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.

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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.

Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee Did Not Anticipate This Problem

April 1, 2017

And this problem can be found in a front page article by Elizabeth Dwoksin and Crain Timberg titled “Advertisers find it hard to avoid sites spawning hate” in the 25 March 2017 issue of the Washington Post.

This article begins, “As the owner of a small business in liberal Massachusetts, John Ellis was a natural sympathizer of the nationwide call for advertisers to boycott Breitbard News, with its hard-edge conservative politics and close ties to President Trump.  But it made Ellis wonder about other more extreme right-wing sites:  Who is placing adds on them?  A few clicks around the Internet revealed a troubling answer:  He was.”

He found an add for his engineering company company, Optics for Hire, on a website owned by white nationalist leader, Richard Spencer.  Of course, this meant that he was unknowingly supplying funding for this website.

The Post article continues that  in the booming world of Internet advertising, businesses use the latest in online advertising technology offered by Google, Yahoo, and their major competitors are increasingly finding their ads placed alongside politically extreme and derogatory content.

The reason for this is that the ad networks offered by Google, Yahoo, and others can display ads on vast numbers of third-party websites based on people’s search and browsing histories.  This strategy gives advertisers an unprecedented ability to reach customers who fit a narrow profile; it dramatically curtails their ability to control where their advertisements appear.

This week AT&T, Verizon and other leading companies pulled their business from Google’s AdSense network in response to news report that ads had appeared with propaganda from the Islamic State and violent groups.

A Washington Post examination of dozens of sites with politically extreme and derogatory content found that many were customers of leading ad networks, which share a portion of revenue gleaned from advertisers with the site’s operators.  The examination found that the networks had displayed ads for Allstate, IBM, DirectTV and dozens of other household brand names on websites with content containing racial and ethnic slurs, Holocaust denial and disparaging comments about African Americans, Jews, women, and gay people.

Other Google displayed ads, for Macy’s and the genetics company 23andMe, appeared on he website My Posting Career, which describes itself as a “white privilege zone,” next to a notice saying the site would offer a referral bonus for each member related to Adolph Hitler.

Some advertisers also expressed frustration that ad networks had failed to keep marketing messages from appearing alongside reader comments—even on sites that themselves do not promote extremist content.

Clearly more attention needs to be devoted to this topic along with better screening algorithms.  And perhaps some companies will need to make a choice between profits and offending content.

A Good Example of What Tim Berners-Lee Fears

March 31, 2017

It can be found in an article by Anthony Failoa and Stephanie Kirchner on page A8 in the 25 March issue of the Washington Post titled, “In Germany, online hate stokes right-wing violence”.

The Reichsburgers are an expanding movement in Germany with similarities to what are known as sovereign citizens groups in the United States.  Reichsburgers  reject the legitimacy of the federal government, seeing politicians and bureaucrats as usurpers.  After authorities  seized illegal weapons from his home, they charged Bangert, a Reichsburger, and five accomplices with plotting attacks on police officers, Jewish centers and refugee shelters.

Jan Rathje, a project leader at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation says, “It’s an international phenomenon of people claiming there are conspiracies going on, people with an anti-Semitic worldview who are also against Muslims, immigrants, and the federal government.  He continued, we’ve reached a point where it’s not just talk.  This kind of thinking is turning violent.”

Preliminary figures for last year show that at least 12,503 crimes were committed by far-right extremists—914 of which were violent.  The worst act was the fatal shooting of a German police officer by a Reichsburger member.  The preliminary figures roughly compete with levels in 2015, but they amount to a leap of nearly 20% from 2014.

Of course, Germans are especially sensitive about this as one time they were governed by Nazis.  Officials say they last time numbers surged this high was in the early 1990s, when Germany recorded a large but short-term jump in neo-Nazi activity following reunification.  Authorities believe the the surge is due, in part, by the arrival of early, mostly Muslim, asylum seekers.   Last year, there were nearly 10 anti-migrant attacks per day, ranging from vandalism to arson, to severe beatings.  Officials say the rise of conspiracy theorist websites, inflammatory fake news, and anti-federal government/right-wing activism have thrown more factors into the mix.

The Reichsburger movement consist of nearly 10,000 individuals who reject the authority of federal, state and city governments.  Some claim that the last real German government was the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.  Although the Reichsburger movement may be uniquely German, its type of fringe thinking is universal.  German intelligence officials describe some of the tools used by the members, such as fake passports and documents used to declare their own governments, are nearly identical to those used by American sovereign citizens groups.

In October, a 49-year old Reichsburger  declared his home an “independent state,” shot and killed a police officer assigned to seize his hoarded weapons.  Last August, a former “Mr. Germany” and 13 of his supporters tried to prevent his eviction from his “sovereign home” by shooting at police.  Police fired back, severely injuring Ursache.  Two officers were also hurt.  This raid, along with the raid of 11 other apartments found evidence against Bangert and five other people suspected of having formed a far-right extremist network  They are believed by prosecutors to have been planning armed attacks agains police officers, asylum seekers, and Jews.

As the title of the Washington Post article suggests, online hate is stoking much of this right-wing violence.  It would be interesting to compare the number of right wing hate groups in Germany with right wing hate groups in the US.  This article provides some limited information on Germany.

To find evidence about dangerous hate groups in the US go to https://www.splcenter.org
At one time the FBI monitored these dangerous groups.  HM hopes they are continuing these activities.  However, The Southern Poverty Law Center does more than just monitor these groups.  They have programs that have reformed members of these hate groups, and they continue to develop more programs for this essential service.

© 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.

Tim Berners-Lee Speaks Out on Fake News

March 30, 2017

The title  of this post is identical to the title of an article in the Upfront Section in the 18 March 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  Tim Berners-Lee is the creator of the World Wide Web.  He gave it to the world for free to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of the humanity.  So it is interesting what he thinks of the web’s 28th birthday that was reached on 12 March.

Berners-Lee wrote an open letter to mark the web’s 20th birthday.  He wrote that it is too easy for misinformation to spread, because most people get their news from a few social media sites and search engines prioritize content on what people are likely to click on.

He also questioned the ethics of online political campaigning, which exploits vast amounts of data to target various audiences.  He wrote, “Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups,” is that democratic?”

He also said that we are losing control of our personal data, which we divulge to sign up for free services.

Berniers-Lee founded The Web Foundation that plans to work on these issues.

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 7

March 23, 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 seventh post on this book.

This post is about hypnosis.  During the late 50s and early 60s researchers at Stanford and Harvard came up with 12-step scales to quantify how suggestible to hypnosis someone is.  Their research led these researchers to conclude that hypnotic susceptibility is a fixed trait.  Susceptibility to hypnosis doesn’t change much  from late adolescence until death.  The most spectacular  forms of hypnosis  work only on the most hypnotizable 10% or so of the population.  Another 10% do not respond to hypnosis at all, and 80% fall somewhere in between.

A Canadian psychologist Pierre Rainville successfully hypnotized one group not to feel any pain from hot water poured on their hands and another group to believe that they could feel pain but that it would not bother them.  Their brains were scanned with positron emission tomography (PET) and found two very different neural reactions to pain.  This suggested that the sensation of pain and the emotions associated with it have separate triggers as well a how crucial emotion is to our experience of pain.  There is also neurological evidence that there are two different pathways for pain.  One dealing with the response to the pain itself, and the second to the interpretation of the pain.  It is this latter response that characterized chronic pain.  See the previous healthy memory blog posts “Pain and the Second Dart,”  “To Treat Chronic Pain, Look to the Brain Not Body,” and “Controlling Pain in Our Minds.”

Rainville’s work indicates that hypnosis often involves parts of the brain associated with attention, emotion regulation, and pain.  People seem  to be wired differently for hypnosis, and that this doesn’t change much over the course of our lives.  Research has also shown that the capacity to be hypnotized is not tied to intelligence or willpower.

Some tend to think of hypnosis as being another placebo.  The consensus  is that they are not related.  Hypnotic susceptibility remains relatively stable throughout one’s life, whereas placebo responsiveness can change from day to day.  And the drug naloxone, which is effective at blocking placebo responses doesn’t block hypnosis.  So although they are not the same, they both tap into a deep force in the brain:  expectation.

Psychologist Marcel Kinsbourne says, “There is a wave of bottom-up information coming up from the external world, up into your brain.  There is a wave of information coming from the cortex that consists of your evaluations, your beliefs, your expectations.  Consciousness is these two waves hitting each other.  It’s a collision.  And this is where hypnosis and placebos do their work.”

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.

Bill Gates’ Robot Tax Alone Won’t Save Jobs: Here’s What Will

March 10, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Sumit Paul-Choudhury in the 4 March  2017 issue of the New Scientist.   Bill Gates argued that we should raise the same amount of money by taxing robots as we would lose in payroll taxes from the humans they supplant.  Then this money could be directed towards more human-dependent jobs, such as caring for the young, old and sick.  EU legislators rejected just such a proposal due to lobbying efforts by the robotics industry.

The article makes the valid assertion that automation is the biggest challenge to employment in the 21st century.  Research has shown that far more jobs are lost to automation than to outsourcing.  Moreover, this will get worse as machines become ever more capable of doing human jobs—not just those involving physical labor, but ones involving thinking also.

The common argument from the robot revolution is that previous upheavals have always created new kinds of jobs to replace the ones that have gone extinct.  But previously when automation hit one sector, employees would decamp to other industries.  However, the sweep of machine learning means that many sectors are automating simultaneously.  So perhaps it’s not about how many jobs ar left after the machines are done taking their pick, but which ones.

The article suggests that the evidence might not be very satisfying.  The rise of the “gig economy”, in which algorithms direct low-skilled human workers.  Although this might be an employer’s dream, it is frequently an insecure, unfulfilling and sometimes exploitative grind for workers.

The article argues that to stop this, it’s employers that need to be convinced, not the people making the technology, but it will be difficult to convince the employers who have huge incentives to replace all-too-human workers with machines that never stop working and never get paid.

Although the article fails to mention this, there is the danger of extremely high unemployment, particularly among the well-educated and formerly  well-off.  There have been several previous healthy memory blog posts by HM in which he discusses the future he was offered in the 1950s.  In elementary school we were told that by today technological advances would vastly increase leisure time.  Bear in mind that in the 50s very few mothers worked.  Moreover, technology has advanced far more than anticipated.  So, why is everyone working so hard?  Where is this promised leisure?

Unfortunately modern economies are predicated on growth.  They must grow which requires people to purchase junk and to keep working.  These economies are running towards disaster.  People need to demand the leisure promised in the 50s.   Paul-Choudry’s article does suggest that a business friendly middle ground might be for governments to subsidize reductions in working hours, an approach that has fended off labour crises before.  HM thinks that Paul-Choudhury has vastly underestimated the dangers of job losses.  HM thinks that this is of a magnitude that will threaten the stability of society.  So the working week will need to be drastically shortened to 20 hours (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “More on Rest”).

There have been previous healthy memory blog posts on having a basic minimum income, which also will need to be passed.

The primary forces arguing for these changes are the risks of societal collapse.

However, people need to have a purpose (ikigai) in their lives.  They need to have eudaemonic not hedonic pursuits.  Eudaemonic pursuits build societies; hedonic pursuits destroy society.

© 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.

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.

It’s Never Too Late

February 26, 2017

This true account of the Canadian athlete Olga Kotelko is taken from Pang’s book “Rest.”  Olga won hundreds of senior track and field events before her death at 94.  Her regimen had a dramatic effect on her brain’s structure.  Compared to other people her age, Kotelko’s brain had greater white matter integrity (this correlates with increased capacity for reasoning, self-control, and planning).  Along with her levels of fractional anisotropy (a measure of brain connectivity), and her healthier brain helped he perform better on cognition and memory tests.  She grew up on a farm and spent a career as a teacher.  What makes her so remarkable is that she didn’t start competing until late in life:  she started training at 77.

More on Rest

February 26, 2017

That is the book “Rest” by  Alex Soojung-Kim Pang that was reviewed in the immediately preceding post.  Remember that the major points of this book were that there is a limit of about four hours for effective mental work, and that non work time needs to be spent in restorative activities.  Previous healthy memory blog posts have mentioned that when I was I elementary school in the 1950s I was told that by now time at work would have been drastically reduced due to technology.  Technology has advanced beyond our wildest dreams.  And back in the 50s it was highly unusual for mothers to work.  Yet today, everyone is working many more hours than in the 50s.

So what happened?  Moreover, there is genuine concern about all the jobs that will be lost due to technology.

It seems that the solution to this problem is to recalibrate using guidance from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.  Cut the standard work week to 20 hours and use remaining time to recreate and engage in restorative activities.

This should not only solve a dangerous unemployment problem, but it should also result in an increase in the quality of work.

© 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.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less

February 25, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a new important book by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.  HM wishes he had read this book a very long time ago, as he learned the lessons  of this book through personal pain.  HM’s original goal was co complete his bachelor’s degree in three years.  Unfortunately, he learned that his brain turned to mush trying to learn at that rate.  However, he did manage to earn his degree with distinction in psychology in 3.5 years.  Later during graduate school he would have liked to put in sixteen hour days working for his doctorate.  However, the mush brain problem surfaced again.  He could only work effectively for a limited number of hours.  The rest of the time he walked, swam, and went to bars.

What HM learned reading “Rest” that there is a limit of about four hours for effective mental work.  Moreover, non work time needs to be spent in restorative activities. Part I is titled Stimulating Creativity.  The titles of the chapter are Four Hours, Morning Routine, Walk, Nap, Stop, and Sleep.  Pang explains the importance of each of these topics to creativity and he documents their effectiveness by discussing the practices of famous scientists, mathematicians, novelists and other creative artists, and successful business people.

Part II is titles Sustaining Creativity and has chapter on Recovery, Exercise, Deep Play, Sabbaticals.  He again explains why these activities are restorative and provides interesting examples of the famous people who practiced them.

The book’s conclusion is titled The Restful Life.  It begins with the following quote from Thomas Jefferson:  “It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness.”  So the book transcends working.  It is providing guidance for leading a fulfilling life.

HM’s primary complaint about the book is that the most effective practices for effective rest and restoration and for a fulfilling life are barely mentioned.  These are the practices of meditation and mindfulness.  The word “meditation” occurs five times and the word “mindfulness” only once.  This is most ironic because Pang’s previous book is “The Distraction Addiction.”  Ten healthy memory blog posts were based on this book. The final chapter pf this book is titled “Eight Steps to Contemplative Computing.”  Meditation and mindfulness are central to this work.  Why they are omitted from this book  is baffling.  Perhaps he thought that he had adequately covered mindfulness and meditation in that book.  Regardless, he should have cited that work in “Rest” and repeated the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
© 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.

There Will Be a Hiatus in the HealthyMemory– Blog But It Shall Return

February 12, 2017

There should new no problem finding healthy memory blogs to read in the interim.  There are over 900 posts, none of which can be regarded as being out of date.

Just enter any topic of interest into the healthymemory blog search block.

Here are some suggested search terms:

Relaxation Response
Growth Mindsets
Kahneman
Davidson
Stanovich
Cyberpsychology
Mary Aiken
Flynn
epigenetics
Moonwalking with Einstein

An Infuriating Article About Alzheimer’s

February 11, 2017

And that article is “After many disappointments, the search for Alzheimer’s drugs is more urgent than ever by Melissa Bailey in the Health Section of the 7 February 2017 issue of the Washington Post.  Regular readers of the healthy memory blog should understand why HM is infuriated.  See the healthy memory post, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s.”  The senior author of this book is Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D..  Dr. Whitehouse conducted research for many years into drugs for Alzheimer’s.  He came to the conclusion that effective drugs would never be found, and that research should be concentrated on activities that would prevent, mitigate, or help people suffering with Alzheimer’s.  He remains quite confident that a drug research is a dead end.  Yet it continues.

The reason for this is  money.  Money is in the drugs.  It is especially infuriating that the government is funding this research.  Congress funds this research because it has the appearance of dealing with a serious problem. However, in the highly unlikely case that drugs are found, the drug companies would charge exorbitant fees for them.  Remember that the United States is the only advanced country that does not control drug costs, so perhaps the adjective “advanced” is incorrect.

