economo was the neuroscientist who discovered these neurons.1 VENs are quite distinctive in appearance. They are at least 50 per cent and sometimes up to 200 percent larger that typical neurons. They have a long spindly cell body with a single projection at each end and very few branches. They are quite rare. They make up just about one per cent of the neurons in two small areas of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex. The ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of cognition and feeling. They make up a social monitoring network that keeps track of social cues so that we can react appropriately.

The ACC and FI keep a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and direct attention to the most important events as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes. Both these brain regions are active when we recognize our reflection in a mirror. This suggests that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self. It is a key component of consciousness providing a sense of self identify and a sense of the identity of others. They provide the sense of how we feel.

The notion is that VENs provide a fast relay system, a kind of social superhighway that allows the gist of a situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively. This is a crucial survival skill in social species such as our own. VENs are also found in social mammals.

People with fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease. The main symptom of the diseases is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy, and self-control.

According to one study2 people with autism fall into two groups. One group consists of those who have too few VENs, so they might not have the necessary wiring to process social cues. The other group consists of those who have far too many VENs. Having too many VENS might make emotional systems fire intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed.

Another study3 found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes, The notion is that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute has pointed out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. He said, “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the brain. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilization that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”4

The author of the New Scientist article concludes “If he’s right—and there is a long way to go before we can be sure—it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might been a big, and very successful accident.”5

Although I am excited by the possibility that the neurological basis of consciousness has been found, I am disturbed by their reductionist conclusions. Most of us assume that there is a neural basis for consciousness. But the finding of this neural basis does not prove that consciousness is an epiphenomenon (not real). The next post will provide evidence regard the reality and purpose of consciousness.

1Williams, C. (2012). The Conscious Connection. New Scientist, 21 July, 33-35.

3PloS One, vol 6, pe20936).

4Op cit.p. 35

5Ibid.

© 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.

Glial Cells and Working Memory

July 25, 2012

When I was a graduate student, glial cells presented a problem. No one seemed to know their function, yet there were so many of them. Gradually we are gaining insight into their important functions (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Our Neurons Make Up only 15 Percent of our Brain Cells,” “Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease,” and “Alzheimer’s and Amyloid Plaques.”) A recent study reported in Scientific American Mind1 indicates that certain types of glial cells might play a role in conscious thought. Astrocytes, a type of glia, appear to play an important role in short term or working memory.

It is well known that marijuana plays a role is disrupting short term memory. Although this might be fine for recreational uses of the drug, it can be disconcerting to those who are taking it for medical reasons to relieve pain. The experiment was done by Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux in France and his colleagues. They removed the cannabinoid receptors that respond to marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient THC. These mice were just as poor at memorizing the location of a hidden platform in a water pool. However, when the receptors were removed from the astrocytes, the mice could find the platform just fine while on THC.

Of course, we are generalizing findings from research on mice to humans. Although one should be caution, many such generalizations have held up in the past. You can understand why research like this is difficult to perform with humans. Mariscano made the following statement: “It is likely that astrocytes have many more functions than we thought. Certainly their role in cognition is no being revealed.”

Fortunately the pain-relieving property of THC appears to work through the neurons, so it might be possible to design THC-type drugs that target neurons, and not glia, so that pain relief can be provided without the cognitive disruptions.

1Williams, R. (2012). What Marijuana Reveals About Memory. Scientific American Mind, July/August, p.10.

© 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.

Progress Making Higher Education More Affordable

July 22, 2012

I was heartened by a short piece in Newsweek1 that addressed some concerns I raised in the Healthymemory Blog Post, “A Solution to the Excessive Cost of a Higher Education.” According the the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the costs of a higher education have skyrocketed 450 percent in the past 25 years. As I argued in my blog post, the proper use of technology should have decreased, not increased, the costs of a higher education.

Apparently, two professors of computer science at Stanford University, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng agree. They believe that the Internet should allow millions of people to receive first-class educations at little or no cost. They have launched Coursera, www.coursear.org, to make courses from first rate universities online at no charge to anyone. They offer full courses to include homework assignments, examinations, and grades. Go to the website to view the wide range of course offerings. It is worthwhile to note, that professors are not paid. So kudos to these professors who place education first and realize the potential of the Internet.

Ng and Koller made a class available at no cost online. The class in machine learning drew more than 100,00 enrolled students, 13,000 of whom completed the course. This result impressed not only Ng and Koller, but also such venture-capital firms as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates, which together have invested $16 million combined in Coursera.

Providing free education is one matter, but as was pointed out in the healthymemory blog post, the money comes from the granting of degrees. The following is taken from the Coursera Website.

