Archive for December, 2012

Happy New Year: What About Your Resolutions?

December 30, 2012

It’s time to choose and make our resolutions for the new year. Although making New Year’s Resolutions is a splendid idea, the problem is that we fail to keep most of these resolutions. One way of improving your success is to cast willpower as a choice. This can be done by carefully choosing the words you use to talk to yourself. Research1 has shown that when participants framed a refusal as “I don’t” instead of “I can’t connotes deprivation, while saying ). So, for example, one could say “I don’t eat fatty foods,” rather than “I can’t eat fatty foods.” Vanessa Patrick, the author of the study said, “I believe that an effective route to self regulation is by managing one’s desire for temptation, instead of relying solely on willpower… Saying,“I can’t” denotes deprivation while saying “I don’t” makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”

So it is a good idea to rely on willpower as little as possible. A book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, explains why. Keeping New Year’s Resolutions results in ego depletion. You can think of ego depletion as being a loss in will or mental energy and it can be measured by glucose metabolism. Whenever you are trying to resist temptation, make a decision, or need to concentrate on certain tasks, there is this loss in willpower or mental energy, such that it is difficult to resist additional temptations, to make more decisions, or to concentrate on additional tasks. So it is unwise to try to give up two vices at the same time. The probability of success if much greater if you address one vice and then later address the other vice.

So the more resolutions you make, the less likely you are to keep them. And the more difficult a given resolution is, the more difficult it will be to keep it. So here is a strategy for you consideration. Decide upon only two resolutions. One should be fairly easy, and the other more difficult. You are more likely to keep the easy resolution, so you will have one in the win column. Should you also keep the second resolution, then you are entitled to a YA HAH moment. This strategy should produce at least a .500 win percentage.

As for what resolutions to make, the Healthymemory Blog has some suggestions.

Taking at least a forty minute walk at least three times a week.

Learn at least three new words a day (or 21 words a week) in the language of your choice.

Contribute to a Wikipedia page on a topic of interest and continue to build you knowledge in that topic or a new topic.

Find several new friends with a similar interest and pursue that interest with a passion.

Engage in deliberate practice in a skill of interest (See the Healthymemory Blog Post Deliberate Practice”)

Develop and practice mnemonic techniques on a regular basis (Click on the Category “Mnemonic Techniques” and you find a comprehensive listing of mnemonic techniques along with descriptions of the techniques and exercises. Try starting at the bottom of the category and proceeding up. There is a specific Healthymemory Blog post, “Memory Course”, which suggests an order in which the mnemonic techniques should be approached. There are also some websites for learning and developing proficiency in mnemonic techniques. One is Click on the Human Memory Site. Then click on the “read more” link under your preferred language. You can open up an account and record and track your progress. Another site is Both of these websites are free.)

Good luck.

1Rodriguez, T. (2013). :I Don’t” Beats “I Can’t” for Self Control. Scientific American Mind, January/February p.14.

© 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.

You Have Two Brains

December 26, 2012

As do I. It was described by Byron Robinson in The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain in 1907 and named the enteric nervous system (ENS) by Johannis Langley.1 About the same time it was found that the ENS can act autonomously. When its main connection with the brain, the vagus nerve, is severed the ENS still is capable of coordinating digestion. Interest in this gut brain dropped until the field of neurogastroenterology was born in the 1990’s. It has since been learned that about 90% of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from the brain above, but from the ENS.2

How do these two brains compare? Both have barriers restricting blood flows to their respective brains and are supported by glial cells. The first brain consists of about 85 billion neurons; the second brain has about 500,000 neurons. 100 neurotransmitters have been identified for the first brain; 40 neurotransmitters have been identified for the second brain. Each brain produces about half of the body’s dopamine. The first brain produces 5% of all serotonin. The second brain produces 95% of all serotonin. This final comparison is quite telling. Serotonin is best known as the “feel-good” molecule. It is involved in preventing depression and in regulating sleep, appetite, and body temperature. Serotonin produced in the gut gets into the bloodstream, where it plays a role in repairing damaged cells in the liver and lungs. Moreover, it is important for the normal development of the heart, as well as in the regulation of bone density by inhibiting bone formation.

