Archive for December, 2014

Happy New Year for 2015! Now What About Those Resolutions?

December 30, 2014

If you are serious about achieving your resolutions, be realistic. If you have read previous healthymemory blog posts on this topic, you should be aware that achieving resolutions requires resources of attention and will power that are consumed in your efforts to achieve them. As has been mentioned in previous posts, picking just two resolutions is a good idea. One resolution should be fairly easy to accomplish. You want to have at least one victory in the win column. The second resolution should be a stretch, but not too much of a stretch. This is one that you can truly congratulate yourself for accomplishing.

You want to bring mindfulness into your resolutions. If you are not currently practicing mindfulness, then that resolution should be on the top of your list. Practicing mindfulness will enhance the probability of you achieving your resolutions. Entering “mindfulness” into the healthymemory blog search block will yield many, many blog posts on this topic.

Creative Time

December 27, 2014

Creative Time is another section in the chapter Organizing Our Time in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. The section begins with a discussion of creativity and insight. We’ll skip this as many posts were written about insight fairly recently. Then he moves on to the topic of flow. Although flow has been discussed previously in this blog, it is an important enough topic and Levitin does provide some new information. Flow refers to the experience of getting wonderfully, blissfully lost in an activity losing all track of time, of ourselves, our problems. Flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing as formulated by Dr.Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book The Distraction Addiction (you can use the search box to find these posts). The phenomena of flow were identified and discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-high, CHEECH-sent-mee-high). It feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. Flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. Two key regions deactivate during flow: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the brain’s fear center, the amygdala.

Flow can occur during either the planning or he execution phase of an activity, but it is most often associated with the execution of a complex task, such as playing a solo on a musical instrument, writing an essay or shooting baskets. A lack of distractability characterizes flow. A second characteristic of flow is that we monitor our performance without the kinds of self-defeating negative judgments that often accompany creative work. When we’re not in flow, a nagging voice inside our head often says, “It’s not good enough.” In flow, a reassuring voice says, “we can fix that.”

Flow is a Goldilocks experience. The task cannot be too easy or too difficult, it has to be at just the right level. It takes less energy to be in flow than to be distracted. This is why flow states are characterized by great productivity and efficiency.

As mentioned earlier, flow is also in a chemically different state, although the particular neurochemical soup has yet to be identified. There needs to be a balance of dopamine and noradrenaline, particularly as they are modulated in a brain region known as the striatum, the locus of the attentional switch, serotonin, for freedom to access stream-of-consciousness associations, and adrenaline, to stay focused and energized. GABA neurons that normally function to inhibit actions and help us exercise self-control need to reduce their activity so that we are not overly critical of ourselves, and so that we can be less inhibited in the generation of ideas.

Flow is not always good. If it becomes an addiction, it can be disruptive. And it can be socially disruptive if flow-ers withdraw from others.

Levitin goes on to describe how creative individuals and groups structure their environments and lives to enhance flow.

© 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.


December 23, 2014

Procrastination is a section of the chapter Organizing Our Time in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. He begins this section by discussing the film producer Jake Eberts whose films have received sixty-six Oscar nominations, and seventeen Oscar wins. H said that he had a short attention span, very little patience, and was easily bored. He might well have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder . Here is how he conquered his problem. He adopted a strict policy of “do it now.” If he had a number of calls to make or things to attend to piling up, he’d dive right in, even if it cut into leisure or socializing time. Moreover, he’d do the most unpleasant task early in the morning to get it out of the way. He called this, following Mark Twain, eating the frog: Do the most unpleasant thing first thing in the morning when gumption is highest, because willpower depletes as the day goes on.

At this point, nothing more needs to be written on procrastination. The preceding is the formula for dealing with it. Moreover, at bottom, procrastination is due to a lack of willpower, so it should be attacked when willpower has not yet been depleted, because exercising our willpower has the effect of depleting out willpower. We have finite amounts to spend that need to be replenished once they are depleted. So, if you have tasks you need to attend to, stop reading and attend to them now!

However, if you have nothing on your to-do list, or if your willpower has already been depleted, keep reading.

