Archive for September, 2012

Could We Lose What Is in Cyberspace?

September 30, 2012

The preceding healthymemory blog post addressed the vast amount of information in cyberspace. Could we lose these information? An article in the Economist addressed this question.1

The task appears to be enormous. Consider the vast amounts of data discussed in the preceding post that is constantly changing and growing. Could it end up like the famed Library of Alexandria that was built in the 3rd century BC that is reputed to have every copy of every book in the world at that time? I suspect that this statement betrays a characteristic western bias. If the Library of Alexandria had a counterpart in the far east or books from the far east, please comment. Nevertheless, the Library of Alexandria was a tremendous repository of knowledge that burned to the ground sometime between Julius Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in 48 BC and the Muslim invasion in 640 AD. It is believed by some historians that the loss of the Alexandria library along with the dissolution of its community of scribes and scholars created the conditions for the Dark Ages.

Of course, it is possible that a nuclear holocaust or some astronomical event could cause the loss of cyberspace and a descent into another Dark Age. However, absent such a cataclysm the infrastructure is already in place for the historical recording and saving of cyberspace. The Internet Archive, is a free internet library capable of storing a copy of every web page of every website ever on line. The Wayback Machine,, allows users to view the library’s archived web pages as they appeared when published. The Open Library,, is working to provide a web page for every book in existence. They are offering 1,000,000 free e-book titles for downloading. Project Gutenberg,, offers 40,000 e-books that can be downloaded for free in any of the popular e-reader formats.

Cyberspace also provides a means of leaving memorials that will long outlast us and will possibly be used by historians and a wide range of scholars far into the future. A couple of healthymemory blog posts discussed this new type of memorial, “Transactive Memory and the Dearly Departed,” and “Online Memorials.” I hope to leave memorials like this for both my wife, who is a talented artist, and myself. I hope I’ll be able to justify my having walked the earth, but that is a tall order. I need to get to work!

1(2012). Lost in Cyberspace, The Economist Technical Quarterly, September 1, p.11.

© 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.

How Much Information Is There and What Does It Mean?

September 27, 2012

A recent article by Martin Hilbert was published in the Big Data Special Issue of the publication Significance: statistics making sense titled “How Much Information Is There in the Information Society”? Hilbert together with his collaborator Priscila Lopez tackled the task of estimating the world’s technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information over the period from 1986 to 2007/2012. The complete collection of these studies can be accessed free of charge at

In 1949 the father of information theory, Claude E. Shannon, estimated that the largest information stockpile he could think of was the Library of Congress with about 12,500 megabytes (106). The current estimate for the amount of storage for the Library of Congress has grown to a terabyte 1012. During the two decades of their study the amount of information quadrupled from 432 exabytes (1018) to 1.9 zetabytes (1021). For our personal and business computation we are familiar with gigabytes (109). Next are terabytes (1012), then petabytes (1015), the aforementioned exabytes, and zetabytes. Yottabytes (1024) await us in the future.

Although these are measures of information in the technical sense, I prefer to think of them as data. I think of information in technical transactive memory as data. When it is perceived by a human it becomes information. When it is further processed into the human information processing system, it becomes knowledge. Suppose we all disappeared and the machines kept remembering and processing. What would that be? Perhaps sometime in the future machines will become intelligent enough to function on their own. There is a movie, Colossus: the Forbin Project in which intelligent machines take over the world because they have concluded that humans are not intelligent enough to govern. Then there is Ray Kurzwiel‘s concept of the Singularity, when humans and technology become one. However, coming back to reality, I think there would just be machines storing and processing information absent true knowledge. We need to use technology to help us cope with all these data and fortunately according to Hilbert computation is grown at a faster rate than storage.

Hilbert makes some interesting comparisons between technical processing and storage of information and biological processing and storage of information. In 2007, the DNA of the 60 trillion cells of one single human body would have stored more information than all of our technological devices together. He notes that in both cases information is highly redundant. One hundred human brains can roughly execute as many nerve pulses as our general purpose computers can execute instructions per second. Hilbert asks the question why we currently spend 3.5 trillion dollars per year on our information and communication technology but less than $50 dollars per year on the education of many children in Africa? I think what he is proposing is that we not lose sight of human potential. Although our brains and DNA have phenomenal processing and storage capacities, we only have access to a very small percentage of this information in our conscious awareness. The healthymemory blog makes a distinction among potential transactive memory, available transactive memory, and accessible transactive memory. Potential transactive memory is all the information about which Hilbert writes as well as information held by our fellow humans. Available transactive memory is that information we are able to find. And accessible transactive memory is that information we are able to access readily. The goal is that this accessible transactive memory grows into knowledge, understanding, and insight, as it is in these final stages where its true value is realized.

© 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.

Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems?