This drug research is targeted at the neurofibrillary plaque and neurofibril tangles that are the defining symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Research on the protein tau, is conducted for its role in creating tangles in the brain.  Anti-amyloid drugs  will not work.  Yet there have been many people who have these defining symptoms, but who never exhibit any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Many people have died, mentally sharp, not knowing that they had Alzheimer’s disease.  By far this is the most significant fact about Alzheimer’s that is rarely, if ever, mentioned.  Apparently, Melissa Bailey, the author of this article, is oblivious of this fact.

The explanation offered for these individuals who have the physical markers, but none of the behavioral symptoms, is that they have built up a cognitive reserve.  Cognitive activity along with a healthy lifestyle greatly decrease the probability of cognitive symptoms.  Just having a purpose in life reduces the risk of cognitive decline by half (see the Healthymemory blog post, “Ikigai Cuts the Risk of Alzheimer’s in Half”).

Consequently the healthy memory blog strongly recommends growth mindsets throughout one’s life.  Becoming a cognitive couch potato greatly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s (enter “Stupidity Pandemic” into the healthy memory blog) to learn more about these risks.

Although there is a widespread use of technology, this technology is used in a superficial manner (see the healthy memory blog post “Notes on Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”).  One of the best examples of this is the woman was asked what she thought of “Obamacare”?  She was against it, but when asked what she thought of “The Affordable Care Act,” she thought that was a good idea.

Given the stupidity pandemic and little critical thinking, the incidence of Alzheimer’s will likely increase.  And drugs will not come to the rescue.  People need to start thinking, thinking with purpose, and thinking more deeply.

© 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.

US Scientists Can Look to Canada for Ways to Fight a Stupidity Pandemic

February 10, 2017

This post is based on an Insight Piece in the 4 February 2017 issue of the New Scientist titled “US scientists can look to Canada for ways to fight a crackdown.”  “Stupidity Pandemic” is a term used in prior healthy memory blog posts, and it has been substituted for “crackdown” as it accurately characterizes what is happening in the United States.

The article notes that George Orwell, the author of “1984” said that  “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  Empirical facts are especially unwelcome to a political establishment that wants to provide their own “alternative” facts.

Already during just his first week in office, Trump launched orders to gag scientists in federal agencies, and raised the possibility that political officials may now need to clear empirical findings before they can be published.  The Environmental Protection Agency was hit with a freeze on all contracts and grants.  All existing information published by the EPA would also be examined, and the release of new work put on hold pending possible case-by-case scrutiny.  Agency staff have also been barred from updating its social media accounts or taking to the press without clearance from the top.  Does this not have some of the flavor of 1984?

The Department of Health and Human Services was ordered not to communicate with external officials.  This proscription included members of Congress.  The Department of Agriculture reminded staff to get clearance before talking to the press and its research division was old not to issue public statements.

The New Scientist article notes that this patten of gagging and censoring scientists will have a familiar ring in Canada.  During the conservative government of Stephen Harper between 2006 and 2015,  he sacked more than 2000 fisheries and environmental scientists, and cut climate, Arctic and air pollution research.

During this “war on science” libraries journal collections were trashed and researchers reported being leaned on to allay politically sensitive conclusions.   Federally employed scientists were banned from speaking in public or to the press without permission, and this permission was often denied or delayed.   Government chaperones sat in on press interviews.  Some scientists learned not to speak up at all.  Climate stories all but vanished from the press.

Michael Oman-Reagan of Memorial University in St John’s Canada says,”The lesson from the Canadian war on science for US scientists is:  speak out now, organize, stand in solidarity, be an activist, and resist.”

Some US scientists are doing this.  US scientists have started making additional precautionary backups of publicly funded environment data sets.  A scientists’ march on Washington is in the works, and an action group is trying to get more scientists to run for public office.
George Orwell said keep restating the empirically obvious—because “the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.”

The good news is that Canada managed to recover.  Let us hope that US  citizens have the intelligence of ridding the country of an anti-science, anti-truth government.

A Painful Reminder for Donald Trump of Why Torture is Pointless

February 9, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Comment piece in the 4 February 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  This article begins ,”PRESIDENT Donald Trump says his nation should ‘fight fire with fire’ by using torture on terror suspects, insisting it works.”  The article ends, “The lesson for Trump is simple:  fighting fire with fire burns down the neighborhood.”

The purpose of torture, is similar to the purpose of much of science, to get reliable, replicable and verifiable information.  Professional interrogators say torture is the worst possible method for this.  Torture fails utterly as a means of getting at the truth, even more so compared with non-coercive investigative methods.  To be sure, torture gets the victim to respond, but why should the response be related to the truth?  In fact, the victim might not have the desired information, but if tortured enough, there will be a response.

Neuroscience agrees with the professional interrogators.  Imposing extremes of pain, anxiety, hunger, sleep deprivation and the threat of drowning does not enhance interrogation.  It degrades it.  This should not be surprising.  Behind the wheel of a car, even mild states of sleep deprivation are as risky as being drunk.  Reactions are slowed, judgement is impaired, and recollection is damaged.  The torturer hopes that enough residual function is unaffected so that intelligence can be gathered. However, the result is that people say whatever is needed to make the torture stop.

The article asks, what’s the alternative?  It is to talk because humans like to talk.  It is estimated that 40% of what we say to other people consists of self-disclosure.  Brain imaging shows that during self-disclosure, the brain’s reward system is activated.  We like talking about ourselves.

The legendary German interrogator Hanns-Joachim Scarf debriefed more than 500 allied airmen during the second world war.  He never used coercion, but cross-checked information carefully.  He never asked a direct question and never indicated any interest in any answer he received.  He was adept at taking the pilots’ perspective and actively listening.  The article notes, “these skills can be learned and are not so different from the skills of a highly trained doctor.

Ikigai Cuts the Risk of Alzheimer’s by Half

February 7, 2017

This finding comes from an article in the 28 January 2017 issue of the New Scientist by Teal Burrell titled “A meaning to life:  How a sense of purpose can keep you healthy.”  Ikigai is the Japanese word for having a purpose in life.  Ikigai also helps prevent heart attack(27%) and stroke (22%), enables people to sleep better, have better sex and live longer, and cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s by more than half according to a study by Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

Burrell quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”  Burrell gives the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived four Nazi concentration camps credit for studying of how purpose influences our health.  We encountered Viktor before in a healthy memory blog post titled “Another Quote Worth Pondering.”  That quote was “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”

The critical reader might well ask, how do we know about the benefits of having a purpose in life?  A more parsimonious explanation might be that purposeful people may exercise more or eat better.  However, over the past ten years the findings about the health benefits have been remarkably consistent revealing that alcoholics whose sense of purpose increased during treatment were less likely to resume heavy drinking six months later.  People with  higher purpose were less likely to develop sleep disturbances with age, and that women with more purpose rated their sex lives as more enjoyable.  Victor Stecher, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan found that these findings persist “even after statistically controlling for age, race, gender, education, income health status and health behaviors.  Stecher is the author of the book, “Life on Purpose.”

A study of 7000 middle-aged people in the US found that even small increases in sense of purpose were associated with big drops in the chances of dying during a period of 14 years.  An analysis of more than 9000 English people over 50 years old found that after adjusting for things like education, depression, smoking, and exercise—those in the highest quartile of purpose had a 30% lower risk of death over nearly a decade compared with those in the lowest quartile.

Some might argue that this sense of purpose is confounded with wealth.   However, a 2007 Gallup poll of 141,000 people in 132 countries found that  even though people from wealthier countries rate themselves higher on measure of happiness, people from poorer countries tend  to view their lives as more meaningful.  Shierhio Oishi of the University of Virginia suspects this is in part because people in developing countries have more concrete things to focus on.  He says, “Their goals are clearer perhaps:  to survive and believe.  In rich countries, there are so many potential choices that it could be hard to see clearly.”

Another explanation could be in terms of religious faith.  Oishu’s study find that nations with the highest ratings of meaningful  life were also the most religious.  And religious people do tend to report having more purpose.  However, efforts to disentangle the two have revealed differences.  For example, religiosity does not  predict a lower risk of heart attack or stroke.

Steven Cole of the University of California at Los Angeles says , “If people are living longer, there’s got to be some biology underpinning it.”  Cole has spent years studying how negative experiences such as loneliness and stress can increase the expression of genes promoting inflammation, which can cause cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, or cancer.

Cole has examined the influence of well-being.  He has focused on two types of well-being:  hedonic, from pleasure and rewards, and eudaemonic, for having a purpose beyond self-gratification.  Participants were measured by having them note down their well-being over the previous week, how often they felt happy (hedonic), or that their life had a sense of direction (eudaemonic).  Scoring highly on one often meant scoring highly on the other and both correlated with lower levels of depression, but they had opposite effects on gene expression. People with higher measures of hedonic well-being had higher expression of inflammatory genes and lower expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies.  It was just the opposite for people scoring highest on eudaemonia who had lower expression of inflammatory genes, and higher expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies.  Cole suspects the eudaemonia, with its focus on purpose, decreases the nervous systems reaction to sudden danger that increases heart rate and breathing and surges of adrenaline.  Over-activation of this stress-response system causes harmful inflammation.  Cole says there be something saying “be less frightened, or less worried, anxious or uncertain.”

An alternative, but not mutually exclusive theory for how purpose could affect biology is by preserving the telomeres, which are the caps on the chromosomes that protect DNA from damage, but that shorten with age and stress.  Research has also indicated that stress reduction through meditation has found that it could defend telomeres.  Close analysis showed the the benefit was down to a change in sense of purpose, not the meditation directly:  the greater a person’s purpose became, the more of the protein telomerase they had to protect their telomeres.

Of course, a key question is how can people boost heir sense of purpose if it is lacking?  The article suggests several different strategies.  Meditation can have an effect. Eudaemonic  well-being is strengthened  by carrying out random acts of kindness.  Cole has found that having a purpose that benefits others may be particularly helpful;.

Stretcher recommends setting a different purpose for each o four domains in life—family, work, community and personal—and acknowledging that you focus will shift among them over time, and the goals themselves can shift too.

Dolores Gallagher-Thompson has found that cognitive behavioral therapy can promote meaningfulness.  She encourages patients to consider their legacy and how they might prove a good example for children and grandchildren.

© 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.

Do Proponents of “Originalism” Have Healthy Memories?

February 6, 2017

Originalism refers to the notion that judges should attempt to interpret the words of the Constitution as they were understood at the time they were written.  The first question is how can judges do this?  The judges need to accomplish both time travel and mind reading.  That is, they need to travel back in time and somehow understand what these now deceased individuals were thinking.

But even if this could be accomplished, is it desirable?  According to the Constitution at that  time, slavery was legal, but blacks were counted as two-thirds of a human being, and woman could not vote.  So what is the point of going back in time?  Textualists are judges who only consider  the words of the law being reviewed should be considered, neither the writers’ intent nor the consequences of the decision.  So words rather than their intended meanings and results are what is important?

Fortunately, these gross injustices were corrected by amendments to the Constitution. This was the result of the Founding Fathers realizing that there would be a need to amend the Constitution.  It seems clear that they viewed the Constitution to be a fluid document that would need to be changed over time.

So why do these concepts still prevail? Individuals who advocate these concepts are actually insulting the Founding Founders.  HM is certain that if Founding Fathers were asked about this mind reading task, they would tell people of the future not to try to travel back in time.  HM is able to make this assertion from the reading of the Constitution without having to take recourse to time travel and mind reading.

Unfortunately, these beliefs of originalism and textualism are litmus tests for some Senators in approving Supreme Court nominees.  HM thinks that any judge holding to these beliefs does not belong in Traffic Court, much less the Supreme Court.  This acceptance of originalism provides a key insight as to the break between the legal system and justice.

In case the reader has still not inferred the answer to the question posed in the title, the answer is no.

© 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 Become a Memory Grandmaster

February 5, 2017

The following is taken from THE MEMORY ILLUSION by Julia Shaw.  Although many posts have been based on her book, these posts covered only a sampling of interesting material.  Reading this source is highly recommended.

To become a Memory Grandmaster you need to demonstrate to the World Memory Sports Council that you are able to accomplish the following:

Memorize 1,000 random digits in an hour
Memorize the order of ten decks of cards in an hour
Memorize the order of a deck of cards in under two minutes.

Ed Cooke is a Memory Grandmaster who has said, “What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.”

To learn more about expert memory performance and memory competitions read
“Moonwalking with Einstein:  The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer.

To read more about this topic in this blog enter either “Foer” or “Moonwalking with Einstein” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Media Multi-tasking

February 4, 2017

Media multitasking is another important topic addressed by Julia Shaw in “THE MEMORY ILLUSION.”  She begins this section as follows:  “Let me tell you a secret.  You can’t multitask.”  This is the way neuroscientist Earl Miller from MIT puts it, “people can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves…The brain is very good at deluding itself.”  Miller continues, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly.  And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

A review done in 2014 by Derk Crews and Molly Russ on the impact of task-switching has on efficiency concluded that it is bad for our productivity, critical thinking and ability to concentrate, in addition to making us more error-prone.  Moreover, they concluded that these consequences are  not limited to diminishing our ability to do the task at hand.  They also have an impact on our ability to remember things later.  Task switching also increases stress, diminishing people’s ability to manage a work-life balance, and can have negative social consequences.

Reysol Junco and Shelia Cotton further examined the impact of task-switching on our ability to learn and remember things. Their research was reported in an article entitled ‘No A 4 U’.  They asked 1,834 students about their use of technology and found that most of them spent a significant amount of time using information and communication technologies on a daily basis.  They found that 51% of respondents reported texting, 33% reported using Facebook, and 21% reported emailing while doing schoolwork somewhat or very frequently.  The respondents reported that while studying outside of class, they spent an average 60 minutes per day on Facebook, 43 minutes per day browsing the internet, and 22 minutes per day on their email.  This is over two hours attempting to multitask while studying per day.  The study also found that such multitasking, particularly the use of Facebook and instant messaging, was significantly negatively correlated with academic performance; the more time students reported spending using these technologies while studying, the worse their grades were.

David Strayer and his research team at the University of Utah published a study comparing drunk drivers to drivers who were talking on their cell phones.  It is assumed here that most conscious attention is being directed at the conversation and the driving has been relegated to automatic monitoring.  The results were that “When drivers were conversing on either a handheld or a hands-free cell phone, their braking reactions were delayed and they were involved in more traffic accidents than when they were not conversing on a cell phone.’  HM believes that this research was conducted in driving simulators and did not engender any carnage on the road.  Strayer also concluded that driving while chatting on the phone can actually be as bad as drunk driving, with both noticeably increasing the risk for car accidents.

Unfortunately, legislators have not understood this research.  Laws allow hand-free use of cell phones, but it is not the hands that are at issue here.  It is the attention available for driving.  Cell phone use regardless of whether hands are involved detracts from the attention needed during driving when emergencies or unexpected happenings occur.

Communications researchers Aimee Miller-Ott and  Lynne Kelly studied how constant use of our phones while also engaged in other activities can impede our happiness.  Their position is that we have expectations of how certain social interactions are supposed to look, and if these expectation are violated we have a negative response.
They asked 51 respondents to explain what they expect when ‘hanging out’ with friends and loved ones, and when going on dates.  They found that just the mere presence of a visible cell phone decreased the satisfaction of time spent together, regardless of whether the person was constantly using it.  The reasons offered by the respondents for disliking the other person being on their cell phone included the involution of the expectation of undivided attention during dates and other intimated moments.  When hanging out, this expectation was lessened, so the presence of a cell phone was not perceived to be as negative, but was still often considered to diminish the in-person interaction.  Their research corresponded to their review of the academic literature, where there is strong evidence showing that romantic partners are often annoyed  and upset when their partner uses a cell phone during the time spent together

Marketing professor James Roberts has coined the term ‘phub’— an elision of ‘phone’ and ‘snub’ to describe the action of a person choosing to engage with their  phone instead of engaging with another person.  For example, you might angrily say, “Stop phubbing me!”  Roberts says that phone attachment  leading to this kin of use behavior has ben lined with higher stress, anxiety, and depression.

