Archive for February, 2016

Some Additional Notes on Cure

February 29, 2016

That is the outstanding book by Jo Marchant, “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.”  There is much in this book that I am not covering.  Meditation and the relaxation response have received extensive coverage in previous posts.  Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has received perhaps more attention in previous posts than is deserved.  The importance of he Vagus nerve and Vagal Tone was discussed in the healthy memory blog post “The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Relieving Stress.”

Marchant devotes a chapter to Rethinking Pain.  Another chapter on the importance of talking and caring.  A chapter on thoughts that kill.  A chapter on the importance of friends. And a chapter on the role of religious beliefs.

In her concluding chapter, she writes how she was hoping to end the book.  She was hoping to write that a new paradigm had been opened in medicine and that the mind would have a significant role in health and healing.  She concluded, however, that such a conclusion was not justified.  One problem still to be overcome is that too many physicians are held captive by their Cartesian mindsets.  By that I mean that the body and the mind are separate entities that do not interact.  Marchant’s book provides ample proof that such is not the case.  Over time as physicians die, retire, and increasing information keeps coming in regarding the importance of the mind in health and healing.

However, a more serious problem is economic.  The money is in drugs.  The drug companies benefit financially, and physicians are offered treatments that are quick involving minimal personal time.   I am continually amazed when I hear or see advertisements for most drugs.  Fortunately, the law requires drug companies to list possible side effects.  My amazement comes from thinking that people would still take these drugs given the possible side effects.  In the end the result in the United States is that we are an overmedicated society with health statistics approximating those of a third world country.

My guess is that the possible revolution will turn into an evolution.  In the meantime, seek out physicians who take the mind into account in their treatments.  And if there is no treatment, ask for a placebo or purchase one on your own.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Fighting Fatigue

February 28, 2016

Fighting Fatigue is the fourth chapter in Jo Marchant’s “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.” The key idea here is that the mind plays an important role in fighting fatigue.  It is worthwhile noting that many performance enhancing drugs, such as amphetamines, modafinil, and caffeine, work by influencing the central nervous system, not the muscles themselves.  A fairly recent healthy memory blog post, “Marathon Mind:  How Brain Training Could Smash World Records” obviously makes the same point.  However, what was missing from that blog post was the notion of a central governor.  The chapter documents extensive research showing that the no matter how hard we exercise, the body always takes the precaution to maintain a healthy reserve.  Presumably there is a central governor that controls this.  The question is whether this central governor can be persuaded, or fooled, to tap into some of this reserve.

Elite cyclists when given a pill or drink they believe is a performance enhancer can cycle on an average 2-3% faster.  Psychologist Chris Beedle suggests this is because the placebo increases their optimism and self-belief that persuades the central governor to free up more resources.  Another placebo expert  Fabrizio Benedetti concluded in a paper on fatigue that “a placebo may act as a cue signaling the central governor to inhibit its brake.”

This presence of a central governor might also explain why interval training, which consists of short bursts of high intensity exercise interspersed by recovery periods works so well.  According to sports physiologist Tim Noakes, who formulated the idea of a central governor, regular  sprints that push us close to our limit of maximum performance don’t just increase physical fitness, they also retrain the brain.  They teach the central governor that pushing ourselves that far was okay, so next time it’ll be safe to push ourselves a little bit further.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is one of the most controversial conditions in medicine.  Its prognosis is extremely poor with trials that followed patients for up to five years concluding that the recovery rate is just 5%.  CFS is also known as myalgic encephalopathy (ME), although not everyone agrees that these are the same conditions.

To treat CFS and ME an approach was developed called graded exercise therapy (GET) that is intended to work as an ultra-gentle form of interval training.  Cognitive Behavioral Training (CBT) was combined with GET to bring the mind further into the treatment protocol.  This approach alarmed many patient groups who developed an alternative approach called adaptive pacing theory (APT).  The apparent belief of the APT group is that this was a real disease unaffected by the mind, and that people needed to learn to live with this illness.

A large five year study was conducted by Peter White of St. Barthlolomew’s Hospital and his colleagues that included 641 patients.  They were divided into four groups.  A control group that just received routine medical care.  The other groups received this standard care plus CBT, GET, or APT.  This study was published in he journal “Lancet” in 2011.  It reported the APT was completely ineffective. GET and CBT were both moderately helpful, reducing fatigue and disability scores more than the other two groups.  22% of the patients recovered after a year in the CBT and GET groups compared to just 7-8% in the other two groups.  Although this might not look impressive, it showed that GET and CBT were the best treatments available and that recovery from the condition is possible.

The  patient groups remained unimpressed and complained to the Journal.  the Journal answered with a strong endorsement of the research.  Patient groups remain unimpressed.  Apparently they like to believe what they believe and reject scientific evidence.

