Archive for October, 2019

This blog will resume shortly after it returns from a cruise

October 26, 2019

The Problem with Some Religions

October 24, 2019

The preceding post raised the question as to why some Christians are not following the teachings of Christ. For if they were, Trump would not be president, there would be much less hatred and animosity, and the needs of all citizens, especially health care, would be addressed. The answer is that some Christian churches ignore many of the teachings of Christ and pander their messages to keep their parishioners happy.

HM remembers receiving a solicitation from one of his mother’s Christian charities that was soliciting contributions to support the contention that the United States is a Christian country. Now any competent historian and any well read citizen will know that our founders were strict about guaranteeing religious freedom to all and not adopting any religion. They did not want to repeat the mistakes made in Europe.

So here we have a charity claiming to be Christian breaking one of the ten commandments, lying or bearing false witness. Such hypocrisy! That’s when HM realized that these so called churches were, in truth, businesses. And religion is a good business, indeed. They are tax free. They collect money from their parishioners from whom they also garner political power as they instruct their people how to vote.

Being a true Christian is hard work and is personally challenging. But rather than reminding their followers of Christ’s teaching, these churches take another role. They develop political policies that are contrary to Christ’s teachings and that also endanger American freedoms. They become a moral police for the country, somewhat analogous to what occurs in Saudi Arabia. So they work to make what they regard as improper sexual practices illegal. They work to make abortion illegal, not realizing that forcing a woman to bring a child into the world who is unloved and cannot be supported puts that child in jeopardy. This ignores the fact that biological life should be irrelevant, that it is the soul that is immortal. There is no reason to assume that killing a fetus would also endanger the soul. HM believes that a merciful God would want a prospective mother to be ready and able to be a loving mother, and if she were not, an abortion could be in order.

Moreover, at the time of Christ both abortion and homosexuality were practiced and Christ never mentioned these as problems. It is the gospels of Christ that should be of primary concern to Christians. HM has never bought the justifications for the Old Testament being included in the Christian bible, and he still has reservations about some parts of the New Testament. And he is furious that there are other gospels of Christ that have not been widely disseminated.

So rather than doing the actual difficult work of Christ, these churches give their parishioners the role of being the country’s moral police. They forget that the United States is supposed to be a free country. That is, people can do anything they want as long as it does not do harm to others. Working to make abortions, sexual practices that do not harm others, and other activities that some regard as unacceptable is un-American. Such people are not only un-American, they are hypocritical Christians, who prefer having a feeling of moral superiority to doing the hard work of Christ.

Christ in Crisis

October 23, 2019

The title of this post is the title of an extremely important and relevant book by Jim Wallis. The subtitle is “Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus.” All who are interested in Christianity will find this book enlightening. People who claim to be Christians but who support Donald Trump need to read this book.

Many people wonder how someone can claim to be a Christian yet still support Donald Trump, who is evil incarnate. This issue will be addressed in two posts. This post focuses on Jim Wallis’s outstanding book. Wallis writes, “If we are truly followers of Jesus, then our identity as Jesus followers is first before any other identity—racial, ethnic, cultural, national, class, or gender. It means belonging to his “body,” a beloved multiracial and international community—with everything else put down the line. It means that “America First, or any other arrogated version of the phrase, is literally a heresy. For example, when the operative in the phrase “white Christian” is “white” instead of “Christian,” the gospel message of Jesus Christ that reconciles us to God and to each other is in great jeopardy.”

Virtually Trump’s entire message is based on lies. During his first 993 days he made 13,435 misleading claims. That’s an average of 13.53 false or misleading claims a day.
His presidential campaign was based on illegal immigrants entering the country to sell drugs and other illegal crimes. He led people to believe that they were not safe. He has continued his message justifying his pledge to build a wall. Even if there were a true problem here, a wall is an ineffective way of addressing it.

The vast majority of these illegal immigrants are coming to this country either to avoid violence in their homeland, or to earn a living and a better life for themselves and their families. Trump has addressed this problem by separating children from their families and placing them in cages with inadequate food and blankets.

The true solution to the illegal immigrant problem is to hold the people and companies hiring these poor people responsible. Heavy fines and imprisonment of these employers would resolve this problem. Trump himself is one of these employers. He prefers to hire illegals because he can underpay and exploit them. So Trump himself is one of those causing this problem.

Jesus ministered to the sick and those regarded as undesirable. The Parable of the Good Samaritan epitomizes this.

The problems in the United States cannot be addressed by charities alone. It needs to be understood that budgets are moral documents in that many of these problems need to be addressed through budgets by the government. A good example is health insurance. Many previous healthy memory posts have stated that every advanced county besides the United States has government provided health insurance. The health statistics in these countries are quite good and much better than those of the United States. Moreover, medical costs in these countries are much less in the United States. The United States has pulled off the astonishing feat of having the largest medical expenditures with the health results of a third rate country. Moreover, many of the religious followers of Trump would regard these foreigners in contempt as being secular humanists. Here the irony is that these secular humanists are better at Christian practices that these people who regard themselves as Christians.

If only Americans followed the teachings of Christ we would live in a much better country. Not only would health statistics be better, but our interpersonal relations would be governed by caring for one another.

Many believe in the following paragraph:

We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe that the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake. This paragraph is taken from The “Reclaiming Jesus” Declaration which can be found at Readers are encourage to read and reflect upon this declaration.

Healthy Memory’s Response to Deep Work

October 22, 2019

And that response is disappointment. The first problem is with the title, Deep Work. Deep Processing, or Deep Thinking would have been both more appealing and more accurate.

Professor Newport uses the word “Work” because work can lead to both professional success and many dollars. This is especially disappointing because he is a university professor, but a book focusing on professional and monetary success is more likely to sell books. Many factors affect both professional and financial success, so deep work cannot guarantee success.

However, in the context of a healthy memory deep processing leads to both a healthy memory and a fulfilling life. Deep processing involves sustained System 2 processing and even higher. It fosters growth mindsets, which lead to personal fulfillment and a healthy mind.

