Archive for May, 2013

Back from APS

May 28, 2013

That is, I’m back from the convention of the Association for Psychological Science. It was an outstanding meeting. This blog post will present a brief synopsis and will promise some blog posts for the future. As I mentioned in my previous post, there were so many interesting topics that some overlapped and I could not attend both. I actually needed to miss a program with Daniel Kahneman, whom I regard as the leading psychologist today. I am not going to review every presentation I attended. Some were primarily for psychologists and of little interest to the general public, some were too technical, and, frankly, some didn’t warrant further discussion.

The Keynote Address was delivered the split-brain researcher, Michael S. Gazzaniga. It was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” I going to discuss his presentation along with the presentation by Edwin A. Locke, “Whatever Happened to the Conscious Mind” in a later healthymemory blog post.

Diane Halpern gave what was perhaps the most timely and relevant presentation, “The Psychological Science Behind Hyperpartisanship and What to do About It.” This certainly deserves its own healthymemory blog post, which will be appearing later.

Helen J. Neville gave an APS William James Fellow Address titled, Experiential, Genetic, and Epigenetic Effecs in Human Neurocognitive Development.” Here talk was highly technical, and I shall not go into a detailed presentation. However, it’s importance is easy to assess. She found that there was a much higher incidence of difficulties in focusing attention in pre-schoolers from low socioeconomic status families than from higher socioeconomic status children. She was able to develop a training program that was able to correct this problem. As the ability to focus attention is important to learning and success in school, this program is highly relevant. Moreover, it is fairly short term and can be administered cheaply. More can be found about this program at chaingingbrains.org.

David Strayer gave a presentation on multi-tasking and using a cell phone while driving. In short, the risk is becoming greater. Much more will be written in a later healthymemory post. This is a message that people do want to hear, but it needs to be told.

At the Presidential Symposium,r Ted Abel gave a presentation on “Epigenetics and Memory Storage.” Remember the Healthymemory blog, “How the Brain and Mind Work.” That might have sounded complicated, but Abel is studying the epigenetics of the translation from DNA to RNA to protein, which underlies the formation of our memories. This work is most remarkable, as is the complexity of our brains and their emergent phenomena.

At the same symposium, Elizabeth Loftus updated her work on False Memories. This work will also be addressed in a later healthymemory blog post.

Stanovich presented his latest work on a Rational Intelligence Quotient. He has persuasively argued that the standard IQ misses an important component of cognitive activity, rational thinking. I will be following up on his work after I finish his latest book.

Ralph Hertwig gave an invited talk, “The Psychology of Decisions from Experience. People behave differently when they make decisions based on written descriptions than when they make their decisions based on experience. Vulcanologists are convinced that Mount Vesuvius will erupt in the near future. However, most of the residents of Naples, who are at risk from Vesuvius, do not want to move, because an eruption has not occurred in their lifetimes.

Mortan Ann Gernsbacher gave an address on Diversity and the Brain. This, too, will receive a later blog post.

Finally, there was a session on the cognitive reserve. Most certainly, this will receive its own blog post.

Do not expect all these posts to follow directly. First of all, they take time to write. Secondly, some posts will better fit in the context of other healthymemory blog posts.

Now for some general comments. I am continually impressed by the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and other personal devices at these conventions. This observation will get its own blog post. And I was disappointed about cognitive psychologists who were unfamiliar with meditation. It reminded me how parochial our discipline can be. It also reminded me of when I was a graduate student and there was a lively argument about whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled by individuals. Well proficient meditators were already doing this, so the answer was already known. So if you read the healthymemory blog posts on meditation (enter meditation, Davidson, and Mindfulness in the healthymemory blog search post), you can consider yourself more knowledgeable about the topic than some cognitive psychologists.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

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Gone to APS

May 23, 2013

That is, the Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. The program is quite impressive with many interesting sessions. Unfortunately, some interesting sessions overlap meaning that I shall not be able to go to all the sessions I want to attend. I believe there will be some interesting and thought provoking healthymemory blog posts resulting from my attendance.

