Archive for October, 2012

Unhealthy Memory

October 31, 2012

Depression is the most common form of mental illness. It can lead to suicide. It will affect from ten to twenty percent of us some time in our lives. Electroconvulsive Shock can work in extreme cases, but sometimes at a cost of memory loss. Antidepressants can work for some victims, but all drugs have side effects. Cognitive therapy can also work, but it takes time.

Research has provided insights that have led to a new approach to therapy.1 The psychologist Mark Williams read out a cue work to patients such as “happy” or “clumsy.” It was not surprising to find that depressed or suicidal people were quicker to respond with negative experiences instead of positive ones. However, what was interesting was that people who weren’t depressed tended to focus on specific events, whereas depressed patients were noticeably vaguer. For example, one depressed patient responded to the word “happy” with “the first years of marriage.” Another depressed patient responded to the word “safe” with “when I’m in bed.” Even when they were encouraged to be more specific they were less likely to recall a single incident such as a particular film or an insult that had upset them. It appeared that depressed patients were skimming the chapter titles of their autobiographies and ignoring the text that followed. Williams’ findings have been replicated by a host of studies emphasizing how important our memories are to our well-being.

The notion is that our memories provide a kind of ballast that support us during a time of stress. Our memories can suggest ways to solve problems and offer comfort when we are feeling wounded. However, when people find it difficult to recall specific events, this support is absent and they can feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges, which slowly pushes them into depression. This phenomenon is known as “over-general memory.” Over-general memory has been found to be present before the low mood developed. This supports the idea that it is the memory problem that led to the depression rather than the other way around. One study involved 74 women who had undergone in vitro fertilization and failed to get pregnant. Those who had the least specific recall before the treatment were most likely to develop symptoms of depression after the disappointment. Another study found that teenagers judged to have over-general memory were more likely to develop depression in the 12 months after they were tested. Research has also found that those with over-general memory were more likely to suffer from PTSD after a traumatic event.

Research is being conducted to see if a type of memory training can be used to improve the specificity of people’s recall and reduce their symptoms of depression. Tim DalGlesh at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK has investigated a technique called Memory Specificity Training (MeST). People practice delving into their memories over and over again recalling detailed specific incidents for different cue words. Fortunately, these events need not have anything to do with the person’s current anxieties. MeST can be taught in groups. Early results indicate that people might need only five weekly sessions to show improvement.

A former colleague of Dalgesh, Hamid Neshat-Doost at the University of Isfahan did a study with 23 depressed Afghani refugees living in a community with little access to any type of therapy. The 11 people who received the five group sessions of MeST improved significantly whereas the untreated did not show improvement. Moreover, those with the most improvement in their ability to recall specifics reported the greatest improvements in their moods.

1Robson, D. (2012). Fade to Black. New Scientist, 6 October, p. 38-40.

© 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.

Time Travel: The Ultimate Purpose of Memory?

October 28, 2012

Most of the time we think of memory as being a place of historical storage where old information and experiences are kept. But another way of thinking about it is as a vehicle for time travel (see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Human Memory: A Machine for Time Travel”). You are able to travel to times long before you were born using what you have learned and your imagination. You can also project yourself into the future with science fiction or your own imagination. Actually we do quite a bit of projection in our daily lives, imagining what it will be like and making appropriate plans. Brain images of people when they are remembering the past and imagining the future show a great degree of overlap in the areas of the brain that are responding.

The distinguished memory researcher Endel Tulving found an unfortunate individual with amnesia who could remember facts but not episodic memories relating to past events in his life. When this person was asked about plans, be it for later in the day, the next day, or in summer, his mind went blank. Brain scans support this idea. When we think of a possible future, we tear through our memories in autobiographical memory and stitch together fragments into a montage that represents a new scenario. Our memories become frayed and reorganized in the process.1

So it appears that the ability to project ourselves forward in time, using what we have learned and experienced to guide the projection, might be the ultimate purpose of memory. Gestalt psychologists believe that in both the processing of information and its memory that laws were operating to create order and make information more meaningful. Emergence was an important concept in which new ideas emerged from the information at hand. These processes help us deal with the future.

