Archive for August, 2013

The STEM Disciplines Redux

August 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on the Excessive Costs of Higher Education

August 25, 2013

What has happened to the costs of a higher education is unconscionable, as are the ridiculous amounts of debt young people are saddled with as a result of pursuing a college education. Moreover, it is not only these unfortunate individuals who are the only ones to suffer. The country and the economy of the country benefits from college educations. In spite of the fact that the U.S government was burdened with massive amounts of debt from World War II, it passed the G.I Bill that allowed millions of veterans to pursue a higher education. Undoubtedly the booming economy that followed was largely the result of the G.I. Bill.

The unfortunate irony is that these costs rose at a ridiculous rate when they should have been decreasing. Technology is the reason that they should have decreased. Classes can be delivered online. Texts can be distributed as PDF documents at low or no cost. Similarly library materials could be annexed online. It is a bit ironic that professional societies, whose purpose is the dissemination of information, charge fees for accessing their articles. This might change as a result of the government requiring research funded by the government to be freely accessible.

Change is already occurring in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Edx is a non-profit MOOC founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is no a consortium of 28 institutions. Coursera is a MOOC that has formed partnerships with 83 universities.

This is an outstanding development for autodidacts as it has opened up an enormous resource of educational opportunities. The problem is how is the knowledge for completed courses documented and how can one get a college degree. Coursera has started charging to provide certificates for those who complete its courses.

So the technology exists, the problem is what is the business model. In other words, how to make a buck from this? I think it is important to realize that education is a public good, that all benefit from its ready availability, so costs should be kept to a minimum.

I think this can be accomplished by universities and testing organizations such as the Educational Testing Service (ETS) developing assessment tests. ETS has already done this for undergraduate content areas such as psychology, history, biology, and so forth. More specific tests could be developed for specific content areas such as educational psychology, neuropsychology, applied statistics, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry. Moreover, there could be different levels of expertise associated with different tests.

Frankly, this would be more informative to me than conventional degrees. In my experience, I do not know what I’m getting when a new graduate shows up with a degree in x. One might think, that regardless of the major, that a student with a bachelor’s degree should be able to write. But I’ve known people with Master’s degrees who have terrible compositional skills.

So it will be interesting to see what develops. But I hope the development occurs quickly and that there is a general realization that higher education is good for both the individual and the country, and that costs should be minimal.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Brain Activity Underlying the Placebo Effect

August 21, 2013

Research that conducted brain imaging during placebo studies found that both the active (opiod) treatment and the placebo (saline) treatment activated the same network of brain regions. This included the brain stem, a part of the opiod system that mediates pain relief, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which is rich in opiod receptors.1 It is also a part of the body’s reward system. The researcher, Petrovic, proposed that placebos, like opiods, triggered control areas such as the anterior cingulate that exerted control over the analgesic systems of the brain stem. The analgesic systems of the brain stem then released endorphins.

Another researcher, Tor D. Wager, who also used MRI found that additional brain systems were involved in the placebo effect. The researchers administered a placebo cream while giving painful shocks or painful intense heat on the forearms of the research participants. In one experiment a warning cue, a red “get ready” sign was given just before the painful stimulus was administered. The research subjects expected pain, unless the cream was applied, in which case they expected relief. The expectation of relief activated the cognitive executive center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Then the pain response areas of the brain declined, and the experimental participants reported relief. These results suggest that the placebo pain relief involves an expectaton signal from the prefrontal cortex that orders the midbrain to release opiods to meet the expectation of reprieve. Absent this, the full experience of pain is perceived. Further research has pinpointed specific regions of the prefrontal cortex as drivers.

Emotions are also involved in the placebo effect. Wager and his colleagues reported in 2011 that activities in regions of the brain that perform emotional appraisal, such as the insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala accompany a robust placebo effect. Wager calls this endogenous regulation. Placebos seem to give us a better perspective on our predicament. We might reevaluate our predicament so that we believe that the pain will abate and not cause persistent disability. According to Wager, during a placebo response, “our brain is likely doing a lot of the work without our real conscious input or even in spite of our conscious desires.” That is, we unconsciously engage brain mechanisms that serve to sooth.

Ironically, this self-soothing process might require us to focus on the pain rather than something else. In another study by Wager and his colleagues published in 2012, they tried to distract people away from experimentally induced pain by having them perform another task. This other task did not help relieve the pain. But when the researchers encouraged the participants to pay attention to the heat on their arm by asking them to rate its intensity, the participants experienced greater relief. This result is consistent with “acceptance” therapies or with the “relaxation response” in which people surrender to their pain to tolerate it better.