Moreover, deep processing is the best activity to engage to drastically decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Previous posts have explained how many have died with the defining features of Alzheimer’s, the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, without ever being aware of their having Alzheimer’s because they never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Deep processing, along with a healthy lifestyle, not only makes for a healthy memory, but along with growth mindsets provides the route to a fulfilling life.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2019. 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 conte

Drain the Shallows

October 22, 2019

This is the ninth post in a series of posts on a book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” The fourth rule can best be captured by the following tip: Become Hard to Reach.

As for emails.

Make people who send you e-mail do more work. Have them elaborate on their request or refer them to another source.

Don’t respond. Newport provides the following examples
*It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
*It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
*Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

So it’s quite simple, and this is why this post is so brief.

Quit Social Media

October 21, 2019

This is the eighth post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” His third rule is Quit Social Media. The reason for this should be obvious by now. Social media rob people of their valuable attentional resources and increase the difficulty of trying to focus, and effectively preclude deep thinking.

Abruptly quitting social media might offend some friends and acquaintances. So it is wise to inform them you are quitting and provide your reasons for doing so.

One reason would be “The Any Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection.” This states that you are justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

You replace this with “The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Replace the superficial friends on social networks with close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to you
Regularly take the time for meaningful connection with those who are most important to you (a long talk, a meal, joint activity).
Give of yourself to those who are most important to you (making nontrivial sacrifices that improve their lives).

When you quit, explain your reasons for quitting. Some might find your reasons compelling, In this case propose a support group for quitting. Ironically, it might be impossible to do this without technology, but if possible, try do to so.

Embrace Boredom

October 21, 2019

This is the seventh post in a series of posts on a book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” His second rule, which is perhaps surprising, is to embrace boredom. He writes “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

Clifford Nass, the late Stanford communications professor conducted research revealing that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on the brain. Here is Nass summarizing these findings. “So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage working memory. They’re chronically distracted. The use much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

When asked whether the chronically distracted recognize the rewiring of their brain, Nass responded, “The people we talk with continually said, ‘look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser focused.’ And, unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”

Author Newport advises, don’t take breaks from distraction, instead take breaks from focus. He continues, if you’ve scheduled your next Internet break thirty minutes from the current moment, and you’re beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance becomes a session of concentration calisthenics. A full day of scheduled distraction becomes a full day of mental training. Scheduling Internet use at home can further improve your concentration training.

And don’t forget meditation. Newport calls productive meditation in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering, and focusing one’s attention on a single well-defined problem. One must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. Use the search block at and enter “meditation” and the “relaxation response” to find relevant posts.

Newport also recommends mnemonic techniques. The healthy memory blog has a whole category of posts on mnemonic techniques. The category can be found at
the URL previously listed.

There is also an interesting post about memory competitions titled “Moonwalking with Einstein” which can be found by entering this title into the search block.

Work Deeply

October 20, 2019

This is the sixth post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” It is not surprising that the first rule is to work deeply. He writes that you need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life. Newport feels strongly that attempting to schedule deep work in an ad hoc fashion is not an effective way to manage your limited willpower. He warns us to be careful to choose a philosophy that fits one’s specific circumstances, since a mismatch here can derail one’s deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify. He presents four different depth philosophies he’s seen work exceptionally well in practice for our consideration.

One is the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize depth efforts by eliminating radically minimizing shallow obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have well-defined and highly valued professional goals that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well. This clarity helps them eliminate the thicket of shallow concerns that tend to trip up the whose value proposition in the working world is more varied. Science fiction writer Neal Stepheson who follows this philosophy summarizes his communication policy as follows: Persons who wish to interfere with my concentration are politely requested not to do so, and warned that I don’t answer e-mail…lest [my communication policy’s] key message gets lost in the verbiage, I will put it here succinctly. All of my time and attention are spoken for—-several times over. Please do not ask for them.

To justify this philosophy, Stephenson wrote an essay titled “Why I am a Bad Correspondent.” At the core of his explanation for his inaccessibility is the following decision: The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time -chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

Author Newport writes regarding this philosophy, “…the pool of individuals to whom the monastic philosophy applies is limited—and that’s okay. If you’re outside this pool, its radical simplicity shouldn’t evince too much envy. On the other hand, if you’re inside this pool—someone whose contribution to the world is discrete, clear,and individualized”—-then you should give this philosophy serious consideration, as it might be the deciding factor between an average career and one that will be remembered.

It is useful to ritualize practices for deep work. Consider the following:
*Where you’ll work and for how long.
*How you’ll work once you start to work.
*How you’ll support your work. Your ritual should ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, and integrate light exercise such as walking to keep the mind clear.

Keep in mind the importance of downtime.
Downtime aids insights
Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply

Ericsson’s paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance reviewed research about an individual’s capacity for cognitive demanding work. For a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit. For experts this number can expand to as many as four hours, but rarely more.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

October 19, 2019

This is the fifth post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in this book. The science writer Winfred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event. The event was a cancer diagnosis and Gallagher noted, “not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind.” In her book “Rapt” (there are many healthy memory blog posts on this book and on this topic) she recalls as she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis she formed a sudden and strong intuition: “This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” She focused on what was good in her life, “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini” and it worked surprisingly well. Instead of being mired in fear and pity during this period, she was instead often quite pleasant.

After five years of science reporting she came away convinced that she was witness to a “grand unified theory” of the mind:

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics, and family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

Newport writes, “This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this misunderstanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: “What you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.’”

Research has shown that the elderly tend to be happier than their younger brethren. This seems paradoxical as the elderly are closer to their final exit; But Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen used an FMRI scanner to study the brain behavior of participants presented with both positive and negative imagery. She found that for young people, their amygdala, important for emotion, fired with activity at both types of imagery. But when she scanned the elderly, the amygdala fired only for the positive images. Carstensen conjectured that the elderly participants had trained their prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. So these elderly participants were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; instead they were happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive. By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.

Author Newport picks up on Gallanger’s grand theory. “This theory states that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work.” Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance. Newport adds a hidden but equally important benefit to cultivating rapt attention. Such concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.

Bad for Business, Good for You

October 18, 2019

This is the fourth post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work:  Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.”  The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World” by Cal Newport. He writes that deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. And here are the reasons for this paradox: deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving, and that our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior is related to “the Internet,” then it’s good-regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things. All of these trends are enabled by the difficulty of directly measuring the value of depth or the cost of ignoring it.