Although our brains are working from the time we are born (and there is data indicating that they are working before we are born) to understand and make sense of the world in order to cope with it. In the early stages of life we are preoccupied with mastering language and moving about our environments. Consequently we rarely remember specific events before the ages of 2 or 3, when our autobiographical memories begin to develop And they develop slowly as it is difficult to remember much before our sixth birthday. We are also developing a sense of identity. When we are able to recognize ourselves in a mirror, we have achieved a critical stage of development. A child’s ability to imagine the future seems to develop in tandem with autobiographical memory. Obviously our culture and our families have a profound influence on these memories and our preparation for coping with the world. Our autobiographical memories continue to mature when we leave our parents. A ten year old can rarely relay a coherent life story, but a twenty year old can ramble on for hours. There is a “reminiscence bump,” where we are able to recall much more information that occurs in late adolescence.2 Consequently we are prepared or semi-prepared to assume responsibilities just in the nick of time.

1Robson, D. (2012). Memory: The Ultimate Guide. New Scientist, 6 October, p.33.

2Weir, K. (2012). A Likely Story. New Scientist, 6 October, 36-37.

© 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.

Electrical Activity, Chemical Activity, Connectivity, and Epigenetic Activity

October 24, 2012

All of these are involved in making our memories. Our short term or working memories are held in fleeting changes in the brain‘s electrical and chemical activity. They quickly fade as our attention wanders, but they provide the basis of our conscious awareness.

Our long term memories are woven into webs of connections among the brain cells. The brain alters the communication between networks of cells by the creation of new receptors at the end of a neuron, by a surge in the production of a neurotransmitter, or by the forging of new ion channels that allows a brain cell to boost the voltage of its signals. The same pattern of neurons will fire when we recall the memory bringing the thought back into our consciousness. Long term memories include our autobiographical memories, our episodic memories of specific events in our lives, our sensory memories, as well as our semantic memories that comprise our knowledge of the world. One of the most important brain regions involved in this process are the hippocampi. The are located near the base of the brain and are especially important in the consolidation of new memories. When they are surgically removed or damaged, no new memories can be stored. Thus, no new learning can take place.

The preceding has been known for some time, what is new is an understanding of the epigenetic changes that are involved in memory. These involve small alterations in the structure of a gene and determine its activity within the cell. For instance, certain genes linked to the formation of memories have been shown to have fewer methyl groups attached to their DNA after learning. This is a clear example of an epigenetic change.1 Every time we recall a memory, new proteins are made. The epigenetic markers are altered changing the memory in subtle ways. So the brain is not like a video camera. It is dynamic and changes itself.

1Young, E. (2012). The Making of a Memory, New Scientist, 6 October, p.34.

© 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.

Can Pigeons Learn Faster the Humans?

October 21, 2012

Would you believe that the answer is “yes.” And would you further believe that the learning involves conditional probabilities? The problem is the famed “Monty Hall Dilemma” from the old TV show Let’s Make a Deal. On one segment of the show the contestant was asked to make a choice regarding three doors. There was a valuable prize behind one door and trash prizes behind the other two doors. After the contestant chose one of the doors, Monty Hall would open one of the other two doors, which would have a trash prize behind it. Monty then asks the contestant whether she wants to switch her choice to the other remaining door. Most people, including some prominent statisticians, saw no point to switching the choice. However, the contestant would increase her chances of winning something valuable to 67% from 33% by switching. This result is non-intuitive. The simple explanation is that the sample space changed with the opening of one of the doors. Very detailed explanations can be fond on the Wikipedia or you can play the game itself at

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/science/08monty.html

and prove that the answer is correct. Be sure to play the game enough times to acquire a large enough sample. Concluding on the basis of your first few tries could lead to an erroneous conclusion.

