Archive for September, 2014

Insight, Contradictions, and Alzheimer’s Research

September 28, 2014

The preceding post discussed contradictions as a strategy for achieving insight. It has bothered me for quite some time that the majority of research into Alzheimer’s has been targeting the tau tangles and beta-amyloid plaques. But research has revealed that people whose brains are scared with tau tangles and beta-amyloid plaques have shown no cognitive or behavioral indications of Alzheimer’s. This has been called resilient cognition and has been attributed to individuals who have built up a cognitive reserve and whose brains have adapted to the physiological changes. Why has this contradiction been ignored and research has continued to be focused on eliminating the tau tangles and amyloid-plaque?

New research reported in the July 16th Washington Post by Fredrick Kunkle has found a new protein TDP-43, a TAR DNA binding protein. This protein had been discovered by researchers in the Mayo Clinic who are studying prefrontal lobe dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Fortunately these researchers turned their attention on Alzheimer’s. They found that 57% of the cadavers with Alzheimer’s had TDP-43 in their brains. After controlling for other variables including beta-amyloid and tau deposits, age, and genetic risk, cadavers with the TDP-43 protein were ten times as likely to be severely cognitively impaired at death as those without the TDP-43 deposits. Those with TDP-43 also had faster rates of brain tissue loss over time than those without TDP-43.

So perhaps this contradiction can finally be recognized and research be retargeted at TDP-43, the effects of which are unambiguous. Meanwhile we should all stay cognitively, physically, and socially active, being mindful to keep our memories healthy and to continue our cognitive growth.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.


September 24, 2014

Contradictions constitute another strategy discussed by Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. The ulcer and yellow fever examples of coincidences are also examples of contradictions as insights can involve more than one strategy. Contradictions turned up in 45 out of the 120 cases studied by Klein. Initially Klein was surprised by this result as people who had insight were generally believed to be open-minded creative individuals. But Klein found that critical thinking can also lead to insight.

The first example of insight discussed by Klein involved the contradiction strategy. Two policeman, one older and one younger, were waiting for a traffic light to change. The younger policeman examined a fancy new BMW in front of them. He watched the driver of the BMW take a long drag on his cigarette, take it out of his mouth, and flick the ashes onto the upholstery. The younger policeman’s insight was that it was a new car and that the driver had just ashed his cigarette in the car. The contradiction was that the owner of the car was unlikely to do this, and the car was likely stolen. They stopped the car and found that it was indeed stolen.

Another example was Harry Markopolous, the main who fingered Bernie Madoff, the respected and admired investor who had in fact be running a Ponzi scheme. Early on Markopolous noticed a contradiction between the investments that Madoff was making and the returns he was reporting. There was much skepticism and it took several years of hard work, but Markopolous was able to prove that Madoff was a fraud and had been running a Ponzi scheme.

Klein discusses the story of five individuals who identified the housing bubble, the fraudulent investment vehicles that were being sold, and predicted the financial crisis and crash that occurred in 2007-2008.. The signs were there for all to see, but few people noticed them and fewer people acted upon them. Those few who did profited quite handsomely. These were the individuals who saw a clear contradictin between the objective state of the financial markets and the unbridled optimism (housing values can only go up) that was generally believed.

Another example of critical thinking leading to seeing contradictions that lead to insights was John Snow’s discovery about cholera in the mid-1800s. Cholera microbes cause diarrhea and vomiting that quickly dehydrates its victims, killing them. Cholera strikes in epidemics, with it quickly spreading from one individual to another. Cholera made its first appearance in Britain in 1831. When the epidemic ended more than 20,000 people had been killed. The next epidemic in 1848-1849 killed 50,000 more.

