Archive for January, 2017

Overconfident Memories

January 30, 2017

This post is based on Julia Shaw’s book “The Memory Illusion.”   Julia Shaw is a criminal psychologist.   Consequently, she is concerned with the accuracy of witnesses and the confidence that witnesses have in their testimony.  As witnesses are human beings, like most, if not all, humans we are overconfident in our memories.  She conducted research regarding whether or not British police officers knew more about memory and other psychological processes than members of the general public.  She distributed a 50-item questionnaire and found that, overall, the police had as many misconceptions about issues in psychology and the law as the general public, but that they were more confident in their responses.  14% endorsed the myth that “Memory is like a video camera and 18% believed that “People cannot have memories of things that never actually happened.”

Dr Shaw then goes on to briefly summarize the outstanding work of “The Innocence Project, which is an organization dedicated to getting innocent people exonerated through DNA testing.  Its research has helped to release at least 337 people who were wrongfully convicted.  On the average these people served 14 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.  Faulty memory played a role in at least 75% of the cases.  These figures are just for the US, so worldwide the problem is much larger.

There are cases in which police need to close a case and are more concerned with getting a conviction than finding the guilty person (See the healthy memory blog , “Why False Confessions Trump Evidence”).   The natural biases of memory can cause police to develop “tunnel vision” and fail to consider relevant evidence.  As Dr. Shaw writes, “when we need to make sense of an event but do not have enough information to do so, we tend to import other plausible content to fill in the gaps.  Events in our minds need to have a linear progression, connections, reasons.  Once we have this kind of plausible narrative, we can become incredibly confident in its accuracy.  But what exactly is the relationship between confidence and accuracy, and how does it all tie in with memory.

Remember Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon, where all the children were above average?  This phenomenon is not unique to Lake Wobegon.  Most of us humans regard themselves as being above average.  Research has found this overconfidence effect in all kinds of areas.  Dr. Shaw writes, “Police are overconfident in their ability to detect liars. Students are overconfident about their course grades.  CEOs are overconfident in their business decisions.  Teachers are overconfident in their teaching ability.”  In a 2011 article published in “Nature,” social scientists Dominic Johnson and James Fowler argued that “Humans exhibit many psychological biases, but one of the most consistent, powerful and widespread is overconfidence.”

Dr Shaw suggests “that we have a tendency to overestimate our positive qualities and to underestimate our negative traits.  This is a characteristic that is inherently linked to memory, because in order to think about our positive traits we need to be able to remember the good things we have done in our lives that provide evidence of those traits.  For example, you may think about all the times you have done chores around the house, and think to yourself you are a really good spouse.  You took out the trash, bought groceries, cooked, and did the dishes.  However, you may be forgetting or diminishing the times when you did not do any of those things and actually made more work for your spouse, leaving her frustrated and with extra work to do.”

There is at least one more illusion that might play into our tendency to be overconfident.  This illusion is related to the greater strength and accessibility of our memories to our own actions and insights compared to those of others.  This is the illusion of asymmetric insight.  Emily Pronin and her colleagues at Stanford University published a paper on this bizarre bias titled, “you don’t know me, but I know you.”

The team found over six studies showing that we think we know close friends and roommates better than they know us.  Research participants were told that we are all like icebergs, with part of our true selves being observable by others and part hidden from view.  The participants were then asked to pick a picture of an iceberg that best represented their friend from a selection showing icebergs at various levels of subversion.  Then the participants did the reverse task, thinking about how their friend would answer these same questions about them.  The different studies used this same methodology but for different types of relationships.

“Pronin and her team found that participants  believed that their own quintessential qualities, including their intimate thoughts and feelings, were mostly kept internal but that those of others were more likely to be observable.  They were more submerged icebergs, while other people were more visible icebergs.  This make sense from a memory perspective because we have direct access to our own thoughts and feeling and so appreciate that they can be complicated and nuanced—which makes them difficult for other people to understand.  On the other hand, it can be difficult or even impossible to appreciate the complexity of the thoughts and feelings of others in other than a basic ‘surface’ way—we tend towards assuming that is all that there is to understand.  Our general outlook is “I’m a riddle, but my friend is an open book.”

This phenomenon of asymmetric insight is ubiquitous.  Liberals and conservatives each thinks they understand the other part better than the other party understands them.

We all need to be aware of the fallibility of our memories and our overconfidence in our fallible memories.

Attention and Memory

January 29, 2017

Dr. Shaw, in her book ‘THE MEMORY ILLUSION,” tells the story of her first day in the first memory class she ever took at a university.  The professor picked up a piece of paper and waited  for the class to settle down.  He held up the sheet of paper and proclaimed, “This is what happens  in the world around us.”  Then he folded the paper in half.  “This is what you perceive,”  He folded the paper in half again.  “This is what you pay attention to.”  He folded the paper in half again.  “This is what you  are interested in.”  Another fold.  “This is what the brain makes into engrams.” he folded the paper one final time; it was now a small fraction of its original size.  “And this is what you are able to access and recall later on.”

This is a splendid demonstration, and HM shall use it at his next opportunity.  Memory is critically dependent on attention.  HM knows the mnemonic technique for associating names with faces.  Unfortunately, he never uses them.  He is always distracted by something and spends the rest of the time trying to catch the individual’s name in the conversations.  This is especially embarrassing if you are regarded to be an expert in memory.

Any advertisements that advertise easy learning, that is learning that does not require attention are bogus.  This is especially true if babies are involved.  In the case of babies, it is not just that techniques will not work, but that they can also cause harm.  These dangers were previously discussed in the healthy memory blog post, “Cyber Babies.”

Other research conducted by Judy DeLoache and her team from the University of Virginia studied all 12- to 18-month  old children learned language from a popular brand of baby media.  They found that children who viewed the educational videos for four weeks did not learn any more or any fewer words than if parents were given no instructions to teach language at all.  But they did find that the tots learned significantly more words if they were not exposed to any video but instead were taught words during everyday activities.  It seems that babies  prefer the live show.  Other  studies have produced similar results.  Live presentation of language and tasks have been shown bo be far more effective for developing babies’ memories than any kind of media simulation.

What is more worrisome are the negative results that can occur.  Frederick Zimmerman and his team at the University of Washington found baby television exposure to have highly detrimental effects on language development.  They called 1,008 parents of young children and asked them about their children’s media viewing habits.   They also asked them to complete the short form of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory, which measures language development in children.  The survey found that for every hour of baby media watched per day by infants between 8 and 16 months, they were found to know six to eight fewer words.

In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clearly said the children under two should have no screen time at all.  Instead, parents should use play and live interaction
if they want to give their babies the best possible developmental help.

It is likely you have seen videos of change blindness. Change blindness is the result of two bottlenecked processes that need to filter a great deal of information. The first bottleneck is our limited ability to perceive the world through our senses.  The second is our limited short-term memory capacity.  In one of the videos you are asked to watch a short video of a group of people passing a ball, and to count the number of times the ball was passed.  After the video ends, you are asked for your count.  Then you are asked did you see a gorilla cross the scene.  About 46% of the viewers failed to notice the gorilla in the video.  There are several similar demonstrations.