Freud and Repression

February 3, 2017

The psychotherapists  who did the inadvertent memory hacking reported in the immediately preceding post where either Freudians or strongly of the Freudian persuasion.  Freud thought that many mental problems were due to repressed memories of childhood abuse.  Freud was correct in pointing to not only the existence but also the importance of the subconscious mind.  The brain is constantly active, with only a small percentage of this activity reaching conscious awareness.  But Freud’s repressed traumas are not buried there.

Freud was a brilliant creative individual, but he was no scientist.  After 12 years of Freud being nominated for the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize Committee hired an expert to inquire into his work.  The expert came to the conclusion that “Freud’s work was of no proven scientific value.”

So not only was Freud’s work of no scientific value, his influence on psychotherapists resulted in a nightmare of false accusations of childhood abuse.  So be aware of this when there are reports of childhood sexual abuse (although it certainly does occur, children must be interviewed carefully to assure that false memories are not hacked into their brains).  And should you find yourself in therapy and the therapist suggests probing your mind for repressed memories, you should seriously consider changing therapists..

There is no such thing as false memory “syndrome.”  Although false memories are an omnipresent problem, there is no syndrome.  In 2015, out of 325 cases where modern DNA testing proved innocence beyond reasonable doubt, 235 cases involved eyewitness misidentification.  So false memories play an absolutely critical role in the imprisonment of the innocent.  Human memory is fallible, people are overconfident not only in their own memories, but also in the memories of others.  But this is do to normal memory processes.  There is no “syndrome.”

© 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.

Memory Hacking

February 2, 2017

There have been many healthy memory blog posts on the topic of false memories,  To find these posts enter “Loftus” or “false memory” in the healthy memory blog search block.  Psychologist Julia Shaw she says that she is a memory hacker in her book, “THE MEMORY ILLUSION.”  By that she means that she knows how to induce false memories.  In addition to discussing how she does this in the laboratory she also discusses how this is done in the wild.  She also notes that not only outside sources can dramatically alter our recollections of emotional events; we are also prone to distortion from internal influences.

Research by Alan Brown and Elizabeth March has demonstrated that simply showing people photos of particular locations makes them more likely to erroneously report having visited those places when asked a week or two later.  Participants were more likely  to misremember visiting places that were mundane than unique places.  This finding makes sense because they were investigating memory for visiting locations on a college  and mundane locations included things that exist on a college campus, such as classrooms, libraries and streets.  Unique locations included photos of statues, artwork and particularly ornamental buildings. 87% of the participants claimed to have visited at least one mundane location and 62% claimed to have visited one unique location.  None of the photos were from the campus the students actually visited.

The problem becomes even worse when researchers manipulated images or introduced misinformation to suggest that people did things that they never did.  Research done in 2002 by Wade, Garry, Read, and Lindsay showed that half of the participants in a study could come to recall details of a hot-air ballon ride that they have never taken simply through being asked to remember the supposed event while being shown a photoshopped image of themselves in the ballon basket.

Another study by Stephen Lindsay and his colleagues showed that the photos didn’t necessarily need to be altered.  They had half of their participants imagine experiencing three events from childhood, while the other  half were asked to do the same thing while looking at a real photos of their former school classmates.  Participants were then asked to recall their memories of the events in question.  Two of these events had actually happened (information about these true events had been provided ahead of time by the participants’ parents) but the third was a fictional event that had been invented by the team.  Of those who were asked to picture the event happening, 45% formed false memories of it, while 78% of those who pictured the event and were exposed to true pictures of old classmates formed false memories. So giving pictures to the participants who were trying to remember events made them more likely to create memories of things that never actually happened.  Dr. Shaw writes, “These real pictures served as a foundation that the participants could meld into their false accounts making them feel more real.”

Psychotherapists have inadvertently hacked memories..  These psychotherapists planted false memories of childhood sexual events into their patients’ memories.  These psychotherapists were falsely guided by the notion that repressed sexual memories were the source of their patients’ mental problems.  Can you imagine the nightmares of these parents when they were falsely accused by their children of sexual abuse?  It was not only parents but also teachers and staff at day care centers who were falsely accused of sexual abuse as the result of debriefings done by incompetent investigators.  They kept suggesting over and over to the children that they had been sexually abused.  The justification these investigators provided was that children needed to be coached to uncover the sexual abuse.  These investigators were wrong. Consequently, many were falsely imprisoned in a Kafkaefsque  nightmare.

© 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.

Flashbulb Memories

February 1, 2017

Flashbulb memories is one of the many interesting topics discussed in discussed in the book, “THE MEMORY ILLUSION,” by psychologist Julia Shaw.  Flashbulb memories refer to memories regarding such events as where were you when 9/ll happened, when the Challenger Shuttle exploded, or when JFK was shot.  These types of question imply that we have the capacity for immediate powerful recollections of the circumstances we were in at particular significant moments.

Harvard University researchers Roger Brown and James Kufic have investigated these kinds of memories.  They sent out a questionnaire to 80 people to ask about what made them remember important historical events such as assassinations, highly newsworthy occurrences and personally important experiences.  They concluded from the questionnaire responses that many people have memories of considerably perceptual clarity for important historic events.  People would report more correct details with higher confidence for certain kinds of events, with these events having three main characteristics.

First , the event needed to generate a high level of surprise,  It could not be trivial or expected event.

Second, the event needed to carry important consequences for the person or for people in general—referred to as having a high level of consequentiality.

Finally, the event had to generate high levels of of emotional arousal—the individual needed to experience fear, sadness, anger or some other strong emotion.

These reports are of perceptually vivid events, and the respondents have high degrees of confidence in their reports.

Follow on research replicated these vivid memories reported with confidence.  However, when these memories were checked against known facts, discrepancies were found, and the accounts of these vivid memories varied when they were repeated at different times.

Some respondents became aware of the unreliability of these vivid memories when they remembered where they were at the time and found their recollections to be inconsistent with the true times and places they actually were at the time.  So although these memories were perceptually vivid, they were not accurate.

This is a serious problem regarding our memories.  We can be extremely confident in false or inaccurate memories.  We need to be aware of this overconfidence, and to be cautious in our reporting.

And we should regard highly confident reports of memory with caution.  Unfortunately, juries tend to place high credibility in memories reported with high confidence.  These reports are likely to be erroneous or even coached.  The reports of someone who is not quite sure of memories of what happened actually deserve a higher degree of credibility.  It is likely that many are serving prison sentences because they were unfairly convicted by juries who placed a high degree of credibility in testimony that was delivered with high confidence.

© 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.

Overconfident Memories

January 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention and Memory

January 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMORY WIZARDS

January 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

Memories from Infancy and Early Childhood

January 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

THE MEMORY ILLUSION

January 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump and Climate Change

January 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

Donald Trump and Nuclear Weapons

January 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

Politics Needs Science

January 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

Might we be Germany in the 1930’s?

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

An Example from Lies Incorporated

January 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

Lies, Incorporated

January 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Field Guide to Lies

January 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

Keep Track of Your Body in Space

January 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Make Decisions

January 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

How to Make the Unconscious Conscious

January 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Predict the Future

January 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run Your Life on Autopilot

January 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

Think While You Sleep

January 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

Less Medicine, More Health

January 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

“ASSUMPTION #1:  ALL RISKS CAN BE LOWERED
Disturbing truth:  Risks can’t always be lowered—and trying creates risks of its         own.
ASSUMPTION #2:  IT’S ALWAYS BETTER TO FIX THE PROBLEM
Disturbing truth:  Trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than         managing one.
ASSUMPTION #3:  SOONER IS ALWAYS BETTER
Disturbing truth:  Early diagnosis can needlessly turn people into patients
ASSUMPTION #4:  IT NEVER HURTS TO GET MORE INFORMATION
Disturbing truth:  Data overload can scare patients and distract your doctor from         what’s important.
ASSUMPTION #5:  ACTION IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN INACTION
Disturbing truth:  Action is not reliably the “right” choice.
ASSUMPTION # 6:  NEWER IS ALWAYS BETTER
Disturbing truth:  New interventions are typically not well tested and often wind up     being judged ineffective (even harmful).
ASSUMPTION #7:  IT’S ALL ABOUT AVOIDING DEATH
Disturbing truth:  A fixation on preventing death diminishes life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks

January 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

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

January 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 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.

Happy New Years 2017: Some Suggested Resolutions

December 31, 2016

If you are not actively building growth mindsets, being mindful, or engaging in meditation, start doing them.  The advice from the beginning of this blog has been to grow your mind continually as long as you live.  Even if the term growth mindset was not used, growth mindsets were what was implied.  What also became clear in Carol Dweck’s, “Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success” was that growth mindsets are key to effective interpersonal relationships, parenting, coaching, and business, virtually in every aspect of living.  In addition this cognitive practice will produce a cognitive reserve, which is the best means of warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Enter “Growth Mindsets” into the search box of the healthy memory blog to find posts relevant to this topic.  However, it is hoped that all posts in this blog contribute to cognitive growth

Mindfulness provides a means of effectively dealing with life, better health, better interpersonal relations, and effective focus and control of attention.  Attention is key to learning, so it is also key to an effective growth mindset.  A central part of mindfulness is meditation.  Regular readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that attention is key to getting information into long term memory.  Very often when we cannot remember something, it is because we did not adequately attend to it in the first place.  Concentration and the ability to focus is central to effective thinking. Our attentional resources are both limited and precious, so we cannot afford not to use them efficiently.  Meditation helps us to control our attentional resources.  They are especially important to controlling the executive functioning of our brains.  Before responding in any situation it is important to remember the acronym STOP, which stands for
S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.
T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.
O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.
Effective cognitive functioning also fosters good interpersonal relations.

The healthy memory blog post “An Update to the Relaxation Response Update” will provide more information on how to induce the relaxation response.  To learn about the medical benefits of the relaxation response see the post “The Relaxation Response Update.”

If you are already engaging in these practices, congratulations, and use the occasion of this new year to rededicate yourself to their practice.  I am going to do this myself.  Have a happy and fulfilling new year.

© 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.

Regarding that New Year’s Eve Hangover

December 30, 2016

This post is based largely on an article by Richard Webb titled “Hung over:  What science says about why you feel so rough in the 7 December 2016 issue of the New Scientist.

First of all, alcohol is not the reason you feel so bad.  The onset of a hangover means that the blood’s concentration of ethanol is zero.  Moreover, there probably isn’t just one cause for all the hangover symptoms.  It could be the impact on sleep quality of forcing your body to break down a large amount of fluid substance.

Dehydration is a side effect.  The pounding head and mouth probably result from alcohol’s suppression of the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin.  This increases the desire to urinate.  During the hangover vasopressin  snaps back to a higher level than normal, but there does not appear to be a correlation between that or any other drink-induced hormonal imbalance and the severity of the hangover.

The delayed onset of a hangover means that the metabolic products of ethanol are prime suspects.  A study in Japan found that people with inactive genes for making enzymes that break down acetaldehyde, a highly reactive by-product of ethanol, experienced a hangover after fewer drinks.  However, an earlier Scandinavian study showed that acetaldehyde concentration were generally low when a hangover was most severe suggesting that its effects are indirect or delayed.  Perhaps it is acetate, which occurs further down the line as a product of acetaldehyde breakdown.

A recent study of the urine of a group of hung-over Dutch students found that ethanol concentration  was correlated with severity of symptoms that include sleepiness, sweating, concentration problems, nausea, thirst, and to a lesser extent, confusion headache, weakness and regret.  However, the same correlations were not present in a self-described hangover-immune group that had drunk a similar amount.  These people also had less alcohol in their urine.

So it seems the the ability to rapidly metabolize alcohol is more important than the amount consumed in determining hangover severity.   But this does not explain why we can have a severe hangover when we hardly drank anything, and at other times when we have drunk heavily experience only a mild hangover.

Some think that congeners, chemicals produced during fermentation, other than ethanol, that give each drink a distinctive aroma and taste, play a role.  According to a study that compared hangover severity in bourbon and vodka, dark spirits are worse than clear ones in inducing severe hangovers.  On the other hand, research in Japan found that higher levels of congeners of whiskies might inhibit the breakdown of ethanol and at least delay the onset of hangovers.

It should be clear that in all these studies there are uncontrolled confounding variables.

The advice offered by HM is to not drink so much.  There is no cure and there is unlikely that one will be developed.  Excessive alcohol consumption does not foster a healthy memory.

Read the below list of a 2011 survey of 1410 hung-over Dutch students. This is the order of frequency of hangover symptoms that should serve as a reminder to be cautious:  Fatigue, thirst, drowsiness, sleepiness, headache, dry mouth, nausea, weakness, reduced alertness, concentration problems, apathy, increase reaction time, reduced, appetite, clumsiness, agitation, vertigo, memory problems, gastrointestinal complaints, dizziness, stomach pain, tremor, problems with balance, restlessness, shivering, sweating, disorientation, auto sensitivity, photosensitivity, blunted emotions, muscle pain, loss of taste, regret, confusion, guilt, gastritis, impulsivity, hot/cold flashes, vomiting, pounding heart, depression, palpitations, tinnitus, nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movement), anger, respiratory problems, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.

And whatever you do, do not drink and drive.

© 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.

Did Corporate PR Initiate the Post-Fact Era?

December 28, 2016

This post is based on an article published in the Washington Post by Ari Rabit-Havt titled “Big business taught politicians a better way to lie.”  The article begins, “Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes recently told WAMU’s Diane Reahm that ‘there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.’”  Rabin-Havt continues, “She’s right and that’s the problem.  We now disagree not just on our political philosophies, but on whether the facts are true.  In this world, Hughes’s  observation is the last self-evident truth:  Facts are a thing of the past. …Americans may find it impossible to debate politics clearly because of a lack of agreement on basic matters of fact; that was certainly the case during this year’s election.  And no one has taken more advantage of this than Trump…”

Rabin-Havt does not credit Trump for creating this world.  He says that this is a result of a decades-long strategy devised by a number of public affairs practitioners who recognized that lies were the most potent weapon in the fight against progress and that Trump emulated some of these disinformation techniques gleaned from big business during his campaign.

Sixty-three years ago the tobacco industry had a problem, namely the compelling evidence of the severe damage smoking did to one’s health.  John Hill, the founder of the Public Relations conglomerate Hill & Knowlton, recommended that they form a public relations institute, to argue that their products were safe.  Together with the tobacco executives Hill created public relations operation veiled as a scientific institute, to argue that their products were safe.  They created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, a sham organization designed to spread corporate propaganda to mislead the media, policymakers and the public at large.

Rather than trying to convince the majority of Americans that cigarettes did not cause cancer, they sought to muddy the waters and create a second truth.  One truth emanated from the bulk of  the scientific community and the other from a cadre of people primarily in the employment of the tobacco industry.

Although their efforts to muddy the waters were successful for a time, truth eventually prevailed.  So it appears that Hughes’ statements and Rabin-Havt’s conclusion are a bit overstated.  Nevertheless, they are real.  And this same scene is being repeated regarding global warming.  The clear consensus is that global warming is real and the consequences a dangerous.  Unfortunately, this is portrayed on networks that include both Fox and the PBS New hours by having one representative of each position on their shows.  Although this appears to be even-handed, what is lost on the general public is that the overwhelming consensus is that global warming is real.

There is a more realistic position is that global warming is occurring, but how quickly it is occurring is debatable.  This is not arguing that it is not occurring or that it is, as Trump said, a hoax introduced by China.  Here one needs to outline both the probability of the risks of different models and the costs of delaying different remedies.
With respect to the problem global warming, it is clear what the motivation is and by whom to either deny or to downplay global warming.  And these industries have big bucks to fund questionable research.  It is interesting that certain critiques of global warming contend that scientists finding evidence of global warming are motivated by the money they receive from research grants.  Comparing the funding of these researchers against the funding of big oil is like comparing some guy in his back yard burning leaves with the Chicago fire.  But these people cannot think in terms of truth, rather they think in terms of beliefs and how to argue their beliefs.

There has been a larger victim of these science efforts funded by special interests is a general loss of confidence in science and the establishment.  Both Brexit and Trump are examples of his loss of confidence in the establishment.