Serotonin produced in the ENS affects mood by stimulating the vagus nerve. Research has shown that stimulation of the vagus nerve can be an effective treatment for chronic depression that has failed to respond to other treatments.3 These gut to brain signals via the vagus nerve might also explain why fatty foods make us feel good. Brain scans of volunteers given a dose of fatty acids directly into the gut had a lower response to pictures and music designed to make them feel sad that a control group given saline. The fatty acid group also reported being only about half as sad as the control group.4

Stress leads the gut to increase its production of ghrelin. Ghrehlin is a hormone that makes you feel hungrier as well as reducing anxiety and depression. It stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain both directly, by directly triggering pleasure and reward pathways, and indirectly by signals triggered via the vagus nerve. At one time during our evolutionary past, the stress-busting effect of ghrelin might have been useful, but today the result of chronic stress or depression can be chronically elevated ghrelin leading to obesity.

The second brain has also been implicated in a variety of first brain disorders. In Parkinson’s disease the problems with movement and muscle control are caused not only by loss of dopamine producing cells in the first brain, but also by dopamine producing cells in the second brain due to Lewy bodies. It is even suspected that the disease starts in the second brain as the result of some trigger such as a virus, and then spreads to the brain via the vagus nerve. Similarly the characteristic plaques and tangles found in the first brains of people with Alzheimer’s are present in their second brains also.

Cells in the second brain could be used as the basis for treatments. One experimental intervention for neurodegenerative diseases involves transplanting neural stem cells into the first brain to replenish lost neurons. Harvesting these cells from the brain or spinal cord is difficult. Neural stem cells have been found in the second brain of human adults.5 These cells could be harvested using a simple endoscopic gut biopsy. This could provide a ready source of neural stem cells. One research team is planning toed them to treat diseases including Parkinson’s.

1Young, E. (2012). Alimentary thinking. New Scientist, 15 December, 39-42.

2American Journal of Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, vol 283, p G217.

3The British Journal of Psychiatry, vol 189, p.282.

4The Journal of Clinical Investigation, vol 121, p. 3094.

5Cell Tissue Research, vol 344, p.217.

Happy Holidays 2012!

December 22, 2012

Besides the wish expressed in the title, all I have to offer you is this healthymemory blog. It consists of more than 350 posts devoted to the topic of growing and maintaining a healthy memory. It has blog posts on memory, how it works, and how it malfunctions. Posts explain how to improve memory performance with mnemonic techniques, and through both human and technological transactive memory. These posts are divided into three categories:

Human Memory: Theory and Data

Mnemonic Techniques

Transactive Memory

Clicking on those categories listed on the sideboard yields the pertinent posts.

Are there specific topics of interest to you? Just enter them into the search box and see what the healthymemory blog has to offer. You might be surprised on the wide range of topics covered. Try entering “emotions,” or “intelligence,” for example.

Why Are Older People More Vulnerable to Fraud?

December 19, 2012

It is always depressing hearing a story about an elderly couple who have lost their entire life savings to a scam. But one also wonders how people with so many years of experience can fall for such a scam. One would think that as we age we would become less, not more, vulnerable. An article in a Special Section on Aging in the Washington Post1 provides some insight.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), up to 80% of scam victims are older than 65. The tendency of the elderly to accentuate the positive makes them easy marks according to the FTC and the FBI. According to social neuroscientist Shelly Taylor, “Older people are good at regulating their emotions, seeing things in a positive light, and not overreacting to everyday problems.”2 Taylor and her colleagues showed pictures of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group up of 119 older adults (aged 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (aged 20 to 42). “Signs of untrustworthiness included averted eyes; an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes; a smug, smirky mouth, and a backward tilt of the head.”3 Each face was rated on a scale from minus 3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy). The results indicated that the untrustworthy faces were rated as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones.

The same researchers then performed the same test with new participants. However, this time the brains of the participants were imaged looking for differences in brain activity between the age groups. When the younger subjects were asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active. This activity increased during the sight of an untrustworthy face. However, older people showed little or no activation. According to Taylor the insula’s job is to collect information not about others, but about one’s own body, sensing feelings and the so-called gut instincts, and presenting that information to the rest of the brain. “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.” It appears that the optimistic tendency of the elderly might be overriding this warning signal.

It is curious to speculate as to why the elderly tend towards optimism. As we age, we close in on the prospect of our own death, and have likely experienced the passing of loved ones. Physical and cognitive problems are likely to present themselves. Social relationships can deteriorate and be lost, so loneliness can be a problem. An optimistic attitude can be quite helpful in coping with these difficulties. Nevertheless, the elderly need to realize that this optimistic attitude can make them vulnerable to fraud. See also the healthymemory blog posts, “Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?” and “The Distinctiveness Heuristic.” Enter “Optimism” in the search box to find more posts regarding optimism and its positive and negative merits.