Daniel Levin and his team at Kent State University demonstrated change blindness blindness.  They asked participants how likely it was that they would notice change in four different situations.  Three of these situation had been previously tested and had produced change blindness rates in 100% of participants; the fourth was one where participants were approached by a lost pedestrian asking for directions and the person switched during the conversation after being briefly hidden from view.  But across the four conditions between 70% and 97.6% of participants thought they would detect the changes described and they did so with high confidence ratings.


January 28, 2017

“MEMORY WIZARDS”  is the title of a chapter in “THE MEMORY ILLUSION” by psychologist Julia Shaw, Ph.D.  The subtitle is HSAMs, braincams, and islands of genius.  The teaching point of the chapter is “Why no one has infallible memory.”

The idea of a braincam was that memory was like a video recorder keeping track of everything we do.  This idea was promulgated by American neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in his 1952 publication, “Memory Mechanisms.”  Penfield’s work as a neurosurgeon required him to probe different portions of the brain, so that he could identify the correct areas to perform surgery.  During this probing, his patients who were awake, the brain does not feel pain itself, patients would report vivid memories of particular instances in their lives.  Not surprisingly, this led to the notion of a braincam effectively recording each of our lives.  However, in spite of the vividness of the recall, there was no way to confirm the accuracy of these recalls and to distinguish them from visions generated from the stimulation.  After much additional work was done regarding memory, the notion of a braincam was discarded, and memory was found to be highly error prone.  Moreover, the confidence expressed in a memory did not correlate well with the accuracy of the memory.

HSAM stands for highly successful autobiographical memory.  There have been several prior HM posts on HSAM.  Perhaps one of the most interesting HM posts is titled “The Importance of Memory.”  The actress Marilu Henner, who was one of the stars on the TV Program “Taxi” is also a HSAMer.  She has written a book “Total Memory Makeover,” which has been summarized in the HM post “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us.”  HSAMers can provide detailed accounts of their lives by date.  That is, if you asked what happened to them on 29 August 1999, they could tell you in an amazing amount of detail.  Still, they cannot tell you everything, and what they do provide can sometimes, but not frequently, contain an error.  In other respects, their memories are similar to the rest of us.  If given a list of words to remember, their performance will correspond to the rest of us.   And they make similar errors as we do with respect to false memories.  Dr. Shaw says that she does not see any particular advantage that HSAMers have.  Apparently, she has not read Marilu Henner’s book, because Henner says that her ability has helped her as an actress.  She feels that her ability has provided insights into the why and wherefores of others.

Photographic memory is another topic on which most people have misconceptions.  The technical term for photographic memory is eidetic memory.  Here’s how it is tested.  An unfamiliar picture is shown to participants on an easel for 30 seconds.  This might not seem like much time, but researchers often this limited viewing time because most people neither continue encoding detail nor care to after 30 seconds  looking at the same picture.  After the image has been removed the person is instructed to describe everything they can about the picture.   People with eidetic  memory report that they can still see the picture, that they can scan and examine their personal memory of the image as if it were still in front of them.  Eidetic images differ from regular visual memories which can arguably last forever.  Eidetic images  can last only a couple of minutes.  The images usually fade away piece by piece  rather than as a whole, and the eidetiker  has no control over which components remain in memory.  However, even eidetikers  can misremember entire objects and forget pieces of scenes.  So their exceptional memories for a particular image can still have some flaws.

Moreover, it appears that this kind of memory only exists in children.  In one of the few reviews of the literature on this topic dated  back to 1975, researchers Cynthia Gray and Kent Gummeran estimated that 5% of children have eidetic  memory and 0% of adults do.

Then there are the idiot savants such as depicted in the Oscar winning movie Rain Man.  Here the exceptional memories are linked to some abnormality such as autism.  So these memories are purchased at an outrageous cost.  The simple point is that forgetting is needed.  It is obviously needed in cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where traumatic memories either need to be forgotten or accommodated.

The teaching point of the chapter is more than  “Why no one has infallible memory.”  It is “no one wants an infallible memory.”  Infallible memories lead to too many memories, memories that interfere with the important information that needs to be remembered.

The Healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness.   Meditation helps us gain control of our valuable, but limited, resource of attention.  We need to be able to focus our attention to use it to best advantage.

© 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.

Memories from Infancy and Early Childhood

January 27, 2017

This post is based on Chapter 1, “I Remember Being Born” in “THE MEMORY ILLUSION” a book by the psychologist Julia Shaw, Ph.D.  Many millions of people remember being a baby.  Fewer people, but still in the millions remember being born, and even fewer people, but still in the millions remember being in the womb.  These people are wrong as “research has long established that as adults we cannot accurately retrieve memories from our infancy and early childhood.  To put it simply, the brains of babies are not yet physiologically capable of forming and storing long-term memories.  People have these misconceptions about remembering due to the creative component of memory that strives to make meaning of the world.

The estimated average age at which we can begin to form memories that last into adulthood is 3.5 years of age, but according to some such as Qi Wang of Cornell University this figure is likely to depend on the individual and can be anywhere between 2 and 5 years of age.

The parts of the brain responsible for long-term memory, including part of the frontal lobe and the hippocampus, begin to grow at around eight or nine months.  According to Harvard professor Jerome Kagan, one clue that children start to develop memory at about nine months is that this is typically when they become less willing to leave their parents.  Being able to miss their mothers is taken as a sign that the infants have a memory of their mother having just been present, and notice when she leaves.  “If you’re five months old, it’s out of sight, out of mind.  You’re less likely to cry because you just forgot that you mother was ever there, so it’s not as frightening.”

Long-term memory capabilities develop quickly as we age, both in duration and complexity.  We increasingly understand how the world around us works and what we should consider important.  The basic functions of long-term autobiographical memory are established within the first fews years of life.  But the main structures involved in memory (the hippocampus and related cognitive structures) actually continue to mature well into early adulthood.  This finding has contributed to the notion of an ‘extended adolescence’ that lasts all the way to the age of 25, since the brain continues substantial maturation until at least this age.

The baby brain  at two to four weeks of age is about 36% of the final adult volume, 72% at one year of age, and 83% of the final adult volume by two years.  By the age of 9 the brain reaches about 95% of the adult volume, and it is not until about the age of 13 that our brains reach their full adult size.

While the baby brains undergo rapid growth they also undergo massive neuronal pruning.  That is. individual neurons disappear.  This process begins almost from birth, and finishes by the time we hit puberty.  According to Maja Abitz and her team, adults actually have a whopping 41% fewer neurons than newborn babies in important parts of the brain that play a role in memory and thinking, such as the mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus.

There is also an overproduction of synaptic connections in infancy followed by persistence of high levels of synaptic density into late childhood or adolescence.  As we enter late childhood, our brains start to become better at knowing what connections we need to keep and which are superfluous.  From there on until mid-adolescence our brains undergo a short of spring-cleaning.  So perhaps “when you were five years old you could list all of the dinosaurs, but did you really need all that information?  Probably not, says your brain and erases the connections and neurons responsible for much of this knowledge.”  “So, due to structural insufficiencies, as well as organizational and linguistic deficits, memories of early childhood events cannot last into childhood.