The brain region implicated in procrastination is the prefrontal cortex. People who suffer damage to the prefrontal cortex have problems with procrastination.

There are two types of procrastination. Some of us procrastinate in order to pursue restful activities. Some of us procrastinate certain difficult or unpleasant tasks in favor of those that are more fun or that have an immediate reward. Of course, many of us engage in both types of procrastination.

The organizational psychologist Piers Steel says that there are two underlying factors that lead us to procrastinate. One of those factors is our low tolerance for frustration. When choosing what tasks to undertake or activities to pursue, we tend to choose not the most rewarding activity, but the easiest. Consequently unpleasant or difficult matters get put off. The second factor is an ego protective mechanism. We tend to evaluate our self-worth in terms of our achievements. If we lack self-confidence in general or confidence that a particular project will not turn out well, we procrastinate because that allow us to delay putting our reputation on the line until later. In this context it is important to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Most successful people have had a long track record or failure, yet they persevered and succeeded. And even if you’re successful, part of the reason is likely a matter of luck, the cards happened to play your way this time.

There are also some people who have no problem starting tasks, but do not seem to be able to complete them. This situation is not necessarily bad, and technically this is not procrastination. If you find that starting a task was a mistake, there is no requirement to finish it. Indeed, it might be some type of compulsive neurosis to complete everything you have started. Of course, too many abandoned tasks might indicate that more consideration should have been given before starting it. However, some people do not finish tasks because they are perfectionists. Now striving for perfection is not necessarily bad, but striving to achieve the unattainable is. And the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Sleep Time

December 21, 2014

Given that around one-third of our lives is spent sleeping, sleep must be considered for effective time management. I believe it’s a mistake to regard sleeping as wasted time and to work to keep the time we sleep to a minimum. I have a good friend who is quite proud to have gotten it down to four hours per night. I have never been able to understand why this is desirable. For me, sleeping is one of my favorite activities. Apart from being refreshing, I enjoy dreaming. We are able to slip the bounds of reality when we dream.

Levitin in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload notes other reasons sleep is important. Newly acquired memories are initially unstable and require a process of neural strengthening to become resistant to interference and accessible to us for retrieval. Usually there are a variety of ways that an event can be contextualized. The brain has to toss and turn and analyze the experience after it happens, extracting and sorting information in complex ways.

Recent research has given us a better understanding of the different processes that are accomplished during distinct phases of sleep. New experiences become integrated into a more generalized and hierarchical representation of the outside world. Memory consolidation fine tunes the neural circuits that first encountered the new experience. It has been argued that this occurs when we sleep because otherwise those circuits might be confused with an actually occurring experience. Moreover, all this consolidation does not occur during a single night. Rather, it unfolds over several sequential nights. Sleep that is disrupted even two or three days after an experience can disrupt our memories of it months or years later. Mathew Walker (from UC Berkeley) and Robert Stickgold (frm Harvard Medical School) notes three distinct kinds of information that occur during sleep.

The first is unitization, the combining of discrete elements or chunks of an experience into a unified concept. The second kind of information processing that takes place during sleep is assimilation. The brain integrates new information into the existing network structure of other items in memory. The third process is abstraction where hidden rules are discovered and entered into memory. Across a range of inferences involving not only language but mathematics, logic problems, and spatial reasoning, sleep enhances the formation and understanding of abstract relations to the extent that people often wake having solved a problem that was unsolvable the night before. Levitin writes that this might be part of the reason why young children just learning language sleep so much.

This kind of information consolidation happens all the time, but it happens more intensely for tasks in which we are intensely engaged. If you struggle with a problem for an hour or more during the day in which you have invested your focus, energy, and emotions, the it is ripe for replay and elaboration during sleep.

Sleep is also necessary for cellular housekeeping. Specific metabolic processes in the glymphatic system clear neural pathways of potentially toxic waste products that are produced during waking thought.

Parts of the brain sleep while others do not. Sometimes we are either half-asleep or sleeping only lightly. Sometimes people experience a brain freeze being unable to momentarily to remember something obvious. Should we find ourselves doing something silly, such as putting orange juice on cereal, it might be that part of the brain is asleep.