Pavlov’s Power

February 26, 2016

Pavlov’s Power is the third chapter in Jo Marchant’s “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.”  Remember Pavlov the Russian physiologist who discovered classical conditioning?  Pavlov is the one who discovered that by pairing a stimulus, a bell for example, with the presentation of food caused the dog to salivate when the stimulus alone, called the conditioned stimulus, was presented.  Classical conditioning is one of the fundamental paradigms in psychology.  The question is, does this procedure have any practical uses.  The subtitle of this chapter, How to Train Your Immune System, provides the answer.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) describe children who are inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive.  They are constantly  talking and fidgeting.  unable to wait for their turn, and are unable to focus in school.  Medication helps them to control their symptoms, but still causes problems from irritable outbursts when the drug wears off  to weight loss and stunted growth.  A researcher name Sandler wondered whether a placebo might help these children to manage their symptoms on a lower dose of the drug.  He hoped that the honest delivery of placebos as part of a regime that would harness the power of both expectation and conditioning.   He employed seventy ADHD patients aged six to twelve in a two month trial.  These children were split randomly into three groups.  One group underwent a conditioning regime in which they received their normal medication, but also swallowed a distinctive green and white capsule along with their drug.  For the second month they received half their usual drug along with the placebo capsule.  There were two control groups, neither of which received any conditioning.  One group received their full dose of medication for the first month and a half dose for the second month.  The second control group received the full dose of medication for two months.

Sandler published his results in 2010.  The symptoms of the half-dose control group got significantly worse in the second month of the trial.  However, the conditioned group remained stable, doing just as well as the full dose patients.  There were even hints that the children in this group did even better, suffering fewer side effects than those on the full dose of the drug.

Bob Ader, a psychologist at the University of Rochester was doing research on taste aversion.  He gave a group of rats several doses of water sweetened with saccharin.  Normallt this would be a treat but he paired the water with injections that made the animals feel sick.  Later when the rats are given sweetened water on its own, they associated the sugary case with feeling ill (classical conditioning) and refused to drink it.  Adler then forced-fed them using an eyedropper to see how long it would take to learn to forget the negative association.  Rather than forgetting the negative association they died, one by one.

The drug that was used to make the rats feel sick was cytoxan.  In addition to causing the feeling of sickness, it also suppresses the immune system.  So conditioning reaches far behind normal responses, it can also affect the immune system.  This is a rather dramatic conclusion to draw, and it was not accepted at first.  David Felten, a neuroscientist working at the University of Indiana used a powerful microscope to look at the body tissues from dissected mice.  When Felten followed the different branches of the autonomic nervous he found nerves running right into the hear of immune organs such as the spleen and thymus.

Many scientists found Felten’s results difficult to accept.  However, one who did not was Dr. Jonas Salk, the creator of the Salk vaccine.  Salk wrote, “This research area could turn out to be one of the truly great areas of biology in medicine.  You’ll meet some opposition.  Continue to swim upstream.”

Felten did and stated a collaboration with Ader and his colleague Cohen and moved them to the University of Rochester.  These three are now broadly credited with founding a field of research known as psychoneuroimmunology.  This group went on of discover a complex web of connections.  They found receptors for neurotransmitters—messenger molecules produced by the brain— on the surface of immune cells, as well as new neurotransmitters that could talk to those cells.  The lines of communications went in both directions.  Psychological factors can trigger the release of neurotransmitters that influence immune responses, while chemicals released by the immune system can influence the brain.  For example drowsiness, fever and depressive symptomjtr that confine us to bed when we are well.

So Pavlovian conditioning can go way beyond making dogs drool!

Types of Placebos

February 25, 2016

When people think of placebos, people tend to think of pills.  Placebos can also be injections, operations, acupuncture, and so forth.  The anthropologist Moerman says that the active ingredient in placebos is meaning.   The meaning of placebo is positive.  However, there are nocebos whose meaning is negative.  Nocebos can be an effective weapon for terrorists.  Were terrorists to spray a gas over an area, people would likely get sick., even if the gas was harmless.  Or they could claim that water had been poisoned and sicknesses would likely result.  There is one theory that adverse side effects of medications are a type of nocebo.

Placebos are available for sale on the internet.  You can even find them at  And given their effectiveness, you might want to try some of these yourself.  Remember that a placebo can work even you know it is a placebo.  There are also ways of making a placebo more effective.  Size, larger being more effective, and number, more being more beneficial, are also effective.  The effects of color are more complicated with different colors being more effective for different outcomes.

This post is based on content from “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body” by Jo Marchant,

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body

February 23, 2016

The title of this blog post is identical to the title of an outstanding book by Jo Marchant.  The phrase, “it’s just a placebo effect,” has been one of my pet peeves for a long time as I find the placebo effect to be one of the most important facts of medicine.  Any medical trial needs to be run against a placebo treatment as the placebo treatment will result in a measurable effect, and the desire is to measure the effect of the treatment above and beyond the placebo effect.  However, what I find ironic is that this genuine effect is not routinely administered.  Absent some treatment, why not give the patient a placebo as there will be a benefit for at least some of the patients?  The reason that the physician would provide is that the placebo effect is not a real treatment so it would be dishonest to deceive the patient even though the patient might benefit from the deception.  Research has shown that patients still benefit from placebos even when they know that they are indeed placebos.  I find it ironic that physicians routinely treat viruses with antibiotics even though they know that the antibiotic is ineffective against viruses.  This practice has weakened the effectiveness of antibiotics,  Why not administer a placebo shot instead?  Any effect the antibiotic might have would be a placebo effect, so why not simply administer an injection of a placebo?

The truth is that too many physicians are infected with the bias that medicine is physical and that placebos are mental.  They refuse to appreciate the effect that the mind has over the body.  Marchant’s book goes a long way to documenting these effects.  The failure to correct this bias will result in unnecessary deaths, pain, and suffering.

