Archive for the ‘Human Memory: Theory and Data’ Category

More Memory and Problem Solving Techniques

October 8, 2017

Part of this post is based on the book by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. titled “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).” It is difficult to learn and remember nonsensical material. So you need to look for meaning in what you’re trying to learn. Suppose you were trying to learn a list of words and you noticed that the words belonged to specific categories. When you recall the list you should group your recall by these categories. This makes meaningful chunks for you to remember. So rather than recalling a list of, say eighteen items, you would recall them by chunks, say six categories each of which included three items. Note that this chunking is effectively reducing the number of items to recall from eighteen to six.

Suppose the list consisted of eighteen unrelated words. Your recall strategy should still be to chunk the items into smaller groups. If you can’t find meaning you can simply rehearse the items in these chunks. Chunking effectively reduces the total number of items to be recalled.

You should note that there is an entire category of healthy memory posts called mnemonic techniques. These are specific techniques for making material more meaningful and easier to learn.

Remember the distinction between information that is available in memory and information that is accessible in memory. Information that is accessible in memory can be readily recalled. However, information can be available in memory but cannot be accessed at the moment.

When HM was in college and bought used books, they usually had sections highlighted in them. He wonder how these previous owners used this highlighting. If they just reread the highlighted material, they might fool themselves into thinking that they would remember the material for the test. It is quite possible that although this information was available in memory, the student might not have been able to access the material during testing. So even if the test is going to be multiple choice, you should force yourself to actively recall the material. And to increase your probability of success, actively recall the material many times.

HM never highlighted sections or made notes directly in the book. He would review the book, to assure himself that he was not missing anything, but would actively recall the material he thought would be on the test. Understand he was not memorizing verbatim the text, but rather the meaning and important points of the text.

HM made it through his entire education up to and including his Ph.D without ever pulling an all nighter for a test. All nighters make absolutely no sense. One needs to be alert and at one’s best when taking a test. Moreover, sleep is required for memories to consolidate. So sleep itself is required for test preparation.

Generally speaking cramming is a lousy technique. Research has shown the advantage of spaced over massed practice. So it is good to try to recall material at multiple intervals, with increased spacing between the intervals.

Here are Steps provided by Dr. Oakley for building a powerful chunk
1.  Work a key problem all the way through on paper.
2.  Do another repetition of the problem, paying attention to key processes
3.  Take a break. Study other aspects of the subject or simply do something different. You need to give yourself your diffuse mode (see the immediately preceding post) time to internalize the problem
4.  Sleep. Before you go to sleep, work the problem again. If you get stuck, listen to the problem. Let your subconscious tell you what to do next.
5.  Do another repetition.

Much of this book addresses procrastination. Now there is a ton of material on procrastination and will power in the healthy memory blog. Just enter those terms in the search block of the healthy memory blog.

As was already mentioned, the Mnemonic Techniques category has many posts on techniques and methods for improving memory. That same category also has posts on mindfulness and meditation, which are also techniques that should enhance focus which is essential to effective memory.

But as always, HM cannot do full justice to this book. So reading the original is always recommended.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Two Modes of Learning

October 7, 2017

This post is based on the book by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. titled “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).” Since the beginning of he twenty-first century, neuroscientists have been making important advances in understanding two different types of networks that the brain switches between. These are the highly attentive states and the more relaxed resting states. The thinking processes related to these two different modes are the focused mode and the diffuse mode. We frequently switch back and forth between these two modes in our day-to-day activities. We’re in either one mode or the other and are not consciously in both at the same time. The diffuse mode seems to be able to work quietly in the background on something we are not actively focusing on. The diffuse mode is the default mode when we are not actively focusing on something. When we are in the focused mode actively focusing on something we may also flicker for a moment to diffuse-mode thinking.

Focused-mode thinking is essential for studying math and science. It involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches. The focused mode is associated with the concentrating abilities of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is located right behind our forehead. When we turn our attention to something the focused mode is on.

Diffuse-mode thinking is also essential for learning math and science. It is associated with “big-picture” perspectives and allows us to suddenly gain a new insight on a problem we’ve been struggling with. Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when we relax our attention and let our mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. The diffuse mode is “diffused” throughout the brain. Dr. Oakley writes that “Diffuse mode insights often flow from preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode (The diffuse mode must have clay to make bricks.”)

Of course, to begin to solve a problem we need to focus on it. However, even early in problem solving switching to diffuse mode thinking might help in bringing additional thoughts to the problem. But then we need to focus on the problem to solve it. Sometimes the solution comes readily to mind, but sometimes the solution evades us as we continue to focus. When stuck, relax and switch to the diffuse mode. The problem solving process can involve many iterations between focused and diffused processing. Knowing when and how frequently to switch develop as our problem solving skills mature.

Sometimes problems cannot be solved during one sitting. Nevertheless, our brains keep working on the problem, and sometimes they suddenly pop into consciousness. This can happen long after you think you have given up on the problem. This is HM’s favorite type of problem solving and it’s called incubation. There are stories of mathematicians and scientists going years without being able to solve an important problem and it suddenly pops into mind.
However, it is important not to rely too heavily on incubation. Continue to return to the problem and try to solve it.

Focused problem solving in math and science is frequently more effortful that focused-mode thinking involving language and people. This is likely because humans have not involved over the millennia to manipulate mathematical ideas, which are usually more abstractly encrypted than those of conventional language. Dr Oakley writes “Obviously we can still think about math and science—it’s just that abstractness adds a level—sometime a number of levels—of complexity.

Dr. Oakley also warns of the Einstellung effect. Here an idea you already have in mind, or your simple initial thought, prevents a better idea or solution from being found. She writes that the Einstellung effect is a frequent stumbling block for students. She continues, “This is precisely why one significant mistake students sometime make in learning math and science is jumping into the water before they learn to swim. …they blindly start working on homework without reading the textbook, attending lectures, viewing online lessons, or speaking with someone knowledgeable. This is a recipe for sinking.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Excel at Learning

October 6, 2017

This post is based on another book by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. titled “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).”  Note that the title of this post is different from the title of the book, the reasoning being that this book provides excellent material for learning in general—not just for math and science.

The immediately preceding posts were based on another book by Dr. Oakley, “Mindshift.” After she graduated from high school she enlisted in the army because they would actually pay her to learn another language. She did so well studying Russian that she won an ROTC scholarship. She graduated with honors and found herself commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. She was suddenly expected to become an expert in radio, cable, and telephone switching systems. She went from being on top of the world as an expert linguist, to being thrown into a new technological world where she was as stunted as a stump.

She was made to enroll in mathematically oriented electronics training where she finished at the bottom of the class, and was then sent off to West Germany, where she said she became a pitiable communications platoon leader. She saw that officers and enlisted members who were technically competent were in demand.

She didn’t see a future for herself in the army, but neither did she see much of a future as someone with a degree in Slavic languages and literature. She used the GI Bill to retrain her brain and learn math and science. She writes that it wasn’t easy and that the first semesters were filled with frightening frustration. She writes that she felt like she was wearing a blindfold.

Eventually she began to catch on. She found that part of her original problem was she had been putting her effort forth in the wrong way—like trying to lift a piece of lumber while standing on it. She began to pick up little tricks about not only how to study but also when to quit. She learned that internalizing certain concepts and techniques could be a powerful tool. She also learned not to take in too much at once, and allowed herself plenty of time to practice even if it meant that her classmates would sometime graduate ahead of her because she wasn’t taking as many courses each semester as they were.

She found that as she gradually learned how to learn math and science, things became easier, and just as with studying language, the better she got, the more she enjoyed what she was doing. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and then a master’s in electrical and computer engineering. Eventually she earned a doctorate in systems engineering, with a broad background that included thermodynamics, electromagnetic, acoustics, and physical chemistry. The higher she went, the better she did.

As was mentioned in the first paragraph, this book is for anyone who wants to learn more effectively. Students find that they can do okay in other subjects, but they run into trouble when they hit math and science. Actually, they have poor methods of studying, but they manage to get by without realizing that their studying is deficient until the encounter math and science. Nevertheless, the methods presented in this book will increase learning efficiency regardless the topic.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindshift

October 4, 2017

“Mindshift” is outstanding book by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. The subtitle is “Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.” Growth mindsets are a central theme of the healthymemory blog. Basically, a mindshift is a shift in the focus of a growth mindset.

This concept of mindshift assumes special importance in today’s world, where workers fear being replaced by robots, and in the changing nature of jobs and the need to update skills for jobs.

Dr. Oakley has an interesting and relevant life story. Her father was in the military and she moved constantly doing her childhood. Her father wanted her to attend college and study math and science. Unfortunately, the only thing she was certain about was that she did not like math and science and did not think that she had any aptitude in math and science. However, she did like studying languages so she began studying French and German. At the time there were no available college loans so she enlisted in the military where she could get paid to study a language. So she studied Russian and learned the language.

When she got out of the army, she could not find any interest in her Russian skills. The jobs were in engineering and science and required advanced mathematical skills. So she moved into a new area for which she thought she had no aptitude. However, she found through diligent work that she was able to learn these subjects, and as she became proficient in these subjects, she found that she enjoyed them. So today she is a professor of engineering, firmly planted in the world of math and science. Along with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, she teaches the most popular online course in the world—“Learning How to Learn”—for Coursera/UC San Diego.

She writes that a “mindshift” is a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning, and that is what this book is about. She relates true and inspirational stories of how people change themselves through learning—and who bring seemingly obsolete extraneous knowledge with them that has enabled our world to grown in fantastically creative and uplifting ways.

Diverse examples are provided. Some mindshifts were motivated by necessity. In others, successful people changed their mindsets to pursue new interests and different directions. Readers will be inspired by these examples and by what we know from science of learning to help us grow to achieve our fullest potential.

A recurring theme in the healthymemory blog is to have a growth mindset and to continue to learn to the end of our lives. MIndshift provides additional means for pursuing this end. Not only are instructions on learning how to learn discussed, but available resources for growth mindsets and mindshifts are provided.

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Ikigai Fosters Healthy Aging

October 3, 2017

This post is based on an article by Judith Graham in the Health Section of the 26 September 2017 issue of the Washington Post titled “Healthy Aging.” Ikigai is a topic that has been addressed in many healthy memory blog posts. It is a Japanese word meaning to have a purpose in life.

Ms. Graham writes, “Over the past two decades dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation. “

The article continues by summarizing a report in JAMA Psychiatry that older adults with a solid sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds, which are key indicators of how rapidly people are aging. Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health. Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychology and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis says, “Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health.”

Now the question becomes how to achieve ikigai. Obviously taking care of a loved one qualifies. Doing important volunteer is another. And we can create our own sources of ikigai. If there are any degrees that need to be completed, they can be completed. Or you can start work on a new degree. A formal education system is not needed. Goals can consist of learning new bodies of knowledge using the internet and the public library. This healthy memory blog is a source of ikigai for HM.

Ikigai is important for everyone, not just the aging. The healthy memory blog post “Loneliness” discussed the problem of loneliness among the young and means of dealing with it. One means was to find a project you can be devoted to can achieve ikigai to the point that you’ll no longer feel lonely.

This what Steve Cole at UCLA writes about loneliness, “finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life can overcome the negative effects of loneliness. If you think of lonely people as having a world view of threat and hostility, this study suggests that you can attack this underlying psychology by becoming engaged in help others, trying to make the world a better place. I’m kind of excited about that as an obliques attack on loneliness.” All of this fits in with with the work of Victor J. Stretcher, which he describes in his book, “Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Changes Everything.” There have been many healthy memory posts based on this book.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Walking to Work or Doing the Vacuuming Can Extend Your Life

October 2, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an In Brief News piece in the 30 September 2017 issue of the New Scientist. One in 12 early deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of physical activity, five days a week. And you don’t need to be sweating in a gym. Walking to work and household chores also count. So concludes the world’s largest study of physical activity, which analyzed data from more than 130,000 people in 17 countries. The study lasted seven years and participants were followed-up at least twice over the this period to record information about cardiovascular disease and death.

Scott Lear of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada and his colleagues found that 150 minutes of activity per week week reduced the risk of early death by 28% and rates of heart disease by a fifth.

If these goals were met, 8% of early deaths over seven years would be prevented (The Lancet, doi.org/cdfc). James Rudd at the University of Cambridge says, “Exercise truly is the best medicine for reducing the odds of an early death.”

HM fears he sees too many people exercising too hard. He was gladdened by this study as he follows the philosophy of famed pitcher Satchel Paige who said that he liked to get the juices jangling.

Also see the healthy memory blog post “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus.” Walking for 40 minutes three times a week increased the volume of that memory important organ, the hippocampus. This also increased serum Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps support the survival of existing neurons and encourages the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Progress in Developing a Way to Diagnose CTE

October 1, 2017

Much of this post is based on an article by Rick Maese titled “Breakthrough may lead to ability to diagnose CTE in living football players in the Sports section of the 27 September 2017 issue of the Washington Post.

There have been many previous posts, including the immediately preceding one, on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers from Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System studied the brains of 23 former football players who were diagnosed with CTE, in addition to those of 50 non-athletes who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and 18 non-athlete controls. They found significantly elevated levels of a protein related to inflammation called CCL11 in the group of ex-players compared with non-athletes. Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist credited with some of the most high-profile CTE diagnoses was encouraged but cautioned that more research is needed. Until this discovery the diagnosis needed to be performed on cadavers. Now the diagnosis can be made on the living. The hope is that research into the prevention and treatment of the disease can begin to move forward.

Let us indulge in the fantasy that CTE can be cured and consider what the ramifications of that might be. The NFL might be encouraged to continue playing the game as it is currently played and treat players who developed CTE. Their fear is that changing the game could reduce fans and revenues.

But for everyone else, the basic problem would remain. The immediately preceding post discussed children. Why we would ever consider putting them at risk? The same goes for players in secondary schools. Then there is the college game. The college game is also concerned with revenues. It is ironic that institutions whose goal is to foster the development of brains and minds engages in activities the puts the brain and mind at risk. However, one gets the impression that at some schools the brain and mind might well take second place to football. At the University of Alabama, for example, the outside linebacker coach earns more than the president of the university.

The immediately preceding post suggested that the game could be modified to reduce or eliminate head injuries. Football is a fast game that can involve sophisticated offenses and defenses. It seems that the game could be changed so that these features could be maintained and head injuries severely reduced if not eliminated by reducing the hits and the violence. These changes could also reduce the need for linemen to increase their weights to over 300 pounds to be eligible for athletic scholarships. As the number of colleges who actually realize substantial profits for the game is fairly small, this could be the route to go. And perhaps HM is too pessimistic in thinking that it is the violence that has the basic appeal and that professional football could also change.

Much hope is being placed in equipment changes. Unfortunately, in the past this seems to have encouraged harder hitting rather than safer play.
© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Football Before Age 12 Can Lead to Behavior Issues

September 30, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Rick Maese in the Sports section of the 20 September 2017 Issue of the Washington Post.
A study published recently in the medical journal Translational Psychiatry reported that those who participated in football before age 12 were twice as likely to have problems with behavior regulation, apathy, and executive functioning when the get older. Executive functioning includes initiating activities, problem solving, planning, and organizing. The younger football players were three times more likely as those who took up the sport after age 12 to experience symptoms of depression.

One of the authors of this study, Robert Stern is the director of clinical research at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center, said “Perhaps that is a window of vulnerability…It makes sense that children whose brains are rapidly developing should not be hitting their heads over and over again. ”An interesting result was that the findings were not affected by the number of concussions the former players reported, meaning the danger posed by football can’t be boiled down simply to big hits to the head. Research is increasingly focusing on the effects associated with the accumulation of smaller hits that a player might more easily shake off during a game or practice. Stern said, “Concussions are a big deal when it comes to short term problems, and it has to be dealt with. But the dialogue out there needs to now start focusing on these repetitive hits that are part of the game and their potential for long term problems.”

Another study was done by researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine. They followed a group of 25 players, ages 8 to 13, for a single season, measuring the frequency and severity of helmet impacts. The players underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests before and after the season, and they showed significant changes in the brain’s white matter. White matter affects learning and brain functions, modulating the distribution of action potentials, acting as a relay and coordinating communication between different brain regions.
None of the participants in that study showed signs or symptoms of concussions, and the players who suffered more hits saw more significant changes to the brain.

The healthy memory blog has many posts on chronic traumatic encephalopathy. At the professional level the damage caused by playing football is costly, and apparently the brain is adversely affected at very young ages.

Football is a very interesting and complicated game, but modifications of the game could make it much safer. This might not be possible at the professional level, because the violence is a big part of the appeal of the game. However, these modifications should be made for young people. Colleges and universities should also consider modifications to make the game safer. It is ironic that institutions whose purpose is education and building healthy brains pursue a sport that damages brains.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

September 25, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Eyelet Sneezy, and Maarten Bos in JACR, volume 2, number 2, Published online April 3, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/691462.

This article reports two experiments that examine whether the mere presence of someone’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. In the first experiment participants were assigned to one of three phone location conditions: participants in the desk condition were instructed to place their phones face down in a designated location on their desks; participants in the pocket/bag condition carried all of their belongings into the testing room with them and kept their phones wherever they naturally would; participants in the other room condition left all their belongings including their phones in the lobby before entering the testing room.

Two tasks were used to measure available cognitive capacity. The Automated Operation Span Task was used to measure the capacity of working memory. A 10-item subset of Raven’s Progressive Matrices was used to assess the amount of fluid intelligence.

Working memory capacity was highest when the smartphones were left in another room. The pocket/bag and desk conditions did not differ significantly between each other. However, for the fluid intelligence task, the having the smartphones in the other room performed best followed by the pocket/bag condition, and the desk condition.

Experiment 2 assessed whether self-reported ratings of smartphone dependence moderated the effect of smartphone salience on cognitive capacity. The three conditions of phone location (desk, pocket/bag, other room) were repeated. Half the participants were told to keep the power on for their phones, and half were told to completely turn off their devices.

All participants completed a battery of questions intended to assess individual differences in the use of and connection to one’s smartphone. This experiment did not measure fluid intelligence only the working memory span test. Phone locations affected available cognitive capacity at average and high levels of smartphone dependence, but not at low levels of smartphone dependence.

So the salience of smartphones does adversely affect cognitive capacity except for people who had low levels of smartphone dependence. The rule seems to be out of sight out of mind unless you have a low level of smartphone dependence.

 

 

Modifying Behavior

September 24, 2017

This is the final chapter in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. This final chapter is devoted to providing advice on modifying behavior to reduce distractions and to improve the performance of your mind,

Here are the questions Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen say we should ask ourselves:

How might I increase my metacognitive view of how my own mind performs in a given situation, and in what ways are my actions not in line with how I should behave based on my goals and an understanding of my situation, and in what ways are my actions not in line with how I should behave based on my goals and an understanding of my limitations?
How might I change my physical environment to reduce accessibility of potential distractors?
How might I assess whether I am self-interrupting because of boredom, and how might I make the task more interesting to stave off boredom?
How might I recognize when my actions are driven by anxiety about missing out on something in my virtual world, and what steps can I take to reduce the anxiety?

McGill University professor Daniel Levitan urges people to check electronic communications at certain times during the day.. More specifically he writes, “If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. You social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day. Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’ve been doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to live your email program off than to ear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.

Something none of these writers address, at least in this volume, are the social ramifications of your change in behavior. It is advisable to discuss what you’ve learned in this book and that you are determined to deal constructively with a destructive mind. Your should encourage your friends to alter their habits. After all, they will benefit also. Somehow the rudeness of disrupting a social interaction to respond to an alert or message became acceptable. In point of fact, it is rude. The person is saying, wait, this is probably more important than you. Also dinners should be for eating and for conversing with others at the table. Participants who are not physically present have not earned the right to participate.

There is a question as to how best inaugurate these changes in behavior. First, notify your friends as discussed above, so they will not become angry with you. Then the question is whether you should ease into these behaviors of adopt them cold turkey. The latter might be more difficult, but it is easier to explain yourself to your friends. Also your agony should be shorter, if not more severe, at least initially.

The chapter also includes some ideas based on research studies for planning restorative, stress-reducing breaks, each of which will take only a few minutes.

*Exercise—even for only twelve minutes—facilitates brain function and improves attention.
*Train your eyes using the 20-20-20 rule: every twenty minutes take a twenty second break and focus on objects twenty feet away. This changes your focal distance from inches to many feet and requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to constant attention.
*Expose yourself to nature. Consider using at least part of your break to get away from technology and spend a few minutes in a natural setting. Research has shown that just ten minutes in a natural environment can be restorative; even viewing pictures of nature can be restorative.
*Daydreaming, staring into space, doodling on paper, or any activity that takes you away from performing a specific task activates the “default mode network”—a network of interacting brain areas that most often indicate that you are daydreaming, thinking creatively, or just mind wandering—which is restorative for attention.
*Short ten-minute naps have been shown to improve cognitive function. Longer naps work, too as seen in a study of pilots who improved their reaction time after taking a thirty-minute nap.
*Talking to other human beings, face to face or even on the telephone, reduces stress and has been shown to improve work performance.
*Laugh! Read a joke book, look at comic strips, read a funny blog. A Loma Linda University study found that older adults who watched a funny video scored better on memory tests and showed reduced cortisol and increased endorphins and dopamine, meaning less stress and more energy and positive feelings.
*Grab something to drink and a small snack.
*Read a chapter in a fiction book. Recent research shows major brain shifts when reading immersive fiction.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Boosting Control

September 23, 2017

Boosting Control is the penultimate chapter in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. It begins with this quote from the father of American psychology, William James: “And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

Gazzaley and Rosen begin by discussing traditional education. They note that the most widely implemented approach is the current system of didactic classroom instruction delivered by a teacher lecturing to a group of students. They write, “Although this long-established, globally adopted, traditional education system varies in its details by geography and historic time period, a common feature is the emphasis on rote memorization via formalized and structured lessons follow by assessments of attained knowledge using formalized testing.“ They note that there seems to be a tension between this traditional model that has largely focused on the delivery of information content and the goal of developing core information-processing abilities of the brain. They do not believe that the objectives of an education system should be directed solely at the transfer of content to young minds. They argue that it is also critical that developing minds build strong cognitive control abilities that allow them to engage flexibly in dynamic and challenging environments. They state that even alternative educational systems that aim to foster real world outcomes may not be developing cognitive control capabilities. There is convincing evidence that superior cognitive control is associated with successful academic performance, but that little is known about whether traditional education actually builds the fundamental information-processing abilities of our brains that underlie cognitive control. They raise the question of whether traditional education is truly an effective form of cognitive enhancement that has the power minimize our control limitations. Put simply, does the current education system help the young Distracted Mind?

The authors point to the Tools of the Mind program developed by psychologists Elana Bodrova and Deborah Leong. It is based on theories and insights into how a system of activities can be designed to boost cognitive control. More details can be found at
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2174918
The authors also see the need to think increasingly about education as a lifelong process; we have the potential to enhance our cognitive control at any age. “Educational programs across the lifespan directed at boosting and maintaining cognitive control should be the rule, not the exception.” Healthy memory blog readers should recognize this as being in step with the philosophy of the healthy memory blog.

In the section on meditation the authors write, “Accumulating evidence convinces us that there is a strong signal that meditation engineers improvements in cognitive control, and of course there are many reasons beyond improvements in cognitive control, and of course theater are many reasons beyond that encourage us to recommend engagement in mindfulness practices. They caveat this by stating that many studies have methodological limitations. These methodological limitations and the reasons for not being concerned about them were discussed in the immediately preceding post, “The Somewhat Tarnished Gold Standard.” HM believes that meditation is the best means of increasing attentional and cognitive control. Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about meditation and the benefits of meditation.

There is a section on cognitive exercise (brain games). On the whole, this review is quite favorable. Different games are effective to differential degrees so it is helpful to do some research on specific games. However, HM warns against using these as a prevention to dementia. Although they might help, memory health is a matter of a commitment to cognitive growth, a healthy lifestyle, and meditation. The same point can be made with respect to video games. They can be helpful, but they do not provide a 100% solution.

There are obvious activities that should not be overlooked. There is a theory that contends that interactions with nature can be beneficial. This theory is called attention restoration theory (ART). In 2007, thirty-eight University of Michigan students, armed with a map and tracked by GPS, tool a one-hour walk through either a tree-lined arboretum or a traffic-heady urban center. Before and after these walks they performed a working memory test. A 2008 paper described a significant improvement in their working memory performance after the nature walk, but not after the urban walk. Similar beneficial effects of nature exposure have been shown to occur in children with ADHD and young adults with depression, and amazingly even in response to just viewing nature pictures. In this context, readers might want to review the healthy memory blog post “Awe.”

There is also much data documenting the benefits of physical exercise. This does increase oxygen to the brain, which is definitely beneficial. However, HM also recommends mental exercise that is accomplished by invoking System 2 processing through lifelong learning, meditation, and other activities that have been reviewed.

The authors also review neurofeedback. HM argues that these same benefits and more can be achieved through meditation absent the neurofeedback hookups.

There is a category of healthy memory posts titled Mnemonic Techniques. These are specific techniques for improving memory. Additionally they provide a means of cognitive exercise that enhances memory health. Try some of them. You also should read “Moonwalking with Einstein” to learn what can be accomplished using these techniques.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a cure or preventative vaccine for Alzheimer’s or dementia (See the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimers). However, following the activities in the healthy memory blog could well increase the likelihood that you will die without experiencing any of the physical or cognitive symptom’s even if you die with the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque that are the defining feature of the disease.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

The Somewhat Tarnished Gold Standard

September 22, 2017

This post is exclusively HM’s. It is being introduced here before the final two posts on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The final two posts provide guidance on how to cope with the distracted mind. The authors do a well-intentioned but naive review of research and attempt to rank methods with respect to their level of confidence. This post provides some background for understanding research results and conclusions that should be generally valuable.

Randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies called randomized controlled trials or RCTs are the Gold Standard for research. This is a good standard to employ when it is feasible. But it is not always feasible, and attempts to apply it can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Here is an example where the Gold Standard was applied with no adverse consequences. This was the test of the Salk Vaccine for polio. HM was in the second grade at this time. Some test participants were given the Salk Vaccine and others were given a placebo. HM did not know whether he had been given the vaccine or a placebo, nor did the people administering the vaccine. We were assigned randomly, there were placebo controls, and the people administering did not know if we were being given the vaccine or the placebo (number were assigned to identify the conditions, but the administrators did not know what the numbers meant.

Now suppose participants assigned themselves. Here everything falls apart and valid interpretations are not possible.

Now suppose the Gold Standard was employed, but negative results, no evidence that the vaccine worked, were achieved. Does this allow the conclusion that the vaccine does not work? In statistics, you cannot prove a negative. The procedure is to decide to reject the null hypothesis with a certain degree of confidence. It is conceivable that the dose was too small. Another test might be warranted using larger doses.

Suppose the test involved a medication that was self-administered, and the Gold Standard was rigorously applied. What could possibly confound the results? Well the question is how well did the participants self-administer the medication? Differences in the results could be the result of an artifact caused by their being differences in adherence to self administration in the two groups.

The efficacy of meditation has been tested. HM has been pleasantly surprised by the positive results when the training was short and the training period fairly limited. In a study in which a group instructed to meditate is compared to a group instructed to do something else, there is the following possible problem: if participants have been randomly assigned to the groups, some who have been assigned to the meditation group might not believe in meditation and have a negative attitude to training and the entire project. This is different from RCTs in which the participants are passive and the treatment is administered to them.
When HM was a graduate student there was a hotly contested debate regarding whether humans could learn to control their autonomic nervous systems. HM thought this was ridiculous as there were practitioners of certain religions, Buddhism for example, who were able to control their heart rates and reduce them to frighteningly low levels. So HM thought the issue was resolved. But research was being done at colleges in which students were given biofeedback and examined as to whether they could learn to control their heart rates. Since this research failed, these researchers effectively accepted the null hypothesis, and ignored evidence from the millions of humans who were effective controlling their autonomic nervous systems.

HM is a strong advocate of mindfulness meditation. This increases the control of our attentional processes, which gives us increased control of our mind and emotions. The research question is not whether it works, but how much meditation of different types is useful. There is more than ample research indicating the benefits of the relaxation response discussed in healthy memory blogs.

So for RCTs to yield valid results, the experimental design and sample sizes should be adequate. Research participant compliance is another issue. Moreover, there is a much more important issue to which the research community at large has yet to consider. This issue comes from epigenetics: it is not just genes, but what is read out from the genes that is important. Nurture affects what is read out from the gene, so two individuals with identical genes can differ in how these genes are expressed. So identical twins can differ radically. One outstanding example involved two identical twin sisters. One was popular and a successful student. The other was socially withdrawn and a poor student. These twins were raised in the same family. Medications for people with identical genes could still have different effects. So under what conditions, are RCTs are still applicable? Herbert I. Weinberg has raised this issue in his book, “Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty.”

Yet another factor for consideration is the distinction between between near and far conclusions. Practically all results and conclusions should be regarded as near studies. Studies showing the cognitive benefits of games provide a useful example. If cognitive tests reveal a difference between people playing games and people who don’t, one can only make conclusions about these immediate benefits. Conclusions about the far effects of these games, say in the prevention of dementia, are questionable extrapolations. How long do these games have to be played? These conclusions await further research.

Now there are good data (see the healthymemory blog post “Cognitive Activity and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease”) indicating that cognitive activity helps build cognitive reserve which reduces the risk of dementia. Now the brain is always active, even when we sleep. So the question is what types of cognitive activity? HM has strongly argued that effortful processing, what Kahneman terms System 2 processing.

HM is mildly depressed when physical activity is emphasized, and cognitive activity relatively ignored. Sure physical activity is beneficial along with living a healthy lifestyle. But a main effect of physical activity is to increase oxygen flow to the brain. However effortful System 2 processing, activates many pathways in the brain and creates new links. Practically all learning initially involves System 2 processing, and as long as different and new ideas are being considered or new material is being learned, more pathways are activated and new links are made. HM argues it is this that enables the overcoming of the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that are the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health

September 21, 2017

This is the twelfth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. A study performed by Dr. Rosen’s lab of 1,143 teens, young adults, and adults assessed symptoms of psychiatric disorders, daily media and technology use, preference for multitasking, anxiety about missing out on technology use, and technology-related attitudes. Symptoms of psychiatric disorders were predicted by some combination of daily technology use and preference for multitasking even after factoring out the impact of anxiety about missing out on technology and technology-related attitudes.

Another study from Dr. Rosen’s lab led by Dr. Nancy Cheever investigated the effect that technology use, or rather, lack of use, has on anxiety. 163 college students were brought into a lecture hall, with half being told to turn off their phone and store it and all other materials under their seat while remaining quiet and simply doing nothing. The other half of the students were given the same general instructions about storing materials out of sight and doing nothing, but they had their smartphones taken away and replaced with a claim check for later retrieval. 10 minutes later and then twice more during the hour—plus session, each student completed a paper and pencil measure of anxiety. The prediction was that the students holding a claim check for their phone would become anxious, and they did, but no more so than students whose phone was turned off and stored under the desk. They found that the heaviest users of their smartphones—those who were younger and grew up with technology—showed increased anxiety after just ten minutes of not being able to use their phone, and their anxiety continue to increase across the hour as compared to those who used their phone less.

Once we fall asleep, our brain activity goes through four phases from light sleep to deep sleep, which is followed by rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that signifies we re dreaming. In a normal night’s sleep, this process repeats four times, with REM sleep getting longer as the night wears on. During sleep the brain performs a variety of housekeep chores that are called “synaptic rejuvenation” including pruning and memory consolidation. This serves to remove unimportant connections and enhance important ones. Moreover, our nighttime brain flushed out toxins tat are by-products of daytime neural activity, which if not removed can have deleterious effects on neurons in the brain.

Photopigment cells in the retina at the back of our eyes help control the release of melatonin. To produce white light, technology screens must emit light at multiple wavelengths, including blue short wavelengths. The photopigment cells signal our brains that it is time to be alert when exposed to blue light. So using technology in the bedroom right before sleep, we are bombarding our eyes with blue light that signals awake time rather than red light that signals it is time to go to sleep. Moreover, blue light is far stronger when one is looking at a small screen held close to the face.

Meta analysis of sixty-seven studies of the impact of screen time on children and adolescents found that screen time, particularly in the last hour prior to sleep, is related to sleep problems, primarily resulting in fewer nightly hours of sleep and poorer sleep quality. Studies have shown that 46% of college students awaken at night to answer text messages, and 40% awaken to answer phone calls, resulting in 46 minutes less nightly sleep. The authors conclude, “With the vast majority of teens using a variety of technologies prior to sleep as well as awakening during the night to address smartphone alerts, it is like that their brains are not getting the nightly housekeeping that was previously mentioned, which can lead to mental difficulties.

A study of more than 2,000 fourth and seventh graders found that children who slept near a small screen device had nearly 21 minutes less sleep than those children who did not sleep in close proximity to a phone or tablet, and those who slept in a room with a television set reported 18 fewer nightly minutes of sleep.

Additional research in Dr. Rosen’s lab using a series of measurement tools to assess sleep quality, executive functioning, anxiety about missing out on electronic communications, and daily smartphone use discovered four paths to a predicted poor night’s sleep. Poorer executive functioning (the ability to make good decisions) predicted both more smartphone use, and poorer sleep quality and anxiety about missing out predicted more smartphone use and more nighttime awakenings both leading to poorer sleep. So the authors conclude that “both our ability to make smart nighttime choices as wall as our anxiety about what we might miss out in our virtual worlds during sleep combine to disrupt our sleep, which then leads to poorer thinking skills and more nighttime interruptions. This is indeed a downward spiral that results in disrupted mental functioning.”

Some research has examined the impact of sleep duration and quality for workplace adults. One study of US managers and employees found that those who used their smartphones for work at night after 9 p.m. showed impaired cognitive control at work the following day, which was reflected in reduced attention to work and increased depletion of working memory resources. A study of Belgian adults found that having the Internet in the bedroom resulted in similar negative effects in cognitive control.

So disrupting sleep further disrupts the distracted mind.

 

Relationships

September 20, 2017

This is the eleventh post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. There have been several posts on the deleterious effects of technology on relationships. To find some of these enter (Turkle) in the search block of the healthy memory blog. Turkle sums up her view on the negative impact that technology has on our attention and our important relationships by saying, “As we distribute ourselves we may abandon ourselves.” Regarding parenting she says, “Young people must contend with distracted parents who with their Blackberries and cell phones may be physical present but ‘mentally elsewhere.’” See the healthy memory blog posts “Cyber Babies” and “Frankenstein and the Little Girl” for more on this topic.

HM marvels that when he attends professional conventions, for which the ostensible purpose is to have scholars travel to a spot and gather together, but finds them sitting alone or in groups working their smartphones. During a lecture a considerable number in the audience will be playing with their smartphones.