“…This Letter of Completion, if provided to you, would be from Coursera and/or from the instructors. You acknowledge that the Letter of Completion, if provided to you, may not be affiliated with Coursera or any college or university. Further, Coursera offers the right to offer or not offer any such Letter of Completion for a class. You acknowledge that the Letter of Completion, and Coursera’s Online Courses, will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution, and do not convey academic credit. You acknowledge that neither the instructors of any Online Course nor the associated Participating Institutions will be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution. The format of the Letter of Completion will be determined at the discretion of Coursera and the instructors, and may vary by class in terms of formatting, e.g., whether or not it reports your detailed scores or grades in the class, and in other ways.”

In my view they are not addressing this issue in a satisfactory manner. Some ideas regarding how to do so are offered in the healthymemory blog post.

1Lyons, D/ (2012). Cheaper Than Harvard: An Ivy League Education Online—For Free. Newsweek, 14 May, p.13.

© 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.

Searching for and Evaluating Scholarly Articles

July 18, 2012

 If you are looking for scholarly articles on a topic, Google has a dedicated search engine, www.scholar.google.com. You can set up alerts to learn of new articles on topics or authors of interest. Although one can expect and will usually receive, higher quality information from authors extremely knowledgeable in their respective areas of interest, there are certain realities that should be understood. Refereed articles are articles that have been reviewed by several authors knowledgeable in the topic prior to publication. Prior to the internet era this refereeing was needed because paper publication was costly and journals needed to be selective. Typically, there were large delays between the submission of the article, its acceptance, and its eventual publication. There were also journals that did not use referees, that would publish articles for a fee.

With the advent of the internet, the cost of publishing articles and the time to publish articles have been drastically reduced. Yet the archaic artifacts from the print era persist. An author can disseminate an article as soon as she deems it worthy. Why delay the dissemination of information? Some argue that refereeing is still necessary. I’ve participated in this review process both as an author and also as a reviewer. I’ve had articles accepted, and I’ve had articles that I thought worthy that were rejected, but subsequently published by another journal and another review process. As a reviewer I’ve seen articles that I thought worthy of publication be rejected. I’ve also seen articles accepted that, while adequately done, made a questionable contribution to substantive knowledge. Published statistics on the review process are not impressive. Statistics on agreement among reviewers have typically been low. There is also a bar that the editor needs to set to assure that accepted articles have enough allowable pages to accommodate them. I find it odd that academics tend to be impressed by high rejection rates rather than forlorn about research that has gone unpublished. Academics also are keen on refereed journals. Personally, I can quickly ascertain whether an article is worth my time and I don’t need some reviewers editing or censoring the information that is available to me. I think one of the primary reasons academics are keen on refereed journals is that they can use the number of publications in refereed journals in making decision about whom should be awarded tenure. Otherwise, they might actually have to read articles written by tenure candidates.

I see little justification for the traditional institutions for publication. Research can be disseminated quickly via the internet and judgments made regarding the value of the research and on whether it should be ignored or put to good use. The problem is that big moneyed interests are involved. They are the publishers and the professional associations that sell publications. Typically authors and reviewers are not paid. Their efforts are pro bono. The editor might be given an honorarium, but the amounts of small. But the journals and professional books are expensive. And there is no need for them to be. They provide little of added value.

I am able to get online access to journals published by the professional organizations to which I belong for nominal rates. Others are typically quite expensive, as I’m sure some of you can attest. There is a quality online journal that anyone can access for free, PloS 1, Public Library of Science, www.plusone.org.Moreover, this is a referred journal. We should be able to access any research done with taxpayer support online for free. And I, personally, would be willing to forgo the referring requirement.

You should also be wary of biases in different academic disciplines. I’ll provide a couple of examples from my discipline, psychology. When I was a graduate student, there was a large controversy as to whether humans could learn to control their own autonomic processes, heart rate for example. Now it was well known and well documented that Buddhists proficient in meditation could do so. However, this did not constitute the appropriate evidence hard-nosed psychologists required. They wanted to see it done by some student fulfilling a course requirement in a one or two hour psychology experiment.

Shortly after I received my Ph.D and began working at the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, I tried to replicate an experiment that I had read in the psychological literature. Although I was able to do so, I was only able to replicate the finding in the group that had General Technical (IQ) scores comparable to college students. The vast majority of reseach in cognitive psychology is based on research done with college students. Although one of the fundamental requirements for generalizing statistical results is that the population to which one is generalizing have been represented in the sample participating in the experiment. I have yet to see a finding in a psychology with the caveat that the results should be restricted to those representated in the statistical sample, college students, for example. I am a working statistician and I am constantly amazed how statistical requirements vary from discipline to discipline when the underlying statistics and their assumptions remain unchanged.