At the outset, Marchant makes two important points about  the limitations of the placebo effect.  The first is that any effects caused by beliefs in a treatment are limited to the natural tools that the body has available  Note, however, that the body might not use some of the natural tools absent a placebo effect.

The second point is that effects mediated by expectations tend to be limited to symptoms—things that we are consciously aware of,such as pain, itching, rashes or diarrhea, as well as cognitive function, sleep and the effects of drugs such as caffeine and alcohol.  Placebo effects also seem to be particularly strong for psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.

However, these limitations are not as constricting as they might seem as placebo effects can affect the immune system, which is the disease fighting system of the body.  This is a new field of research, one that has been encouraged by the father of the Salk vaccine, Jonas Salk, called psychoneuroimmunology.  The potential of this new field of research is unknown.

So, who knows what placebos hold for the future, but today in many cases painkillers and antidepressants may not work much better than a placebo.  Moreover there are risks of addiction and side effects with these drugs.  The top ten grossing drugs in the United States help only between 1 in 25 and 1 in 4 of the people who take them,.  Statins might benefit as few as 1 in 50.

A study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that drugs are responsible for more than half a million deaths in the Western world each year with minimal benefit.

I would also call your attention to the healthy memory blog post, “Most Published Research Findings are False.”  So most physicians are working in the dark with research, most of which is wrong.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Hey US Teachers, leave those climate myths alone

February 22, 2016

The title of this post is the title of an article by Michael Mann in the Feb 20-26, 2016 edition of the New Scientist.  He summarized an article in the 12 Feb 2016 issue of science, whose authors are Eric Pulitzer, Mark McCaffrey, A. Lee Hannah, Joshua Rosenau, Minda Berbeco, & Ann H. Reid (  Even though 97% of active climate scientists attribute recent global warming to human causes, and most of the general public accept that climate change is occurring, only about half of U.S. adults believe that human activity is the predominant cause.   The U.S. ranked the lowest in this belief among 20 nations polled in 2014.

The article examines how the societal debate in the U.S.  affects science classrooms.  They found that whereas  most U.S. science teachers include climate change in their courses, it appears that their insufficient grasp  of science is hindering effective teaching. Generally teachers devote a paltry 1 to 2 hours to this important topic.  Despite the fact that 97% of experts agree climate change is mainly human caused, many teachers still “teach the controversy,” suggesting a sizable “consensus gap” exists.  They survey showed that 7 in 10 teachers mistakenly believe that at least a fifth of  experts dispute human-caused climate change.  Although they are supposed to be teaching science, they have insufficient knowledge in the discipline they are teaching.

Michael Mann in his book “The Hockey Stick and Climate Wars describes how those with interests in fossil fuels have spent tens of millions of dollars to create the impression of a consensus gap by orchestrating a public relations campaign aimed at attacking the science and the scientists, thus confusing the public about the reality and threat of climate change.  They also have created a partisan political divide on the issue.  The United States is the only advanced country with a major political party denying the reality of climate change.

These climate myths provide an unfortunate example of the effectiveness  of Big Lies.  These Big Lies are working their damage in the United States and not only on the issue of climate change.

These myths on climate change are exacerbating a problem and endowing it to our
children.  These children need to know truth so that they can educate their parents.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

The Effects of the Digital Age on Cognition

February 20, 2016

Readers of the healthy memory blog should know that the concept of transactive memory includes the use of technology to foster the development of healthy memories and efficiently functioning human cognition.  Some day, I hope to write that book.  It is easy to find references that tout how technology can foster cognition, but reviews of the effects of technology tend to be negative.  The motivation for this post stems from my reading of a book by Mark Bauerlin, “The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30].  I don’t recommend this book as reading it would be a waste of time.  I question the purpose of diatribes that inform us that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.  What are we to do with such a message?  Outlaw technology? It seems like it is incumbent upon the author to offer some solutions.

An earlier blog post, “Notes on Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” reviewed a book by Sherry Turkle of the preceding title.    Ms Turkle sounded similar alarms, but also offered some solutions.

The same basic theme pervades both books, namely that digital technology leads to a high level of connection to many sources and individuals, but to a superficial level of cognition.    I am convinced that this a real problem.  Moreover, it is covered by the veneer of technology which leads many to the conclusion that something valuable and substantive is being accomplished.

Mobile technology has prospered because of a perception that we need to keep connected 24/7.  Is there really such a need?  What is so imperative that it will not wait until we have the time and resources to devote adequate attention to it?  One of the most flagrant examples of this are mobile apps that allow trading on your smart phone.  Although this might be a need for sophisticated day traders, for most people all this provides is a tool to lose money more quickly.

There have been a number of posts on Dunbar’s Number (to see them enter “Dunbar’s Number”  into the healthy memory search block).  Dunbar’s Number refers to the number of friends we can effectively have.  Good friends require an investment of time that needs to be carefully considered.

Similarly the capability to gain access to a large amount of information in seconds is limited by our cognitive capacity to process this information.  The problem is that we fail to process information critically.  There is a lack of critical thinking.  Our proneness to be cognitive misers leads us to search for information that is in accordance with our own needs and beliefs.

So what is the solution, or rather what are some solutions?  First of all, let me suggests previous posts on the Elements of Effective Thinking and using digital technology of facilitate the use of these elements.  I  would also suggest entering “Critical Thinking” into the search block of he healthy memory blog, and consider how technology csn foster critical thinking..