Parents take their children to the park only to spend the entire time reacting to alerts and notifications on their phones instead of engaging with their children in all-important free-play activities. Spouses who once watched television together and discussed what they saw and learned, now use a second screen while they attempt to divide their attention among their tablet, phone, or laptop, the content on the televisions, and their loved one. Evidence is starting to indicate that our relationships with each may be one peril of our distracted minds. A 2014 Pew Internet & American Life project report found that one in four cell phone owners in marriage felt that “their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together.

Most have experienced dinner where the table is littered with smartphones. A game has been created called “cellphone stack” where everyone at the table places their phone in the center of the table, one on top of the other, and whoever looks at their device before the check arrives must pay the entire bill.

A research team studying the ‘IPhone Effect” compared partners who did not place their own mobile device on the table or hold one in their hands with those who did and found that conversations between these strangers in the presence of a device were rated as less satisfying and were reported as generating less empathic concern. Another similar study found that “simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections broader social network, etc.,)” can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction. The authors ask, “If our distracted mind can negatively affect social connections and feelings of closeness just by being in the presence of modern technology during a short conversation with a stranger, what does that imply about how it can impair our real relationships?”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Workplace

September 19, 2017

This is the tenth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen.

A study of more than 200 employees at a variety of companies studied the facts that predicted employee stress levels. Although having too much work to do was the best prediction, it was only slightly stronger in predicting exhaustion, anxiety, and physical complaints than outside interruptions, many of which were electronic in nature. Gloria Mark summarized one study that “working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, more time pressure and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price. Clive Thompson, in a New York Times interview, summed up research results on workplace interruptions by asserting that “we humans are Pavlovian; even thought we know we’re just pumping ourselves full of stress, we can’t help frantically checking our email the instant the bell goes ding.”

Open offices settings further exacerbate this problem. Approximately 70% of US offices—including Google, Yahoo, Goldman Sachs, and Facebook, have either no partitions or low ones that do not make for quiet workplaces. Research has shown that open offices promote excessive distractions. HM personally testifies regarding the disruptive effects of these distractions. A content analysis of 27 open-office studies identified auditory distractions, job dissatisfaction, illness, and stress as major ramifications of this type of workplace.

The bottom line is that being constantly interrupted and having to spend extra time to remember what we were doing has a negative impact on workplace productivity and quality of life. One 2005 study, before the major increase in smartphone usage, estimated that when office workers are interrupted as often as eleven times an hour it costs the United States $558 billion per year.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Safety

September 18, 2017

This is the ninth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. Safety is another casualty of the distracted mind.

Ira Hyman and his colleagues at Western Washington University designed a creative situation to illustrate the effects of distraction. They had a clown, fully clothed in a bright purple and yellow outfit, with large shoes and a bright red bulbous nose, pedal a unicycle around a large open square that is crossed often by most campus students. The researchers interviewed more than 150 students who walked through the square and noted if they were walking alone or with someone else, and if they were using a cell phone or listening to music with ear buds. When asked if they saw anything unusual, only 8% of cell phone users reported that they saw the clown. This is compared with one in three students walking alone without technology or listening to music wearing ear buds and more than half of the students who were walking in pairs without using technology. When asked directly if they saw a clown, only one in four of the cell-phone using students reported seeing it compared with half of single walkers, 61% of music listeners, and 71% of walking pairs. Whatever was happening between the user and his or her phone appears to have inhibited the ability to identify a somewhat unusual happening in the immediate neighborhood.

According to one report in Scientific American, data from a sample of 100 US hospitals found that while in 2004 an estimated nationwide 559 people had hurt themselves by walking into a stationary object while texting, by 2010 that number topped 1,500 and estimates by the study authors predicted the number of injuries would double between 2010 and 2015. A recent study by Corey Basch and her colleagues at several universities tracked more than 3,700 pedestrians crossing Manhattan’s most dangerous intersections and discovered that nearly 30% focused their attention on their mobile device while crossing during the “walk” signal, and one in four were even looking at their phones while crossing during the “don’t walk” signal.

Researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle children’s hospital found similar results in their study of more than 1,000 pedestrians. They discovered than 30% were doing something other than just walking while crossing an intersection, including listening to music and texting. The texting pedestrians took an additional few seconds to cross the street and were nearly four times more likely to show at least one unsafe crossing behavior than those who did not have their head down looking at they phone.

In one experimental study, college students were asked to cross the street in a virtual environment either talking on the phone, listening to music, or texting. Those who were texting and or listening to music were more likely to be hit by a simulated car, which the authors attributed to the conflict between the cognitive demands of crossing the street and paying attention to vehicles and the demands of paying attention to the text message conversation or their music. There is an interruption cost, but perhaps a deadly one in this case.

Little will be written here on driving while distracted. There have already been at least eleven posts on this topic (Enter “Strayer” in the healthy memory blog search box to find some). Suffice it to say, do not do it. Driving while talking on a cell phone is comparably to driving while drunk, and texting is even much more dangerous. Hands free laws are irrelevant. The attentional demands here are what is dangerous.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

The Impact of Constantly Shifting Our Attention on Higher Education

September 17, 2017

This is the eighth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. In one study by Dr. Rosen’s research team observed hundreds of middle school, high school, and university students studying something important for fifteen minutes in the environment where they normally study. Minute by minute observations showed that the typical student couldn’t stay focused on work for more than three to five minutes. Students were asked to provide their grade point average (GPA) on a four point scale. The predictors of a lower GPA from these extensive data were: percentage of time on task studying strategies, total media time doing a typical day, and preferences for task-switching rather than working on a task until it was completed. Moreover, by examining the websites that students visited during their fifteen minute sample, they uncovered a fifth predictor of a lower GPA. Only one website visited predicted a lower GPA: Facebook. It did not matter whether students visited it one or fifteen times. Once was enough to predict lower grade performance.

In another experiment by Laura Bowman and her colleagues at Connecticut State University, students were randomly assigned to three groups to read a book chapter and then take a test. One group simply read the chapter and took the test. The second group first completed an instant messaging conversation with the experimenter and then read the chapter and took the test. The third group started to read the chapter, were interrupted with the same instant messaging conversation, which was delivered in pieces at various times during reading, and then took the test. All three groups performed equally well on the test. But the third group took substantially longer even when the time spent instant messaging was removed. This result leads to two conclusions. One is that interrupted studying takes significantly more time. And the second conclusion answers why it takes more time. Each time one switches back to the primary task, time is lost switching and reorienting to where in the task one was when interrupted. In addition, working memory may also be compromised, as distractions degrade the fidelity of the information they are trying to maintain during the learning process.

Another study validating the negative impact of classroom multitasking interrupted students during a short video lecture and required them either to text the experimenter or post material on social media, under two conditions: one new text or post every minute, or one new text every thirty seconds. The control group simply watched the video, which was followed by a test. The results found that more texting or social media posting resulted in poorer lecture notes and lower test scores than the control group. A negative linear trend emerged in both lecture notes and test scores, where the highest scores and best notes demonstrated by those students who did not receive any interruptions, followed by lesser scores and notes of students who were interrupted every minute, and, not surprisingly the worst scores and notes of students who were interrupted every thirty seconds.

Several research studies have shown even more far-reaching effects of technology use by college students. One study showed that those students who used cell phones and texted more often during class showed more anxiety, had lower GPAs, and were less satisfied with life than students who used phones and texted less frequently. A different study of more than 770 college students discovered that students who used more interfering technology in the classroom also tended to engage in more high-risk behaviors, including using alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and other drugs, drunk driving, fighting, and having multiple sex partners. So it appears that college students who use inessential technology during either class sessions or while studying face difficulties on both an academic and personal level.

The Psychology of Technology

September 16, 2017

At the centerpiece of technology is the internet. This is the seventh post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. There is a distinction made in human memory between information that is accessible in memory and information that is available in memory, but not at the moment accessible. A similar distinction can be made for information in transactive memory. Information that can be readily accessed, say via Google for instance, is accessible in transactive memory. However, information that requires more than one step to access is in available transactive memory. Obviously, the amount of information available in transactive memory is enormous, so only information that can be quickly accessed is in accessible transactive memory. So a hierarchy of information knowledge is
accessible personal memory
available personal memory (information that is personal memory but is currently inaccessible)
accessible transactive memory (information readily accessible from technology or a fellow human)
available transactive memory (information that can be found with sufficient searches)

This hierarchy can be regarded as an indication of the depth of knowledge.

Someone who can communicate extemporaneously and accurately on a topic has an impressive degree of knowledge.

Someone who refers to notes is dependent on those notes.

Whenever we encounter new relevant information we are confronted with the problem as whether commit that information to memory, or to bookmark it so it can be accessed when needed. Too much reliance on bookmarks can lead to superficial knowledge and unimpressive presentations.

Dr. Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues at Columbia University studied the ability to remember facts and unsurprisingly discovered that we were much better at knowing where to find the answers to our questions than we were at remembering the answers themselves. She dubbed this the “Google Effect.”

Social media began with email, but this is fundamentally one to one communication. Facebook is the medium for widespread communication. Moreover, there is the business of friending and liking. This tends to be taken to extremes. One cannot have hundreds of meaningful friends, and the continuous seeking of approval through likes can become problematic.

Smartphones are smart because the computer is in the phone making it smart. More than seven in ten Americans own one, more than 860 million Europeans own one, and more than half all cell phone owners in Asia have at least one smartphone if not more. More photographs are taken with smartphones than with digital cameras, and more online shopping is done via smartphones than through standard computers. Smartphone users pick up their phone an average of 27 times a day, ranging from 14 to 150 times per day depending on the study, the population, and the number of years that someone has owned he smartphone—and the number of years that someone has owned the smartphone—those who have owned a smartphone longer check it far more often than those who have recently obtained a phone. Frequently, there is no good reason for them to do so; 42% check their phone when they have time to kill (which rises to 55% of young adults). Only 23% claim to do so when there is something specific for them to do. Feelings of loneliness appear to underlie at least some of this apparently non-needed use of technology (see the healthy memory blog post “Loneliness”).

Multitasking, task switching, and continuous partial attention are serious problems. Remember that we cannot multitask. What is apparently multi-tasking is the rapid switching between or among tasks, and there are attentional costs in doing this switching. Multitasking occurs in every sphere of our world, including home, school, workplace, and our leisure life. Moreover, this is not just limited to the younger generation. One study followed a group of young adults and a group of older adults with wore biometric belts with embedded eyeglass cameras for more than 300 hours of leisure time. Younger adults switched from task to task twenty-severn times an hour, about once every two minutes. Older adults switched tasks seventeen times per hour, or once every three to four minutes. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone termed this constant multitasking, “continuous partial attention.” This could also be termed half-keistered information processing. Attention is not being distributed optimally.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Control Limitations

September 15, 2017

This is the sixth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. A brief summary of cognitive control limitations follows.

Selectivity is limited by susceptibility to both internal and external influences. Only one source can be selected. It takes attention to disregard both internal and external sources that are external to what you’ve selected. This is why libraries are kept silent. Extraneous external sources require attention to be filtered out. This also involves internal sources. For example, you might be trying to concentrate on your homework, but you keep thinking about your upcoming date. Most meditation begins with focusing on your breath and perhaps a word or phrase and ignoring extraneous thoughts and extraneous stimuli.

Distribution of attention results in diminished performance compared to focused attention. This focusing requires attentional effort.

Sustainability of attention over time is limited, especially in extended boring situations. Although multitasking situations are not boring, there is the tendency to switch attention rather than to attend to what one is currently attending.

There are processing speed limitations that affect both the efficiency of allocation and withdrawal of attention.

Our working memory capacity is severely limited as to the number of items that can be held in working memory. The magic number 7 plus or minus 2, is closer to 5 plus or minus 2, and the limit can be as small as one depending on the nature of the information.

The fidelity, or quality of information maintained in working memory, decays over time and as a result of interference.

Multitasking is limited by our inability to parallel process two attention demanding taks. In reality task switching is required, which results in costs to accuracy and speed performance.

Although these are the same limitations homo sapiens have always had, they become much more pronounced due to the way we use our current technology. Moreover, this technology keeps multiplying, which exacerbates this problem further.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

The Prefrontal Cortex

September 14, 2017

This is the fifth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The (pre) in prefrontal cortex refers to its location in the brain. Otherwise it plays central roles in cognition and emotion.

An unfortunate accident first called attention to the prefrontal cortex. In 1848 working on railroad construction in Vermont 25 year old Phineas Gage had an accident which caused a three-foot-long, 1.25 inch diameter, fourteen-pound iron rod to be propelled up through his head, passing below his left eye, and traveling out the top of his skull to land almost one hundred feet behind him. He is reported to have remained awake with a gaping hole in his head during transport in a cart to his boarding house forty-five minutes away, where he received medical care and survived the incident. Although he survived his life deteriorated. Previously he had been a well-mannered man. After the accident he was disposed to fits of rage. He had difficulties planning and controlling his life.

An irony here that is usually missed is that he was 25 years old. The prefrontal cortex takes about that long to mature, so just as this structure reached maturity, it was destroyed. This explains why teenagers can be ill-behaved; they have adult bodies but immature minds. It’s unfortunate that this maturation takes so long. By the age of 25, there has been ample time to make decisions that destroy our lives.

Most people who have heard of prefrontal lobotomies think that it is something bad. People who have had lobotomies emerge zombie like. What is not realized is that Antonio Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1949 for his pioneering work in doing lobotomies. It is important to realize that at this time psychiatry did not have effective techniques for treating psychotics. The hospitals were referred to as insane asylums with padded walls and straight jackets. They were referred to as snake pits. So even though they were far from being an ideal treatment, lobotomies made an unbearable situation somewhat more bearable. Nowadays there are drugs to treat psychotics, so lobotomies are no longer justified.

So the prefrontal cortex is where decisions are made and it controls and coordinates communication throughout the brain. The American neuroscientist Joaquin Fester offers this explanation of a combined network and modular model, such that higher-order cognition emerges from complex neural networks that functionally connect distributed modules. This is the model he describes in his book “Cortex and Mind:
(1) cognitive information is represented in wide, overlapping, and interactive neural networks of the cerebral cortex; (2) such networks develop on a core of organized modules of elementary sensory and motor functions, to which they remain connected;(3) the cognitive code is a relational code, based on connectivity between discrete neuronal aggregates of the cortex (modules, assembled, or network nodes); (4) the code’s diversity and specificity derive from the myriad possibilities of combination of those neuronal aggregates between themselves; (5) any cortical neuron can take part in many networks, and thus in many percepts, memories, items of experience, or personal knowledge; (6) a network can serve several cognitive functions; and, (7) cognitive functions consist of fuctional interactions within and between cortical networks.

So this is what goes on in our brains every day and night.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Cognitive Processes

September 13, 2017

This is the fourth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The authors note that “‘Attention’ is likely the most widely used term in cognitive science.” Attention is also used widely by the general public and practitioners from diverse fields of education, philosophy, mental health, marketing, design, politics, and human factors.

To understand what attention means in cognitive science, its most fundamental feature is selectivity. Selectivity is required because attention is limited. Indeed, it is one of our must fundamental constraints. So we need to be selective to use this limited supply where it is most needed. It can be thought of as the spotlight in our cognitive control toolkit. Selective attention also involves suppression of perceptions that are outside of the spotlight. This is also known as the act of ignoring. What is not so well known is that this suppression requires attention which further depletes the limited supply. The amount of suppression required depends on extraneous stimuli in the immediate environment. And it also entails the suppression of thoughts extraneous to what is in the spotlight. Expectation also play a role here as we used our expectations to direct our attention. Expectation is what allows us to transition from the internal world of our goals to our perceptions and actions. Expectation is a critical factor in optimizing our performance by enabling knowledge of past events to shape our future. To a large extent our brains live in the future, using predictive information to bias both incoming stimuli and outgoing responses.

Directionality is another important feature of selective attention, We can direct our limited cognitive resources to stimuli in the environment, but we can also aim it internally at our thoughts and emotions. As in the case for external selective attention, our ability to control internal attention allows us to attend to relevant or ignore irrelevant information in our minds based on our goals. We can direct our attention toward searching memories and/or focusing on feedback from the body, such as a hungry stomach. It is often important to selectively ignore internal information such as suppressing sadness at a time when you need to remain upbeat, or suppressing a recurrent that is interfering with your current activities.

Another critical factor when using selective attention is our ability to sustain it. This is especially true in situations that are not engaging, or boring. Moreover, over time activities that once were engaging can become boring. Vigilance is the area of research concerned with looking for a signal over a long period of time.

Working memory refers to the amount of information we can hold in our active memory at the same time. This amount of information is limited. The exact amount is dependent on the items. George Miller’s original estimate was seven items plus or minus two. Over time this magic number has decreased. It might even be as small as one, depending on the nature of the information. We must keep thinking about or rehearsing this information to maintain it in working memory. And this is another strong constraint in our cognitive abilities.
Goal management is required when we have more than one goal. So when we engage in more than one goal-directed activity at a time, we are switching back and forth between multiple goals, we are multi-tasking. It is more accurate to call multi-tasking task switching as we can only perform one task at a time. We accomplish multi-tasking by rapidly switching between or among tasks, and this switching requires attention. There is also a requirement to review where we are in the goal to which we have switched back.

All tasks require cognitive control. Even if two tasks are not competing for the same sensory resources, mental task switching is required, with perhaps the requirement to determine where we were when we left that task.

Infovores

September 12, 2017

Infovores is a term that has been coined to characterize we humans as information-seeking creatures. Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, the authors of “The Distracted Mind”, note that as we are information-seeking creatures, behaviors that maximize information accumulation are optimal. This notion is supported by findings that molecular and physiological mechanisms that originally developed in our brain to support food foraging for survival have now involved in primates to include information foraging. Data that support this assertion are based on observations that the dopaminergic stream, which is crucial for all reward processing, plays a key role in both basic food-foraging behavior in lower vertebrates and higher-order cognitive behaviors in monkeys and humans that are often dissociated from clear survival benefits. The role of the dopamine system has been shown to relate directly to information-seeking behavior in primates. For example, macaque monkeys respond to receiving information similarly to the way they respond to primitive rewards such as food or water. Moreover, “single dopamine neurons process both primitive and cognitive rewards, and suggest that current theories of reward-seeking must be revised to include information-seeking. From this perspective behaviors that are intended to maximize exposure and consumption of new information, but end up causing interference, can be thought of as optimal.

So does this explain why, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 96% of all US adults own a mobile phone, and 68% own a smartphone? Among these smartphone users, 97% regularly use their phones to send text messages, 89% to access the Internet, and 88% send and receive email. Worldwide estimates are that 3.2 billion people, 45% of the world’s population, own a mobile phone. Smartphones, desktops, and laptops support multiple apps while web browsers allow numerous simultaneously open tabs and windows, which make it increasingly difficult to attend to a single website or app without having our attention lured away.

So, we can blame our dopamine neurons for our being drawn to all these new sources of information. But it does not appear that we are using these sources of information optimally. Perhaps insights from behavioral ecology. a field that explores the evolutionary basis of behavior by studying interactions between animals and their environments might shed light on our interference inducing behavior.

An important contribution to the field of behavioral ecology has been the development of optimal foraging theories. These theories are built on findings that animals do not forage for food randomly, but rather optimize their foraging activities based on the drive to survive. Shaped by natural selection, foraging behaviors that successfully maximize energy intake are selected and persist over time. Mathematical models of foraging behavior have been developed that can be used to predict the action given their environmental conditions. They describe how an “optimal forager” would behave in any given situation. Although actual behaviors deviate from predictions made from these models, these models are frequently not far off the mark and have served as useful tools to understand the complex interplay between behavior and the environment.

In 1976 evolutionary biologist Eric Charnel developed an optimal foraging model known as the “marginal value theorem” (MVT). This theorem was formulated to predict the behavior of animals that forage for food in “patchy” environments. MVT models predict how much time an animal will spend in a current patch before moving on to a new patch, given environmental conditions.

Optimal foraging theories have already been applied to human information foraging to help us understand how we search the Internet and our own memories, as well as how scholars and physicians search the research literature. Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen state that to the best of their knowledge, such theories have not been used to address the critical question of why we engage in interference-inducing behaviors, even when they are self-destructive. The answer to this question will be pursued in future posts.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Interference

September 11, 2017

Interference is the title of a chapter in “The Distracted Mind” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. Frequently we feel challenged when trying to fulfill even fairly simple goals. This is the result of interference caused by distractions from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals. Our sensitivity to interference was not born out of modern technology. Rather, it is a fundamental vulnerability of our brain.

Interference is a term used to describe something that hinders, impedes or derails another process. Goal interference occurs when we reach a decision to accomplish a specific goal (look for something to eat, complete a work assignment, engage in a conversation, drive a car) and something takes place to hinder the successful completion of that goal. This interference can either be generated internally, presenting thoughts within our minds, or generated externally, by sensory stimuli such as restaurant chat, beeps, vibrations or flashing displays. This goal interference, regardless of whether generated internally or externally (frequently both) occurs in two distinct varieties—distractions and interruptions—depending upon how we manage the interference.

Distractions are goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our own minds. When it comes to distractions, our intention is to ignore them. For example, we are trying to enjoy a television program, but we start worrying about a meeting tomorrow. This is an internal distraction commonly referred to as mind wandering. Mind wandering is particularly troublesome when we are trying to study. These are internal distractions.
But suppose while we’re trying to watch a television program, but are disturbed by something happening elsewhere in the house. This is an example of an external distraction.

Interruptions are the other major source of goal interference. Interruptions can come from external sources from people or environmental events. But interruptions happen when we make a decision to concurrently engage in more than one task at the same time, even if we attempt to switch rapidly between them. These latter interruptions are commonly referred to as multitasking, although research has shown that we cannot multitask. Rather we can switch between or among tasks, but switching itself entails cognitive costs.

Our brains are extremely sensitive to interference at many levels. The reason why goal interference is so prominent in our lives is the inherent complexity of our goals and the limitations we have in fulfilling them. The authors state that our ability to establish high-level goals is arguably the pinnacle of human brain evolution. The authors continue, “Complex, interwoven, time-delayed and often shared goals are what allow us humans to exert an unprecedented influence over how we interact with the world around us, navigating its multifaceted environments based on our decisions rather reflexive responses to our surroundings. Our impressive goal-setting abilities have permitted the remarkable development of our cultures, communities, and societies and have enabled us to create complex human constructs such as art, language, music, and technology. The sheer magnitude of our impressive goal setting-abilities has resulted in the conditions necessary for goal interference to exist in the first place.

Our proficiency in setting goals is edited by cognitive abilities known as executive functions. These are the skills that include evaluation, decision making, organization, and planning. However, goal setting is only half the battle. We need specialized processes to enact these goals. Out ability to effectively carry out our goals is dependent on an assemblage of cognitive abilities referred to in the book as cognitive control. This includes attention, working memory, and goal management. Our ability to set high-level goals does not necessarily mean that it is inevitable that we are overwhelmed by goal interference. It is conceivable that the goal-enactment abilities of our brain evolved alongside our goal-setting abilities to offset any negative impact of goal interference. The authors conclude that this is not what seems to have happened. Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degrees as the executive function required for goal setting.

The authors continue, “ Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have a restricted ability to distribute, divide and sustain attention; actively hold detained information mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals.”

The authors note that “In many ways, we are ancient brains in a high-tech world.”

 

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World

September 10, 2017

The title alone should indicate the importance of this book. Although the distracted mind has always been a problem with which humans have had to deal, modern technology has greatly exacerbated this problem. One of the authors, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is a cognitive neuroscientist and a leader in the study of how the brain manages distractions and interruptions. Another author is Dr. Larry Rosen who is a psychologist who has studied the “psychology of technology” as a pioneer in this field for more than thirty years. Their complementary perspectives focus on demonstrating why we fail to successfully navigate our modern technological ecosystem and how that has detrimentally affected our safety, cognition, education, workplace, and our relationships with family and friends.

The authors note that there are two equally valid perspectives to conceptualize that magnificent organ tucked between our ears: as the brain—the most extraordinary information processing-system, and complex structure in the known universe—and as the mind—the emergent higher-order function of that biological machine. The mind is the very core of our identity and consciousness, The brain has over one hundred billion processing units (neurons) intricately interwoven by hundreds of trillions of connections (synapses) into a distributed network of staggering. They write that perhaps the most impressive feat of the human brain is its functional offspring: the human mind. “Despite centuries of academic thought and research on this topic, we still find the most effective way to conceptualize the wonder of the mind is to fully appreciate that it is the essence of every emotion we feel, every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every decision we make, every move we take, every word we utter, every memory we store and recall…in the truest sense it is who we are.”

Now move this wonderful mind into our every growing technological world. Dr. Rosen’s research has found that the typical teen and young adult believes that he or she can juggle six to seven different forms of media at the same time. Other studies have found that up to 95% of the population report multitasking each day, with activity in more than one domain occupying approximately a third of the day. What is not realized is that there is no such activity as multi-tasking. What is termed multitasking is more accurately a switching between, or all too often among, tasks. .

Moreover these technological innovations have been accomplished by a shift in societal expectations such that we now demand immediate responsiveness and continuous productivity. Studies have reported that US adults and teenagers check their phone up to 150 time a day, or every six to seven minutes when they are aware. Studies in the UK have found that more than half of all adults and two-thirds of young adults and teens do not go one hour without checking their phones. They’ve found that three in four smartphone owners in the US feel panicked when they cannot immediately locate their phone, half check it first thing in the morning while still lying in bed, one in tree check it while using the bathroom, and three in ten check it while dining with others. According to a Harris Poll, eight in ten vacationers brought or planned to bring at least one high-tech device on vacation, and a substantial portion of vacationers check in in often with their devices.

Drs. Gazzeley and Rosen describe how our cognitive systems cope with these tasks, and present a strategy for coping effectively. They also review the research on how we can increase the effectiveness of our cognitive processes. Plus they include strategies for coping with these overwhelming demands.
Obviously, it will take a substantial number of healthy memory posts to convey a meaningful portion of the valuable contents in this book.

False Beliefs

September 8, 2017

Belief: Crime is rising. Every recent year, 7 in 10 Americans have told Gallup that there is more crime “than there was a year ago.” Donald Trump said in early 2017 that “The murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” And the Attorney General said that “rising crime is a dangerous and permanent trend.”
Fact: For several decades, both violent and property crime rates have been falling. In 2015, the FBI-aggregated violent crime was less than half the 1990 rate—a downward trend confirmed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics crime-victimization surveys.
HM Comment: Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the prevalence of police and crime shows on television. These shows frequently involve firearms. In point of fact, the majority of police officers retire without ever having fired their weapons (apart from training). A ratio of only 1 in 20 officers having fired their weapons according to “Blue Bloods,” HM remembers.

Belief: Many immigrants are criminals. Horrific true incidents, as in the endlessly retold story of a Mexican national killing a young woman in San Francisco, feed this narrative. Trump’s words epitomize this perception: “When Mexico sends its people…They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Fact: Poor immigrants may fit our image of criminals, yet some studies report that, compared with native-born Americans, immigrants commit less violent crime.
HM Comment: Never rely on anecdotes, whether or not they are true. Always rely on statistics correctly collected and analyzed.

Belief: Under Obama, unemployment rose and the stock market fell. At the end of 2016, 67% of Trump voters told Public Policy Polling that unemployment increased during the Obama years, and only 41% said the stock market had risen.
Fact: At the end of 2016, the 4.7% US unemployment rate was about half the 2009 rate, while the stock market had more than doubled.

Belief: At the end of the Reagan presidency, more than half of strong Democrats believed inflation had worsened under Reagan.
Fact: In actuality,it had plummeted from 13% to 4%.

This post is based on an article by David G. Myers titled “Misinformation, Misconceptions, and our Teaching Mission” in the Association for Psychological Science publication “Observer”, September 2017.

The Loss of a Neuroscientist Who Should Have Been Awarded a Nobel Prize

September 6, 2017

And that neuroscientist is Marian Diamond who passed away on July 25, 2017 at the age of ninety. Her painstaking research showed that the body’s three-pound seat of consciousness was a dynamic structure of beautiful complexity, capable of development even in old age.

Prior to her research it was strongly believed the nervous system was fixed. We were stuck with the brain we were born with. And any damage to the brain was irreparable. The brain was a static and unchangeable entity that simply degenerated as we age.

Inspired by the research of psychologist Donald Hebb, she began studying the brains of lab rats. Rats that were raised alone, in small and desolate cages, had more trouble navigating a maze than did rats were raised in “enriched” cages, with toys and rat playmates. Through painstaking analyses of these rat brains she found that the cerebral cortices of rats in “enriched” cages were about 6% thicker than the rats in the “impoverished” cages.

Her findings, published in a 1964 paper with three colleagues, were a pivotal contribution to the long-running debate between nature and nurture, which seeks to determine the extent to which a person is shaped by their genes or by their life experiences.. UC-Berkely professor Robert Knight said “The idea that the brain could change based on environmental input and stimulation was felt to be silly, and that’s the boat she completely sank.

Further research generalized these conclusions to humans. Neuroplasticity was found to be ubiquitous. We continue to generate neurons until we die.

Dr. Diamond went on to develop a rich theory of brain plasticity summarized in the phrase use it or lose it. She outlined the following five factors crucial to brain development at any age: diet, exercise, challenge, newness, and love.

Later in her career she was given several sections of Albert Einstein’s brain. She found an unusually high amount of glial cells, which were thought to be a relatively unimportant part of the tissue that held the brain together. This discovery launched renewed interest in the role of glial cells, which are now believed to play a crucial role in cognitive processes.

This post is based in part on an obituary by Harrison Smith in the 31July 2017 Washington Post.

 

Con Artists

July 31, 2017

This post is based on an article by Marc T. Swogger in the News section of the 29 July 2017 edition of the New Scientist titled, “In the age of the scam we need to know how to see a con coming.”

When Swooger was a graduate student in clinical psychology he interviewed lifelong con artists who had been jailed. Not surprisingly, he found that they tend to think a lot of themselves. Con artists see braggadocio as endearing or dismissed as healthy confidence or benign insecurity. But grandiosity is common in these fraudsters and unabashed boasting is a red light.

In a job interview or on a date they sprinkle in a lot of disarming flattery and vague reference to assumed commonality creating the illusion that you are on the inside of something special. Swogger writes, “your emotional reactions might induce bemusement, unease, confusion and excitement. Note your reaction. It is your cue to take a breath and a step back.

Since the con depends on a show to distract, Swooger advises to be grounded and aware of your feelings, focus on words alone. Rather than nuanced and measured, they are peppered with superlatives. The con artist may also contradict themselves—it is hard for them to keep track of what they have said. Uncoupled from their cracking confidence, their claims raise questions.

Consider the above paragraph and its relevance to the greatest con artist of all time—Donald Trump. What is interesting is that in spite of all the indications he provides that he is a con, people being explicitly warned that he is a con artist, yet they still remain conned.

And even today, with video evidence that he delivered classified material and compromised an ally to the Russians— thus indicating that he is worse than a con man, people are still falling for his con.

Amazing.
Sad.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Mindfulness Against Stress and Racism

July 30, 2017

This post is inspired by an article titled “Stress of poverty, racism raise risk of Alzheimer’s for African Americans, new research suggests” by Frederick Kunkle in the 17 July 2017 Issue of the Washington Post.

Recent research into racial disparities among people with Alzheimer’s disease suggests that social conditions, including stress of poverty and racism, substantially raise risks of dementia for Africa Americans. Four independent studies found that conditions that affect blacks disproportionately compared with other groups—such as poor living conditions and stressful events such as the loss of a sibling, the divorce of one’s parents or chronic unemployment—have severe consequences for brain health later on.

A study at the University of Wisconsin found that stress literally takes years off a person’s life in terms of brain function—an average of four years for African Americans, compared with 1.5 years for whites. A different Wisconsin study showed that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood is associated with later decline in cognitive function and even the biomarkers linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

One of the best, if not the best, means of coping with stress is meditation. Meditation places the mind and its worries at rest. It increases the ability of the mind not to focus on stress and opens up the possibilities of ideas for overcoming stress.

If mindfulness were taught universally in schools, people would already have these coping skills. Mindfulness, universally taught, has the potential for mitigating, if not defeating, racism. Research has also found that mindfulness taught in the schools can propagate up to the parents and siblings of the students. So the benefits go beyond the students themselves.

Growth mindsets, in addition to fostering healthy memories, also have the prospect of enhancing economic outcomes. To understand how, consider Scott Adams book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” Entering “Scott Adams” into the search block of the healthy memory blog will yield healthy memory blog posts based on this book.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Awe

July 29, 2017

This post is based on an article by Jo Marchant in the Features section of the 29 July 2017 edition of the New Scientist titled, “Awesome awe: The emotion that gives us superpowers.”

The feeling of awe is something that hopefully most, if not all, of us have experienced. It has only recently become a topic for scientific investigation. In 2003 Dacher Keltner and Jonathan  Haidt published the first scientific definition. They described awe as the feeling we get when confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference, and that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear. Wonder, by contrast, is more intellectual—a cognitive state in which we are trying to understand the mysterious.

We might think that investigating such a mystical experience would be a challenge, but Keltner insists it’s not so hard. He says, “We can reliably produce awe. You can get people to go out to a beautiful scene in nature, or put them in a cathedral or in front of a dinosaur skeleton, and they’re going to be pretty amazed.” Then a numerical scale is used so people can report how much awe they are feeling. A physiological measure, the appearance of goosebumps, is second only to cold temperatures as a source of the goosebumps.

Keltner and other researchers have found that even mild awe can change our attitudes and behavior. People who watched a nature video that elicited awe, rather than other positive emotions such as happiness or pride—were subsequently more generous and described themselves as feeling more connected to people in general. Gazing up at tall eucalyptus trees left others more likely to help someone who stumbled in front of them. After standing in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, people were more likely to describe themselves as part of a group. Although it might seem counterintuitive that an emotion we often experience alone increases our focus on others, Keltner thinks it’s because awe expands our attention to encompass a bigger picture, thus reducing our sense of self.

In a large study Keltner found that after inspiring awe in people from the US and China, they signed their names smaller and drew themselves smaller, but with no drop in their sense of status or self-esteem. Neuroscientist Michiel van Elk found that people who watched awe-inducing videos estimated their bodies to be physically smaller than those who watched funny or neutral videos.

At the annual meeting of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping in Vancouver, Canada, in June, van Elk presented functional MRI scans showing that awe quiets activity in the default mode network, which included parts of the frontal lobes and cortex, and is thought to related to the sense of self. Keltner says, “The voice in your head, self-interest, self-consciousness, disappears. Here’s an emotion that knocks out a really important part of our identity. As a result we feel more connected to bigger collectives and groups.”

Keltner’s team has found that feeling awe makes people happier and less stressed, even weeks later, and that it assists the immune system by cutting the production of cytokines, which promote inflammation. A team from Arizona State University found that awe activates the parasympathetic, which works to calm the fight or flight response. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that experiencing awe made people feel as if they had more time—and made them more willing to give up their time to help others.

Awe also seems to help us break habitual patterns of thinking. The Arizona team discovered that after experiencing awe, people were better able to remember the details of a short story. Usually, our memories are colored by our expectations and assumptions, but awe reduces this tendency, improving our focus on what’s actually happening. Increases in curiosity and creativity have also been reported. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in test, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls.