1Norton, E. (2012). Why Older People Get Scammed, Washington Post, December 11, E4.



© 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.

As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory for Names Seem to Deteriorate?

December 16, 2012

This question was posed on a Scientific American Blog. The response provided by Professor Paul Reber reflects what we currently understand about memory.1 The first point to realize is that remembering names is a problem for most of us, regardless of age. There is a common expression “I can never remember a name, but I always remember a face.” This expression is wrong on two counts. First of all, regardless of age, some names are remembered. Secondly, regardless of age, some faces are not recognized or are mistaken for the wrong person. Unfortunately, the legal system has mistakenly adopted this myth, with the result of many innocent people being wrongfully convicted (Enter “Eyewitness Testimony” into the search block). Nevertheless our memories for faces are good, and the brain has special facial recognition circuits. Names are frequently forgotten, and there is a reason that names are difficult to remember. The mind is not a camera. Recall is a creative act that changes our memories whenever we recall. During recall our brains recall traces and then try to reconstruct a coherent, meaningful response. That is why mnemonic techniques are procedures for turning input that is inherently not meaningful into something meaningful that we recall. Sometimes this recreation can be too creative and recall something that did not occur.

Suppose you see somebody at your son’s baseball practice. You remember this person as being the father of one of your son’s teammates. You are able to recognize his son, and you also are able to remember that he is an accountant with a daughter in addition to his son. Furthermore, you remember that he recently became a widower and is now a single parent. You are able to recall all this information, but you cannot recall his name.

How can this be the case? How can you remember all this information, but still suffer the embarrassment of failing to recall his name? The reason is that what you can recall is meaningful information. Unfortunately, his name is arbitrary and essentially meaningless.

As was mentioned, absent the use of mnemonic techniques to remember names, this occurs throughout our lives. Perhaps these failures become more frequent as we age, but there are techniques for countering these failures. See the healthymemory blog post, “Remembering the Names of People.”

1Reber, P. As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory Seem to Deteriorate? Http://

© 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.

Sleep and a Healthy Memory

December 12, 2012

The Health & Science Section of the Washington Post included a piece of sleep1. Sleep is so important to a healthy memory that I feel compelled to relay the contents of that article to you. Our brains are active throughout the four stages of sleep, which are:

Stage 1: Falling asleep, which is characterized by Beta waves.

Stage 2: Light sleep, which is characterized by Alpha waves.

Stage 3: Deepest sleep, which is characterized by Theta waves.

Stage 4: Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which is characterized by Delta waves.

Memory and learning is impaired. The hippocampus is critical in transferring information into long term storage. Losing two hours of sleep in a single night can impair this information transfer. REM sleep is especially important because that appears to be when the brain filters out irrelevant information.

Missing a few hours sleep can result in accidents. This can produce “local sleep,” in which parts of the brain nod off while a person is nominally awake. One study found that middle school and high school athletes who slept eight or more hours each night were 60% less likely to be injured playing sports than those who slept less.

People who sleep four hours or less a night spend a lower percentage of time in Stage 2 and REM sleep. Consequently, they feel hungrier, crave more sweet and salty foods, and consume more calories than those who sleep longer. This makes them more susceptible to obesity and diabetes.

A study involving mice found that when Alzheimer’s plaques began to build in their brains, their sleep was disrupted. This suggests that poor sleep might be one of the first signs of the disease. It has also been found that connections between areas of a network in the brain used in daydreaming and introspection are disrupted in people who are chronically sleepy during the day. Alzheimer’s damages the same network, so these shaky connections might signal a susceptibility to the disease.

So, get a good night’s sleep. It is refreshing and will keep your memory healthy.

1Berkowitz B., & Cuadra, A. (2012). The Rest of the Story on Sleep. Washington Post, Health & Science, e2, December 4.

Multitasking is a Trade-Off

December 9, 2012

I completed my Bachelor’s Degree at Ohio State. Multitasking is an important and frequent topic for this blog (just enter “multitasking” in the search block to find related articles). So when I came across an article with this title in the alumni magazine, I could not resist using this source.1

Multitasking interferes with learning and performance. Studying while watching TV results in less learning. Communicating via instant messaging leads to a 50% drop in the performance of a simultaneous visual task. Communicating via voice phone leads to a 30% drop in the same task. Consequently, you should never engage in these tasks while driving. It is also true that hands free laws do not solve the problem.