Shooter games likely sharpen perceptual motor skills.  Why not games that sharpest the development of cognitive skills”?  Why not the development of multi-player games that foster decision making, problems solving, risk assessment, collaboration, and so forth?

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Cognitive Misers and Democracy

February 17, 2016

Cognitive misers are people who do not like to exert the effort involved in thinking.   In addition to entering “cognitive misers” into the healtymemory search block, you can also enter “System 1” or “Kahneman.”  Cognitive misers like to believe in things because questioning beliefs or principles or learning new things involves cognitive effort and thinking.

A short while back I read a poll that I found extremely discouraging.  The question asked what was more important to voters, a politician’s willingness to compromise or to  principles.
Here is a breakdown of the responses by political party.  Note that they do not add up to 100% as some respondents refused to answer.

Group                   Principles        Willing to Compromise
All Voters             40%                  50%
Republicans        54%                   36%
Independents     40%                  47%
Democrats           23%                  68%

I guess that the good news is that with the exception of one group, the remaining groups a larger percentage indicated a Willingness to Compromise.  In only one group did this percentage reach 50% and only one other group indicated a slightly greater than a two to one preference.  If the results are representative, then I argue that these beliefs present a far greater existential threat to the Democracy in the United States than does ISIS.

Before addressing cognitive miserliness per se, let me remind readers what a democracy is supposed to be..  A democracy is a system in which people vote for candidates and the candidates try to vote for what they think are the correct policies, but negotiate when the need to get the most palatable policy that they can accept.  There will be times when the vote goes against them, but they accept the result.  They do not threaten to shut down the government or actually shut down the government.  As you know this has already happened at least twice.

It is unfortunate that “politician” has negative connotations.  Using “politician” in a pejorative sense, “he’s a politician,” or he is doing this for “political reasons” is both unfair and wrong.  The first requirement of a politician is to make the political system work.  Sometimes that might correspond to political beliefs, sometimes it will not.  But beliefs or principals should not be the driving factor.

The advancement of mankind has been in direct proportion to the advancement of science.  Key to science is thinking.  Cognitive miserliness is anathema to effective science.  Whatever beliefs science has are beliefs that are subject to change.  It that is not the case, then the enterprise is not science.  There have been enormous changes in science during my lifetime.  There is not a single subject matter that has not changed.  Until fairly recently science believed that humans could not generate new neurons.  In other words there was no such think as neurogenesis.  Had I argued to the contrary as a graduate student I would have quickly been booted out of graduate school.  It was not until close to the end of the 20th century that neurogenesis was accepted and the notion of neuroplasticity  was advanced.

I become particularly annoyed when I hear reporters accuse politicians of flip flopping.  It seems like this is the stock in trade for many reporters.  This reminds me of the response the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes gave when he was accused of a statement that was in conflict with previous comments.  He responded,”when the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir.”  An argument can be made that opinions are not being changed by facts, but by political considerations.  Here I would refer you to the remedial exposition on democracy I offered above.

I also argue that cognitive miserliness is a problem for the Supreme Court of the United States.  There are two views of the Constitution.  One is that it is supposed to be a dynamic document that has been written that is expected to change with the times.  The other, originalism, is that the Constitution needs to be interpreted in terms of what the authors intended.  We need to remember that when the Constitution was written, slavery existed, black people were counted as three-fifths of a human being, and women could not vote.  It should also be remembered that one of the most advanced scientists of the time, Benjamin Franklin, did not know what current high school physics students know.  Moreover, I am virtually certain that if the framers of the constitution knew what we do today, they would have written a different constitution.  I am upset when the Supreme Court Justice who recently passed away is described as having a brilliant mind.  He was an originalist.  He believed that what the framers of the constitution believed at that time should provide the basis of judicial decisions.  I regard such individuals as intellectual runts.

The results of cognitive miserliness are readily apparent in the United States.  Realize that the United States is the only advanced country that does not have a system of national health insurance.  What we do have is the country with the most expensive medical costs with results comparable to third world countries.  We are the only advanced country that has no control over the cost of prescription medications.  And we are the only country that has a major political party that refuses to believe in global warming.  We also have a major TV network that insists on always having a denier of global warming on a show where a scientist is presenting data bearing on global warming and its ramifications.  This is in spite of the fact that this is a small minority of scientists, some of whom are paid scientific guns to counter the overwhelming evidence.

The reason that is often presented is one of American Exceptionalism.  This exceptionalism is a product of cognitive miserliness.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Marathon Mind: How Brain Training Could Smash World Records

February 15, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of a feature article by James Witts in the January 30, 2016 “New Scientist” on which this blog post is based.  There are three brain regions that are involved in regulating our tolerance to endurance exercise.  The motor cortex plans and controls movement.  Its communication with the insular cortex intensifies as the runners reach exhaustion.  The insular cortex processes signals from around the body, from muscle pain to emotions, and gives instructions to the motor cortex.  The anterior cingulate cortex is thought to govern perception of effort.  According to one theory, training this region with cognitively challenging but dull tasks can increase endurance.

An exercise physiologist Samuele Marcora asked 35 British soldiers to take a 60-minute cycle trial during which he measured physiological limiters.  Then he split the soldiers into two groups.  Both trained on an indoor bicycle three times a week for 12 weeks, but one group performed a mentally fatiguing task—picking out combinations of letters on a screen—as they pedaled.  Although the control group improved their time to exhaustion by 42%, the brain-training group improved by 126%.  The brain—training group also reported finding the test less painful.  Marcora says “The results showed that the subjects could tolerate a harder perceived effort, so when the cognitive task was removed, the effort felt easier.”

