Archive for August, 2012

The Benefits of Speaking a Second Language

August 29, 2012

According to an article in the New Scientist1 speaking a second language can change everything from problem-solving skills to personality. It is like having two brains or being two people. Of course, there are the obvious benefits of knowing a second language. You can converse and write to people who speak the language as well as understand what they say and read. You don’t need to rely on translations or sub-titles. It definitely enhances visits to places where the language is spoken (or in one of the many areas of the United States where the language is spoken).

But the benefits go beyond this and foster a healthy memory and enhanced cognitive skills. These benefits are enhancements of the brain’s executive system. They increase the ability to focus attention and block out irrelevant information. And they also enhance the ability to switch between tasks, to multi-task. And as we all are painfully aware, the need to multi-task has increased with the advent of new technology.

A study was done of 184 people diagnosed with dementia. Half of these people were bilingual. The symptoms of dementia started to appear in bilingual people four years later than their monolingual peers.2 Another study was done with a further sample of 200 people showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. This time they found a five-year delay in the onset of symptoms in the bilingual patients.3 These data support the notion of a cognitive reserve built up as a result of the bilingualism that delays the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is quite possible that for some people, bilingualism might reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s to zero.

So if you are already bilingual, congratulations. You are blessed. But if you do not know a second language, you can still learn. Language learning provides ideal mental exercise. And there are plenty of resources available to help you learn another language. One resource is the Healthymemory Blog (see “More on Recoding: Learning Foreign and Strange Vocabulary Words”).

1de Lange, C. (2012), My Two Minds. New Scientist, 5 May, 31-33.

2Neuropsychologia, 45, p. 459.

3Neurology, 75, p. 1726

© 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 STEM Disciplines

August 26, 2012

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And why are they important? They are regarded by many as being important to the economy and to our country. It is much easier to justify funding for these disciplines than for non STEM disciplines.

Here is where the fun begins. It is generally clear what is included in engineering and technology. But what constitutes science? Many people think that scientists wear lab coats and work in laboratories. They think of physics and chemistry first, then perhaps molecular biology and zoology. But what about the social sciences?

First of all, it needs to be understood that science does not refer to any particular discipline. Rather, science refers to a type of thought, a discipline we impose on our thinking. Moreover, all scientific thinking is constrained by empiricism, by collecting facts that can confirm or refute theories. Now there are two general methods of conducting science. One involves systematic observations of nature. Examples are astronomy and natural history. Astronomy involves observations, often with very sophisticated instruments of the universe. Natural history involves the systematic observation of nature. Both support the development of theories and both rely upon empirical observations to support these theories.

The other involves conducting systematically designed experiments to quantify the effects of variables. Experiments are common in chemistry and physics. Some of the experiments in physics are quite expensive. These experiments support or refute theories.

There are shortcomings with naturalistic observations because the scientist cannot systematically control the variables of interest and these variables are often confounded so it is difficult trying to determine what variable affects what, and how the variables interact (affect each other). Addressing these issues requires statistics and experimental design. A knowledge of statistics and experimental design is essential to science.

Although I am biased, I think psychology provides one of the best means of understanding science because it is applied at so many levels. It is applied at the level of the single neuron where recordings are taken. It is applied at the level of individual behavior. It is applied at the level of human cognition. And it is applied at the level of groups of people. Each of these areas develops its own methods, but they are all based on the fundamentals of the scientific method. And they all require a knowledge of statistics and experimental design.

In my professional life I have been surprised about the lack of knowledge in the areas of statistics and experimental design by some professionals in the non-controversial STEM areas, namely technology, engineering, and math. I was surprised by this when I saw the efforts of some engineers and mathematicians trying to design an experiment. They were pathetic. Essentially they were familiar with the limited parts of statistics and experimental design that were used in their disciplines, but could not generalize beyond them. Unfortunately, most people think that people with strong mathematical backgrounds are knowledgeable in statistics and experimental design. Although their backgrounds should facilitate their acquisition of statistical and design skills, the knowledge must be acquired. I have seem engineers running simulations that would have profited immensely by a good experimental design. What is worse is that, generally speaking, they are unaware of and will not acknowledge their shortcomings. I have lost track of the large number of projects that could have benefited from my assistance, but was not requested because they saw no need for it.

There is a general problem regarding the employment of Ph.Ds. Funding is provided for their education, but largely disappears when they are pursuing their careers. So they end up being a migratory work force pursuing post docs or pursue careers remotely related to their training.