But our question is whether pigeons could do better the humans. Probably not on Let’s Make a Deal, as the typical pigeon just as the typical human is unlikely to know the problem or to be especially knowledgeable about conditional probabilities. But how would humans and pigeons compare after playing a game like the simulation provided above?

An experiment1 addressed this question. Here’s how this experiment was run for the pigeons. Prior to each trial the prize, a grain pellet, was randomly assigned to each of three keys. The keys were illuminated and the pigeon pecked a key locking in the choice. Following a brief delay, the two remaining keys were again illuminated again and a second peck produced a prize, the grain, or a time-out. Pigeons completed up to 100 trials per day over 30 days. Human participants completed 200 trials using a computer display and were presented with visual feedback. Pigeons began with a tendency to stay, but eventually settled on a strategy to switch on virtually all trials. Human participants quickly developed a tendency to switch on about two-thirds of the trials. That is, they tried to probability match rather than moving to the optimal strategy of always switching. If you do not believe that this is the optimal strategy, then go back to the simulation and test your hypothesis, remembering to run a large number of trials.

So how could this be? Could pigeons be smarter than humans (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals”)? Or could it be that humans are being too smart for their own good in this case? Remember the distinction between System 1 and System 2 Processes (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 consists of well learned processes that run virtually automatically. System 2 is close to our conscious processing and is what we commonly experienced as thinking. It is possible that we over think the problem to our disadvantage. It would have been interesting to continue humans in the experiment to see when, if ever, they learned the optimal strategy of not switching. The pigeons, in spite of their conscious capacity, might have learned the optimal strategy via very basic learning processes. Be assured this is all conjecture, done in fun. But the empirical results are real.

1Hebranson, W.T. (2012). Pigeons, Humans and the Monty Hall Dilemma. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012 21:297 DOI: 10.1177/0963721412453585.

© 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.

New Approaches to Alzheimer’s Disease

October 17, 2012

Between 1998 and 2011, 101 experimental treatments for Alzheimer’s were scrapped. Only three drugs made it to market, and they do not cure Alzheimer’s, they merely slow it down. Treatments that target the obvious hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are the sticky plaques that clog up people’s brains. Two of the largest trials of treatments to attack these plaques failed. So it appears that other approaches are needed that focus on other earlier events. The immediately preceding post outlined one of these new approaches. Another article1 described new trials that are focusing on protecting synapses. Synapses are the gaps across which neurons communicate.

Bryostatin 1 is a cancer drug that has been shown to boost an enzyme, PKC episilon. This enzyme both helps form synapses and protects them against plaque. A trial that will test this drug in people with Alzheimer’s is about to begin.

Patricia Salinas and her colleagues at University College in London have shown that soluble beta-amyloid raises concentration of a synapse destroying enzyme called Dkk1. When the enzyme was blocked in cultures of brain cells, synapses remained intact. Potentially this could provide a way to protect the aging brain.

Gary Landreth and his team at Case Western University have found that another cancer drug, bexarotene, got rid of half the plaques within three days in an experiment using mice. The drug also reduced levels of beta-amyloid and the animals rapidly recovered their cognitive abilities.

The Healthymemory blog always takes pains to note that although these amyloid plaques appear to be a necessary condition, they do not appear to be a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s. There have been autopsies of individuals whose brains all show conspicuous signs of Alzheimer’s, yet these individuals never evidenced any of its symptoms when they were alive. The explanation offered for this finding is that these people had built up a cognitive reserve during their lifetimes. The healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of building this cognitive reserve through cognitive exercise (e.g.,mnemonic techniques), and by remaining cognitively active and engaging in cognitive growth throughout one’s entire life.

1Hamzelou, J., (2012). A New Direction. New Scientist, 29 September, p. 7.

© 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.