Healthy Memory’s 400th Post

May 21, 2013

It is difficult to believe that this is the 400th post on the healthymemory blog. These posts have covered a lot of territory. The primary focus of the healthymemory blog is memory. Memory is central to all human processes, both personal and collective. Consequently, an understanding of memory is useful, if not essential, to us as human beings. The healthymemory blog is devoted to cognitive growth. This is important both as a means to human fulfillment and for the building of a cognitive reserve. A cognitive reserve provides the best means of warding off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Consequently, the healthymemory blog should be of primary interest to Baby Boomers, but, in fact, it should be of interest to everyone. The study of human memory is fascinating and cognitive growth should be a goal of everyone, regardless of age.

Blog posts are divided into three categories. The largest is Human Memory Theory and Data. This category includes posts on human memory and everything that human memory touches. The category mnemonic techniques includes specific techniques for improving memory. These techniques can also provide cognitive exercise to foster memory health. The topics of meditation and mindfulness are also included as both meditation and mindfulness foster healthy memories. The subtitle for the healthymemory blog is Memory Health and Technology. This includes transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to extensions of one’s own memory in technology and fellow human beings. It includes posts on how technology can be used to foster cognitive growth and how interactions with our fellow human beings are essential to memory health.

In short, there is much to read here. Older posts are not out of date. Just enter topics of interest to you in the healthymemory blog search block to find posts of interest to you. You just might be surprised.

The Temporal Doppler Effect

May 19, 2013

The Doppler Effect refers to frequencies of sound or light increasing as an object approaches and decreasing as the object recedes. The most familiar example of the Doppler Effect is of the frequency of a train whistle increasing as the train approaches and decreasing as the train whistle recedes. The most esoteric example of the Doppler Effect is the red shift of light indicating the age of the universe as the Big Bang recedes. Now it appears that there is also a psychological Doppler Effect.1

In one study, 95 undergraduates were asked either to think ahead to exactly one month from today or to think back to exactly one month ago today. The target day’s psychological distance was reported using a scale from 1 (a really short time from now) to 10 (a really long time from now). One month in the future was reported as being closer than one month in the past.

In another study, 98 Boston commuters were asked to think ahead to exactly one year from today or to think back to exactly one year from today. Again, one year in the future was perceived as being closer than one year in the past.

Yet a third study used Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk Service. 333 participants completed an online survey for $0.75. Participants took the survey either eight days before or seven days after Valentine’s Day. The survey consisted of a scale ranging from -3 (an extremely short time from now) to 3 (an extremely long time from now) to rate the psychological distance to or from Valentine’s Day. Again the results showed that the time ahead was perceived as shorter than the time past.

The final study used a virtual reality simulator to move the participants either forwards or backwards. Immediately after this virtually reality experience, the participants rated how far an event either three weeks in the future or three weeks in the past felt to them. Those who had had the virtual reality experience of moving forward again experienced the future as being closer than the past. However, this effect was mitigated for those who had experienced the backwards virtual reality experience. Although the simulation did mitigate the feeling of the future being more distant than the past, the difference was not statistically significant. Although the study involved 80 research participants, 40 experiencing forward virtual reality and 40 experiencing backwards virtual reality, it would not be surprising if a much larger research sample did achieve statistical significance at a conventional alpha level of 0.05 (the probability of incorrectly accepting the null hypothesis). The power of the statistical test (the probability of detecting a true difference) was not reported

There are both theoretical physicists and philosophers who have argued that time has no unique direction. Einstein remarked that time’s arrow is” …a gratuitous assumption).2 3 Regardless of the direction of time, it does have a psychological direction affected by the spatio-temporal direction. It would also appear to have adaptive value, as we need to cope with the time dominant future and draw upon the less time dominant past to help us succeed.

1Caruso, E.M., Boven, L.V., Chin, M., & Ward, A. (2013). The Temporal Doppler Effect: When the Future Feels Closer Than the Past. Psychological Science, a http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/07/09567612458804

2Einstein, A. (1955 March 21). [Letter to Vero Besso & Bice Rusconi-Bosso]. Albert Einstein Archives (7-245.10) Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

3Mehlbert, H. (1962). Review of the book, The Direction of Time by H. Reichenbach. The Philosophical Review, 71, 99-104

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Fooling Ourselves Beneficially

May 15, 2013

The following bits of wisdom are taken from an article in the April 6, 2013 edition of the New Scientist, “Lost In Translation” by Caroline Williams. The article reports a study1 showing how faking calmness and confidence can not only change the way others see us, but can help us change ourselves. The participants in this experiment were asked to hold either a “high power” or a “ “low power” pose for two minutes. The high power pose was expansive, including sitting with legs on a desk and hands behind the head and standing with legs apart and hands on the hips. The low power pose involved hunching and taking up little space. Then they played a gambling game where the odds of winning were 50:50. The researchers took saliva samples to test for the levels of testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone is a “power’ hormone, whereas cortisol is a “stress” hormone. Those in the high power pose group were significantly more likely to gamble than those in the low power pose group (86% to 60%). Participants in the high power pose group had a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in cortisol, whereas those in the low power pose group had a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol. Increased testosterone has also been linked to increased pain tolerance.