Personally speaking, I have had a good life and have remained gainfully employed. But I have fallen way short of what I know I could have accomplished had I been in the right situation with adequate resources. And I believe that our country would be much better off without this underemployment of Ph.Ds. Some might argue that there too many PhDs. I argue that there is insufficient funding from government and industry.

But there is a much larger problem. And that has to do with the rejections of the findings of science and to the reluctance to use science to solve problems. There are internal political forces of ignorance and darkness. I believe that these forces present a larger danger to the United States than terrorists or hostile countries.

© 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.

Solutions to the Excessive Cost of a Higher Education

August 22, 2012

This is a slight revision to an earlier post. It is thought that this post is especially relevant at a time when people are dealing with extraordinarily excessive tuition costs and excesive textbook costs.

When I attended college, the costs were affordable. Indeed, the tuition at some outstanding universities was free. Somehow the cost of a higher education has grossly escalated. Graduates end up with a ridiculous debt burden to begin their careers. And some cannot even begin their careers because they cannot find jobs!

How has this happened? Most public universities have undergone significant reductions from their respective governments. This is unfortunate. The most valuable resource of any nation is its people. And the failure of governments to underwrite the costs of higher education to leverage this potential is inexcusable. At the end of World War II the United States had incurred severe debts, yet it underwrote the large expense of the GI Bill that allowed millions of returning GIs to earn college degrees. I believe that the high growth of the United States after World War II was due in large part to the GI Bill. Any candidate arguing that this government support cannot be afforded due to debt is exhibiting a severe myopia that puts the country at risk.

Even so, these reductions do not account for all of the increased costs. And why the large increases at private universities?

Given the advances in technology, costs should have decreased, not increased. Textbooks should be available in pdf and electronic formats. Classes can be delivered over the internet resulting in very large economies of scale. Students, their spouses and parents, should not put up with this and should demand change.

Some esteemed universities are making public, via the internet, their course materials. The internet offers vast resources for learning. The opportunities for the autodidact are manifold. The problem is that although educational materials are readily available, the coin of the realm is the degree. These need to be offered by accredited colleges, and that costs money. The term diploma mill is pejorative and connotes certain types of colleges, but, in truth, all colleges are fundamentally diploma mills. They are in the business of selling diplomas.

Here is my proposal. We need a testing organization offering something like a GED for the different degree levels, but without the stigma of a GED. For example, lawyers have their bar tests, accountants have tests to become CPAs. The Graduate Record Examination offers advanced subject tests for virtually all college majors. We need accredited testing organizations to develop and administer these tests. Colleges might do this. In addition to hours completed, degrees could be offered on the basis of proficiency tests. Although tests would be involved, autodidacts would be rewarded for their efforts in providing their own education.

In my career I have encountered many individuals who have college degrees, but I still find it hard to believe that they have college degrees. Similarly I have encountered some individuals who have not attended college, and I find it difficult to believe that they have not attended college. I am not arguing that attending college is not a worthwhile activity. Rather, I am saying that it is not necessary to have attended college to manifest the benefits of a college education. It is what someone knows, and how well they communicate and think that is essential. I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “College is just a second chance to read the books you should have read in high school.” Should this be a misquote, please comment and correct me.

© 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.

Using tDCS to Help Children with Developmental Disabilities and to Foster Creativity in Adults

August 19, 2012

An earlier Healthy Memory Blog Post, “Brain Boosts”, described means of boosting the brain’s performance. One of these was transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The current is very small, from 1 to 2 milliamps. This method is much safer than other types of brain simulation as tDCS does not cause neurons to fire directly. It must make the neurons more excitable. When tDCS is applied over the right parietal lobe of the brain, mathematical ability is boosted. When it is applied to the right anterior temporal lobe, visual perception and memory is boosted.

An experiment examining enhancing mathematical ability was summarized in Scientific American Mind1 . Children with developmental dyscalia, a learning disability that affects math skill, served in the experiment. These children were to associate numbers with arbitrary symbols, such as triangles or cylinders. After practicing this task, they were rapidly presented with pairs of symbols of different visual sizes and they had to choose the physically larger one as quickly as they could. On some trials there was a mismatch between the size of the symbol and the magnitude it represented (for example a huge symbol meaning two was paired with a tiny symbol representing 5. Such mismatches could cause a delay in reaction because the impulse to choose the larger number needed to be overridden. The experimental group received tDCS over the right parietal cortex for 20 minutes at the beginning of each of the six training sessions. The control group did not receive the stimulation. By the fourth session the children in the experimental group became slower for mismatched pairs as compared with the matched pairs. This is the performance that adults show when they respond to real digits. The control group showed no difference between these trials suggesting that they had not internalized the symbols meaning. These superior performance lasted for six months, which suggests that this method might someday benefit those with developmental dyscalia.