Astrocytes and Alzheimer’s

October 14, 2012

Astrocytes are star shaped glial cells found in the brain and the spinal cord. An interesting article1 explains how these astrocytes could possibly prevent or provide a cure for Alzheimer’s. It is thought that these astrocytes make up a large percentage of the brain and have an important role supporting neurons to include clearing the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. It was recently shown that cells in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s “senesce.” This mechanism stops them from dividing and starts them on a path of destruction.

It is generally believed that cell senescence evolved to protect us from cancer. Cells can accumulate DNA damage as they age and they senesce to avoid incorrect division that can lead to cancer. The benefit of senescence over self-destruction is that it sends out a call to the immune system to destroy nearby cells that might also be affected. If the damaged cell is not killed, it goes on pumping out inflammatory proteins, which can cause damage thought to underlie age related ailments such as Alzheimer’s.

To provide some empirical data, brain slices were taken from cadavers. Slices were taken from fetuses, from people aged 35 to 50, and from people aged between 78 and 90.  The healthy brains from adults over 35 had six to eight times more senescent cells than those taken from fetuses. Cells from corpses who had had Alzheimer’s had more of these cells than their Alzheimer-free pairs of similar age. About 30 percent of the of the astrocytes seem to have senesced, a figure that was 10 percent higher in those with Alzheimer’s.

The theory is that the plaques and aging astrocytes get caught in a vicious cycle.  As the astrocytes senesce, they are less able to perform their plaque cleaning duties, and the accumulation of plaques drives more cells to senesce.2 If the astrocytes could be kept young, they could clear the plaque. The problem with preventing senescence is that it could increase the risk of cancer. Another approach is to get rid of the senescent cells. Research using mice has found that a technique for removing all of the senescent cells in a mouse prevented the onset of a range of age-related disorders. If this technique can be adapted for humans and the senescent cells can be cleared, then Alzheimer;s could probably be cleared.

Another approach might be to stop senescing brain cells from secreting their inflammatory brew. They have been found a compound that suppresses the secretions of senescent cells in the laboratory. That needs to be transitioned and tested with humans.

This work is quite promising. However, it should be remembered that beta-amyloid plaque might be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition for the onset of Alzheimer’s. There have been autopsies done of individuals whose brains were plagued by beta-amyloid plaque who had never shown any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they were alive.

It is thought that keeping cognitively and physically active, and continuing to grow cognitively as we age builds up a cognitive reserve that resists or offsets these physical symptoms.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Why Alzheimer’s Hits Older Brains. New Scientist, 29 September, 6-7.

2Bhat, R., Crowe, E.P., Bitto, A. , Moh, M., Katsetos, C.D., Garcia, F.U., Johnson, F.B., Trojanski, J.Q., Sell, C., Torres, C. (2012). Astrocyte Senescence as a Component of Alzheimer;s Disease. PloS, doi.org/jdz.

© 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.

Solutions and Good Practices for Misinformation

October 10, 2012

The preceding three blog posts, “Misinformation,” “The Origins of Misinformation,”, and “Cognitive Processing of Information,” have painted a pessimistic view of the problem of misinformation. This post will propose some solutions to the problem. All four posts draw heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1 This post also draws on Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman‘s two system view of human cognition.2 According to Kahneman, we have two systems for processing information. System 1, called Intuition, is very fast, and seems to work effortlessly. System 2, called reasoning, is slow and effortful. System 1 is the default system that we use when we are walking, driving, conversing, engaging in any type of skilled performance. System 2 is what we might term conscious thinking. One of the reasons that System 1 is so fast is that it employs heuristics and biases in its processing. Although most of the time they are correct, occasionally they are wrong. System 2 is supposed to monitor System 1 processing and should step in and do some thinking to assure that nothing is wrong. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition.”)

It is System 1, which facilitates the processing of good information, that inadvertently processes misinformation. System 2 is supposed to monitor and correct these mistakes, but it is a very difficult task. A person’s worldview, what the person already believes, has an enormous effect on what is regarded as misinformation. One person’s information can be another’s misinformation. Skepticism reduces susceptibility to misinformation effects when it prompts people to question the origins of information that may later turn out to be false. One way of dealing with this worldview is by framing solutions to a problem in worldview-consonant terms. For example, people who might oppose nanotechnology because they have an “eco-centric” outlook might be less likely to dismiss evidence of its safety if the use of nanotechnology is presented as part of an effort to protect the environment.