Research has also shown that sitting up straight leads to positive emotions, whereas sitting with hunched shoulders leads to feeling down. There is plenty of research that has also shown that faking a smile makes you feel happier, whereas faking a frown has the opposite effect. There is even evidence that people with Botox injections, which prevent them from frowning, feel generally happier. Of course, there are other interpretations for the Botox results.

The New Scientist article ends with an excerpt from one of Madonna’s hits: “Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it, strike a pose. There’s something to it.”

1Carney, D. Psychological Science, 21, p.1463.

The Terrorist Mind

May 11, 2013

The recent terrorist act at the Boston Marathon has been difficult for many Americans to understand. To understand it, you need to try to understand the terrorist mind. We read that they were upset about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Drone killings. This is but a part of a larger narrative that the United States is at war with Islam. This larger narrative ignores disturbing facts such as the efforts the United States took to protect Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. It even includes a belief that 9/11 was self-inflicted, even though Al Qaeda took credit for the terrorist acts. Unfortunately, our minds are good at ignoring negative evidence and for compartmentalizing information.

Even if you grant militant Islamists their beliefs, one can still ask, do they merit the indiscriminate killing and maiming of innocents? What does the Koran say about that? The argument would be that they are at war and that war justifies the killing and maiming.

But then, one can ask, how do you think you will win? If terrorist attacks increase, the response against them would also increase. The consequences would be dreadful, but it is difficult to see how radical Islam would prevail in the west. Osama Bin Laden thought that because they were able to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, they would prevail against the west. He forgets that the victory was largely due to American aid and technology. The Soviets concluded that Afghanistan was not worth the loss of human life, and that it was not worth exercising the nuclear option.

The response of the West in dealing with the irrationality of Terrorism is the use of kinetic events. There are large scale kinetic events, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and small kinetic events such as drone strikes. The question is, do they work? Are they decreasing the number of terrorists, or increasing the number of terrorists? If it is the latter, then we are adding fuel to the flames rather than extinguishing the fire.

So what is the alternative to kinetic events? It goes by a number of terms, information warfare, propaganda, psyops (psychological operations). Unfortunately, these terms have negative connotations. Nevertheless, I would argue that they provide the only alternative. The problem is that they are not very sophisticated, and that we do not know how to target them at either the militant Islamic or potentially militant Islamic mind. Much research needs to be done.

Unfortunately, there was a natural laboratory for conducting this research that was overlooked, and that is the infamous facility at Guantanamo. The inmates could have been used as subjects to try to understand how their minds worked, and what potential arguments or information could possibly change their minds. They could have released inmates if they thought their interventions had been successful and then tracked them after they left. It is likely that some, perhaps, many would just have told the researchers want they wanted to hear, so that they would be released. Others might have changed their minds in the facility, but then reverted to their old ways of thought upon returning to their environments. There was this risk, but I think an argument could be made that it would be worth it. There might have been successes.

It needs to be remembered that the terrorist threat goes well beyond radical Islamists. Remember Timothy Mcveigh. Unfortunately, there are many more Timothy Mcveighs in the world. Their narratives and belief systems also need to be studied and countered.

