Archive for November, 2014

Memory, Attention, Consciousness

November 30, 2014

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.

Happy Thanksgiving 2014!

November 25, 2014

We, homo sapiens,have much for which to be thankful. I often question whether we are worthy of our name. Nevertheless, we have much cognitive potential for which to be thankful. I believe that the best way of giving thanks is to foster and grow this potential throughout our lifetimes.

Consider our memories, which are de facto time travel machines. We travel into the past and into the future. Actually we travel into the past, to retrieve what we have learned, to cope with the future. We have both experienced and remembered pasts (see the Healthymemory blog post, “Photos, Experiencing Selves and Remembering Selves”). We can go back in time before we were born via our imaginations and transactive memory. Similarly we can go forward into time via both our imaginations and transactive memory (transactive memory are those held by fellow humans and by technological artifacts such as books and computers).

When human minds are put to best use via creativity and critical thinking, tremendous artistic, scientific, engineering, and cultural feats are achieved. And we each have individual potential that we should do our best to foster and grow throughout our lifetimes by continuing to take on cognitive challenges and to interact with transactive memory (our fellow humans and technology). We should not retire from or give up on cognitive growth. And we should assist our fellow humans who are in need to grow their individual potential. This is the best means of giving thanks!

© 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.

Ipad for Transactive Memory

November 23, 2014

Remember that transactive memory consists of all memory that is resident outside of ourselves. So memories held by our fellow beings are part of transactive memory. Memories resident in technology, be it paper or electronic, are all types of transactive memory. Unfortunately, one of my many shortcomings is my lack of systems for organizing my information. I have articles I stored as a graduate student that I have kept in boxes and moved them along within me whenever I moved. Unfortunately,the probability that I will ever find them again is close to nil. We are currently living in temporary quarters while I home is being remodeled. The remodeling will provide more space and bookshelves. These are much needed, because there were times when I could not find a book I read, but I knew it had information I needed to review. In these cases it was frequently more expedient to reorder the book from Amazon.

I was excited by the invention of the Kindle and other electronic readers. I purchased a Kindle and liked it. It was especially useful for cruises as I did not have to pack so many books. Neverthelesss, I found the display to be too small, so I used in sparingly. My recent purchase of an iPad eliminated the display size problem, but initially I did have problems regarding the logic of the interface. Several consultations with Apple Geniuses solved these problems and I am now a most satisfied user even though I use it primarily as a reader. An earlier post related by experiences using it at the APA convention (see the healthymemory blog post “Attendance at the 2014 Convention of the American Psychological Association). Frankly I find it easier doing email and writing with my laptop. The potential of the iPad is large, but it is unlikely that I shall avail myself to most of it.

From now on electronic versions of most written material will be preferred. Most books will be purchased on Amazon and downloaded to the Kindle app on my iPad. The iPad mitigates many logistical problems and provides an easy way of accessing information I am still in a learning process and my appreciation of the iPad as a device for transactional memory is growing.

© 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.

Did Our Capacity for Imaginative Thought Give Rise to Civilization?

November 19, 2014


An article in the New Scientist (20 September 2014), Daydream believers by Catherine Brahic motivated this blog post. This is not to say that I thought it is a good article as I strongly disagree with many of the arguments in the article. Nevertheless, it launched some thoughts that I feel compelled to express in this blog post.’

My first disagreement regards the concept of memory advanced by philosopher./psychologist Alison Gopnik. Certain researchers have a problem with the following, “If imagination is the ability to transcend our current circumstances and use our minds to travel through and space and beyond, then that includes everything from daydreaming of unicorns to visualizing an even last weekend and figuring out at two in the afternoon, how best to get to a social occasion across town that evening. The objection to this definition is that we are constantly using our imagination. Ms. Gopnik prefers to carve out a special niche for imagination and to regard memory as a storage space for data. Research has clearly indicated that memory is not a static storage space but is instead dynamic, constantly being recreated whenever we act upon it. The role of memory is to serve as a mechanism for time travel, to draw upon past experience and learning and to use that information to imagine different possibilities and the means of achieving those possibilities. Although we might typically think of imagination as allowing us to escape reality and to live in a fantasy world, it is basically the same mechanism that we use to plan for the future and to cope with reality. And, yes of course, this capacity provided the ability to build civilizations.

The article also hit on another one of my pet peeves. It contained arguments that imagination is a uniquely human capacity. I’ve come to believe that homo sapiens has an inferiority complex expressed in a need to distinguish itself from other animal species. Well we do know that all primate species dream. I might make the argument that imaginative thought involves similar processes to dreaming except it occurs when we are awake. Moreover, prominent neuroscientists have argued for consciousness in a wide range of species (see the healthymemory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-human Animals.”) The following is from the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:

The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

To reiterate the answer to the question in the title of this post, “Yes.”

© 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.