There is a danger one needs to recognize when trying to correct the effects of misinformation, particularly misinformation about complex real-world issues. People will refer more to misinformation that is in line with their attitudes and will be relatively immune to corrections. Retractions might even backfire and strengthen the initially held beliefs.

So much for the difficulties. Four common misinformation problems follow along with associated solutions and good practices.

Continued Influence Effect. Despite a retraction, people continue to believe the misinformation. The solution is to provide an alternative explanation that fills the gap left by retracting the misinformation without reiterating the misinformation. Then continue to strengthen the retraction through repetition (without reinforcing the myth).

Familiarity Backfire Effect. Repeating the myth increases familiarity reinforcing it. The solution is to avoid repetition of the myth by reinforcing the correct facts instead. When possible provide a pre-exposure warning that misleading information is coming.

Overkill Backfire Effect. Simple myths are more cognitively attractive than complicated refutations. The solution is to provide a simple, brief, rebuttal that uses fewer arguments in refuting the myth—less is more. Try to foster healthy skepticism. Skepticism about information source reduces the influence of misinformation.

Worldview Backfire Effect. Evidence that threatens worldview can strengthen initially held beliefs. The solution is to affirm worldview by framing evidence in a worldview-affirming manner by endorsing the values of the audience. Self-affirmation of personal values increases receptivity to evidence.

It should be clear that correcting the effects of misinformation is not easy. Moreover, the effects are likely to be modest. Nevertheless, correcting misinformation is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Clearly more research is needed.

We also need to be aware that our own worldviews influence System 1 processing and the failure to reject misinformation. Here I am reminded of something Mark Twain said. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

1Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., , Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

2Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

© 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 Processing of Information

October 9, 2012

This is the third in a series of four posts on the topic of misinformation and its correction. All four posts draw heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1 The first post, “Misinformation,” introduced the problem of misinformation. The second post, “The Origins of Misinformation” discussed the mechanisms of misinformation. The current post discusses how we process information, assess its truth, and correct misinformation we have received and, mistakenly, believed. This post draws on Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman‘s two system view of human cognition.2 According to Kahneman, we have two systems for processing information. System 1, called Intuition, is very fast, and seems to work effortlessly. System 2, called reasoning, is slow and effortful. System 1 is the default system that we use when we are walking, driving, conversing, engaging in any type of skilled performance. System 2 is what we might term conscious thinking. One of the reasons that System 1 is so fast is that it employs heuristics and biases in its processing. Although most of the time they are correct, occasionally they are wrong. System 2 is supposed to monitor System 1 processing and should step in and do some thinking to assure that nothing is wrong. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition.”)

The default mode for System 1 processing is that the information is true, unless the source is questionable at the outset. Then System 2 would raise an alert regarding the accuracy/truth of the information. Otherwise our processing of information would be quite slow and others would tend to lose patience with us. There is a sense of familiarity or fluency regarding the information. Should it be unfamiliar System 2 will likely pay more attention to the information including its veracity.

System 2 does raise some questions. For example, is the information compatible with what I believe? If it isn’t, it is likely either to be disregarded or to be examined quite carefully. If it is a story, System 2 will judge whether it is coherent. If it is incoherent and does not fit together, it will be regarded with suspicion.