This research does not suggest that just because we cannot remember them, that early childhood events are unimportant.  According to a 2012 review of the long-term repercussions of adversity experience in early life by medical doctor Jack Shonkoff and his colleagues experiencing adversity, even at an age before we can consciously remember it as adult, can have lasting effects.  “Early experiences and environmental influences can leave a lasting signature of the genetic predisposition that affect emerging brain architecture and long-term health.”

To read more about the negative effects in early childhood read the healthy memory blog post,”Turning on Genes in the Brain.”  The single best predictor of the healthy growth of a baby is to ask its mother, “Did you want this child?”  In 2005 scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed a study showing what can happen to children whose parents answer “no” to this question.  The researchers studied children who were “reared in extremely aberrant social environments where they were deprived of the kind of caregiving typical for our species.”  This meant that for seven to forty-two months after their birth, the twelve girls and six boys had lived in Russian or Romanian orphanages  that the World Health Organization described as poor to appalling.  These environments were generally void of stimulation and human interaction.  The children seldom experienced the love and caring of adults who recognized and responded to their needs.These children were adopted by American families.  Within a year, most of their medical problems—ear infections and stomach problems, malnutrition and delayed growth—vanished.  Nevertheless, due to their legacy of neglect many of the children were diagnosed with attachment disorders, an inability to form emotional bonds to those closest to them

© 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.


January 26, 2017

“THE MEMORY ILLUSION” is the title of a book by psychologist Julia Shaw, Ph.D.   The subtitle is “Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory.  This is an outstanding book on a very important topic that is well-written by an excellent author, one that is strongly recommend reading by HM.  Due to the importance of this topic, many posts  will be written based on the book.

There are many misconceptions regarding human memory.   This book is devoted to correcting the most egregious of these misconceptions.  People tend to think of memory in a very limited sense.  It’s thought of as something you need during tests, and as something that fails you when you can’t recall a name.  But readers of the healthy memory blog should know that memory is central to all cognition and to our very being.

Consider someone in the last stages of Alzheimer’s.  That person no longer remembers who he is, what he did during his life, his immediate  family and, of course, his friends.  Absent memory there is no you-ness.

There are different types of memory.  Semantic memories are our knowledge about the world.  Procedural memory is about how different procedures are performed such as riding a bike.  Autobiographical memory is about ourselves, and episodic memory is about the specific events or episodes that occurred during our lifetimes.

There is also something important regarding both how our memories work and how to make them work better.  This is called metamemory.   We need to be aware of how our memories fail, so we do not fall victim to them, and so that we can compensate for their failures and shortcomings.

As Dr. Shaw writes, “Any event, no matter how important, emotional or traumatic it may seem, can be forgotten, misremembered, or even entirely fictitious.”

As she also writes, “Due to our psychological and physiological configuration all of us can come to confidently and vividly remember entire events that never actually took place.”

And as she continues,  “The Memory Illusion” will explain the fundamental principles of our memories, diving into the biological reasons we forget and remember.  It will explain how our social environments play a pivotal role in the way we experience and remember the world.  It will explain how self-concept shapes, and is shaped by our memories.  It will explain the role of the media and education in our misunderstanding of the things we think memory is capable of.  And it will look in detail at some of the most fascinating, sometimes almost unbelievable, errors, alterations and misapprehensions our memories can be subject to.”

Donald Trump and Climate Change

January 25, 2017

It is not surprising that the “New Scientist” is alarmed by the presidency of Donald Trump as a threat to science and critical thinking.   The 21 January 2017 issue of the New Scientist offers 4 articles on the potential threats of a Trump Presidency.   It could have offered many more articles, and perhaps it will.  Two of the four published articles will be shared in healthy memory blog posts.  The preceding post was the first.  This post is the second

This article is titled, “Resisting Trump:  How scientists can fight a climate witch-hunt.”  Donald Trump has argued that global warming is a hoax created by China to damage US manufacturing.  As president-elect, he has chosen a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and his pick for the helm of the energy department (DOE) is Rick Perry, who once suggested dismantling it.  If carbon dioxide emissions rise faster as a result, the consequences for the global climate will be. dire.  “We can’t take a four-year break,” says Marcia DeLonge at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C.

Moreover, a Trump presidency won’t just be a problem for climate change.  It could also spell trouble for the scientists trying to stave it off.  The Trump transition team asked for a list of DOE employees and contractors who worked on climate change or had attended climate change meetings.  Correctly, the agency refused, but the incident sent a chill through the scientific community, particularly in light of the Republicans revival of the Holman rule.  The Holman rule allows for specific federal employees have their pay slashed to $1.

These fears of being targeted are legitimate.  Already there has been an uptick in Freedom of Information Act requests for the scientists’ private emails, said Peter Fountainee, the lawyer who defended climate scientist Michael Mann in a case against the State of Virginia.  If such tactics also come from within their own agencies, federal scientists might leave en masse.

The director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Peter Frumhoff, says this would permanently erode federal agencies’ ability to use science to inform public decisions.   He begs scientists not leave because if they leave they’ll lose their ability to know whats’s going on.

Even if they do stay, they may be forced to stop pursuing certain lines of research.  The Trump transition team suggested as much when it said NASA should shift its focus away from “politically correct environmental monitoring.”  Apparently, we are entering a new era of political management, “Management by Thuggery!”

Fears that data will be insured or altered have prompted crowd-sourcing to back up federal climate and environmental data.  Climate Mirror is a distributed volunteer effort supported by the Internet Archive and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Toronto.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. 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.

Donald Trump and Nuclear Weapons

January 24, 2017

It is not surprising that the “New Scientist” is alarmed by the presidency of Donald Trump as a threat to science and critical thinking.   The 21 January 2017 issue of the New Scientist offers 4 articles on the potential threats of a Trump Presidency.   It could have offered many more articles, and perhaps it will.  Two of the four published articles will be shared in healthy memory blog posts.

One of these articles is titled: “Resisting Trump:  How his chaotic nuclear policy might play out.”  He has said that the US nuclear capability is broken.  As this nuclear capability can destroy the world many times over betrays his woeful ignorance on the topic.  Moreover, the United States is already modernizing its nuclear force along with Russia.  Nuclear official Bill Perry warns, “We seem to b sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race.”  As planned this modernization would deal the final blow to the tottering Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.  Any testing of new weapons would kill the 1992 nuclear testing moratorium and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

This nuclear arms race could induce smaller nuclear powers to expand as well.  Moreover, Trump has encouraged additional countries to develop their own nuclear weapons.   And by abrogating the agreement to Iran, the additional of a new Nuclear threat will soon emerge.  And it is likely that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt would develop nuclear weapons.

The New Scientist does its best to give Trump the benefit of any doubts.  Trump says that he will stop Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear threat.  Trump had said that he will talk with Kim.  The New Scientist article incorrectly states that talks have worked before halting North Korean weapons development in 1994—until their cessation let it resume.  The truth is that the North Koreans’ effort never ceased.  They continued their work in secret.