Rabin-Havt’s article also mentions Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels” critique to the Affordable Care Act.  The acceptance of this critique indicates there is virtually no limit to the stink of fecal material people will swallow.  And Sarah Palin’s being a candidate for the Vice-President of the United States is an indication of the pathetic state of American politics.

The situation has worsened with the alt-Right movement (see the Healthymemory blog post, “Sick Memory).  This has become a profitable industry.   At least with the examples of bad science done by businesses for their financial industry, they actually conducted research.  One of the reasons that the alt-Right industry is so profitable is that it requires no research.  Just think of something and post it.  Build upon other lies to create even more fantastic lies.

All of the efforts are bad for our memories and contribute to the Stupidity Pandemic discussed in the previous post.  It calls for critical thinking using System 2 attentional processing.  Truth is our only hope.  It needs to be constantly sought.  Beliefs need to be periodically reconsidered for flaws and needs for correction.  Facts, true facts, need to be considered.

© 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.

Daniel Kahneman and the Stupidity Pandemic

December 26, 2016

In case you haven’t noticed there is a stupidity pandemic.  It’s a pandemic because it rages throughout the world.  Perhaps the most conspicuous example are the religious wars.  These wars are several centuries out of date.  Terrorism is a religious war being largely fought within the Islamic faith with some terrorists groups targeting the west.  Then there is Brexit, a phenomenon that was not predicted by professional politicians.  In general there is lack of faith in what is called the “establishment” and in bodies of knowledge such as science.

In the United States there is the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  When Trump began his campaign it was regarded as a joke and was quite funny.  It is still a joke, but one that is no longer funny.  If every vote had counted in the United States, the Trump problem would not exist.  But an archaic and stupid institution called the electoral college elected Trump, therefore nullifying the will of the majority of US citizens.

So what has Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman have to do with this?  His two process theory of human cognition provides a means of understanding this pandemic.  System 1 refers to our normal mode of cognition.  It is very fast and allows for fluent conversations and skilled performance.  It is the default mode of cognition.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds to what we colloquially call thinking.  System 2 requires attention and mental effort.  One of the jobs of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors.  However, this requires mental effort and thinking.

Experiments have been run where statements are presented to the research participant.  The brain is monitored.  When a statement conflicts with a participant’s individual beliefs, a signature is reported from the brain.  The question is whether this statement will be ignored, or whether the participant engages in deeper thought to reconsider this statement.  There is a cognitive cost here and the simplest reaction is to ignore the statement and regard it as a mistaken belief.

Trump’s  victory was a victory for System 1 processing.  System 1 appeals to fears, emotions, bigotry, and so forth.  Trump is a genius at connecting with and exploiting the System 1 processes of people.  Trump himself rarely uses System 2 processing.  He does not read books, does not think he needs to attend briefings because he knows everything already.  His gut, his System 1 processing, tells him what is true.  However, Trump does not care what is true.  It is whatever he believes at the moment, and this does change from moment to moment.  This is one of the reasons he is such an effective liar.  He does not care what is true.  It is whatever is expedient for the moment.  When confronted with his lies, he denies the truth.  His promise to make America great again was predicated on the lie that the United States is not regarded throughout the world as a great country.  Enemies dislike the politics of Americans, but nevertheless respect its greatness.

Totalitarian countries have exploited the big lie, and so does Trump.  See the healthy memory blog “Sick Memory.”  Lying has become a profitable industry.  Dana Milbank had an interesting column in the 21 December 2016 Washington Post title “Hoping that he didn’t really mean it.”  Milbank pointed out that many areas of the country that went for Trump will suffer deeply from cuts in government spending that will occur if Trump acts on his promises.  The title of Milbank’s article provides the explanation of how these voters reconcile their vote with the adverse effects that will affect them personally.
It is clear that these people did not employ System 2 processing when they voted.  There is justification for believing that these people rarely engaging in System 2 processing.  Like Trump, they go with their gut feelings.  Unfortunately, there is some question if such people will ever realize that they have screwed themselves.  Trump can continue to exploit their fears and bigotry to keep them in line.

© 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.

The Game Theory Guide to a Happy Family Holiday

December 21, 2016

This post is taken from a piece by Paul Raebun and Kevin Zollman titled “No more drama:  The game theory guide to a happy family holiday” in the 17 December 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  This piece asks the question how do we encourage our families to behave themselves in a way that reflects how, deep down, they truly love each other?  The answer, turn to game theory, the science of strategic thinking.

If there needs to be a decision of who will host,  you can draw straws.  If there are three choices you can use a Borda count:  Each person ranks their preferences, the numbers are added, and the host with the lowest score wins.

What about the question as to who is going to bring which dish.  As the authors note many people have delicious alternatives they would love to provide, but no one wants to hurt someone’s feelings, so those under appreciated dishes are lightly touched.  So frames can be switched regarding the dishes.  For example, seize on a change of time or venue.  Then say, for instance, “Since we’re at Dad’s house this year, let’s change dishes.”

It is  recommended that political discussion be off limits, so the squabble will probably be over who gets the last roast potatoes or the final sliver of something else.  To keep bickering to a minimum, game theorists recommend using I cut, you pick.  If there are two people hankering after the last of the yule log, one slices and the other chooses.

A common problem is that there is too much food and people are begged to take home leftovers. Everyone brings way too much food because of the incentives.  There’s no real penalty for bringing an excessive amount, but somebody might be offended if they bring too little.  So change the incentives.  Give a prize to the cook whose dish is totally gone, or make the guest with the most leftovers host next time.  Now it’s not a measure of love, it’s a game.

What about unruly children misbehaving?  To stop their misbehavior, there needs to be a credible threat.  A simple warning might not be credible.  However, a threat to make the children do the dishes will likely be credible and effective.

What to do about a guest who does not pitch in and help out?  You can put empirical expectations to make him work.  Make a point of having someone clean up around him so can see them doing it.  He just might feel obliged to pitch in.

What about arguments as to what game to play?  Propose an auction by having the opposing camps  bargain by offering to do chores.  Whoever makes the best offer—finish washing the dishes and tidy up the kitchen—gets to pick.

Don’t forget the ultimatum game.  How should two kids with a small box of chocolates divvy up the candy?  Ask one to keep some for herself and offer the rest to the other.  If the second party should regard the offer as unfair, then neither one gets any of the chocolates.

The authors, Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman have both written and are splitting credit for their book, “The Game Theorists Guide to Parenting.”  Perhaps this might be a Christmas gift for someone.

Super-you: Fine-tune Your Life by Making Goals Into Habits

December 20, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.   The title of this post is identical to the title of a piece by Julia Brown.  At the beginning of the article she writes , “your environment controls you, as do habits that you don’t even know you have.  But realize what’s really pulling your strings, and you can work out how to manipulate yourself for the better.

Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California and her colleagues have shown how almost half of the behaviors we adopt in any given situation are habitual.  That is an automated action learned by repetition until we do it without thinking.  In Kahneman’s terms these are System 1 processes that include eating, napping, watching TV, and exercising.

We work this way because we have to.  If every act we perform required us to be deeply involved in thought, our species never would have evolved.

Brown writes that identifying how your unconscious is working provides you with ways to fine-tune your behavior.  If you want to change habits, look at where and how you enact them.  If you want to stop smoking, avoid places where you are likely to light up, or move your cigarettes out of sight.  If you want to start eating more healthily, stop meeting friends for lunch as a burger restaurant.

Val Curtis, who studies behavior change at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has used these insights to develop ways to encourage hand washing with soap in India and to modify the tendency for mothers in Indonesia to feed their children unhealthy snacks.  She says we can all prime ourselves in similar ways.  So if you think you ought to do some exercise but don’t feel like it, put you running gear on anyway, and wait and see what happens.  You let your running gear control your behavior and it takes you for a run.

Super-you: Train Your Brain to Beat the Inbuilt Fear Factory

December 18, 2016

HM has written in previous posts about how annoyed he is about people’s fears of terrorists attacks.  HM lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis where the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real.  The threat of terrorism pales in comparison.  The probability of an individual suffering a terrorist attack is extremely small.  And even the number of lives lost during 9/ll was minuscule compared to the loss if a nuclear warhead had exploded over Manhattan.  As a result of 9/ll many people stopped flying and got into their cars,  The annual death toll on the road was on average 1100 higher than in the five preceding years.

The New Scientist piece that inspired this post has the same title as this post and was written by Sally Adee.    She begins the article noting that evolution has given us an inbuilt fear factory.  But by engaging a different way of thinking we can stop panicking and assess the real risks.

Adee draws upon Kahneman’s Two Process concept of cognition.  System 1 is fast and the product of evolved biases shaped over many thousands of years.  This worked well.  If you saw a shadow in the grass and it was a lion and lived to tell the tale, you’d make sure to run the next time you saw a shadow in the grass.   This inbuilt fear factory is highly susceptible to immediate experience, vivid images and personal stories.  Security companies, political campaigns, tabloid newspapers and ad agencies prey on it.  Adee notes that System 1 is good at catastrophic risk, but less good at risks that build up slowly over time—thus our lassitude in the face of climate change or our expanding waistlines.

She advises that when your risk judgment is motivated by fear, stop and think:  what other, less obvious risks might I be missing?  This amounts to engaging the more rigorous, analytical System 2 outlined by Kahneman.  People who deal with probability and risk professionally, and have excelled at it use System 2 quite heavily.  Successful bookies, professional card players and weather forecasters are heavy users of their System 2 processes.  Risk consultant Dan Gardner notes that even though meteorologists get a bad rap, they tend to be highly calibrated, unlike most of us.  One can never be right all the time.  But one should be attempting to calibrating risk assessment with the objective world.

Andy Spicer, who studies organizational behavior at City University of London notes that part of the problem in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008 was that individuals were no longer accountable for their own actions.  “At banks, there was no direct relationship between what you did and the outcome.  That produced irrational decisions.

Gardner says, “there’s one feature you see over and over in people with good risk intelligence.  I think it wouldn’t be too grandiose to call it the universal train of risk intelligence—humility.”  The world is complex, so be humble about what you know an you’ll come out better.

HM would note that there is such a thing as risk intelligence and that it can be increased.  See the healthy memory blog post “Risk Intelligence.”

© 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.

Super-you: How to Harness Your Inner Braggert

December 16, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This inner braggart piece was written by Tiffany O’Callaghan.  She begins the article, “Think you’re saner, smarter and better-looking than average?  Well, so does everyone else.  Recognizing our delusions is the first step to doing better.  She asks, “Ever had the sense that everyone else is an idiot?  Have you seen how those jerks drive?  As Garrison Keillor tells it, all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.  This is not unique to Lake Wobegon.  When it comes to smarts, looks, charisma, and general psychological adjustment, there’s no denying that we’re a cut above the average person in the street.

O’Callaghan notes that viewing ourselves as above average applies across human ages, professions, and cultures, and to capabilities from driving to playing chess.  She notes that this does have advantages.  “People who are more impressed with themselves tend to make better first impressions, be generally happier and may even be more resilient in the fact of trauma.  Anthropologist Robert Trivers of Rutgers University says that high self-estimation might also let us get ahead by deceiving others.  He argues that once we’ve tricked ourselves, we don’t have to work so hard to trick others.

Confidence also helps in finding a romantic partner, which also increases the probability of reproduction.  Men appear to be worse offenders at overestimating their looks than women.  A study by Marcel Yoder and his team at the University of Illinois found that some men seem to suffer from a “frog prince” delusion:  They accurately asses other people’s lesser perception of them, while persisting in a more positive perception of themselves.

Problems come when we’re less aware of how others perceive us.  Those who are self-confident without being self-aware are likely to be seen as a jerk.  Yoder says, “It’s hard to come off as humble or modest when you’re clueless  about how other people see you.”  Moreover, we can make bad decisions on the basis of an inflated sense of expertise or understanding.

This is particularly dangerous in the political arena.  A “bias blind spot”, a belief that our world view is based on objective truth, while every else is a deluded fool can become problematic, especially as the echo chamber of social media exposes us to fewer contrary views (“Bias Blind Spot:  Structure, Measurement, and Consequences”, Scopelliti et al, http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2014.2096).  It can make opposing parties feel that the other side is too irrational to be reason with says Wenje Yan.

So the question is how can we preserve the goods while avoiding he downsides.  There are different strategies and training programs for overcoming our inbuilt biases.  Most begin by making people aware of them and how they can affect our decision making.  Psychologists have an exercise called perspective taking.  Irene Scopelliti says that the amounts to trying to see a dispute from the other person’s point of view.  She points out that acting when you’re all riled up—in a state of high emotion—exacerbates the problem by entrenching our bias.  She says, “ We know how o make unbiased decisions, but often emotion biases us, or we aren’t willing to put in the effort.  Nevertheless she maintains that practice can make us better.

Super-you: Use Your Better Instincts to Crush Your Inner Bigot

December 14, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This instincts piece is written by Caroline Williams.  HM does not like this use of the word “instincts.”  “Predisposing biases” would have been a more fortunate choice.  However, this article accounts for much of the ugliness prevalent throughout the world.  The quick explanation is that these people are in their default mode of feeling and thinking.  But this is a very low level of thinking.  It is System 1 processing using Kahmeman’s terms.

The unpalatable truth is that we are biased, prejudiced and racist.   We put people into mental boxes marked “us” and them”.  Implicitly we like, respect and trust people who are similar to us and feel uncomfortable around everyone else.  This tendency towards in-group favoritism is so ingrained that we often don’t realize we are doing it.  “It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different.

A study from 2000 found that just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala (Neuroreport 11(11):2351-5, September 2000 can be found at researchgate.net).  HM readers should know that the amygdala is a key component of the brain’s fear circuitry.  But the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things and calls on other brain areas to pay attention.   Although we’re not automatically scared of people who are not like us, we are hardwired to flag them.  As Williams notes, “evolutionarily, that makes sense:  It paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by.”

When Susan Fiske of Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed quiet.  Apparently these volunteers seemed to process these homeless people as subhuman (Social cognitive ad affective neuroscience, 2007 Mar. 2(1) 45-51.)

Fiske says “The good news is that his hard-wired response can be overcome depending on context.”  In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy,   Fiske continues, “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there.”

What we put in “them” and “us” boxes is flexible.  Jay Van Bavel of New York University created in-groups including people from various races, participants still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race.  It seems that all you have to do to head off prejudice is to convince people that they are on the same team (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2012, 38, 12, 2012  1566-1578. pop.sagepub.com).

It appears that we are instinctively cooperative when we don’t have time to think about it.  Psychologist David Rand of Yale University asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or corporate with other players or a slightly lower, but shared, payoff.  When pressed to make a decision people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over.

Williams concludes her article thusly:  “So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all—If you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world.”

© 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.

Super-you: We’re All Reading Each Others Minds, All the Time

December 13, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This mind reading piece is written by Gilead Amit.  As Amit notes,being able to predict what other people think is the secret sauce of culture and social connections.

According to psychologist Joseph Call we all possess a “theory of mind” that informs us every waking moment.  “When we get dressed in the morning, we’re constantly thinking about what other people think about us.”  He says that no other animal can match our ability to think about the minds of others and that this is the essential lubricant for social interactions that sets humans apart.  We humans are not unique in this ability, but our ability is superior to other species.

Artists need to imagine what their audiences will think of their characters.  A theory of mind is critical to compelling TV soaps, sculptures or books.  Some think William Shakespeare had a particularly well-developed theory of mind to create such rich, complex characters (See “Shakespeare:  Unleashing a tempest in the brain” by David Robson in the 15 April 2014 issue of the New Scientist).

Mind reading establishes society norms.  People not only respond to what we do, but to what we intend to do.  For example, if you hit someone with your car, the difference between a verdict of murder or manslaughter depends on your intent.

Psychologist Rory Devine notes that we can’t all read minds equally well.  Most of us have difficulty when attempting nested levels of mind reading.  For example, think of Sally hunting for her cake, but imagine where she might look if we take into account  what she thinks about how Andy’s mind works.  The more recursive steps we add, the more  difficult it becomes.  Call says, “When you go beyond five levels, people get really bad.  HM does not believe that he can get even close to four levels, much less five.