Repeated exposure to a statement is known to increase its acceptance as true. Repetition effects can create a perceived social consensus even when no consensus exists. This is important as one of the factors determining whether the information is believed is whether others believe the information. Social-consensus information is particularly influential when it pertains to one’s reference group. One possible consequence of this repetition is pluralistic ignorance, which is the divergence between the actual prevalence of a belief in a society and what people in the society think that others believe. The flip side of pluralistic ignorance is the false-consensus effect in which a minority of people incorrectly feel that they are in the majority. These effects can be quite strong. It has been found that people in Australia who have particularly negative attitudes toward Aboriginal Australians or asylum seekers overestimate public support for their attitudes by 67% and 80% respectively. Although only 1.8% of people in a sample of Australians were found to have strongly negative attitudes towards Aboriginals, those few individuals thought that 69% of all Australians (and 79% of their friends) shared their extreme beliefs.

Unfortunately research indicates that retractions rarely eliminate the influence of misinformation. This is true even when people believe, understand, and later remember the retraction. This is true of research in the laboratory where misinformation is often retracted immediately and within the same narrative. Of course the situation is even worse when misinformation is presented through media sources and a correction is presented. This correction is usually presented in a later edition, so the format is temporally disjointed.

Most misinformation is the result of fast System 1 processes. The failure of retractions is due to faulty System 2 processes. We construct mental models of events. When a portion of this model is disrupted, System 2 processes should recognize that the entire model falls apart. But we don’t. Sometimes the false information that was retracted is still employed in the model. So System 2 is not doing the strategic monitoring it is supposed to do. Misinformation can have a fluency and familiarity about it, which is the result of System 1 processes and the failure of System 2 processes to correct the misinformation even when the correct information is available.

There is also the psychological phenomenon of reactance. People generally do not like to be told how to think or how to act, so they may reject especially authoritative retractions. This effect has be documented in courtroom settings where mock jurors are presented with a piece of evidence that is later ruled inadmissable. When the jurors are asked to disregard the tainted evidence, their conviction rates are higher when an inadmissable ruling was accompanied by the judge’s extensive legal explanations than when the inadmissability was left unexplained.

To this point the presentations have been pretty pessimistic. Misinformation is a large problem produced by many sources and processed by cognitive mechanisms that are vulnerable to misinformation but fairly indifferent to corrections. The next post, the final one in these series, will provide some partial solutions to this serious problem.

1Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., , Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

2Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Origins of Misinformation

October 8, 2012

The immediately preceding post introduced the problem of misinformation. This post discusses the origins of misinformation. The sources discussed here are rumors and fiction, government and politicians, vested interests, and the media. This post, as was the preceding post and the next post, draws heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1

Although the believability of information is one factor determining the propagation of information, there is a strong preference to pass information that will invoke an emotional response in the recipient, regardless of the truth value of the information. People also extract information from fictional sources, both in literature, the movies, and the theater arts. People rely on misinformation acquired from clearly fictitious stories to respond to quiz question even when the misinformation contradicted common knowledge and when people where aware that the source was fictional.2 These effects of fictional misinformation are difficult to correct. Prior warnings were ineffective in reducing the acquisition of misinformation from fiction, and that misinformation was reduced, but not eliminated only when participants were instructed to actively monitor the contents they were reading and to press a key whenever they encountered a piece of misinformation.3 Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear misrepresented the science of global change yet was introduced as “scientific” evidence into a U.S. Senate committee.

Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. Government officials proclaimed that there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Bush administration also juxtaposed Iraq and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the frontline in the “War on Terror.” Moreover, it implied that it had intelligence linking Iraq to al–Qaida. All of this turned out to be misinformation, yet large segments of the American public continued to believe these claims. Moreover, 20% to 30% believed that WMDs had actually been discovered in Iraq after the invasion and about half the public believed in the links between Iraq and al–Qaeda.

In the political arena Sarah Palin made the claim that Obama’s health care plan had provisions for “death panels.” In five weeks 86% of American had heard this claim and half either believed this myth or were uncertain as to its veracity. Although the public is aware of politically motivated misinformation, particularly during election campaigns, they are poor in identifying specific instances of misinformation, being unable to distinguish between false and correct information.