Levitin likens the sleep-wake cycle to a thermostat. Sleep is governed by neural switches that follow a homeostatic process that are influenced by our circadian rhythm, food intake, blood sugar level, condition of the immune system, stress, sunlight, and darkness. When our homeostats increase above a certain point, it triggers the release of neurohormones that induce sleep. When the homeostat decreases below a certain point, a separate set of neurohormones are released to induce wakefulness.

Our current 6 to 8 hour followed by a 16-18 hour sleep cycle is relatively new according to Levitin. He writes that for most of human history, our ancestors engaged in two rounds of sleep, called segmented or bimodal sleep, in addition to an afternoon nap. The first round of sleep would occur for four or five hours after dinner, followed by an awake period of one of more hours in the middle of the night, followed by a second period of four or five hours sleep. He notes that bimodal sleep appears to be a biological norm that was subverted by the invention of artificial light.. He writes that there is scientific evidence that the bimodal sleep plus nap regime is healthier and promotes greater life satisfaction and efficiency.

Admittedly, it would be difficult for most of us to be able to accommodate this bimodal sleep regime. Do what works for you and fits into your requirements. Do not overlook the beneficial effects of naps, even very short ones. And stay away from sleep medications that can do more harm than good. Should you have difficulty falling asleep, the worst thing you can do is to get upset about it. Relax. Try meditating on a word or phrase. If you have difficulty attending to the phrase, just relax and gently bring your attention back to meditating. If you are having pleasant thoughts or memories, just go with the flow. Remember that parts of the brain might be sleeping while other parts remain awake, so don’t panic. Be patient. You might be getting more sleep that you think you are getting.

In closing, Levitin notes that sleep deprivation is estimated to cost US. businesses more than $150 billion a year in absences, accidents, and lost productivity It’s also associated with increased risk for heart disease, obesity, stroke, and cancer. So sleep is important. Don’t shortchange yourself.. If you have a chronic problem sleeping, seek professional help.

Organizing Our Time When Multi-Tasking Is Required

December 17, 2014

Previous healthymemory blog posts have discussed the costs of multi-tasking. Overall task performance suffers, and there are additional costs entailed in switching between tasks. Nevertheless, there are times when some type of multitasking is unavoidable, and they are discussed in the Organizing Out Time Chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. For example, creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of alterations between dedicated focus and daydreaming. Moreover, the brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias such that its attention can be easily highjacked by something new. Levitin maintains that humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we do to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty we have when trying to focus among competing activities is that the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by new stimuli to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex that wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Remember that the awareness of an unread email sitting in your inbox can effectively lower your IQ by as much as 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain.

Both our experience and research tells us that if we have chores to do, to put similar chores together. So if you have bills to pay, just pay the bills, don’t do anything else. Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set until the task is completed. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period.

Performing most tasks requires flexible thinking and adaptiveness. The prefrontal cortex gives us the flexibility to change behavior based on context. The prefrontal cortex is necessary for adaptive strategies for daily life be it foraging for food on the savanna or living in skyscrapers in the city.

To reach our goals efficiently requires us to selectively focus on the features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, ignoring other features in the environment that our competing for our attention. What distinguishes experts from novices is that experts no which features are important and require attention.

We encode information in meaningful chunks, To manage our time efficiently we must organize and segment what we see and do into chunks of activity. Levitin uses Superman to illustrate this point. He might tell Lois Lane, “I’m off to save the world, honey,” but what he tells himself is the laundry list of chunked tasks that need to be done t accomplish that goal, each with a well-defined beginning and ending. (1. Capture Lex Luther. 2. Dispose of Kryptonite safely. 3. Hurl ticking time bomb into outer space. 4. Pick up clean cape from the dry cleaner). Chunking performs two important functions. It renders large-scale projects doable by providing well-differentiated tasks, and renders the experiences of our lives memorable by segmenting them into well-defined beginnings and endings. This allows memories to be stored and retrieved in manageable chunks.