The article also mentions that Trump could take US missiles off their alert status.  This idea is especially relevant during the Trump presidency.  Trump does not control his emotions well.  He is childish in his responses to anything remotely sounding like criticism.  What is worse is that these responses are made quickly without any time for reflection.  In any case, he should not be given the nuclear football until it is installed with some safeguards.  To think that the world could end because Trump felt his honor was impugned.

© 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.

Politics Needs Science

January 22, 2017

The article in the 21 January 2017 issue of the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan titled “New group encourages scientists to enter politics” was good news.  STEM the Divide is a group that will push to have more scientists involved in politics.  This initiative was set up by the political action committee 314 Action.  The goal  is to connect people with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math to the expertise and money needed to run a successful campaign.   The article stated that scientists who have been interested in getting into politics were rarely encouraged and sometimes discouraged.

Shaughnessy Naughton  is the founder of this organization.  When asked whether this raised a risk of politicizing science—framing scientific questions as ideological questions, rather than matters of fact—Naughton argued that that ship has already sailed.  Her  response follows:  “People might think that science is above politics, as it should be, but increasingly we see that politics is not above bringing itself into science.  At a certain point, there’s diminishing returns to not getting involved.”  HM would change “diminishing returns” to “serious existential dangers.”

Moreover, the question she was posed, “framing scientific questions as ideological issues, rather than as matters of fact,” betrays the erroneous concept that science is simply a bunch of facts.  Science can be an ideology, an ideology that should provide the basis for governing.  Science is not a monolithic entity, but rather a set of methodologies devoted to arriving at truth in the various disciplines.  This truth is arrived at by reasoning and data.  Moreover, it is fluid in that as circumstances or facts change, truth is corrected or refined.  Science provides the basis for our standard of living, and it can be argued that social problems are due to the failure to apply scientific approaches to social problems.

A good example of this is medical care in the United States.  Medical care in the United States is the most expensive in the world, with results suitable for a third world country.  All other advanced countries provide superior medical care for all their citizens at a fraction of the costs in the United States.  The Affordable Care Act was the best that could be done given the political environment.  One party wants either to exclude the federal government entirely or severely limit its participation due to ideology.  They use fear, lies, and misinformation to destroy attempts to bring the United States into line with the truly advanced countries of the world.

A good question is why this is the case.  The general argument is against big government.  Any argument about the size of government without considering the question of  what the government can best do versus what private industry can best do is moronic.  Yet it is repeated ad nauseum.

People say that they are followers of Reaganism with great pride.  Ronald Reagan is also regarded as a great communicator, which he was.  But what is overlooked is the reason his ideas were so easy to communicate is that they were so simple.  Reagan demanded that his staff provide brief descriptions of the issues so he could formulate brief descriptions of his policy.

The problem is that simple ideas do not adequately solve complex problems. For example, people will say that they believe in free markets.  One would be hard pressed to find many economists who do not believe in free markets, but they also realize that free markets do not remain free for long.  They are manipulated and monopolies emerge.  The manipulations achieve a variety of ends, one being the financial collapse of 2008.

Moreover, there are always complaints about the excessive regulations that come from big government.  Just think back over time and consider what life would be like without government regulations.  How long would the work week be?  What would salaries be without the minimum wage?  If these are exclusively left to “market forces” they would leave the majority of people in misery.  Were it not for unions, it is quite likely that Marx’s prediction of the revolution of the proletariat would have occurred.  But Marx’s analysis was superficial and did not consider the possibility of workers organizing to achieve a decent wage and working conditions.

Government regulations have also goaded businesses into actions that benefited them.  Gas mileage standards is an example.  And God protect us from what the atmosphere would be like absent government regulations.  One of the costs that decreased the competitiveness of the US Auto Industry in the international market, were the costs of medical insurance.  Had medical insurance been provided by the government, the industry would have been more competitive.  Their ideology acted against their business interests.

One of the most disturbing actions that Trump has promised to undertake is the dismantling of financial regulations taken to prevent another market collapse.  It should be obvious by now that the financial industry does not self regulate.  Smart manipulators cash in, while everyone else in the country and the country itself collapses.

The argument here is not that business is evil and government is good.  There are ample examples of government being a monster.  The reality is that the individual citizen stands between two giants, business and government.  Either one can step on and crush the individual citizen.  The citizen needs to be watchful of both and play each against the other to get the best result.

How should this be done?  By employing science, conducting research, and analyzing data to decide what policies are, and who should do what.  This does not guarantee a good result, but science is self correcting.  So when something does not work, the reason why it didn’t work will be studied, and new approaches will be developed and evaluated.

The fundamental problem is with the individual voter.  Thee is ample evidence that voters do not vote in their own interest.  See the healthy memory blog post, “The Low Information Electorate.” It is also true that voters are governed by their emotions rather than carefully considered opinions.  Previous posts have argued that decisions of most people are governed by their guts, which are System 1 processes.  That certainly is the best explanation of the results of the 2016 presidential election.  People need to invoke their System 2 processes.   System 2 processes require cognitive effort.  The vernacular term for them is thinking.  Entering “System 1” or “System 2” or “Kahneman” into the healthymemory blog search block should yield ample posts on this topic.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. 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 Alt-Right and the President-elect (via the Electoral College)

January 20, 2017

U.S Citizens should understand the ramifications that the alt-right has for the President-elect.  A quick way of accomplishing this is to read the e-book by Jon Ronson, “The Elephant in the Room:  A Journey into the Trump and the “Alt-Right.”  Jon Ronson can be regarded as the foremost expert on Alex Jones.  And Alex Jones is one of the foremost voices of the alt-right.  The President-elect has appeared on Jones’s radio talk show.

We’ll skip to the concluding paragraphs of this book, which was published before the election.

“But the alt-right’s appeal remains marginal because the huge majority of young Americans like multiculturalism.  They aren’t paranoid or hateful about other races  Those ideas are ridiculous to them.  The alt-right’s small gains in popularity will not be enough to win Trump the election.  This is not Germany in the 1930’s.  All that’s changed is that one of Alex’s fans—one of those grumpy looking middle-aged men sitting in David Icke’s audience—is now the Republican nominee.

But if some disaster unfolds—if Hillary’s health declines furthure, or she grows ever more off-cuttingly secretive—and Trump gets elected, he could bring Alex and other with him.  The idea of Donald Trump and Alex Jones and Roger Stone and Stephen Banning having power over us—that is terrifying.”

Might we be Germany in the 1930’s?

“The Elephant in the Room” is available from for $1.99.  It is free for Amazon Prime members.

An Example from Lies Incorporated

January 19, 2017

This example was reported in the 7 Jan 2017 issue of the Washington Post.  The title of the article by Anthony Faiolo and Stephanie Kirchner is “Breitbart report triggers a backlash in Germany.”

The article begins, “Berlin—It was every God-fearing Christian’s worst nightmare about Muslim refugees.  “Revealed”, the Breitbart News Headline screamed, “1,000-Man Mob Attack Police, Set Germany’s Oldest Church Alight on New Year’s Eve.”  The only problem:  Police say that’s not what happened that night in the western city of Dortmund.”