There is also ample evidence of concerted efforts by vested interests to disseminate misinformation. This willful manufacture of mistaken beliefs has earned its own term, “agnogenesis.” In 2006 a U.S. Federal Court ruled that cigarette manufacturers were guilty of conspiring to deny, distort, and minimize the effects of cigarette smoking. In the early 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Fuels Association, and The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) drafted and promoted campaigns to case doubt on the science of climate change. These industry groups have formed alliances with conservative think tanks, using a handful of scientist as spokesmen. More than 90% of books published between 1972 and 2005 that expressed skepticism about environmental issues have been linked to conservative think tanks. This review is hardly exhaustive and supplies only a hint of the magnitude of this type of misinformation.

The media, defined roughly as print newspapers and magazines, radio, TV, and the internet are also a source of misinformation. There are a variety of factors at play here. Journalists with weak backgrounds in the subjects they are addressing can oversimplify the topic they are addressing. There is also a strong motivation to sensationalize their stories. Sometimes, in an effort to be fair and balanced, they can be misleading. For example, an overwhelming majority (more than 95%) of actively publishing climate scientists agree on the fundamental fact that the globe is warming and that this warming is due to greenhouse-gas emissions caused by humans. Yet, the media, in an attempt to be even-handed will give equal time to individuals, often without appropriate backgrounds, who hold a contrary view. Consequently, the public misses the relative weighting of opinion among knowledgeable scientists.

There are also differences among media outlets as to how much misinformation they disseminate. Research4 has shown that the level of belief in misinformation among segments of the public varies according to preferred news outlets. The continuum runs from Fox News (whose viewers are the most misinformed on most issues) to National Public Radio (whose listeners are the least misinformed overall).

This blog has argued that the internet is not the cause of misinformation, but merely the means of communicating misinformation. A good argument can be made that this is not entirely true. There is a phenomenon known as selective exposure that can produce fractionation. Blogs and other social media tend to link to blogs and social media having similar viewpoints and to exclude opposing views. This can lead to “cyber-ghettos.” It is likely that this bears some responsibility for extreme divergent views in the political arena and an unwillingness to compromise or negotiate.

1Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., , Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

2Marsh, E.J., Mease, M.L., & Roediger, H.L. III. (2003). Learning Fact from Fiction. Memory & Cognition, 49, 519-536.

3Marsh, E.J., & Fazio, L.K. (2006). Learning Errors from Fiction: Difficulties in Reducing Reliance on Fictional Sources. Memory & Cognition, 34, 1140-1149.

4For example Kull, S., Ramsay, C., & Lewis, E. (2003). Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq war. Political Science Quarterly, 118, 569-598.

© 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.

Misinformation

October 7, 2012

The explosion of the internet has led many to fear misinformation on the internet. A recent review article1 on misinformation and its correction has motivated this post and the next three posts. As will be seen, misinformation is not a new problem; it has been with us a long time. The problem is more psychological than technological, and it is difficult, but not impossible to correct.

Misinformation is widespread and persistent. Here are some prominent examples:

Barack Obama’s Birth Certificate. In addition to his Hawaiian birth certificate, birth announcements in the local papers, and information that his pregnant mother went into the Honolulu hospital and left it cradling a baby “birthers” claimed that he had been born outside the United States and was not eligible to be president. Undoubtedly Obama had been vetted by the Republican Party and the US government prior to the election. Still a majority of Republican primary voters believed this myth. Birthers still exist even after Obama eventually and unnecessarily produced his birth certificate.

In 1998 in the United Kingdom a study suggesting a link between a common childhood vaccine and autism generated considerable fear. The UK Department of Health along with other health organizations immediately pointed to the lack of evidence for such claims and urged parents not to reject the vaccine. The media also reported that none of the claims had been substantiated. Nevertheless in 2002 between 20% and 25% continued to believe in the vaccine-autism link. 39% to 53% of the public still believed there was equal evidence on both sides of the debate. What is even more disturbing is that a substantial number of health professionals continued to believe the misinformation (so don’t assume that your doctor is up to date on the medical literature—you might be more current than your doctor is). Eventually the fact came out that the first author of the study had failed to disclose that he had substantial conflicts of interest. His co-authors distanced themselves from the study, and the journal officially retracted the article. The first author was found guilty of misconduct and lost his license to practice medicine. The basis of this information was one article. Consider the effort in correcting this misinformation. There have been several similar incidents in the United States, and they will continue to occur.