Given all these benefits, the question is how to obtain awe experiencing materials. This topic is not discussed in this article. There seems to be business opportunities here. Are there any additional benefits from virtual reality? There is much work to be done.

HM envisions that in the future flat panels will be placed on the walls of our homes, where we have the option of displaying different subjects. Of course, paintings are a likely subject. But consider wrap around flat panels that could place us in the middle of a Redwood Forest, or in the Grand Canyon.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Loneliness

July 25, 2017

This post is largely based on a feature article titled “Feeling lonely? You’re not on your own” by Moya Sarner in the 22 July 2017 New Scientist.

Steve Cole at the University of California at Los Angeles says that lonely people are at increased risk of “just about every major chronic illness — heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer. A meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found that a poor quality of social relationships had the same negative effect on risk of death as smoking, alcohol and other well-known factors such as inactivity and obesity. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago says that “Correcting for demographic factors, loneliness increases the odds of early mortality by 26%. That’s about the same as living with chronic obesity,”

One reason is that loneliness lowers willpower, so we are more likely to indulge in self-defeating behavior. We make take risks and make bad decision from choosing unhealthy food to avoiding exercise, Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of mental health problems such as stress, depression, and eating disorders, all of which aversely effect our physical health.

Cacioppo and Cole compared gene expression in the white blood cells of two groups. One group consisted of six persistently lonely middle-aged adults and in the other group were eight who ranked as consistently socially enfranchised. In the lonelier group, the activity of genes responsible for inflammation was ramped up.

Although inflammation is the body’s first line of defense against injury and bacterial infection, too much inflammation has been linked to cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. The lonely people also had less activity in the genes that regulate immune response to viral infections.

Too much inflammation changes the brain triggering behaviors that prime for threats. Cole says, “Inflammatory biology makes the brain a little more suspicious, vigilant and irritable.” Cacioppo and his team measured people’s brain activity while they looked at either threatening or neutral pictures and found that lonely people tuned in to social threats faster. This hyper-vigilance could explain the correlation between loneliness and poor sleep quality.

Today young people seem particularly vulnerable. This article does not mention the manner in which technology is used. Being constantly connected and friending could be driven in large part by loneliness. Robin Dunbar, at the University of London (who has appeared in five previous healthy memory blog posts) states that if there’s one factor that stands out in alleviating loneliness, it is the quality, rather than quantity of relationships. He says that this fits our evolutionary past. “For you to live, survive, work, and function well depends on you having a set of very intense close friendships, or family relationships. It turns out that this core group numbers about five close friends and family—and this is very consistent across primates, including humans.” To maintain those crucial five or so relationships, there’s an easy formula. You need to dedicate 40% of your total social effort to them, “ and that means seeing them on a very regular basis.” Small changes like pruning random acquaintances from social media, setting notifications for updates from real friends, and spending time with a core group could all act as a buffer against loneliness.

It seems the best approach is to start with the mind, rather than trying to expand you social network. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness found that the most successful dealt with the psychological aspects of loneliness using cognitive behavioral training. The heightened sense of threat lonely people feel means they are more likely to pay attention and remember negative details and events, and behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations, perpetuating the vicious spiral of loneliness.

Research by Cole, who is investigating what factors might make people less likely to succumb to the negative health effects of loneliness, thinks that finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life can overcome the negative effects of loneliness. Cole says, “If you think of lonely people as having a world view of threat and hostility, this study suggests that you can attack this underlying psychology by becoming engaged in help others, trying to make the world a better place. I’m kind of excited about that as an obliques attack on loneliness.” All of this fits in with with the work of Victor J. Stretcher, which he describes in his book, “Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Changes Everything.” There have been many healthy memory posts based on this book.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Brain Training Games in Perspective

July 23, 2017

In the July 11, 2017 issue of the Washington Post there was an article by Jenna Gallegos titled “Brain training games fail to deliver exceptional cognitive boost, study finds”. This article summarized a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in which 128 young adults were tested for mental performance after playing either Luminosity brain-training games or regular video games for 10 weeks. Researchers saw no evidence that commercial brain training games lead to improvements in memory, decision-making, sustained attention, or ability to switch between mental tasks.

So what can do these results mean? Luminosity might want to work on developing games that will show improvements in mental performance when compared against regular video games. Suppose that either the current study had or a future study will show improvements in mental performance when compared to regular video games. Although these results would be positive, they would not prove that playing them warded off dementia.

It is already known that cognitive activity does decrease the likelihood of dementia, and that cognitive activity can produce a cognitive reserve such that even when the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s, the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, appear dementia might be delayed or forestalled altogether. After all, there have been autopsies performed on people whose brains were plagued with amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles who never exhibited any cognitive or behavioral symptoms of the disease.

The healthy memory blog has warned against waiting for drugs that prevent or cure Alzheimer’s (see the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s). The healthy memory blog does recommend a healthy lifestyle that features growth mindsets for continually learning and meditation and mindfulness. Social activities are also an important part of this healthy lifestyle.

HM also argues that it is not just mental activity, but the type of mental activity that is important. Here it is important to understand the different types of cognitive activity Daniel Kahneman described in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. This processing is so fast that it is executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 2 process much repetition and practice is required. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions.
System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly regard as thinking. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors do slip through. Learning, particularly the early stages, are largely a System 2 process.

System 1 processing occurs rapidly over frequently travelled pathways in the brain. However, System 2 processing involves traveling over many pathways, some which are little used to find supporting, refuting, or conflicting information, or in establishing new links for learning

It is HM’s conjecture that it is System 2 processing that is most beneficial to healthy memories, the formation of a cognitive reserve, and the forestalling or prevention of dementia.

So what types of experiments could test this hypothesis. Here are two possibilities;

One hypothesis is that voters who voted for Trump engaged primarily, if not exclusively ,in System 1 processing. and are more likely to suffer from dementia. Many, if not most, decisions were based on emotions, which are System 1 processes. Other decisions where based on religion or party affiliation. So these people were essentially just following orders. Even if people gave an answer such as jobs or the economy, did they bother to think critically how Trump promised to accomplish his promises, or were they just placing blind faith in Trump?

So the argument here is that voters who did not vote for Trump engaged in System 2 processing that kept them from making the error of voting for Trump. Consequently, they have healthier memories and are less likely to safer from dementia.

Another hypothesis is that viewers of Fox News are more likely to suffer from demential. Fox’s “Fair and Balanced” news is accomplished by presenting news that appeals to existing biases and beliefs. This enables Fox viewers to use System 1 processes almost exclusively and to avoid or minimize System 2 thinking.

But what about viewers who do not view Fox news? As they receive a wider range of views in the news coverage, some, but not all, of the news will require System 2 processing. In other words, these viewers will need to think more, which might well assist in building a cognitive reserve and warding off dementia.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Is Blood Doping a Placebo Effect?

July 22, 2017

This post is based on a piece by Chris Cooper titled “Blood Doping: Was Lance Armstrong just wasting his time? in the Comment Section of the July 15 2017 issue of the New Scientist.

There have been many previous posts on the placebo effect (just enter “placebo” into the search block of the healthy memory blog). This article is based on a Dutch study that used amateur riders injecting either EPO, the blood doping drug used by Lance Armstrong, or saline. So all bicycle riders in a road race thought they were being given EPO, but only half received EPO injections and the other half receive saline injections. No difference was found in the performance of the two groups.

This study needs to be replicated, and HM suggests the following addition, and that is the addition of a group that receives neither injection. A placebo effect is expected, so the saline group should perform better than the no injection control. Both the placebo group and the saline group should outperform the no injection group This result would be important. Chris Cooper suggests that, as these cyclists were not elite competitors, the blood oxygen content may not have been limiting performance in the amateurs. Research to determine if EPO only enhances performance when blood oxygen content limits performance would also be informative.

It would also be interesting to try to convince several veteran participants in the Tour de France bicycle race that there was an effective way of making EPO doping undetectable, and then fool any dishonest riders into taking a placebo. Now suppose they either won the race or performed much better than expected. Then wouldn’t it be humorous if these doping agencies prohibited placebos?

There was another report on placebos in the Significant Digits piece on 20 July 2017 FiveThirtyEight Blog. It reports a 2014 knee pain study comparing elective surgical procedures and sham surgeries. People undergoing the sham surgery were aware that it was sham. The study found that faking a surgery (doing all the fasting and knocking them out and fake incisions and the whole routine) provided some benefit to the ailment in 74% of the cases and was as effective as the actual elective surgery in roughly half the time. HM thinks that the placebo effect is the most interesting of all medical effects. The placebo effect wide applications.

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Ivan Pavlov and American Democracy

July 19, 2017

The question that should come to mind with this title is what does Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, have to do with American democracy? You should remember Pavlov from his drooling dogs. He would pair a sound, a buzzer for example, with food. After sufficient training the dogs would drool whenever they hear the buzzer. This was called the conditioned response (CR), that resulted from pairing a buzzer, the conditioned stimulus (CS), with the food. Pavlov earned a Nobel Prize for this finding. He is also regarded as a psychologist as conditioned stimuli became central to many theories in psychology.

When many conservatives hear about the success of the medical insurance provided to the citizens of other advanced countries their response is “socialism” or “socialized medicine,” and that’s the end to it. It is important to understand why they make these conditioned responses, as the conditioned response is the lowest form of behavior, being a highly simplified version of Kahneman’s System 1 processing. All their lives they have been conditioned to respond to government supplied medical insurance as socialism and to socialism as bad. Many have conflated socialism with communism, which makes it doubly bad.

So when you get this response, explain to them why they’re making this response. It is highly unlikely that they understand that this is a conditioned response rather than any sort of reasoned response that involves actual thinking. So before going further ask them to shove all their beliefs as far up their keisters as they can, and to provide a reasoned response as to their opposition to government provided medical care. Not surprisingly, it is likely that few will be willing to do this, so the interaction should end here. But if they can explain why these systems have been working well in Europe, be prepared to listen.

A response that you might get from someone about why they work in Europe, but will not work here is exceptionalism. HM finds this very concept wreaking of hubris. These countries consist of the same species and are from representatives democracies, not kleptocracies like Putin’s.

That Trump felt honored to meet Putin is very disturbing. In an earlier life, HM worked on classified programs and reviewed people who were applying for security clearances. If any one of them had expressed admiration for Putin, HM would have recommended strongly against their being given access to classified information. Consequently, he is disturbed to have a President who admires Putin.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Ignorance

July 18, 2017

A previous post titled “Making People Smart” discussed a course entitled “Ignorance” that has been taught at Columbia University. Guest scientists are invited to speak about what “they don’t know, what they think is critical to know, how they might get to know it, what will happen if they do find this or that thing out, or what might happen if they don’t.” The course focuses on all that is not in the textbooks and thus guides students to think about what is unknown and what could be known. The idea is to focus not on what students themselves don’t know, but what entire fields of science don’t know, with the aim of provoking and directing students to ask questions about the foundations of a scientific field. This course requires that a students ponder not just some set of scientific theories and ideas; it requires that they begin to understand what the entire community has and hasn’t mastered. This course is taught by Stuart Fierstein and he has published the book on which that course is based. The book is titled, appropriately enough, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science.”

HM has read the book. It is well written and fairly short. HM recommends this book to anyone who is interested in science. HM will not be writing further posts on this book, but he will be using it as a point of departure to consider a larger truth the book holds. Previous healthy memory blog posts have noted that the rapid improvements in life on this planet come from science, or more particularly, scientific thinking. Truly effective and innovative scientific thinking comes from looking for areas of ignorance, information that we don’t have. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, these are unknown unknowns.

Contrast this with how most of us think. We comfort ourselves with what we know. We like to stay close to home. However, growth mindsets encourage us to grow our knowledge and skills continually till the end of life. Staying active and continuing to learn is one of the best, if not the best, means of warding off dementia. Another way of looking at this is to look for areas of our own ignorance, and pursue those areas which we would like to pursue.

Businesses that survive know that it is important to adapt to changes constantly. This is needed if they are, at worst, able to survive, or, at best, to thrive. So they are examining areas of ignorance and making decisions as to which to pursue.

What is generally ignored is that governments need to adapt to survive. They need to identify areas of ignorance and address them or difficulties will be encountered, and, eventually, even survival will be threatened. This is not to say that conservative views are not valued. But there role is to preclude foolish pursuits, not to preclude addressing pressing problems with new ideas.

A good example of this is the problem of healthcare in the United States. The problem is severe as the United States has the most expensive healthcare in the world, but health statistics characteristic of third world countries. Every advanced country has successfully addressed healthcare and is providing healthcare for all its citizens via a single payer system in which the single payer is the government.
It is unbelievable that in the United States that there are people who do not think that healthcare is a right for all people. HM regards people who do not believe this as moral degenerates, and that goes double for such people who profess religious faiths. One party believes in market forces, which are very effective under many circumstances, but not for healthcare. But they continue to believe that market forces are universally applicable. When someone has a hammer, everything looks like a nail, which is the problem here.

Perhaps it is ironic that communism is an ideology that failed because, among other factors, it was too widely applied and ignored market forces. The lesson here is that ideologies preclude effective thinking, and ideologues are the bane of an effective democracy. Think and look around. There are many effective examples of universal healthcare in all advanced countries, except one, the good old USofA.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Conclusion: Appraising Ignorance and Illusion

July 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of the final chapter of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. The authors note that this book has three central themes: ignorance, the community of knowledge, and the illusion of understanding.

The authors note that ignorance is inevitable simply because there’s too much complexity in the world for any individual to master. The Dunning-Kruger effect, which has been discussed in previous healthy memory posts, is that those who perform the worst overrate their own skills the most. This effect can be found by giving a group of people a task to do and then asking them how well they think they’ve done on the task. Poor performers overestimate how well they’ve done; strong performers often underestimate their performance. This effect has been found many times both in the psychological laboratory and in many real-world environments: among students, in offices, and among doctors. Dunning has collected an impressive amount of evidence that the reason it happens is that those who lack skills also lack the knowledge of what skills they’re missing. Consequently, they think they’re pretty good. However, those who are knowledgeable have a better sense of how matters should be handled and they know what skills they need to improve on. Dunning stresses the importance of this effect because all of us are unskilled in most domains of our lives.

The authors wrote, “As for the community of knowledge, intelligence resides in the community and not in any individual. So decision-making procedures that elicit the wisdom of the community are more likely to produce better outcomes than procedures that depend on the relative ignorance of lone individuals. A strong leader is one who knows how to inspire a community and take advantage of the knowledge within it, and can delegate responsibility to those with the most expertise.”

There are good and bad aspects of the illusion of understanding. We’re more likely to be accurate by avoiding illusion. We have a good idea of what we know and what we don’t know, and this should help us achieve our goals. We won’t take on projects that are beyond us, and we’ll be less likely to disappoint others, and we’ll be better positioned to deliver on our promises.

But they also note that illusion is a pleasure, as many of us spend a significant part of our lives living in illusions quite intentionally. We entertain ourselves with fictional worlds. Illusions can stimulate creative products by inspiring us to imagine alternative worlds, goals, and outcomes. And they can motivate us to attempt what we wouldn’t otherwise attempt.

Many posts have been devoted to this book because it addresses an important topic. It provides us with a more accurate picture of what we know and the consequences of shortfalls in knowledge. The title states “why we never think alone.” Perhaps it should read, “why we should never think alone.” Although he has certainly tried, HM has not done this volume justice, and he encourages you to read it for yourself.

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Making Smart Decisions

July 15, 2017

This is the twelfth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Making Smarter Decisions is a chapter in this book. Perhaps the one area it is important to make smart decisions is in finance.

Consider the following question: Assume that you deposit $400 every month into a retirement savings account that earns a 10% yearly rate of interest and that you never withdraw any money. How much money do you think you will have in any account (including interest earned): After 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and 40 years.

Respondents answering these questions responding with a median response of
$223,000.00 after forty years. The correct answer is almost $2.5 million. Use your spreadsheet to prove this for yourself.

HM’s father passed away before he retired, and he was denied a large amount of the pension he should have received. Nevertheless, both his parents had managed their finances carefully. All they invested in were FDIC insured savings accounts and Certificates of Deposit. HM was amazed at the money his Mom accumulated. She was in fine shape, placed no burden on him, and left him a substantial inheritance.

HM’s parents also never carried credit card debt. No one should ever carry credit card debt. This debt is compounded, and increases at a nonlinear rate just as savings accounts do. But unlike savings accounts, debt is subtracted.

Actually the rates that are charged are usurious and should not be allowed. But the financial industry has effectively bought congress. (You should know that the United States has the best congress money can buy). Added to this are the clever programs where you gain rewards for using the card. Using the card and earning rewards is not a problem unless you do not pay off the card monthly when it is due. You should remember if you carry credit debt you are losing money.

Behavioral economics has some effective ideas to aid in better financial decisions (enter, “behavioral economics” into the healthy memory blog search box to find additional posts on behavioral economics). It has found ways to nudge better decisions. Nudging can be done by setting defaults. Rather than have employees opt in regarding retirement contributions, have them opt out if they do not want to contribute. Have being an organ donor being the default option on a driver’s license, and have them opt out if they do not want to be a donor. The big idea of the nudge approach is that it easier and more effective to change the environment that it is to change the person. Once we understand what quirks of cognition drive behavior, we can design the environment so that those quirks help us instead of hurting us.

We can apply these lessons to how we make decisions as part of a community of knowledge. Realizing that people are explanation foes—that we usually don’t have the inclination or even the capability to master he details of all our decisions, we can try to structure the environment to help ourselves make good decisions despite our lack of understanding.

Reduce Complexity
Simple Decision Rules
Just-in-Time Education
Check Out Understanding

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Making People Smart

July 14, 2017

This is the eleventh post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Making People Smart is a chapter in this book.

The authors state, “The illusion of comprehension arises because people confuse understanding with familiarity or recognition. When you reread text at a later time, it seems familiar. Psychologist Paul Kolers provided an extreme case of this by having people read inverted text. More than a year later the same people could read the same text faster than different text they hadn’t read before. Thus, they had retained a memory over the course of a year for how to read specific text.

A problem that we all have is that this sense of familiarity can be confused with actual understanding of the material. It’s one thing to be familiar with some text or to know it by heart, but another to really get a full understanding of its meaning. Comprehension requires processing text with care and effort in a deliberate manner. It requires thinking about the author’s intention. This isn’t obvious to everyone and many students confuse studying with light reading. The knowledge illusion extends to education as well. Learning requires breaking common habits by processing information more deeply.

Sloan and Fernbach neglect to discuss how current technology hinders the development of fuller and deeper understanding. In their chapter on Thinking with Technology they did discuss how technology fools us into thinking we know more than we know. But they did not discuss how being continually plugged in and multitasking prevents fuller and deeper understanding. The belief that we can multitask is mistaken. What we are in reality doing is switching between, or all too often, among tasks, and the act of switching has attentional and cognitive costs. Fuller and deeper understanding comes from concentrating on one topic for a prolonged period of time. Usually many such encounters are often needed for this fuller and deeper understanding. Multitasking fosters superficial, not deep processing.

We suffer from the knowledge illusion when we confuse what experts know with what we ourselves know. The fact that we can access someone else’s knowledge makes us feel like we already know what we’re talking about. We are not built to become masters of all subjects, but we are built to participate in a community.

The authors write, “A real education includes learning that you don’t know certain things (a lot of things). Instead of looking in at the knowledge you do have, you learn to look for the knowledge you don’t have. To do this, you have to let go of some hubris; you have to accept what you don’t know. Learning what you don’t know is just a matter of looking at the frontiers of your knowledge and wondering what is out there beyond the border. It’s about asking why.”

Since 2006, a course entitled “Ignorance” has been taught at Columbia University. Guest scientists are invited to speak about what “they don’t know, what they think is critical to know, how they might get to know it, what will happen if they do find this or that thing out, and what might happen if they don’t.” The course focuses on all that is not in the textbooks and thus guides students to think about what is unknown and what could be known. The idea is to focus not on what students themselves don’t know, but what entire fields of science don’t know, with the aim of provoking and directing students to ask questions about the foundations of a scientific field. This course requires that students ponder not just some set of scientific theories; it requires that they begin to understand what the entire community has and hasn’t mastered.

Being a cognitive psychologist, HM has needed to learn about many disciplines, computer science, neuroscience, statistics, and linguistics, to name just a few. This is vastly more knowledge that one individual can comprehend. So much knowledge is accepted as faith. What distinguishes this faith from religious faith is that there is a higher power to appeal to: namely the power of verification. The Dalai Lama is a religious leader who is unique in that he incorporates scientific results into the Buddhist religion.

It was perhaps when HM graduated from high school that he had high confidence in what he knew. His undergraduate education quickly disabused him of this notion, and his graduate and continuing studies have increased his awareness of how much he does not know.

We all need to become better consumers of information. We need to be skeptical when deciphering the media. As has been noted in previous posts that there is a profitable business in false science and false news. Adrian Chen wrote in the New York Times Magazine of Russian “troll farm”, which was a business whose employees are assigned pro-Kremlin viewpoints and putative information to propagate by blogging, posting on social media sites, and flooding comment sections of news sites, often using false identities. It is sad that this sort of thing goes on all the time in both the political and commercial domains. All of which emphasizes that we should be modest about what we do know, to never have absolute beliefs in anything, and to constantly try to increase our understanding so we can use knowledge more effectively, and perhaps contribute to communal understanding.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

The New Definition of Smart

July 13, 2017

This is the tenth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. The New Definition of Smart is a chapter in this book.

The chapter begins by stating that we tend to be knowledgeable of only a few, and oftentimes one, individuals for an area accomplishment. Martin Luther King, jr., is known by most people as being key to the Civil Rights Movement. In reality, many people over a prolonged period of time were involved in the movement. They write that the tendency to substitute individuals for complicated entities can be seen in how we talk about institutions. We talk about the Eisenhower administration or the Kennedy administration as if the president of the United States personally carried out all the function of the executive branch of government. The Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, runs to about 20,000 or so pages of legalese. The authors ask how much of it do you think that Barack Obama himself wrote? Their guess is none. We speak of great scientists as if they changed the world, but they did not do it alone. Wasn’t it the great physicist Sir Isaac Newton who said that if he saw further than other men it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants?

The authors spend a good deal of time discussing the concept of intelligence, commonly referred to as IQ and how it has developed. Rather then try to summarize their summary consider the title of a presentation that Robert J. Sternberg made at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in 2017, “Are We Creating a Society of Smart Fools? Lesson from 40+ Years of Research on Human Intelligence, Creativity, and Wisdom”. HM can think of no better expert as an authority on this topic.

 

Sloan and Fernbach, building on the concept of a group mind come up with the concept of c for collective intelligence. Diversity is important for successful groups. A group in which everyone has the same expertise will unlikely be effective. The question is what are the objectives for a group, and what areas of expertise are needed to fill it. Then one searches for these unique pieces and asks the question, what does a given individual add to the group. As the group advances it is likely that new sources of expertise will be required and that groups will be dynamic. If a new member does improve a group, c increases.

This concept of c is relatively new. A team led by Anita Woolley of the Tepper School of Business is developing this concept. Instead of testing people individually, they gave each of forty teams of these people a variety of tests that included brainstorming the possible uses for a brick, Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices that is often used as a quick assessment of intelligence, a moral reasoning problem, a shopping trip planning task, and a group typing taAnisk. Each team did each task together.

All tasks were positively correlated in that a group who did well on one task was more likely to do well on another task than a group who didn’t do well on the first task. Thus, they uncovered c the factor. The new research being done suggests that the success of a group is not predominately a function of the intelligence of its individuals, but rather by how well they work together with their respective competencies.

Obviously c is a very promising concept, one for which much work still needs to be done.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Thinking About Politics

July 11, 2017

This is the ninth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking About Politics is a chapter in this book.

HM remembers when the Affordable Care Act was being debated, a woman was asked what she thought about it. She remarked that she was strongly in favor of it. However, when she was asked about Obamacare, she said that she was strongly against it. Such is the state of politics in the United States. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2013, found that more than 40% of Americans were not even aware that the Affordable Care Act was Law (12% thought it had been repealed by Congress—it hadn’t.)

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach write that public opinion is more extreme than people’s understanding justifies. Americans who most strongly justified military intervention in the Ukraine in 2014 were the ones least able to identify Ukraine’s location on a map. A survey out of Oklahoma State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics asked consumers whether the labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering should be mandatory. 80% of the respondents thought that it should. But 80% also approved of a law stating that there should be mandatory labels on foods containing DNA. They believe that people have the right to know if their food has DNA. So these respondents thought that all meats, vegetables, and grains should be labeled “BEWARE HAS DNA.” But we would all die if we avoided foods that contain DNA.

We all need to appreciate how little we understand. The authors write, “Taken to its extreme, the failure to appreciate how little we understand combined with community support, can ignite really dangerous mechanisms. You don’t have to know much history to know how societies can become caldrons in an attempt to create a uniform ideology, boiling away independent thinking and political opposition through propaganda and terror. Socrates died because of a desire for ancient Athenians to rid themselves of contaminated thinking. So did Jesus at the hands of the Romans. This is why the first crusades were launched to free Jerusalem of the infidel, and why the Spanish Inquisition drove Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity or leave Spain between 1492 and 1501. The twentieth century was shaped by the demons of ideological purity, from Stalin’s purges, executions, and mass killings to Mao’s Great Leap Forward: the herding of millions of people into agricultural communes and industrial working groups, with the result than many starved. And we haven’t even mentioned the incarcerations and death camps of Nazi Germany.”

The authors write, “Proponents of political positions often cast policies that most people see as consequentialist in values-based terms in order to hide their ignorance, prevent moderation of opinion, and block compromise. They note the health care debate as a perfect example of this. Most people just want the best health care for the most people at the most affordable price. This is what the national conversation should be about how to achieve this. But this might be technical and boring. So politicians and interest groups make it about sacred values. One side asks whether the government should be making decisions about our health care, focusing the audience on the importance of limited government. The other side asks whether everybody in the country deserves decent health care, focusing on the value of generosity and preventing harm to others. The authors say that both sides are missing the point. All of us should have similar values: we want to be healthy, we want others to be healthy, and we want doctors and other medical professionals to be compensated, but we don’t want to pay too much. The health care debate should not be about basic values, because in most people’s minds basic values are not the issue. The issue is the best way to achieve the best outcomes.

Ideologies and ideologues are the bane of effective government. They constrain alternatives and blind us to obvious solutions. As mentioned in the second post in this series, other advanced countries have effectively addressed the problem of healthy care with a single payer system in which that single payer is the government. There are already proven examples from which to choose. But in the United States, ideology has deemphasized the role of government, and the single payer system is regarded as a radical solution.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Thinking About Science

July 9, 2017

This is the eighth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking About Science is a chapter in this book.

Were it not for science and, more importantly, scientific thinking we would still be living in the dark middle ages. Our wealth and health is due to scientific thinking. Yet knowledge about science and belief in scientific facts is lacking. HM admires the Amish. Although they reject science, they live the humble lives dictated by their beliefs. Too many others enjoy the fruits of science yet reject scientific methods and findings. Their lack of respect for science exposes us to the continued risks of global warming and puts unvaccinated children at risk, to name just two problems.

In 1985, Walter Bodmer, a German-born geneticist, who is a professor at Oxford University in the UK, was appointed by the Royal Society of London to lead a team to evaluate the current state of attitudes toward science and technology in Britain. The Royal Society was concerned about antiscientific sentiment in Britain, seeing it as a serious risk to societal well-being. The results and recommendations of the study were published in a seminal paper known as the Bodmer Report.

Previous research had focused primarily on measuring attitudes directly, but Bodmer and his team argued for a single and intuitive idea that opposition to science and technology is driven by a lack of understanding. So via the promotion of better understanding of science, society can promote more favorable attitudes and take better advantage of the benefits afforded by science and technology. This idea about science attitudes is called the deficit model. According to this model, antiscientific thinking is due to a knowledge deficit. Once this deficit is filled, antiscientific attitudes will be mitigated or will disappear.

The paucity of scientific knowledge and abundance of antiscientific beliefs have been documented in all societies that have been studied. Although there is a weak relationship between scientific knowledge and attitudes about science, attempts to address the deficit model have failed. This is in spite of the millions and millions of dollars spent on research, curriculum design, outreach and communication, little to no headway has been achieved.

HM thinks that science is so vast and continually expanding that the deficit is simply too large to fill. Although scientists are knowledgeable in their specialties, as they move away from the specialities that knowledge falls off.

But there is another explanation that scientific attitudes are not based on the rational evaluation of evidence, so providing information does not change them. Attitudes are determined instead by a host of contextual and cultural factors.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive. They are likely both operative.

One of the leading voices promoting this new perspective is Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor. He argues that our attitudes are not based on rational, detached evaluation of evidence because our beliefs are not isolated pieces of data that we can take and discard at will. Instead these beliefs are intertwined with other beliefs, shared cultural values, and our identities, To discard a belief means discarding a whole host of other beliefs, forsaking our communities, going against those we trust and love, virtually challenging our identities.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach flesh out this theory by the story of Mike McHargue, who now is a podcaster and blogger who goes by the moniker Science Mike. Mike once attended a fundamentalist church and held fundamentalist beliefs. When he reached his thirties he began reading scientific literature and his faith in these beliefs began to waver. His initial reaction was to lose his faith completely, but for a long time he kept his new beliefs from his community. Eventually a personal experience helped him rediscover his faith and he is now, once again, a practicing Christian, but he continues to reject his fundamentalist church’s antiscientific beliefs.

Here is Science Mike’s response to a caller who has begun to question many of his beliefs:

Do I have advice on how to live when you’re at odds with your community? Absolutely. Do not live at odds with your community… You are a time bomb right now. Because at some point you won’t be able to pretend anymore, and you will speak honestly, and there will be a measure of collateral damage and fallout in your church. It’s time to move on. It’s time to find a faith community that believes as you believe…When that happens, you’re going to lose relationships. Some people cannot agree to disagree and those relationships can become abusive…There is a lot of pain because there are some people who are dear to me that I can’t talk to anymore…It is not possible for us to have the relationship we once had, and it’s rough. I’m not gonna lie. It’s rough.

This poignant response provides useful and important advice.

HM accepts the fundamental thesis of Drs. Sloman and Fernbach, that our knowledge is inadequate. Scientific evidence can be wrong, but at any given time, the scientific evidence available is the best information to use. We ignore it at our peril.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thinking with Other People

July 7, 2017

This is the sixth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking with Other People is a chapter in this book. The evolution of modern humans from other species of hominids was extremely rapid on an evolutionary time scale. It began with the emergence of the genus Homo on the African savannah 2 to 3 million years ago. Sloan and Fernbach note that the great leap that humanity took during that period was cognitive. The brain mass of modern humans is about three times that of our early hominid ancestors.

A compelling hypothesis, the social brain hypothesis, is that the driving force of the evolution of human intelligence was the coordination of multiple cognitive systems to pursue complex, shared goals. Living in a group confers advantages, such as hunting, but it demands certain cognitive abilities. There are needs to communicate in sophisticated ways, to understand and incorporate the perspectives of others, and the sharing of common goals. According to the social brain hypothesis the cognitive demands and adaptive advantages associated with living in a group created a snowball effect: As groups got larger and developed more complex joint behaviors, individuals developed new capabilities to support those behaviors, which in turn allowed groups to get even larger and allowed group behavior to become even more complex.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, whom we have encountered previously in healthy memory blog posts, tested the social brain hypothesis against the ecological hypothesis. He collected data on many species of primates on brain size as well as facts about the environment they live in like the extent of their roaming territory and dietary habits, and facts about their societies such as their average group size. Brain size and group size are closely related. Primate species that live in large groups have bigger brains. Environmental measures such as territory size and diet were unrelated.

Increased brain size led to language and what sets people apart from other species is the ability to seamlessly communicate ideas of arbitrary complexity. Members of a hunting party need to understand the intentions of others in the hunting party so that each can play their respective roles.

Sloan and Fernbach argue that we humans have the unique capability of shared intentionality. They argue that this ability is one that no other machine or cognitive system does: We can share our attention with someone else. When we interact with one another, we do not merely experience the same event; we also know we are experiencing the same event. And this knowledge that we are sharing our attention changes more than the nature of the experience; it also changes what we do and what we’re about to accomplish in conjunction with others.

Sloan and Fernbach contine, “Sharing attention is a crucial step on the road to being a full collaborator in a group sharing cognitive labor, in a community of knowledge. Once we can share attention, we can share common ground. We know some things that we know others know, and we know that they we know (and of course we know that they know that we know, etc.) The knowledge is not just distributed; it is shared. Once knowledge is shared in this way, we can share intentionality, we can jointly pursue a common goal. A basic human talent is to share intentions with others so that we can accomplish things collaboratively. HM thinks that Sloan and Fernbach are describing the ideal situation. It is not unusual for consultants and training to be required to make this happen. And many organizations continue to function in a state that is far from ideal.

Sloan and Fernbach note that the knowledge illusion is the flip side of what economists call the curse of knowledge. When we know something, we find it hard to imagine that someone else doesn’t know it. The curse of knowledge sometimes comes in the form of hindsight bias. “The curse of knowledge is that we tend to think what is in our heads is in the heads of others. In the knowledge illusion, we tend to think what is in others’ heads is in our heads. In both cases, we fail to discern who knows what.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

The Illusion of Understanding

July 4, 2017

This is the third post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach.

In the 1980s the cognitive scientist Thomas Landauer decided to estimate the size of human memory on the same scale that is used to measure the size of computer memories. He used several clever techniques to measure how much knowledge people have. For example, he estimated the size of an average adult’s vocabulary and calculated how many bytes would be required to store that much information. Then he used that result to estimate the size of the average adult’s entire knowledge base. The answer was half of a gigabyte. Currently HM is looking at his USB flash drive with 32 gigabytes of storage.

Dr. Landauer did another study in which he measured the difference in recognition performance between a group that had been exposed to items and a group that had not. This difference is as pure a measure of memory that one can get. He measured the amount of time people spent learning the material in the first place. This told him the rate at which people are able to acquire information that they later remember. He also found a way to take into account that people forget. His analyses found that people acquire information at roughly the same rate regardless of the details of the procedure used in the experiment to the type of material being learned. People learn at approximately the same rate whether the items were visual, verbal, or musical.

Then Dr. Landauer calculated how much information people have on hand, the size of their knowledge base, by assuming they learn at this same rate over the course of a seventy-year lifetime. The same result of 1 gigabyte was obtained by every technique he tried. This number is just a tiny fraction of what a modern laptop can retain.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach note that this is only shocking if you believe the human mind works like a computer. The model of the mind a machine designed to encode and retain memories breaks down when you consider the complexity of the world with which we interact. They conclude that it would be futile for memory to be designed to hold tons of information because there’s just too much out there.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach note that most of cognition consists of intuitive thought that occurs below the level of conscious awareness. Huge quantities of information are processed in parallel. People are not computers in that we don’t just rely on a central processor that reads and writes to a memory to think. We rely on our bodies, on the world around us, and on other minds. There’s no way we could store in our heads, all there is to know about our environment.