Newport continues, “If you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad new for business in general, as it’s leading them to miss out on potentially massive increases in value production. But for you, as an individual, good news lurks. The myopia of your peers and employees uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable. Having just established that there’s noting fundamentally flawed about deep work and nothing fundamentally necessary about the distracting behaviors that displace it, you can therefore continue with confidence with the ultimate goal of this book: to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.”

The problem here is whether your employers will allow your to go deep. A subsequent post will provide some tips for coping with your employer. But regardless of your job going deep leads to a healthy memory. It involves heavy amounts of System 2 processing. This builds a cognitive reserve that greatly reduces the problem of suffering the behavioral or cognitive indications of Alzheimer’s or dementia. It should also lead you to a more satisfying personal life.

Obstacles to Deep Thinking

October 17, 2019

This is the third post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” There is a curse called the culture of connectivity in both our work and so-called leisure worlds. This culture of connectivity is where one is expected to read and respond to e-mails (and related communications) quickly. One’s workplace plays a role in this expectation, but in one’s personal life, this expectation is self-imposed.

In the business setting the principle of least resistance is without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend to reward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Unfortunately, this principle can also apply in our personal life. Rather than pursuing an activity that is self-enhancing, there is a strong temptation to do something easier, like answering emails or participating in social media.

It is also possible, in both our work and personal lives, to mistake busyness as a proxy for productivity.

This is how Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman explained what work habits a professor adopts or abandons: “To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time…it needs a lot of concentration…if you have a job administering anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them. I’m irresponsible.

The author, Newport, writes, “many knowledge workers want to prove that they’re a productive member of the team and are earning their keep, but they’re not entirely clear what this goal constitutes….many seem to be turning back to the last time when productivity was more universally observable: the industrial age.”

Newport writes, “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity : doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.” In other words, they are using busyness as a proxy for productivity.

Newport writes about the warning provided by the late communications theorist at New York University Neil Postman. In the early 1990s, as the personal computer revolution first accelerated, Postman argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. He noted that we were no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiency against the new problems introduced. If it’s high tech, we begin to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.

Postman’s argument has appeared in prior HM posts. His argument is greatly amplified with the explosion in technology that has occurred. People want to get the latest smartphone because it is the latest, without considering whether the new functionality will be worthwhile. Social media is aggressively engaged without considering what the actual value in being liked is worth the time being invested. True friends require time and commitment. Are superficial “likes” worth the lost of true friends?

Evgeny Morozov in his book “To Save Everything, Click Here” writes, “It’s this propensity to view ‘the internet’ as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a fairly uninteresting set of cables and network routers into a seductive and exciting ideology—perhaps today’s uber-ideology.” In his critique, we’ve made “the internet” synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government. To make your company more like “the Internet” is to be with the times, and to ignore these trends is to be the proverbial buggy-whip maker in an automative age. We no longer see Internet tools as products released by for-profit companies, funded by investors hoping to make a return, and run by twenty somethings who are often making things up as they go along. Instead we’re quick to idolize these digital doodads as a signifier of progress and a harbinger of (dare I say it) a brave new world.

Understand that HM is not denigrating the new technology. Many of the posts under the category of Transactive Memory (go to to find it) express the tremendous potential the technology offers for cognitive growth and for collaboration among our fellow humans. Unfortunately, it appears that this potential has in large part been hijacked and used to nefarious ends.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2019. 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.

Learning How to Think and Process is Deeply

October 16, 2019

This post is the second in a series of posts on a book by Cal Newport. The title of this book is “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” “Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea,: is advice from Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, a Dominican friar and professor of moral philosophy. He argues that to advance your understanding of your field you must tackle the relevant topics systematically, allowing your “converging rays of attention” to uncover the truth latent in each. In other words, “To learn requires intense concentration.”

In the early 1990s, a psychologist K. Anders Ericsson conducted research on the difference between expert performers and normal adults. He denied that the difference in the two groups was immutable. He argued, with data to support him, that the differences between expert performance and normal adults was the result of a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

So what does deliberate practice actually require. Its core components follow:
your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to master;
you receive feedback so you can correct your approach, to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
So deliberate attention cannot exist alongside distraction; instead it requires uninterrupted concentration.

Ericsson emphasizes, “Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice.”

Since Ericsson’s first major papers on this topic, neuroscientists have been researching the physical mechanisms. These researchers believe that part of the answer includes myelin—a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons. The myelin acts like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. Keep, in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.

Of course, more than myelin is involved, especially for cognitive tasks. In additional to strengthening brain circuits, learning involves establishing new brain circuits. Learning new information and cogitating about this information establishes an increasingly new number of brain circuits.

Concentration is focused. Say you are trying to learn a new skill such as SQL database management. In a state of low concentration or while you are doing any additional tasks, you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen. To learn things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

The following formula law of productivity has been offered:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

HM again stresses that this formula is not restricted to work. It is good for any type of physical or cognitive enhancement. It applies also to hobbies and recreational activities. Perhaps it is unfortunate that it is defined in terms of work, as work itself can become more palatable or enjoyable if is not regarded as work, but rather as furthering a worthwhile goal, hobby, or intellectual achievement.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2019. 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.

Deep Work

October 15, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Cal Newport. The subtitle is “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.’” There have been many previous HM posts on the distracted world in which we live and how this distraction is extremely harmful. This book provides strategies for coping effectively with this distracted world. Here is the definition of Deep Work provided by the author: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

HM finds this definition and the book title to be inadequate. What is being addressed is deep cognitive processing. So although work is important, it would be a mistake to restrict this activity to work. A better definition for the activity is deep cognitive processing. It is important also to engage in deep processing that is not restricted to work. Indeed one of the important activities encouraged in this blog is to have growth mindsets and growth mindsets need to include deep cognitive processing. It is likely that the book wanted to aim at professional development and restricts its recommendation and guidance to professional work.

In contrast to Deep Work, the definition for Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Here is a definition of Shallow Free Activities: Activities that are not cognitively challenging and do not result in cognitive growth.

It should be understood that there is a need for shallow free activities as it would be cognitively exhausting, indeed impossible, to always engage in cognitively challenging activities. These cognitively challenging activities are critical for a health memory and involve the engagement of System 2 processing, more commonly known as thinking and reasoning as opposed to daydreaming and System 1 processing. Note that most activity on social networks is not cognitively challenging and primarily involves System 1 processing.