A group of researchers at Ohio State recruited 32 college students who reported on their activities three times a day for four weeks. These students tracked their use of media (computer, radio, print, and television) as well as their use of social networking and other activities. For each activity and combination of activities the students listed their motivations using a list of potential needs including social, fun/entertainment, study/work, and habits/background noise. They reported on the strength of each need and whether it was met. The results indicated that if the cognitive need that was the reason for the multitasking in the first place, it was poorly met. The obvious reason is the distraction effect. In addition to the other task, the act of switching between tasks makes attentional demands. The students indicate that multitasking was very good at meeting their emotional needs (fun/entertainment/relaxation) even though they were not seeking to satisfy these needs.

Probably the most common reason that they multitask is that they are busy and time constraints demand it. Although that might be true, another reason is that it is enjoyable. Or, at least, it allows the pursuit of enjoyable activities. Students, indeed everyone, should be aware of this. If something is important, we probably should not multitask. However, if we do, we should be aware of the loss in efficiency and devote more time to the primary task. Students might not realize this and multitask because it is more enjoyable. This probably results in a lower grade unless the student has compensated for the less efficient learning.

I multitask. I frequently multitask by reading when I’m watching a sporting event. I know that if something important happens, they will replay it. I might even read while I’m watching the news or similar programs where a variety of topics are being covered, and I am only interested in some of them. But if what I am reading is important, the television is off

The choice between pleasure/enjoyment and what is good for us is a common one. Diet is another one. All we can do is make reasonable trade-offs.

1Mullin, M. (2012). Multitasking is a trade-off. Ohio State Alumni Magazine, September-October, p.24.

© 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.

Human Transactive Memory

December 5, 2012

Transactive memory refers to memories that are available to you but are not present in your own biological memory. Transactive memory is one of this blog’s categories. However, most the posts in this category are about technical transactive memory. Memories that you can retrieve via the internet, the computer, books, and paper are termed technical transactive memory. Actually most of the research into transactive memory has been in the area of human transactive memory. Many of the results from this research have not been particularly surprising. For example, couples who remembered together rather than independently were able to recall significantly more than those who remembered individually. There are also frequent reports of someone losing their long-term partner all of a sudden experiencing a rapid memory decline, as if they’ve lost part of their mind.1

Shared memories provide the foundation for long term relationships and are a source of enjoyment and comfort throughout our lifetimes. I have so many precious memories of my family and friends that I can recall and enjoy. For the goal of keeping our memories healthy and continuing to grow them, fostering human transactive memory is especially important. There are two reasons for doing so. First of all you are expanding and enhancing your own memory. And you are also fostering social relationships, which are also important for a healthy brain and memory.

Marilu Henner of Taxi fame, and is one of the few elite individuals with a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, and the author of Total Memory Makeover (see the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Importance of Memory,” and “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us?”). Her family planned and attended events that they continued to remember and share after they occurred. She also discusses memory games that are fun for families.

So grow your social relationships and your transactive memory. Reminiscence and share fond memories with others, challenge each others’ memories, and play memory games.

1Weir, K. (2012). Shared Recall. New Scientist, 6 October, p.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.

Another Risk in Cyberspace

December 2, 2012

Victor Mayer Schoenberger noted the common and well publicized concern regarding billions of Facebook messages, the more than 300,000 daily tweets plus private e-mail accounts with their messages, photos, and videos. However the concern usually expressed regards violations of privacy and, perhaps, identity theft. Schoenberger was concerned what it can do to Thanksgiving if the warmth and joy is lost when we keep being reminded of every mistake, every quarrel, every disagreement.1 Schoenberger concern extends far beyond Thanksgiving and has written a book on the topic: Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is a problem with technical transactive memory. Technical transactive memory does not decay or transform, in contrast to human transactive memory that does decay and is modified every time it tried to recall something. People complain about what they forget. Although it is certainly true that we forget information that we want and sometimes need to recall, much forgetting is adaptive. This is especially true to relations with our fellow humans. Hurtful and embarrassing items are forgotten. This forgetting makes it much easier to forgive and forget.

It is very important to remember this when sending something into cyberspace. It could lead to embarrassing and possibly indictable information becoming public. It could reunion friendships and create new enemies. Now who needs more enemies? Unfortunately, technology frequently has the opposite effect. When there is a computer between people and the target of their animosity, sometimes the vitriol is unfortunately increased. This is what happens in flaming.

We should think and behave carefully when sending anything into cyberspace, remembering that it is literally “for keeps.” So to avoid losing friends, gaining enemies, or being indicted, be careful and circumspect about what you send to cyberspace!

1Meyer-Schoenberger, V. (2012). Washington Post, B2, Sunday November 25, B2.

© 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.