At that time most people believed in them miasma theory. That is, disease was spread by bad air and poor sanitation. This was the same theory used to account for yellow fewer that was discussed in the immediately preceding post. Snow became interested in cholera when he read about a sailor dieing of cholera in a lodging house. A few days later another person checked into the same room and contracted cholera. Snow saw a contradiction with the miasma theory. If inhaling noxious air caused cholera, why didn’t other people in the lodging hall or in the neighborhood get sick? If noxious vapors spread in currents afflicting everyone in their path, why didn’t the other lodgers come down with cholera? Snow also noted that if cholera were transmitted by bad air, they should show lung damage, but the victim’s lungs seemed normal. The damage was in the stomachs of cholera victims. This was a coincidence that implied a connection—that cholera victims caught the disease from something they ate or drank. Snow gathered more data and began to think that cholera was spread through ingesting waste matter of other victims, by drinking contaminated water.

Snow found that cholera seemed to parallel water systems. In one outbreak twelve people died. He found that they all lived in the same slum and drank from the same well. Then there was the famous Broad Street Pump. Cholera cases were clustered around this pump, but none of the local brewery workers can down with cholera. Although these brewery workers breathed the same air, they drank beer, not water. It was later found that this Broad Street Pump had become contaminated through the dirty diapers of an infant. The infants mother had cleaned the diapers in a bucket and tossed the foul water into a cesspool that ran into some cracks in the pipes of the Broad Street pump. After this Broad Street Pump incident , Snow’s theory of dirty water was quickly accepted. Within a year this story traveled to the United States and guided American campaigns to protect citizens from cholera.

Contradictions also lead to important breakthroughs in science. Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions describes how contradictions lead to scientific breakthroughs. According to Kuhn there are long periods of what he terms normal science. These periods consist of small incremental increases in scientific knowledge. But they come to a point where science cannot advance without breakthrough thinking, and this involves the identification of contradictions and the creation of new ideas to overcome these contradictions.

A good example of Kuhn’s ideas can be found in Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The Newtonian view of physics was that space and time were constants. Maxwell’s equations predicted that electromagnetic radiation would propagate through a vacuum at the speed of light. Einstein imagined what would it be like to travel at the speed of light. The light beam should appear frozen, but this appeared to contradict Maxwell’s equations. Einstein resolved this contradiction by stating that the sped of light is a constant and space and time or space/time vary.

Curiosities and Coincidences

September 21, 2014

Curiosities and coincidences are two more strategies for achieving insight discussed by Gary Klein in his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. Curiosities provoke people to investigate what is going on here, which often lead to impressive discoveries. A famous example of this is the way in which Alexander Fleming stumbled upon the disease-fighting properties of penicillin. He had been growing colonies of Staphylococcus in petri dishes. When he returned from vacation a month later he found that one of the petri dishes had gotten contaminated with a mold. The Staphylococcus bacteria in the vicinity of the mold had gotten destroyed, whereas the bacteria in the other dishes had not. So Fleming cultured the mold and found that it contained an infection-fighting substance. He first called it mold juice and found that it killed many other bacteria. Further research lead to the discovery of penicillin, which was the world’s first antibiotic.

The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen is another example of an insight developed through a curiosity. He had been investigating cathode rays and was using a cardboard covering to prevent light from escaping his apparatus. He noticed a barium platinocyanide screen across the room was glowing when his apparatus discharge cathode rays despite the cardboard covering. After several weeks of further investigation he convinced himself that he had found some new form of light, which was termed the X-ray. Initially his discovery was met with skepticism by the scientific community. So two points can be drawn from this story. One is that considerable knowledge, in this case scientific, might be required for a curiosity to be noticed. Secondly, insights might not be appreciated, at least, initially.

Klein’s sample of 120 cases of insight contained only 9 cases of curiosities. Coincidences occurred slightly more frequently, occurring in 12 of the cases. Now we frequently notice coincidences. The problem is that by statistical chance alone many coincidences naturally occur. We tend to be too sensitive and see connections that are not real. The key here is to identify coincidences that might have important implications even if they didn’t know yet what those implications might be. However, sometimes the implications are quite clear.

In preparing for their 1998 Super Bowl appearance against the Green Bay Packers, the Denver Bronco coaching staff noticed that one of the Green Bay defensive backs, Leroy Butler, was getting in on the action even when he should have been elsewhere on the field. Although the coaches never figured how Butler was able to do this, they did create defensive schemes so that he would always be blocked and that different players would block him. The end result was that the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl.