The author offers this Deep Working Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it a core of their working life, will thrive.

HM heartily endorses this hypothesis, but he also contends that engaging in cognitively challenging activities also leads to healthy memories. Moreover, there should be transfer between work related challenging cognitive activities and leisure time challenging activities. So leisure activities can be beneficial to the effectiveness of one’s professional work.

The author ends his introduction to his book with the statement: A deep life is a good life.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2019. 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.

Adaptive Genius

October 14, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. Ted Anderson in his book Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow writes that the sparrow came into its own as a species only since the advent of agriculture in the Middle East, approximately ten thousand yeas ago. Other theories place its origin yet earlier. In any case, so highly skilled has the house sparrow become at adapting to any environment occupied by humans that it has been called the ultimate opportunist, our avian shadow.

The first sixteen sparrows are said to have been introduced to Brooklyn in 1851 to control a plague of moths may not have taken immediately to the New World, but another bigger shipment imported from England the following year did, and in big way. The birds did get some help from individuals and naturalization societies ban on populating their gardens and parks with plants and animals from the Old World, which accelerated their expansion. Ms. Ackerman writes, “the success of their spread is staggering.” She continues, “The transplants found a land much to their liking, rich in grain and horse droppings. They multiplied and dispersed rapidly, spilling into farming districts, where they exploited every source they could find—grains, small fruits, and succulent garden plants, such as young peas, turnips, cabbage, apples, peaches, plums, pears, and strawberries. Soon they were considered a serious pest. In 1889, just a few decades after the house sparrow’s introduction sparrow clubs were formed with the sole objective of destroying the birds, and county and state officials were offering two cents a head for each sparrow killed.

Before long, the birds had spread across the United States and Canada, adapting to environments as extreme as Death Valley, California at 280 feet below sea level, and the Colorado Rockies at more than10,000 feet above sea level. They moved southward into Mexico through Central and South America as far as Tierra del Fuego, and along the Trans-Amazonial Highway deep into the rainforests of Brazil. In Europe, Africa, and Asia, they dispersed to northern Finland, the Arctic, South Africa, and clear across Siberia.”

The house sparrow is the world’s most widely distributed wild bird, with a global breeding population of about 540 million. It’s on every continent except Antarctica and on islands everywhere, from Cuba and the West Indies to the Hawaiian Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and New Caledonia.

So what accounts for the success of the House Sparrow? Daniel Sol and Louis Lefebvre decided to see if brain size and intelligence might have anything to do with its success. When they studied the characteristics of the nineteen introduced species that “took” and those that failed to establish, two pronounced differences emerged, The more successful invaders have larger brains. They also had more innovative, flexible behavior of the kind Lefebvre documented in his avian IQ scale.

The pattern held when Sol later looked at 428 bird species that invaded areas around the world. Successful colonizers were brainy and inventive. Well represented among the intruders were the corvids; the house crow in Africa, Singapore, and the Arabian Peninsula; the jungle crow in Japan; the common raven in the American Southwest. All are big brained and considered pests in the regions they have invaded.

According to Ms. Ackerman here is a recipe for the house sparrow’s success:
*A taste for novelty
*A pinch of the innovative
*A dash of daring
*And, perhaps, a penchant for hanging out in mixed gangs

One wonders whether these traits will help the house sparrow cope with global warming. The 2014 Christmas Bird Count in Seattle totaled just 225 house sparrows within the city limits. Freeman says, “That’s the lowest total ever, and one piece of evidence that house sparrows may be declining. Around the globe, the bird is experiencing rapid and massive declines—in North America, Australia, and India, but especially in some towns and cities across Europe.

According to Vladimir Pravosudov, if the weather is warmer, winter will provide less selection pressure, so the birds may lose their edge, in both hippocampus size and intelligence. “If maintaining better memory has costs,” he argues, “smarter” birds will be at a disadvantage. Also, these populations will be quickly invaded by more southern, not-so-smart birds, which will lead to overall reduction in cognitive ability.”

A Mapping Mind

October 13, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds”, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons. It flies from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antartica. This is a round-trip of almost 44 thousand miles. So in an average 30 year lifetime a tern may fly the equivalent of 3 trips to the moon and back.

Pigeons are famous for their ability to navigate. Homing pigeons can be taken far distances from their homes and still find their way back. Indeed there are competitions among pigeons, or rather pigeon owners, to see how quickly and well their birds manage to return.

In a variety of areas, nest building for example, pigeons do not do well and may even appear dim-witted. But they are handy with numbers, capable not only of counting but also of grasping the arithmetic loss and gain and learning abstract rules about number, abilities Ms. Ackerman notes, on a par with primates. They can put images picturing to nine objects in proper order from lowest to highest number. They can also determine relative probability.

Pigeons are better than most people—and even better than some mathematicians—at solving certain statistical problems. One example is their ability to solve the Monty Hall Dilemma. Monty was the host of the televised game show Let’s Make a Deal. In the show a contestant would be asked to guess which of three doors concealed a grand prize, such as a car. The other two doors harbored a booby prize, such as a goat. After the player chose a door, one of the remaining doors was opened, revealing no prize. The contestants are then given the option of staying with the initial choice or switching to the other unopened door. The correct choice here is to switch. This very point has been argued among statisticians, but switching the choice doubles the chances of winning. An explanation of why this is so can be found online, as well as simulations that will demonstrate that this is so. Just enter Monty Hall Dilemma into the search box of your browser. Better yet, go to the Wikipedia.

During both world wars, pigeons were used for the quick conveyance of intelligence. Pigeons were suited up with ciphered papers and sent across enemy lines to relay news of troop movements or to communicate with resistance workers in occupied countries. At its peak in WW II, the U.S. Pigeon service possessed 54,000 birds. The most celebrated of these messengers was called G.I. Joe. Dispatched by the British to abort a scheduled bombing of a German-held town because a brigade of a thousand or more British troops was already occupying it, Joe made the 20 mile flight in 20 minutes, halting the bombers just as they were warming up for takeoff. Jungle Joe, a gallant four-month old bronze cock flew 225 miles against strong wind currents and over some of the highest mountains in Asia to deliver a message that led to the capture of large parts of Burma by Allied troops.