We humans are surprisingly ignorant, more ignorant that we think. We also exist in a complex world, one that is even more complex than one might have thought. But if we’re so ignorant, how can we get around, sound knowledgeable, and take ourselves seriously while understanding only a tiny fraction of what there is to know?

The authors’ answer is that we do so by living a lie. We ignore complexity by overestimating how much we know about how things work, by living life in the belief that we know how things work even when we don’t. We tell ourselves the we understand what’s going on, that our opinions are justified by our knowledge, and that our actions are in justified beliefs even hough they are not. We tolerate complexity by failing to recognize it. That’s the Illusion of understanding.

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged)

July 1, 2017

“The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” is an important book by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. An earlier healthy memory blog post with the same title as the book has already been written. That post was based on a summary of the book done by Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker. Having now read the entire book, HM feels that this volume deserves more detailed attention.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach are cognitive scientists. Cognitive science emerged in the 1950s to understand the workings of the human mind. It asks questions such as “how is thinking possible?” What goes on inside the brain that allows sentient beings to do math, understand their mortality, act virtuously and (sometimes) selflessly, and still do simple things, like eat with a knife and fork? Currently no machine, and probably no other animal, is capable of these acts.

The authors write, “The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, we individuals store very little detailed information about the world in our heads. In that sense people are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains, but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls, but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people.” In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, information not held within our individual brains, is stored in transactive memory. The authors conclude, “When you put it all together, human thought thought is incredibly impressive, but it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

The authors make a compelling argument that we all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from an illusion of understanding, an illusion that we understand how things work when in fact our understanding is meager. Unfortunately, we are not adequately aware of the shortcomings in our understanding. We think we understand much much more than we actually do. Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware of the risks of having absolute beliefs, that all beliefs should be hedged with some reasonable degree of doubt.

The authors note that history is full of events that seem familiar, that elicit a sense of mild to deep understanding, but whose true historical context is different that we imagine. The complex details get lost in the mist of time while myths emerge that simplify and make stories digestible in part to service one interest group or another. There is a very interesting book by James W. Lowen titled “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got wrong”. He argues that history as taught in the public schools is basically propaganda advanced by the school board selecting texts. HM found this book most instructive. People should be recalled for a defective education, but reading this book is more practical.

It is also important to remember that the study of history is dynamic. New research yields new interpretations of history.

The authors write, “Thought is for action. Thinking evolved as an extension of the ability to act effectively; it evolved to make us better at doing what’s necessary to achieve our goals. Thought allows us to select from among a set of possible actions by predicting the effects of each action and by imagining how the world would be if we had taken different actions in the past.”

It is unlikely that we would have survived had we been dependent on only the limited knowledge stored in our individual brains. The authors write,”The secret to our success is that we live in a world in which knowledge is all around us. It is in the things we make, in our bodies and workspaces, and another people. We live in a community of knowledge.”

But not all of this is knowledge is accurate, meaning that there are degrees of belief and some knowledge is faux. Understanding that our knowledge is not golden can offer us improved ways of approaching our most complex problems. Recognizing the limits of our understanding should make us more humble, and open our minds to other people’s ideas and ways of thinking. The authors note that It offers lessons about how to avoid things like bad financial decisions, and can enable us to improve our political system and help us assess how much reliance we should have on experts versus how much decision-making power should be given to individual voters.

The authors write, “This book is being written at a time of immense polarization on the American political scene. Liberals and conservative find each other’s views repugnant, and as a result, Democrats and Republicans cannot find common ground or compromise.” The authors note, “One reason for this gridlock is that both politicians and voters don’t realize how little they understand. Whenever an issue is important enough for public debate, it is also complicated enough to be difficult to understand.” They conclude, “Complexity abounds. If everybody understood this, our society would likely be less polarized.”

Neuroscience is much in the news as there have been many exciting developments in the field. Little is currently being written about cognitive science, although there are exciting and relevant new findings in cognitive science. The following is directly quoted from “The Knowledge Illusion: ”Our skulls may delimit the frontier of our brains, but they do not limit the frontier of our knowledge. The mind stretches beyond to include the body, the environment, and people other than one’s-self, so the study of the mind cannot be reduced to the study of the brain. Cognitive science is not the same as neuroscience.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Brain Starts to Eat Itself After Chronic Sleep Deprivation

June 30, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Andy Coghlan in the News & Technology section of the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Scientist. Michele Belles of the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy says the chronic sleep deprivation could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at his age of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.

The brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep deprived. Although this might b beneficial in the short term, clearing potentially harmful debris and rebuilding worn circuitry might protect health connections. But when this continues in the long term it destroys healthy brain material.

The researchers specifically looked at glial cells, which serve as the brain’s housekeeping system. Previous research had found that a gene that regulates the activity of these cells is more active after a period of sleep deprivation. One type pf glial cell called an astrocyte, removes unnecessary synapses in the brain to remodel its wiring. Another type of cell, called a microglial cell, prowls the brain for damaged cells and debris.

The research suggest that sleep loss can trigger astrocytes to start breaking down more of the brain’s connections and their debris. Bells says, “We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.

The researcher found that microglial cells were more active after chronic sleep deprivation (Journal of Neuroscience, 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3981-16.2017). Excessive microglial activity has been linked to a range of brain disorders. Bells says, “We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration.

This research could explain why a lack of sleep seems to make people more vulnerable to developing such dementias.

It is still not clear whether getting more sleep could protect the brain or rescue if from the effects of a few sleepless nights. The researchers plan to investigate how long the effects of sleep deprivation last.

To learn more about the effects of sleep deprivation, enter “sleep deprivation” into the search block of the healthymemory blog.dem

 

Memory Biases, Rumination, and Depression: Underlying Mechanisms and Novel Interventions.

June 28, 2017

The title of this blog is identical to the title of a symposium at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. The primary participants were Samantha L. Connoly, Ellis J. Hamlat, and Paula T. Hertel. All these topics have been addressed in previous healthymemory blog posts.

Memory biases are a correlate of and potential cognitive variability factor for depression. This symposium examined novel interventions informed by these relationships.

They used a variety of methodologies including ecological momentary assessment, inhibition bias modification, and memory training.

Overgeneral memory impairs rumination inhibition, verbal fluency and working memory.

Memory specificity training was administered in 4 one hour sessions. Memory strategy training included the method of loci, chunking and other techniques.

The results were promising, but much more work is needed to decrease memory biases and rumination affecting depression.

 

 

The Benefits of Mindfulness for Uncertain Waiting

June 27, 2017

Most of us don’t like waiting. Waiting is stressful. This is especially true when we don’t know how long we’ll be waiting. Consider law students who have taken the bar exam and don’t know when they’ll receive their results regarding whether they’ll be admitted to the bar. Professor Sweeney delivered a presentation titled “Bracing later and Coping Better: Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation during an Uncertain Waiting Period” at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study divided law students awaiting the results of their bar exam into two groups. The experimental group was provided an audio presentation for self-guided mindfulness. The mindfulness was of the loving-kindness variety. The participants were asked to practice this mindfulness three times a week. A control group practiced a control activity.

Although the participants who practiced mindfulness worried the same as the participants in the control group, they managed their expectations better and reported coping better. The participants who were at risk for poor coping benefitted most.

 

 

Cognitive Restoration Through Interactions in Nature

June 26, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a presentation by Professor David L. Strayer at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. The healthy memory blog has many posts, ten to be exact, on the work of Professor Strayer. Most of these have been on divided attention and the increased risks when one is talking on a cell phone while driving. However, his presentation at this meeting was about the benefits of nature.

The cognitive and emotional benefits from exposure to natural environments are well known. This current research was on the mechanisms of cognitive restoration through interactions with nature. They found that when spending time outdoors near biomarkers of frontal activity decrease, positive emotions and feelings of well-being increase, and event memory improves.

So this gives us some insight as to why we feel so good interacting with nature.

 

EverWalk

June 25, 2017

EverWalk is a new organization founded by marathon swimmer Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll. The goal of this organization is to get more people walking. Check out their website http://everwalk.com. Healthy memory is promoting this organization because physical health underlies memory health.

Perhaps the primary feature of walking is that it does no harm. Perhaps the only other activity for which that can be said is swimming, provided you do not drown. Probably running is the most popular exercise, but HM knows very few runners who do not suffer injuries from running. Sometimes these injuries can be quite severe, but runners tend to persevere because it seems to have an addictive quality. HM’s favorite activity is biking. He once suffered a painful broken collarbone, but resumed biking. As he became a senior citizen he ceased biking, because broken bones can result in swift declines.

The putative purposes of sports are to promote health and, for team sports, sportsmanship. But is it not both counterproductive and ironic when these sports result in physical injuries. Consider football, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a devastating injury to the brain. It is even more ironic when football is promoted by educational universities. One can even think of universities where the university is basically a justification for a football team.

Try walking. Try walking and meditating, activities that promote healthy memories.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Is the Electorate Becoming More Stupid?

June 7, 2017

One of the more interesting, and depressing, presentations during the 29th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science was Kayla Jordan’s presentation titled “Great Debating: The Influence of the 2016 Presidential Debates on Public Opinion.” She has software that measures the sophistication of English. The software does not measure content, but rather the sophistication in which the content is presented. She used this software to measure the sophistication of the presentations of the different candidates. In the Republican debates basically all the candidates, except one, had fairly sophisticated presentations. Not surprisingly, that low outlier was Donald Trump, who won the Republican primaries. In the debates in the national election, Hillary Clinton was head and shoulders above Donald Trump who won the election. So the likely answer to the question posed in the title is “yes,” and that Donald Trump knew how to pander to this stupidity.

Of course, hope springs eternal, so the initial thought was that this election was an anomaly resulting from peculiarities surrounding this election. To assess whether there was “Balm in Gilead” Dr. Jordan analyzed the speeches done in prior elections. She found a consistent pattern in that the candidates who scored lower in sophistication tended to win the election.

Dr. Jordan went further in analyzing the inaugural addresses of all the Presidents. She found that the most sophisticated inaugural address was George Washington’s, and there was a continuing downward trend thereafter. A colleague who read a draft of this post informed me that Washington’s inaugural address was written almost entirely by Hamilton. This point should be kept in mind when considering these data. Today’s presidents have ready access to speechwriters.

This finding is indeed curious. Both education and technology level have increased since Washington’s time. Many people were illiterate in Washington’s time and illiteracy was a serious problem in fielding an army for World War I. Of course, there is ample data indicating that voters are ill-informed on the issues and that many do not vote in their own interests. Perhaps higher education levels have led many to believe that they know more than they do. Perhaps increases in technology have diluted good messages and introduced lies and false news. Or perhaps, politicians are learning that simpler messages are more persuasive. Let us hope that Trump represents the degenerate case, and that matters will rebound in the future. Otherwise the answer to the title of this post is a resounding YES, and we can kiss off the future of our democracy.

Of course, Donald Trump did not win the popular vote; he won the abomination called the electoral college. It is interesting to read the ostensible justification of the electoral college, which apparently was to prevent someone unfit for the Presidency, like Donald Trump, to win a popular election. It is a tad ironic that many Americans vote only in Presidential elections. Yet, in Presidential elections, the odds are that their vote will not count. Citizens need to demand that all votes count and that there be one vote for each citizen.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Get Scientists and Politicians Talking the Same Language

June 5, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by David Willetts in the News section of the 3 June 2017 issue of the New Scientist. David Willetts was the UK’s science minister from 2010 to 2014. Currently, he chairs the British Science Association.

Willetts begins, “ELECTIONS can be a frustrating reminder of how deep the mutual incomprehension is between scientists and politicians. And the reasons are that researchers don’t like how politicians appeal to instinct and revere as “intuitive wisdom” what scientists see as ignorance and prejudice, or their use of creative ambiguity rather than precision to reconcile conflicting views. But scientists seem to politicians like a pressure group after funds, one with a patronizing assumption of superiority. The question here is what is the justification for the funds. But the majority of published research has already been paid for. So why not pay attention to it? Moreover, the money, and really big money is to be found in debunking science, not in conducting quality research. Although it might be desirable to drop the patronizing attitude, the scientists are superior in their methods and in their subject knowledge.

An important point that the article misses is that good scientists should caveat their results. Findings can always be wrong and science is always an ongoing project that is subject to change. Nevertheless, it presents the best answers that are available to date. Claims of certainty should always be rejected.

Scientists need to make their voices heard and politicians need to see their value. Every major policy review should include a consideration of the relevant technological advances. In the United States there is a Congressional Budget Office that provides studies on the various costs of different policies. There should also be a Congressional Scientific Office (CSO) that provides the best scientific counsel. The CSO could also conduct research and design experiments to resolve political differences. Of course, this change in the United States would require a new administration.

Willetts also argues about the importance of a good liberal arts education. Nonscientists should learn some science and inferential statistics. Scientists and engineers need to learn some of the humanities. HM remembers that when he attended Ohio State University, a bachelor’s degree in engineering took five years. The engineering faculty had decided that four years of engineering were required to become an engineer, but it was important to have a full year of liberal arts. It is important for politicians also to have some understanding of these issues. One problem is that lawyers predominant and legal thinking alone is dangerous.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Back from the 29th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS)

June 1, 2017

HM attended the very first meeting of the APS. Time really does fly. HM has attended many more meetings since then, and he has become quite proficient at attending these programs. At one time it was common for there to be published proceedings of these meetings. For large meetings one would have several large books to schlep around. Then a transition was made to putting the printed programs on CDs.

However, today the norm has been for there to be no printed records, so one has to try to attend the presentations that are of interest. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for there to be multiple programs of interest at the same time, and a choice has to be made as to which one to attend. Most speakers use slides, and all to often, these slides cannot be read by everyone in the room. Speakers are given an alloted time for their presentations. HM has been a speaker and must confess to making the same mistakes. The primary concern is getting through the presentation in the alloted amount of time. HM used to plan for his presentation to be well within the allotted time, because speakers do go over time with the result of squeezing the remaining speakers of their alloted time. But still HM thinks that most of us do not pace the presentation properly. We do not allow sufficient time for the listeners to think about and process our presentations. And frequently there is insufficient time to take proper notes. The speaker is already on to the next slide before the main points of the preceding slide can be adequately captured. This is HM’s excuse for not adequately summarizing these presentations in his posts. Plus these meetings are mentally exhausting.

This time the exhaustion is even greater due to all the investigations taking place. Watergate took place while HM was a graduate student. That was a time of critical importance for the United States. The current problem portends a much greater importance.

It is already clear that Russia did disrupt the 2016 presidential election. The open questions are whether they stole the election, whether there was collusion between the campaign and the Russians, and financial matters that could have contributed to the problem.

During the election it was disturbing to learn that Trump idolized Putin. Putin worked his way up as a KGB agent and used his skills to become the de facto leader of a kleptocracy. How can a US president idolize such a man? It is doubtful that anyone expressing admiration of a Soviet or Russian leader could ever have gotten a security clearance much less be elected President of the United States.

We learn that a War Room is being set up. A War against what? the truth? It should be understood that given the conclusion that Russia did hack America, it is obligatory that an investigation to undertaken to assess whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. These investigations are not the result of the press or of leakers. Investigations must be done. There are also financial investigations that must be done and they have just begun. It is imperative that we know whether there are any financial dealings resulting in compromises in the Trump administration. This will take some time. All of this could be done more efficiently with the cooperation of Trump. War rooms and tweeter attacks are counterproductive.

There is a good book by Malcolm Nance titled “THE PLOT TO HACK AMERICA: How Putin’s Cyberspies and Wikileaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election.” This book provides an enormous amount of information that can help us follow the current investigations.

Nevertheless, following these investigations on top of the normal fatigue from attending a scientific meeting will likely slow down my blogging about the conference.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Daydream Your Way to Better Concentration

May 20, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Caroline Williams in the Features Section of the 20 May 2017 Issue of the New Scientist.  Actually the magazine cover featured the title “CONCENTRATION!  How to take control of your wandering mind,” which referred to this article.

The article notes that “if losing concentration sometimes feels inevitable, that’s because it is—your brain is hardwired to give in to distractions and take you away with the fairies.  Unfortunately, science has long promoted the idea that a wandering mind is the enemy of productivity.  Failing to focus had been linked to a lack of success, unhappiness, stress, and poor relationships.  But remember that science should never be 100% confident.  There is always the chance that new research will change beliefs.  Beliefs always should be subject to change.

Psychologists have been wondering why we spend so much time in a state of revery if it’s truly harmful.  They’ve discovered that there are several kinds of mind-wandering, and they don’t all make us unhappy or unproductive.  If we know how to use it, a wandering mind could even be a key weapon in our cognitive arsenal.

Generally speaking, we have two attention systems that constantly keep track of what’s going on around us.  There is a constant tug of war between the executive control network, which is a set of brain areas responsible for goal-oriented thinking and controlling impulses, and the default mode network, which fires up when we think about nothing in particular.  The default mode network uses its time to do various bits of housekeeping—sorting through memories, forward planning and filing new information.  And it is also the brain region that is most active when we daydream.  “Our ability to stay on track largely depends on keeping the volume of chatter between them low.  Too much activity on the default mode network, or too little executive control, leads to a mind that is prone to losing focus.”

The brain seems to find mind-wandering easier than concentrating.  Recent research has shown that the default mode network is highly connected to itself and other brain regions, allowing it to flit between many different mental states with little energy input.  The executive control network is more sparsely connected, so it requires more input to shout over the noise, which is what is happening when we’re trying to concentrate.  Even on a normal day we spend as much as 50% of our time thinking about anything except what we should be doing.

There are advantages to this propensity to drift off.  For instance, we already know that daydreaming brings numerous benefits to do with creativity and forward planning.  After figuring out a flaw in previous research, we’re starting to see that those benefits extend even further.

Until recently, researchers assumed that volunteers asked to do a boring task in the lab would try their hardest to concentrate until mind-wandering unintentionally took over.  They failed to consider that sometimes we intentionally let our mind drift to more appealing topics, especially when doing something boring.

In an experiment, Paul Seli interrupted people during a task to ask if their minds were wandering.  If they were, he asked whether it had happened intentionally, or if their thoughts had just drifted unconsciously.  More than a third of the time, the mind-wandering was intentional.  Questionnaires asking people about their daydreaming habits put the number even higher suggesting that more than half the time it starts of as a choice.   Seli concluded “A considerable portion of our time seems to be spent off in la-la land.”

Seli used brain imaging to find out what’s going on during intentional and unintentional mind-wandering.  Seli and his team last year imaged the brains of people who tended towards one or the other and found that their brains are set up slightly differently.  Both groups did about the same amount of mind-wandering overall, but those who were prone to doing it intentionally had better connectivity between their brains’ executive control and default mode networks.  This result suggests that with intentional mind-wandering, rather than the executive control network losing its grip over the default mode network, it was actually in charge of the whole experience.  So although it feels like daydreaming, we are still in control of our mind.

The distinction between these different styles of mind-wandering is important.  Mind-wandering has been linked to some of the symptoms of ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder, both conditions in which a lack of control over certain behaviors can interfere with getting things done.  But this recent research shows that this is true only of unintentional mind-wandering, not the more directed kind.

Deliberate mental meandering might also help us remember more when we revise.  The trick is to make our minds wander on topic, by nudging our thoughts to things we’re trying to learn.  According to Karl Szpunar, one way to make this happen is to build mini quizzes into the revision process.  In his experiments, students learned the contents of a 40-minute lecture either by stopping to recap what they had covered every 5 minutes, or by rereading the slides at the end.  Those who regularly self-tested retained more information.  Both groups seemed to mind-wander the same amount, but a second experiment showed that what was different between the groups was that the self-testers were mind-wandering about the lecture, as opposed to something unrelated.  Szpunar suggests “rather than waiting to self-test the night before an exam, make time to do this again and again at increasingly longer intervals.”  This advice applies to any kind of learning.

The psychologist Jonathan Smallwood has found that whether our mental meanderings are focused on the future or the past determines whether they derail us from our goals to  prepare us for challenges to come.  Thoughts about the past are much more likely  to lead to low mood and motivation than those about the future.  Future -related mind-wandering actually seems to boost mood and motivation, even if they are thoughts of flunking out.  As long as there is a future element, Small says that it can at least motivate you back to work.

Key here is the ability to control our thoughts.  Here mindfulness and meditation come to the rescue.  There are many healthy memory blog posts on these topics.

The easiest alternative, according to Christian Olivers is to remind ourselves not to focus too hard.

Smallwood’s latest finding is that although frequent mind-wanderers are worse than other people at focusing on the outside world, they were better than most at retrieving information from memory.  The article concludes, “So if the information is in there somewhere, let your mind wander free.  Your grades might thank you.”  And HM reminds you of the availability accessibility distinction in memory.  Although information might not be available at the moment, most information is eventually accessible.  (enter “availability accessibility distinction”  in the healthy memory blog search block.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Narratives and Reasoning

May 19, 2017

This post was inspired by and draws from “The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corvallis.  The brilliant William James, the founder of American psychology, made a distinction between two types of language, narratives and reasoning. Here is what William James wrote, “To say that all thinking is essentially of two kinds—reasoning on the one hand, and narrative, descriptive, contemplative thinking on the other—is to say what every reader’s experience will corroborate.”

In terms of usage, narratives account for the vase majority of language use.  Many healthy memory posts have spoken of memory as a vehicle for time travel.  We process information incorporating it into memory.  Then we use it  to decide upon course of action in the future.  We imagine future outcomes and draw upon our memories to determine which is most desirable.

Language uses our memories to form narratives.  We tell stories about ourselves and others.  Descriptions of events  take the form of narratives.  The majority of our conversations are narratives with each of the participating parties making contributions.  Narratives can be true, false, or some combination.  Narratives might capture history or traditions of a people.  They can also be for our entertainment as plays, television shows, movies, novels, and short stories.  Indeed these are large, commercial enterprises.  There are standards for narratives.  Are they interesting or entertaining?  Are the funny?  Do they hang together?  Are they coherent?  Do they convey some larger message?  We could go on and on with this.

However, reasoning is much less frequently used, and it is used for different purposes.  Reasoning is needed for critical thinking, for induction, deduction, and abduction.  The objective is to determine whether something is true or internally consistent.  Legal arguments are, or should be, largely a matter of reasoning.  Reasoning often calls upon data or experimental research.

Sometimes specialized languages need to be used such as symbolic logic or mathematics.  Reasoning can be both extensive and intensive.  Reasoning is mental work that can become quite difficult.

A sound argument can be made that faulty reasoning is the source of most problems.  Insufficient or faulty critical thinking is done.  In Kahneman’s terms, reasoning is System 2 processing requiring cognitive effort.

Unfortunately, understanding reasoning is also mentally demanding.  Good narratives will trump good reasoning most of the time for the majority of people.  It is quite likely that the amount of reasoning a person does is dependent both on educational level and the areas of study.

The ability to reason and to think critically is especially important for the members of a democracy.  Unfortunately, politicians with the most appealing narratives will likely win, even when critical thinking would reveal the unappealing aspects of the narratives.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Hippocampus

May 18, 2017

The hippocampus receives considerable attention in “The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corvallis.  As the hippocampus plays a critical role in memory, it is not surprising that it is central to language and time travel.  As we each have a hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain, we have two hippocampi.

The importance of the hippocampus was first realized when an Englishman underwent surgery for epilepsy, and the surgery destroyed major parts of both hippocampi.  After this surgery he could no longer form new episodic memories.  Episodic memory involves memories having to do with the specific episodes of our lives.   Although his semantic memory, his general knowledge, remained intact.  Not only was he unable to recall the past, he was also incapable of imagining the future.

In the final years of my Mom’s life she suffered from dementia.  When I visited her, she was always glad to see me.  However, if an attendant took her to the restroom while I was visiting, when she returned she acted as if I had just arrived.  That is, she had stored no memory of my being there.

The hippocampus is the hub of the brain circuit involved in episodic memory and mental time travel.  Brain imaging shows it to be activated both when people remember past events and when they imagine possible future events.  It is also activated when people are asked to imagine purely fictitious  episodes.   Although other brain regions are involved, reflecting the fact that memory and imagination involve information stored in widely dispersed areas, the hippocampus appears to be the most critical component in that damage to it has the most debilitating effect on the ability to mentally escape the present.

The default-mode network, responsible for our mind wandering, is identifiable in primates and even in rats.  The hippocampus plays a critical role in both rat and human memory.  Recording from the hippocampus of the rat reveals that single neurons code where the animal is located in the spatial environment.  These neurons serve as place cells and together generate what has been termed a cognitive map of the environment that tells the rat where it is.  It plays the same role in humans.  Studies have shown that the hippocampus  is enlarged in licensed taxi drivers in London, who are required to memorize the map of London for their licenses.

Research using rats has indicated a similar competence.  In an experiment rats were trained to alternate left and right turns at a particular location in the maze.  Between trials they were introduced to a running wheel and, while they were running, activity in their hippocampi was recorded.  This activity coded which way the rats planned to turn in the maze on the next trial.  Apparently these rats were planning ahead for their next try at the maze.  The researchers also noted that autonomous activity in the hippocampus involved the computation of distances, and also supported the episodic recall of events and the planning of action sequences and goals.  One researcher wrote that “replay in the rat hippocampus can either lead or follow the behavior once the map of space is established.  This suggests that replay phenomena may support ‘mental time travel’ through the spatial map, both forward and backward in time.

Research on human patients about to undergo surgery had electrodes placed in cells in the medial temporal lobe, in an attempt to locate the source of epileptic seizures.  They were then asked to navigate a virtual town on a computer screen and to deliver items to one of the stores in the town.  Then were asked to recall only the items and not the location to which they were delivered.  However, the act of recall activated the place cells corresponding to that location, effectively mirroring the replay of place cells in the rat brain.

In another study, people were shown sequences of four videos of different events.  At one level. narratives were linked to each video, encouraging attention to individual details. At the next level, narratives linked a par of videos, and at the final level a narrative linked all four videos.  As the people processed these narratives, activation in the hippocampus progressed from the rearward end to the forward end as the scale of the narrative shifted from small and detailed to larger and more global.    Dr. Corvallis notes that this probably happens when we read novels.  Page by page, we focus on the details, but as the story progresses we build a more global understanding of what the story is about.  Dr. Corvallis writes, be thankful to your hippocampi that you can make sense of a novel at all.

Dr. Corvallis suggests that although  the generativity spatial mapping is nonlinguistic, it may well underlie the generativity of language itself.  “In the rat these elements may be restricted to simple aspects like sounds or smells, and we may perhaps allow ourselves the luxury of believing our own experiences to be incomparably richer.  Yet the generative component itself probably has a long evolutionary history.  As Darwin famously put it:  ‘The difference in mind between man the the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree, and not of kind.’”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Listening to Your Heartbeat Helps You Read Other People’s Minds

May 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Helen Thomson in the News & Technology section of the 6 May 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  She writes that “people who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of others—a finding that might help some people with autism.”

According to the Theory of Constructive Emotions, to generate emotions we first need to interpret our body’s internal state—a process called interoception.  So we feel fear only once we recognize an increase in our heart rate or feel our palms get sweaty.

Researchers have suggested that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking and even guessing what they think a their person might be thinking.  The notion is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret he emotions and mental states of others.

To investigate, Geoff Bird and his team asked 72 volunteers to sound their heartbeats using their fingers to take their pulse.  This is a measure of interoception.  The volunteers then watched videos of social interactions.  After viewing each video they were asked multiple choice questions testing their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.

When the volunteers were asked feelings about the emotions of the characters, the volunteers who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions.  They were more empathetic (Cortex, dos.org/b6m2).  However, there was no link between interoceptive ability and accuracy on questions that didn’t involve any emotions.

Bird says that interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in some features of schizophrenia and autism.  There is some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interception.  Bird says that it has not yet been shown whether interception training also improves empathy, but it’s an experiment that he’d like to try.

Why Be Conscious: The Improbable Origins of Our Unique Mind

May 15, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Bob Holmes in the Feature Section of the 13 May 2017 Issue of the New Scientist.  Consciousness is an interesting topic.  There are philosophers and scientists who maintain that consciousness is epiphenomenal.  By that they do not mean that consciousness is not real, but that it is unnecessary.  They argue that everything takes place on an unconscious level and that conscious experience is an unnecessary artifact that we view.  Many readers will find this view preposterous, but there are people who make their living advancing this proposition.

The view of this blog is that consciousness is necessary.  It is what is used to decide upon courses of action.  We can consciously review the past and imagine the future and evaluate the risks and rewards of possible courses of action.

In 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was published.

It begins as follows:
“On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

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

These scientists were basing their declaration on neuroscience.

The New Scientist article is asking what consciousness is for, and why it evolved so that we may get closer to understanding the nature of our own minds as well as those of other animals.  HM believes that we know why consciousness evolved and we all have a phenomenological awareness of consciousness. However, there is value in trying to understand the minds of other animals.

The philosopher Jesse Prinz argues that, especially in other species, consciousness is largely about perception and emotion.  Prinz asks us to consider “emotion as hedonic valuation.  Much conscious experience consists of perceptions with shades of feeling—objects are comforting or scary, sounds are pleasing or annoying.”  An organism’s interceptive network results in feelings of goodness or badness.

Evolutionary biologist Bjorn Grinde says “Behavior is about moving toward what is perceived as beneficial or moving away from what isn’t.  Feelings are meant to guide us by offering positive and negative rewards.  This makes hedonic valuation a useful evolutionary tool.”  Grinde believes that the sensation—the awareness that something is good (or bad) is happening may represent the dawn of consciousness.

The article lists of 10 signs of consciousness to assess whether an animal is conscious?
Recognizes itself in a mirror
Has insight into the minds of others
Displays regret having made a bad decision
Heart races in a stressful situation
Has many dopamine receptions in its brain to sense reward.
Highly flexible in making decisions
Has ability to focus attention (subjective experience)
Needs to sleep
Sensitive to anesthetics
Displays unlimited associative learning.

So consciousness can be viewed on a continuum.  The more items that can be checked off, the greater the degree of consciousness in the species.  Although egotism demands that humans be at the top of this hierarchy, humans vary regarding their degree of consciousness.  Meditation and mindfulness are practices with the goal of enhancing consciousness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ramifications of HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE

May 14, 2017

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book has repeatedly been called revolutionary.  Why?  First of all,  it is revolutionary in that it has debunked the longstanding view of emotion that has existed for two millennia.  Readers of the healthy memory blog should know that we do not have direct knowledge of the external world.  We develop concepts and models based on the inputs we receive from our senses.  Dr. Barrett has found that our emotions come from the concepts we develop based on our internal world, our interoceptive environment.  This is the theory of constructed emotions. It forms a nice parallel to how we understand the external world.  Our brain is constantly dealing with external and internal inputs forming concepts, models, and interrelating them.  This fits nicely into the scientific principle of parsimony.

This is a nice result for science, but what does it mean to us personally?  The word here is constructive.  We construct our emotions, we are not passive recipients of information that goes to receptors for specific emotions.  In other words, we need to be proactive rather than reactive.  We construct concepts and models of the external world, and we do the same with our internal interoceptive world.  So we can strongly affect, if not control, our emotions, so that we are happier, healthier, and more productive.

At the same time, we need to understand how we can be mislead by affective realism.  Judges need to understand that their interoceptive feelings of hunger can cause them to be more severe in their supposedly rational judgments.  Our interoceptive feelings can be in error and we need to be aware that we need to recalibrate and to refine them.  We should not be governed by our emotions, we need to understand, correct, and refine them.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Illness, Other Species, and the Law

May 13, 2017

This post is based on material in a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett titled “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”  Dr. Barrett has chapters on illness, other species, and the law.  It should be clear that illness and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  The same health factors underly both illness and emotion.  Consequently Dr. Barrett devotes considerable effort addressing the healthy lifestyle.  Exercise, sleep, and the whys and wherefores of a healthy diet.

She also has a chapter on emotions in other species.  It’s titled “Is a Growling Dog Angry?”.  Considering the differences within our own species, there should clearly be differences in animal emotions.    She systematically explores what animals are capable of feeling, based on brain circuitry and on experimental research.  She focuses primarily on monkeys and great apes.  She does assume that all animals experience affect.  The question she tries to address is to what extent can different species be capable of developing concepts regarding affect.

It is the law for which Dr. Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion has profound implications.  The law is conceived in terms of rational thought versus emotion.  The role of rational thought is to constrain emotions.  But in constructed emotion rational thought and emotion are inextricably intertwined.  How can the law accommodate this conception?  It cannot be accommodated all at once.  But over time the concept of constructed emotion is likely to chip away at this edifice governed by rational thought.

Already the law is largely oblivious to relevant research in psychology.  To the extent that this ignorance exists, there is a large gap between the legal system and justice.  To read more on this topic go to the healthy memory blog post,  “The Law and Psychological Science.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mastering Your Emotions

May 12, 2017

This post is based on material in a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett titled “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”   The first item is to remember to keep your body budget in good shape.  Your interoceptive network works day and night, issuing predictions to maintain a healthy budget.  This process is the origin of your affective feelings (pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness).  To feel good your brain’s predictions about your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, hormones, metabolism, and so forth, must be calibrated to your body’s actual needs.  Otherwise you body budget gets out of whack, and you’re going to feel crappy.  Unfortunately, modern culture seems to be engineered to screw up your body budget.  Work and school schedules can make it difficult to get enough sleep, and junk food is omnipresent.  What can be done about this?  Try to adjust your schedule and diet as best you can.   Regular exercise increases the levels of proteins called anti-inflammatory cytokines, that reduce your chances of developing heart diseases, depression, and other illnesses.

Your physical surroundings also affect your body budget, so if possible, try to spend time in spaces less noisy and crowded, and with more greenery and natural light.  Reading a compelling novel is also beneficial for your body budget.  When you get involved in someone else’s story you aren’t as involved in your own.  These mental excursions engage part of your interoceptive network, known as the default mode network.  And do not ruminate, and if you are ruminating, stop.

After you body budget, Dr. Barrett says that the next best thing to do for emotional health is to beef up your concepts, to become more emotionally intelligent.  Remember that you create your emotional concepts.  Emotional intelligence is about getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept for a given situation.  Sometimes it is important not to construct emotions but instances of some other concept.  Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” argues that higher emotional intelligence leads to success in academics, business, and social relationships.

Dr. Barrett writes that there are many ways to gain new concepts: walking in the woods, taking trips, reading books, watching movies, trying unfamiliar foods.  She says to be a collector of experiences.  Try on new perspectives the way you try on new clothing.  These kinds of activities will provoke your brain to combine concepts to form new ones, changing your conceptual system proactively so you’ll predict and behave differently later.

Try to develop higher emotional granularity.  A collection of scientific studies indicate that people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings, say fifty shades of feeling crappy, were 30% more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate against someone who has hurt them.