For a very long time ulcers were thought to be the result of stress. Barry Marshall, an Australian physician, discovered that Helicobacter pylori causes not only ulcers but also stomach cancer. For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize ub 2005. In his acceptance speech he quoted the historian Daniel Boorstein: “The greatest obstacle to knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Actually there was not that much empirical evidence that stress caused ulcers, but it was an intuitively appealing theory. Marshall made his discovery working with a pathologist, Robert Warren. Warren had noticed earlier that the gut could be overrun by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium that had to be hardy to survive in the acid-filled stomach environment. Warren found them in twenty patients who’d been biopsied because their physicians thought they might have cancer. Although they didn’t have cancer, they all had the bacterium. Marshall and Warren noticed this coincidence. Marshall went on to probe this coincidence by investigating these twenty patients to see if they had anything wrong with them. He found one of his former patients who had complained to him of nausea and chronic stomach pain. Nothing had shown up from the previous tests, so she had been sent to a psychiatrist, who put her on an antidepressant. And here she was a patient with chronic stomach pain and the corkscrew bacterium Further research led to additional evidence that the corkscrew bacterium was what caused stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Although this theory was initially met with skepticism, it was eventually accepted and led to a Nobel Prize.

Walter Reed and the discovery that yellow fever was spread by bites from a certain type of mosquito is another example of a thoroughly studied coincidence that was validated. A French-Scottish physician, Juan Carlos Finlay, who had worked in Cuba for decades, had formed the mosquito hypothesis on coincidence. Where there was certain type of mosquito, the Culex now called the Aedes, there was yellow fever. If that type of mosquito was not present, there was no yellow fever. When Reed let for Cuba he was told by his supervisor to ignore the mosquito hypothesis because it had been disproven. The medical community was convinced that yellow fever was caused by unsanitary conditions and miasma (bad air). It should be noted that prior to Reed’s arrival in Cuba, there was data that contradicted the sanitation/miasma hypothesis. But this contradiction was ignored (more about contradictions in the next post).

Reed found additional evidence, discrediting the sanitation/miasma hypothesis and supporting the moquito hypothesis. Still, people found it difficult believing that a mosquito could kill a full-grown man. Two of the researchers, Jesse Lazear and James Carroll agreed to experiment on themselves with Reed’s permission. They let a mosquito bit someone with yellow fever, waited twelve days, an incubation period, and then let the mosquito bite them. The experiment worked in dramatic fashion. Both came down with yellow fever. Unfortunately, Lazear got it so severely that he died. James Carroll became delirious but recovered. More controlled experiments were done to convincingly demonstrate that Culex mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever.


September 17, 2014

Connections is the most commonly used of Klein’s five strategies for achieving insight discussed in his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. He provides several examples of how this strategy achieved insight. One regards the Battle of Taranto. This battle took place at the beginning of World War II. The Italian fleet was restricting British efforts to resupply British forces in Europe. The British devised a strategy where they would use airplanes launched from an aircraft carrier. These aircraft were able to defeat the Italian ships. Two naval strategists were able to see the relevance of this attack to the general vulnerability ships had to the newly evolving air power. One was Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He had the insight to see the vulnerability to an unexpected air attack of the American naval fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. He used this insight to devise the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto had been educated in the United States. He had the additional insight to see that an attack on Pearl Harbor would lead to the ultimate defeat of Japan. He passed this insight on to the Japanese leadership who refused to believe it. However, being a loyal sailor he designed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

There was also an American strategist who made the connection to the British naval success against the Italians at Taranto. This American was Admiral Harold Stark, who was no less than the chief of naval operations (CNO). Less than two weeks after the Battle of Taranto he sighed a memo stating,”By far, the most profitable object of a suddent attack in the Hawaiian waters would be the fleet unites based in that area.” He advised that it would be desirable “to place torpedo nets within the harbor itself.” On January 24, 1941 he sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, stating, “If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.” Stark was ignored and Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” occurred on December 7, 1941. Moreover, Roosevelt unofficially blamed him for the attack on Pearl Harbor by removing Stark at CNO and reassigning him to London.