Officials in Cuba still use birds to transmit election results from remote mountainous areas, and the Chinese have recently built a force of 10,000 messenger pigeons to deliver military communications between troops stationed along their borders, in case of “electromagnetic interference or a collapse in our signals,” as explained by the officer in charge of the pigeon army.

In the 1940 the psychologist Edward proposed that mammals might possess a “cognitive map” of their spatial environment. Humans, being mammals, are also included here. Birds can also be included as it is clear that they are using a complex of cues, some of which we can imagine with the addition of electromagnetic fields to accomplish astonishing feats of navigation.

What structure in a bird brain could be critical to navigation? The same one that humans use, the hippocampus. This has been discussed in previous healthy memory blog posts including the anatomist John O’Keefe who won the 2014 Nobel Prized for demonstrating how this structure is used to navigate.

Not surprisingly, homing pigeons have a heftier hippocampus than other pigeon strains bred for their fancy features, such as fantails, pouters,, and strafers. This hippocampus prowess is not genetic, it is developed through learning. This has also been confirmed in humans with studies done of London cab drivers with The Knowledge, the memorization of all streets and notable places in London.

Aesthetic Aptitude

October 12, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds”, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. When early European naturalists found beautiful creations deep in the Australian forest they thought they had stumbled on fanciful dollhouses made by aboriginal children or their mothers. Actually these artistic creations where the product of birds designing their homes and enhancing their beauty with artistic creations.

Birds are visual creatures. They make quick decisions based on visual information from heights at great speed. Pigeons shown a series of landscape photographs taken successively can detect slight visual differences that are hard for humans to pick up. They can also recognize other pigeons by sight alone. So can chickens. Just because the powerful small central nervous systems of these birds are organized very differently from our own does not mean that they are less capable of exceptional visual perception and fine discriminations.

Shigeru Watanabe of Keio Univereity in Japan studies how other creatures may experience aesthetics. He has tested the ability of birds to discriminate between human paintings of different styles. For example, the ability to discriminate cubist paintings from impressionistic paintings. In an early study he trained eight pigeons to distinguish between the works of Picasso and Monet. The pigeons came from the Japanese Society for Racing Pigeons. The paintings came from reproductions in an art book. The experimenters trained the pigeons to spot ten different Picassos and ten different Monets by rewarding them when they correctly pecked at the pictures. Then they tested the birds with new paintings by the artists, never seen during training as well as paintings by different artists in the same style. Not only could the pigeons pick out a new Monet or Picasso, they could also tell other impressionists (Renoir, for example) from other cubists (such as Braque).

Vocal Virtuosity

October 11, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds”, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. The vocal virtuosity of birds is evident. What was only discovered fairly recently was special organ birds have that enables this virtuosity. This unique instrument is called a syrinx. It took a long time for scientists to learn its details because the syrinx is buried in the bird’s chest, where the trachea splits in two to send air to the bronchi. Only recently did a researcher produce a stunning high-resolution three dimensional image of the organ in action, using magnetic resonance imaging and microcomputer tomography.

The syrinx is made of delicate cartilage and two membranes that vibrate with airflow at super fast speeds—one on each side of the syrinx—to created two independent sources of sounds. Gifted songbirds such as the mockingbird and canary can vibrate each of their two membranes independently, producing two different, harmonically unrelated notes at the same time—a low-frequency sound on the left, a high-frequency sound on the right. These birds can shift the volume and frequency of each with breathtaking speed to produce some of the most acoustically complex and varied vocal sounds in nature. In contrast, when humans talk, all of our pitch, all the harmonics of our vocalizations, move in the same direction.

Songbirds such as European starlings and zebra finches can contract and relax these tiny vocal muscles with sub millisecond precision at more than a hundred times faster than the blink of an eye. The winter wren is a bird known for its swift song delivery. It sings as many as 36 notes per second, which is much too fast for our ears or brain to perceive or absorb. Some birds can manipulate their syrinx to mimic human speech.

Not surprisingly, birds with a more elaborate set of syringe muscles can produce more elaborate songs. The mockingbird has seven pairs that allow him to perform his vocal gymnastics over and over with little effort. This can be 17, 18, 19 songs per minute. Between the notes, he takes tiny breaths to replenish his air supply.

Of course, more than the syrinx is involved. Songs must be initiated and coordinated with the bird’s brain. Nerve signals from an elaborate network of brain areas control each of the muscles, coordinating nerve impulses from his left and right brain hemispheres to the muscles of the two halves of his syrinx, creating just the right airflow in each necessary to produce the hundreds of different imitated phrases he sings.

Scientists use sonograms or spectrograms to assess the accuracy of this sounds. These are visual printouts of sound (with frequency or pitch on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis) that scientists use to detect subtle differences in birdsong. Sonograms comparing a prototype song and the mockingbird’s copy show that the imitator sings nuthatch and thrush and whip-poor-will with almost perfect fidelity. When a mockingbird sings a cardinal’s song, it actually mimics the muscular patters of the cardinal. If the notes of his model fall outside his normal frequency range, he substitutes a note or omits it, lengthening other notes to match the song in duration. If he’s facing a too-rapid-fire delivery of notes such as a canary’s, he clusters the notes and pauses to breathe while maintaining identical song length.

The mockingbird is not the only mimic. A cousin Mimidae, the brown thrasher, can mimic ten times the number of songs a mockingbird sings, thought not with as much accuracy. European starlings are also accomplished mimics, as are nightingales, which can imitate some 60 different songs after hearing each only a few times. Marsh warblers sing a wild, urgent, international pastiche of a song peppered with the tunes of more than one hundred other species.

Some birds, the African grey parrot, the mynah, and the cockatoo excel at imitating human speech. There are a few others in the corvid and parrot families, parakeets being one example.

It’s quite an accomplishment for birds to imitate human sounds. Humans form vowels and consonants with their lips and tongue, which are among the most supple, flexible, and indefatigable parts of the human body. For birds, with no lips and with tongues that generally aren’t used for making sounds, it is a tall order indeed to take on the nuances of human speech. Parrots are unusual in that they use their tongues while calling and can manipulate them to articulate vowel sounds.