Rather than ruminating about something unpleasant, keep track of positive experiences.  Each time you attend to positive things, you tweak your conceptual system, reinforcing concepts about those positive events and making them salient in the mental model of your world.

If you deal with children, be positive and try not to say negative things.  Studies have shown that children in low-income homes hear 125,000 more words of discouragement than praise, while their higher-income counterparts hear 560,000 more words of praise than discouragement, all by age four.  If a child is whining incessantly, instead of yelling “Knock it off,” try something like, “your whining its irritating me, so stop it.”

Dr Barrett offers the following tips for mastering feelings in the moment.  She says that the simplest approach is to move your body.  She writes that moving your body can change you’re predictions and therefore your experience.

Another approach is to change your location or situation.  For example, during the Vietnam War, 15% of U.S. soldiers are addicted to heroin.  When they returned home, 95% stayed off the drug their first year back.  Given the strong addictive effects of heroin, this is an extraordinary result.

Dr. Barrett writes that recategorization is a tool of the emotion expert.  The more concepts you know and the more instances you can construct, the more effectively you can recategorize in this manner to master your emotions and regulate your behavior.  So, if you’re about to take a test and feel affectively worked up, you might categorized your feeling as harmful anxiety (“Oh, no, I’m doomed”) or as helpful anticipation (“I’m energized and reading to go!”).

Last, but certainly not least, is meditation.  She notes that key regions in the interoceptive and control networks are larger for meditators, and connections between these regions are stronger.  Some studies have seen stronger connections even after only a few hours of training.  Other studies find that meditation reduces stress, improves the detection and processing of prediction error, facilitates recategorization (termed “emotion regulation,”) and reduces unpleasant affect.

The Origin of Feeling

May 11, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”   Both pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from an ongoing process inside us called interoception.  Interoception is our brain’s representation of all sensations from our internal organs and tissues, the hormones in our blood, and our immune systems.  This interoceptive activity produces the spectrum of basic feeling from pleasant to unpleasant, from calm to jittery, and completely normal.

The intrinsic activity in our brains is not random;  it is structured by collections of neurons that consistently fire together, called intrinsic networks.  An intrinsic network has a pool of available neurons.  Each time a network does its job, different groupings of its neurons fire in synchrony.  Intrinsic brain activity  is the origin of daydreams, imagination, mind wandering, and reveries.  Dr, Barrett calls these activities simulations.  We simulate what we might experience in the world.  They assist in helping us to interact with the world.  Intrinsic brain activity ultimately produces every sensation we experience, including our interoceptive sensations, which are the origins of our most basic pleasant, unpleasant, calm and jittery feelings.

Our brains, with only past experiences as a guide, make predictions.  These predictions take place at a microscopic scale as millions of neurons talk to one another.  These neural conversations try to anticipate every fragment of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that we experiences, and every action we will take.  These predictions are our brains’ best guesses of what’s going on in the world around us and how to deal with it to keep us alive and well.  Through prediction our brains construct the world we experience.  It combines  bits and pieces of our past and estimates how likely each bit applies to our current situation.  Prediction is such a fundamental activity of the human brain that some scientists consider it the brain’s primary mode of operation.  Predictions not only anticipate sensory input from outside our skulls, but also explain it.  Our brains also use predictions to initiate  our body’s movements, such as reaching our arm out to pick up an apple or dashing away from a snake.  We are our brains, and the whole cascade of events is caused by our brains’ predictive powers.

If our brains were merely reactive, they would be too inefficient to keep us alive.  We are always being bombarded by sensory input.  One human retina transmits as much visual data as a fully loaded computer network connection in every waking moment.  Now multiply that  by every sensory pathway we have.

Evolution wired our brains for efficient prediction.  The brain predicts far more visual input than it receives.  Through prediction and correction our brains continually create and revise our mental models of the world.  It’s an enormous, ongoing simulation that constructs everything we perceive which determine how we act.  However predictions are not always correct, when compared to actual sensory input, and the brain makes adjustments.

Dr, Barrett notes that prediction efforts are not problems.  They’re a normal part of the operating instructions of our brains as they take in sensory input.  She continues, “Without prediction error, life would be a yawning bore.  Nothing would be surprising or novel, and therefore our brains would never learn anything new.”   She goes on to summarize,  “the brain is not a simple machine reacting to stimuli in the outside world.  It’s structured as billions of prediction loops creating intrinsic brain activity.  Visual prediction, auditory predictions, gustatory predictions, somatosensory predictions, olfactory  predictions, and motor predictions travel throughout the brain, influencing and constraining  each other.  These predictions are held in check by sensory inputs from the outside world, which our brains may prioritize or ignore.”

The most important mission of the brain is predicting the energy needs of the body.  Our inner-body movements and their interoceptive consequences occur every moment of our lives.  Our brains must keep our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, and our glucose metabolizing even when we’re not playing sport, even when we are sleeping or resting.  Therefore interception is continuous, just as the mechanics of hearing and vision are always operating, even when we aren’t actively listening or seeing.  However, sometimes we experience moments of intense interoception as emotion.  In every waking moment, our brains give our sensations meaning.  Some of these sensations are interoceptive sensations, and the resulting meaning can be an instance of emotion.

Dr. Barrett’s presentation of the interoceptive network is detailed and highly technical.  If interested, please read the book.  What is important for the purpose of this blog is the concept of a body budget that the brain needs to keep our hearts beating, lungs breathing, and our glucose metabolizing.  The requirements of the body budget strongly affect our interoceptive network and the emotions that emerge from this interoceptive network.

Myths of the Triune Brain and the Rational Human Mind

May 10, 2017

This post is motivated in part by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”  Unfortunately, Carl Sagan popularized the notion of a triune brain in his book “The Dragons of Eden.”  The model begins with ancient subcortical circuits for basic human survival, which we allegedly inherited from reptiles.  Sitting atop those circuits is an alleged emotion system, known as the “limbic system”  that we supposedly inherited from the early mammals.  Wrapped around this so-called limbic system is our allegedly  rational and unique human cortex.  Any expert in brain evolution knows that humans don’t have an animal brain gift-wrapped in cognition.  Neuroscientist Barbara L. Finlay, editor of the journal “Behavior and Brain Sciences” says  that “mapping emotion onto just the middle part of the brain, and reason and logic onto the cortex is just plain silly.  All brain divisions are present in all vertebrates.”  Brains evolve as effective companies do, by reorganizing as they expand to keep themselves efficient and nimble.

Dr. Barrett’s bottom line is this:  “the human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are.   Your bodily feeling right now will project forward to influence what you will feel and do in the future.  It is an elegantly orchestrated, self-fulfilling prophecy, embodied with the architecture of the brain.”

One of the most cherished narratives in Western thought, is that the human mind is a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for the control of behavior.  Modern neuroscience does not back up this narrative, nor does human behavior.  Much research has clearly debunked this narrative.  There are many posts on this blog on behavioral economics (to find them enter “behavioral economics” into the healthy memory blog search.)  Behavioral economics was born by the research of Kahneman and Tversky.  Unfortunately, mainstream economics is dominated by the assumption of the rational mind.  This assumption makes the underlying mathematics tractable.  They are tractable but wrong.  Mainstream economics did not expect the financial crash of 2008, nor the market crash of 1929 for that matter.

Dr. Barrett writes, “You cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking, because the state of your body budget is the basis for every thought and perception you have, so interoception and affect are built into every moment.  Even when you experience yourself as rational, your body budget and its links to affect are there, lurking beneath the surface.”

How Emotions Are Made

May 9, 2017

“HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE” is the title of a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett.  It’s Subtitle is “The Secret Life of the Brain.”  It is indeed a revolutionary book as it debunks longstanding theories of emotions and substitutes for them a new theory based on detailed experiments and data.  Daniel Gilbert wrote, “A brilliant and original book by the deepest thinker about this topic since Darwin.”

For two-thousand-years the assumption has been that we all have emotions built-in since birth.  “They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us.  When something happens, whether it’s a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come quickly and automatically.  We broadcast emotions by way of smiles, frowns, scowls, and other  characteristic expressions that anyone can easily recognize.  Our voices  reveal our emotions through laughter, shouts, and cries.”

The classical view of emotion posits that there are circuits of particular sets of neurons for different emotions.  Emotions were thought to be a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.  Our rationality was supposed to control our emotions to keep us from acting out too strongly.

Dr Barrett notes that this view of emotions has been around for millennia in various forms.  “Plato believed a version of it.  So did Hippocrates, Aristotle, the Buddha, Rene Descartes, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin.  Psychologist Steven Pinker, Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama also offer descriptions of emotions based on this classical view.  The classical view is found in virtually every introductory college textbook on psychology, and in most magazine and newspaper articles that discuss emotion.  Preschools throughout America hang posters displaying the smiles, frowns, and pouts that are supposed to be the universal language of the face for recognizing emotion.  Facebook even commissioned a set of emoticons inspired by Darwin’s writings.”

Dr. Barrett continues, “And yet…despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true.  Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.  This notion also held that emotions were universal.  Regardless of where or when people lived, they experienced the same emotion.

Dr Barrett concedes that there are experiments that offered some evidence for the classical view, but many more cast the classical view in doubt.  She presents detailed research in the book that compels the reader to conclude that the classical view is flawed.  For example, emotions vary across cultures, much like languages will vary their vocabularies to reflect the environment in which they reside.

Of course, having debunked the classical view, it is incumbent on the critic to propose something better.  Dr. Barrett calls this view the theory of constructed emotions.  These emotions are constructed on the basis of our interoceptive environments.  She presents a convincing argument that our emotions are built upon our interpretation of our internal environments, that is analogous to the manner in which we develop an understanding of the external world.

Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that we do not experience the external world directly.  Rather we develop concepts and models on the basis of what our senses receive from the external world.  In other words, emotions are based on what we feel, that is how we interpret what we receive from our interoceptive environment.  Emotions are interpretations of our interoceptive conditions.  In other words we learn our emotional concepts in an analogous manner to how we learn about the external world.  We have an energy budget and this budget affects feelings of hunger and other bodily conditions.

Dr. Barrett provides a personal anecdote to illustrate how constructed emotions work.  When she was a graduate student a fellow male graduate student asked her out at the end of the day.  Although she had no feelings for this guy, she was tired and thought it would be a good way to kill the evening.  While they were dining, she thought she was beginning to fall for him.  Nothing further happened and she went home and fell asleep exhausted.  The next morning she woke up with the flu and remained in bed for several more days.  Apparently she had misinterpreted her interoceptive environment.  What she had originally interpreted as incipient feelings of love, were really incipient feelings of the flew virus.

TOADS versus Scientists and Responsible Citizens

May 8, 2017

If you do not know who the TOADS are, please read the immediately preceding post (the one immediately below this one).  The motivation that these TOADS have for scientists providing data and analyses on global warming, is that the scientists are doing this so that they receive grants and contracts for further research.  This claim is absurd, as if there was big money to be made doing research in this area.  No the big money is made by the CEOs and their folks who are responsible for global warming.  That’s where the big money is.  True, there are scientists for hire who will argue against global warming for cash.  The first documented activity like this was the Tobacco’s industry’s efforts to deny the research that smoking increased the risk of getting lung cancer. This activity is discussed in the blog “Did Corporate PR initiate the Post Fact Era?”

HM has the deepest contempt for these TOADS.  They are complete hedonists, not eudaemonists.  They are consumed by material things and physical pleasures.  As they are biologically constrained as to the number of physical pleasures they can enjoy, they keep score with their cash and material things that are purchased and developed for prestige.  Numbers are important to them.  They are materialists and too hell with the quality of life.   Their attitude is too hell with people who need money for the quality of their lives and their ability to provide education for their children so that their children can live well.

HM also feels sorry for these individuals.  They are stunted.  They have no appreciation for science.  Pure hedonism stunts growth.  However, scientists and responsible citizens are eudaemonists who are interested in the quality of life, intellectual pursuits such as science and the arts, and are concerned about their fellow citizens who are not so well off.

So what should people do?  They need to educate themselves as a part of a growth mindset.  Watch television programs on science.  Consult the Wikipedia on scientific topics.  The Wikipedia is also a good source for learning about scientific controversies.  Healthy memory blog readers should be aware of the frequent references to the New Scientist.  The New Scientist is a superb source of science information for the general public.  The New Scientist is a British product.  The Scientific American is a fine publication along with Scientific American Mind.  Scientific American Mind is discontinuing its print publication, but if you have not be won over by electronic publications, try them  You’ll learn just as much with much less clutter. Actually there are too many publications to list.  And to online searches for questions of interest.

There is a previous post “Science Should Inform Democracy, which is on a topic that is extremely important.  TOADS abuse science and put democracy at risk.  They are putting the United States and the world at risk.  Use available means, email, conventional letters, and phone messages, to disabuse them of their comments.  This is especially important for TOADS who are your Senators or in your congressional district.  And do not neglect the leader of the TOADS in the United States, its current president.

This post has barely scratched the surface of Dave Levitan’s “NOT A SCIENTIST:  How Politicians, Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science.”  To provide you with a feeling for the variety and complexity of techniques used by TOADS here are the chapter titles.

The Oversimplification
The Cherry-Pick
The Butter-Up and Undercut
The Demonizer
The Blame the Blogger
The Ridicule and Dismiss
The Literal Nitpick
The Credit Snatch
The Certain Uncertainty
The Blind Eye to Follow-Up
The Lost in Translation
The Straight-Up Fabrication

HM has taken it as his responsibility to inform you about the TOADS, the danger they present not only to the country, but to the entire world, and means of combatting their disinformation.  He hopes he has succeeded in his mission.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

I Am Not a Scientist, but

May 7, 2017

This post is based largely on the book, “NOT A SCIENTIST:  How Politicians, Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science” by Dave Levitan.  In October of 1980 while campaigning against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan addressed some environmental concerns in his speech.  He said, “I have flown twice over Mt. St. Helens out on our West Coast.  I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out here has probably released more sulfur dioxide  into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last 10 years if automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.”  Someone who was a scientist and represented the Environmental Projection Agency told the New York Times that although the volcano spewed as much as 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per day on average, all human sources in the United States produced about 81,000 tons per day.  Globally at the time, the total would have been over 300,000 tons of sulfur activities from human sources each day.  The massive eruption of Mountain St. Helens alone released about 1.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide.  Ten years worth of sulfur dioxide emission from “things that people are so concerned about,” was equal  to more than 200 million tons from the United States alone.

Should you be at a speech where a politician says, “I am not a scientist,” then yell out, “THEN SHUT UP!”

Now the GOP has a strained relationship with science.  Former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has said that the GOP needs to “stop being the stupid party.”  South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham issued the challenge:  “To my friends on the right who deny the science, tell me why. “

Democrats are not immune to criticism.  In 2014 President Barack Obama said that 2014 was the planet’s warmest year ever and repeated this statement several times in 2015.   This was the estimate provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)  had an estimate of 38%.   NOAA climate scientist Deke Arndt explained it this way:  This may seem pedantic, but it’s an important point:  there is a warmest year on record.  One of the 135 years in that history is the warmest.  2014 is clearly, and by a very large margin, the most likely warmest year.  Not only is its central estimate relatively distant from (warmer than) the prior record, but even accounting for known uncertainties, and their known shapes, it still emerges as easily the most likely warmest of the year.”

It would have been better for Obama to provide both estimates, but he is also not a scientist.  He is a lawyer and a politician so he presents the number that better makes his case.  But too many people in the general public would not be impressed by either the 48% of the 38% estimates.  These are probabilistic estimates and they want certainty.  They are certain in their beliefs, why can’t these scientists be certain?

Going into the 20th century there were some scientists who thought that they knew about all that could be known.  Perhaps a few decimal points could be added, but not much more was needed.  But in 1905  Einstein published his special theory of relativity.  His general theory of relativity came in 1915.  Then subatomic physics presented a whole new ballgame.  Then the social sciences blossomed, molecular biology, epigenetic, and so forth.  There are way too many changes and new sciences to enumerate.  Anyone who is certain about anything is either a fool or a charlatan.

There is a chapter in “NOT A SCIENTIST”  called The Certain Uncertainty.  TOADS (Those who Oppose Action/Deniers/Skeptics) who always raise the issue that scientists are not certain about global warming.  They do not appreciate that scientists are never certain and they regard their uncertainty as there basis for being deniers, skeptics, and opposing action.  But there is a consensus not only that global warming is occurring, but that the consequences of being a denier and opposing action could be catastrophic.  The reality is that even if the risk of global warming were small or if the rate of global warming were pessimistic, the consequences are potentially so catastrophic that taking action still would be indicated.  But TOADS never hedge their bets, because they are certain.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Defying Dementia

May 4, 2017

This post is based in part on posts by Kayt Sukel with the title Defying Dementia in the Features Section of 29 April 2017 issue the New Scientist.  Katy Sukel begins, “DEMENTIA isn’t inevitable.  The human brain can stay sharp well past 100 years of life.  The brain does slow down.  (See the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”)  One of the primary reasons it slows down is that it has accumulated massive amounts of data as a function of age.  And the greater the learning the greater the volume.  In addition, parts of the brain associated with memory and executive function shrink, myelin sheath around our neurons starts to erode, slowing down signaling, and arteries narrow, diminishing blood supply.  But these factors mainly affect speed.  When healthy older people are given extra time to perform cognitive tasks, the results are on par with younger folks.

When it occurs, dementia does alter the cognitive playing field.  In addition to memory, it causes issues with understanding or expressing oneself in language, problems with sensory perception, and disturbances in executive function.

The number of people with dementia might be rising, but most specialists say that is largely because more of us are living longer.  Between 1980 and 2011, the proportion of people over 65 with dementia actually dropped by 20% in England and Wales.   Between 2000 and 2012, dementia rates in that age group dropped by 24% in the US.

Kenneth Langa of the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging said that there are two driving factors for this change:  A rise in educational attainment and better control of cardiovascular issues.  After the second world war, there was an increase in schooling that averaged out to about an extra year of education across the US population.   Research suggests that people with more education, or those who have done things like learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument are more resilient to symptoms of dementia.  Langa says, “By challenging your brain during education, you create a more fit brain that can compensate for problems that you have as you age.  It creates a cognitive reserve that boosts the brain’s ability to work around damaged areas, and promotes more efficient processing.  As far as cardiovascular risk factors are concerned, although the prevalence of conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes as risen over the years, there also has been an increase in treatments to limit their damage.

Although there clearly are genetic factors, they tend to increase the probability of Alzheimer’s. There are no genes that directly lead to Alzheimer’s.  So, rather than be concerned about genetics, deal with lifestyle and genetic factors.  Maintaining social connections, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, practicing good sleep habits, and pursuing intellectual changes lead to a healthy memory.

Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that regular exercise not only addresses risk factors such as weight and cardiovascular health, but it also increases the creation of brain cells, connections between neurons, and production of nerve growth factors and neurotransmitters.  Dr. Kramer’s research has shown that just an hour long walk a few times a week increases hippocampal growth, and certainly can make a difference.

Healthymemory blog readers should also be aware of the importance of a growth mindset and of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.  In addition to defying dementia, they provide for a more fulfilling life.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Penultimate Post from “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still win Big”

May 1, 2017

Scott Adams has chapters on on a variety of other topics, including humor, which is obviously appropriate.  He is big on diet, fitness, and happiness.  His chapter on diet is quite extensive.  Some my want to buy this book on the basis of this chapter alone.  He also provides good advice on how to move to a healthy diet, and the advice sounds compelling.  Similarly his advice on exercise is quite good and this also includes advice on how to realistically exercise when the mood is not appropriate.  Adams emphasizes diet and exercise as they provide the energy that is essential for success.

It was disturbing to find Scientology and Dianetics in Adams’s book.  He asks the question “Does Dianetics work in terms of creating good outcomes for its followers? and responds with, “I have no data to answer that question.”  Is it that Adams is so busy that he is unable to follow the news and the court cases against Dianetics.  Not only does Dianetics not work, but it causes serious harm and has destroyed lives.  It is interesting to note that the founder of Dianetics, L.  Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer.  He wrote that the way to become rich in today’s world was to create a religion.  So he did so.  He created Scientology, wrote Dianetics, and became obscenely wealthy.  Most of the time he lived on his yacht where it was easy to escape capture.   So here is a case where someone writes that the way to become wealthy is to create a religious scam, and does so.  It is amazing how people can be told that they are going to be defrauded and still be able to be defrauded. Most definitely Scientology is to be avoided.

Adams also has a chapter on happiness that begins with the statement, “The only reasonable goal in life is maximizing your total lifetime experience of something called happiness.”  It is quite clear from this chapter that Adams does not regard happiness as being wealthy.  For him, happiness requires doing something for the public good, and he provides examples in his book  In this respect, Adams book reminds HM of Victor Stretcher’s book, “Life on Purpose” and the distinction between eudaemonic versus hedonic pursuits.  Both agree that eudaemonic but not hedonic pursuits lead to happiness, although Adams does not use the term eudaemonic.  Both also provide advice on healthy lifestyles that are necessary for pursuing success and happiness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Psychology

April 30, 2017

Of all the skills needed for success, I believe that psychology is the most important.  Of course, being that HM is a psychologist, a degree of bias must be admitted.  Nevertheless HM shall make this argument.

Psychology is frequently confused with psychiatry.  Psychiatry is a medical specialty dealing with mental problems.  Clinical and some counseling psychologists also deal with mental problems, but they represent about half of all psychologists.  Other types of psychology are social psychology, industrial psychology, organizational psychology, engineering psychology, educational psychology, psychologists who work primarily with nonhuman organisms, and psychologists who work with humans.  HM is a cognitive psychologist meaning that he is interested in how we perceive, remember, learn, make decisions, form concepts, solve problems;  that is basically everything we do that involves our brains.

In “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big” Adams devotes several pages to biases, heuristics, different types of effects, fallacies, illusory correlation and so forth.  Our cognitive processes are very complex, and they need to be understood as well as they can be understood.  We are constrained by a limited attentional capacity that must be understood.  Memory failures can usually be attributed to failures to pay attention, but we are bombarded by much more information than can be processed.  Memories change over time, and every time we recall a memory it changes.  Memories are highly fallible, yet we have a high degree of confidence in them. In short, we need to understand our minds as best we we can so that we are aware of the mistakes we are likely to make, and so that we can use our minds to best advantage.

Adams is writing about success and his examples are how a knowledge of psychology is key to success.  But given that education involves learning, should not students be provided an understanding of how we learn?  And given that education involves memory, should not an understanding of our memory systems be taught?  And should not learning and mnemonic techniques be taught to facilitate learning and memorization?  Should not students be taught problem solving techniques and the traps that can preclude solving problems?

Meditation is beneficial to both learning and emotional health, so should not meditation be taught and regularly practiced in schools?  Mindfulness training provides a basis for understanding why we differ and how best to interact with others who think or behave differently.  Disciplinary problems would largely disappear if both meditation and mindfulness were standard practices in schools.

Many businesses are providing for meditation and mindfulness to be incorporated into their business practices and many more businesses will be adding these practices in the future.  They might also want to add courses on human cognition that are relevant to their respective workplaces.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Persuasion

April 29, 2017

As persuasion is an important topic for success and as Adams did an exceptional write up of these skills in “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, more detail will be provided in summarizing its content.  Adams has written a book on persuasion titled “Win Bigly”, which will be published later this year.  Adams provides this list of persuasive words and phrases in “How to Fail…”:

Because
Studies by psychologist Robert Cialdini have shown that people are more cooperative when you ask for a favor using a sentence that includes the word “because,” even if the reason you offer makes little or no senses.  Apparently “because” signals reasonableness and reasonableness allows people to let down their defenses and drop their objections.

Would you mind…?
Adams has found that any question beginning with “Would you mind…” tends to be well received.  The question comes across as honest, and shows concern for the other person.  This is a powerful combination.

I’m not interested
This is used to stop someone from trying to persuade you.  The worst thing to do is to try to give some logical-sounding reason why you’re not interested.  This is a conversational killer with the goal of killing the conversation.

I don’t do that
Again, rather than trying to provide a logical excuse, make a statement that sounds like a hard and fast rule.  And if someone asks for a reason, simply say “I’m not interested.”

I have a rule…
Like the two previous examples, this is another good antipersuasion technique.  This sounds convincing and somewhat polite, while offering no reason whatsoever.

I just wanted to clarify…
is used when statements are so mind-numbingly stupid, evil, or mean, that a direct frontal assault would only start fights.  If the clarification question is phrased correctly, it will shine an indirect light on the problem and provide a face-saving escape path.

Is there anything you can do for me?
This question frames you as the helpless victim and the person you’re trying to persuade as the hero and problem solver.  That’s a self-image that people like to reinforce when they have the chance.  When you deputize someone to be your problem solver, you create a situation in which he or she has a clear payoff.

Thank you
A thank you is like a treat for a human.  When you do something generous or nice, you like to know it’s appreciated.  If you want people to like you, for business or for your personal life, pay special attention to the quality of your thanks.

This is just between you and me
The right approach to sharing a secret is to start small.  Make sure the small secrets stay secret before you try anything riskier.  One way to judge your risk is to be alert for other people’s secrets that are being relayed to you.  Someone who is bad at keeping one kind of secret is probably bad at keeping all secrets.  You won’t be exempt.

Decisiveness
Some people act more decisively than others, and this can be both persuasive and useful.  But don’t confuse your artificial sense of decisiveness with a need to be right all the time.

Energy
People respond to energy in others.  Energy is contagious.  People like how it feels.  If you show enthusiasm, others will want to experience the same rush.

These examples provide just a brief synopsis of Adams’  advice regarding persuasiveness.  To learn more, just read the book.

Managing Your Attitude

April 27, 2017

“Managing Your Attitude” is the title of a chapter in Scott Adams’ How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big.”  Adams writes, “Your attitude affects everything you do in your quest for success and happiness.  A positive attitude is an important tool.  It’s important to get it right.  The best way to manage your attitude is by understanding your basic nature as a moist robot that can be programmed for happiness if you understand the user interface.”  This is a geeky way of saying that you control your thoughts and by controlling your thoughts you are able to manage your attitude.  This point has been made in previous healthymemory blog posts.

Although Adams makes no mention of this, the best way of managing your attitude is via mindfulness and meditation, about which many posts have been written.  Here are some tips offered by Adams.  “A simple trick you might try involves increasing your ratio of happy thoughts to disturbing thoughts.  If your life doesn’t provide you with plenty of happy thoughts to draw upon, try daydreaming of wonderful things in the future. …If you imagine winning a Nobel Prize, buying your own private island, or playing in the NBA, don’t worry that those things are unlikely. Putting yourself in that imagination-fueled frame of mind will pep you up.  Imagination is the interface to your attitude.  You can literally imagine yourself to higher levels of energy.”

However, if you are in a truly bad mood, exercise, nutrition, sleep, and time are helpful.  Once you return to you baseline level of happiness, you’ll be in a better position to get the benefits of daydreaming.

Adams also writes, “A powerful variation on the daydreaming method involves working on projects that have a real chance of changing the world, helping humanity.  Adams tries to have one or more change-the-world projects going at all times.

Adams also correctly notes that smiling makes us feel better even if the smile is fake.  When you’re in a bad mood the physical act of forcing a smile may trigger the feel-good-chemistry in our brains that is associated with happiness.

This smiling-makes-you-happy phenomenon is part of a larger and highly useful phenomenon of faking it until you make it.  He says that two-way causation can be found in a wide variety of human activities.  He’s discovered that acting confident makes you feel more confident.  Feeling energetic makes us want to  play a sport, but playing a sport will also make us feel energetic.

Adams notes the there is a bonus to smiling, “as it makes us more attractive to others.  When we’re more attractive, people respond with more respect and consideration, more smiles, and sometime even lust.  That’s exactly the sort of thing that can cheer us up.”

Goals Versus Systems

April 26, 2017

Scott Adams wrote the following as the first teaser for reading “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, “Goals are for losers.”  He later concludes, “My worldview is that all success is luck if you track it back to the source. “  By this he means that no matter how good the product or idea is, there were a variety of conditions that resulted in the success of that product or idea.  Absent those conditions, the product or idea would have remained unknown.

So chance plays a large role in success.  This is why he writes “Goals are for losers.” If you meet your goal, fine.  But meeting your goal does not guarantee your success.  And even if you do meet your goal, what’s next?  And if you fail to meet your goal?  What then?

Adams argues for systems rather than goals.  By systems he means those skills and activities that you enjoy.  Different skills can be blended into skill sets.  One works systematically at building these skill sets.  His book explains how he does this, and provides general advice as to how it can be done.

There were many healthy memory blog posts on Angela Duckworth’s book “GRIT.”  Her advice is to find your passion and pursue it.  There were posts written to try to modulate this advice.  Unmodulated passion, not matter how intense, can lead to misery and failure.

These systems, of which Adams writes, can be called passions, although Adams does not do so.  But absent success, they are enjoyable and fulfilling in themselves.  Moreover, continuing to develop and enhance skill sets increases the probability of success.  With perseverance that probability becomes fairly high.

There is a chapter titled “Managing Your Odds for Success.”  It contains the following success formula:  Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.  He further explains that this does not say anything about the level of proficiency you need to achieve for each skill.  Nothing is implied about excellence or being world class.  The notion is that you can raise your market value by being merely good, not extraordinary, at more than one skill.

An example he provides if you are a good, but not great, public speaker, and you know your way around a Powerpoint presentation, you might have a reasonable chance of running your organization, or unit with an organization.  Adams puts this success formula into its simplest form:    Good + Good > Excellent.

Adams also notes that sometimes an entirely inaccurate formula provides a handy way to move in the right direction if it offers the benefit of simplicity.   He provides this example.  When writing a resume, a handy trick is to ask yourself if there are any words in your your first draft you won’t be willing to remove for one hundred dollars each.  Here’s this simple formula  Each Unnecessary Word = $100.

Adams continues, “when you apply the formula to your resume, you’ll surprise yourself by how well the formula helps you prune your writing to its most essential form.  It doesn’t matter that the hundred-dollar figure is arbitrary and the some words you remove are more valuable than others.  What matters is that the formula steers your behavior in the right direction.  As is often the case, simplicity trumps accuracy.  The hundred dollars in this case is not only inaccurate;  it’s entirely imaginary.  And it still works.

Here’s how Scott Adams characterizes his skill set:  “I have poor art skills, mediocre business skills, good, but not great, writing talent, and an early knowledge of the Internet.  And I have a good, but not great, sense of humor.  I’m like one big mediocre soup.  None of my skills are world-class, but when my mediocre skills are combined, they become a powerful market force.

Adams concludes with The Knowledge Formula:  The More You Know, the More You Can Know.

In other words learning and knowledge build upon themselves.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

April 25, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Scott Adams.  The subtitle is “Kind of the Story of My Life.”  Scott Adams is the creator of “Dilbert.”  HM needs to make a confession at the outset and that is that he is an enormous Scott Adams fan.  He’s been reading “Dilbert” religiously ever since he discovered the strip.  He has the collection of DVDs of the video series made for “Dilbert” and greatly laments the loss of “Dilbert”  from the air.  He has also read many of Scott Adams’ books.

Scott Adams is not only humorous and highly creative, there is an element of truth in what he does.  He created “Dilbert” while he was working at Pacific Bell and continued to work there for several years after he had become a commercial success.  The most common comment he hears is,”You must have worked at my company.”  This comment comes from people working in both government and private industry.  So there is a core of truth at the bottom of his humor.

Should you already be a fan of Scott Adams you would certainly enjoy this book and find it interesting.  However, even if you are not a fan of Scott’s, this book is still recommended as it provides solid advice on how to succeed (eventually) and how to live a meaningful and enjoyable life.

Adams documents his many failures on his way to success.  One of his failures was a Meditation Guide the he wrote with a friend.  Adams had meditated for years and found a lot of benefits in meditation.  However, only three copies of this book were sold.  He writes that he learned about local advertising, marketing, and product development from the experience.  Unfortunately, it appears that he overgeneralized this failure to meditation itself.  Meditation does not appear in this book, although there are many areas for which it is highly relevant.

“How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” warrants many posts that shall immediately follow.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Science Should Inform Democracy

April 23, 2017

The immediately preceding post, “Can Science Survive in a Democracy?”, focused primarily on the funding of science.  An equally, if not more, important issue is the use of science by a democracy.  Environmental and health issues are in the spotlight, but there is a wide variety of issues that can be usefully informed by science.  The failure to consider scientific evidence can have seriously adverse consequences.

One of the best examples of this failure is the size of the prison population in the United States.  The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  Remember that totalitarian governments imprison political dissidents, but the United States manages to surpass even these totalitarian countries on this grim statistic.  Moreover, this high rate of imprisonment did not address the problems they were supposed to solve.

The problems that were supposedly addressed were crime and drug abuse.  The public thought the best way to address these problems was by getting tough.  Politicians picked up this public sentiment and passed laws that were excessively severe for crime and proscribed drugs.  “Getting tough” might seem like a reasonable approach.  But it is a gut response, an emotional response that involves only System 1 processing according to Kahneman.  If thought processes had been engaged, System 2 processing in Kahneman’s terminology, the question would have been asked, does science have anything that would inform us as to what would be a reasonable policy?  If this question had been raised, the clear answer would have been that “getting tough” would be counterproductive, and it certainly was.

There are very few scientists or engineers, sometimes none, in Congress.  And few normal citizens read articles relevant to science.  As a consequence, they are unaware of their personal ignorance.  So what can be done to correct this widespread ignorance?

In the schools, science is taught primarily as an academic subject, and the subjects covered are typically biology, chemistry, and physics.  This is fine, but the relevance and applications of these sciences need to be taught.  The social sciences and statistics also need to be taught.  Every citizen needs to understand inferential statistics at some level to be a responsible citizen and to make reasonable decisions about personal health.  Unless college is going to be pursued, citizens can get by without understanding geometry or trigonometry.

It is essential that all students receive this education before graduating from high school, and not just students with plans for college.

Public television and a few dedicated cable channels have good programs on these topics, but they need to be increased, and they need to be presented on the major networks.

If done satisfactorily, constituents should inform their representatives as to the importance of these topics.  Then science would not only survive, but would prosper in this democracy.  And public policies would be informed by the best available scientific evidence.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can Science Survive in a Democracy?

April 22, 2017

This post is motivated by an article in the Comments section of the 22 April 2017 edition of the New Scientist by Dave Levit titled “Marchers, raise your banners for the tortoise pace of progress.”  The referenced March is the March for Science taking place today April 22.  His article begins, “The March for Science reflects the growing gap between slow, steady, vital scientific gains and quick-fire opportunist US politics.  A week is a long time in politics.  Science, however, is in it for the long haul.  Whether studying rising sea levels or isolating proteins in fruit fly nerve cells so that many years down the line we might have a new drug for Parkinson’s, science does not fit with the day-to-day fixed-term imperatives of government.

Politicians back fracking ventures that quickly create jobs, but talk down the risks of long-term pollution.  They take credit for the progress made in renewable energy, ignoring the decades of work underlying this progress.  Levit continues “The slow march of scientific progress does not match well with politics even on a good day.  “And today is not a good day.”