Obviously being a good mind reader is an important skill.  Children who are relatively proficient later report being less lonely and their teachers rate them as more sociable.

Devine says that that “the ability to read minds is something we might learn gradually from the guidance of others.”  This mind reading apparatus mostly develops before the age of 5, and the principal factor that determines its development is whether our families and friends talk much about the emotions and motivations of others.

Perhaps the first step is to think about what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes.  Devine and his colleagues showed that this learning can continue far beyond early childhood.  When they asked 9 and 10 year old children to read and discuss short vignettes about social situations, the children developed better mind reading skills than children in a control group.  It appears that we’re never too old to be a better mind reader.  Similar improvements have also been seen in people over the age of 60.

Super-You: You Have a Superstitious Mind—to Protect You

December 12, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there is a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This superstitious mind piece is written by Graham Lawton.  Lawton writes, “The vast majority of people are religious, which generally entails belief in a supernatural entity or three.”  Nevertheless, among the oceans of religiosity are archipelagos of non belief.  Conservative estimates are that half a billion people around the world are non-religious.

However, among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep.  Should you scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll likely find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.

Lawton writes that this is because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, make us very receptive to religious concepts.  Psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia says, “there are core intuitions that make supernatural beliefs easy for our brains.”

One of our cognitive abilities is known as theory of mind which enables us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts.  That’s certainly useful for a social species like us, but it also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own.  The idea that mind and body are distinct entities seems to come instinctively to us.  When teleology —the tendency to seek cause and effect everywhere and see purposes where there is none—it is obvious why the human brain is superstitious (See the healthymemory blog post (“Thinking 2.0).

Presumably these same thought processes underlie beliefs supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, spiritual healing, reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, lucky numbers and Ouija boards.  Three-quarters of Americans admit to holding at least one of ten common supernatural beliefs.

Lawton writes, “With all this supernatural equipment filling our heads, atheism and scientific materialism are hard work.  Overriding inbuilt thought patterns require deliberate and constant effort, plus a learned reference guide to what is factually correct and what is right and wrong.  Just like a dieter tempted by a doughnut, will power often fails us.”

Experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves skeptics.  Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of his own death, large numbers answer “yes”.  People who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are frequently attributed to paranormal phenomena.

Of course, it is impossible to prove that everyone falls prey to supernatural instincts.  The supernatural exerts a pull on us that is hard to resits.  It is likely that the belief that we are rational creatures is wishful thinking.

One can argue that Pascal’s Wager does provide a rational justification for a belief in God.   See the healthymemory blog post  “God.”

© 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.

Reading a Novel Affects the Connectivity in the Brain

December 11, 2016

This post is based on an article in BRAIN CONNECTIVITY, Volume 3, Number 6,
DOI:  10.1089/brain.2013.0166 titled “Short and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.”

This study used fMRI recording resting states both before and after reading a novel.   The novel was “Pompeii: A Novel” by Robert Fawcett.  Nineteen participants read this novel over a nine day period.  Resting-state  networks (RSNs) were assessed before and after reading on each of the nine days.  Baseline RSNs were taken five days before the experiment proper and for 5 days after the conclusion of the novel.

On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity  were centered on hubs in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri.  These hubs correspond to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a time course that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel.  Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in the bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for “embodied semantics.”  What the authors are referring to in embodied semantics is that the body is responding emotionally to the reading.

What HM finds most interesting about this study is that it provides data showing the
changes that take place in the brain as the result of reading.  This can be regarded as “cognitive exercise” that activates brain circuits and System 2 processing building a cognitive reserve decreasing the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

© 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.

Why Do We Sleep?

December 10, 2016

The question raised by the title of this post is highly relevant given that about one-third of our lives is spent sleeping.  A brief piece  titled “A bad night’s sleep messes with your brain’s memory connections in the In Brief Section of the August 27, 2016 Edition of the “New Scientist” provides a compelling answer.  The piece begins with the following sentence, “This is why you feel so awful after a bad night’s sleep—your brain is jammed with yesterday’s news.”

The research was done by Christoph Nissen and his team at the University Medical Center in Freiburg, Berman.  They examined the brains of 20 people after they’d slept well, and after a night of disruption.  They found that after a bad’s night sleep, people had higher levels of theta brainwaves, and it was easier to stimulate their brains using magnetic pulses (“Nature Communications.” DOI”10.1038/ncomms12455).

The findings support the theory that sleep serves to weaken memory connections, making way for new ones.  Nissan says that without this synaptic downscaling, the brain loses the capacity to for novel connections, impairing the encoding of novel memories.  The theory is that sleep evolved so that connections in the brain can be pruned down during slumber, making room for fresh memories to form the next day.

The idea that sleep is important to memory is not new.  And memory is certainly important enough that we need to devote about one-third of our lives supporting it. Of course, it is likely that memory is not the only capacity to benefit, but it is likely that other capacities that benefit are closely related to memory.

© 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.

Sleep-deprived Drivers are as Dangerous as Drunk Drivers

December 9, 2016

This post is based on an article by Ashley Halsey III titled “Sleep-deprived drivers have plenty in common with drunk drivers, on page A2 of the 7 December 2016 edition of the Washington Post.  Her article is based on a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released 6 December.   According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 35% of people get fewer than the needed seven hours of sleep, and 12% say that they sleep for five hours or less.

Previous research by the AAA Foundation found that 21% of fatal crashes involved a sleep-deprived driver.  This new report uses data from the National Motor Vehicle’s Crash Causation Survey to asses how much driving ability decreases based on the lack of sleep.  The executive director of the foundation, David Yang, says that the new research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk.  The report says that those who slept for less than 4 of the past 24 hours had an 11.5% higher risk of getting into a crash; drivers who slept 4-5 hours had a 4.3% higher risk; 5-7 hours had a 1.9% higher risk; and 6-7 hours had a 1.3% higher risk.  The following caveat is added to these results:  “The study may underestimate the risk of driving while sleep-deprived, because data on crashes that occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. were not available, and other studies have shown that the effects of sleep deprivation…are greatest during the morning hours.”

Tom Calcagni of AAA’s Mid-Atlantic Office said, “The crash risk associated with having slept less than 4 hours is comparable to the crash risk associated with a blood-alcohol content of roughly .12 to .15.  The legal limit is .08.

So add driving while being sleepy to the other activities you should not do while driving:  texting and talking on the phone regardless of whether your hands are free or not, and drunk driving.

The importance of sleep to health in general should not be underestimated.  Our brains are very active while we sleep, consolidating memories and cleaning up junk in the brain.  By failing to get enough sleep we are effectively damaging our brains.  This damage might eventually lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

© 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.

A High Risk But Viable Alternative to Kurzweil’s Singularity

December 7, 2016

Kurzweil’s Singularity consists of uploading the information in human biological brains into the silicon of computer hardware.  Kurzweil even regards this as possibly occurring during his own lifetime, so Kurzweil is doing everything possible to extend his life.  HM has previously indicated that this is highly unlikely because Kurzweil is ignoring the reality that silicon and biology differ.

The 29 October 2016 issue of the “New Scientist” has an article titled, “$100 million project to make intelligence-boosting implant.”  Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson launched the company Kernel earlier this year.  Johnson is working with Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California, who is looking at the hippocampus.  Healthy memory blog readers should know that the hippocampus is a key brain region involved in the retrieval of memories.  There is a hippocampus in each hemisphere, so we have two hippocampi.

Berger is working with people who already have electrical implants in their brains to treat epileptic seizures.  Instead of using these implants to stimulate the brain, his team has been harnessing them to record brain activity, to learn more about how our memory works.   Johnson says that once we know how a healthy brain functions, we should be able to mimic it.  The goal is to restore function in people with memory disorders by stimulating the same pattern of activity.  Berger has had enough success with animals that he has begun experiments with people.

Johnson says, “The idea is that if you have a loss of memory function, then you could build a prosthetic for the hippocampus that would help restore the circuitry and restore memory.”

It is both appropriate and fair that people with memory disorders will be the first to try the device.  Johnson says, “The first potential superhumans are those who have deficits to start with.”  He then plans to develop the prosthesis to enhance memory and potentially other functions in healthy people.  His vision of the future is one in which it is normal for people to walk around with chips in their brains, providing them with a cognitive boost.

Johnson has put up $100 million of his own to go on developing such a device.  It will be as tiny and easy to implant as possible, while still being able to record or stimulate multiple neurons.  The research also involved working on ways to develop rules that underly patterns of activity that dictate normal brain function for an individual.

Johnson says “If we can mimic the natural function of the brain, then I posit the question, what can’t we do?”  Could we learn a thousand times faster?  Could we choose which memories to keep and which to get rid of?  Could we have a connection with our computers?”

Note that Johnson is asking questions and not making promises.  To be sure this is high risk research, but it is one that is based on viable approach, unlike Kurzweil’s proposal.  Johnson has identified necessary first steps on the way to a marriage between the brain and silicon.

© 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.

Motivated Reasoning, Cognitive Dualism, and Scientific Curiosity

December 4, 2016

This post is based on a Feature Article by Dan Jones titled “Seeing reason:  How to change minds in a ‘post-fact’ world, in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Scientist.   The article notes that politicians spin and politicians lie and that that has always been the case, and to an extent it is a natural product of a free democratic culture.  But Jones goes on to note, “Even so we do appear  to have entered a new era of ‘post-truth politics’, where the strongest currency is what satirist Stephen Colbert had dubbed ‘truthiness’:  claims that feel right, even if they have no basis in fact, and which people want to believe because they fit their pre-existing attitudes.”

However, facts are important, as Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College notes, “We need to have discussions that are based on a common set of accepted facts, and when we don’t, it’s hard to have a useful democratic debate.”  As Jones writes, “In the real world of flesh-and-blood humans, reasoning often starts with established conclusions and works back to find “facts” that support what we already believe.  And if we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we find clever ways to dismiss them.”  Psychologists call this lawyerly tendency motivated reasoning.

A Pew Research Center survey released  before the US election showed that compared with Democrats, Republicans are less likely to believe that scientists know that climate change is occurring, that they understand its causes, or that they fully and accurately report their findings.  They are also more likely to believe that scientists’ research is driven by careerism and political views.  Many liberals think this is a product of scientific illiteracy, which if addressed would bring everyone around to the same position.  Unfortunately, research by Dan Kahan at Yale University has shown that, in contrast to liberals, among conservatives it is the most scientifically literate who are less likely to accept climate change.  Kahn says, “Polarisation over climate change isn’t due to a lack of capacity to understand the issues.  Those who are most proficient at making sense of scientific information are the most polarized.

Kahan attributes this apparent paradox to motivated reasoning, the better one is at handling scientific information, the better one is at confirming his own bias and writing off inconvenient truths. For climate-change deniers studies suggest that motivation is often the endorsement of free-market ideology, which includes objections to government regulation of business that is required to address climate change.  Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol says, “If I ask people four questions about the free market, I can predict attributes towards climate science with 60% accuracy.”

Jones writes, “But liberal smugness has no place here.  Consider gun control.  Liberals tend to want tighter gun laws, because, they argue, fewer guns would translate into fewer gun crimes.  Conservatives typically respond that with fewer guns in hand, criminals can attack the innocent with impunity.”

In spite by the best efforts of criminologists, the evidence on this issue is mixed.  Kahan has found that both liberals and conservatives react to statistical information about the effects of gun control in the same way:  they accept what fits in with the broad beliefs of their political group, and discount that which doesn’t.  Kahn writes, “The more numerate you are, the more distorted your perception of the data.”  Motivated reasoning is found on other contentious issues from the death penalty and drug legalization to fracking and immigration.

The UK’s Brexit both provides another compelling case study on the distorting power of motivated reasoning.  Researchers at the Online Privacy Foundation found that both Remainers and Brexiteers could accurately interpret statistical information when it came to assessing whether a new skin cream caused a rash, their numeracy skills abandoned them when looking at stats that undermined rationales for their views such as figures on whether immigration is linked to an increase or a decrease in crime.

It is not just a matter of political ideology.  Although the bogus link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella is often portrayed as a liberal obsession, it cuts across politics.  Nyhan says, “There’s no demographic factor that predicts who is most vulnerable to anti-vaccine claims.”

It should not be concluded that myth-busting is a waste of time.   Nyhan and Reifler found that during the 2014 midterm elections in the US fact-checking improved the accuracy of people’s beliefs even when it went against ingrained biases.  Both Democrats and Republicans updated their beliefs after having a claim debunked.

Emily Thomson of George Washington University found that misconceptions of issues like how much of the US debt China owns, whether there’s  a federal time limit for receiving welfare benefits, and who pays for Social Security could be fixed by a single corrective statement.

Unfortunately the bad news is that myth-busting loses its power on salient and controversial issues.  Nyhan says, “It’s most effective for topics that we’re least concerned about as a democracy.  Even the release of President Obama’s birth certificate had only a limited effect on people’s belief that he wasn’t born in this country.”  Thomson has found that even when corrections work, for example getting to accept that a congressman accused of taking campaign money from criminals did no such thing—the taint of the earlier claim often sticks to the innocent target.  This phenomenon is termed “belief echoes.”

Graphical presentation of information can be more effective than verbal presentations, but this benefit requires that people be able to read graphs.  Many people have difficulty understanding graphs, so simple graphs have a higher likelihood of success.

Kahan calls the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time “cognitive dualism.”  Cognitive dualism was found in a recent Pew survey on climate change:  just 15% of conservative Republicans agreed that human activity was causing climate change, but 27% agreed that if we change our ways to limit carbon emissions it would make a big difference in tackling climate change.  This same dualism was found among US farmers.  A 2013 survey found that only a minority accepted climate change as a fact.  Yet a majority believed that some farmers would be driven out of business by climate change, and the rest will have to change current practices and buy more insurance against climate-induced crop failures.  By buying crops genetically engineered to cope with climate change and purchasing specialist insurance polices, many of them already have.

Kahan has discovered something interesting about people who seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure,  He calls this trait scientific curiosity.  He has devised a scale for measuring this trait.  He and his colleagues have found that, unlike scientific literacy, scientific curiosity is linked to greater acceptance of human-caused climate change, regardless of political orientation.  On many issues, from attitudes towards porn and the legislation of marijuana, to immigration and fracking,scientific curiosity makes both liberal and conservatives converge on views closer to the facts.

So exploiting cognitive dualism and fostering scientific curiosity appear to be the most promising avenues to pursue.  It is important to remember that it is scientific curiosity rather than scientific literacy that is important 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.

To Treat Chronic Pain, Look to the Brain Not Body

December 3, 2016

This post is taken from a Feature Article by Jessica Hamzelou, “Hurt Blocker:  To treat chronic pain, look to the brain not body” in the 26 November 2016 Issue of the New Scientist.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the root causes of chronic pain will require more than drugs to break the cycle.  The answer lies in how the brain processes pain.

As has been mentioned in previous posts, there are two pathways for pain.  One is from the actual physical injury, whereas there is a second pathway for emotion linked pain.  Recent research indicates that signals from psychological pain networks may take over when the problem becomes chronic.

People can be trained to more directly influence their own brain activity and, potentially, turn down the pain signal.  Neurofeedback can be provided by placing electrodes on participants’ scalps that provide a real-time display of the brain’s electrical activity.  People can learn to alter their brain activity to dial down their pain.  Initial research suggest that neurofeedback might be useful for people with fibromyalgia, as well as those with chronic pain resulting from spinal cord injuries and cancer.

Mindfulness meditation can achieve something similar.  The goal is to achieve a state of ‘detached observation,’ which can help cope with pain.  Studies have suggested that it improves  various types of chronic pain, including fibromyalgia and lower back pain.  A study of 17 people who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction found that, over time, meditators experienced increases in grey matter in regions of their brains involved in learning, memory, and emotion.  All of these influence pain perception.

The following is taken from a previous healthy memory blog post “Pain and the Second Dart:”
“A great way to return your mind to its “ground state,” neither overexcited nor torpid, simply alert and open, is to become aware of the natural rhythm of the breath as you inhale and exhale.  This is focused attention, prerequisite for the second state of mindfulness meditation:  insight.