So what did the police say?  They did not dispute that several incidents took place that night, but nothing to the extremes suggested by the Breitbart report.  They said the evening was comparatively calmer than previous New Years Eves.

The motivation for the false report is clear, To foster the alt-right agenda to create fear of the Moslems.  And this is Breitbart’s mission—to spread propaganda for the alt-right.  This swill is harmful to peace in the world, and pollutes healthy memories.

© 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.

Lies, Incorporated

January 18, 2017

Lies, Incorporated is the title of a book by Ari-Havt and Media Matters for America.  This book is so thoroughly researched that it could not have been done by one individual, consequently the research of Media Matters for America is key.  The sub-title of this book is “The World of Post-Truth Politics.”  An earlier healthymemory blog post titled “Did Corporate PR Initiate the Post-Fact Era” discussed the beginning of the post-fact era by discussing the false scientific effort to document that smoking was safe.  That post also including the false scientific effort to argue against global warming.  “Lies Incorporated” elaborates on these topics and then has chapters titled “Lie Panel:  Health Care,”  “Growth in a Time of Lies:  Debt,” “On the Border of Truth:  Immigration Reform,” “Two Dangerous Weapons:  Guns and Lies,”  “One Lie, One Vote:  Voter I.D. Laws,” “Shut That Whole Lie Down:  Abortion,”  “A Lie’s Last Gasp:  Gay Marriage.”

The book begins with the statement, “Richard Berman is a Liar.”  He relished the title of “Dr. Evil” and develops the nastiest PR campaigns to undermine and discredit truth.  Berman’s motivation appears to be one of money.  He’ll sell himself to the highest bidder.  For others, the motivation is one of convenience.  If you are in the petroleum business, global warming is indeed an “inconvenient truth.”  HM admittedly chooses to ignore the true dietary guidance his wife offers because it is an “inconvenient truth.”  But many are simply ideologues.  They know what they believe and force facts into those ideologies by ignoring genuine facts and generate their version of facts.   This is termed “motivated reasoning.”  The criteria of truth is ignored.

Perhaps the most blatant example is provided by the “Death Panel Lie” generated to defeat the Affordable Care Act.  In June 2014 “The Washington Post” reported the story of a woman and her husband who were employed but receiving no benefits and would rather pay a penalty for being uninsured than participate in Obamacare.  They were afraid of the discredited notion of “Death Panels” and were paying serious out-of-pocket medical costs stemming from chronic conditions.  These people were not alone.  A November 2014 Gallup Poll found that 35% of uninsured Americans would rather pay the fine prescribed by law than receive health insurance.  There were people who said that they did not want government involvement, but that hands should be kept off their Medicare.  This, in part, explains why the United States has the most expensive medical costs with the results of a third world country.  It leads one to think that if there were a Stupidity Olympics, the United States might well dominate the competition.

One of the most disturbing realizations was that there are people with degrees who are dominated by their ideologies and should know better.  Perhaps this is not surprising as there were scientists who were fascists and supported totalitarian regimes with vigor.

The following two paragraphs are taken directly from the text.  “The purveyors of misinformation have a built-in advantage.  Lies are socially sticky, and even after one has been thoroughly debunked, it will still have advocates among those whose worldview it justifies.  These zombie lies continue to rise from the dead again and again, impacting political debate and swaying public opinion on a variety of issues.
Misinformation is damaging to those who read and absorb it.  Once a lie—no matter how outrageous—is part of the consciousness of a particular group, it is nearly impossible to eliminate, and like a virus it spreads uncontrollably within the affected communities.”  Richard Berman explained to energy executives that once you “solidify [a] position,” in a person’s mind, regardless of the truth, you have “achieved something the other side cannot overcome because it’s very tough to break common knowledge.  That “common knowledge” is repeated on radio, television, in print, and at the water cooler.  With each new citation, the lie becomes more entrenched.”

It is commonly known that certain politicians use “code words” to disguise racist statements.  HM found it interesting that in this book the author of these words was Lee Atwater, who was a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who helped elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  Here’s Atwater’s explanation of the delicate balance the Republican Party must play when using racially tinged issues to win election without appearing outwardly racist—by “getting abstract” when talking about race:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “n——-, , n——-, n——-.”  By 1968 you can’t say
n——-, that hurts you, backfires.  So you stay stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.  And you’re getting so abstract now that you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking  are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worst than whites.  And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.  It is getting that abstract, and that coded, then we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.”

So what can be done about this political cesspool?  Be aware and do not allow yourself to be pulled in.  Finding the truth has been made more difficult, but we must all persevere.  Availing ourselves of such sites as,,

A Field Guide to Lies

January 16, 2017

A Field Guide to Lies is a recent book by Daniel J. Levitin.  The  subtitle is “Critical Thinking in the Information Age.”  This information age is embedded in an age of lies.  Hence Levitin’s book is most timely.  One of Levitin’s previous books is “The Organized Mind.”  This book was reviewed in previous healthy memory blog posts.  To find relevant posts enter “Levitin” into the search box of the healthy memory blog.

The importance of being able to think critically in this age of lies cannot be overestimated.  The first part of  “A Field Guide to Lies”  is titled “Evaluating Numbers.”  Here he discusses the role of plausibility in the assessment of numerical values.  They should be read critically and subjected to sanity checks.  He has a section titled “Fun with Averages” which illustrates how averages can be used to mislead.  Similar tricks can be done with graphs, which he addresses in a section titled “Axis Shenanigans.”  There are hijinks in how numbers are reported that need to be understood if one is to think critically.  Shenanigans and hijinks can occur early on when the numbers are collected.  As virtually all information is probabilistic, probabilities need to be understood.  People need to be able to think probabilistically, and Levitin provides advice as to how to proceed.

Part Two is titled “Evaluating Words.”  It begins by discussing how we know.  Particularly in this age of misinformation and of organizations whose mission it is to mislead, it is important to identify expertise.  It is also important to identify potential motivation behind a given expertise.  A common failure is not to consider alternative explanations, and when they are considered, to undervalue them.  The final section in Part Two is titled Counterknowledge.  HM thinks that this section might have the wrong title.  Although most certainly there is legitimate counterknowledge, today counterknowlede is often a set of well-conceived and well-designed lies.  Very frequently, these lies are outlandish, but yet they are still believed.

Part Three is titled “Evaluating the World.”  The best way of evaluating the world is with science.  Consequently, “How Science Works” is the title of the first section.  The section on logical fallacies is HM’s  favorite.  For many years HM has been annoyed at Dr. Watson’s asking Holmes how did he deduce something or other.  Apparently, Arthur Conan Doyle did not understand what deduction is.  Deduction is drawing a correct conclusion from a set of premises.  But this is not what Holmes did.  Holmes used abduction to solve crimes.  That is, he came up with a conjecture or hypothesis, which he then proved through evidence.