Photos, Experiencing Selves, Remembering Selves

November 15, 2014

I might be the only serviceman who returned from the Far East without a 33mm camera. I’ve never wanted to bother with a camera. When I’m a tourist, I want to experience the trip, and not be troubled with a camera. I prefer to buy postcards to remember the trip. I think today there is money to be made by those who will photoshop your personal pictures into photos of exotic places. This could save a fortune for those who would have their personal pictures in these photos. They would be able both to impress and to bore their friends with their phoney vacation photos while saving a fortune. Fortunately, my wife is very good with cameras, so I never bother with them. Nevertheless I rarely look at the photos she takes of our vacations. I enjoy remembering the vacations, but I find it depressing when I look at the pictures years later. We just look older. The satisfaction of the vacations lies in my memories.

Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between our experiencing selves and our remembering selves in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He has done some interesting research pointing to differences in what we experience and what we remember. People who take many photos during their vacations my be sacrificing the quality of both their experiencing and their remembering selves.s

There was an interesting research report, “A Not-So-Photographic Memory in the June/July 2014 AARP The Magazine. This report was of a study done by cognitive psychologist Linda Henkel at Connecticut’s Fairfield University. The students toured a museum and told to look at 30 objects and to take photos of half of them. The next day students could remember nearly 90 percent of the items they observed, but only 78 percent of the items they photographed. So when on vacation you could pass on taking photographs or follow the advice offered by Henkel, “…think about what you are photographing, and talk about them. The act of reminiscing helped the memory not just taking a photo.” In other words, don’t sacrifice your experiencing self when you are taking photos. Your remembering self will benefit from your experiencing self.

Risk Intelligence

November 11, 2014

Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty is the title of a book by Dylan Evans. This title should immediately grab you attention as we must live with uncertainty. Actually our cognitive processes lead us to believe that we live in a world with much more certainty than there actually is. The first chapter begins with a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “He who knows best, best knows how little he knows.” And there is also the human tendency to think we know more than we know. I’ve found that in continuing my education through the Ph.D plus decades of additional experience and learning that I know much less than I thought I knew when I graduated from high school! I’ve discovered vast new landscapes of ignorance.

Given the ubiquity of risk, we might well as is there such a thing as risk intelligence and can it be measured? Given the title of the book, you will probability not be surprised to learn that the answer to both questions is yes, Evans book contains a Risk Intelligence (RQ)Test or you can go online to There are also expert RQ tests targeted for specific areas of expertise.

A fear I had when I first encountered RQ tests was whether they would result in debates and research on the issue of whether RQ is innate or learned. Fortunately, RQ can be developed through education and training. Perhaps a good first step would be to read the book. Moreover, it has the additional merits of being interesting and entertaining.

© 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.

You Are Not Prisoner of Your DNA

November 8, 2014

Unfortunately, the belief that we are prisoners to our own DNA is used as a cop out from personal responsibility. It is also the first key thing that Dr. Dharma Sing Khaisa, who is the Founding President and Medical Director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, would like every person to understand about his/her own brain, thinks that is commonly misunderstood. The second key thing is, “You can improve your brain function, regardless of your age and stage in life. He is an MD who has been working in this area for more than 20 years, and he says that he is more excited than ever about the possibilities for enhanced mental performance and brain longevity for everyone.

When he started his research he discovered that chronic stress , via release from the adrenal glands, kills brain cells by the thousands in the hippocampus, which is critical to memory performance. He realized that this could lead to Alzheimer’s Disease and other problems. He also knew from his own research and personal experience that lifestyle modifications, especially including yoga and meditation could remedy that. He is continuing his research looking into the integrative approach to the preventon of Alzheimer’s. He is especially interested in continuing to explore the multiple positive benefits of a simple brain-enhancing yoga meditation exercise called Kirtan Kriya, or KK.

He believes that it is important to champion the belief that lifestyle can influence brain fitness and to encourage people to make their brain health their top priority. Personally, he remembers to put his brain health first. He practices yoga and meditation every day, has a serious work out regimen five times a week, and watches his diet. As for mental exercise, he writes songs and plays music, which is also great fun.

This post reiterates the goals of the healthymemory blog, which is important to do periodically.

The following URL is the reference for this blog post.

10 Innovations That Changed History and 10 Innovations That Will

November 5, 2014

This is the title of a special report in the New Scientist (October 25-31, 2014). Articles like this are fun, but should not be taken too seriously. However, they do provide food for thought.

10 innovations that have changed history

Cooking. Clearly learning how to start and control fires was a prerequisite, but cooking enable early humans to enjoy a better diet for advancing physical and cognitive health.