Start by focusing on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving you body at the nostrils.  Remember, you are observing your breathing rather than controlling it.  Follow each inhalation and exhalation from the start to the finish.  Notice any slight gap between the in-breath and out-breath.

Don’t be hard on yourself if your mind wanders or you get distracted by a noise.  This is all perfectly normal.  Just remind yourself:  “That’s how the mind works,” and return to the breath.  With repetition, you will get better at noticing when you have lost focus and develop greater mindfulness of the present moment.

Now that you have quieted your mind, allow your attention to broaden.  Whenever a positive or negative feeling arises, make it the focus of your meditation, noticing the bodily sensations associated with it:  perhaps a tightness, the heart beating faster or slower, butterflies in the stomach, relaxed or tensed muscles.  Whatever it is, address the feeling with friendly, objective curiosity.  You could silently label whatever arises in the mind, for example:  “There is anxiety,” “There is calm,: There is joy,” “There is boredom.”   Remember, everything is on the table, nothing is beneath your attention.
If you experience an ache or a pain, stitch or any other kind of discomfort, treat it in exactly the same way.  Turn the spotlight of your attention on the sensation but don’t allow yourself to get caught up in it.  Imagine that on the in-breath you are gently breathing air into the location where the sensation is strongest, then expelling it on the out-breath.  You may notice that when you explore the sensation with friendly curiosity—not trying to change it in any way, neither clinging to it or repressing it—the feeling will start to fade of its own accord.  When it has gone, return your full attention to your breath.

Mindfulness instructors will sometimes talk about “surfing” the wave of an unpleasant sensation such as pain, anxiety, or craving.  Instead of allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the wave of feeling, you get up on your mental surfboard and ride it.  You experience it fully, but your mind remains detached, dignified, and balanced.  Knowing that the power of even the most fearsome wave eventually dissipates, you ride it out.

If a thought, emotion, or feeling becomes too strong or intrusive, you can always use the breath as a calm refuge, returning you whole attention to the breathing sensations at your nostrils.  Similarly if you feel you can’t cope with a pain such as stiffness in your legs, neck, or back, shift your posture accordingly.  But make your attention move to a mindful close rather than a reflex, and make the movement itself slow and deliberate.”
A previous healthy memory blog post, “Controlling Pain in Our Minds” explores this topic further and discusses the possibility of there being two different neural pathways processing the ‘two darts’.”

© 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.

Superagers with Amazing Memories Have Alzheimer’s Brain Plaques

November 30, 2016

The title of this post is identical to an UpFront News article in the 19 November 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  HM is hoping that healthymemory blog readers are asking, “Is this news?  I thought this was well known!”   Although this is not news, it remains a little known fact in the general public about  Alzheimer’s, when it is the most substantive fact existing about Alzheimers.

The article briefly summarizes work done by Aras Rezvanian and his colleagues at Northwestern University on brain samples donated by superagers to try to understand their exceptional memories.  Of the eight donated samples, two contained so many plaques and tangles that they looked like severe cases of Alzheimer’s.

But to repeat, this finding is not new.  Many such people have died.  Moreover these two individuals were not known to have Alzheimer’s.  After all, they were superagers.  And they died not knowing that they had the definitive symptoms for a diagnosis.

It would be good go  back and read the healthymemory blog “The Myth of Alzheimer’s.”   The senior author of this book is Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D, who was once a researcher earning a lucrative income looking for drugs to mitigate or eradicate Alzheimer’s. He came to the conclusion that such work is fruitless and is now working as a clinician treating and mitigating dementia cases.  Here is his advice, “”It is unlikely that there will ever be a panacea for brain aging and baby boomers should not rely on extraordinary advancements being made in their lifetimes in spite of the promises of the Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) empire that make their way into our headlines. Our attention must begin shifting from mythical cure to hard-earned prevention, from expecting a symptomatic treatment for AD to choosing behaviors that may delay the effects “of cognitve decline over the course of our lives.” Many, if not most, of the behaviors he discusses have been mentioned and advocated in the Healthymemory Blog.

The explanation for people living with the physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s but absent any of the behavioral and clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s is that they have build up a cognitive reserve.  Cognitive activity, learning new things, is what builds up this cognitive reserve.  There are healthy memory blog posts on theoretical mechanisms for building cognitive reserves, but these posts are hypothetical conjectures.

That cognitive decline can be avoided by staying active has been known at least since the time of the Romans.   The Roman statesman Cicero held a view much more in line with modern-day medical wisdom that loss of mental function was not inevitable in the elderly and “affected only those old men who were weak-willed.”  HM would substitute  “not cognitively active” in the place of “weak-willed.”

When HM taught at a university he was amazed how so many students were able to get their degrees while spending a minimum of cognitive effort.  Other HM blog posts have argued that choices of News shows and political candidates might well be indications of the desire to spend the minimum in the way of cognitive effort.
In closing this post it should be noted that Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable consequence of aging, no matter how great an age is attained.  There are numerous documented supercentenarians (people living to 110+) that experienced no serious cognitive impairment.

© 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.

Move Knowledge from the Cloud Into Your Head

November 29, 2016

There is much in Poundstone’s “Head In the Cloud” that is not covered in this blog.  HM encourages the interested reader to read the book.  Poundstone provides strategies for sorting through the vast amounts of available information.  However, HM wants to make a single point.  The notion that everything can be found, so nothing needs to be remembered, is dangerously in error.  Hence the title of this post, Move Knowledge from the Cloud into your biological brain.  Of course, it would be both impractical and impossible to move everything to our biological brains.  Most information can be ignored.  Some information can be made available, but not immediately accessible.  This is information that can be readily found via searching, bookmarking, or downloading to another storage device.  However, there is other information that needs to be accessible in your biological memory.  The problem is how much information and where should it be stored.  The answer to this question is reminiscent of Goldilocks.  That is not too much, and not too little.  This varies from individual and depends upon the nature of the topic.

Poundstone seems to imply that what information needs to go where is a triage problem solved by the brain.  What he neglects to mention is that this should be a conscious process.  Do not passively assume that the brain will perform this function effectively.  It needs input from your conscious mind.  It requires thinking, Kahneman’s System 2 processing.  Effective cognition requires effective communication among what is available in technology and our fellow humans, what we can readily access from technology and our fellow humans, and what needs to be held in our biological brains.

© 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.

Research Ties Fake News to Russia

November 28, 2016

The title of this post is identical to a front page story by Craig Timberg in the 25 November 2016 issue of the Washington Post.  The article begins, “The flood of ‘fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump, and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.”

The article continues, “Russia’s increasingly sophisticated machinery—including thousands of bonnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts—echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.  The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with the nuclear-armed Russia.”

Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment.  The sophistication of these Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news.”

Research was done by Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute has been tracking Russian propaganda since 2014 along with two other researchers,s  Andrew Weisburg and J.M. Berger.  This research can be found at warontherocks.com, “Trolling for Trump:  How Russia is Trying to Destroy our Democracy.”

Another group, PropOrNot, http://www.propornot.com/
plans to release its own findings today showing the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns.

Here are some tips for identifying fake news:

Examine the url, which sometimes are subtly changed.
Does the photo looked photoshopped or unrealistic (drop into Google images)
Cross check with other news sources.
Think about installing Chrome plug-ins to identify bad stuff.

The Fox News Effect

November 27, 2016

In 2012 a Fairleigh Dickinson University Survey reported that Fox News viewer knew less about current events that those who didn’t follow the news at all.  The survey did not include items on esoteric knowledge but rather basic facts such as “Which party has the most seats in the House of representatives, right now.  Fox News had failed to impart which party held the majority to many of its viewers.

Another survey involved twelve questions spanning current events, geography, science, religion, and personal finance.  Fox News viewers averaged 57% correct.  This was better than the no-news crowd, but the lowest of all the actual news sources.  The most informed news audiences, scoring over 65% included those who followed PBS, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and, believe it or not, The Daily Show.

Poundstone presents a variety of explanations for these results, even though they are based on correlational studies, so cause and effect cannot be ascertained.  These are all conjectures.

Since this is HM’s blog he is free to presents his own conjectures, so here they are, but readers should be aware that they are only conjectures.  Fox advertises that it presents fair and balanced news, but the fairness and the evenness of the balance depends on a particular point of view.  Fox has identified that point of view and caters its presentations to it.  As it has the largest audience, one can only conclude that it has been successful.

But this fairness and balancing requires neglecting certain information, information that might have been on the survey.  Even though many, if not most, Fox viewers have other sources of information, they tend to identify Fox with truth and neglect contrary information.  With a remote in hand a viewer can easily ignore information that is not validated by Fox.

The problem might not be so much one of being ill-informed, but of being wrongly informed.  HM’s interaction with Fox viewers has led him to believe that they live in an alternative reality that is not reflected in the lower performance of Fox viewers on these surveys.  HM has found this alternative reality to be most disturbing.

© 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.

The Knowledge Premium

November 26, 2016

The Knowledge Premium is a section in “Head In The Cloud,”  an important book by William Poundstone.  In this section he computes the monetary value of having facts in our brains as opposed to being in the cloud.  He uses regression techniques  to relate the scores on his knowledge of facts tests and to hold constant demographic variables such as differences in age and education.  This allows the computation of a knowledge premium, the increased income accountable to the test scores alone.  Poundstone created a trivia quiz that found that individuals who aced the test earned $94,959 and those who scored zero earned $40,360.  The difference, or knowledge premium is $54,599 a year.  Here are some of the questions that were used on this ten item test.

Who was Emily Dickinson—a chef, a poet, a designer, a philosopher or a reality-show star?
Which happened first, the US Civil War or the Battle of Waterloo?
Which artist created this painting?  (Shown was Picasso’s 1928 Painter and Model)
Which nation is Cuba? (Respondents had to locate it on a map)

These questions were characterized as trivial not because the information is unimportant, but because it seems to have nothing to do with basic survival or with make money.  But the statistic computed from this test says that it has a lot to do with making money.

Answers:  Dickinson was a poet; the Battle of Waterloo.  The Emily Dickinson question was answered by 93% correct, with about 70 to 75% answering the other questions correctly.

Two Scientists in Congress

November 25, 2016

At the time of writing “Head In The Cloud”  by William Poundstone there were only two scientists total in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.  That is of 535 representatives only 2 (0.3%) are scientists.  It seems only appropriate that a low-information electorate have a low intelligence congress.  HM says low intelligence as it is science that has produced advancement and modernity.   Absent science we would be living in filth and ignorance.  Included here are both the physical and social sciences.

It is more than scientific knowledge that is important.  The empirical basis of science together with evaluation methodologies and statistics are important.  We need these to have a rational basis for policies and for a means of evaluating the benefits and dangers of different policies.  When debates in Congress are based upon data, rigorous research can be done to assist in defining the ways to proceed.  Scientists do not always agree.  Nor are the initial results of investigations always correct.  But eventually there is convergence with resulting better ideas and policies.  This is the democracy of the future.  Will it ever be achieved?

The low-information electorate complements nicely argumentation based on beliefs.  People fail to realize that beliefs are double-edged stores where both edges are blunt. One blunt edge makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see the problems with one’s own beliefs.  The other blunt edge makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see alternative ideas and courses of action.

Some religious beliefs force religion into its historical role of retarding science and keeping humans ignorant.  Moreover, many of the people holding these religious beliefs are not satisfied with the religious freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.  Rather, they feel compelled to enforce their beliefs on others by changing the laws of the land. What happened to, “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7 1-3). These same people are appalled at the sharia practiced by some Muslems, yet fail to perceive that what they are doing in the United States is indeed sharia.  These same beliefs forbid the teaching of science and engaging in scientific and medical practices that can advance humankind and relieve a great deal of misery.

© 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.

Happy Thanksgiving 2016!

November 23, 2016

HM would argue that what we have most to be thankful for is our marvelous memory.  Without our memory, we would not even know who we are.  Our memory is a devices for time travel.  They use data from our senses to develop models of the external world, and we use these models to interact with the external world.  Memory is the mechanism for personal growth.

Thanksgiving is the day to be dedicated to giving thanks.  The best way we can show thanks for our memory is to develop it by employing growth mindsets.  The activity generated by growth mindsets promotes memory health and builds cognitive reserves to ward of dementia and Alzheimer’s.  They also provide for an enjoyable and fulfilling life.

Mindfulness is also essential to healthy memories.  Meditation not only relaxes, but also gives us greater control over attention, which has a tendency to wander.  Mindfulness also increases our empathy with others.

The Low-Information Electorate

November 22, 2016

“The Low Information Electorate” is the title of Chapter Five in “Head In The Cloud”,  an important book by William Poundstone.  Both conservatives and liberals agree about how spectacularly dumb the great mass of conservatives and liberals are.  Poundstone notes that this statement is true and proceeds to prove his point.

Ignorance is probably most pronounced in judicial races.  In 1992  the well-respected California judge Abraham Aponte Khan lost an election to a virtually unknown challenger who had been rated “unqualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association.  The name of he challenger was Patrick Murphy, a name that sounded less foreign than “Khan.”  Should you ever have problems with judicial decisions, perhaps  the first factor to consider is how they are chosen.  There are ample data to show that judicial elections are a bad idea.

Poundstone conducted a survey of adults to name the holders of fourteen elected offices—national, state, and local.  He found that essentially everyone can name the president, 89% were able to name the vice-president, 62% could identify at leas one of their state’s US senators.  Slightly less than half could name both and 55% knew their district’s congressperson.  81% were able to name the governor of their state.  Barely half of those who said they lived in a municipality with a mayor or city manager were able to name that official.  These offices were the limit of the typical citizen’s knowledge.  Less than a third of the respondents could name the current holders of other offices.  These participants were asked to describe their political preferences on a five-point scale from “very conservative” to “very liberal.”  There was no correlation between these ratings and knowing the names of elected officials.

However, Poundstone did find a correlation between knowing the name and knowing something about the individual.  A voter who does not know the name of a mayor is unlikely to know much else about her, such as the issues she ran on and any accomplishments, failures, or criminal convictions that would bear on a bid for reelection.

in 2014 the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a survey of adults on facts that they should have learned in civics class.

*If the Supreme Court rules on a case 50 to 4, what does it mean?
21% answered, “The decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.”  Wrong!

*How much of a majority is required for the US Senate and the House of Representatives to override a presidential veto?
Only 27% gave the correct answer, two-thirds.
*Do you happen to know any of the three branches of government?  Would you mind naming any of them?
Only 36% were able to name all three (executive, legislative, judicial)

What is also striking is the ignorance among professional politicians.  In a 2015 speech presidential candidate Rick Perry quoted a great patriot:  “Thomas Paine wrote the ‘duty of a patriot’ is to protect his country from his government.”  Paine did not write this.  It appears in the writings of radical-left environmentalist Edward Abbey.

In 2011 another presidential contender, Michele Bachman told Nashua, New Hampshire, supporters, “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.”  As the sharp readers of the healthy memory blog likely know that those towns are in Massachusetts.

Of course, these individuals are failed presidential candidates.  Bill Clinton, however, is a two-term president.  On October 16,1996 he said, “The last time I checked, the Constitution said, “Of the people, by the people and for the people”  That’s what the Declaration of Independence says.”  Unfortunately those words are from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and are not in either of the documents he cited. Bill Clinton has said many times, that Hillary is better than he is.  That is undoubtedly true, but unfortunately she had not proofread his speech.  All three individuals have staffs who should be vetting their speeches.  So what gives???

One might think that character can override ideology.  We hear of swing voters who say they will decide between two ideologically different candidates based on character, likability, or simply being the “better man or woman for the job.”  Unfortunately UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck has found the split-tickets—those who vote for candidates from more than one party—are less informed than those who hold to a party line.  She surveyed a sample of 45 thousand Americans, asking them to name the current occupations of politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and John Roberts.  She compared the survey results to voting patterns.  Those who fell in the bottom third of political knowledge stood a 12% chance of voting for senatorial and presidential candidates from different parties in the 2012 election.  Among the best-informed third, the chance of a split ticket was only 4%.

Under informed voters were also more likely to describe themselves as undecided on hot-button issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage, and increasing taxes on the wealthy.  These finds fit in with the notion of a “mushy muddle.”  Political pollers recognized that many who identify themselves as moderates are really just those who “don’t know.”