1The facts in this blog post can be found in an article, When Pretending is the Remedy, in Scientific American Mind, March/April 2013 by Trisha Gura.

Another Discovery by Benjamin Franklin

August 18, 2013

In 1784 Benjamin Franklin along with chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier simulated one of Franz Mesmer‘s sessions.1 People suffering from ailments ranging from asthma to epilepsy were asked to “hug” trees they were told were specially magnetized to “cure” them. As expected, the people swooned and shook. Then the patients were told that the trees were never magnetized. But something had induced the reactions to the trees. That unknown something was later termed the placebo effect.

In 1968 the Food and Drug Administration started using placebo treatments into their golden randomized clinical trials (RCTs), to insure that it was the drug working and not just a belief that it was the drug working. So the effect was large enough that the Food and Drug Administration believed that the placebo effect, if not accounted for, could result in incorrect interpretations of the results from clinical trials.

A key factor in finding placebo effects regards the dependent measures used to assess the effects. Placebo effects were not likely to be found in such medical measures as blood pressure. However, if the measures used reflected how patients reported they felt, then placebos were quite evident. This was especially true in conditions such as pain and nausea. Before one concludes that these measures are subjective and, hence, unimportant, one should be reminded that it is the patients’ own feelings of pain and discomfort that are the most relevant factors. The Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch found in a meta-analysis of six of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants found that 82 percent of the improvement in mood could be duplicated by giving patients a placebo pill instead of an antidepressant. In another study Kirsch and his colleagues found that the only people in whom antidepressants worked significantly better than placebo pills were patients with the most severe cases. He concluded that unless the patient is extremely depressed, an antidepressant should not be prescribed.

Placebos also work in non-psychiatric conditions, asthma being but one example. In one study, volunteers with asthma were divided into four groups. One group was given an asthma inhaler with a drug, another group was given an inhaler with a saline placebo, a sham acupuncture placebo, or nothing. How much air the volunteers could inhale and exhale before and after each treatment. Was measured. The respiratory scores of those treated with the drug rose by 20%, whereas those in the other three groups got a 7% bump. But when the volunteers were asked to rate their respiratory discomfort on a scale of 0 to10, everyone except those who received no treatment reported a 50% improvement!

The placebo effect places the physician in an ethical dilemma. If she treats the patient with a placebo, he is likely to feel better, but she must lie to the patient. However, if she does not use a placebo, possible unnecessary suffering will not be relieved.

Sometimes the placebo procedures can be employed without deception. In a study by Kirsch, Kaptchuk and their colleagues, 40 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) pills that they described truthfully as placebo pills made of an inert substance such as sugar, that had been shown in previous clinical studies to produce significant improvements in IBS symptoms thought mind-body self-healing processes. After forty days of twice daily placebos, patients reported feeling better overall along with fewer severe symptoms that 40 patients who received no treatment.

Another way to avoid deception is to enhance the doctor-patient relationship. In a different study of patients with IBS, patients were assigned to either placebo acupuncture or a waiting list. The placebo group was further divided into acupuncture with no conversation, and acupuncture with heavy doses of attention, empathy, and interaction with the practitioner. The practitioner listened to each patient’s problem, repeated the words of the patient, expressed confidence, touched the patient, and lapsed into 20 seconds of thoughtful silence. 28% of the people on the waiting list reported that their bowel symptoms had improved, 44% of the acupuncture placebo reported improvement, and 62% of those in the placebo with the enhanced doctor-patient relationship report improvement.

It should be noted that the placebo effect has a negative counterpart, the nocebo effect, Enter “nocebo” into the search box of the healthymemory blog, to find the relevant posts.

1The facts in this blog post can be found in an article, When Pretending is the Remedy, in Scientific American Mind, March/April 2013 by Trisha Gura.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Another Study Indicating that Work Lessens Alzheimer’s Risk

August 14, 2013

The study indicated that people who delay retirement have less risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.1 This has been a long running theme of the healthymemory blog (enter “retirement and dementia” in the search box to find relevant posts. This new study involved almost half a million people in France and was the largest study undertaken so far. As was stated in previous posts, working tends to keep people physically active, socially connected, and mentally challenged. These are all activities known to help prevent mental decline.