September 23, 2012

An article in The Economist1 raised this question. According to an article in 2011, Facebook analysed 72 million users of its social networking site and found that an average of 4.7 hops could link any two of them via mutual friends. This is even less that the Six Degrees of Separation popularized by John Guare in his play by the same name.

In the United States the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) staged the Red Balloon Challenge in 2009. It was trying to determine how quickly and efficiently information could be gathered using social media. Competitors were to race to find ten red weather balloons that had been tethered at random locations throughout the United States for a $40,000 prize. MIT had the winning team that found all ten balloons in nine hours using the following incentive-based system to encourage participation. The first person to send the correct coordinates of a balloon received $2,000. Whoever recruited that person received $1,000, and the recruiters recruiter received $500, and so forth and so forth.

DARPA staged a new challenge this year, the Tag Challenge. This time the goal was to locate and photograph five people each wearing unique T-shirts in five named cities across two continents. All five had to be identified within 12 hours from nothing more than a mugshot. The prize fund was $5,000. This time none of the teams managed to find all five targets. However, one team with members from MIT,the universities of Edinburgh and Southampton, and the University of California at San Diego did manage to fine three, one in each of the following cities, New York, Washington DC, and Bratislava. This team had a website and a mobile app to make it easier to report findings and to recruit people. Each finder was offered $500 and whoever recruited the finder $100. So anyone who did not know anyone in one of the target cities had no incentive to recruit someone who did. The team promoted itself on Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, most participants just used conventional email. It was conjectured that in the future smart phones might have an app that can query people all over the world, who can then steer the query towards people with the right information.

To return to the title of this post, Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems, I would conclude, if the social problem involves finding someone or something, the answer would be yes. But I think that real-world problems typically involve collaboration of diverse people. In this respect one might argue that social media are actually a detriment to solving real world problems. Social media are good at bringing people of like minds together about something. If what is needed is collaboration among people of diverse opinions, this would not seem productive, and might very likely be counterproductive.

However, there still might be solutions using technology. Wikis provide a useful tool for collaboration. Another approach would having people of relevant, but diverse perspective could interact with each other anonymously using computers. Physical cues and identities would be absent. This would negate or minimize ego or group involvement and would be an exchange of information and ideas with the goal of arriving at a viable consensus. The number of people who can collaborate at a given time appears to be a constraint.

1Six Degrees of Mobilization, The Economist Technology Quarterly, September 2012, p.8.

© 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 Importance of Memory

September 19, 2012

If you have ever watched a loved one suffering from dementia lose their memory, you will appreciate the importance of memory. Memories of her past gradually slip away, and she can eventually forget who you are and who she herself is. It is like the Chesire Cat that disappears leaving its mischievous grin. Our memories define ourselves and when we lose them, we lose ourselves.

Another perspective on the importance of memory is provided by someone with a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) (see the healthymemory blog post, “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us”). One of the stars of the TV show Taxi, Marilu Henner informs us in her book, Total Memory Makeover. She describes how she uses her detailed memory of her past to prevent her from making mistakes and to make wise choices. She remembers what she has done well in the past to point the way to future success. She also uses memories of her past mistakes to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

People understand why she retains pleasant memories but are puzzled why she maintains and finds value in keeping the painful memories. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, she uses them to avoid making past mistakes. But there are other reasons. Psychotherapy often involves a process of dredging up forgotten memories that are the source of current psychological difficulties. I don’t know if Marilu would get a discount at a psychotherapist, but her memory has already taken her to an advanced stage of therapy. She writes that she maintains good relationships with her past two husbands and well as her current one.

One of the therapies for dealing with post traumatic stress syndrome is to relive the traumatic event and to eventually extinguish the traumatic responses to it. Elaborate virtual reality simulations have been developed for these treatments, but someone with a memory like Marilu’s can call up these memories at will and eventually extinguish the adverse emotional reactions to them.

The role of memory in interpersonal relationships is important. The ability to remember information about other people helps one to build relationships including good friendships, relationships with colleagues, and business relationships.

Marilu expounds on how her detailed memory helps her acting. Good actors effectively become the person in the role they are playing. Marilu calls upon her memory to recall emotional states and the way her character would relate to other characters in the performance.

Then, of course, is the matter of education, which is a matter of memory. Not only must information and procedures be learned, but memory plays a role in decision making, problem solving, and the creative process (try entering “decison making,” then “problem solving,” and then “creativity,” in the search box).

© 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.

Why Are Our Brains So Large?

September 16, 2012

A recent article1 provides a possible answer. The article’s title is Social Network Size Linked to Brain Size. Perhaps the most prominent hypothesis is that our enlarged brains allow us to be smarter than our competitors. We are better at abstract thinking, better with tools (I am a personal exception here), and better at adapting our behavior than our prey and predators.