In any case, this an area of research that needs to be vigorously pursued. I believe that the Saudi’s have done some research in this area that has met with some success. Memetic Theory along with the memetic analytic framework holds promise. Terrorist minds are full of dangerous, erroneous memes that must be destroyed and corrected. New conflicts, both international and domestic, must increasingly be met by changing people’s minds. Historically, humans have resolved conflicts by kinetic events. Human history is largely a history of human wars. But if kinetic events work to exacerbate rather than to resolve conflicts, then I see no other path to pursue.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Passing 67

May 8, 2013

What is most remarkable of reaching my 67th birthday is that I don’t feel like I’m 67. I remember when I was a child looking at my grandparents and thinking how old they look. Now that I am at my grandparents’ age, I feel the same as I did when I was young. Perhaps I am walking a tad slower. The mileage I put on my bicycle has decreased significantly, but I think this is more a matter of choice and my wanting to pursue other activities than it is a decline in my physical condition. I am fairly confident that if I put the emphasis on bicycling I could not only meet, but perhaps exceed my previous mileage. I am still working full time. Research has shown that retirement can lead to significant cognitive decline. There is a significant correlation between the mean retirement age of a country and the average age for the onset of dementia. My work keeps me cognitively active and socially engaged, two activities important to brain and memory health.

My Mom lived to be 99 and passed away six months short of her 100th birthday. Unfortunately, for the last years of her life, she was plagued by dementia. Her advice to me was not to live as long as she did. Personally, I have no interest in living after my cognitive faculties have degraded. This healthymemory blog is one indication of my desire to extend my passion for memory health to others. The immediately preceding healthymemory blog post, “How Our Mind and Brain Work” goes into some detail for building a cognitive reserve that can ward off dementia. It should be remembered that there are individuals, both living and dead, who have the signature indicators of Alzheimer’s, neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques, who never evidence the behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s. It is believe that these individuals had built up cognitive reserves. Stine-Morrow’s Dumbledore Hypothesis is that there is a tendency to rely upon old ways of thinking as we age and to, effectively, cognitively coast as we age. I should act that proper diet, exercise, and being socially engaged, are also important, and there are healthymemory blog posts on these topics.

There are also blog posts on “Passing 65,” and “Passing 66”, if you want to see my perspective over the years.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

How Our Brain and Mind Work

May 5, 2013

Aristotle and his contemporaries believed that the mind resided in the heart. It was Hippocrates who argued that the brain is responsible for thought, sensation, emotion, and cognition. However, it took almost 2500 years for the next major advance. At the beginning of the 20th century the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal identified the neuron as the building block of the brain. He identified different types of neurons and advanced the “connectionist” view that it was the connections and communications among the neurons that characterized the activities of the brain.

There are four basic types of neurons. Sensory neurons transmit signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Motor neurons send signals to parts of the body to direct movement, such as muscles. Interneurons provide connections between other neurons, Pyramidal neurons are involved in many areas of cognition.

The connectionist network is amazing. There are about 100 billion neurons in our brains. Each has about 1000 synapses connecting with other neurons. So there are about 100 trillion interconnections in our brain. Our brains are remarkably flexible. This plasticity is due to a special class of neurotransmitter that serve as “neuromodulators.” These neuromodulators “…alter the amount of other neurotransmitters released at the synapse and the degree to which the neurons respond to incoming signals. Some of these changes help to fine tune brain activity in response to immediate events, while others rewire the brain in the long term, which is thought to explain how memories are stored.

Many neuromodulators act on just a few neurons, but some can penetrate through large swathes of brain tissue creating sweeping changes. Nitric oxide, for example, is so small (the 10th smallest molecule in the known universe, in fact) that it can easily spread away from the neuron at its source. It alters receptive neurons by changing the amount of neurotransmitter released by each nerve impulse, kicking off the changes that are necessary for memory formulation in the hippocampus.”1

Much of this brain activity takes place outside our conscious awareness. According to Kahneman’s Two Process View of Human Cognition, there are two basic systems for processing information. information in a dynamic environment. System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions. Without System 1, we would not have survived as a species. But this fast processing speed has its costs, which sometimes lead to errors.

System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. System 2 can be thought of as thinking. If you know your multiplication tables, if I ask you what is 6 time 7, you’ll respond 42 without really thinking about it. But if I ask you to multiply 67 times 42 you would find it difficult to compute in your head, and would most likely use a calculator or use paper and pencil (which are examples of transactive memory). This multiplication requires System 2 processing without, or most likely with, technological aids.

System 1 requires little or no effort. System 2 requires effort. It is not only faster, but also less demanding to rely on System 1 processes. Consider the following question.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

The number that quickly comes to mind is 10 cents. But if you take the time and exert the mental effort you will note that the cost would be $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). If you do the math, which takes a little algebra, you will find that the ball costs 5 cents (the bat costing a $1.00 more than the ball would be $1.05 and $1.05 and $0.05 is $1.10). System 2 must be engaged to get the correct answer. This question has been asked of several thousand college students. More that 50% of the students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong, System 1, answer. At less selective universities more than 80% of the students gave the wrong answer. Good students tend to be suspicious of a question that is too easy!