Poundstone writes, “We hope that voters in the middle supply a reality check to partisanship and help promote the compromise necessary to a democratic society.  There “are” voters who hold strong, well-reasoned political convictions that happen to lie in between those of the two parties.  There just aren’t too many of these voters, it seems.”

Given this epidemic of ignorance, how do democracies survive?   Here is an explanation offered by Poundstone.   “One way to think of it is that democracies are like casinos.  They exploit human irrationality—and, come to think of it, there aren’t many firmer foundations than that.  There are enough “irrational” voters to channel the wisdom of crowds and select candidates who are in tune with public sentiment and who are , usually not all that bad.”

HM is always annoyed and exhortations “to vote.”  The exhortation should be to get informed, and when once informed, consider voting.  There is already significant noise in elections.  What is the point of increasing the noise?

Poundstone concludes the chapter that relates knowledge of elected officers to personal wealth.  When he asked his respondents to name the current occupants of these seven elected offices:  at least one of your state’s two US senators, your state’s governor, you state senator, your county sheriff, your city of town councilperson, and your local school board representative.  The average adult can name only about three of the seven.  Those who could name all seven offices made about $43,000 more per year than those who couldn’t name any of the offices.

This fact points to the importance of certain information being in one’s brain rather than being found some place in the cloud.

© 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.

The One-in-Five Rule

November 21, 2016

The One-in-Five Rule is chapter four of “Head In The Cloud” is an important book by William Poundstone.  Survey makers are aware of this rule, and so should you.  About 20% of the public believes just about any nutty idea a survey taker dares to ask about.  A 2010 “Huffington Post article sample survey reported that under informed 20%ers
* believe that witches are real
* believe the sun revolves around the earth
* believe in alien abductions
* believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, and
* believe the lottery is a good investment

Poundstone has a heading in this chapter titled “The Paranoid Style in American Cognition,” although HM is more inclined to believe that this paranoid style is a human problem rather than one specific to America.  However, the examples provided are regarding Americans.

In 2014 psychologists Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles E. Gignac, and Klaus Oberauer reported a survey asking for True or False responses to the following experiences:

* The Apollo moon landings never happened and were staged in a Hollywood film studio.
* The US government allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place so the it would have an excuse to achieve foreign and domestic goals (e.g., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and attacks on American civil liberties) that had been determined prior to the attacks.
* The alleged link between secondhand tobacco smoke and ill health is based on bogus science and is an attempt by a corrupt cartel of medical researchers to replace rational science with dogma.
*US agencies intentionally created the AIDS virus and administered it to black and gay men in the 1970s.

These respondents were also asked whether they agree or disagreed with the following statements:

* The potential for vaccinations to maim and harm children outweigh their health benefits.
* Humans are too insignificant to have an appreciable impact on global temperature.
* I believe that genetically engineered food have already damaged the environment.

Poundstone concludes the chapter with the following paragraph”
“Those who believed in flat-out conspiracy theories were also more likely to agee with the above statements ()the first two are wrong, and the third is unproven).  Unlike the typical  conspiracy theory, these beliefs affect everyday behavior, both in the voting booth and outside it.  Should I vaccinate my kids?  Are hybrid cars worth the extra cost? Which tomato do I buy?  The One-in-Five American casts a long shadow.”

More Facts Citizens Should Know

November 20, 2016

This post is based on information in “Head In The Cloud”  by William Poundstone. From 1993 to 2010 the US violent crime rate dropped precipitously.  The firearms homicide rate dropped from 7.0 to 3.6% per 100,000, almost in half.  The nonviolent crime rate plunged to a little more that a quarter of what it had been.  It is difficult to think of another major social problem that had shown such dramatic improvement, but were people aware of this improvement?

A 2013 Pew Research Center poll asked whether gun crimes had gone up, down, or stayed the same over the last twenty years.  56% thought that the crime rate had gone up (wrong), and 26% thought it had stayed the same (also wrong).  Just 12% thought it had gone down.

It is interesting that both sides of the gun issue believe that they have a better remedy for a surging crime rate that doesn’t  actually exist.

Poundstone did a survey for an estimate of “the average amount of memory for a new tablet computer.”  The most common answer, 10-99 gigabytes was the most reasonable one at the time of the survey.  This answer got 40% of the responses.  The second most common answer was gigabytes and that got slightly over 20% of the responses.  So at least these respondents had the correct prefix before bytes.  But the range of responses  was from less than a kilobyte to more than hundreds of petabytes.

Poundstone also found that Americans think that there are far more Blacks, Asians, Gays and Moslems than there are actually are.   In the public mind, Latinos, black, Asians, gays, and Muslims constitute about 25%, 23%, 13%, 11%, and 15% of the populations, respectively.   This adds up to 87% of the population.  Poundstone notes that even when you account for overlap, these high-profile minorities account for about two-thirds of the US population.  So according to what these people think, whites are already a minority, and they feel threatened. The correct values are 17%, 15%, 6%, and 1%, respectively, which yields a total of 39%.

Facts Citizens Should Know

November 19, 2016

This post is based on information in “Head In The Cloud”  by William Poundstone.  It might be difficult to find someone who did not know what the national debt was.  And it would seem to be reasonable for citizens to have at least ballpark estimates of its size.  In October 2013 Internet Panel survey that was conducted by “Business Insider” when Ted Cruz was engineering a partial shutdown of the federal government over the federal deficit.  The survey asked a representative sample of 500 respondents nationwide to estimate the size of the US deficit.  The question was multiple choice, and guesses were grouped by order of magnitude.  The most common answer was the range $1 billion to just under $10 billion.  This answer was chosen by 23% of the respondents.  The actual 2013 deficit was $642 billion, which is about a hundred times bigger than the typical response.  Others estimated the deficit even more drastically.  More than 10% put it at a few million dollars or less.  Poundstone notes “That segment of the public inhabits an alternative universe in which a retired optician in Boca Raton could write a check covering this year’s federal deficit.

It is possible to think that these numbers are so large that they are incomprehensible to the average Joe.  So the survey also asked what had happened to the deficit in the previous year.  Was it bigger, smaller, or about the same?  As Poundstone writes “Well-informed citizens would have known that the slowly recovering economy, spending cuts, and tax increases had combined to cut the deficit from $1.09 trillion in 2012 to $642 billion in 2013.  Still, 68% believed that the deficit was larger in 2013.

Poundstone followed up on this survey with a similar one using the same Internet panel firm.  A new randomized national sample was asked the same two questions, except he replace the word “deficit” with “debt”.  Many people confuse these two terms, but they are quite different.  Deficit refers to a budget shortfall.  Debt refers to borrowed money for which the government is responsible.  Deficits are annual and debt is cumulative.  It can either increase or decrease.

Poundstone provides historical context for the national debt.  Under George Washington the United  States ran up huge Revolutionary War debt that wasn’t paid off until 1830,  The United States remained debt free for about a decade after than, but since 1840 the United States has always had debt.  At the time of the survey the US debt stood at more than $17 trillion.  Only 27% picked the correct range ($10-100 trillion) and it was not the most popular response.

The meaningful statistic is per capita debt.  But to compute per capita debt one needs to know the population of the US.  A National Geographic survey asked participants to pick the US population from four multiple-choice ranges.  69% picked outrageously wrong answers or said they didn’t know.

What do citizens know about the distribution of individual wealth?  Psychologist Dan Ariely and business professor Michael I. Norton ran an Internet Panel survey asking 5,522 Americans to estimate the distribution of wealth in 2011.  The participants were instructed to divide the nation into quintiles (fifths of the population) by wealth.  There would be the wealthiest 20%, the second-wealthiest 20% and so on down to the poorest 20%.  The survey was regarding wealth and not income.  It asked about net worth defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt.

The reality is the the top 20% of American possess about 84% of the wealth.  The second and middle quintiles split between themselves almost everything else.  The two poorest quintiles account for only 0.2% and 0.1% of the total.  This bottom 40% is living mostly paycheck to paycheck if they have paychecks.

Although the public is aware  that there is a lopsided distribution of wealth, they have a poor idea of how lopsided this distribution is.  Survey subjects gestated that the top quintile holds about 58% of the total wealth and that a each succeeding quintile has progressively less, down to about 3% of the poorest group.  In other words the public estimated the top quintile to be 20 times richer than the bottom quintile.  The top quintile is 840 times wealthier in reality.

When asked to describe the ideal wealth distribution, the top fifth would hold about 32% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom fifth would have 10%.  So the top to bottom quintile shrinks to barely threefold.

A surprising finding was that there wasn’t much variation among the estimates, either actual or ideal, made by different political and demographic groups.  As expected Republican voters and men favored a bit more wealth inequality than Democratic voters and women did, but not much.  The wealthy had a better ideal on how much the top quintile owned, and they envisioned a utopia with greater wealth disparity than the poor did, but, again, the difference was only a few percentage points.

Another study by Michael Norton an Sorapop Kiatpongsan asked a sample of 55,000 respondents in 40 industrialized nations to estimate the actual and ideal incomes of unskilled worked in their respective nations.  They also asked for the actual and ideal incomes of the CEO of a large corporation.  Using these responses they computed CEO-to-worker ratios, based on the estimates, and compare them to the reality.

In the United States the ratio in the book was 354 to 1.  It continues to worsen year after year.   But Americans estimated it to be only 30 to 1.  The expressed ideal pay ratio was 6.7 to 1.  The discrepancies between actual pay ratio and ideal pay ratio hell throughout the world, but they were no where as outlandish as in the United States.

Please allow HM a digression here as it is something he feels very strongly about.  A business professor he published CEO to worker pay ratios with the intention of showing how outlandish they were.  Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences raised its ugly head.  Corporate boards of directors used this as a metric for hiring under the following assumption:  to get the best CEOs they needed to increase their compensation.  CEOs from entirely different industries are hired on the assumption that they have a certain genius.  HM argues that there usually is someone within the company who can do a much better job, one who knows the companies workings and problems intimately.

The result is that corporate governance in the United States is rotten.  The Board of Director scratches the CEOs back and the CEO returns the favor.  The result is not good for individual stockholders, employees, or customers.  Employees have the most interest in the actual company and in the long-term welfare and growth of the company.  This is not true for either the CEO or the Board of Directors who might be interested in flipping the company or getting involved in some merger that most often does not benefit employees or customers, and might not provide long-term benefits to individual stockholders, especially value investors.

The benefits of CEO compensation can be compared across nations.  There is absolutely no evidence that the exorbitant compensation of CEOs has any benefits for anyone other than the CEO and the Board of Directors.

An obvious solution might be to require legitimate elections in publicly owned companies where there are at least two candidates for every position.  Although obvious, this might be difficult to implement.  One might argue that stockholders do not know whom they are voting for, but one could provide evidence that this is also the case in democracies.  But a more viable solution might be to do what they do in Germany. In Germany half of the board of directors must be employees.  Employees are not only interested in wages and benefits, but they have a long standing interest in the health and growth of the company.

© 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.

Head In The Cloud

November 18, 2016

“Head In The Cloud” is an important book by William Poundstone.  The subtitle is “Why Knowing Things Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up.”  Psychologists make the distinction between information that is accessible in memory and information that is available in memory.  Information that you can easily recall is obviously accessible in memory.  However, there is other information that you might not be able to recall now, but that you know that you know it.  This information eventually becomes accessible and can appear suddenly unsummoned in consciousness.

Transactive memory refers to information you can get from our fellow humans or from technology.  Most information available in technology can readily be summoned via Google searches.  An extreme view argues that since all this information is available, we do not need to remember the information itself as long as we know how to search for the information.  Whenever we encounter new information we are confronted with the question as to whether we need to commit this information to our biological memory.  This is a nontrivial question as committing information to memory requires cognitive effort, thinking, or in terms of Kahneman’s Two Process Theory, engaging our System 2 processes.  The healthy memory blog  has a category devoted to mnemonic techniques explicitly designed to assist in memorizing information as well as other discussions regarding how to make information memorable.  But all of this involves effort, so why bother if it can simply be looked up?  “Head in the Cloud” explains the benefits of moving some information from the cloud into our brains.

Poundstone describes an experiment done in 2011 by Daniel Wegner.  He presented volunteers with a list of forty trivia facts—short, pithy statement such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.”  Half of the volunteers were told to remember the facts.  The other half were not.  Within each of these groups half were informed that their work would be stored on the computer, and half were told that their work would be immediately erased after the task’s completion.    All these volunteers were later given a quiz on the facts they typed.  It did not matter whether they had been instructed to remember the information or not.  It only mattered if they thought their work was going to be erased after the task.  These volunteers remembered more regardless of whether they were told to remember the information.

The following is directly from the text “It is impossible to remember everything.  The brain must constantly be doing triage on memories, without conscious intervention.  And apparently it recognizes that there is less need to stock our minds with information that can be readily retrieved.  So facts are more often forgotten when people believe the facts will be archived.  This phenomenon has earned a name—the Google effect—describing the automatic forgetting of information that can be found online.”

HM does not disagree with any of the above quote.  However, he is alarmed by what is omitted.  That omission regards a conscious decision as to whether the information should be further processed to increase its accessibility without technology and whether it is related to other information that might require further research.  It is true that we are time constrained, so that depending on the situation the time available for such consideration will be important.  But as Poundstone will show, it is important to get some information out of the cloud and into the brain, and we can consciously alter the processing we give to the retrieved information.  Sans attention, it will likely remain in the cloud.

Poundstone reports an enormous amount of research conducted by a new type of polling called an Internet panel survey.  These are conducted by an organization that has recruited a large group of subjects (the panel)  who agree to participate in surveys.  When a new survey begins, the software selects a random sample of the panel to contact.  E-mails containing links are sent to the selected participants, typically in several waves to achieve a demographic balance closely approximating the general populations.  The sample can be balance for sex, age, ethnicity, education, income, and other demographic markers of interest to the research project.

A prior healthy memory blog post appropriately titled “The Dunning-Kruger Effect” discusses the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  Dunning is a psychology professor and Kruger was a graduate student.  The effect is that “Those most lacking in knowledge and skills are least able to understand their lack of knowledge.”  The flip-side of this effect is that those most knowledgeable are most aware of any holes in their knowledge.

“Actor John Cleese concisely explains the Dunning-Kruger effect in a much-shared You Tube video:  ‘If you’re very, very stupid how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid?  You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are…And this explains not just Hollywood but almost the entirety of Fox News’”

The chaos and contradictions of the current political environment can perhaps best be characterized as a glaring example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Just a few moments of contemplation should reveal the potential danger from this effect.  Poundstone’s book reveals the glaring lack of knowledge in many important areas by too many individuals.  He also provides ample evidence of the benefits of moving certain information from the cloud and into our brains.

© 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.

 

Can the US Heal Its Political Rift

November 16, 2016

This blog is motivated by an article in the November 5, 2016 New Scientist’s Analysis Section titled, “Make America whole again:  how the US can heal its political rift.”  This article reviews proven approaches to get groups that differ, sometimes radically, in their beliefs or political positions, to work together productively and achieve useful objectives.  At one time these approaches would have worked in the United State.  But these approaches require that the different parties want to be able to work together.  They also require people to have open minds and be willing to think.

Unfortunately, in the United States there is only one party to clap.  The second party, Trump’s Party, and it is called Trump’s party because this person is no Republican, although he did win the Republican Primary.  Trump not only has no desire to work with the Democratic Party, he has little interest in working within his own Party.  He spoke using fear, bigotry, and misogyny and used the first person, “I”, not “we.”  It is the talk of a potential dictator.  It is extremely depressing to see so many people attracted to him.  Apparently, these people are long on fear and bigotry, and short on thinking.  Correction, they do not think.  Consequently, there is no basis for reasoned deliberation.

The New Scientist article notes that there is evidence that genetics may play a role in determining which party we side with.  Unfortunately, as John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln notes, this makes it difficult to change their opinions.  Hibbing argues that conservatives are more “threat-sensitive”.  Threatening images or sounds elicit a stronger physiological response from them than from liberals.