The science community has been shocked by the preliminary budget outlines from Donald Trump.  From the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to NASA’s earth science mission, science would get a buzz cut.  This makes perfect sense for Donald Trump.  Levit writes, “the impulsivity and lack of long-term thinking that places science at odds with politics seems less a feature and more a tenet of Trump’s view.   Why fund the NIH properly, helping to produce the medical advances of 2030, when he can’t see past his next tweet? If politics couldn’t handle science’s tortoise pace years ago, it should be no surprise to see this disdain reach a new peak in a faster moving age.”

This March is one day aimed at making people understand how unimportant one day actually is.  March participants are simply trying to drum up greater appreciation for evidence, scientific rigor, methodology, and expertise.  The March of Science is one of slow, steady, incremental progress.

Trump’s proposed cuts would have an immediate effect—less government spending.  But their long-term outcomes, such as delayed development of life saving drugs or preventing seas from rising to swallow Miami, apparently have little effect for many elected officials.

Levit notes that there is a chance cuts will accelerate the pace of impacts until it becomes impossible to ignore them, even though some of the damage would be irreversible.

It remains to be seen whether the March can wake us up before that happens.

Let us hope that it does wake up the congress.

We Dream Much More Than we Know

April 21, 2017

This is the conclusion from a News Piece written  by Chelsea Whyte in the 15 April 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  A new way to detect dreaming has confirmed that it doesn’t only occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and has shown why we don’t often remember our dreams.

Tore Nielsen at the University of Montreal says, “There is  much more dreaming going on than we remember.  It’s hour and hours of mental experience, and we remember a few minutes.  Low-frequency  brainwaves are detectable across the brain.  Francesca Siclari and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered that a decrease in these waves in an area at the back of the brain is a sign that  someone is dreaming.  She says, “This zone was a little bit more awake, showing high frequency  brainwaves more common during wakefulness.  This one region seems to be all that’s necessary for dreaming.”

Siclari and her team used EEG caps to map the brain activity of 32 people while they slept.  They woke the sleeper when they showed various patterns of brainwave activity, and asked them if they had been dreaming.  Some participants reported having dreams with a narrative structure, while others were more impressionistic.  One had a dream about reporting a dream

There was such a strong correlation between dreaming and fewer low-frequency  waves in the “Hot zone” that they could successfully predict whether a person was dreaming 91% of the time.

The team found that dreams during REM sleep were linked to a rise in high-frequency brainwaves in areas the are active in waking hours.  The activity matched the brain areas that would have been active if the dreamers had been living our their dreams in real life.  The team found that the participants dreamed during 71% of their non-REM sleep in addition to 95% of their REM sleep.

Many dreams are forgotten.  Sometimes participants had a foggy idea that they had been dreaming, but couldn’t remember  what about.  In a further experiment the team found that being able to later remember a dream was linked to higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with memory, while dreaming.  Siclari says, “The region for remembering the dream was different from the region having a dream.

So dreaming is very important for our brains.  The previous posts on willpower have shown the importance of having adequate sleep for effective mental functioning.  It seems like both education and employment typically employ schedules that hinder sufficient sleep.  This issue needs serious public attention.

Journal reference:  Nature Neuroscience, DOI:  10.1038/nn.4545

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Willpower Wrap Up

April 20, 2017

This is the final post on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  The title says the greatest human strength, but it could be called the greatest human weakness as most of us not only fail to adequately foster willpower, but we also fail to make use of its potential. Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been “Willpower:  Discovering the Greatest Human Potential.”

The book also discusses how Eric Clapton and Mary Karr finally managed to stop drinking.  The exploits of David Blaine, who is perhaps the most famous current exploiter of willpower are described along with his methods for accomplishing them.  However, Henry Morton Stanley makes Blaine look like a wuss when it comes to willpower.  Stanley became famous by finding a Scottish Missionary in the deepest parts of Africa and saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  Stanley made many trips into the wilds of Africa and encountered conditions that severely challenged his willpower.  But he never broke.  He said, “Self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder.”

HM’s only complaint with the book is that it does not discuss the relevance of meditation and mindfulness.  HM finds meditation to be a good technique for restoring willpower.  And mindfulness keeps the objectives of willpower in the mind and assists in monitoring progress.  Fortunately, readers of the healthy memory blog have many posts on both meditation and mindfulness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Additional Willpower Strategies

April 19, 2017

This post is based largely on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  The power of positive procrastination is another source of willpower.  The “I’ll have it later” trick is an example of positive procrastination.  At least you’re delaying the temptation.  And you might eventually forget about the temptation completely.

Another strategy is the nothing alternative courtesy of Raymond Chandler.  Chandler’s system for writing detective stories was to set aside at least four hours a day for his job, writing.  He did this methodically every day.  In the morning he would wait for inspiration.  When it came, he wrote.  If it didn’t come he would do nothing the entire four hours.  The authors write that the nothing alternative is a marvelously simple tool against procrastination for just about any kind of task.  You just might become bored doing nothing and start doing the desired task.  They key is not to do something else unless you strategically arrange the task as Robert Benchley did (see the first blog in this series, “Willpower:  Discovering the Greatest Human Strength).

The authors call the nothing alternative an offensive strategy.  Offensive strategies for not spending money would be to never carry more cash than you intend to spend, and to never carry a credit card unless it was for a predetermined purchase.  Precommitment is the ultimate offensive weapon.  Buy junk food in small packages or keep them out of the kitchen altogether.  Plan meals by the week, rather than on the spur of the moment.  Set up automatic payroll deductions, IRAs, and 401k plans.

Keeping track is another strategy .  Monitoring is crucial for any kind of plan you make—and it can even work if you don’t have a plan at all.  Weighing yourself every day or keeping a food diary can help you lose weight, just as tracking your purchases can help you spend less.  You can use technology to assist you in keeping track.

An especially important strategy is to reward often.  When you set a goal, set a reward for reaching it.  The authors write that we should steadily award ourselves for successes along the way.  Look for ways to reward yourself along the way to success prior to the big reward when the goal is reached.

Willpower Strategies

April 18, 2017

This post is based largely on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  Willpower is constrained by  the availability of energy sources.  One of these is glucose, which is burned up in activities.  The other is mental energy.   Exerting willpower deletes this source, irrespective of the reason for needing willpower.  Consequently strategies are required for utilizing this resource to best advantage.  One strategy is to pick our battles.  Although we can’t control or predict the stresses that come into our lives, we can use the calm periods or peaceful moments to plan an offense such as starting an exercise program, learning a new skill, quitting smoking, reducing drinking, making one or two lasting changes to a diet.  These are all best done during times of relatively low demand, when we can allocate much of our will power to the task.  And we would want to address this tasks individually, one at a time.  Aiming for huge and quick transformations will backfire if they seem impossible.  So only address the possible.

The authors counsel us when budgeting our time, not to give drudgery more than its necessary share.  They tell us to remember Parkinson’s Law:  Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.  We need to set firm time limits for tedious tasks.  If it is a large task it might need to be addressed on different dates.  Only try to do what is realistic.

To-do-lists are good for organizing time and for making sure certain tasks are completed by a certain time.  The authors realize that some readers might not feel like drawing one up because this sounds dreary and off-putting.  So they suggest of thinking of it as a to-don’t list.  This is a list of things that we don’t have to worry about once we write them down.  Making a specific plan mollifies our unconscious minds.  We need to plan the specific next step to take; what to do, whom to contact, how to do it (in person? by phone? by e-mail?)If we can also plan specifically when and where to do it, so much the better, but that’s not essential.  Our unconscious mind can relax as long as we’ve decided what to do and put it on the list.

Whenever we set a goal, we need to be aware of the planning fallacy.  This affects everyone from young students to experienced executives (who continue to fall prey to this fallacy).  This fallacy has been extensively documented and replicated.  An example provided in the book is one by psychologist Roger Bueller and his colleagues.  They asked collegeseniors working on their honors theses to predict when they would probably finish, along with best-case and worst-case scenarios.  On average, the students predicted it would take thirty-four days to finish, but in fact it took them fifty-six days.  Not even half the students finished by they worst-case predicted date.

The authors note that self-control will be most effective if we take basic care of our bodies, starting with diet and sleep.   We need to get enough healthy food on a regular basis so that our mind has adequate energy.  And it is good to begin the day with a healthy breakfast.  The authors write that sleep is probably even more important than food:  The more researchers study sleep deprivation the more nasty effects they keep discovering.  Coffee in the morning is not an adequate substitute for sleeping until our bodies wake up on their own because it has gotten enough rest.  They write,”The old advice that  things will seem better in the morning has nothing to do with daylight, and everything to do with depletion.  A rested will is a stronger will.”

It seems that most schedules for school and work are oblivious of the importance of adequate sleep and breakfast.  This forces people to shortchange themselves on sleep and breakfast.  In turn, these shortages result in inferior performance in both school and work.  Seriously attention needs to be paid to this problem.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Smoking and Alcoholism

April 17, 2017

This post is based largely on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  Just like dieting, quitting smoking requires your maximum willpower.  So it should be the lone habit you’re trying to rid yourself of.  One research program found that a written contract committing to temporarily stop smoking was nearly 40% more likely than a control group to be nicotine free after a year.  Given an incentive to temporarily restrain their smoking, they were more likely to make a lasting change in their lives.  What began as a recommitment turned into something permanent and more valuable:  a habit.

If you can’t bring your self to quit smoking, try cutting down to two or three cigarettes per day.  This should have health benefits plus it puts you closer to quitting smoking altogether.

Smoking cigarettes had long been regarded as a personal physical compulsion due to overwhelming  impulses in the smoker’s brain and body.  That belief was challenged  in 2008 by an article in the “New England Journal of Medicine” by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that quitting smoking seems to spread through social networks.  They fond that kicking the habit seemed to be contagious.  If a member of a married couple quit smoking, the odds of the other spouse quitting increased dramatically.  The odds also increased if a brother, sister or friend quit.  Even coworkers had a substantial effect as long as the people worked together in a fairly small firm.  Generally speaking, smokers who live mainly among nonsmokers tend to have high rates of quitting, indicating the power of social influence and the social support for quitting.

Religions provide large social networks that can assist in quitting smoking.  Of course, religious people are less likely to smoke in the first place, but both new converts along with committed smokers have a good social support network for quitting.  Baumeister and Tierney  also have high praise for Alcoholics Anonymous.  Although they seem to be somewhat skeptical of the method, as good scientists they cannot argue with the results of AA.  AA does not provide an automatic cure.  Rather, it assists in developing the personal discipline using willpower to overcome alcohol abuse.

Smoking and Alcoholism are serious problems and they should be dealt with individually.   Limited willpower should be focused on each separately.

The Perfect Storm of Dieting

April 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest  Human Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.   Some of the content will be related plus a few contributions from this blog’s author.

Baumeister and John Tierney write, “If you’re serious about controlling your weight, you need the discipline to follow these three rules:

Never go on a diet.
Never vow to give up chocolate or any other food.
Whether you’re judging yourself or judging others, never equate being overweight with having weak willpower.

The reason for these rules can be attributed to “The Dieter’s Catch-22.”
In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.
In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.

Oprah Winfree, along with the experience of others, and perhaps even your personal experience should be proof that diets do not work in the long term.  Although there may be short term effects, eventually we all seem to be able to find that weight that we thought we had lost.

In one experiment, using both dieters and non dieters, the participants arrived at the what researchers call a “food-deprived state.”   In other words they were hungry.  They had not eaten for several hours.  Some were given a small milkshake to take the edge off; others drank two giant milkshakes with enough calories to leave a normal person feeling stuffed.  Then both groups, along with other subjects who hadn’t even given any kind of milkshake, were asked to serve as food tasters.  Each one sat in a private cubicle with several bowls of crackers and cookies and a rating form.  As these people recorded their ratings, they could eat as many from  from each bowl as they wanted and if they finished them all, they could just tell themselves they were doing a thorough job as food testers.  Of course, their ratings didn’t matter.  The researchers were just interested inn how many cookies and crackers they ate, and how the dieters in the group compared with people who were not on a diet.

The non dieters reacted as expected.  Those who had just drunk two giant milkshakes nibbled at the crackers and quickly filled out their ratings.  Those who had drunk the small milkshake ate more crackers.  And those who were still hungry after not eating for hours went on to chomp through the better part of the cookies and crackers.

However, the dieters reacted in the opposite pattern.  The ones who had downed the giant milkshakes actually ate more cookies and crackers than the ones who’d had nothing to eat for hours.    These results have been replicated.  Finally the researchers began to see why self-control in eating can fail even amount people who are carefully regulating themselves.  The researchers gave this phenomenon the scientific term, counterregulaory eating, but this is commonly referred to as the what-the-hell effect.  So once dieters go off their diet they tend to say what-the-hell and behave like sailors on leave.

The key to successful dieting can be attributed to Mark Twain who wrote in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “To promise not do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.”

Research has shown the effectiveness of a postponement strategy.  When offered something tempting, rather than denying it, tell yourself that you will enjoy it sometime later.  Apparently it takes less will power to postpone something rather then to deny it.  So rather than a “what the hell” effect,” there can be an “I never managed to get around to it effect.”

The chapter concludes, “So when it comes to food never say never.  When the dessert cart arrives, don’t gaze longingly at forbidden treats.  Know that you will eat them eventually, but just not tonight.”

Weight loss goals should be modest.  And all your willpower needs to be devoted to them.  Large weight losses rarely last.

The following strategies were not in the book, but HM finds them promising.
The book does mention trying to keep track of calories.  This can have the benefit of slowing down your eating.  And the slowing down itself can be quite effective.  Take time to savor each bite of food.  This can also increase your enjoyment of the meal as well as helping your lose weight.

Another tactic is to switch diets for a limited amount of time.  For example, you might become a vegetarian for a week.  This is a variant of the postponement strategy.  You postpone your regular food.  Over a period of a week you are filling up on new food.  And over this period, you might start to enjoy some foods.  You can do this periodically gradually increasing the length of time on the new diet.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Willpower 101, First Lesson, Know Your Limits

April 15, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in he book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  It is important to reiterate that your supply of willpower is limited, and you use this same resource for many different things.  Throughout the day you do many things that deplete your willpower of which you are likely unaware.  One activity that definitely depletes willpower is making decisions.  Practically nobody is aware of just how tiring it is to decide.  Even apparently simple decisions such as choosing what to have for dinner depletes willpower..  But deciding where to go on vacation, whom to hire, or where to look for a new job, which purchases to make and how much to spend are all decisions that deplete willpower.

Also remember that what matters is the exertion and not the outcome.  If you struggle with temptation and then give in, you have depleted your willpower regardless of the result.  You even use up willpower when you partake in indulgences that don’t appeal to you.  Forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do at the moment, be it chugging tequila, having sex, or smoking a cigar, depletes your willpower.

Unfortunately there is no obvious “feeling” of depletion, so you need to watch yourself for subtle, easily misinterpreted signs.  For example:  Do things seem to bother you more than they should?  Has the volume somehow been turned up on your life so that things are felt more strongly than usual?  Is it suddenly hard to make up your mind about even simple things?  Are you more than usually reluctant to make a decision to exert yourself mentally or physically?  When you notice these feelings, then review the last few hours and see if it seems likely likely that you have depleted your will power?

Although your supply of willpower is limited, it is obvious it can be replenished.  Obviously, a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast should restore your willpower.  But during the day pleasant down time should also do some replenishing.   There is another activity that HM strongly recommends, and that is meditation.  HM finds meditation most definitely to be restorative.  It is unfortunately that Baumeister and Tierney do not have meditation play a more central role.  It is mentioned that meditation rituals are a “kind of anaerobic workout for self control.”  And that “Meditation activates the same brain centers used for self-regulation.”  HM understand why they do not emphasize meditation.  They are conscientious researchers who want controlled research on the topic.  Although HM understands why they do not emphasize meditation, he criticizes their not conducting obvious research on the topic.  HM can, at least, provide his recommendation on the basis of his personal experience.  And that is that, perhaps apart from a good sound night’s sleep, meditation is the most restorative activity.  A short period, a half hour or less, of effective meditation has remarkable restorative powers.  (Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts.  Additional posts can be found by entering “meditation”  or “mindfulness”)

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Eat (and Sleep) Your Way to Willpower

April 14, 2017

This post is based on the book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  Glucose depletion can turn the most charming companion into a monster.  The advice of eating a good breakfast applies all day long, particularly when you’re  physically or mentally stressed.  If you have a test, an important meeting, or a vital project, don’t take it on without glucose.  Don’t thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner.

Don’t skimp on calories when you’re trying to deal with more serious problems than being overweight.  If you’re trying to quit smoking, don’t try quitting while your also on a diet.  You might even consider adding some calories, because part of what seems to be a craving for a cigarette may actually be a craving for food once you’re no longer suppressing your appetite with nicotine.  When sugar tablets were given to smokers trying to quite, sometimes the extra glucose has led to higher rates of success, particularly when the sugar tablets were combined with other therapies such as the nicotine patch.

When you eat, go for the slow burn,  The body converts just about all sorts of food into glucose, but at different rates.  Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high glycemic index.  Included here are starchy carbohydrates like white bread, potatoes, white rice, and plenty of offerings on snack racks and fast-food counters.   Eating them produces boom-and-bust cycles, leaving you short on glucose and self-control, and too often unable to resist the body’s craving for quick hits of starch and sugar from doughnuts and candy.

To maintain steady self-control, we’re  better off eating foods with a low glycemic index.  Included here are most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), fish, meat, olive oil, and other “good” fats.

When you’re sick, save your glucose for your immune system.  Before driving to work when you’re sick consider this:  Driving a car with a bad cold has been found to be even more dangerous than driving when mildly intoxicated.  That’s because your immune system  is using so much of your glucose to fight the cold that there’s not enough left for the brain.

Sleep when your are tired.  We adults routinely shortchange ourselves on sleep with the result of less self control.  By resting we reduce the body’s demands for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of the glucose in the bloodstream.  Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control, and, over the long term, a higher risk of diabetes.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

April 13, 2017

The  immediately preceding post, Irresistible described the increasing addictive dangers of technology.  This and the immediately following posts will outline the solution.  That solution is willpower, and is covered in detail in a book with the title of this post  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.   In the concluding chapter of this book they write that they’re still bullish on the future of self-control, at both the personal and social levels.  And they concede that temptations are getting more sophisticated, but so are the tools for resisting them.

Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man,” “The highest possible state in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.  Most personal problems, both personal and social, center on the failure of self-control:  compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.  Poor self-control correlates with practically every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, and ending up in prisons.  It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system.  Ultimately, self-control let’s you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.

There are two important facts to understand about willpower.  There is a biological constraint on willpower.  When glucose levels are low, willpower declines.  And there is an additional constraint on willpower that is psychological.   There is a limited supply of willpower, and exercising willpower depletes this limited supply.  We use the same resource for doing different things.  This is why it is pointless to have many New Year’s Eve resolutions.  The fewer you have, the less likely any of them will be successful.  In previous healthy memory posts the recommendation was to have, at most, two resolutions.  One should be fairly easy, so at least there will be one victory, and the other should be challenging so that the success of that resolution would be grounds for cheering.  But do them in succession, say easy first, then difficult, rather than trying to do them both at the same time.

Many strategies and techniques for effectively using one’s willpower that are based on sound research are presented in the book.  One of them is positive procrastination.  For example, you might want to  have some tasty treat, but you tell yourself to procrastinate, to have it sometime later.  There is also a humorous example provided by  Robert Benchley, my favorite humorist.  In one of his essays he writes that he is often asked how he manages to accomplish so much work, given that he appears to be so dissipated.  He explained how he could summon the discipline to read a scientific article about tropical fish, build a bookshelf, arrange books on said shelf, and write an answer to a friend’s letter that had been sitting in a pile on his desk for twenty years.  All he had to do was to draw up a to-do list for the week and put these tasks above his top priority—his job of writing an article.  He wrote, “The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one.  The psychological principal  is this:  anyone can do any amount of work, provided that it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”  I encourage readers to look up Robert Benchley on the Wikipedia.  Much of his work is still available on amazon.com.

The following is from the concluding chapter of Willpower.  “People with stronger willpower are more altruistic.  “They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go.  Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today.  Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.”

You are strongly encouraged to read Willpower even though the following posts will be based on his book about this important topic, they can only scratch the surface.  Erick Clapton, Mary Karr, David Blaine, and Henry Morton Stanley. Should you not know Henry Morton Stanley, he is famous for finding a Scottish missionary in the wilds of Africa and saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  He is a legendary figure in willpower.  He makes David Blaine look like a wuss.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside knowledge: What’s Really Going On in the Minds of Animals

April 11, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature article by Michael Brooks in the Features section of in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.   The article begins, “Bright animals from chimps to crows know what they know and what others are thinking.  But when it comes to abstract knowledge, the picture is more mixed.”  Some qualifications need to be placed on “what others are thinking.”  There are definite limits as we humans often have difficulty trying to know what our fellow humans are thinking.

The article also fails to note “The Cambridge Declaration of Scientists.”  It begins as follows:
“On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

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

The full statement can be found at http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

Fortunately, the scientists here are neuroscientists, which gives the statement more gravitas than had it been made by psychologists.  But psychologists are involved in designing experiments to assess how much and what kinds of abstract knowledge can be achieved by different species.  And there is a long row of research ahead of them.  HM was much encouraged by this declaration as he has long thought that dogs were man’s best friend, rather than men being man’s best friend, because dogs had the neurological substrates for love and loyalty, but were lacking in neocortex that allowed for rationalization and deviousness.

There is a tendency to evaluate what animals know with respect to what humans know.  Sometimes this research seems to reflect an inferiority complex in showing what these are things we can do that nonhuman species cannot. They also need to be evaluated with respect to the capabilities of the species and the environments in which they operate.

We need to consider species with respect to their sensory caoacities. Consider are best friend, dogs, for example.  The vision of most dogs is not that good, but their hearing is outstanding, and their sense of smell is extraordinary.  When we think of someone, we tend to see them in our mind’s eye.  However, when a dog thinks of a person it is likely in terms of how that person smells.

Recent research has indicated that non-human species are more human than has traditionally been thought.  This research is to be applauded.  We look forward to what we’ll learn from future research, but it should go beyond what they can do compared to what we can do.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside Knowledge: Why Knowing Thyself is the Hardest Thing

April 10, 2017

The title of this post is identical to a Feature article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the 1 April 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  As Anil writes, We are within ourselves, so any attempt to build a full picture is fraught with our own cognitive biases and problems of self-reference.  Moreover a big part of our self perception is tied up with how others see us, yet we can never now the biases that cloud their perception.

Philosophical investigation and scientific observation of human behavior allow us to delineate the question of what the self is a little more sharply.  There are several ways of doing this.

There is the phenomenal self.  This corresponds to our signs of existing, and that there is a distinct entity in our mind that experiences this existence.  The self is very real to each of us:  it’s a sense of being a body situated in the here and now, and also of being a person existing over time.  Unfortunately, this is not always a reliable source of true knowledge.  There is a rate neurological disorder Cotard’s syndrome in which the individual has the distinct and disturbing experience of non existence—a  subjective self-knowledge clearly at odds with the truth.  There are also people who do not feel that parts of their bodies, say particular limbs, are not theirs.  And when we dream we have a robust sense of self while being completely deluded about who and where we are.

The epistemic self is a more sophisticated type of self-knowledge.  The epistemic self is a sense of self that knows it knows.  The epistemic self is aware of the working of the phenomenal self, and can make us more aware of our motivations.  It is a new way of relating to oneself.

Imagine you are sitting in a mind-numbing meeting and start fantasying about an exotic vacation.  Your phenomenal self wanders with you into this dream world, but as you snap back to the reality of your meeting and become aware you’ve been daydreaming, your epistemic self flashes into action, only to disappear again as you mind focuses (or wanders) once more.

The aim of mindfulness and meditation is to enhance the epistemic self.  Doing so gives us greater mental autonomy, “the capacity to stop or better control what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing.”  There are many healthy memory posts on mindfulness and meditation.

Inside Knowledge: The Maximum Any One Person Can Ever Know

April 9, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature Article by Sean O’Neill in the 1 April 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  The preceding post explained why Homo Sapiens will never know everything.  This post estimates the maximum any one person can know.

A human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons connected in labyrinthine ways by 100 trillion synapses.  According to a 2015 estimate from the Salk Institute, this amounts to an information storage capacity measured in petabytes, which are millions of gigabytes.  In comparison the Large Hadron Collider, the particle smasher as CEN, pumps out some 30 petabytes of data in use one year.  A recent paperer published jointly by researchers using the collider credited 5000 people with producing and analyzing the data.

Of course creating knowledge is about a lot more than assimilating data.  Our brains are not an empty petabyte stick.  As O’Neill notes, if it were, you would send it back to the shop, disappointed in its slow upload rate.

What is relevant is how much an individual brain can know as we have never filled one up.  We reach a time limit before we reach a processing limit.  Hyperpolyglot Alexander Arguelles is already competent in over 50 languages.  He says, “Give me total freedom of time…and I could conceivably do 100 languages.”  O’Neill notes that this would be at the expense of everything else.

Cesar Hidalgo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has dubbed the amount a person can realistically learn in a lifetime a personbyte.   He notes that the knowledge you would need to throw a beautiful clay pot is less than 1 person byte.  But if you want to build an F-22 Raptor fighter jet complete with on-board missile-guidance systems, you’re going to need many thousands of person bytes.

O’Neill optimistically concludes that “we should not let our brains meagre bandwidth get us down.  And if the amount and complexity of human knowledge has increased over time, so the means of acquiring it have steadily improved too, with spoken knowledge, written language, the printing press and now the internet.  In that profusion of information, the barrier to progress lies not in the quantity of knowledge our brains can hold, but in its quality.”

Although what O’Neill writes is true, especially in putting the emphasis on the quality of knowledge instead of the quantity, we still need to be humble about how much we think we know.  HM writes “think we know” because we can never be sure of what we know.  Regardless of the technology, there are biological limits to the rate of knowledge acquisition and the capacity of short term memory.  So we need to walk and talk humbly.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside Knowledge: Why We’ll Never Know Everything

April 8, 2017

The title of this post identical to the title of an article by Richard Webb in the Features Section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.   There are many limitations, but let us just consider computational power.  One can argue that computational power is only a temporary limitation.  Webb notes, however powerful we make them, computers rely on human input to program them.

Webb goes on to comment “…human thought is a glorious, uproarious, complex mess. Statements like “this statement is false, hating someone yet loving them and yes, that small-yet-large jumbo shrimp, both compute and do not compute.”  Panofsky, an information scientist at the City University of New York says, “language is an expression of the mind, and my mind is full of contradictions.”

This flexibility allows us to think creatively, while remaining firmly grounded.  Webb says that “because we are predicated on contradiction, we see contradiction everywhere. But “the defining feature of reality is that it admits no contradiction.   Quantum objects apparently act as waves or as particles depending how we choose to measure them.”  Physicist Richard Feynman called this confusing duality “the only mystery” of the quantum world.  Webb conjectures, “In all probability, the basic building blocks of reality are neither wave nor particle, but something else entirely.  It’s just something that we lack the experience or cognitive ability to express.”

When HM was a naive undergraduate he did not want to waste time on philosophy courses where questions were raised, solutions were presented and argued about, but resolution or general agreement, was never achieved.  So he took courses in symbolic logic where, he thought, definitive conclusions could be reached.  Logic and mathematics is supposedly a cleaner, neutral language for a trained brain to describe in abstract terms what it cannot visualize.  What HM learned in symbolic logic was that there were logical limitations on both logic and mathematics.

For example, there is the well-known injunction that you should never divide a number by zero.  If you do, you can begin to do things like prove 1 = 2.  This can’t be allowed if mathematics are the language of a flawless universe.   Panofsky says, “if you want mathematics to continue without contradiction than you have to restrict yourself.”

Kurt Godel showed in the 1930s that any system of logic containing the rules of arithmetic is bound to contain statements that can be neither proved nor disproved.  It will remain “incomplete” , trapped in the same inconsistency as we are.  Model incompleteness is a mathematical expression of the logical-illogical statement “this statement is false.”  So there is no way for anything, be it a simple sentence, system of logic, or a human being to express the full truth about itself.

Webb continues “This problem of self-reference is endemic.  Godel’s contemporary Alan Turing showed that you cannot ask a computer program in advance whether it will run successfully.  Quantum mechanics sprouts paradoxes because we are part of the universe we are trying to measure.”

And Webb concludes, “So the sobering truth is that we can build the most powerful telescopes, microscopes and computers we want, we we will never overcome the limitations of our minds.  Our perspective on reality will always be skewed because we—and the jumbo shrimp—are part of it.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside Knowledge: How to Tell Truth from Lies

April 7, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Tiffany O’Callaghan in the Features section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.  This article notes there are hardcore relativist philosophers who argue that there’s no such thing as objective truth that exists outside our minds.  This is absurd.  What they might be intending to mean, and is something that HM thinks, is that we shall never find objective truth (see the immediately preceding post that follows this one, blog style).  Science is a systematic method for achieving an increasingly better understanding of objective truth.  The risk in believing that one has objective truth is the same as having beliefs having certainty.  They blind us to other better options.

Very often in both science and math, simplifying assumptions are made to make the research problem tractable.  These simplifying assumptions are necessary and bring us closer to objective truth.  However, it must always be remembered that these results were obtained using simplifying assumptions.

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which there are businesses devoted to making lies (see the healthy memory blog post, “Lies, Inc.”).

Steve Sloman says that as individuals, we hardly know anything.  “But most of us do very well, and as a society we create incredible things.  We sent  a person to the moon.  How is this possible”?  Because of the knowledge of other people.”

The article presents the following advice for treading the fine line between healthy skepticism and destructive cynicism.  “First, think critically and assess the credentials, track record and potential bias of the sources we rely on.” wrote Peter van Inwagen. He continues, “If someone is telling me this, what motives could that person have for wanting me to believe that, other than that it’s true?”

We should ask how do we know?  How do they know? We need to ask ourselves whether our reaction to new knowledge is rooted in something trustworthy or something else, like wishful thinking.  Those not believing in global warming in spite of scientific evidence might require them to do a certain amount of rather inconvenient stuff, stuff that would have financial costs, so they really rather not believe and start to make the sacrifices we would all have to make.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside Knowledge: What Makes Scientific Knowledge Special

April 6, 2017

The title of this post is identical to an article by Michael Brooks in the Features Section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.   The article begins, “NULIUS in verba:  “take nobody’s word for it”.  This is the motto of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science.  This encapsulates the spirit of scientific inquiry.  The article continues, “Thanks to what science tells us about human physiology, the universe’s history, nature’s forces and Earth’s geology, flora and fauna, we know the earth isn’t flat, the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, and that there are no dragons or unicorns.  We live longer and in more comfort, and can send space probes to the edge of the universe.

But there are people who still contend the earth is flat.  Other people say the universe is 6000 years old.  Still others doubt the the theory of evolution by natural selection.  And there are people who question the reality of human-made climate change.  Unfortunately, some of these people are in positions of power like Donald Trump and his appointees.  For this, HM apologizes to the rest of the world.  However, a majority of the American voters did not vote for Trump.  Trump did not win the popular vote. He was elected by an electoral college, an institution developed to deny the principle of one citizen, one vote.

What is worse is there is an industry devoted to publishing and promoting scientific lies (see the healthy memory blog post, “Lies, Inc).  It needs to be understood that the scientific facts cited above could change.  Science is always an approximation of the truth.  Absolute truth is a destination we will likely never reach.  But to change science, experiments that produce data are required.  And there must be a means of disproving scientific theories.  There must be a way of disproving creationism, or it is not a scientific theory.  And there are arguments that question human-made climate change.  Unfortunately, some of these arguments come from Lies, Inc.  However, to be fair, there are scientists who question not the effects of humans on climate change, but on the rate at which these effects are taking place.  In this case, the opinion goes to the majority of research that argues climate change is real and is increasing at an alarming rate.

Philosopher Edward Hall of Harvard says “Authority in science is earned—at least, when a scientific community is functioning well—by  predicting and more generally at analyzing empirical phenomena.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside Knowledge: Why We Like to Know Useless Stuff

April 5, 2017

This blog post has the same title as a Feature article by Daniel Cossins in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist. The author notes that knowledge is more than just information.  “Even the nematode worm caenorhabditis elegant, the owner of one of the smallest brains we now, forages to maximize information about its environment, and so its chances of staying alive and reproducing.”  This is the typical analysis offered by scientists.  It seems like the entire point is for species to evolve and to reproduce.  However, evolution offers the hope that we can evolve into something better.  Homo sapiens as a whole is quite depressing.  We seem to be preoccupied with warfare and have developed weapons that can lead to our own extinction.  However, there are some members of our species who espouse transcendental values, which leads to the hope that we might become something better.

Cousins writes, “The precise details of how we first came to love knowledge may always elude us.  But it is easy to see how it would have spurred our success as individuals and as a species furnishing us with the tools—often literally, if you think of  cutting blades or fire—to survive and prosper.”

So the argument is that we are addicted to knowledge because it has served us so well in the past.  It still does today, in everyday life as well as the frontiers of technological progress.  The term infovores has be used to describe this propensity (enter “infovores” into the search block of the healthy memory blog).

Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton pointed out in a 1939 essay “The usefulness of useless knowledge,” radio communications and all that came with it wasn’t ultimately the inventions of Guglielmo Marconi.  It was down to James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, scientist who worked out the basics of electromagnetic waves with no practical objectives.”

The current director of IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay to a reissue of Flexner’s original.  He wrote, “The theory of general relativity is used every day in our GPS systems, but it was not the reason Einstein solved it.

The problem is that too many people reject science.  Some reject science on the basis of religious texts.  Others are fundamentally ignorant.  What is most depressing is the leader of the United States rejecting scientific research.  For this HM apologizes.  Although he did not win the popular vote; he was chosen by the electoral college, an anachronism that denies the sacred principle of one citizen, one vote.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inside Knowledge: What Separates Fact from Belief

April 3, 2017

The title of this post is identical to an article by Richard Webb in the Features Section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.  HM answers this question by saying that it is the degree of belief.  Research has indicated that absent any indications to the contrary when we hear or see a fact, the default is to believe it.  When supposed facts are heard or read that do not correspond to the individual’s belief system, a noticeable signal is recorded in the brain.  This indicates that System 2 thinking has been invoked and this fact will either be rejected or postponed until further information and thinking can be performed.  Kahneman terms System 1 intuition and System 2 reasoning.  System 1 is fast, that’s why it’s the default processing system.  System 2 is slow and requires further thinking.  System 2 is supposed to protect us from false beliefs.  At the turn of he 20th century there were many physical scientists who believed that practically everything that needed to be known about the physical sciences was known.  All that was needed was to add some more decimal places of precisions.  Just five years later Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity.  Beliefs should always be subject to change and should never reach certainty.