So what happens to the brain as we age? The psychologist Dr. Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.2 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span.  So relying too much on our System 1 processes could increase our risk of suffering dementia. New experiences and new learning call upon our System 2 processes as do any problems that require active thinking. The neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques that define Alzheimer’s Disease have been found in both living and dead individuals who never showed any symptoms of the disease. They evidenced no cognitive impairment. The notion is that they had built a cognitive reserve that protected them from the disease.

So what might this cognitive reserve be? It is reasonable to believe that it consisted of rich interconnections in the brains of these individuals. The brain is remarkably plastic, so even when the plaques and tangles were present, apparently the interconnections were rerouted around them.

So how can someone build up this cognitive reserve? Lifelong learning, continuing to learn throughout one’s lifetime is key. Challenging the mind with tasks that require attention is important. It is also important to revisit those old memory circuits laid down years ago. Trying to remember all acquaintances and events can reactivate those circuits. Sometimes it will be difficult to recall these memories. Nevertheless, your unconscious mind will continue searching after your conscious mind has given up. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere it will just pop into your mind. Trivia games and games such as Jeopardy can be fun and potentially beneficial to a healthy memory. Reminiscing can also be beneficial provided the reminiscing is not always about the same old memories.

The healthymemory blog is devoted to building a cognitive reserve. The Mnemonic Techniques Category provides blog on mnemonic techniques that not only improve memory, but also provide cognitive exercise. Blog posts on meditation and mindfulness can also be found here. The Transactive Memory Category provided information on how technology and your fellow humans can foster memory health. The Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on memory and related topics bearing on a healthy memory.

1O’Shea, M. (2013). The Human Brain. New Scientist Instant Expert 31.

2Stine-Morrow, A. L. (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 295-299.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Public to Get Access to U.S. Research

May 1, 2013

This was a title of an article in the Washington Post.1 This news is long overdue. Most scientific professional publications are available through publishers and professional organizations. Usually there are discounts for members of professional organizations, but even we usually pay. I do have access to those published by societies to which I belong. Often, there is an article that I would like to read in a publication to which I don’t have access. Sometimes the fees to access these articles are $30 or higher. It is understandable that publishers, who are in the stated business of making a profit, have such charges. But the charters of most professional societies typically state that one of their objectives is to spread technical knowledge. I hope the irony is obvious here.

Bear in mind that the vast amount of this research is funded by the federal government. So we taxpayers are paying for this research. Then why don’t we have ready access to it? According to the article, agency leaders have been directed to develop rules for releasing federally backed research within a year of publication. Some argue that there should not even be a year’s delay in releasing the information. I agree with these people, but my priority is on the implementation of some policy, and I am against any lengthy debate that would delay implementation.

Aaron Swartz was a genius. He was a brilliant programmer with a list of accomplishments, one of which was the development of Reddit, one of the world’s most widely used social-networking news sites. Two years ago, he was indicted on multiple felony accounts for downloading several million articles from the academic database JSTOR. Although it is not known what his motivation was precisely, one idea is that he intended to upload them onto the Web, so that they could be accessed by anyone. Aaron Swartz was a brilliant and sensitive individual. He was indicted by the federal government and subsequently committed suicide. The March 11, 2013 New Yorker (beginning on page 48) does an admiral job of characterizing this fascinating and interesting individual.

This is more than an issue of fairness. The ready access to this information will benefit both science and the economy. An example cited in the Post article was about a teenage scientist, Jack Andraka, who relied on open access articles to develop a five-minute $3 test for pancreatic cancer.
Fortunately, he was successful, but the charged-for article were an obstacle to his progress.

It should be mentioned that progress has been made in this area. Since 2003 there has been a Public Library of Science (PloS). The healthymemory blog has cited publications from this source and finds it most useful. But this progress has been too slow. This is just another example of how extreme economics has plaques us (See the healthymemory blog post, “Extreme Economics.”)

Similar problems exist regarding the costs of books and higher education, but I’ll stop here before I begin that rant. Enter “higher education” into the search block to read previous rants.

1Vastag, B., & Brown, D. (2013). February 23, A5.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.