© 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.

Cognitive Exercise and Aging

July 15, 2012

There is evidence that training older adults in memory, processing speed, and reasoning skills produces substantial improvements in these skills. Moreover, these skills maintain over a number of years.1 Studies of retirement also provide additional evidence that cognitive exercise slows down the process of intellectual decay. Episodic memory is the memory of personal events. It is among the first cognitive abilities to show a decline with age. A study of the effects of retirement on episodic memory was conducted.2 It was conducted with two groups of men: one aged 50 to 54 and one aged 60-64. Twelve nations were ranked in terms of the persistence of employment into old age. If the percentage of men still working dropped by 90% from the 50 to 54 age group to the 60 to 64 age group (Austria and France) there was a 15% decline in episodic memory. If the percentage still working dropped by 25% (United States and Sweden) the decline was only 7%.

There is also correlational evidence from a study in the United Kingdom showing that an extra year of work is associated with a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s on average by six weeks.3 These are just a few studies from a body of research showing that cognitive exercise builds a cognitive reserve that that delays the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. The Healthymemory Blog respects this defensive position, but advocates an offensive rather than a defensive approach in which the goal is to continue to grow and enhance cognition as we grow older.

1Ball, K., Berch, D.B., Heimers, D.F., Jobe, J.B., Leveck, M.D. Marsiske, M.,…Willis, S.L. (2002). Effects of cognitive training interventions with older adults. A randomized controlled trial. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 2271-2281. doi:10.1001/jama.288.18.2271.

2Adam, S., Bonsang, E., Germain, S., & Perelman, S. (2007). Retirement and Cognitive Reserve: A Stochastic Frontier Approach to Survey Data (CREPP Working Paper 2007/04). Liege, Belgium: Centre de Recherche on Economie et de la Population..

3Ibid.

© 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.

Commentary on Newseek’s Cover Story “iCrazy”

July 11, 2012

More specifically “iCRAZY: PANIC. DEPRESSION. PSYCHOSIS. HOW CONNECTION ADDICTION IS REWIRING OUR BRAINS” in the July 16, 2012 edition. The inside title is ‘IS THE ONSLAUGHT MAKING US CRAZY?” I have no quarrel with the research cited, nor with the thesis that there are problems that result from the manner in which people interact with technology. My problem is with the portrayal of humans as helpless victims of technology. Perhaps one can make an analogy with alcohol. Some users of alcohol become alcoholics while the majority of us are able to enjoy alcoholic beverages safely. However, a minority of users suffer from alcoholism. Where the analogy breaks down is in the relative benefits of alcohol and technology. The benefits of alcohol are personal enjoyment and, perhaps, some health benefits. However, the benefits of technology are so many orders of magnitude larger that the analogy breaks down. The Healthymemory Blog maintains that technology provides means of fostering cognitive growth and personal development as well as providing means of minimizing or eliminating the risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most of the relevant Healthymemory Blog posts on this topic can be found under the category “Transactive Memory.”

I become infuriated whenever I read articles that portray humans as helpless victims of technology. The hype in the titles of the Newsweek activated my crap detector (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “Has the Internet Really Made the Assessment of the Reliability of Information More Difficult?”). If I may be given the liberty of distinguishing levels of “crap,” the reading of the Newsweek article raised the distinction from “garden variety” crap to “world class” crap.

We need to seize control of technology and use it to our benefit rather than to our detriment. The book Net Smart by Howard Rheingold provides good advice on how to do so. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is How to Thrive Online. See the Healthymemory Blog Post “Net Smart” for a review.

© 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.

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

July 7, 2012

The preceding Healthymemory Blog Post criticized the Gross National Product as a measure of well-being. There are alternatives, for example Gross National Happiness (GNH)1. The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by the Kind of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. And he did more that coin a term; he opened a center and formulated a program for developing the concept and measuring it. He engaged scholars throughout the world and began having international conferences. He was committed to build an economy that would serve Bhutana’s culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be familiar with how Buddhist meditation techniques have found to be important for emotional and memory health (try entering “Buddhism” in the search box. Also try entering “Meditation”).

The proposal is to treat happiness as a socioeconomic development metric. A GNH value would be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:

  1. Economic Wellness: This would involve direct surveys of people and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution.

  2. Environmental Wellness: This would involve direct surveys of people and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise, and traffic.

  3. Physical Wellness: The proposal would employ statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illness. I think this index should also include direct surveys of people.