Connections is also the strategy that lead to the insight that lead to the mother of all scientific insights, the theory of evolution. Darwin came back from his five year voyage of the HMS Beagle with many observations regarding the diversity of the species. The question was what did this diversity mean? Where was the connection? Two years after returning from his voyage Darwin read An Essay on the Principle of Population by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. This essay, written forty years earlier, claimed that populations grow until they exceed the food supply and then the member of te population compete with each other. Darwin made the connection and had the insight how this could explain the variations in species he had observed. In a competition for resources, any random variation that created an advantage would be selected and others would lose out. Member of species with the competitive advantage would be more likely to survive, breed, and transfer their traits to their offspring. Hence, the theory of natural selection relying on blind variation and selective retention.

It should be noted that Darwin’s contemporary naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who independently arrived at the theory of natural selection also had read Malthus and had had the same insight and made the same connection as Darwin.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this post, the connection strategy was the most prominent of Klein’s five strategies and used in 82% of the 120 instances of insight Klein studied. However, these strategies are not mutually exclusive and and frequently used in combination.

Achieving Insight

September 14, 2014

According to Costa, the author of The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, what will save us all is the ability of the human mind to achieve insight Gary Klein’s book, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight presents a new research approach to this classic topic in psychological research. Klein is one of the pioneers in the development of naturalistic approaches to problem solving and decision making. He has extended this approach to the topic of insight. He reviews the previous work done on the topic of insight and makes a compelling argument that their approaches were too constrained to provide sufficient insight into insight.

Klein collected 120 cases of people finding insight. He used the analogy of an archaeological dig. In detailed analyses of these cases he derives the following basic strategies for achieving insight: connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions, and creative desperation. At times combinations of these basic strategies are involved.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 is titled “Entering Through the Gates of Insight: How Do Insights Get Triggered? The different strategies for achieving insight are discussed here. He has chapters on Different Ways to Look at Insight and the Logic of Discovery.

Part II is titled “Shutting the Gates: What Interferes with Insights?” The topics of stupidity, how organizations obstruct insight and how NOT to hunt for insights are addressed.

Part III is probably the part that is of most interest to readers, “Opening the Gates: How We Can Foster Insight, “ which includes the chapters, Helping Ourselves, Helping Others, Helping Our Organizations, Tips for Becoming an Insight Hunter, and The Magic of Insights.

My initial thought was to recommend this book quite highly to anyone interested in insight. I most definitely regard it as the best book on the topic. However, on further reflection, and upon rereading the high hopes Costa has for insight, my strong recommendation is for everyone to read Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight.

Why Have We Stopped Getting Smarter?

September 10, 2014

“Why Have We Stopped Getting Smarter” is the subtitle of a an article in the NewScientist August 23 2014 titled “Dumbing Down.” I feel compelled to post about this article because it is a likely sign of the ending of, or perhaps even a reversal of, the Flynn Effect. I have written several posts on the Flynn Effect (type “Flynn Effect” into the healthymemory blog search box to find them.). The Flynn Effect is the increase in IQ scores that has been occurring over the past several decades. This has required the repeated re-norming of IQ tests so that the average remains at 100. Well that increase has now stopped and might even be reversing.

The New Scientist article goes into several explanations as to why this has happened. One of them is that smarte r people are having fewer children, so that dumber people are contributing more to the average wih the result that the average IQ has stopped increasing and might even have begun to decrease.. There seems to be a belief among some that we have stopped getting smarter and might even be dumbing down, hence the title and subtitle of the article.

This is ironic because Flynn himself used the effect to argue that IQ tests were not accurately measuring intelligence. He argued that had there been true increases in intelligence, society would have advanced much more than it has, and would be in much less trouble than it is in. So I think he would also argue that the end and possible reversal of the Flynn Effect does not mean that we have stopped getting smarter or that we are dumbing down.

Knowing and believing one’s IQ score can be a problem. Those with high scores might reason that they do not need to learn or apply themselves because they are blessed with so much brain power. On the other hand, those who know and believe their low IQ scores might think that they lack sufficient brain power and concede defeat.