In a special box2 inside her article on creativity in Scientific American Mind, Prof. Chrysikou of the University of Kansas reports on how tDCS, transcranial direct simulation can foster creativity. She reports a study published in 2011 by neuroscientist Allan Snyder of the Center for the Mind in Sydney in which Snyder and his colleagues used this technique to affect the ability of individuals to solve arithmetic puzzles involving matchsticks. The initial problems could all be solved with a similar strategy, but the approach would not work with the last two problems. These problems required a novel approach. For half the subjects tDCS was used to depress activity in the left frontal cortex, while exciting the right frontal cortex, whereas for the other half tDCS was used to excite activity in the left frontal cortex and depress activity in the right frontal cortex. The former group solved the last two problems at higher rates than the latter group. So it appears that the right hemisphere enhances creativity, whereas the left hemisphere impedes it.

Prof. Chrysikou also provided data that tDCS could also support the generation of novel ideas. She again used the method of suppressing one groups’ left prefrontal cortex while suppressing a second groups’ right prefrontal cortex. Yet a third group received sham simulation. The task was to think of novel uses of objects presented in pictures. The group receiving left prefrontal suppression thought of significantly more novel uses and did so significantly faster than the other two groups. These results support the notion that blocking the cognitive filter by inhibiting the left prefrontal cortex during idea generation can promote creative thought.

To the best of my knowledge tDCS is a research tool and not yet ready for prime time. If and when tDCS moves to practical applications remains an open question.

1Weaver, J. (2011). A Stimulating Solution for Math Problems. Scientific American Mind, March/April p.12

2Chrysikou, E.G. (2012). Tickling the Brain. Scientific American Mind, July/August, p. 29.

Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up

August 15, 2012

For many years creativity was thought to be something for a gifted few. Research in cognitive psychology has indicated that we all have creative potential. It is simply a matter of fostering it. It appears that your prefrontal cortex plays a key role in creativity. Hypoactivity (low) activity in your prefrontal cortex is characteristic of people coming up with new ideas. Indeed, novelty is a necessary condition for creativity. However, novelty is not enough. The idea must be useful or have some artistic value for it to be creative. Here is where critical thinking is involved, and this involves increased activity (hyperactivity) in your prefrontal cortex. If your prefrontal cortex remains in a state of hypoactivity, no worthwhile goal will be achieved unless you want to end up in a psychotic state. Typically the way this will be described is that creativity involves two states. The first state involves the hypoactivity of your prefrontal cortex for the generation of novel ideas. The second state involves the hyperactivity of the prefrontal cortex in which you critically assess these new ideas. In reality, this is not an orderly process. In real life effective creative thought involves the switching between these two stages. First to generate ideas, and second to evaluate them. This becomes an iterative process. The Healthymemory Blog Post “Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness” provides a meditation technique inducing hypoactivity of your prefrontal cortes. The Healthymemory Blog Post “Improving Selective Attention” provides a meditation technique to induce hyperactivty in your prefrontal cortex.

An article in Scientific American Mind1 provides the following tips to maximize your creativity (with some enhancements by your blogger).

Become an expert. If your going to be creative you need something in which to be creative. You need to develop a solid knowledge base to connect remote ideas and to see their relevance to a problem.

Observe. When trying to come up with a new product or service, study how people use what is currently available and what problems they face. If this is an artistic endeavor, try to understand why people like what they like.

Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. How would child use a remote controller? How would an elderly person access a voting booth. How can I make this for a vegan? How can I produce a piece of art appealing to this audience?

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. Take a class; read a book; travel to a foreign country. The hope is that new experiences will foster novel thoughts.

Be willing to work alone. Although group brainstorming can help you synthesize your ideas, it is more effective if you have started the creative process on your own.

Talk to outsiders about your work. A different perspective help you see alternative solutions or possible faults with your original idea.

Have fun. Good moods forge remote associations. Up beat music might help, but also makes tasks that demand focus more difficult. To concentrate, dampen your demeanor with sad songs.

Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can make yo work your unconscious mind work on a problem that is stumping you. (This is my favorite technique!)

Take a break. Occupying your mind with a different task can unleash novel solutions. (another personal favorite!)

Challenge yourself. Disrupt you daily routine. Abandon your initial idea (even if it works) and look for a new one. Borrow from other people’s answers and try to improve them.

This last item reminds me of a statement that is attributable to Picasso, I believe (again if I err, please comment and correct me). “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

1Chrysikou, E, G. (2012). Your Creative Brain at Work. July/August, pp. 24-31

© 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.