Knowing what you don’t know is another subsection of Evaluating the World.  Remember Rumsfield, “…as we know, there are known knowns;  there are things we know we know.  We also know that there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things that we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknown’s—the ones that we don’t know we don’t know.”  To these statements Levitin adds, “A final class that Secretary Rumsfeld didn’t talk about are incorrect knowns—things  that we think are so, but aren’t.  Believing false claims falls into this category.  One of the biggest causes of bad, even fatal, outcomes is belief in things that are untrue.”     To this, HM would add, that most of what we know is probabilistic, not absolute, and this complicates the thinking processing further.

Bayesian thinking is needed.  Levitin discusses Bayesian thinking in Science and Court, and illustrates this thinking with Four Case Studies.  However, Bayesian thinking is not restricted to just Science and Court.  It should be part of our daily thinking.  Fortunately Levitin dedicates an appendix to the Application of  Bayes’ Rule.

Levitin’s book provides a good introduction to critically thinking.  Unfortunately we live in an era where lying is epidemic and lying has become a business.  The next post is titled “Lies Incorporated.”

© 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.

Keep Track of Your Body in Space

January 15, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the previous blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

Proprioception is a much under-rated ability.  It is the result of unconscious processing and results from a constant conversation between the body and the brain, allowing us to know where our limbs are and what they are doing, and adds up to an unerring sense of a unified, physical “me.”

Proprioception predicts the cases of the various sensory inputs it receives — from nerves and muscles inside the body, and from the senses detecting what’s going on outside the body.  What we are aware of is the brain’s best guess of were the body ends and where the external environment begins.

In the famous rubber-hand illusions a volunteer puts one hand on the table in front of him, and a rubber hand is put in front of him.  A second person they strokes the real and rubber hands simultaneously with a paintbrush.  Within minutes many people start to feel the touches on the rubber hand and even claim it as part of their body.  The brain makes its best guess as to where the sensation is coming from and the most obvious option is the rubber hand.

Newer research suggests that this sixth sense extends to the space immediately surrounding the body.  Arvid Gutersam of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and his colleagues repeated the rubber-hand experiment, stroking the real hand but keeping the brush 30 centimeters above the rubber hand.  Participants still sensed the brush stokes above the rubber hand, implying that as well as unconsciously monitoring our body we keep track of an invisible “force field” around us.  Gutersam suggests this might have evolved to help us pick up objects and move through the environment without injury.

Make Decisions

January 14, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Caroline Williams in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

Ap Dijksyrthuis of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands proposed this counter-intuitive idea 12 years ago.  He had found that volunteers asked to make a complex decision—such as choosing between different apartments based on a baffling array of specifications—made better choices after being distracted from the problem before deciding.  He reasoned that this is because unconscious thought can move beyond the limited capacity of working memory, so it can process more information at once.

Although his reasoning as to why unconscious thought might be superior is correct, the conclusion that important decisions should be based on unconscious thought is not only wrong, but dangerous.  Important decisions need to be reviewed by conscious thought before they are implemented.  In fact, there have been many healthy memory posts recommending to say “let me sleep on it,” before any important decisions are made.  This provides ample time for both conscious and unconscious processing.

Many think that unconscious processing is important for creativity, including HM.  As Dijksyrthius suggested, unconscious processing circumvents the constraints of working memory, primarily as there are no time constraints on unconscious processing, which can also occur while we’re sleeping.  Just taking a break from work can be quite helpful.

© 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.

How to Make the Unconscious Conscious

January 13, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Caroline Williams in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthymemory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and other blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

Russell Hurlburt, a psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas uses the following technique to make the unconscious conscious.  He asks volunteers to wear an earpiece linked to a beeper, which goes off at random intervals six times a day, prompting them to note they thoughts.  At the conclusion of the day, Hurlburt conducts an hour long interview to tease out what people were thinking and how.  After four decades of research, Hurlburt has concluded that most people have no idea of what is running through their minds, but that they can be taught to tune into it in just a few days.

Hurlburt believes that we’re conscious of such thoughts while having them, but then they vanish “like a dream upon waking.”  The beeper is similar to mindfulness meditation.  Zen monks have a similar system —they sound a gong and you  pay attention to what’s going on right now.

Research has shown that regular meditators were quicker than others to consciously register a decision made by the unconscious mind.  There are many healthy memory blog posts on mindfulness and meditation.  And this is one of the many reasons for mindfulness and meditation, to get in touch with our unconscious minds.

Anyone with a cellphone can download Dr. Hurlburt’s app, IPromptU,

Predict the Future

January 12, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Diana Kwon in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This blog post taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborates on this idea.

Every moment the brain takes in an enormous amount of information, more than it can process on the fly.  To cope effectively with this enormous amount of information, the brain constantly makes predictions that it tests by comparing incoming data against information.  And most of this is done via unconscious processing.

Just imagining the future is enough to put the brain in motion.  Imaging studies have shown that when a sound or image begin to appear, the brain generates an anticipatory signal in the sensory cortex.

The brain is continuously predicting the sounds, words, and meanings that we are trying to produce or communicate..

Moreover, the senses are used to inform each other.  When a recording of speech is degraded so that it is nearly unintelligible, the words sound clearer if you have previously read the same words in subtitles.  Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, says that “the sensory parts of the brain are comparing the speech we’ve heard to the speech we’ve predicted.”

Our brains also make predictions on the basis of emotional signals coming from our bodies.  Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist at Bar-Han University in Israel, suggests that we only consciously recognize an object once our unconscious mind has calculated its importance based on what our senses and emotional reactions our saying.  For example, the conscious fear of a snake on a hiking trail comes after the brain has processed the shape and initiated jumping out of the way.

There are downsides to making predictions. Incorrect inferences reinforced by repetition can be hard to reverse.  Stereotyping is an even more troublesome example of the same thing.  When it comes to human interactions it can lead to negative biases and discrimination.  Bar says that “stereotypes and prejudices are predictions working as they do with everything else, but in a way that is not desirable.”  Some neuroscientists also believe that the hallucinations experienced in psychosis are the result of expectations gone awry.  Despite its flaws predictions are necessary.  Otherwise our species never would have survived.

Run Your Life on Autopilot

January 11, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

An enormous part of our day-to-day lives, driving, making coffee, or touch typing, happens without conscious thoughts.  Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious habits, these skills had to be learned before the brain can automate them.  How it does this could potentially provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits.

Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues  have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the striatum is key to habit formation.  When we undertake an action, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex tasks, communicates with the striatum, which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement,  Over time, input from the prefrontal cortex fades, to be replaced by loops linking the striatum to the sensorimotor cortex.  The loops, together with the memory circuits, allow us to carry out the behavior without having to think about it.  Practice makes perfect and no thinking is required.  The obvious upside is that we no longer  need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things.  Unfortunately, similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behavior into habits, including thought patterns, and once any kind of behavior becomes a habit, it become less flexible and harder to interrupt.  This is fine for good habits, but when bad habits are ingrained, its equally hard to get rid of it.  You lose the moment of choice when we can decide not to do something.