When the few lucky North Koreans manage to escape North Korea and make it to South Korea, they go to sessions where they learn how to live in a free society. They are also provided some relevant history. In North Korea they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the belief that South Korea and the US Imperialists started the war. In spite of their total disillusionment with North Korea, to the point that they risked their lives to escape the North Korean nightmare, they find this correction of this egregious misinformation difficult to accept.

It can be extremely difficult to correct misconceptions. Advertisements for Listerine mouthwash claimed for more than 50 years that the product helped prevent or reduce the severity of colds and sore throats. After a long legal battle The U.S. Federal Trade Commission mandated corrective advertising that explicitly withdrew the deceptive claims. In spite of a $10 million dollar campaign, the corrections were modest. Overall levels of acceptance of the false claim remained high. 42% of Listerine users still believed that the product was still promoted as an effective cold remedy and more than half (57%) reported that the product’s presumed medical effects were a key factor in their purchasing decision.

So misinformation is a serious problem that is neither new nor unique to the internet. This problem is psychological, not technological. The internet is merely a delivery system.

1Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., , Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

© 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.

SuperAgers with a Super Memory

October 3, 2012

In a recent experiment1 SuperAgers were defined as individuals over 80 with episodic memory performance at least as good as normative values for 50- to 65-year olds. The performance of these SuperAgers was compared to two cognitively normal cohorts: age-matched elderly and 50- to 65-year olds. The brains of all three groups were compared using cortical morphometry.

With respect to memory performance, the SuperAgers performed better than both control groups (but the difference between the SuperAgers and the middle-age controls was not statistically significant, p>0.05). The sample consisted of 12 SuperAgers, 10 elderly controls, and 14 middle-age controls. The elderly control group performed significantly worse than the other two groups.

With respect to whole-brain cortical thickness elderly controls exhibited significant atrophy in the older cohort compared against the middle-aged controls in multiple regions across the frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes, including medial temporal regions important for memory. However, the whole brain cortical thickness analysis comparing the SuperAgers with the middle-aged controls did not reveal significant atrophy in the SuperAgers.

With respect to the thickness of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, the thickness of the SuperAgers was higher than both the Elderly Controls and the Middle-Aged Controls. Somewhat surprisingly, only the difference between the SuperAgers and the Middle-Aged controls was statistically significant (p<0.05). However, the likelihood of achieving statistical significance increases as sample size increases. Research has indicated that the cingulate constitutes a critical site of transmodel integration related to episodic memory, spatial attention, cognitive control, and motivational modulation. It is unclear whether the SuperAgers were born with a particularly thick cortex or whether they resisted cortical change over time.

The relationship between brain and memory is an interesting one. The notion that more brain equates to more memory is fairly common, but this finding needs to be placed in context. Alzheimer’s cannot be diagnosed conclusively until an autopsy has been done. The key signatures for the diagnosis are amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. But these same signatures have been found in autopsies of people WHO HAD SHOWN NO SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S WHEN THEY WERE ALIVE! So it would appear that these amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s.

I remember reading an article when I was in graduate school about someone who had hydroencephalocele, which is more commonly called “water in the brain.” As a result of this condition, this individual had only about 10% of the normal volume of cortex. Yet this person led a normal life and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in mathematics!

The plasticity of the brain is truly remarkable. Healthymemory believes that this plasticity is fostered by cognitive exercise and cognitive challenges. So, stay cognitively active and seek cognitive growth!

1Harrison, T.M., Weintraub, S., Mesulam, M.-M, & Rogalski, E. (2012). Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Aging, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 18, 1-5.

© 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.