Clearly this astounding result bears replication.  How might this brain-training method work?  Marcora thinks that the answer lies in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which has been implicated in a variety of cognitive and emotional functions.  His belief is that if you systematically stress this brain region with cognitive tasks, you build up resistance.  He proposes that monotonous mental tasks can lead to a build-up of adenosine, which is a brain chemical produced by neurons during prolonged activity (see the healthy memory blog post, “Hunger, Caffeine, Cognition”).  Adenosine accumulates when you are deprived of sleep, finding to adenosine receptors on cells in the brain and elsewhere.  Slowing down the activity of these cells makes us feel mentally fatigued.

Marcora thinks that consistently flooding the brain with adenosine by doing mundane mental tasks forces brain cells to adapt, building resistance to this fatigue—inducing chemical.    Marcora says that “Given that the ACC is likely to be intensely activated during prolonged exercise, the hypothesis is that adenosine builds up in this area, causing changes in perception of effort and self-control.  The result is that your sense of exertion goes down for the same level of actual effort.”

Marcora is not the only endurance researcher convinced that manipulating the brain can bring performance gains.   Kevin Thompson had a group of cyclists undertake a 4-kilometer time trial at personal-best pace.  Then he had them race against an o-screen avatar that they thought was going at their best pace when it was really going 2% faster.  The riders kept up cycling faster than they ever had before.  But when the avatar was set to go 5% faster, the riders could not handle it.  Thompson interpreted this result that the body has an energy reserve of 2 to 5% and suggest that this can be tapped by tricking the brain.

It is amazing what competition supplemented with research in physical and mental training has accomplished.  We don’t know what the limits are with respect to endurance.  I hope that we do not find these limits from the deaths of competitors.  Different individuals have different limits.  This research needs to proceed with care.

More on the Hippocampus: Key to Human Memory

February 14, 2016

I neglected to mention in the previous post another, and perhaps more promising approach, than an artificial  hippocampus is to enhance neurogenesis in the hippocampus.  Neurogenesis in the hippocampus is supposed to continue throughout our lifetime, but it is likely that cognitive deficits are due to decreases or stoppages in hippocampal neurogenesis.  So restarting and/or enhancing neurogenesis might improve cognitive functioning.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

The Hippocampus: Key to the Future of Human Memory

February 13, 2016

As I was perusing “The Scientific American BRAVE NEW BRAIN”  by Judith Horstman  I came across a page titled “An Artificial Hippocampus.”  This caused me to speculate about an artificial hippocampus.  Actually each of us has two hippocampi, as there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere.  The importance of these hippocampi was noticed as the result of surgery done on an epileptic patient to protect him from the violent seizures he was having.  The surgery removed most of both his hippocampi, which prevented him from storing any new memories.

I have my own personal story regarding defective hippocampi.  It occurred during the later stage of my Mom’s dementia.  I would visit her and fortunately she remembered me and was glad to see me.  However, if an attendant took her to the bathroom when she returned she acted as if I had just arrived.  Clearly both her hippocampi were shot.

As the hippocampus is required for the storage of new memories, it clearly is key to he future of human memory.  Effectively functioning artificial hippocampi would provide the vehicle for storing new memories, for new learning.

We have yet to develop an artificial hippocampus that works.  I believe preliminary work is being done with animals.  Researchers are recording from the hippocampi of these animals as they learn new tasks.  Then they will try to transfer these recordings to the hippocampi of new naive animals who have not learned the task to see if they can use these recordings to perform these new tasks.  I don’t know if any successful trials have been run.  But this is exactly the type of research that needs to be done before an artificial hippocampus can be developed.  I believe that the course of this research will necessarily take a long time.

If an artificial hippocampus is developed, we know that this is a necessary structure for the storage of new memories.  However, we cannot be sure that the hippocampus alone is a sufficient solution.  There may be more to the storage of new memories of which we are unaware.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Burnout and the Brain

February 12, 2016

Burnout and the Brain is the cover story by Alexandra Michel for the February 2016 for Association for Psychological Science publication, “Observer.”  A psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger,  brought burnout into the research lexicon in 1974.  He defined is as the loss of motivation, a growing sense of emotional depletion,, and cynicism.  He found these symptoms among formally idealistic mental health workers who depleted and weary, resenting patients and the clinic.

Burnout is recognized as a legitimate medical disorder and has been given its own ICD-10 code(Z73.0—Burn-out state of vital exhaustion).  Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with depression including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.  A 2013 survey of human resource directors in the United Kingdom found that nearly 30% reported that burnout was widespread in their organization.  Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson collaborated on the most influential  framework for defining and assessing burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress.  People in careers focused on caregiving report the most prevalent rates of burnout, but the condition does not discriminate among call center representatives, professional athletes or CEOs.  Eventually jobs that require too much of employees will cultivate feelings of negativity and hopelessness as people struggle to meet unrealistic deadlines,  rude customers, and cope with the emotional tolls of their jobs.

Maslach and her collaborators have identified the following six key components of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout:  workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.  The physician Richard Underman describe he incremental onset of burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own.”