In 1992 anthropologist Robin Dunbar (Remember Dunbar’s Number? See healthymemory blog posts, “Why Is Facebook So Popular?”, and “How Many Friends are Too Many?”) published research showing that in primates the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increases in the size of the social group. So the Tamarin monkey has a brain size ratio of around 2.3 and an average social group size of around 5 members, whereas a Macaque monkey has a brain size ratio of about 3.8 but a large average group size of around 40 members. Consequently, Dunbar advanced his “social brain hypothesis,” which states that the relative size of the neo-cortex rose as social groups became larger in order to maintain the complex set of relationships necessary for stable co-existence. Moreover, he suggested that given the human brain ratio we have an expected social group size of about 150, the size of what Dunbar called a clan.

Dunbar’s previous worked was focused on differences among species. His more recent work focuses on differences within species. He has found that the size of each individual’s social network is linearly related to the neural volume in the orbital prefrontal cortex. His research has shown that more than just more neural material in the prefrontal cortex is needed. Psychological skills are also needed, especially an ability to understand the other person’s state of mind. This cognitive skill is called a “theory of mind.”

So we have two explanations of why are brain’s are so large. One is that we are better at abstract thinking and adapting our behavior. The other is that the larger brain is needed to accommodate larger social networks that are beneficial to our survival. The astute healthymemory blog reader will likely quickly realize that these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Most likely they are both at work.


© 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.

Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Might She Tell Us?

September 12, 2012

Perhaps the first question is what is a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). There have been a variety of studies about people with superior memories. Perhaps the first was Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist. This was about an individual with synesthesia wherein different senses interacted with each other, sound producing images for example. This ability to readily form images produced remarkable abilities. The man made a living demonstrating these abilities. Unfortunately this amazing ability to remember also had the downside of an inability to forget. Consequently his life wasn’t as happy as it might have been. There are also books by people like Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas who discovered mnemonic techniques, like those covered in this blog, developed a great deal of proficiency with them, performed, wrote books, and taught classes about mnemonics.

The discovery of HSAM is very recent. This is not to say that HSAM has not been present in certain individuals for centuries, but the research community has been unaware of such individuals. I was unaware of these people until I viewed a piece on the TV Program Sixty Minutes. Dr. James McGaugh, a Research Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a Fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California-Irvine, became aware of and started studying these extraordinary people. To the best of my knowledge only about 34 such individuals have been identified and studied so far. The nature of this recall ability as shown on Sixty Minutes was the ability to recall what happened on a specific day in the past. So if you asked one of them what happened on 6 August 1999, they would be able to tell you what day of the week that was, and what they did. They might even be able to tell you what they wore and what they ate. If they had watched a sporting event, they could tell the score and the particulars of the event. Marilu Henner, who most of us know from the TV show Taxi and who has had a very successful acting career, was one of the people on the show. When I later learned that she had written a book, Total Memory Makeover, I was tempted to buy but was a little put off by the hype in the title. As I looked further into it I learned that Marilu had a self-improvement business. So my initial decision was not to purchase the book. As time passed, I realized that I could not pass up the opportunity to learn what someone who had such a remarkable memory had to offer. It was a good decision. Here’s what Professor McGaugh wrote in the Foreword to the book. “This book is like no other book about memory, and the insights offered are unique. In these pages we learn from Marilu what it is like to have such a memory, why it is important to her, and why she thinks we can all benefit by taking steps to improve our own remembering. Readers will learn that Marilu is as well organized as she is thoughtful, insightful, enthusiastic, and, well, delightfully humorous. The advice she offers us may not turn all of us (or any of us)into HSAMers, but every reader will learn much about the importance of memory, as well as things we might do to help us maintain memories of our own personal experiences.”

Brain scans of Marilu have shown that certain brain structures important to memory, such as the hippocampus, are larger than normal. But it is important not to confuse cause and effect here. London cab drivers have also found to have hippocampi larger than normal, but this has been attributed to them having to memorize the entire map of London. So it is likely that Marilu’s larger than normal memory structures are the result of her use of them rather than having been born with them.

I found her home life significant. Her father emphasized anticipating an event, participating in the event, and then recollecting the event (her book is organized into three sections of anticipating, participating, and recollection). They liked to have parties and enjoyed the anticipation and the recollection of the parties, and not just the participation in the parties. As a small child she would not only pay attention to the day, date, and month, but would also remember what happened during the day. Then she would periodically review what happened during a past day, week, or month. I was gratified to learn this as I suspected this is what these HSAMers had been doing. Most often, I do not even know what day it is now and need to consult a calendar. So I pay little attention to when something is happening, and I do not systematically review what has happened during these dates. This is something that is entirely feasible, if one has the discipline. Recall actually increases as the time between recall attempts increases. So one might review what happened during the preceding week. Then not review it again until the next month. Then two months, four months, six months, one year, two years, four years. So systematic review is feasible and such review could result in becoming a blossoming HSAMer.