A Retrieval Exercise for a Healthy Memory

August 12, 2012

Mnemonic techniques provide good mental exercise and can significantly increase your success at recalling information you want to recall. But what about information that is already in your memory? What is the point in trying to retrieve it?

There are a number of points here. The act of trying to remember information aids memory as has been noted in previous Healthymemory Blog posts (“The Benefits of Testing, for example). There is also the distinction between information that is available in your memory, but which you can’t retrieve. That is information that is available but not accessible. Trying to remember information is a good exercise for rendering information that was previously only available, accessible. It reestablished previous memory circuits that have wasted away and can establish new memory circuits.

Here is an exercise. Try to remember the precise year when significant events occurred during the past ten years. Here is part of my experience when I tried this exercise. I made two trips to Japan. I had difficulty remembering the year although I did remember that both trips took place in the same year. I did remember that the trips took place before we moved from our apartment to our house, and I remember that that year was 2003, because it was one year before the election in 2004. But when did I go to Japan. I knew it was sometime in 2003 or earlier because I remember being picked up by a limo at our apartment house for one of the trips. So I knew that it was 2003 or earlier. Then I remembered that the FIFA World Cup was taking place during one of the trips. I looked that up on the internet and discovered that the year was 2002. So now I know that 2002 was the year I took two trips to Japan.

I also took a trip to London with my wife, but when did that happen? I remembered that the trip was taken for our 25th wedding anniversary. Now something I need to remember, and do remember, is our anniversary. We were married on January 3, 1978. So I can safely infer, and now remember, that that trip took place during 2003.

I used the same strategy to remember when we moved my Mom from Florida. That was shortly after celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary, so that was 2008.

So I gave my memory circuits a good workout and established or reestablished some memories. I remember events with respect to their relative position to other events. When I traveled to Japan or London, I was not trying to remember the years I took those trips. At the time it was irrelevant information. Similarly when we moved my Mom, that was irrelevant information at the time. But I was able to establish the specific years by throwing the order of the events I was trying to remember against the years I did remember for other reasons.

They have recently discovered people who have super memories and can remember, as best as can be ascertained, what happened during each day of their lives by date. I am curious as to how they do this. It is possible that they consciously attend to the days and what happens and are effectively keeping a mental diary. I don’t do that. Perhaps if I did, I would have a similar phenomenal memory and would appear on 60 Minutes with Marilu Henner. But I don’t see any purpose in doing this, regardless of how much I like Marilu Henner, so I don’t spend the attention necessary to recall what happened during these days. This recall does imply a substantial amount of attentional processing to recall this amount of detail with significant accuracy. This is pure conjecture on my part, but we all are working with basically the same amount of brain, and it is mainly a matter of how we spend our attentional resources as to what and how much we’ll remember.

© 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.

What Are the Atoms of Memory?

August 8, 2012

If you answered, “neurons,” you get partial credit. You need to remember the earlier Healthymemory Blog Post, “Glial Cells and Short Term Memory.” So neurons and glial cells are the atoms of memory. However, memories are not allocated to single neural or glial cells. Many years ago, the psychologist Karl Spencer Lashley published a report, “In Search of the Engram1” He would train animals to perform a specific task. Then in a series of experiments he would systematically remove different segments of cortex. Much less finding the engram in specific neurons, he was unable to locate specific areas of the associative cortex in which memories were stored. Let me stress associative cortex. If portions of the sensory cortex are removed, then the sense specific to that area of the cortex will be lost or seriously degraded. There are also subcortical structures, such as the hippocampus, that are important for the processing of memories.

Apparently memories are stored in patterns of firing among the circuits of neurons and glial cells. So memory circuits are established. The more they fire, the stronger they become, and more connections are established with other memory circuits. In this manner, one thought or memory leads to another. Many of these firings are below the level of consciousness. But your mind does manage to tap into some of them, and they constitute your flow of conscious thought. This can be regarded as short term or working memory. There is some question as to whether circuits in long term memory decay or are permanent. This is difficult to answer. Surely, you have experienced times when you knew you knew something, but could not recall it. This is called the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon. Later the desired item will suddenly pop into memory.

Generally speaking, I think it is a good idea to make a practice of recalling old memories. This puts you in touch with your past and prior knowledge. Even when you give up consciously trying to recall something, your subconscious will likely keep working to find it. Then, at an unexpected time, it can suddenly pop into consciousness. Unless you are working under time constraints, when you cannot recall something, it is best not to fall back on transactive memory immediately (that is, look it up or search for it, or ask someone), as your subconscious will likely keep working looking for it. This process of searching might well activate unused memory circuits.