Research from psychological scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden ha shown that workplace burnout can alter neural circuits leading to a vicious cycle of neurological dysfunction.  They recruited 40 research participants with formal diagnosed burnout symptoms from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University.  They also recruited a control group of 70 health volunteers with no history of chronic street or other illnesses.  All participants completed two test sessions:  a task designed to measure their ability to regulate their negative emotions and an evaluation of their brain’s connectivity using resting state functional MRI (fMRI).

Researchers showed all participants standardized series of neutral and negative emotional images to assess reactions to stress.  After a participant had looked at an image for 5 seconds, a se of instructions appeared on the screen that directed each participant to either suppress (down-regulate), intensify (up-regulate), or maintain her emotional response to the picture.  Immediately following this instruction cue, the same image was presented again for 5 seconds.  As the participant  focused on the picture. a loud, startling burst of sound played.  An electrode taped to the participant’s cheek recorded the reflex reactions to this stressful stimulus.

The two groups showed similar startle responses when they were instructed to maintain or intensify  their emotional reactions.  But when groups were asked to down-regulate their emotional responses to negative images. clear differences emerged.  Participants diagnosed with burnout reported more difficulty modulating their strong negative emotional responses compared with the healthy controls, which was confirmed by their physical responses.  They had much stronger reactions to the startling noise than did the healthy control group.

On another day a subset of the participants came into the lab where they were scanned while lying quietly.  Activity among several brain areas involved in processing and regulating emotions were examined.  Participants in the burnout group  had relatively enlarged amygdalae, and also appeared to have significantly  weaker connections  between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress, especially the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The more stressed an individual reported feeling, the weaker the connectivity  between these brain regions appeared on the R-fMRI.

Compared with the control group, the overworked group also showed weaker correlations between activity in the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a structure important to executive function. Weaker connections between these to brain structures could help explain why participants in the burnout group had more difficulty controlling their negative emotions.

Another researcher at the Karolinska Institute, Ivanka Savic, confirmed that brains of individuals suffering from burnout don’t just function differently—their very structure might change.  He took MRI-based measurements of cortical thickness and amygdala, ACC, and mPFC volumes to gauge the physical toll of stress.   A brain area essential to cognitive functioning, the frontal cortex, begins to think as part of the normal aging process, but patients suffering from burnout showed more pronounced thinning in the mPFC compared to the controls as well as the effects of aging being more prominent in the scans of the burnout group.  Burnout patients appeared to have larger amygdalae and shrinking of the caudate which correlated with their perceptions of workplace stress.

Savic theorizes that over activation of the amygdalae leads to impaired modulation of the mPFC regions, which trigger further stimulation of the amygdalae, which leads to even more activation of the mPFC.  As the cycle spirals further out of control over time, neural structures being to show signs of wear and tear, which lead to cortical thinning as well as memory, attentional, and emotional difficulties.

A team of Greek psychological scientists led by Pavlos Deligkaris have examined the cognitive costs of burnout.  In 13 of the 15 studies he examined he found that executive  attentional and memory systems appear to suffer in association with burnout, and cognitive functioning is impaired in burned-out individuals.  Of the seven studies assessing sustained or controlled attention, five indicated that individuals with burnout were more prone to attentional lapses.  Of the  seven studies that included assessments of memory, six showed an association between burnout and memory impairments.

So burnout is a serious problem that goes beyond its symptoms and results in damage not only to cognitive processes, burt also to the brain.  Can it be treated?  It is both unfortunate and surprising that little research has been done in this area.  The little research that has been done suggests that the answer is positive, but much more research needs to be done.  It strikes me that meditation might prove beneficial both in  prevent burnout and in treating burnout once it has occurred.

Of course, if burnout is caught early, then perhaps treatments will not be necessary.  The costs of burnout are severe.  Jobs need to be modified, and individuals need to understand that there is no glory in destroying their brains.  Although the damage from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy might be more severe, the effects of burnout are likely more prevalent.  A new philosophy is needed.  Where is all the leisure time that was supposed to result from technology?  When I was in elementary school in the fifties I was promised that by the turn of the century, leisure time would be greatly increased.  Why are we all working more in this age of technology?  (Put “Labor Day”  in the healthy memory blog search).  Also see the healthy memory blog post “The Wellbeing of Nations:  Meaning, Motive, and Measurement”.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Speed Reading

February 10, 2016

This post is motivated by two articles published in “Psychological Science in the Public Interest.”  One article is titled “So Much to Read, So Little Time:  How Much Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?” by Rayner, K., Schotter, E.R., Masson, M.E.J., Potter, M.C., & Treiman, R. (Vol17, 4-34, 2016).  The other article is “Speed Reading:  You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but Can You Sometimes Get What You Need?” by Balota, D.A. (Vol 17, 1-3, 2016).  In additional to speed reading courses, we now have Apps that can be used to increase reading speed.

I’m always amused by the reading speeds that are advertised for these courses and apps.  Reading speeds critically depend on the material being read, and on the objectives of the person doing the reading.  I can easily find material that I cannot understand no matter how many times I read it irrespective of my reading speed.  I always recall what a friend of mine said regarding speed reading.  He said that if the material is technical or needs to be read carefully, reading speed is irrelevant.  And if he is reading for pleasure, reading fast detracts from his enjoyment of the material being read.