Marilu developed a variety of techniques throughout her life and shares them with you. She also discusses uses of technology and our fellow humans to enhance memory. This is termed transactive memory in the lingo of the healthymemory blog. She discusses memory games for friends, family, and for the development of the memories of children.

The book delivers what the title promises, a Total Memory Makeover. However, there is no requirement that the makeover be total. You can devote as much time as your interest and schedule permits. I think whatever time you devote to this effort will foster a healthy memory. Virtually everything offered in the book will foster a healthy memory.

If you are a parent or grandparent, I would strongly recommend that you get the book and use some of the games and exercises with your children. Perhaps the best gift you can give them is a healthy, well functioning memory. This is even more important with the temptation to rely increasingly on technology instead of our biological memories.

© 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.

Type 3 Diabetes and Dementia

September 9, 2012

Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children when an autoimmune response destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas such that the body can no longer regulate levels of blood sugar. Insulin therapy is required. Type 2 diabetes, the most common type of diabetes, occurs when the pancreas either does not produce enough insulin or the muscle, liver, and fat cells ignore the insulin and fail to remove such excess sugar from the blood. High insulin levels and high blood sugar raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, nerve damage, and amputation. Being overweight increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Type 3 diabetes1, coined by Suzanne de la Monte, refers to the condition when brain tissue becomes resistant to insulin. This is similar to Type 2 diabetes, but the brain is injured.

Here’s the proposed toxic cycle. A high-sugar high-fat diet leads to higher levels of insulin in the brain. The high levels of insulin block the enzyme that normally eats the beta amyloid protein. It is this amyloid protein that leads to plaque buildup which is one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. These beta amyloid proteins amass in toxic quantities. Neurons become resistant to the effects of insulin. Beta amyloid protein blocks insulin receptors on neurons. The neurons make greater quantities of beta amyloid protein. Eventually insulin production becomes exhausted and drops off This leads to brain damage and dementia. Now insulin can offset beta amyloid damage by blocking its landing site on neurons. Otherwise the cell is more vulnerable to damage.

According to the New Scientist article, a variety of animal studies have supported this explanation. The article also cites two studies involving humans. One of them involves human cadavers. Steven Arnold of the University of Pennsylvania bathed various tissue samples in insulin to see how they would react. Neurons from cadavers of those who had had Alzheimer’s barely reacted at all, but the neurons from cadavers who had not had Alzheimer’s seemed to spring back to life.

Research with living humans is investigating whether a boost of insulin might improve symptoms of those with Alzheimer’s. They used a device that delivers insulin deep into the nose, where it then travels to the brain. A four month study involving 104 people found that the treatment resulted in the recall of more details of stories, longer attention spans, more interest in their hobbies and being better able to care for themselves. The treatment also improved the glucose metabolism in their brains.

There is ample evidence that a healthy diet fosters a healthy memory. However, it should be remembered that although amyloid plaque might be a necessary condition for Alzheimer’s, it is not a sufficient condition. There have been autopsies of people whose brain’s were in sad shape due to the buildup of amyloid plaque, but who had not exhibited any symptoms of Alzheimer’s while they were alive. So the buildup of a cognitive reserve through healthy cognitive activities throughout one’s lifetime is quite important. One of the primary goals of the healthymemory blog is to provide guidance on these healthy cognitive activities.

1Trivedi, B. (2012). Eat Your Way to Dementia, New Scientist, 1 September, 32-37.

© 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.

Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals

September 5, 2012

When I was a graduate student being accused of anthropomorphism was a condemning indictment. If I said that it was clear to me that my dog clearly had consciousness I would have been accused of projecting my human attributes on the dog, something that an objective scientist would never do. It struck me that if I imposed the same standards for consciousness on my fellow humans as I was supposed to impose on non-humans, I would not have been able to conclude that my fellow humans were conscious! Fortunately, as a result of advances in neuroscience and imaging techniques that view has changed. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness has been published

It begins as follows:

On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:

The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I have long thought that dogs were man’s best friend, rather than men being man’s best friend, because dogs had the neurological substrates for love and loyalty, but were lacking a neocortex that allowed for rationalization and deviousness. So I find the conclusions of these distinguished scientists reassuring. I also feel good about my friends who had parrots, who had similar convictions. And I was glad to see that octupuses were included as what I have read about their behaviors indicates that they are highly intelligent and have consciousness.

© 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.

Happy Labor Day: Why Are We Working So Hard?

September 2, 2012

For Labor Day I think it is appropriate to repost “Why, With All This Technology Are We Working So Hard?”

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.

You also might visit or revisit the Healthymemory Blog post “Gross National Happiness (GNU).

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, 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.