Parrots have been known to teach other parrots to talk smack. People have reported wild cockatoos swearing in the outback. An ornithologist speculated that the wild birds had learned from once-domesticated cockatoos and other parrots that had escaped and survived long enough to join a flock and share words they have picked up in captivity. Ms. Ackerman comments, “if true, a fine example of cultural transmission.”

Social Savvy

October 10, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds”, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. Ms. Ackerman writes, “Many bird species are highly social. They breed in colonies, bathe in groups, roost in congregations, forage in flocks. They eavesdrop. They argue. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war with twigs, strands of Spanish moss, bits of gauze. They pilfer from their neighbors. They warn their young away from strangers. They tease. They share. They cultivate social relationships. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.

The expression “pecking order” comes from studies of the social relations among chickens by the Norwegian zoologist Thorlief Schjelderup-Ebbe, who found that a pecking order are ladder like, with the top rung conferring great privilege in the form of food and safety, and the bottom rung fraught with vulnerability and risk.

In 1976, Nichols Humphrey, a psychologist at the London School of Economics developed the idea that a demanding social life might drive the evolution of brainpower. Humphrey was working with monkeys, but now scientists believe that many bird species are not so different. Birds living in social groups have to sort out social contacts, smooth ruffled feathers, and avoid squabbles. They need to monitor the behavior of others to make decisions about whether to cooperate or compete, whom to communicate with, and whom to learn from. They have to recognize many individuals, keep track of them, remember what this or that confederate did the last time—and predict what he or she will do now. Since many species of birds share the same kind of social challenges that may have fueled intelligence in primates, their brains, like ours, may be “designed’ to manage relationships.

Reciprocity in the form of gift giving is another kind of social behavior unusual in nonhumans but fairly common among certain birds, including crows. Tales have one in of crows offering gifts of jewelry, hardware, shards of glass, a Santa figurine, a foam dart from a toy gun, and a Donald Duck Pez dispenser.

Crows and ravens balk at doing work for less reward than a peer is getting. This sensitivity to inequity had previously been thought to exist only in primates and dogs and is considered a crucial cognitive tool in the evolution of human cooperation.

Corvids and cockatoos will delay gratification if they think a reward is worth waiting for. This is a form of emotional intelligence involving self-control, persistence and the ability to motivate oneself. It is an important skill for human success. Consider the famous marshmallow test. The first studies were done by psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s at a preschool on the Stanford University campus. The test involve placing a marshmallow before a four year old. The child was told that the researcher was going to leave for 15 to 20 minutes, but if they child could save the marshmallow until he retired, she would be rewarded with another marshmallow. Some children managed to resist and got the second marshmallow reward, and some didn’t. The ramifications of this study did not become clear until 12 to 14 years later. Those who had resisted temptation at 4 were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties. The children who had grabbed the marshmallow were just the opposite. The children who were able to delay gratification were also much better students. But, perhaps what was most astonishing were SAT scores. The third of the children who at four grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and a quantitative scorer of 528. The third who waited the longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively—a 210 difference in total score.

Some birds species have remarkable memories for social relationships. Thomas Bugnyar, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Vienna found that ravens remember their valued friends even after a separation of as long as three years. Corvids recognize and recall not only fellow corvids, but humans too. They can pick out familiar human faces from a crowd, particularly those that represent a threat and remember them for long periods of time.

There is also much evidence that there are birds that have a theory of mind, that is they can think like another bird or animal is thinking. Two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Chey argue that even the most complex human forms of theory of mind have their foots in what they call a subconscious appreciation of others’ intentions and perspectives.

Birds are Technical Wizards

October 9, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds”, a book by Jennifer Ackerman. There are many accounts of birds using found objects as tools—to contain water water or scratch their backs, wipe themselves down or lure prey. For example, white storks bring water to their chicks in a clump of damp moss and then wring it out to fill their beaks. African greys arrest bail water from their dish with a tobacco pipe or bottle cap. American crows ferry water in a Frisbee to dampen its dried mash, and another one secured a plastic Slinky toy onto its perch and used the free end to scratch its head. A Gila woodpecker fashioned a wooden scoop out of tree bark to carry honey home to its young. A blue jay used its own body as a napkin to rid ants of their noxious formic acid spray, making them fit for eating.

Birds also use objects as weapons. An American crow lobbed three pinecones at a scientist’s head as he climbed up to its nest. A pair of ravens defending their nestlings from two intruding researchers used similar tactics but harder weaponry. A raven took a rock in its beak and with a quick flip of its head tossed the rock down to the target. It was followed by six more one after another, assaulting the scientists who were trying to study them.

Several kinds of birds use objects as lures to draw fish. Green herons are expert bait fishers, drawn to entice their prey with bread, popcorn, seeds, flowers, live insets, spiders, feathers, and pellets of fish food.

For the burrowing owl, dung is the decoy of choice. These owls scatter clumps of animal feces near the mouth of their nest chambers and wait motionless like muggers for unsuspecting dung beetles to scuttle toward their trap.

Nuthatches hold bark flakes or scales in their bills to level the bark from trees, exposing the bugs beneath.

Black palm cockatoos regularly use sticks, twigs, and branches as drumsticks to thrum a hollow tree for territorial display or to direct a female’s attention to a possible breeding holes. These items are used as back scratchers (as well as head, neck, and throat scratchers by yellow-crested cockatoos and African grey parrots. Bald eagles used a stick to bludgeon a turtle with a stick held in its bill.

Behavioral biologist Sabine Tebbich did a detailed study of a woodpecker finch to see how birds acquire their use of tools. At first the finch showed little interest in objects. When he was almost two months old, he began to play with flower stems and small twigs, twiddling them in his beak and holding them at right angles to his bill. He soon was investigating everything around him with great curiosity, tweaking buttons, nibbling pencils, yanking hair through the small ventilation holes in a slouch hat, prying apart toes with his beak and tools inspecting ears and earrings. Within three months, he was an accomplished tool user and had broadened his toolkit, probing cracks with twigs, a feather, fragments of water-worn glass, wool slivers, shell pieces, and the hind leg of a large tree grasshopper. He also inserted a twig between a sock and a boot.

The New Caledonian crow leads in terms of artful toolmaking and tool use in the wild. Ms. Ackerman writes, “when it comes to the nuts and bolts of too crafting, only chimps and orangutans match or exceed the sophistication of the New Caledonian crow, and not even these hotshot primates can make hook tools, These crows make not one but two kinds of hook tools—one from live twigs and the other from the barbed edges of leaves of pandas trees, or screw pines.