The dedicated portion of our brains that partitions long events into chunks is in the prefrontal cortex. Hierarchies are created of this event segmentation without our thinking about them, and without instructing our brains to make them. We can review these representation in our mind’s eye from either direction—from the top down, from large time scales to small, or from bottom up, from small time scales to large. So, we should use our prefrontal cortex to best advantage, avoid multi-tasking unless it is necessary, and then multi-task in a strategic manner.

Organizing Our Time

December 14, 2014

Organizing our time is another chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. This chapter is so rich and has so much information that I want to share with you that it will take multiple draft posts, which still will not fully do justice to this chapter.

The first thing to realize about time is that it is an illusion, a creation of our minds, as is color. There is no color in the physical world, just light of different wavelengths reflecting off objects. Newton said the light waves themselves are colorless. Our sense of color is the result of the visual cortex processing these wavelengths and interpreting them as color. Similarly, time can be thought as an interpretation that our brains impose on our experience of the world. We experience the sun rising and setting. We feel hungry at different times and sleep at other times. The moon goes through a series of phases approximately monthly. Seasons are experienced at even larger intervals, then recycle again.

I have long been puzzled as to why there are 24 hours in a day. As the world makes a complete circle of 360 degrees, I would have thought that there would be 36 hours in a day. Apparently this division of 24 hours is due to the ancient Egyptians who divided daytime into 10 parts, then added an hour for each of the ambiguous periods of twilight to achieve 12 parts. There were also 12 corresponding parts for nighttime yielding a 24 hour day. Then it was the Greeks, following the lead of the mathematician Eratosthenes who divided the circle into sixty parts for an early cartographic system representing latitudes. They then divided the hour into sixty minutes, and the minutes into sixty seconds. Still time was kept at local levels until the advent of the railroad that needed accurate timekeeping to avoid collisions. The U.S. Railroads did this in 1883, but the United States Congress didn’t make it into law until 35 years later.

As for organizing our time it is the function of the prefrontal cortex. We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, exercising good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

When the prefrontal cortex becomes damaged, it leads to a medical condition called dysexecutive syndrome. Under this condition there is no control of time. Even the ability to perform the correct sequence of actions in the preparation of a meal is impaired It is also frequently accompanied by an utter lack of inhibition for a range of behaviors, especially in social settings. Sufferers might blurt out inappropriate remarks, or go on binges of gambling drinking, and sexual activity with inappropriate partners. They tend to act on what is in front of them. If they see someone moving, they are likely to imitate them. If they see an object, they tend to pick it up and use it. Obviously this disorder wreaks havoc with organizing time. If your inhibitions are reduced and you have difficulty seeing the future consequences of your actions, you might do things now that you regret later, or make it difficult to complete projects you’re working on. As for organizing your time, engage your prefrontal cortex, and take care of and protect your prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is also important for creativity. It is important for making connections and associations between disparate thoughts and concepts. This is the region of the brain that is most active when creative artists are performing at their peak.

Levitin offers the following suggestion for seeing what it’s like to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. This damage is reversible provided it is not done too often. His suggestion is to get drunk. Alcohol interferes with the ability of prefrontal cortex neurons to communicate with one another, by disrupting dopamine receptors and blocking a neuron called an NMDA receptor, mimicking the damage seen in frontal lobe patients. Heavy drinkers experience a double whammy. Although they may lose certain control or motor coordination or the ability to drive safely, but they aren’t aware that they’ve lost them or simply don’t care. So they forge ahead anyway.

Organizing Our Social World

December 10, 2014

“Organizing Our Social World”is the title of another chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, when I completed my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology one of the leading problems was information overload, and that was in the era before personal computers. Now we have the internet aided and abetted by mobile technology so technology is omnipresent. It is apparent from this chapter that longstanding problems in social psychology and human interaction have been exacerbated by technology. I find it amazing when I see a group of four people dining together each preoccupied with their smartphones. And when I attend professional meetings where the objective is for direct interactions between and among human beings most people appear to be interacting with their smartphones.

The intention for social media is that they are not a replacement for personal contact, but a supplement that provides an easy way to stay connected to people who are too distant or too busy. Levitin hints that there might be an illusion to this, writing “Social networking provides breadth but rarely depth, and in-person contact is what we crave, even if online contact seems to take away some of that craving. ..The cost of all our electronic connectedness appears to be that it limits our biological capacity to connect with other people.”