I adjust my reading speed depending on both my reasons for reading and on the material being read.  If the content turns out to be of little interest or poorly written, I either terminate reading or increase my reading speed.  If the content is of interest and important, I’m likely to reread the material and perhaps even decrease my reading speed,  Metacognition is important here.  I’ll ask myself questions and if I either do not know or am not confident in my understanding, I’ll reread the content until I can satisfy myself that I have understood what I read.

It is good to consider the immediately preceding blog posts on the elements of effective thinking.  Remember the techniques:  Understanding Deeply, Asking Questions,  Seeing the Flow of Ideas.  One of the elements is to make mistakes.  This is for especially difficult material.  We need to not be embarrassed that we cannot solve, or do not understand something, but to go ahead, make mistakes, chipping away at our misunderstandings until a satisfactory understanding.

I conclude that speed reading is the antithesis of these elements.  True there are times when we need to skim read looking for information, but the goal here is to find information to which we’ll apply elements of effective thinking.

And if we are reading for pleasure, it is counterproductive to increase our reading speed if it decreases our pleasure.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Engaging Change: Transform Yourself

February 9, 2016

Element 5 of “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking,” is what Drs. Burger and Starboard term the  Quintessential Element.  This fifth element is telling us to just do it.  Apply the first four elements.  Reading the book is not enough, we must work at changing our habits.

I would like to add some personal notes here.  As you can easily tell from the preceding posts, that I value this book highly and urge you to read it, engage change and transform yourself.

If I had one criticism of this book it would be the title.  I object to the article “The” in the title.  There are more than these five elements to effective thinking.  I would further argue that if you apply the elements in this book to thinking, you will likely find them.

I find myself engaged in several lines of inquiry at one time.  I must apply these elements to each line of inquiry as well as thinking across lines of inquiry.  We all have limited cognitive resources, so there is only so much we can do during a given time frame.  So we must all prioritize our efforts.  This is constantly a limitation, which is frustrating.  But the mental activity is enjoyable and fulfilling.  And it builds growth mindsets.

I would also remind you that much thinking takes place in your non conscious  or unconscious mind.  After you have engaged in the exercises described in the elements of effective thinking and ceased to think consciously about them, your unconscious mind will continue to work on the problemss.  You might well find solutions popping into your mind that are presumably unsummoned.  To read more about these processes enter “unconscious” in the healthy memory blog search box.

I also encourage you to read healthymrmory blog posts bearing on critical thinking (enter “critical thinking” into the healthy memory blog search block).

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Seeing the Flow of Ideas

February 7, 2016

Seeing the Flow of Ideas is the fourth element of effective thinking and the fourth chapter in “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking,”   The subtitle is “Look Back, Look Forward.”  As was mentioned in an earlier post, this is something that is fairly easy to do with respect to technology in this age of technology.  Centuries before developments were occurring at a snail’s paste and this task was much more difficult.  I attended some very interesting lectures on the development of pre-human species, which was an extremely long process.  This is painstaking research, limited by the scant available evidence, and it needs to be carefully place together.

Looking back and looking forward fits nicely into the concept of memory as a device for time travel.  Perhaps the primary purpose of memory is to look back in terms of personal and collective knowledge (transactive memory), for the purposes of looking forward or trying to predict the future.  Drs. Burger and Starboard chose this to be one of the elements of effective thinking.

All too often people conceive of an idea springing forth from the  mind of a genius.  Actually, it is a matter of an individual building upon previous ideas and producing the future.  It is not surprising that the authors, being mathematicians, chose calculus as one of their examples.  In the popular mind, the calculus was developed independently during the same period by Newton and Leibniz.  As the authors note, Newton and Leibniz each built upon the work of previous mathematicians.  Newton himself noted that if he had seen further than others, it is because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  The authors noted that Leibniz’s initial essay on calculus was just six pages.  They noted that today’s introductory calculus textbook is over 1,300 pages.  And that is just for introductory calculus.  Calculus itself has advanced far beyond that to say nothing of the multitude of applications of calculus in science and engineering.  Moreover, many other areas of mathematics have been developed and refined.  Understanding the  past development of mathematics facilitates not only its understanding, but also provides insights into future developments and applications of mathematics.

One individual who did the most by seeing the flow of ideas was Thomas Edison.  He was extremely successful at inventing product after product, exploiting the maxim that every new idea has utility beyond its original intent.  Edison wrote, “I start where the last man left off.”  He also noted that many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to successes when they gave up.”

One of the exercises to provoke effective thinking is to ask “What Were Thy Thinking.”
In an earlier post I asked the hypothetical question as to what the colonizing powers have done given the morality of today.   So the early colonies in America killed many of the native populations and made their property their own.  They also used slavery.  What were they thinking?  How did they justify what today would be regarded as crimes against humanity?  And consider today, how might some version of colonialism succeeded without stealing and killing native americans, and without slaves.  This should be an interesting, and, I hope, an enlightening exercise.

The authors asked the question, which is an especially relevant question for educators, why are there grades of “F,”  After all, the second element of effective thinking is fail to succeed.  So why are Fs derogatory? What is of interest is what the individual did to correct or remove the F.  It appears that the formal grading procedure is based on a faulty premise.