One wonders whether birds play? Do they do things just for fun? Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton suggest that larger-brained, altricial species of birds do play as do many mammals. It does seem to be relatively uncommon in birds, seen in only 1% of the approximately 10,000 species and is largely restricted to species with an extended developmental period, such as crows and parrots. Emery and Clayton say that play may reduce stress, aid social bonding and induce pleasure. They explain “Birds, like us, may also play because it is fun; it produces a pleasurable experience—releasing endogenous opioids.”

Bird Minds

October 8, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds,” a book by Jennifer Ackerman. Like humans, birds are kingdom Animalia; phylum Chordata; subphylum Vertebrata. There the common descent ends. Birds are class Aves; humans are Mammalia. Aristotle wrote in his History of Animals that animals carry elements of our “human qualities and attitudes,” such as “fierceness, mildness or cross-temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning, and with regard to intelligence, something akin to sagacity.”

When HM was a graduate student anthropomorphizing, claiming that an animal had anything like human intelligence, consciousness, or subjective feeling was a mortal sin. But if HM imposed this standard on his fellow humans he would have been unable to communicate or interact with them effectively. Although one needs to tread carefully in this area, wouldn’t it be a mistake to assume that because bird brains are fundamentally different from us and ours, that there is nothing in common between our mental abilities and theirs? Darwin in his book The Descent of Man argued that animals and humans differ in their mental powers only in degree, not in kind. As was discussed in previous posts, many have strong feelings regarding the possibility of kinship. Primatologist Frans de Waal calls this “anthropodenial,” blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other species. He says, “Those who are in anthropodenial try to build a brick wall to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

There are many ways of measuring birds’ intelligence And there is a very wide range of intelligence across the species. It ranges from the extremely slow, to some that appear to verge on genius. Lefebvre thought that a good way of estimating bird intelligence would be to look at occurrences of birds doing unusual new things in the wild. This notion had been proposed three decades earlier by Jane Goodall and her colleague Hans Kummer. They made a plea for measuring a wild animal’s intelligence by looking at its ability to find solutions to problems in its natural setting. This can be found in an animal’s ability to innovate in its own environment, “to find solutions to a novel problem, or a novel solution to an old one.”

So the task becomes finding which kinds of birds are the most innovative in the wild. Lefebvre said, “Experimental and observational studies of cognition are important, but a taxonomic count like this would provide a unique opportunity and would avoid some of the pitfalls of animal intelligence studies,” such as using testing devices that are far removed from what an animal does in its natural environment.

Lefebvre reviewed seventy-five years worth of bird journals for reports featuring key words like “unusual,” “novel,” or “first reported instance,” and came up with more than 2300 examples from hundreds of different species. Some of these were discoveries of strange new finds such as a roadrunner sitting on a roof next to a hummingbird feeder and picking off the hummers; a great skua in Antartica snuggling in among newborn seal pups and sipping milk from their lactating mother; herons holding down a rabbit or a muskrat; a pelican in London swallowing pigeon; a gull ingesting a blue jay; or a normally insectivorous yellowhead in New Zealand seen for the first time time eating bush lily fruits.

Taken from “The Genius of Birds:” Other examples involved ingenious new ways of getting at food. There was the cowbird in South Africa using a twig to pick through cow dung. Several observers noted instances of green herons using insects as bait, placing them delicately on the surface of the water to lure fish. A herring gull adapted its normal shell-dropping technique to nail a rabbit. Bald eagles ice fishing in northern Arizona discovered a cache of dead fathead minnow forces under the surface of an ice-covered lake. They were seen chipping holes in the ice, then jumping up and down on the surface, using their body weight to push the minnows up through the holes. There was a report of vultures in Zimbabwe that perched on barbed-wire fences near minefields during the wars of liberation, waiting for gazelles and other grazers to wander and detonate the explosives providing a pulverized ready-made meal.

The smartest birds according Lefevbre’s scale.
Corvids with ravens and crows as the clear outliers along with parrots. Then came grackles, raptors (especially falcons and hawks, woodpeckers, hornbills, gulls, kingfishers, roadrunners and herons. Also high on this totem pole were birds in the sparrow and tit families. Owls were excluded because they are nocturnal and their innovations are rarely observed directly. Among those at the low end were quails, ostriches, bustards, turkeys, and nightjars.

Lefebvre examined if families of birds that show a lot of innovation behaviors in the wild have bigger brains. In most cases, there was a correlation. Two birds weighing 320 grams: the American crow, with an innovation count of sixteen has a brain of 7 grams, while a partridge , with one innovation, has a brain of only 1.9 grams. Two smaller birds weighing 85 grams: the great spotted woodpecker, with an innovation rate of nine has a braining weighing 2.7 grams, and the quail with one innovation, only 0.73 gram.

The Avian Brain

October 7, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds,” a book by Jennifer Ackerman. The chickadee is more than just a bird of verve and agility. It’s also acrobatic in its aptitudes, curious intelligent, and opportunistic with a prodigious memory. It is a bird masterpiece beyond in the words of Forbush. The chickadee family rates right up there with woodpeckers on Lefevbre’s IQ scale. Chickadees stash seeds and other food in thousands of different hiding places to eat later. They can remember where they put a single food item for up to six months. And they do this with a brain roughly twice the size of a garden pea. The chickadee has double the brain size of birds in the same body-weight range, such as a flycatcher or swallow. Many bird species have surprisingly large brains for their body size. Scientists call them hyper inflated, much like our brains.

Birds have condensed genomes, which may be an adaptation to powered flight. Birds have the smallest genomes of any amniote, the group of animals, including reptiles and mammals, that lay their eggs on land. The typical mammal has a genome ranging from 1 billion to 8 billion base pairs, whereas in birds it hovers at around 1 billion. This is the result of fewer repeat elements and a large number of so-called deletion events, in which DNA has been expunged over evolutionary time. This more compressed genome might allow a bird to regulate its genes more rapidly to meet the requirements of flight.