Technology has developed at such an alarming rate that there are an enormous number of facts to evaluate.  All of science, both physical and social, is producing facts that lay people do not have the knowledge to evaluate. Moreover, there is a business of deliberately publishing false facts (See the healthy memory blog post, “Lies, Incorporated.”)

The remainder of this post is motivated by the box titled “Where Knowledge Comes From”  at the bottom of the article.  One way of classifying knowledge is by how we acquire it.

Perceptual knowledge comes from our senses but involves significant processing by our brains.  Basically the brain builds models of the world using this information, but it must be appreciated that we do not have direct knowledge of the world.  The truth is that we infer it, and this knowledge changes as information grows.  Everyone should be familiar with perceptual illusions, in which the psychological interpretation does not agree with the physical representation.

Testimonial knowledge comes from other people and media.  Here belief should largely hinge on the source of the information.  Different sources have different biases, as these biases must be taken into consideration.  The credentials of the sources are of primary importance.  Whether there is scientific evidence for the facts is especially important.  Sources that contradict scientific data must be evaluated with skepticism.

Our inner sense, the awareness of our own feelings and states, such as pain and hunger would appear to be highly credible, but some times we are out of touch with our senses.  Beliefs can actually greatly deaden pain in many cases.  Enter “placebos”  into the search block of the healthy memory blog.  (Enter “placebos” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about their effectiveness)

Inferential knowledge goes beyond actual facts in assessing the credibility of facts, and in making inferences about facts.  Critical thinking is key here.

Beliefs can blind us to facts.  A good example of this is the problem of health care in the United States.  Health care in the United States is the most expensive in the world, yet health statistics in the United States approach those in the third world.  Every advanced country in the world has a national system of health care except the United States.  The reason for this is that the Republican party sees government as the problem and not the solution to health care.  But all other advanced countries have successful health care systems in which the governments play a central part.  The affordable health care act, frequently referred to as Obamacare, used the government to increase access to health care.  It was a small effort that fell far short of Obama’s goals.  Trump promised that Trumpcare would be much better than Obamacare.  Had he formulated an improvement over the affordable care act, it would have been welcome.  However, the plan that was formulated was woefully short of the Affordable Care Act, and was defeated.

Republicans trumpet the value of market forces in health care.  But back in 1963 Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow offered an explanation as to why markets do not work well in health care.  There is a huge mismatch of power information between the buyer and seller.  For example, if a salesman tells us to buy a particular television, we can easily choose another or just walk away.  However, if a doctor insists we need a medication or procedure, we are far less likely to reject the advice.  Arrow also noted that people don’t think they don’t need health care until they get sick, and then they need lots of it.

Beliefs are frequently compartmentalized and this has adverse effects on inferential knowledge.  Here again the Republican Party and healthcare provide a good example.  It should be understood that both parties have religious beliefs, but Republicans are especially strong in their beliefs which center on loving our neighbors, and caring for the needy and sick.  Yet compartmentalization of the Republican beliefs about the role of government blocked addressing religious beliefs about caring for the sick  with the result of increased unnecessary suffering among their fellow human beings

Beliefs are necessary, but they should never be absolute.  They are dangerous in that they can foreclose meaningful solutions to critical problems.  And they can hinder effective inferential knowledge.  A useful exercise is occasionally to try to ignore one’s beliefs and explore the ramifications of ignoring those beliefs.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Pedestrian Deaths Soar in the Uneven Battles with Cars

April 2, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article written by Ashley Halsey III in the 30 March 2017 issue of the Washington Post.  Pedestrian deaths soared by 25% nationally between 2010 and 2015.  Pedestrians now account for 15% of all traffic deaths.  Preliminary data for 2016 indicate that a the number of pedestrian deaths increased by 11% over 2015, with 6,000 people being killed in collisions with vehicles.  A number of reasons for this increase were noted, but the one that caught HM’s eyes was the use of smartphones—both by drivers and people on foot.

The article includes engineering and safety measures that need to be undertaken to reduce pedestrian deaths.  HM applauds these efforts, but this post is devoted to the measures pedestrians need to take to protect themselves.

The first is to not use smartphones, both as drivers and pedestrians.   Many, many healthy memory posts have been written on the dangers of distracted driving.  The personal risks to smartphone use by pedestrians are even greater.  I’ve seen pedestrians walking, engrossed in their smartphones, who step into traffic without checking for oncoming vehicles.  The HM has almost hit several of these pedestrians.  Fortunately he did not.  But an accident with one of these pedestrians would have haunted him for the rest of his life even though he would not have been at fault.

There are a couple of reasons pedestrians might be so careless.  One is that they have never ever been hit by a vehicle, so they think vehicles are not going to hit them.  What they fail to realize is that drivers certainly do not want to hit drivers, but drivers need to be given sufficient time to respond to avoid a collision.

Pedestrians also seem to assume a symmetry between their perception of automobiles and the automobile drivers’ perception of them.  This problem is particularly acute at night.  Although it is easy for pedestrians to see cars with their blazing lights, pedestrians are small usually dressed in dark clothing, which can make them almost impossible to see.

When HM was in public schools there were posters that were prominently displayed, “Where white at night.”  What has happened to these signs?  They need to be resurrected and placed in many prominent places.  Today reflectors are more readily available, but why don’t pedestrians make more use of them?

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Conclusions for Suggestible You

March 29, 2017

There have been a dozen posts on Erik Vance’s “Suggestible You:  The Curious Science of your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal” because there is so much interesting material that is relevant to a healthy memory.  Nevertheless, these posts just scratch the surface.  Readers are encouraged to read the original book.

The power of our minds is enormous.  Our brains are an extremely valuable gift.  We need to use them to best advantage and to help them grow.  It is hoped that these dozen or so “Suggestible You” posts have accomplished  that.

Not much has been written about meditation, not because meditation was not covered in the book.  It was covered, but HM thought that the importance of meditation had been covered fairly well in other healthy memory blog posts.  And there will be many more posts on mindfulness and meditation in the future.

Suggestibility can have an enormous effect on many medical conditions, but not all of them.  Although Parkinson’s responds well to placebos, Alzheimer’s does not.  This makes sense, because suggestibility  involves the brain and Alzheimer’s destroys the brain.  The healthy memory blog has many posts on how to build a cognitive reserve.  There are many people who died with the defining amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s, have never shown any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms.  It is said that a cognitive reserve precluded the cognitive and behavioral symptoms.

Anxiety responds to placebos, as does depression.  The pharmaceutical companies are spending a fortune trying to beat placebo effects.   But obsessive-compulsive disorders traditionally do not respond well to placebos.  Although the pain and nausea of cancer can be eased with placebos, tumors cannot.  Vance writes that the spontaneous regression—the sudden retreat of a tumor for no obvious reason is more common than you might think, but is not a product of suggestion (at least not that we know of).

And don’t forget to be suggestible to yourself.  When sad, remember that you can cheer yourself up, and that it is your mind and the chemicals in your body that affect your mood.  And you do have an ability to control your emotions due to your own suggestibility.  Meditation and mindfulness can also help here.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Rules from Suggestible You

March 28, 2017

The author Erik Vance closes with several rules that HM feels obliged to pass along to you.

Rule #1:  Don’t endanger yourself.   Some alternative health remedies are physically dangerous.  For example, Mercury is a poison, incorrect chiropractic treatment can seriously damage your spine, and a careless hypnotist can implant terrifying memories that a may not be yours.  HM adds that you need to be aware not only of hypnotists, but also of misguided psychotherapists who can also implant false memories.

Rule #2:  Don’t Go Broke.  Be suspicious of expensive placebos.   Although more expensive placebos might work somewhat better than cheaper ones, there is a limit.  People have gone broke on treatments and approaches that do not work.  HM adds that they key component of all of these treatments is your mind, and you mind costs nothing aside from the time and cognitive effort.

Rule #3:  Don’t send any creature to extinction.  HM would be surprised if this warning was relevant to any HM readers.  But avoid any treatments that endanger animals.

Rule #4:  Know yourself.  Stay within your limits and use your common sense.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggestible You 11

March 27, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform and Heal.  This is the eleventh post on this book. This post deals with depression.

Vance describes depression as like being chemically sedated into someone you don’t recognize.  He writes that given the choice, he might prefer excruciating chronic pain to depression, then goes on to note many people suffer from both.  He notes that about 7%  of Americans will experience clinical depression this year, losing the United States more than $200 billion.

It is clear that placebos are effective against depression.  Remember that to be declared effective the drug is compared against a placebo.  But when antidepressant drug tests are examined about 75% to 80% of their efficacy can be attributed to placebo effects.  Moreover, there was no real difference between high and low doses, which is odd.  Differences are expected with truly effective drugs.

Moreover, over the past few decals, scientists have noticed a distinct uptick in the power of the placebo effect on pain and depression trials.  Some experts even say that if Prozac had to compete against the placebo effect today, it would not have been cleared by the FDA.  Once a drug clears the Phase III, placebo-controlled trial, it is certified regardless of how it performs in later experiments.

For drug manufacturers trying to get new drugs approved, this is a problem.  But it should not be a problem for depression sufferers.  Remember the reason of including placebos in these tests is that placebo effects are real.  Placebos are much less expensive than the drugs, and carry no side effects.  HM wonders, as long as they are 75% to 80% effective, why take the drug.  Physicians should also be asking the same question.  Now it is clear why drug companies continue to try to develop new anti-depressants.  But after some many decades of research, with all the antidepressants already approved, and with placebos being largely effective without any adverse effect why bother.? At some point the difficulty in exceeding the effect of the placebo might prove so expensive that drug companies might abandon the effort.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggestible You 10

March 26, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.     This is the tenth post on this book.  This post describe the role of  placebos in addiction.

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans is addicted to some kind of drug—mostly alcohol, although opioid addiction is gaining quickly.  Traditionally addiction has been viewed as a moral failing or a lack of willpower.  Today we understand addiction is mostly physiological, specifically around dopamine.  This is not surprising since this neurotransmitter deals with the anticipation and enjoyment of rewards.  Vance note that this includes sugar, sex, money, a high score on Grand Theft, as well as drugs.

Unfortunately, drug use doesn’t just change the way you feel for a couple of hours: it can also change the brain itself.  When the nervous system is presented with an abundance of pleasurable chemical stimulation through drug use, the nervous system gets overwhelmed and shuts down its production of dopamine to bring itself back into equilibrium.  This creates a bad feedback loop in which the person finds himself short on dopamine whenever he’s not using the drug.   Food no longer tastes as good, and sex can lose its thrill.  Taking the drug that caused this problem is the only way to get back to something close to normal.

Addiction literally changes the way the brain works.  Not only do addicts have less dopamine from drug overuse, but also their  dopamine receptors are affected (either changing their numbers or changing how well they transmit messages).  Regular drug uses twists memories so both the drug and the circumstances surrounding the drug use.  Addiction causes the brain’s impulse control centers to shut down, which greatly increases the chances of relapse.  If cocaine addicts are shown an image of blow for as little as 33 milliseconds, which is too fast to register in consciousness, they will have immediate cravings.

Vance sees addiction as sort of a perversion of all the brain circuits and processes  in his book.  Consequently he thinks that suggestion and expectation may hold the answers to overcoming it.  Naloxone, the drug that first helped expose the chemical nature of placebos and blocks placebo responses altogether, wasn’t invented for placebo research.  It serves a crucial role in medicine as an emergency treatment for drug overdoses.  It’s also pretty effective at blocking the effects of heroin or oxycodone.
A closely related drug, naltrexone, is one of the most effective treatments for alcohol abuse.

People get tipsy when a nonalcoholic beer is substituted for an alcoholic beer.  This also works the other way.  A study at Minot State University doctored root beer to give it the same alcohol level as regular beer.The researchers offered the doctored drink to a group of unsuspecting volunteers, while another group received regular beer.  Not surprisingly, both groups got tipsy after a few drinks. What is interesting is that those who drank beer actually absorbed more alcohol into their blood than those who thought they were drinking soda but were in fact consuming just as much alcohol.

It is clear that work on treatment is still a work in progress, but progress is being made.

Some two million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid drugs and about 19,000 died from overdoses in 2014.  This is about twice the number who died from heroin overdoses, and three times the number who died from cocaine.  One theory of pain is that after an injury, the pain never leaves, it just gets gradually covered up by the body’s internal medicine.  A team led by Bradley Taylor gave naloxone to patients who had recovered from an injury and for many of them the pain came right back as if pain had been hiding under the surface for this whole time.  These patients displayed some of the hallmarks of opioid withdrawal.  During the process of recovering from pain, we actually become dependent on our own opioids.   Taylor thinks that this may be the key to understanding not only addiction, but also the switch from short-term to chronic pain.

Given this understanding, NIH researcher Luana Colloca, whom we have encountered previously, is studying the role placebos my play.  She mixed a few placebo pills into a group of pain patients’ medication.  Each week they have five or six pain pills and one or two placebos.  As the week progressed, she upped the placebos and topped the opioids until the artificial was administered only about half the time.  The results of the project are not reported, but the idea is clear.  The patient is trained to expect pain relief when taking a pill.  Gradually she takes the pill away and lets the patient’s own expectation cover the pain relief.  The patient uses her expectations to switch from an external drug to an internal one.

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.     This is the tenth post on this book.  This post describe the role of  placebos in addiction.

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans is addicted to some kind of drug—mostly alcohol, although opioid addiction is gaining quickly.  Traditionally addiction has been viewed as a moral failing or a lack of willpower.  Today we understand addiction is mostly physiological, specifically around dopamine.  This is not surprising since this neurotransmitter deals with the anticipation and enjoyment of rewards.  Vance note that this includes sugar, sex, money, a high score on Grand Theft, as well as drugs.

Unfortunately, drug use doesn’t just change the way you feel for a couple of hours: it can also change the brain itself.  When the nervous system is presented with an abundance of pleasurable chemical stimulation through drug use, the nervous system gets overwhelmed and shuts down its production of dopamine to bring itself back into equilibrium.  This creates a bad feedback loop in which the person finds himself short on dopamine whenever he’s not using the drug.   Food no longer tastes as good, and sex can lose its thrill.  Taking the drug that caused this problem is the only way to get back to something close to normal.

Addiction literally changes the way the brain works.  Not only do addicts have less dopamine from drug overuse, but also their  dopamine receptors are affected (either changing their numbers or changing how well they transmit messages).  Regular drug uses twists memories so both the drug and the circumstances surrounding the drug use.  Addiction causes the brain’s impulse control centers to shut down, which greatly increases the chances of relapse.  If cocaine addicts are shown an image of blow for as little as 33 milliseconds, which is too fast to register in consciousness, they will have immediate cravings.

Vance sees addiction as sort of a perversion of all the brain circuits and processes  in his book.  Consequently he thinks that suggestion and expectation may hold the answers to overcoming it.  Naloxone, the drug that first helped expose the chemical nature of placebos and blocks placebo responses altogether, wasn’t invented for placebo research.  It serves a crucial role in medicine as an emergency treatment for drug overdoses.  It’s also pretty effective at blocking the effects of heroin or oxycodone.
A closely related drug, naltrexone, is one of the most effective treatments for alcohol abuse.

People get tipsy when a nonalcoholic beer is substituted for an alcoholic beer.  This also works the other way.  A study at Minot State University doctored root beer to give it the same alcohol level as regular beer.The researchers offered the doctored drink to a group of unsuspecting volunteers, while another group received regular beer.  Not surprisingly, both groups got tipsy after a few drinks. What is interesting is that those who drank beer actually absorbed more alcohol into their blood than those who thought they were drinking soda but were in fact consuming just as much alcohol.

It is clear that work on treatment is still a work in progress, but progress is being made.

Some two million Americans are addicted to prescription opioid drugs and about 19,000 died from overdoses in 2014.  This is about twice the number who died from heroin overdoses, and three times the number who died from cocaine.  One theory of pain is that after an injury, the pain never leaves, it just gets gradually covered up by the body’s internal medicine.  A team led by Bradley Taylor gave naloxone to patients who had recovered from an injury and for many of them the pain came right back as if pain had been hiding under the surface for this whole time.  These patients displayed some of the hallmarks of opioid withdrawal.  During the process of recovering from pain, we actually become dependent on our own opioids.   Taylor thinks that this may be the key to understanding not only addiction, but also the switch from short-term to chronic pain.

Given this understanding, NIH researcher Luana Colloca, whom we have encountered previously, is studying the role placebos my play.  She mixed a few placebo pills into a group of pain patients’ medication.  Each week they have five or six pain pills and one or two placebos.  As the week progressed, she upped the placebos and topped the opioids until the artificial was administered only about half the time.  The results of the project are not reported, but the idea is clear.  The patient is trained to expect pain relief when taking a pill.  Gradually she takes the pill away and lets the patient’s own expectation cover the pain relief.  The patient uses her expectations to switch from an external drug to an internal one.

Suggestible You 9

March 25, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive”, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the ninth post on this book.

This post is on what might be called “marketing placebos.”  You can market yourself to yourself through what you think about yourself and via self talk.  “I  have a chance, I think I should apply for the job, position, …”  “versus “I have no chance for the job, position, …, so I’m not going to apply.”  A much larger example might be, “life is not worth living” versus, “Such an opportunity life presents, think of all the things I can learn, all the things I can do, the nice friends I can have.”  In fact, just forcing ourselves to smile can make us feel better.

Marketing placebos are like pain placebos in that they require healthy input from the reasoning prefrontal parts of the brain.  Most companies achieve this in one of two ways.  One way is by creating, cultivating, and enhancing a particular brand.  The other is via the price tag.  If a company tells you it has a new line of brain-enhancing drinks, and you believe it, you’ll likely find that, your cognitive performance actually improves after drinking it.  And if they tell you it’s an especially expensive brand, your performance will likely go up even more.  This same principle applies to branding.  Vance notes that studies suggest that athletes perform better when they drink favored water out of a Gatorade bottle.  And students’ test scores rise when they use a pen labeled “MIT.”

The researchers who did these studies correlated the subjects’ level of suggestibility to how they thought about the nature of intelligence and learning.  Those who thought of intelligence as more or less fixed were more suggestible to brands than those who saw intelligence as fluid.  So readers of the healthy memory blog should not be as suggestible to brands  as people who do not read this blog.  This is because growth mindsets are repeatedly advocated in this blog.  If this point is not obvious, enter “growth mindsets” or “Carol Dweck” into the healthy memory blog search block.

Fad diets can be regarded as an example of marketing placebos.  Key to the success of these diets, is a good story that makes the diet compelling.  The placebo effect likely plays a large part in the initial success of the diet.  And in the long term, few of them work.  Lost weight usually finds a way to return.

Vance argues that this same expectation applies to most of the “toxins” we read about.   He writes, “Evil free radicals and toxins are just stories.  We buy them or we don’t.”  And remember the role that social inputs play in amplifying placebo effects.

These effects extend to athletics.runners who thought they were getting blood doping shaved 1.2% of their times.  Another study demonstrated that weight lifters improved their performance by 12% to 16% when they were taken caffeine (a known, albeit legal performance enhancer), but were actually only taking placebos.

Suggestible You 8

March 24, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the eighth post on this book.

“Satan Worshippers, Aliens, and Other Memories of Things That Never Happened” is the title of Chapter 6.  It begins with the following quote from Josh Billings, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.”  This post will explain why this is so, and that a misunderstanding of memory and how memory works led to much misery between and among families and to the false imprisonment of innocent people.

As healthy memory blog readers should know, we do not have direct contact or knowledge with the physical world.  See the healthy memory blog posts “Understanding Beliefs,” “Revising Beliefs,” and “More on Revising Beliefs.”  We construct mental models based on the data coming from our senses.  As we experience more and learn more we develop new models, revise old models, and form connections among related or associated models.

Too many people think that our eyes and ears act like video cameras and tape recorders, that we see and hear what is and that these recordings are permanent and accurate.  Consequently, in the courts a great deal of belief is put on eyewitness testimony, when data indicate that eyewitness testimony is flawed and prone to error.

In reality, our eyes and ears are taking light and sound and turning them into electrical signals in the brain.  The brain then constructs a version of what is being perceived and what makes sense.  Expectations from prior models play an important role in this process.  Our brains have to make assumptions and take shortcuts and sometimes makes mistakes.  Optical illusions, blind spots, and hallucinations are all examples of how our brains misinterpret what is being perceived—sometime to very confusing and dangerous ends.

Similarly, memories are not like flash drives.  Memory is an integrated constructive process that is constantly refining itself, rebuilding, restructuring, and finding shortcuts.  And sometimes, our memories play tricks on us,  Memory processes can be divided into three stages.  First the information has to be encoded.  Then there is the process of consolidation during storage.  The third phase is retrieval, which is the recall of the memory.  Changes occur throughout this process and some changes can be erroneous.

The failure to understand how memory works and its malleability that can lead produce errors resulted in teachers and caretakers being falsely accused of sexually abusing children, and of Satanic rituals.  As near as can be understood, the people who conducted these investigations honestly believed that these children were being sexually abused.  But their beliefs poisoned their investigations.  They asked leading questions and repeatedly questioned these children to the point of exhaustion.  Unfortunately, the courts and juries, who were equally ignorant of how memory works, sent innocent people to jail.  This problem continued for much longer than it should have, and it took way too many years for these erroneous convictions to be overturned.

There were also too many cases of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, many with Freudian conceptions of sex and repressed memories, inadvertently place memories of sexual abuse in the patients’ and clients’ minds.  Innocent parents were accused by their own children of sexual abuse.  These nightmares outdid the fiction of  Franz Kafka.   Imagine the pain that this caused within families. HM thinks that most of theses errors have been corrected, but he still fears that there are still therapists who should be avoided.  Be vary careful when choosing a therapist, and keep a watchful eye out doing the therapy.

Elizabeth Loftus is the leading psychologist who conducted research in this area, and who spent countless frustrating hours testifying in court.

Enter “false memory” into the healthy memory search block to find more posts on this topic.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggestible You 6

March 22, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the sixth post on this book.

This post is on nocebos.  Remember that placebo is Latin for “I shall please.”  Nocebo means “I shall harm.”  So nocebos can be thought of as negative placebos.

In 1886 a physician named John Mackenzie was treating a woman with a serious case of hay fever and asthma.  For a variety of reasons, he was not convinced that the patient’s condition was fully authentic.  For her next visit he place a rose in his office.  As soon as she sat it she had powerful allergic reaction that brought on an asthma attack.  The flower was artificial and served as the nocebo.

Cholecystokinin (CCK) is a key messenger in activating intestinal functions, including digestion and the release of gastric acid and bile.  It also plays a role in making you feel full after a good meal.  But if you inject CCK into someone, it causes anxiety and nausea and can induce panic attacks.  It also seems to increase pain by lessening the impact of internal opioids.  Fabrizio Benedetti set up an experiment with patients recovering from  minor surgery in which he gave them a drug and told them it would make their pain worse when it was actually just saline.  The patients did report more pain with the saltwater injection.  Then Benedetti blocked their brains’  CCK release with another drug.  Now the patients felt better when the CCK was blocked.  Vance wrote,”What opioids are for placebos is what CCK is for nocebos; a mechanism giving expectation power in the body.  And whereas blocking opioids killed the placebo response and made patients feel worse, blocking CCK actually supercharged pain relief by allow the brain’s internal pharmacy to run wild.”

Nocebo effects are much easier to create than placebo effects.  Negative expectations can be stronger than positive expectations.  Vance note that nocebos and placebos in the brain take two different routes.  They look similar, go to similar places, share some of the same highways, but still are totally different routes, and nocebos take all the best shortcuts.  This does make  sense, as the aversion to pain is fundamental not just to being human, but also to being alive.  Colloca notes that although the nocebo affects the same reward/expectation regions in the brain, it also includes one more that placebos do not:  fear.  The hippocampus plays a key role in the storage of memories and it also plays a key role in fear conditioning anxiety.  Brain imaging indicates that while the hippocampus is mostly absent from placebo effects, it lights up during the experience of nocebos.

Fear is at the heart of nocebos, and fear is a powerful emotion.  Fear headlines in the news elicit much stronger responses that do pleasant ones.  In 2014, even before anyone had died of Ebola in the United States, 25% of Americans were worried they or their families could contract it.  Thousands of people visited doctors claiming they had signs of the virus, and 650 of those people had symptoms serious enough for their cases to be passed on to federal officials.  As it turned out, only four people in the United States had the disease:  a visitor who got it in Liberia, two nurses who had treated him, and a doctor who had been working in an Ebola.

So we need to be careful to not let our fears get out of hand.  And let us hope that doctors make more use of nocebos in treating pain.

Suggestible You 5

March 21, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the fifth post on this book.

Vance describes the story of a man diagnosed ten years ago being severely debilitated in late stage Parkinson.  He volunteered for an experiment in which the medication was directly injected into a critical part of the brain.  To control for the placebo effect, these experiments require sham surgery that copies everything about the surgery except for the critical drug injected into the brain.  The study involved 51 participants.  Twenty-four people got the real surgery and 27 got the sham surgery.  The drug proved to be a failure.  However, the participant of interest did show a remarkable recovery.  However, he was one of those who had received sham surgery.

This dramatic example makes the point that there are large individual differences in the response to placebos.  Kathryn Hall of Harvard University was interested in studying possible genetic bases for this enhanced responsively.  She discovered the COMT gene.  The COMT genes codes for an enzyme in the brain, also called COMT, or catechol-O-methyltransferase.  Vance writes that this is one of the best-studied brain pathways in the world, and may be the most fascinating link he has discovered as a science writer.

Here’s how it works.  Dopamine has enormous power and is important for body movement and good moods.  However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  A mechanism is need to sweep up the bits we don’t need—the extra dopamine molecules floating around our skull that aren’t doing anything useful.  COMT gets rid of the excess dopamine molecules.  COMT is an extremely long and complicated enzyyme.  Fortunately, it is one within its machinery that defines how well it works.  Depending upon an individual’s genetics there are two types of this crucial portion of the enzyme:  valine (val) or methionine (met).  If one’s brain has val in that one spot, the enzyme performs its job of removing excess dopamine.  However, if the enzyme has met in that one spot, it is much less effective.  The brain is left with lots of excessive dopamine.

Remember that each trait in the body is a combination from each of the parents.  COMT works in a similar manner.  So we have val/met, but also val/vals and met/mets.  So 25% of the population are val/vals,and 25% are met/mets, 50% of the population are val/mets.

Hall conducted an experiment pairing COMT genes with placebos.  She enrolled 262 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) into an experimental treatment involving acupuncture.  She selected patients with either moderate or severe cases of IBS and then divided them into three groups. One group, the true control group, was put on a waiting list and given nothing.  The other two groups were told that they would get acupuncture, but they were unknowingly given fake acupuncture.  Half of the participants got treatment from a comforting, caring acupuncturist while the others got treatment from a cold, uncaring acupuncturist.

Here are the results.  People on the waiting list stayed the same regardless of their genes.

Met/mets with the uncaring acupuncturist  did better than the val/vals, but just barely.

Val/vals with the caring acupuncturist did about as well as the val/vals with the uncaring acupuncturist and all the people on the waiting list. In short, no placebo effect.

The val/mets who got the caring acupuncturist did about five times better.

The results of the met/mets who got the caring doctor went through the roof.

Clearly the kind words  meant something totally different to one genotype than it did with the others.  Hall had divided the placebo responders into measurable groups.Met/mets—those people who were born with lazy enzymes and a little too much dopamine in their responses were more prone to placebo responses.

Although the COMT gene plays a large role in the creation of the COMT enzyme, it’s not the only gene that does so.  Other genes help build the enzyme that can boost or cripple its performance, as well as all the other genes in you body that affect dopamine.    COMT also goes after epinephrine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that are key to regulating adrenaline, cardiac, function, and our response to stress.

So, in summary, the interactions are complex.  But different factors that contribute to the immune response are being identified.  Genes, the administrator of the placebo, and our fellow human beings are factors.

Suggestible You 4

March 20, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the fourth post on this book.

An important question is whether there is a way to enhance the placebo effect, or even make it permanent.  In 2015 Karin Jensen, a placebo researcher at Harvard,  published an experiment that showed how our brains can self-medicate even when we are not paying attention.  She set up a two phase experiment in which subjects wore a painful heat pad that flared up whenever they saw a picture of a certain face and died down when they saw another, similar face.  The brain learns that one face is bad and the other face is good.

In the next phase, after the relationship had been ingrained in the participant, she turned the heat to somewhere in the middle.  This time she showed the picture for only a fraction of a second, so the participants could barely see the face.  The subconscious mind could spot the difference, but the conscious mind could not.  Nevertheless the participants continued to feel pain with the bad face, and less pain with the good face, even when they could not consciously distinguish the faces.  With enough practice, people can unconsciously trigger the placebo effect with the flash of one face, even though their conscious mind has no idea its happening.

The placebo effect can also be altered by peer pressure.  One of Wager’s students, Leonie Koban, set up an experiment in which people  rated various levels of heat pain applied to their arms by a metal pad.  After gauging each person’s pain threshold, she asked them to rate how much pain they expected to feel before she applied it, but with one additional crucial element.  They would also be able to see how other people had rated the same pain.  These previous reports of pain were totally made up.  Still, people who felt a strong pain rated it lower if that’s what they thought others had done.  And people who were told others had felt a lot of pain rated the pain highly even if it was mild.  This peer pressure placebo effect was twice as strong as the normal placebo effect!  As a check, Koban recorded their skin conductance, which is a physiological response to pain.  On the basis of skin conductance it was impossible to differentiate from a genuine experience.

It seems that people are programmed with a preexisting need to go with the herd.  People quickly tapped into a more powerful placebo response than if they had spent hours conditioning themselves.  So someone else’s opinion is not only powerful, but it can be more powerful than your experience and even more powerful than repeated conditioning.  So we are hardwired to follow other people’s opinions.

Vance suggests that there might be some biochemistry involved in this interaction.  Luana did an experiment similar to the one reported in Suggestible You 2 in which a green screen induced a placebo effect.  The participants in this new experiment were given a dose of vasopressin before the green screen experiment. In yet another experiment the participants were given a dose of a related hormone, oxytocin.  These drugs greatly enhanced the placebo effect.  These hormones play a large role in social interactions among people.  Vasopressin seems to regulate social communication and conciliatory behavior.  Oxytocin seems to be involved in experiences of empathy, trust, and social learning.  So the same chemicals that draw us together as humans and allow us to work together can also boost the placebo response altogether.

Suggestible You 3

March 19, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the third post on this book.

Irving Kirsch took up psychology out of a philosophical curiosity about the brain.  He mentored Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher who earned a Chinese doctorate in Eastern medicine and was an expert in acupuncture and other alternative therapies.  These two set up a lab at Harvard and for a long time their names have been synonymous with placebo research.  Kaptchuk’s work spans many complicated aspects of placebo research—genetic, biochemical—but Vance’s favorite study is a relatively simple one.  He handed patients pills and told them it was a placebo.  He explained that placebos had been shown to be very effective agains all manner of conditions, and so forth.  When these patients took the pill, it still worked.  Not as well as a secret placebo—but it worked, even though the people taking it knew it wasn’t real.

Tor Wager conducted research using functional magnetic resonance imaging f(MRI).  fMRI measures blood flow in the brain.  This blood flow is used to infer brain activity.  It is captured in voxels. A single voxel has about 63,000 neurons in it (and four times as much connective).  Nevertheless, fMRI has been invaluable in gaining insights regarding the brain.  Wager used fMRI to capture the placebo effect in action.  The first experiment used electric shock.  The research participants saw either a red or a blue spiral on a screen warning them hey would get either a strong or a mild shock, which would hit between 3 and 12 seconds later to keep them off guard (and build expectation).  Wager  looked two skin creams explaining that a one was designed to reduce the  pain and the other was a placebo.  Actually both skin creams were placebos, but the research participants said they felt less pain with the “active” cream.

The second experiment used a hot metal pad that seared the skin for 20 seconds.  This time the screen just read, “Get Ready,” and then the pad heated up.  As in the first experiment, the research participants received placebo and “pain killing” creams, both of which were actually placebos.  Wager surreptitiously lowered the temperature of the heat pad on the fake “active” cream, fooling the research participants into thinking that the cream was reducing the level of pain they felt.  Then, in the last phase (as Collca had with Vance’s shocks), he kept the temperature high.  Researchers carefully recorded how much pain the subjects reported feeling, and Wager also had their fMRI brain scans.  What the research participants reported about their pain tracked perfectly with the activation of several parts of the brain associated with pain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a role in emotions, reward systems, and empathy), the thalamus (which handles sensory perception and alertness), and the insula (which is related to consciousness and perception).  Those reporting less pain from the placebo effect showed less activity in the key pain-related brain regions.  And those who felt less of the placebo effect showed more activity.  So these research participants were not imaging less pain; they were feeling it.

More importantly, Wager observed the route that the placebo response takes from anticipation to the release of drugs inside the brain.  Pain signals normally begin in the more primitive base of the brain (relaying information from wherever in the body the pain starts) and radiate outwards.  What Ager observed was backward, with the pain signals starting in the prefrontal cortex—the most advanced logic part of the brain with executive functions—and working back to the more primitive regions.  Vance noted that this seemed to suggest a sort of collision of information:  half originating in the body as pain, and half originating in the advanced part of the brain as expectation.  Whatever comes out of that collision is what we feel.

The following summary comes directly from Vance’s book,”Pain, like any sensation, starts in the body, goes up the spine, and then travels to the deeper brain structures that distribute that information to places like the prefrontal cortex, where we can contemplate it.  Placebos, on the other hand, seem to start in the prefrontal cortex (just behind the right temple) and go backward.  They work their way to parts of the brain that handle opioids and release chemicals that dull the pain.  That also seem to tamp down activity in the parts of the brain that recognize pain in the first place.  And you feel better.  All in a fraction of a second.”

How powerful these placebo effects are varies.  In some people they barely register.  However, in others the opioid dumps can be so powerful that people become physically addicted to their own internal opioids, similar, in theory, to how people become addicted to laudanum. One theory even suggests that chronic pain might be the result of a brain addicted to its inner pharmacy, in essence, looking for a fix.

More than opioids are involved.  Over the past few decades, other brain chemical have been shown to trigger the placebo effect.    Our inner pharmacy also stocks endocannabinoids—the same chemicals found in marijuana that play an important role in pain suppression—and serotonin,  which is important intestinal movements and is the primary neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness and well-being.

Suggestible You 2

March 18, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the second post on this book.

Vance participated in an experiment in Luana Colloca’s laboratory on the campus of the National Institutes of Health.  Dr. Colloca attached a variety of devices to Vance including two on his left hand.  One device delivered the shock, the other, on his middle finger.  She said that this device will tap into the A-B fibers in his hand that will occasionally interrupt the shocks, nearly cutting the pain altogether.  As he explained it, the difference between the weak shock and the powerful shock would be that one has a crossing guard and the other does not.  He was told that he would know which one was coming via a screen that will turn green when the A-B fibers are blocking the pain and red when they are not.