Of course, there is much more to this chapter, and I urge the reader to read the original chapter itself.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Ask Questions

February 5, 2016

The third element of “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking” by Drs. Burger and Starbird is to ask questions.  The title of this chapter is “Creating Questions Out of Thin Air” with the subtitle, “Be Your Own  Socrates.”  Remember that Socrates was the Ancient Greek Philosopher who developed the Socratic Method of teaching which centered on asking questions.  Creating questions enlivens our curiosity.  It transforms us from being passive into active listeners.  Listening is not enough.  If we are constantly engaged in asking ourselves questions about what we are hearing. we will find that even boring lectures become a bit more interesting because much of the interest will come from what we are generating rather than what the  lecturer is offering.

We need to formulate questions properly and assess whether we are asking the real question.  For example, the question “How can I be successful?” is vague and unanswerable.  First we need to ask what success means to us and then ask questions that lead to action.  Effective questions will lead us to explore and develop core habits, and skills that will make a difference.  Effective questions lead to action and are not vague.  The right questions clarify our understanding and focus our attention on features that matter.

We should not overlook asking meta questions.  Asking questions about an assignment or project before beginning working earnest  should lead to a stronger final project.  These are questions such as “What’s the Goal of this task?” and “What benefits flow from this task?”  Meta questions often save time because they focus our attention on he core issues and allows the clearing up the initial confusion that usually is present at the start of any project or task.

The art of creating questions and active listening are skills that need to be fostered.
Here is the final paragraph of the chapter with some minor changes.  “Constantly thinking of questions is a mind-set with tremendous impact.  We become more alive and curious, because we  are actively engaged while we are listening and living.  We become more open to ideas, because we are constantly discovering places where are assumptions are exposed.  We take more effective action because we clarify what needed too be done.  We should be our own Socrates.

Although I have done my best, I have not done justice to the original.  So I again urge you to read the original document.

Fail to Succeed: Igniting Insights Through Mistakes

February 3, 2016

Fail to Succeed is the second element of “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking” by Drs. Burger and Starbird.  Here are some noteworthy comments about the benefits of failing from some highly eminent people.

Winston Churchill
“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.”

Michael Jordan
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed..  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

James Joyce
“A man’s errors are his portal of discovery.”

Linus Pauling
“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”

Samuel Beckett
“Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter. Try again.  Fail again, fail better.”

So failure, or rather the ability to capitalize upon failure ,is what these outstanding individuals in different pursuits have in common.

When you see or make a mistake, you have at least two actions to take:
let the mistake lead you to a better attempt, and/or
ask whether the mistake is an answer to a different question.

As was mentioned in the first post on this book, always do something, even when you know it is wrong.  Then you have something to improve upon.  The book suggests thinking to yourself, “in order for me to resolve this issue, I will have to fail nine times, but on the tenth attempt I will be successful.”

Actually, the number of times is irrelevant.  The objective is to improve upon each attempt until we eventually reach our objective.  Thomas Edison had at least an order of magnitude of mistakes beyond ten when inventing the light bulb.  He succeeded, because he did not regard these attempts at failures.  Each one provided information that led to his ultimate success.

There is more in this chapter that I cannot pass on without copying the chapter.  So I again I urge you to read the book yourself.

Understanding Deeply

February 1, 2016

It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you do know that ain’t so.
Mark Twain, Will Rogers, or Someone Else

Understanding deeply is the first of the 5 Elements of Effective Thinking written by Drs Burger and Starbird..  Here is a tip offered  to provoke effective thinking.  Ask what do you know and test yourself by opening a blank document on a computer.  Then without referring to any sources, write a detailed understanding of the fundamentals of the subject.  Does your knowledge have gaps?  Do you struggle to think of core examples?  Do you fail to see the overall picture that puts the pieces together?  Then compare your effort to external sources.  When you discover weakness of your own understanding of the basics, take action.  Methodically understand the fundamentals.  Make these new insights part of your knowledge and connect them to parts already understood.  Revise and rewrite your first draft.   Periodically repeat this exercise and see how this document grows.  Keep a record of your previous documents.

If the challenge is too great, then don’t do it.  George Polya wrote, “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve:  find it.  When faced with a difficult problem, do something else.  Focus entirely on a subproblem you know you can successfully resolve.  Be confident that the work you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities  of the larger issue.  Just shoot for the moon, don’t yet try to walk on it.

Here are two steps to uncovering the essence:
Step One:  Identify and ignore all distracting features to isolate the essential core.
Step Two:  Analyze the central issue and apply those insights to the larger whole.

Review your writing , try to read what you have literally written—not what you intended to communicate.  Read your actual words and pretend you don’t know the argument you are making.  Try to identify what’s confusing and what’s missing.  If you think you know the idea but haven’t expressed it clearly, then this process has identified a gap or vagueness in your understanding.  After we admit and address these weaknesses, our exposition will be clearer and more directed to the actual audience.  When delivering an address or making a presentation, apply the same process of deliberately listening to the actual words we are speaking rather than what we are imagining we are saying.  This can be extremely difficult to do, so a review by external parties, particularly reviews by representative of the target audience can be especially valuable.

Becoming aware of the basis of our opinions and beliefs is an important step toward a better understanding of ourselves and our world.   It is a good idea to try out alternative ideas hypothetically and temporarily.  We can pretend our opinions are the opposite of what we actually believe, and then see where these opinions take us.

Niels Bohr used this technique while trying to lead a group of scientists to understand quantum mechanics.

What is reviewed here is just a sample.  Reading the original work is strongly recommended.