Weapons. Weapons enabled hunting, which provided for a better diet that advance physical and cognitive health. They also brought about warfare. The article argues that this enabled the weakest group member to take down the strongest group member of the opposing group. So weapons encouraged early human groups to embrace and egalitarian existence unique among primates. There appears to have been a link between warfare and technological advancement, the most recent example being the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The launch of Sputnik encouraged a giant increase in US funding for technology development and the training and education of scientists and engineers. I was one of the many beneficiaries of this funding. Would man have reached the moon without this funding? What about progress in computers? The internet is a product of defense spending.

Jewelry and Cosmetics. This is certainly an item I would have left off my list, but the authors argue that they hint at dramatic revolutions in the nature of human beliefs and communication. They are indications of symbolic thought and behavior because wearing a particular necklace or form of body paint has meaning beyond the apparent. As well as status, it can signify things like group identify or shared outlook. That generation after generation adorned themselves in this way indicates that these people had language complex enough to establish traditions.

Sewing. It is obvious that without sewing there would be little in the way of clothes to product our bodies and allow us to live outside of highly temperate bodies.

Containers. This is an obvious advancement that is easily overlooked. Groups of humans would have needed to remain small absent containers.

Law. Obviously codified rules are needed for societies to survive. Then, there is the concept of justice. The law and justice need to be better aligned. One might be tempted to argue that currently they are orthogonal dimensions.

Timekeeping. Contemporary could not exist without a system of timekeeping. For much of history, timekeeping systems were local. It was not until the development of the railroads were the different timekeeping systems brought into alignment to keep trains from crashing into each other.

Ploughing. Obviously without agriculture, societies would not have developed, and advanced agriculture requires plumbing.

Sewerage. Absent sewerage, not only would the stench be unbearable, but diseases would be widely spread. I will not step into a time-travel machine and go back to a time before sewerage.

Writing. But of course. If there were not writing, there could be no healthymemory blog.

10 innovations that will change history.

End of aging. This might come to pass, but what will be its ramifications? Will warfare break out between the ages. Will people eventually grown tired of who they have been for so long and opt out?

Aging might end, but can the quality of life be maintained or improved?

Decision Making Machines. Not only do we not like making too many decisions, we are not good at making decisions. Perhaps decision making machines could replace our non-functioning legislative systems.

Customisable Bodies. Well this has already started with plastic surgery. Will the results be improved? How will people choose to customize their bodies. How might this affect athletic competitions?

Cryptocurriences. The bitcoin is provided as an example here. Is it an improvement? Would these currencies constitute an improvement or just another means of speculation?

Virtual Reality. Might virtual reality be seen as better than real reality and virtual living would replace real living?

Brain Uploads. Here we have the singularity with silicon. This is Kurtzweil’s future, one of which I am quite skeptical.

Genetic engineering. I expect great things here to include the end of disease and genetic defects. There might even be substantive genetic improvements to mitigate our many shortcomings.

Space Colonization. Yes, in our solar system. But we need to learn how to break the laws of physics to colonize outside our solar system.

End of Privacy. This might already have occurred. What is needed are laws to prevent abuses of this end of privacy.

And Abundance of Everything. Something to be hoped for. Today we are a minority of our species who enjoy the bnefits of technology and are not suffering from war and atrocities at the hand of fanatics. So why was the end of war and terrorism not on the list of ten advances for the future?

© 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.

Maintaining Focus on the Internet

November 1, 2014

I become angry, furious even, when I hear, see, or read something about humans being victims of the internet. Supposedly, attention spans are shortened, and we are forced to switch from topic to topic. Consequently, we are exposed to volumes of information, but fail to develop knowledge or to understand topics in depth.

Now it is true that this can be the consequence if we are data driven by what pops up on the internet. But there is no excuse if we end up being victims of technology. Technology is a tool. A tool is something we use to accomplish some goal, not something to be victimized by.

So, when we get on the internet it should be with some goal or prioritized goals to accomplish. We need to maintain our focus to accomplish because never before have we had such a tool that enables us to learn so much in so short a time. First of all, we can search on a topic to get suggested links. When we find a fruitful link we can begin to read and to take notes. We’ll encounter hyperlinks. When a hyperlink is encountered we need to make a decision. Should it be ignored? If we ignore it, we still can return later. If we think it is potentially important, but not something to be pursued at the moment, we can bookmark it. Or, if we feel like we really need more information to continue, we can click on the link and drill down for more information.

Remember what was needed in pre-internet days? We have an article or a book. We read. We take notes. We identify holes in our knowledge and look for more references. All of this is time consuming, requiring going through card catalogs and other sources of additional information. Consider the time involved here and compare it with clicking on hyperlink. When a book is needed, it can be ordered from Amazon or some other online vendor.

In the lingo of the healthymemory blog, the internet is a superb example of transactive memory. Remember that there are two sources of transactive memory. One is technology, which can range from the internet to books and journals. The other source is our fellow human beings, We can and should use the internet to connect with fellow humans with knowledge and expertise in topics of interest.

For more healthymemory blog posts on this topic, enter “contemplative computing” into the this blog’s search block.

© 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.