Lying and misrepresentations become a much larger problem in the online world. A hormone has been identified with trust. It has been called the love hormone in the popular press because it is especially pronounced in sexual interactions. In such mundane experiments as having research participants watching political speeches rate for whom they are likely to vote. The participants are under the influence of oxytocin for half the speeches. Of course they do not know when they are under the influence of the drug. They receive a placebo, inert drug, for the other half of the speeches. When asked for whom they would vote for or trust, the participants selected the candidates they viewed while oxytocin was in their systems. [to the best of my knowledge such techniques have yet to be used in an official election].

Interestingly, levels of oxytocin also increase during gaps in social support or poor social functioning. Recent theory holds tht oxytocin regulates the salience of social information and is capable of eliciting positive or negative social emotions, depending on the situation of the individual. In any case, these data support the importance of direct social contact by identifying biological components underlying this type of interaction.

I was surprised that little, if any, attention was spent on Facebook the premier social media. As I like to periodically rant regarding Facebook, and considerable time has passed since my last rate, I’ll try to fill in this lacuna. I detest Facebook, although I understand that many find I convenient for keeping in touch with many people with little effort. Apparently, businesses also find Facebook to be necessary and find it profitable. I use Facebook for a small number of contacts, but I am overwhelmed with notes of little interest. At the outset I did not want to refuse anyone friending me out of fear that this someone might be somebody I should but don’t remember. Similarly I find it uncomfortable unfriending people, although at times that seems to be a better course of action. Perhaps there is some way of setting controls so that the number of messages are few and few people are offended, but I have no way of knowing what they are.

I find Linkedin much more palatable and even useful. Still one must regard endorsements and statements of expertise with some caution. That is, they are useful provided one looks for corroborating information. I like email and email with Listservs. However, I’ve learned that younger folks have developed some complicated and, in my view, unnecessary protocols for using email, texting, and social media. I’ll quit before I start sounding like even more of a cranky old man.

Organizing Our Homes

December 7, 2014

Organizing Our Homes is the title of a chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. His subtitle for this chapter is “Where Things Can Start to Get Better”.   I am probably more in need of the information in this chapter than any of the healthymemory blog’s readers. But my problem is primarily motivational in that although I know the systems for effective organization, but I don’t implement them. Unfortunately, Levitin does not provide any motivational advice. Perhaps one day some disaster will occur that will provide me the motivation for implementing these practices.. One practice I do strictly follow is to keep my most important items in the same place. Individual items might be in separate places, but each important item is always kept in the same place. When I travel or move to a new place, one of my first actions is to decide where these important items go. If I want to be sure to remember to take my umbrella on a given day, I place it in a conspicuous place on my way out. However, even this precautionary measure has sometimes failed.

Levitin uses the four system for remembering important items. Every time he leaves the house he checks that he has four things: keys, wallet, phone, and glasses. The number four is significant as we are constrained by the number of items we can hold in our working or short term memories. George Miller’s original number was 7 plus or minus 2. However, that number has shrunk over the years, and is currently down to four. If he needs to remember something else before leaving the house, say to remember to buy mild on the way home, he will either place an empty mild carton on the seat beside him in his car, or he’ll place the carton in his backpack. Of course a note will be do, but some reminder is needed so the note will not be forgotten.

The problem of misplacing items and being unable to find them is ubiquitous. Levitin writes about Magnus Carlsen the number one rated chess in the world when he was 23. He can keep ten games going on at once in memory without looking at the board, but he says, “I forget all kinds of other stuff. I regularly lose my credit cards, my mobile phones,keys, and so on. Actually all of these memory failures are the result of failing to attend where the object is being placed. Moreover, enough attention needs to be devoted to the object so that the location of the object will later be remembered.