Birds evolved from dinosaurs during the Jurassic period, 150 million to 160 million years ago. Paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh says that we find that there is no clear distinction between ‘dinosaur’ and bird.’ A dinosaur didn’t just change into a bird one day. The bird body plan began early and was assembled gradually, piece by piece over 100 million years of steady evolution.

Birds have their eggheads and their pinheads. Not all birds have big brains for their body size. For example, birds of a similar size, a crow (with a brain of 7 to 10 grams) and a partridge (only 1.9 grams) have different sized brains. But two smaller birds, the great spotted woodpecker (with a brain of 2.7 grams) and the quail (0.73 gram) have different sized brains.

Reproductive strategy plays a role in brain size. The 20% of bird species that are precocial—born with their eyes open and able to leave the nest within a day or two—have larger brains at birth than altricial birds. These are born, naked, blind, and helpless and remain in the nest unit they’re as big as their parents, and only then do they fully fledge. Precocial birds, such as shorebirds, typically take to life straightaway. Though their brains are relatively large at hatching—allowing them to catch and eat an insect or run short distances when only days old—they don’t grow much after birth, so they end up smaller than the brains of altricial birds. So, nest sitters end up with bigger brains than nest quitters.

Brain size is also correlated with how long a bird stays in its nest to apprentice with its parents after fledging. The longer the juvenile period, the bigger the brain, perhaps so that a bird can store all it learns. Long childhoods are characteristic of most intelligent animal species.

Birds experience the same cycles of slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) that humans do. Scientists believe that these patterns of brain activity play a crucial role in the growth of big brains. Birds rarely have REM sleep longer than 10 seconds, packaged into hundreds of episodes per sleep period, while humans have several bouts of REM sleep per night, each lasting ten minutes to an hour. For both mammals and birds, REM sleep might be especially needed for the early development of the brain. Newborn mammals such as kittens have much more REM sleep than adult cats. Human babies may spend up to half their sleep in the REM stage, whereas for adults, it’s about 20%. Similarly young owlets have more REM sleep that older owlets.

Both birds and humans have periods of deep, slow-wave sleep in direct proportion to how long they’ve been awake. And in both birds and humans, the brain regions used more extensively in waking hours sleep more deeply during subsequent sleep.

A research team headed by Niels Rattenborg at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology made use of a bird’s ability humans do not have. Birds can modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye, limiting the slow-wave sleep to only one half of the brain while keeping the other half alert. It takes very little thought to understand how such a capability is beneficial to birds. The team built a little movie theater for several pigeons, blocked one eye in each of them. and showed them David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds. After staying awake watching the film for eight hours with a single eye, the birds were allowed to sleep. Studies of their brain activity showed deeper slow-wave sleep in the visual processing region of the brain connected to the stimulated eye.

Rattenborg says that both humans and birds showing this kind of localized brain effect suggest that slow-wave sleep may play a role in maintaining optimal brain functioning. “overall, the parallels between mammalian and avian sleep raise the intriguing possibility that their independent evolution may be related to the function served by the pattern of sleep: the evolution of large, complex brains in both birds and mammals.”

Erich Jarvis says, “About 75% of our forebrain is cortex and the same is true for birds, particularly species of songbirds and parrots. They have as much ‘cortex’, relatively speaking, as we do. It’s just not organized the way ours is.” The author continues, “Whereas the nerve cells in a mammal’s neocortex are stacked in six distinct layers like plywood, those in the bird’s cortex like structure cluster like cloves in a garlic bulb. But the cells themselves are basically the same, capable of rapid and repetitive firing, and the way they function is equally sophisticated, flexible, and inventive. Moreover, they use the same chemical neurotransmitters to signal between them. And perhaps most important, bird and mammal brains share similar nerve circuits, or pathways between brain regions—which turns out to be vital for complex behavior. It’s the connections, the links between brain cells, that matter in the matter of intelligence. And in this regard, bird brains are not so different from our own.

Irene Pepperberg offers this computer analogy. Mammalian brains are like PCs, she says, while bird brains are like Apples. The processing is different, but the output is similar.

The Genius of Birds

October 6, 2019

“The Genius of Birds” is a book by Jennifer Ackerman. There will be many posts based on this book. Readers may well ask why is the Healthymemory Blog devoting so many posts to this topic The answer is learning new topics helps build a healthymemory and there are many useful concepts to be learned. Unfortunately, most of what has been learned about birds is relatively new, and the rest has been buried in academic tomes. And, unfortunately, birds have a bad press and many misconceptions to overcome, bird brain being the first. This slur came from the belief that birds had brains so diminutive they had to be devoted only to instinctual behavior. Ms. Ackerman notes, “the avian brain had no cortex like ours, where all the “smart” stuff happens.” We thought that birds had minimal noggins for good reason: to allow for airborne ways; to defy gravity, to hover, arabesque, dive, soar for days on end, migrate thousands of miles, and maneuver in tight spaces.

Research, however, has taught us otherwise, Bird brains are very different from our own. This is not surprising as humans and birds have been evolving independently for a very long time, since our last common ancestor more than 300 million years ago. However, some birds have relatively large brains for their size, as do we. And when it comes to brainpower, size seems to matter less than the number of neurons, where they’re located, and how they’re connected. And some bird brains pack very high numbers of neurons where it counts, with densities akin to those found in primates, and links and connections similar to ours. As will be seen in subsequent posts, certain birds have sophisticated cognitive abilities.

Ms. Ackerman writes, “In judging the overall intelligence of animals, scientists may look at how successful they are at surviving and reproducing in many different environments. By this measure, birds trump nearly all vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. They live in every part of the globe, from the equator to the poles, from the lowest deserts to the highest peaks, in virtually every habitat, on land, sea, and in bodies of freshwater.

As a class, birds have been around more than 100 million years. They are one of nature’s great success stories, inventing new strategies for survival, their own distinctive brands of ingenuity that, in some respects at least, seem to far outpace our own.”

Birds possess ways of knowing that are hard to understand, which we can’t easily dismiss as merely instinctual or hardwired. Ms. Ackerman writes, “What kind of intelligence allows a bird to anticipate the arrival of a distant storm? Or find its way to a place it has never been to before though it may be thousands of miles away? Or precisely imitate the complex songs of hundreds of other species? Or hide tens of thousands of seeds over hundreds of square miles and remember where to put them six months later?