Vance said that the small shock feels like a pinprick or a pinch, but the bigger shock doesn’t feel like a bigger pinprick. He said that it’s more like a dull squeeze wrapped in fire, localized in his hand but seemingly all over his body as well.  Colloca slowly increased the strength of the shock, working Vance up a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the worst tolerable pain), testing his pain threshold.  He agreed to a shock level of 6, although he said that this was very uncomfortable.  He went through two rounds of 12 shocks each.

On the third round he noticed that the green (weak) shock) had gotten slightly worse—maybe from a 1 to a 2.   He thinks there might be a problem with the shock blocker.  They ran through 11 more trials and the torture session was over.  When Colloca returned she told him his pain threshold was smack in the middle of the bell curve for pain, which is 100 hertz of electricity.  She remarked that pain thresholds vary tremendously among individuals.

Then Colloca pointed to a sheet of paper showing Vance’s third round and dropped a surprise telling him, “In Block 3 we used green and red both at 100 hertz.  You felt the green as less painful, compared to the red, when actually you received the same, and that is the placebo effect.”  There never was any magic pain-lessening wire.

The question regarding why the placebo effect works was addressed by a team in Scotland in 1975.  We do have a form of homemade opioids called endorphins.  These endorphins play a number of tiles in our brain, such as regulating circadian rhythms,  appetite and body temperature.  They are the primary chemicals that make sex feel so good.  Two neurologists, Jon Levine and Howard Fields conducted a simple experiment with people in pain after dental surgery.

The plan was to give a group of patients who had recently had a dental procedure either a placebo or naloxone.  Naloxone blocks the endorphins.  They told all of the patients that they were receiving a painkiller.  As expected, many of those  who got the placebo felt less pain, whereas the naloxone group felt miserable, as their own natural opioid (endorphin) generator was being blocked.  When naloxone was given to the genuine placebo group, they also felt miserable.  So this study does show that pain placebos work because the brain self-medicates with the opioid like drug endorphins.

Suggestible You

March 17, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.  One of HM’s pet peeves is the expression,”It’s just a placebo response.”  For HM, the placebo response is the most interesting effect in medicine.

Artificial intelligence pioneer Daniel Dennet has written.  “A mind is fundamentally an anticipator, an expectation-generator.”  Expectation is a system of shortcuts our brains have developed to get through the day.  Otherwise we would be stopping every few seconds to figure things out.  Consequently if what you anticipate is negative your mind will make things look (or feel) worse than they actually are.  However, if you expect the best some amazing things can happen in your body.  Somewhere between this expectation and reality lies the mind’s power to heal itself.  Erik Vance writes, “Our uncanny ability to deceive ourselves has startling implications for our health and well-being… Everyone’s door to expectation has a different key, and everyone is susceptible in a slightly different way.  But once that door is unlocked we have access to an amazing power to heal ourselves.”

Placebo comes from the Latin for “I shall please,” and traditionally refers to anything inert that has an effect on a patient.  Vance writes, “…usually lasting less than a day but sometimes longer:  a sugar pill, a saline injection, or sham surgery, often mixed with a little smoke and mirrors.  In other words, nothing.  But in the world of expectation, sometimes nothing is more powerful than something—if it’s wrapped in the right packaging.”

Vance writes that this packaging is different for everybody.  What allows a placebo to work is a topic of continuing research, the most recent of which is presented in his book.    It involves psychology, chemistry, and genetics, aided by the power of storytelling.  The manner in which the placebo is presented is important, which does not necessarily involve deception.  Placebos can be effective even when the recipient knows that it is a placebo.

Vance writes of the importance of theater or how the placebo is presented and to individual differences.  For example, depression patients respond better to yellow placebo pills than to blue ones.  Bigger ones work better than smaller ones, but only to a certain point.  Bear this in mind should you purchase placebo pills on Amazon, and there is a wide variety of placebos available on Amazon.  Fake injections work better than fake pills.  Vance goes on to note that “if you’re French, suppositories work better than either.  Take a quiet moment to ponder the significance of that.”

Placebos are a very complex topic, so a series of posts will be required, which shall follow immediately.

The Happiness U-Curve

March 16, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association of Psychological Science (APS).

Despite all the negative components of aging, researchers consistently find a happiness paradox:  As the body declines, happiness tends to increase.  Across the lifespan this “Positivity effect” follows a U-shaped pattern:  happiness starts out high in late adolescence, bottoms out in middle age, and reaches a second zenith in old age.

A 2011 Gallup analysis of 500,000 phone interviews found that “a septuagenarian is far more likely than someone in their 30s to have high emotional health.  This happiness advantage held true even after controlling for demographic factors, including gender, race, education, marital status, employment, and regional location.

This happiness U-shape appears across the world.  Economists Andrew Oswald and David G. Blanchfower documented this pattern in more than 500,000 people living in more than 70 different countries.  Their analysis concluded that from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, people around the world tend to be happiest in their old age regardless of their nationality.

Oswald says, “Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period.  But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20 year old.  Perhaps realizing that such feelings are completely normal in midlife might even help individuals survive this phase better.”

This universality of happiness U-curve implies the aging may play a positive role in the brain.  A team of Australian researchers led by Leanne Williams, who is now at the Stanford University School of Medicine, argues that a combination of neurological changes and life experiences account for this phenomenon.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor emotional processing as people of various ages viewed photographs of different facial expressions, the researchers found that older people were more emotionally stable and less reactive to negative emotional stimuli than younger people.

Contrary to the ubiquitous negative stereotypes of declining memory and cognitive integrity, Williams and colleagues found emotional well-being may increase with normal aging.  Their study included 242 individuals (122 males and 120 females) divided up into four major age categories:  12-19 years, 20-29 years, 30-49 years, and 50-79 years.  Participants were assessed in the scanner for the neural activation evoked by emotions of threat and happiness depicted in facial expressions.  After being shown a photograph of a face, participants had to select the best option for identifying the emotion being displayed in the photograph.  They also rated on a 1-to-5 scale, the intensity of the emotion being displayed.
Rather than showing an inevitable decline across all functions, the images displayed a linear increase in emotional stability with age, meaning that people in their 70s ultimately experience better emotional well-being than most people in their 20s.

The fMRI results suggest that as we age, the way our brains process emotional stimuli  changes in ways that favor emotional stability.  The brain scans indicated that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is a brain area involved in the governance of emotional functions, processed stimuli differently across the lifespan, contributing to better emotional stability for older adults.  As we age, the mPFC areas become increasingly active while processing negative emotions compared with positive ones, suggesting that older people were comparatively better at controlling negative emotions.

This article ends as follows: “Ultimately Williams and colleagues argue that as we age this combination of neural processing, as well as an accumulation of life experience, provides older adults with the neural tools to take life in stride—a capability their younger counterparts will just have to wait for.”

Finding Focus

March 15, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” is an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 Observer, and publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).  This study  used data collected from TestMyBrain.org and was published in “Psychological Science.”  It found another unexpected boom for aging brains:  Sustained attention tends to improve over time, peaking in the mid-40s.

This study was led by Francesca C. Fortenbaugh, Joseph DeGutis, and Michael S. Esterman of the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory at the VA Boston Healthcare System.  This study tested sustained attention across 10,430 adults using a specialized task for identifying individual differences in people’s ability to focus on a single task over 4 minutes.  DeGutis said in a statement, “While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their middle-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused.  One current hypothesis  is that compared to younger adults, adults in their mid-years mind-wander less, leading to better sustained attention performance.  This sample was larger than all previous efforts to model changes in sustained-attention performance during development, aging, or across the life span combined, which allows us to more precisely model transition periods in performance across the life span using segmented linear regression”

Sustained attention underlies several important cognitive processes, including learning, perception, and memory.  Lapses in attention can lead to serious problems ranging from difficulty at work to an increased risk of car accidents.  Measuring attention across individuals is itself a challenge; attention fluctuates, sometimes dramatically, from moment to moment.

The researchers used a new tool they developed:  the gradual-onset continuos performance task (gradCPT).  Participants were shown serious of grayscale photographs go 10 city scenes and 10 mountain scenes.  One photograph gradually transitioned into the next every 800 milliseconds, so that as one image faded, a new image steadily took its place.

There were 5,027 male and 5,403 female participants between  10 and 70 years old who completed the gradCPT on TestMyBrain.org between March and September of 2014.  The participants were told to press the space bar whenever they saw a city scene, but to withhold a response when the image was a mountain scene.  Here the goal was to create a task that required frequent responses from participants while having a relatively low cognitive demand.  Identifying the differences between the two scenes was easy, but carefully attending to the transitions repeatedly became challenging over time.

By analyzing mean reaction time, reaction time variability, hits, misses, discrimination ability, and criterion (a measure of strategy or willingness to respond in the case of uncertainty), the researchers were able to tease apart the changes in unsustained attention across the lifespan.  From the ages 10 through 16, gains in both reaction times and discrimination ability were extremely large.  After age 16, gains in these skills were much smaller until they peaked around age 43.

A factor analysis of the results suggests than people also begin to use different cognitive strategies as they age.  Younger individuals demonstrated faster reaction times (due to either super information-processing speed or more liberal response strategy), whereas older individuals showed a slower, more cautious strategy and evidence they made more adjustments after a mistake.

The Cognitive Upside of Aging

March 14, 2017

“The Cognitive Upside of Aging” is an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).  This article corrects some major misconceptions about memory and aging.  This realization is important as the expectation is that “the next ten years will witness an increase of about 236 million people aged 65 or older throughout the world.”

A 2014 survey on perceptions of brain health and aging conducted by the AARP found that people believed that the brain peaks at age 29 before beginning to deteriorate by age 53.  Now these are opinions regarding brain health and aging.  Actual research on this topic reveals how woefully in error these conceptions are.

Joshua K. Hartshone of Boston College, and Laura Germine of the Harvard Medical School reanalyzed an old set of scores from the Wechsler IQ and memory tests taken by a geographically diverse group of adults in the 1990s.  Scores from 2,450 test-takers were divided into 13 age categories representing people between the ages of 16 and 89.  The researchers then charted peaks in a variety of cognitive skills, ranging from memory to vocabulary, from adolescence through old age.

There was no single apex in overall cognitive skill.  Instead, there was a huge variation in cognitive capabilities across the lifespan.  The cognitive peaks were all over the place.  Hartshone said that this was the “smoking gun” that it’s not all downhill for the aging brain.

Although these data were important, the pool of participants was too small to make any solid conclusions.  Most psychological research is done with people in their late teens and early 20s.  Getting people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s into the lab is a major obstacle.

Hartshone and Germine were quite creative in addressing this obstacle.  The decided to use viral Internet quizzes.  Along with Ken Nakayama of Harvard University Germine founded TestMyBrain.org.   This website hosts a variety of short cognitive tests that users can complete within minutes.  Since the site’s foundation in 2008, data has been collected from more than 1.7 million volunteers across the country.  Hartshone has founded a website called GamesWithWords.org as a “Web-based laboratory” for studying language.

Both Hartshone and Germine thought it important for the tests on the websites to be short and engaging  to ensure that participants enjoyed taking each one so much that they would be interested in taking a few more or even forwarding them to friends.  They wanted to make taking a cognitive battery just as easy and fun as taking one of the not-so-scientific personality tests people like to take on social media sites.  More than 3 million people have taken quizzes on the two websites.

In this new set of studies Hartshone and Germine used TestMyBrain.org and GamesWithWords.org to collect large samples of data across five specific cognitive tasks.  Three of these tasks, digit symbol coding, verbal working memory, and vocabulary, overlapped with the tasks from the Wechsler exam used in the previous study.  The researchers also included a widely used test of emotional perception, which was not included in the original Wechsler tests.

These test data collected from online participants shows a very clear picture of cognitive peaks across the lifespan, one that largely matched the same pattern of results from the decades-old Wechsler tests.  Information processing speed crested early in life, around the age of 18 or 19.  Short-term memory improved until age 25 before beginning to decline around 35.

However, many cognitive proficiencies, vocabulary, math, general knowledge, and verbal comprehension did not peak until much later in life.  These results make sense because people should continue to learn new things and gather new experiences as they age.  These skills are usually regarded as belonging to crystalized intelligence.  Vocabulary skills had no single high point and continued to improve well into participants’ late 60s and early 70s.  The Wechsler data show vocabulary skills topping out mostly in the 40s.  To reconcile these results Germine and Hartshone inconcluded the General Social Survey, which has been testing people’s vocabularies for decades.  These data confirmed that there really has been a steady shift in vocabulary performance  over the last few decades.

Germine and Hartshone wrote, “With the increase in the proportion of adults engaged in cognitively demanding careers, it may be that ages of peak performance are later in the more recent Internet sample, particularly for vocabulary.  This could be related to the Flynn effect that IQ has increased steadily in modern times, possibly because of increasing amounts of time devoted to mental activity.”

The Flynn Effect refers to the need to recalibrate the IQ test so that they would have a mean of 100.  For years, Flynn argued that this must be some sort of artifact.  See the healthy memory blog post “More on Flynn and the Flynn Effect” to learn how Flynn decided that this increase was real and not an artifact.  Moreover, he attributed it not just to the amount, but also to the types of cognitive processing people were doing.

Emotional skill also improved with age.  To test this ability, researchers asked participants to identify the mood of a person based only on a photograph of the individual’s eyes.  A menu provided a selection of potential options such as  fearful, tentative, or playful for each photograph.  Adults in their 40s and 50s consistently outperformed much younger adults.  This ability had a much longer plateau than any of the other cognitive skills that were tested.  Germaine and Hartshone wrote “The peak in emotion-recognition ability was also much broader than any of the other tasks, which reflects a long period of relative stability in performance between the ages of 40 and 60 years.”

The researchers recruited another large set of more than 18,000 online participants between the ages of 10 and 73 to confirm their visual and verbal working-memory findings.  The replication found the same pattern of cognitive peaks as the other experiments.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Denying the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us

March 13, 2017

“Denying the Grave:  Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us” is the third of three books of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The authors of this book are a psychiatrist, Jack Gorman, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public health specialist.  They probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves.  Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false, but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous.

The Gormans argue that ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive.  They dedicate many pages to the confirmation bias, which they claim has a physiological component.  This research suggests that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs.  They observe,”It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong.”

The Gormans do not just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong;  they want to correct them.  Providing people with accurate information does not seem to help; people simply discount it.  They write that “the challenge that remains is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

March 12, 2017

“The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone” is  the second of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The authors of this book, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach also believe that sociability is the key  to how the human mind functions, or, more accurately, malfunctions.  In a study conducted on Yale University, graduate students were ask to rate their understanding of everyday devices to include toilets, zippers, and cinder blocks.  Then they were asked to write detailed step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again.  Doing this revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped.

Sloan and Fernbach call this the “illusion of explanatory depth” and find this effect just about everywhere.  They say that what allows us to press in this belief is other people.  This is something we are very good at.  We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hang together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history.  They argue that we collaborate so well that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.  They argue that this borderlessness is crucial to what we consider progress.  “As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance;  If everyone insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amount to much.  When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.”

Where this gets us into trouble, according to Sloan and Fernbach, is in the political domain.  “It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates,  and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.”

Sloan and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.  Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also to locate Crimea on a map.  The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

The Enigma of Reason

March 11, 2017

“The Enigma of Reason”  by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber is the first of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

Ms. Kolbert notes hat since research in the nineteen-seventies revealed that we humans can’t think straight and that reasonable—seeming people are often totally irrational, the question remains:  How did we come to be this way.  “The Enigma of Reason” is the first book to be discussed that attempts to address this question.  The argument of Mercier and Sperber is that our biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate.  Cooperation is difficult to establish and also difficult to sustain.  They argue that reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; instead it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in cooperative groups.

Mercier and Sperber write “Reason is an adaptation to the hyper social niche humans have evolved for themselves.”  Habits of mind that seem to be weird or goofy or just plain dumb from and intellectual point of view prove shrewd when seen from an “interactionist” perspective.

They use confirmation bias to further their argument.  This is the tendency we have to embrace information that supports our forms of faulty thinking.  “Confirmation bias” is the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments.  One of the most famous was conducted at Stanford.  Researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions on capital punishment.  Half of these students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime;  the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

These students were asked to respond to two studies, which the students did not know had been made up.  One of these studies was pro and the other was anti and presented what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics.  The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence  highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing.  The students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse.  At the end of the study, the students were again asked about their views.  The only difference was that this time the students were more in favor of their original views than they had been originally.

To further their point Mercier and Sperber suggest what would happen to a mouse that thinks as we do.  If such a mouse were bent on confirming its belief that no cats were around, he would soon be dinner.  To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or under appreciated threats, it’s a trait that should have been selected against.  The fact that we both have survived, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive functions, and they maintain that that function is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Serber prefer the term “myside bias” to “confirmation bias.”  They point out that we humans are not randomly credulous.  Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses.  In an experiment illustrating this post by Mercier and some European colleagues participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems.  Then they were asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them.  Only fifteen% changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant who had come to a different conclusion.  However, the responses presented to them as some else’s  were actually their own and vice versa.  Only about half the participants realized what was going one,  Among the remaining half, suddenly people became much more critical.  Almost 60% rejected the responses they’d earlier been satisfied with.

What We Know

March 9, 2017

The following section from Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose”  can be regarded as the major take away from the book:

“*A strong, transcending purpose in life is good for you health and well-being and protects against disease and death.

*Purpose is a high-level goal (which is motivating) that is deeply valued (which is also motivating).

*The type of values that constitute a purpose matters.

*A strong, transcending purpose in life reduces defensiveness to change.

*Your purpose in life might be revealed by God…but it might not (hardly a conclusion!).

*Purposeful living is a dynamic process the requires energy and will power.

*Five positive behaviors that can improve energy and willpower are sleep, presence, activity, creativity, and eating well (SPACE).

*Purposeful living is not just a higher-order aspiration for the well-heeled.  It’s for everyone.”

HM hopes that these posts have convinced you to lead a life with purpose (ikigai).  If he has not, he has failed and encourages you to read Dr. Strecher’s book.  Even if you have been convinced, you will find more detailed guidance in his book.

Learning How to Think

March 8, 2017

This post is another in the series of posts on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  In section 13 titled SAILING THROUGH STORMS is this quotation from David Foster Wallace:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how to construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

This quote bears serious pondering.  It provides an implicit message from the healthy memory blog.  Learning to think is key to a healthy memory.  And exercising control over what we think is central to a healthy memory.  Maintaining control over how we think is the reason for all the posts on mindfulness and meditation.

This quotation of Wallace warrants daily review.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SPACE

March 7, 2017

SPACE is the title of Part Three of Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

SPACE is an acronym that stands for Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, and Eating.  An entire chapter is devoted to each of these topics, as the author goes into great detail regarding the importance and the implementation of these activities.  Only Presence will be addressed in the healthy memory blog.

Presence begins with this quote from Steve Jobs:
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to  hear more subtle things—that’s when  you intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more that you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice.”

Jobs is talking about meditation.  He personally consulted Zen masters and made periodic trips to Japan to sharpen his meditations.

Much has been written in the healthy memory blog about meditation.  What will be included here is “LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION.”  This particular meditation is famous.  One reason for its popularity comes from the recordings of the brains of Buddhist monks while doing this meditation.  The phrase, “off-the-charts” might capture these recordings.

*Find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on the floor (HM reclines, which is okay provided you do not fall asleep).  Close your eyes.  Take a few moments to just be, noticing the sounds, smells, and feelings.  Allowing yourself to settle down, turn your attention to your breathing.

*Notice the way you body automatically, effortlessly inhales and exhales.

*Don’t try to manipulate you breath in any way.  Notice the feeling of air moving in and out of the nose and the easy, natural way your body moves

*Imagine yourself in a beautiful place.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May I be happy and free of suffering.”  (You can use many other salutary phrases here such as “health” or “strength”—or create your own.)

*Next, imagine a new person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person you care for a great deal.  Again, as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Now move to another person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person who provokes no feeling of like or dislike.  A neutral person.  It could be a bank teller or a waitress you recently interacted with.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”
*Now move to another person.  A person who provokes feelings of dislike.  Again as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Finally, extend these feeling of loving-kindness to the world.  To all living beings.  Bring them into your special place and say to yourself. “May all beings be happy and free of suffering.”

*Take a minute or so with your eyes shut before going back to your daily routine.

Self-Transcendence

March 6, 2017

Self-Transcendence is the title of Chapter 4 in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter. It begins with two quotes.

The first is from Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and helped fellow prisoners through the horror.
“Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence is he truly human or does he become his true self.  He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self’s actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward.”

The second is from band member Chrissie Hyde.
“Make the other band members look and sound good.  Bring out the best in them; that’s your job.”

Dr. Strecher writes, “This emphasis on individual’s own actualization heralded the “me generation”—baby boomers intent on jogging, dieting, and meditating (or navel-gazing, in the words of their detractors) to reach “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment.”

Viktor found this self-focus was narcissistic and ultimately detrimental to the self.  He suggested that valid fulfillment in life occurs only when a person transcends the self.  As was noted in an earlier blog, psychologist Abraham Maslow understood in the latter part of his career the importance of Frankl’s words.  In 1969 he wrote, “The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend his self.  They are not selfish anymore in the old sense of that term.”

Maslow found the “transcenders” were better able to see connections between disparate ideas, which make them better innovators and discoverers.  He discovered that transcending scientists exhibited “humility, a sense of ignorance, a feeling of smallness, awe before the tremendousness of the universe.”

Dr. Strecher finds it remarkable that Abraham Maslow, at the pinnacle of his field, would change his hugely popular model, saying essentially, I was wrong.”  Dr Strecher asks , “Who does that?”

Dr Stretcher notes that “It’s commonly believed that people are naturally selfish and need to be taught—by parents, schools, churches—to become transcending, altruistic, and empathic.”  Isn’t being selfish most beneficial.  If self-transcended is part of the nature of living things, wouldn’t animals act this way.

Dr. Strecher writes that the biologist Frans de Waal has shown altruistic behavior among dolphins, whales, elephants, chimpanzees, and bonobos and has concluded that “there is increasing evidence that the brain is hardwired for social connection, and that the same empathy mechanism propose to underlie human altruism may underlie the altruism of other animals.

Finding Your Purpose

March 5, 2017

The title of this post is the same as the title of a section in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Dr. Strecher notes that many people confuse or conflate “purpose” with “meaning” in life.   He makes a very important distinction.  It is, “Meaning in life asks the question ‘Why am I here?”  He notes that responses to this question vary greatly and may even include ‘No reason.’  Purpose in life is concerned  with what we most deeply value, and purposeful living is concerned with whether we’re living for what matters most.”

However, he then goes into a six step procedure for finding you purpose followed by making a written statement.  Although HM sees some value in making a written statement, needing such a detailed process to identify purpose makes me think that individual is unlikely to be successful in pursuing “ikigai.”

Ikigai is supposed to define the purpose that makes us want to get up in the morning.  This should be fairly obvious.  An additional proviso should be that this purpose is to achieve eudaedonomic  rather than hedonic ends.  And as was mentioned previously, this purpose can be divided into sub purposes, which can change overtime

Of course, it is good to follow your progress.  Depending upon individual preferences a written record can be kept or a summary mental review can be done before going to sleep.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In Search of the Daimon Inside

March 4, 2017

The title of this post is the title of a section in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

The daimon is the term the Greeks used to represent the inner self.  Dr. Strecher and his research team was interested in learning how the affirmation of core values works in the brain.  This research was led by Emily Falk of the University of Pennsylvania.  The researchers started with already-identified  part of the brain related to the “self.”  It’s in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).  This part of the brain becomes active when we are processing information about our selves.

The researchers invited a group of sedentary people who would benefit from physical activity and gave each of them an accelerometer to measure activity changes.  After a week of learning about each participant’s activity patterns, the researchers used fMRI.  They asked half of them about the values they cared about most while scanning their brains.  For example, they’d ask a person who valued religion to “think of a time when religious values might give you a purpose in life.  Participants in the control group were asked to think about the values they cared least about.

Four four weeks following the scanning session, while their physical activity was still being monitored,  all participants were sent messages about increasing it.  Participants in the values affirmation group also received messages about their most important values, whereas those in the control group received messages about their least important values.

Compared to the control group, those in the group who considered their most important core values had greater activation of their vmPFC and went to increase their physical activity over the next month.  Moreover, the more the vmPFC became activated, the more physical activity occurred over the next month.  So the affirmation of core  purposeful values seemed to “open their minds” to change.

In another study psychologist Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues asked study participants either to write about their most important core value and why it was meaningful to them (the values affirmation group) or to write about their least important value and why it might be important and meaningful to other people (the control group).  Then, the participants were asked to rate how the essay they wrote made them feel.  Finally, they tested the participants’ defensiveness.  Participants affirming their most important values felt love, connectedness, and empathy, and these transcending feelings reduced their defensiveness.

Our Best Purpose

March 3, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Aristotle’s name means “best purpose.”  Victor Strecher’s best purpose, as stated by him, follows:
“My purpose is to help others create a purpose in their lives, to teach every student as if they were my own daughter, to be an engaged husband and father, and to enjoy love and beauty”

Actually Dr. Strecher reveals four sub purposes in his overall best purpose.  Careful consideration indicates that, as time is limited, they can sometimes conflict with each other.   This needs to be recognized and time and effort needs to be prioritized.  Circumstances will required reprioritizing these sub purposes over time.

Dr, Stretcher recognizes that there are different goals for the different roles in one’s life.  This is clear from his overall best purpose.  He makes the following recommendation:
“So let your purpose be big, lofty, even outrageous!  I want to wake up in the morning with my purpose foremost in my mind and go to bed at night knowing that I worked toward it.  Did I help other create  purpose in their lives?  Did I spend enough quality time with my students?  With my wife?  Did I take time to enjoy my walk to work?  If not, I’ve got some explaining to do—to myself.”

When Dr. Strecher was in Germany  one of the participants in his group raised his hand and said, “Well, Dr. Strecher, we know that Hitler had a purpose.”  He responded with this warning.  Philosophy can be a dangerous thing.  A bad purpose can go horribly wrong, HANDLE WITH CARE! So how, exactly, do we handle our purpose with care?  This is where Aristotle, again, helps us out, giving us buoys to guide our boat.  What are the values we should value most deeply?  Aristotle’s answer:  courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, justice, ambition, good temper, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, and modesty.  Dr. Strecher suggests that today, “awesome” might be more appropriate than “magnificence.”

He goes further to note that “A great  purpose in life follows from values that reflect an understanding of the world.”

People with a strong life purpose are more likely to live longer, healthier lives.  They engage in healthy behaviors and are more willing to change unhealthy behaviors.  There have been many studies examining the impact of self-affirmation on reducing defensiveness to change.  “Affirming core values has been shown to increase resistance to disease, to improving physical activity and diet, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol consumption and excessive sun exposure, among other self-improving behaviors.”

Research Into Eudaemonia vs. Hedonia

March 2, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is “ikigai”, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Aristotle stated that eudaemonia is found more among those who have “kept acquisition of external goods within moderate limits” and that “any excessive amount of such things must either cause its possessor some injury, or, at any rate, bring him no benefit.  Niemiec and colleagues were interested in whether eudaemonic versus hedonic aspiration  of individuals just beginning their careers had an influence on well-being.  So they did a study of graduating college students, and found first, and not surprisingly, that they were more likely to attain what they had aspired to.  Those who placed importance on hedonic pursuits, money, fame, and image were more likely to find them, whereas those who aspired to eudaemonic pursuits, greater personal growth, relationships, and community, were more likely to achieve them.

The key finding follows:  Those who attained hedonic aspirations reported greater anxiety and  physical symptoms of poor health, whereas those attaining eudaemonic aspirations reported greater life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive feelings.

The next question is whether we vary in our neural responses to eudaemonic versus hedonic rewards.  To address this question researchers examined activation in the ventral striatum of adolescents when engaged in eudaemonic versus hedonic decision making.  The ventral striatum is located in a part deep in the brain that’s associated with rewards. The adolescents’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while making eudaemonic decisions to donate money to others or hedonic decisions to keep the money.  Adolescents who had more blood flow to the ventral striatum during eudaemonic versus hedonic choices could be identified.  The symptoms of depression were measured in the beginning of the study and one year later.  After a year, adolescents with greater activation of their brain’s reward system while giving money had, on average, a decline in depressive symptoms, whereas those with greater activation in this system when keeping the money had an increase in depressive symptoms.

Dr. Strecher concludes, “This further confirms that eudaemonic and hedonic forms of happiness are indeed different and that they produce very different effects.”

Eudaemonia vs. Hedonia

March 1, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.  It is important to realize that there are two kinds of happiness that need to be understood to achieve effective ikigai.

The ancient Greeks thought that every person had an inner daimon and that we should find and live in harmony with it.  Aristotle used the word eudaemonia  to describe the connection with the true self. This concept of a true self that transcends one’s ego-focused desires is found in many Western and Eastern religions as well as in more modern psychological approaches.  Abraham Maslow eventually felt required to add self-transcendence above self-actualization, esteem, love/belonging, safety, physiological in his hierarchy of needs.

Aristotle asserted that the happiness attained by the self-transcending state of eudaemonia may be contrasted with self-enhancing “hedonia,”  which concerns hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure  derived from gratifying short-term desires.  Aristotle understood that we all seek hedonic pleasure, but he warned against the excess of it, stating, “The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure…Here they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide is a life for grazing animals.”

The American philosopher David Norton asserted that “most of us today have no sense of an oracle within…Turning our backs to the void, we become infinitely distractible by outward things, prizing those that ”demand our attention,  We secretly treasure the atmosphere of world crises, for the mental ambulance-chasing it affords.  Meanwhile we armor ourselves with mirrors to deflect the inquiring eyes of others.”  David Norton passed away in 1995 before smart-phones.  Today, Norton’s sentiments need to be increased by several orders of magnitude.

Dr. Strecher says that if Aristotle were alive today, he might counsel, “Listen to your heart and don’t act like Charlie Sheen.”  HM believes that Aristotle would choose Donald Trump over Charlie Sheen.  Trump has taken narcissism to new levels.  Here is the definition of  the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) “a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others’ feelings.[4][5] People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behavior typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of situations.”

HM also finds it amusing to think of Trump as a “grazing animal.”

But there are many people who are eudaemonic.  Pope Francis is one who quickly comes to mind.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Research on Ikigai

February 28, 2017

Research on ikigai, or purpose in life, is usually measured with statements such as, “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” and “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.  Respondents then assess these statements using scales that range from one to seven.  Bear in mind that these are just examples, the assessment form includes many more such statements.  The responses to all these statements are combined to form an overall index of purpose.  Although this might appear to be a simple form of evaluation, it delivers reliable and validated results.

Studies using these measures have demonstrated that people reporting a strong purpose in life live longer lives, on average, that those with a weak purpose.  A recent study that followed over seven thousand middle-aged America adults for fourteen years found that even a one-point increase on a seven-point scale of purpose resulted in an over 12% reduced risk of dying.  The person’s age or whether they’ retired did not matter.  What is even more impotent is that general measures of happiness or sadness did not influence the risk of death, not did they affect the impact of purpose in life.

Dr. Strecher spends his days at work studying facts that make us healthy or unhealthy.  Together, tobacco use, a poor diet, inactivity, stress, and other lifestyle factors contribute to about half of disease and early death.  This is not news.  There are many articles written on these issues, yet you rarely read about ikigai, or having a meaningful purpose in life, but current evidence indicates that it contributes at least as much to disease and death as do these other factors.

In a study of over 1,500 adults with heart disease followed for two years, every one-point increase a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 27% lower risk of suffering a heart attack.  In a study of over 6,000 adults follows for four years, every one-point increase on a six-pint scale resulted in a 22% reduced risk of stroke.

Great pains are taken in this research to avoid mistaking correlation for causation.  Other factors  that might actually be causing changes in the outcomes of interest are statistically controlled.

Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center followed over nine hundred seniors for seven years, looking for the incidence of Alzheimer’s.  Over that period, seniors with a low purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with a high purpose in life.  In a different study the same research team found a slower progression of the disease among those who had developed Allzheimer’s and had a high purpose in life.

People with ikigai, or a strong purpose in life, on average, do better psychologically and socially than those without.  They sleep better, have better sex, and are less likely to become depressed and are more relaxed.   Diabetics with ikigai are more likely to have their blood glucose under control.  People who have received drug and alcohol rehab are half as likely to relapse six month later if they started treatment with a strong purpose.  There are physiological factors underlying these results.  Ikigai is associated with an increase in natural killer cells that attack viruses and cancerous cells.  Ikigai is also associated with  reduction in inflammatory cell production and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol.)

These outcomes also translate into reductions in health-care costs.  After statistically controlling for initial demographics, health behaviors, and health status, every point improved on a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 17% reduction in nights spent in the hospital.  Someone on a six-point scale,  with a purpose of five would have an average of 36% fewer hospital nights per year than a person who had a purpose of two.  Dr. Strecher knows of no other lifestyle behavior that produces this effect on health care.

The 2009 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn, discovered the role of telomeres. Telomeres are located at the end of our chromosomes and act a bit like the plastic caps that keep shoelaces from fraying.  When our telomeres shorten, our chromosomes are more susceptible to damage and we’re more likely to get sick.

Stress damages chromosomes.  Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, so Blackburn and her colleagues created an experiment that randomly enrolled some subjects in a three-month meditation program, and others to a waiting list for the program.  The research question was whether meditation would reduce stress, which might, in turn, increase an enzyme, telomerase, that a fuels telomeres.

Compared to the control group, the meditators did have more telomerase.  However, they also found that the meditators were developing a stronger purpose in their lives, and it was this purpose in life, and not the meditation, that was associated with the higher levels of telomerase.

Life on Purpose (Ikigai)

February 27, 2017

The title of this post is the title of a book by Dr. Victor Stretcher.  Its subtitle is “How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything.”  This book was referenced previously in the healthy memory blog post, “Ikigai Cuts the Risk of Alzheimer’s in Half.”  Although Dr. Strecher never uses “Ikigai”  HM will continue to use it because it is concise, captures the meaning precisely, and has been used previously in this blog.

Dr. Strecher asks the reader to consider if purpose (Ikigai) were a drug.  “So let’s imagine a drug that was shown to add years to your life; reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke; reduce you risk of Alzheimer’s disease b more than half;  help you relax during the day and sleep better at night;  double your chances of staying drug- and alcohol-free after treatment; activate your natural killer cells;  diminish your inflammatory cells; increase your good cholesterol and repair your DNA.  What if this imaginary dog reduced hospital stays so much tat it put a dent in the national health-care crisis?  Oh, and as a bonus, gave you better sex?”

Your response might well be what kind of snake-oil is this.  However, there is empirical research backing these claims.  The difficulty is that this is not a pill.  It is a matter of lifestyle governed by Ikigai, having a meaningful purpose in life.  Reading this book is interesting.  However, achieving the results cited in the previous paragraph requires a lifestyle and a manner of thinking.  Dr. Strecher’s book provides guidance on how to do this.  Many healthy memory posts will be based on this work, but they can only scratch the surface.