  4. Mental Wellness: This would involve direct surveys of people and statistical measurements of mental health metrics such as the usage of antidepressants and the rise of decline of psychotherapy patients.

  5. Workplace Wellness: This involves direct surveys of individuals and the statistical measurement of labor services such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints, and lawsuits.

  6. Social Wellness: This involves direct surveys of individuals and statistical of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, and crime rates.

  7. Political Wellness: This involves the direct survey of individuals and the statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

    Understand that this would be a measure of the GNH of a country. How the metric is defined might well vary from country to country as different factors might be included or weighted differently. One’s country GNH might not reflect a single individual’s happiness very well. You might live on a block with very wealthy home. You might live, zoning restriction permitting, in a mobile home on the same block. Your respective incomes might vary by more than an order of magnitude, yet your family might be much happier than the residents in the wealthy home. That home might be experiencing conflicts and be on the verge of a divorce.

    It should be generally understood, but apparently it isn’t, that the value of money is not linear. In other words, the value of a dollar to someone earning $10,000 is much more than to a person earning $100,000. So a graduated income tax makes sense psychologically as well as economically. There is only so much that an individual, or that individual’s family (even an extended one) can enjoy or use. Unfortunately, there are many who view success by the money and physical goods they possess. So they will fight to avoid taxes and to keep their taxes low even though it is not feasible that this additional income will benefit them. I applaud the two leading capitalists in the United States, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who realize this and are behaving accordingly. I’m reminded of the saying by a Texan that money is like manure; it’s no good unless it’s spread around.

    Another measure for either replacing or accommodating the shortcomings of the GDP is the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI)2. The IWI includes three kinds of assets: manufactured or physical capital (machinery, buildings, infrastructure, and so forth; human capital (the populations’ education and skills): and natural capital (including land, fossils, fossil fuels, and minerals). The IWI contains important information not in the GDP. A county can appear to be doing quite well in terms of its GDP, but exhausting its natural resources at an alarming rate. A country like South Korea with its impressive human capital can do quite well without physical resources.

    So the shortcomings of the GDP are realized. Unfortunately it is still relied upon too heavily. We must move, and move quickly, to more relevant measures.

1Go to the Wikipedia for an informative alternative and many useful links.

2The Economist, June 30th 2012, p.78. And the “Inclusive Wealth Report 2012”, www.ihdp.unu.edu/article/iwr

© 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.

Why, With All This Technology, Are We Working So Hard?

July 1, 2012

When I was in elementary school the predictions were that due to technology we would have much more leisure time in the future. I’ll remind you that at this time it was highly unusual for married mothers to be working. In my view some of the technological achievements, particularly in computing and in broadband, have vastly exceeded these predictions. So I ask you, why are we working so hard? We’re working much harder than when I was in elementary school.

I would ask further what, exactly, are we producing? Suppose only those who provided the essentials for living and for safety went to work? What percentage of the working population would that be? Make your own guess, but mine would be less than 10%. So what is going on here?

Currently we are working hard to achieve an unemployment rate at or below 5%. We are finding that exceedingly hard to achieve. But should we be? Remember that the previous two occasions when the employment rate was at or below 5%, the economic prosperity was bogus. There was the dot com bogus, when people expected to become rich via the internet, only the path to these riches remained unspecified. Then there was the bogus finance/real estate boom where riches were created via bogus and unsubstantiated financial instruments. So why, absent some other fictitious basis for a boom, do we expect to get back to 5% unemployment/

To examine the question of why we are working so hard, I present the results of the following study.1 It found that being poor, is bad. Of course, this finding is not surprising. The surprising finding is that a household income of $75,000.00 represented a satiation level beyond which experienced well being no longer increased. And this was in high cost living areas. In other areas the number would be lower. And this was for experienced well being. Emotional well being might have carried additional therapeutic costs. So it is clear that we are working more for no real benefit. Why?

One reason might be the that the economic theorists who currently formulate policy are classical economists using the rational theory of man. Behavioral economists have debunked this theory. Moreover, computing GNP in terms of hard dollars might smack of objectivity, but reminds one of the drunk who is looking for his car keys under the streetlamp rather than in the dimly illuminated part of the parking lot where he dropped his keys. Economic measures should include such subjective, but relevant, measures as happiness and life satisfaction.

Perhaps with the appropriate measures and appropriate philosophies regarding self fulfillment and self actualization we can get off the treadmill and enjoy the fruits of technology and our lives.

1Kahneman, D., & Angus, D. (2010). High Income Improves the Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well Being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 16489-93

© 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.