Fortunately, even with the most ingrained habits, a small area of the prefrontal is kept online, in case we need to take alternative action.  This offers hope to any of us looking to break a bad habit and to those suffering from habit-related problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome  — both of which are associated with abnormal activity in the striatum and its connections to other parts of the brain.  These circuits are potential targets for future drug treatments.  However, for now the best way to get a handle on bad habits is to become aware of them.  Then, focus all your attention on them and hope that it’s enough  to help the frontal regions resist the call of the autopilot.  An alternative approach is to teach ourselves a new habit that counters the bad one.

Think While You Sleep

January 10, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Simon Makin in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.  This first post reviews a study done in 1999.  A team at the University of Libek in Germany put 15 volunteers to bed at midnight.  The team either told the participants they would wake them at 9 am and did, or told them they would wake them at 9 am, but actually woke them at 6 am, or said they would wake them at 6 am and did.

The last group had a measurable rise in the stress hormone adrenocorticotropin from 4:30 am, that peaked around 6 am, when these participants were told they would be awakened.  The participants woken unexpectedly at 6 am had no such peak.  The researchers concluded  that the unconscious mind can not only keep track of time while we sleep, but also set a biological alarm to jump-start the king process.

A 2014 study by Sid Koulder of the Ecole Normale Superireure in Paris and his colleagues found that the sleeping brain can also process language.  They trained participants to push a button with their left or right hand to indicate whether they heard the name of an animal or object as they fell asleep.  They monitored the brain’s electrical activity  during training and when the participants heard the same words when asleep.   Activity continued in the brain’s motor regions even when asleep, indicating that the sleepers were preparing to push the correct button.  The participants could also correctly categorize new words first heard after they had dropped off to sleep, indicating that they were genuinely analyzing the meaning of the words while asleep.

A more recent study found that while language processing continues in REM sleep for words heard just before bed, once in deep sleep all responses disappear as the brain goes “offline” to allow the day’s memories to be processed.  Boulder says that “your cognition about things in the environment  declines progressively towards deep sleep.  Sleep is not all-or-none in terms of cognition, it’s all-or-none in terms of consciousness.”

Less Medicine, More Health

January 8, 2017

HM had intended  at the end of the immediately preceding post, “Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks”  to provide a reference to an earlier healthy memory blog post on medical care.  After  several exhaustive attempts he was unable to provide this reference.  So the current post is one he intended to post but apparently forgot.  That’s unfortunate as this is an important post on an important topic.  This book is titled “Less Medicine, More Health:  7 Assumptions That Drive Too Much Medical Care, “ by Dr. Gilbert Welch.  The previous post dealt with understanding information on health risks.  Welch’s book is more relevant as to how to interact with you physician.  This book is an easier read and less technical than the Science of Elusive Health Risks.

As Dr. Welch has a Master of Public Health (MPH) in addition to his MD and has worked as an epidemiologist as well as a primary care physician.  As the subtitle indicates, there can be too much medical care that leads to adverse conditions.  A good example of this was given in my personal anecdote in the previous post about the Prostate Specific Antigen Test (PSAT).  At one point this test was virtually mandatory.  Later, it became a test to use only under special circumstances.  One might question, what is the harm in testing?

Prostate cancer is something that eventually occurs in all males.  However, many males will likely die of something else before they die from prostate cancer.  And the treatments for prostate can be uncomfortable and some can lead to incontinence and impotence.  There are discomfort and risks to most cancer treatments.  And cancer screening does reveal false positives, that is a mistaken result, as well as failures to detect. Then there is the speed of the cancer.  If it is very slow it is possible that the person will outlive the cancer and die from something else.  All the studies on the benefits of cancer screening are based on survival rates of people who tested positive.  But HM has yet to see a comparison of the death rates between people who were not screened versus people who were screened.  If screening did beneficially impact the overall death rate, the result would be compelling indeed.  Should anyone know of such a study, please reply.

I am going to copy the table of contents as it provides the basic guidance being offered.  HM strongly recommends reading the entire book.  Should you question any of the assumptions, then it is imperative for you to read the book.

Disturbing truth:  Risks can’t always be lowered—and trying creates risks of its         own.
Disturbing truth:  Trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than         managing one.
Disturbing truth:  Early diagnosis can needlessly turn people into patients
Disturbing truth:  Data overload can scare patients and distract your doctor from         what’s important.
Disturbing truth:  Action is not reliably the “right” choice.
Disturbing truth:  New interventions are typically not well tested and often wind up     being judged ineffective (even harmful).
Disturbing truth:  A fixation on preventing death diminishes life.

CONCLUSION:  Seeking medical care is not the most important thing you can do for         your health.

Although these assumption sound reasonable, perhaps even eminently reasonable, Dr Welch effectively debunks them.  Should you doubt this, read the book.

Dr. Welch personalizes his advice by writing what he does under various conditions.

Unfortunately the medical system in the United States is primarily one of fee for service.  So the incentive is to treat and the financial incentive is to provide costlier treatments.

It is a shame that this book was not on the best seller list.  Perhaps it’s not too late.

Some individuals prefer to place themselves in the hands of their doctors.  This is a matter of personal choice.  However, the practice of medicine is done by humans, and we all are fallible.  And there is ample evidence of the failures of medicine.  So it is your option to ask questions, conduct research, and make your own decisions.

© 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.

Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks

January 6, 2017

The title of this post is the subtitle of “Getting Risks Right” a book by an American epidemiologist and cancer researcher Geoffrey C. Kabat. He is a senior epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  Understanding these health risks is an extremely difficult task and Kabat makes a strong effort to assist us in executing this task.

The Preface asks the question “Why do things that are unlikely to harm us get the most attention?’  The simple answer is that science takes time and moves slowly, but people want quick answers.  The popular press publishes apparent answers that are a long way from being validated.

The first chapter is titled, “The Illusion of Validity and the Power of ‘Negative Thinking,’ and begins with the following quote from Francis Bacon:  “It is the peculiar and perpetual error of human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives.
The root of all superstitions is that men observe when things hit but not when they miss; and commit to memory the one and forget to pass over the other.”

Chapter 2 describes the fundamentals of studies in the area of public health.  Ioannidis’s landmark article “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” (PLOS Medicine, 2, 3124. Doi:101371/journal pmed, 0020124, 2005) has been cited in several previous healthy memory posts.  The consensus among epidemiologists and statisticians is one of general agreement.  But most people remain ignorant of the situation.  The only article in the popular press of which HM is aware is Why Most Published Research Findings are False” (PLOS Medicine, 2, 3124. Doi:101371/journal pmed, 0020124, 2005).  Kabat discusses additional scientific difficulties in conducting scientific research in the area of health.  Please read his book to understand the relevant issues.

However, health research has additional difficulties because here the science is embedded in a society that is highly attuned to the latest potential or breakthrough.   Kabat writes, “Findings from rudimentary studies often are reported as if they were likely to be true when, in fact, most research findings are false or exaggerated, and the more dramatic the result, the less likely it is to be true.”  Later he writes, “Reports of exaggerated findings can, in turn, give rise to ‘information cascades’—highly publicized campaigns that can sow needless alarm and lead to misguided regulation ad policies.  These difficulties are thoroughly aired in Chapter 3.