Of course readers of the healthymemory blog should believe that they should use whatever brain power they have to best advantage. Moreover, their goal should be to continue to learn and grow their cognitive capacity as long as they live. They should also know that neurogenesis provides for this growth as long as the maintain their physical health and grow the health of their memories by following some of the activities (there are way to many to follow them all) they find in the healthymemory blog.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Our Brains Never Fill Up

September 7, 2014

The answer to this question can be found in the September/October 2012 Scientific American Mind in the article “Making New Memories.” Actually readers of the healthymemory blog should already know the answer to this question. The answer is neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is a process that does not stop when we age. It continues until we die. Now the hippocampus is one of only two sites in the adult brain were new neurons grow. They grow in the region of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. The rate of neurogenesis in the hippocampus is estimated to be 1400 neurons a day. This is important as the hippocampus plays a central role in memory.

There is an expression, neurons that fire together wire together. This expression captures the concept of the Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb’s Cell Assembly Theory. One problem has been that most cell assemblies are associated to other cell assemblies and so forth and so forth. Although this is the basis for cognitive enrichment, how are all these cell assemblies distinguished? In 1995 the psychologists James L. McClelland, Randall C. O’Reilley, and Bruce L. McNaughton proposed that the cerebral cortex forges these connections and the hippocampus tags cell assemblies so that distinct memories are filed away. But where did these new neurons come from to keep these memories distinct? At that time it was thought that we only have the neurons with which we are born. We even lose many of those neurons very early in life. It was not until the late 1990’s that neurogenesis was discovered. Subsequent research has indicated that this neurogenesis continues until we die. So these neurons are being created just when they are most needed! See the healthymemory blog post, “What is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work.”

So key to keeping and maintaining your memory is to build a healthy hippocampus. To learn how to build your hippocampus, see the healthymemory blog post, “”To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus.”

Growing old is no excuse for old dogs not learning new tricks. Growing old is no excuse for not continuing to learn and do new things. Cognitive decline is a myth. See the healthymemory blog post, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.” Cognition might slow down as we age and, although there are some biological factors underlying part of this, the brain adapts. Apparent slowness and occasional forgetfulness, so called “senior moments,” are likely the result of the vast amounts of information that are stored in the elderly brain. This is especially true of the elderly brain that has spent a lifetime growing and learning. It takes more time to process and retrieve information from this enlarged network. Apparent slowness might well be due to cognitive richness rather than cognitive decline.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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 Disappointing Alma Mater

September 3, 2014

And that alma mater would be Ohio State University (OSU), where I earned a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction in Psychology. The education was superb. I was in their honors program and it was outstanding. My family was able to afford to send me because we lived in Columbus and I commuted to campus. There was no state income tax at this time. I had a friend who started OSU the same time that I did, but had to drop out because he could not afford it. Years later he completed his degree ,but he did so at a private university. He did this because he could afford the private university and he could still not afford OSU. This was the first indication that priorities were out of order. It is the duty of state school to provide affordable quality educations to residents of the state. Their costs certainly should not exceed those of private colleges. Although Ohio now does have a state income tax costs have continued to increase, making affordable educations less accessible.

When I learned that the main campus of OSU was going to enforce a two year residency requirement on student, I became furious.. Students must live in campus residence halls for their first two years of education. So now, in addition to enormous and unjustified tuition costs, residency costs are being added making higher education even less accessible.

This is occurring when some of the top colleges are making their courses available for free on line. This era of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) meets both the spirit and the needs of the time. Lifetime learning is increasingly becoming the norm. And it is likely that certification of knowledge and skills in different areas will supplant , to some extent, traditional college degrees.

Rather than developing its courses for the future, OSU appears to be going backwards. Residence halls will increasingly be needed for people who want to learn and grow in new areas and want the experience and convenience of campus living. These are the people the OSU should be adapting to serve, rather than adopting a policy that will make attending OSU difficult or impossible for its residents.

At bottom, the residents of Ohio failed in keeping affordable education at the top of their requirements. I no longer live in Ohio, but as an alumnus I have been a long time contributor. Those contributions have stopped and will not begin again unless OSU reorients to the future and makes its offerings more accessible and affordable.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.