Levitin also discusses the concept of affordances. The term is used in the sense that the environment affords you to do something. One of the best examples of affordances are the plates or handles that are placed on doors. The plate affords the pushing of the door. The handle affords the pulling of the door. Unfortunately, these affordances are frequently misplaced. For example, you try to push a door that has a handle on it and it does not move. Once I was following a lady out of the building. She tried to push a handle and then apologizes for being stupid when it did not move. I explained to her that she was not the stupid. Instead it was the architect of the building or the installer of the door who was stupid. The renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner elaborated on these affordances. If you have letters to mail put them near your car keys or house keys so that when you leave the house their affordance reminds you to take them. The goal is to off-load the information from your brain into the environment by using the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done. So the idea is to use the environent as a type of transactive memory.

To people who argue that they are not detailed-oriented, that they are a creative person or some such. Levitin provides some good examples from Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, John Lennon. Michael Jackson even had a person on his staff titled the chief archivist. Organization was essential to these creative people.

Levitin provides these three general rules of organization..

      1. A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.

      2. If there is an existing standard, use it.

      3. Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Personally I have much difficulty with this third rule.

Levitin devotes a section to the digital home where he recommends organizing by devices, where special devices perform special tasks. He has another section on the storage of information in different types of media and the advantages and disadvantages of each. He notes, rather discouragingly, that digital files are rarely readable for more than ten years. He notes that within the spreadsheet Excel you can link any entry in a cell to a document on the computer. So financial documents for a given year could be in a PDF file linked to a cell in a spreadsheet.

Above all, do not multi-task while you are organizing. He notes that just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognition. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College in London calls it infomania He has done research that demonstrated that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in the inbox can reduce the effective by 10 points. He has also shown that cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russ Poldrack, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. The information goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Absent the distraction of TV the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a number of ways so that it is easier to retrieve.

Moreover, there are metabolic costs to switching attention. Shifting the brain from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel needed to stay on task. The rapid, continual shifting when we multitask causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain compromisisng both cognitive and physical performance. In addition, repeated task switching leads to anxiety , which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain which in turn can lead to aggressive and compulsive behavior. In contrast, staing on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum ,and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose. .

One of the Biggest Advances in Neural Enhancement

December 3, 2014

In the introduction to The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin he mentions that one of the biggest advancements in neural enhancement occurred only 5,000 years ago. That was the development of a written language. This development took considerable time. First there were primitive notes taken to record important items that were too important to be forgotten. Then there were likely primitive forms of accounts for transactions. Unfortunately, there are no records that I know of that can trace the development. In spite of writing being one of the biggest advances in neural enhancement, it was not immediately recognized as such, nor was it accepted as being beneficial by one of the foremost Greek philosophers of the time, Socrates. Socrates was worried about what was lost in terms of vocal tone and expression, things that were in speech or conversation, but were lost in written language. Fortunately the resistance of Socrates and others gave way, for written language is certainly a requirement for a civilization to advance.

In the terminology of the healthy memory blog, written language is an example of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to information that is not recorded in one’s own biological memory, but is accessible from the memories of fellow human beings or from some artifact of technology. In this sense written language is a neural enhancement, and a very important as we are biologically constrained regarding the amount of information we can handle. Technology enables us to overcome evolutionary limitations, evolution being a very slow process.

Levitin writes that two of the most compelling properties of the human brain and its design are richness and associative access. Memory is rich in the sense that a large amount of information is in there. Associative access means that our thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations. So related words, smells, category names, or an old song can bring memories to our awareness. Even what are apparently random neural firings can bring them up to conscioussness. Being able to access memories regardless of where they are located is called random access like we experience on DVDs and hard drives and contrasted to data stored on a videotape.

The healthymemory blog likes to distinguish different types of associative access. Information that we know or know where to find quickly is termed accessible memory. Information that we know, but are not sure where to find it, is termed available associative memory. Some Google searches or more primitive forms of looking for information (old library card catalogs) are examples. Potential memory is all the information currently available in other human beings or in some type of artifact, be it a book, database, or in Wikipedia.

Given all this potential or available information in transactive memory, the problem becomes one of being able to access it quickly. Here the issue involves the organization of this information so that it can be more readily accessed. Levitin refers to this as conscientious organization. Systems are important as are different types of databases and search engines. More specifics will be found in the future chapters of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, some of which will be discussed in future healthymemory blog posts.

© 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.