A complicated experiment reported in Scientific American Mind2 done using mice came up with the estimate that on the order of 10,000 interlaced neurons in one very specific area of the brain is sufficient to form an engram, a specific memory. It is not yet known whether these interlaced neurons are necessary for the memory, or whether their removal will obliterate the memory.

1Lashley,K.S. (1950). In Search of the Engram. Society of Experimental Biology Symposium. 4, 454-482.

2Kock, C. (2012). Searching for the Memory. Scientific American Mind, July/August, 22-23.

© 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.

iPads for Those Suffering from Dementia

August 4, 2012

When I was looking for an assisted living facility for my Mom, I found A Place for Mom to be quite helpful. The following post is taken from the Blog on the A Place for Mom Website,

According to the post the director of the Health Central Park Nursing Home, Judy Skelton, “It came to us as a happy accident. What started out as one resident’s curiosity turned into something that is helping them spell, track items, make choices and read words. It’s amazing.” Mice and other control devices sometimes present problems for elders, but they find the touch pad technology easy to use, and, what I found somewhat surprising, easy to navigate. Here are nine reasons why iPads enhance the lives of seniors:

1. They’re lightweight and carry like a book.

2. They interact with residents, provide excitement and open-up a new means of communication to those who can’t express themselves in the way they desire.

3. They can monitor an elderly person’s movements, habits, temperature in their home and remind them when to take their pills.

4. Their music and music library options help to trigger memories of the past through songs of their youth and family years.

5. They encourage socialization among residents with their games, varying apps, reading and Internet search features.

6. There are apps to help encourage mobility. For example, one app shows videos of animated figures performing activities of daily living such as climbing stairs. This help patients picture themselves doing these tasks, and even mimic the behaviors.

7. Computer access allows residents more frequent contact with their children and grandchildren of the Internet generation.

8. Email updates and downloaded photos are now pride of place in residents’ rooms.

9. They encourage residents to create simple graphics and pictures and exercise their creativity.

In short, they

help improve motor skills

provide memory stimulation and cognitive function

create a positive impact on the interaction of those with dementia

More formal studies are underway, but the initial informal studies are quite positive.

The Need for Consciousness

August 1, 2012

The preceding blog post, “VENs: The Key to Consciousness” ended with a promise to provide evidence that consciousness is not epiphenomenal, that it serves a real purpose. Unfortunately, reductionists like to conclude that whenever a neural basis is found the phenomenon is understood. This post is timely as the Olympics provide a good justification for the reality of consciousness. The theme of the importance of the mind will emerge as being essential to success. Athletes need to remain cool, calm, collected, and focused. Focus is very important. Getting into the right state of mind, “the zone,” is regarded to be of utmost importance.

Neurofeedback is employed by some athletes.1 This involves placing electrodes on a person’s head to measure their brain’s electrical activity. The information is displayed on a computer screen while the individual watches it in real time and learns through practice how to control it. The objective is to get the brain into a state associated with improved attention, focus and aim. Surgeons who have used neurofeedback had improved control over their movement and performed more efficiently in the operating theater.

Meditation is another technique where consciousness is used to improve behavior. There are many healthymemory blog posts on meditation (simply use the search box to find them). You will find different meditation techniques to achieve different aims. Improving focus is the objective of many techniques. Through meditation, the autonomic nervous system can be controlled. At one time this was thought to be impossible by some psychologists and neuroscientists.

Even dreaming can be done to achieve desirable benefits. Victor Spoormaker of the Max Plank Instutute of Psychiatry has developed techniques to eliminate nightmares through lucid dreaming (See the healthymemory blog post, “Lucid Dreams). Lucid dreaming refers to a state between wake and sleep where becomes aware that they are dreaming while they are still in the dreaming. Spoormaker says that you can become lucid in a nightmare and and change it any way you wish. He cured himself of recurring nightmares using this technique.

In a study conducted in the 1970s, 12 American gymnasts who hoped to make the Olympic team were asked how frequently they dreamed about gymnastics and about the nature of their dreams. The six who qualified said that they had had more dreams about success beforehand.

Another study found that lucid dreamers who were able to dream about tossing a coin into a cup had better aim the following day compared against those who don’t train in their dreams.
800 German athletes were asked about their dreaming habits. Twenty percent said that they were frequent lucid dreamers, and those who used it to practice said it helped their performance.

So consciousness is not epiphenomenal. It is very real. Use it and make it work for you.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Olympic Extremes. New Scientist, 21 July, 44-49.

© 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.