According to Carole Dufouil, a scientist at Inserm, the French government‘s healthy research agency who led the study and gave the results at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Boston, “For each additional year of work, the risk in getting dementia is reduced by 3.2 percent.” This is something that should be born in mind when considering retirement. A 2011 survey found that my fellow baby boomers were more afraid of losing their memory than death.2

Of course, if retirement activities keep you physically active, socially connected, and mentally challenged, the benefits of work could be pre-empted. Pursuing a second career, going back to college, or dedicating yourself to a hobby that fulfills the same beneficial activities, are other possibilities for consideration. It should also be remembered that a cure for Alzheimer’s or a vaccine to prevent Alzheimer’s do not appear to be coming over the horizon.

1Washington Post, 16 July 2013,A2. Study: Work lessens Alzheimer’s risk.

2Marx, P. (2013). Mentally Fit., The New Yorker, July 29, p.25

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

August 11, 2013

This post was motivated by an article in the New Scientist (25 May 2013, 32-35) by David Robson, “Old Schooled: Learning Like a Child is a Cinch Once You Know How.” The article begins with a story about a 36 year old who has learned more than 30 languages in addition to learning the guitar. At one time psychologists thought that some skills needed to be learned at a critical age, and that other skills became more difficult to learn as we age. That attitude has changed as new research has revealed the remarkable neuroplasticity of the human brain.

Actually, the “know how” is more of an attitude, a willingness to try new things rather than fearing failure, and the application of effort to learn. Being physically, in addition to mentally, active is also important. An earlier healthymemory blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus,” reviewed the research of Arthur Kramer. He has worked with senior citizens in his lab at the University of Illinois. He used a mild exercise regime, walking for 40 minutes three days a week for a year. Kramer imaged the brains of his senior citizens both before and after training. He found that the hippocampi, subcortical structures vital to new learning, had expanded. Presumably this was due to the birth of new brain cells and/or an increase in synaptic connectivity among neurons. He reported that much of the long-distance communication across the brain was restored to its former glory. Kramer said, “The senior citizen’s connectivity was equivalent to a 30-year-old’s.” There was a general cognitive boost, which included improved attention. Attention is the key to learning any new skill.

Learning new tricks is one of the best ways to build a cognitive reserve to ward off, mitigate, perhaps preclude dementia. There are resources all around you, to help you do this. Just look. And conduct searches on the internet. Check out the website, and see what it has to offer.

One of the best examples of how you are never to old to learn can be found in the book Life is So Good by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman. George Dawson, a 103-year-old grandson of a slave learned to read at age 98. Dawson reflects on his life and offers valuable lessons in living, as well as a fresh, firsthand view of America during the twentieth century. This is a truly inspirational and informative read.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Simple Tip to Spark Mindfulness

August 7, 2013

This tip is from the Afterword, Mindfulness and Kindness Practice, by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu, which is from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan. The healthymemory blog highly recommends A Mindful Nation.

An easy way to remember how to be mindful in the course of a busy day, or when you are overwhelmed, preoccupied, worried, angry, or uncomfortable, is to STOP”

S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.

T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.

O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.

Mindfulness Practice: Body Awareness (or Body) Scan

August 4, 2013

The following guidance is taken from the Afterword written by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu of A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan, which is a book that the healthymemory blog highly recommends.

“ Here is a wonderful practice, that helps to ground you and tune you into your body, experiencing as it is right now. You may do this practice sitting in a chair or on the floor, lying down, or standing.

  • Allow yourself to settle into a comfortable position in which you feel supported and relaxed, yet will not lead you to fall asleep.

  • You may close your eyes or keep them slightly open with a soft gaze, not focusing on anything in particular.

  • Rest for a few moments in awareness of the natural rhythm of your breathing.

  • Once your body and mind are settled, bring awareness to your body as a whole. Be aware of your body resting and being supported by the chair, mattress, or floor.

  • Bring awareness to different parts of your body. You may choose to focus on one particular area of the body or scan your body in a sequence like this one: toes, feet (sole, heel, top of foot), through the legs, pelvis, abdomen, lower back, upper back, chest, shoulders, arms down to fingers, shoulders, neck, different parts of the face and head.

  • For each part of the body, linger for a few moments and notice the different sensations, their quality, intensity, and constancy.

  • The moment you notice that your mind has wandered, return your attention to the part of the body you last remember.