The final four chapters of the book discuss 4 areas of research.  Chapter 4 explores the question of whether exposure to radio frequency energy causes brain cancer.  The issue, whether the worldwide adoption of a novel technology within a short time span could be causing a fatal disease.  Kabat documents the extensive research carried out over two decades provides no strong or consistent evidence to support this possibility.

Chapter 5 explores the main lines of preoccupation with “endocrine disrupting chemicals” in the environment hypothesis.  Although this certainly was a legitimate concern, Kabat documents how false ideas based on poor data got enormous attention.  He explains how to make sense of a bitter controversy that is currently raging in the scientific and regulatory communities in Europe and the United States.

Chapter 6 describes a little-known success story.  By linking a long-standing enigmatic disease in the Balkans to dietary exposure to a toxic herb that has been used in traditional cultures throughout history.  Research on aristolochic acid contained in certain varieties of the herb Aristolochia has  led to new insights on the carcinogenic process as well as highlighting the threat posed by the woefully inadequate regulation of thousands of products marketed as “dietary supplements.”  More than half of Americans use these products to the tune of $32 billion a year.  Unfortunately, naive consumers
wrongly believe that the government requires manufacturers to report all adverse effects and that the FDA must approve supplements before they are sold.  Few consumers of supplements are aware of the implications of the Dietary Supplements and Health Education Act (DSHEA), passed by Congress is 1994 with strong support from the supplements  industry and its political allies.  By defining herbal supplements and botanicals as “dietary supplements,” DSHEA excluded them from the more rigorous standards used in regulating prescriptions and even over-the-counter drugs.  By not making herbal supplements and botanicals subject to testing, US citizens are being put at risk.  This point is underscored by the following quote from Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst :  “Just because something is natural does not mean that it is good, and just because something is unnatural does not mean that it is bad.  Arsenic, cobra poison, nuclear radiation, earthquakes, and the Ebola virus can all be found in nature, whereas vaccines, spectacles, and artificial hips are all man-made.”  In this context HM would like to comment on the labeling of Genetic Modified Organisms (GMOs) as being bad.  To the contrary, they might be the only option for feeding an increasingly growing population.  The also offer the prospect of both better tasting and affordable products.

Chapter 7 recounts another success story, the long-standing question of what causes cervical cancer led, over a period of thirty years, to the identification of a small number of highly specific carcinogenic subtypes of the humanpapillomavirus (HPV).  The persistent infection with one or more of these subtypes is necessary to cause the disease.  This knowledge has led to the development of vaccines that have the potential to virtually eliminate cervical cancer as well as to fundamental new knowledge about how the virus evolved to cause cancer.

Kabat comes to the following conclusion, “the need for a more nuanced and realistic view of science, which acknowledges the enormous challenges, promotes skepticism toward widely circulated but questionable ides, and at the same time pays attention to what science can achieve at its best.

At this point please indulge HM in a personal story.  When he was working, he received a call from a representative of his insurance company.  This representative encouraged an annual checkup to include the prostate specific antigen test (PSAT).  For decades this had been a standard recommendation to men of my age.  However, HM tries to keep up with the literature.  He had read that urologists, the individuals most knowledgeable about the benefits of this test, had changed this long-standing recommendation.  Now the test is recommended only in certain high risk patients, and then, only after consulting with a physician.  However, it took another year before the rest of the medical community followed the lead of the urologists.

© 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.

What Constitutes Proof that Alzheimer’s or Dementia Could be Cured or Prevented?

January 4, 2017

Two excellent questions for consideration.  The first question, what constitutes a cure can be easily answered, that is the administration of operations or medications that would eliminate the affliction.  Currently, the only medications for Alzheimer’s do not cure the disease, but rather slow the progression.  One can question whether this prolongs meaningful or enjoyable life, or merely prolongs suffering.  This is a question for individuals to decide.
With respect to Alzheimer’s, there are many individuals who died with the defining features of the disease—neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, but who never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive characteristics of the disease.  Apparently there were many people who died not knowing that they had the disease.  So for these individuals, at least, the debilitating features of the disease had been prevented.  The only explanation that has been provided for this prevention is that they had built up a cognitive reserve during their lifetimes, by using their brains.  This is the justification for advocating growth mindsets.  But there are other factors such as being socially active, which also requires the use of one’s mind.

The only way of trying to determine the factors fostering prevention is through longitudinal studies.  There are two longitudinal investigation—the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which have enrolled more than 3200 older adults across the United States.  This studies are being led by David A. Bennet at the Rush Alzheimer’s  Disease Center in Chicago.  The volunteers enter these studies dementia-free, anywhere from their mid-50s to their 100’s and agree to hours of testing each year.  They all have agreed to undergo autopsies once they have died.  Here are the two primary findings that have emerged from these investigations.

Virtually all brains in old age contain some pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but only some people suffer any symptoms as a result.  Those who do not develop dementia appear to have greater cognitive reserve to fall back on.

Choices we make throughout life, from learning a second language or studying music in childhood to finding purpose and remaining physical, intellectually, an socially active in retirement can build cognitive reserve and dramatically reduce the risk of dementia.

It is hoped that growth mindsets capture the general nature of intellectual activity.  Mindfulness and meditation foster greater control over one’s cognitive activity and lead to better control over one’s emotions and enhance personal interactions.  The healthy memory blog certainly endorses physical activity and a healthy lifestyle which includes, obviously, a healthy diet.

Regarding the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s, the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, seem to have little or no effect on individuals who have built up this cognitive reserve.  And there has been little success in the development of drugs to treat these physical symptoms.  One of the foremost experts in this area, Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D, who is the senior author of “The Myth of Alzheimer’s”  does not think that successful medications will ever be developed.

Perhaps one of the best resources on the extensive research that has been done in the area can be found in the book, “Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind” by Pamela M. Greenwood and Raja Parasuraman.

Dr. Michael Merzenich has been called “the father of brain plasticity,” and the co-founder of Scientific Learning and Posit Science.  You can go to
and find brain training exercises.  These exercises can be helpful, but by themselves cannot be regarded as providing a cognitive reserve.  Building a cognitive reserve requires a lifestyle devoted to cognitive and physical health.  Dr. Merzenich also has an interesting book, “Soft-Wired:  How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.”

Research reviewed by Norman Doidge, M.D.  has documented the extreme plasticity of the brain.  It is truly plastic in its ability to recover from severe injury.   His research is documented in two books,”The Brain that Changes Itself” and The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.”

HM would like to see extensive research done on individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s who apparently failed to build up this cognitive reserve.  What level of recovery might be achieved through exercises designed to recover lost capacity?  And at what level of dementia might individuals still be recoverable?  HM believes that money spent on this research would be more valuable that the extensive work that is being done on drug treatments that are likely to be doomed to failure.  Unfortunately, the money is in potential drug sales.

There have been many previous HM posts on these topics.  Enter “Bennet,”  “Whitehouse,”  “Parasuraman,”  “Merzenich,”  “Doidge,”  “The Relaxation Response Update,’ and  “Mindfulness” to find them.

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