Another researcher, neuroscientist Read Montgue has also found a link between a person’s politics and the character of their emotional responses.  He put research participants into a brain scanner and measured their response to a series of images chosen to evoke a disgust response from images of feces to dead bodies to insect-covered food.  After they emerged from the scanner, they are asked if they would like to take part in another experiment.  If they say, “yes’ they take a ten minutes to answer a political ideology survey.  They are asked questions about their feelings on gun control, abortion, premarital sex, and so on.  Montague found that that the more disgusted a participant is by the images, the more politically conservative they are likely to be.  The less disgusted, the more liberal.  The correlation is so strong that a person’s neural response to a single disgusting image predicts their score on the political ideology test with 95% accuracy.  This score is remarkably high.

HM would like to see this experiment replicated with the following change.  Anonymity would be assured, numbers would be assigned, but the survey would be administered before the brain scanning.  Actually, this experiment would need to be replicated across a representative sample of US voters.  But if this result could be replicated and found to be extremely robust could anything be done?  Brain scanning at polls with medication administered where indicated?  This question is raised to illustrate how intractable this problem really is.

© 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.

System 2 Processing for Building a Cognitive Reserve

November 14, 2016

The immediately preceding post suggested a mechanism for building a cognitive reserve to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Although it is frequently said that Alzheimer’s disease cannot be prevented or cured, there have been autopsies done of people whose brains had  defining amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles required for a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms.  So there have been individuals who had Alzheimer’s, but who never knew that they had the disease!  The explanation for these individuals is that they had built up a cognitive reserve.

The healthy memory post “Cognitive Activity and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease” summarizes a study in which reported cognitive activity was the best predictor of a decreased risk for Alzheimer’s.  This finding held even when the factors of educational level and job prestige were statistically controlled.  The post “How Cognitive Activity Decreases the Risk of Alzheimer’s”  proposed a mechanism to identify how cognitive activity decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Our brains are working constantly even when we sleep.  So how can the type of cognitive activity that builds this cognitive reserve be identified?  This explanation depends upon understanding Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition.  This theory was expanded upon in Kahneman’s best selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  System 1 is fast and is called intuition.  System 1 needs to be fast so we can process language and make the fast decisions we need to make everyday.  System 1 is also the seat of our emotions.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking.  System 2 requires mental effort and our attentional processes.  Stanovich has elaborated System 2 in the development of a more comprehensive intelligence quotient.  But for our purposes, this discussion included Stanovich’s concept as it involves even more thinking and attentional processes.

System 1 is fast because it uses defaults to expedite processing with minimal cognitive resources.  Whenever we read or hear something that corresponds to our beliefs or expectations only System 1 is involved.  However, one of the responsibilities of System 2 is to monitor System 1  processes to check for erroneous processing.  Whenever we hear or read something that does not correspond to our beliefs, there is an identifiable response in the brain, which signals the initiation of System 2 processes.  System 2 can decide to curtail further processing and to move on, or to engage in a more thorough process of memory search, checking for logical contradictions, and so on.  All of this is thinking and requires cognitive effort.

Similarly when we are learning new information or a skill, System 2 is engaged.  This is why learning can be frustrating and demanding.  System 2 stays engaged until learning begins and then gradually disengages until it becomes an almost automatic System 1 process.  This learning is a matter of engaging different parts of the brain, establishing new neural pathways.  It is also likely that old neural pathways are  reactivated.

So System 2 processing establishes new neural pathways and reactivates related previous neural pathways.  So regardless of what happens with respect to amyloid plaque or neurofibrillary tangles, the brain remains healthy and our memories remain healthy and can continue to grow cognitively..

When we are doing System 1 processing our brains are effectively on cruise control.  When we are doing System 2 processing we are engaged in cognitively effortful processing and are thinking.  But is there a way to identify System 2 processing?  Does System 2 processing have a signature?

It is possible that there is. Research has been done in which statements are played to research participants while their brains are being monitored.  When a statement is presented with which a subject disagrees, there is a noticeable response.  Perhaps this response could be used as a signature for System 2.

Even if this works, there is an implementation problem,  How would this be done?  It might be possible to evaluate different cognitive processes with respect to the amount of effortful processing.  This could be an area of research that would generate a large volume of research papers with the concomitant reward of faculty tenure.

Perhaps a simpler way would be to compare Trump Voters against those who did not vote for Trump.  The respective samples would be monitored to see how many suffered from Alzheimer’s at what ages.  For HM, the only conceivable way that individuals could vote for Trump would be to do very little, if any, System 2 processing regarding him.

A related approach would be to compare viewers of Fox news  against a control sample who did not watch Fox news.  Both groups would be tracked to see who fell ill with Alzheimer’s at what age.  The appeal of Fox news is that it is designed to cater to the biases of viewers and to minimize any disturbing or conflicting news.  It can be viewed in cruise control rarely, if ever, having to engage in System 2 processing.  This is probably why Fox news is so popular—it requires little, if any, cognitive effort.  On the other hand those poor viewers of unbalanced news have to engage in System 2 processes to ascertain credibility levels for their news.  The  prediction would be for higher and earlier incidences of Alzheimer’s for Fox News viewers.

© 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.

How Cognitive Activity Decreases the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

November 12, 2016

This explanation depends upon understanding Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition.  This theory was expanded upon in Kahneman’s best selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  System 1 is fast and is called intuition.  System 1 needs to be fast so we can process language and make the fast decisions we need to make everyday.  System 1 is also the seat of our emotions.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking.  System 2 requires mental effort and requires our attentional processes.  Stanovich has elaborated System 2 in the development of a more comprehensive intelligence quotient.  But for our purposes, this discussion includes Stanovich’s concept as it involves even more thinking and attentional processes.

System 1 is fast because it uses defaults to expedite processing with minimal cognitive resources.  Whenever we read or hear something that corresponds to our beliefs or expectations only System 1 is involved.  However, one of the responsibilities of System 2 is to monitor System 1 processes to check for erroneous processing.  Whenever we hear or read something that does not correspond to our beliefs, there is an identifiable response in the brain, which signals the initiation of System 2 processes.  System 2 can decide to curtail further processing and to move on, or to engage in a more thorough process of memory search, checking for logical contradictions, and so on.  All of this is thinking and requires cognitive effort.

Similarly when we are learning new information or a skill, System 2 is engaged.  This is why learning can be frustrating and demanding.  System 2 stays engaged until learning begins and then gradually disengages until it becomes an almost automatic System 1 process.  This learning is a matter of engaging different parts of the brain, establishing new neural pathways.  It is also likely that old neural pathways are  reactivated.

So System 2 processing establishes new neural pathways and reactivates related previous neural pathways.  So regardless of what happens with respect to amyloid plaque or neurofibrillary tangles, the brain remains healthy and our memories remain healthy and continue to grow.

This explains the cognitive reserve, which is the explanation of why there are individuals whose brains are filled with amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles but who never exhibit any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms.  Cognitive activity keeps the necessary pathways open and continues to find new ones.

However, absent sufficient activity the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles gradually destroy the brains ability to function.

The reason the healthy memory blog recommends growth mindsets is to promote this cognitive activity.  This quote by the humorist Art Buchwald is appropriate here.
“To remain mentally sharp, you have to deal with familiar things in novel ways. But most important of all, you have to have a sense of curiosity. If interest and curiosity stop coming automatically to you, then you’re in trouble, no matter how young or old you are.”

The healthy memory blog also strongly recommends meditation and mindfulness.  There are two reasons for this recommendation.  One is to promote emotional control and affective communications with others.  The second reason is to increase our focus and to gain control over our attention.  Our minds rarely stop.  Meditation helps us gain control of our attention.

© 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.

Cognitive Activity and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

November 9, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the titled of an article by Robert S. Wilson and David A. Bennet in “Current Directions in Psychological Science”, 2003, 87-91.  HM expresses his sincere apology for not reviewing this article earlier as it is central to the theme and purpose of the healthy memory blog.  HM is also livid that he has not seen this article frequently cited.

Wilson and Bennett begin their article by noting that the idea that frequent intellectual activity might help one’s mental faculties in old age predated the Roman empire.  Then they begin their review.  The examine three issues bearing upon cognitive activity and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  They first consider whether cognitive activity accounts for the association between education and occupational attainment and risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  They next address the behavioral mechanisms underlying the association.  Then they discus neurobiological mechanisms underlying the association.

They found that cognitive activity did decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  What is especially interesting is that even when educational level and occupational prestige were controlled for statistically, cognitive activity appeared to be the primary factor bearing upon decreased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

As for the behavioral mechanisms reducing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, they note that cognitively active people begin old age with better cognitive skills than less cognitively active people and these skills might be less subject to decline.  They cite two studies that support these contentions.

They address the benefits of cognitive training programs, but note that these benefits appear to be specific to the skill(s) that were trained.  They also cite studies that have found that frequency of cognitive activity, but not of physical activity is related to risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  Cognitive activity appears to be primarily associated with reduced decline in processing skills like perceptual speed and working memory.  These skills are involved in nearly all kinds of intellectual activity, so it makes sense that they would  benefit the most from the frequency of such activity.

Regarding neurobiological  mechanisms underlying the association, they discuss two possibilities.  The first is that cognitive activity directly slows the build up of the neuritic plaques and neurofibrillary tangles  that define the disease.  The second is that cognitive activity  affects the risk of Alzheimers by affecting the development or maintenance of the interconnected neural systems that underlie different forms of cognition.

The data clearly indicate that the second explanation regarding the benefits of cognitive activity is accurate.  A given amount of Alzheimer’s disease pathology was associated with less cognitive impairment in a person with more education than in a person with less education.  In other words these data suggest that variables related to education, or variables related to education such as cognitive activity affect the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia by somehow enhancing the brain’s capacity to tolerate Alzheimer/s disease pathology.

In their conclusion they write, “Because few identifiable  risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease have been identified, this area of research has important public-health implications.  Much remains to be learned, however.”

A central questions is when during the life span is cognitive activity important.  HM encourages everyone to be cognitively active, but can it start too late to be beneficial.  Absent the necessary research, the answer should be that it is never too late.  But a larger question is why is there so little research activity on this topic.  The cynical, but HM believes accurate, answer is that money is in drug treatments targeted at the defining physical symptoms, and that cognitive activity is painful and will be avoided by large numbers of people.

Perhaps these findings were not available when this paper was written, but the study makes no mention of the research that has found the brains of cadavers full of the defining plaques and tangles of the disease, whose owners of the brains never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of the disease when they were alive.

The statement is frequently made that there is no current cure for Alzheimer’s.  That cure is being sought in the prevention or curing of the physical symptoms.  Although there might not be a cure, there does appear to be an effective method of precluding the cognitive and behavioral manifestations—cognitive activity.

And that is why the healthy memory blog places such heavy emphasis on growth mindsets.  Mnemonic techniques is one of the blogs categories.  Mnemonic techniques, in addition to improving memory are ideal types of cognitive activity.  Mental imagery is central to many of these techniques, so they involve both hemispheres of the brain.

© 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.

Does Talk By Trump Constitute a Threat?

November 7, 2016

This post is based on an article by the same title written by Colby Itkowitz in the 1 November 2016 issue of the Washington Post in the Metro Section.  This article is about a winner of a MacArthur Award, which is better known as the “Genius” Award.  She used her award to fund the Dangerous Speech Project.  Her name is Susan Benesch, a law professor at American University, who also is a Harvard University faculty associate.

As a young lawyer, she did international work in the aftermath of the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s.  Beseech was drawn to the question of whether one could detect warning signs for genocide before one occurred.  She did her first field study for the Dangerous Speech Project in Kenya leading up to its presidential election held in March 2013.  While there she helped oversee several projects that sought to diminish the impact of dangerous-speech, including one writing four episodes of a popular Kenyan courtroom comedy in which the actors discredited inflammatory statements.  This election produced little violence.

According to Benesch, to rise to he level of dangerous speech, at least two of these five indicators must be true:

A powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience.

The audience has grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate.

A speech act that is clearly understood as a call to violence.

A social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances or previous episodes of violence.

A means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary sources of news for the relevant audience.

She concludes that Trump does not meet these criteria.  HM disagrees.  He thinks the first two have clearly been met, and that Fox News could constitute a third indicator.  She rightly concludes that what appear to be calls to violence have been presented in an ambiguous manner.

There will be a data point in several days, which should tell us who reached the correct conclusion.  HM sincerely hopes he is wrong.

Sick Memory

November 5, 2016

The title of this post is the antithesis of the title of this blog.  There is a growing epidemic of sick memories.  No memory is highly preferable to sick memory.  There is an article titled “Trolls for Trump” by Andrew Marantz in the October 31, 2016 issue of the “New Yorker.”  The subtitle of the article is “How the alt-right spreads fringe ideas to the mainstream.”  The article details how this works and how dangerous it is.  Take Donald Trump and multiple him hundreds of thousands of times, perhaps even millions of times.
They can be found on the internet, the radio, and cable.  Unfortunately they affect legitimate news media.

Their content is based solely on beliefs, many of which are racist, misogynist, and move into facism, although not labeled as such.  There is virtually no evidence although some might be fabricated.  But rarely are there attempts to fabricate evidence.  As it all hinges on beliefs, and the more absolute, the more strongly expressed, the better.  They condemn what they call political correctness, which in other quarters is regarded as common decency.

They deny any evidence that contradicts their beliefs, much as Trump denies direct evidence that he did and said certain things.  Imaginary conspiracies rage that must be thwarted.  When frustrated or stymied, then the system is rigged, just at Trump has already condemned the election.  It is useful to note that Trump declared that the Republican nomination process was rigged, but he won.  So one might conclude that it was rigged in his favor.

There is no way to argue with these people or to debunk what they say.  Evidence is irrelevant in the alternative universe they have created.

Let me remind you how memory works.  Memory is a system for time travel.  We use it to consult the past to decide upon courses of action for the future.  We never have direct access to reality.  What we perceive has already happened and is stored in intermediate memory stages.  From this information we construct models of reality, which we use to guide our behavior.  As we learn we refine our models of the external world.  This is based on experience derived from external data.  In a way we are all scientists developing our models of the world based on our personal experience and what we find in transactive memory, which is information derived from our fellow humans and technology.

This lunatic fringe’s memories are sick because they just construct an artificial reality that is never checked against or modified by information from other sources.  The only thing of interest is more stuff that supports their beliefs.  There is no role for critical thinking and logic.  Hence these are sick memories, and these sick memories threaten our society and the progress of all societies.

© 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.

Vote for Christian Values, Not for Trump

November 2, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Dustin Wahl, Paige Cutler, and Alexander Forbes in the 26 October, 2016 issue of the Washington Post.  The authors are  students of Liberty University who are incensed by the president of their university endorsing Donald Trump.

The article notes that Mark DeMoss, the chair of Liberty’s executive committed criticized Trump’s “politics of personal insult,” saying “It’s not Christ-like behavior that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”  For this statement he was asked to resign from the executive committee.  Demoss left Liberty University ending his decades-long career of service to Liberty University.

Last week the students began circulating a statement titled “Liberty Against Trump” expressing their opposition to President Falwell’s endorsement and disassociating themselves from Trump.  So far, more than 2,000 Liberty students and faculty have sighed the statement.

The Post article continues, “”Evangelical conservatives who vote for Trump to get a favorable Supreme Court must realize that doing so requires trusting the words of the most unabashedly untruthful presidential candidate in modern history.  Trump has changed his position on nearly every issue of importance at least once, sometimes in mid-speech.  There is little reason to believe that he is worried about the same issue we are.  It makes more sense to believe that Trump is happy many Christians are worried because it allows him to do what all demagogues do:  offer strength in time of fear.”

They continue, “ Trump is the antithesis of our values; there is no reason to revisit his vices here.  Most non-Christians recognize Trump as amoral and self-centered.  If we ignore this fact and buy in to his promise of strength, what will it tell the world about how seriously we Christians esteem our values.”

HM applauds these students for their intelligence and their courage.  But he feels compelled to say something about many, if not most, evangelicals.  They do not understand that the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees, among other rights, the freedom of religion for the individual.  The Constitution makes a clear distinction between church and state to the effect that neither impinges on the other.  So we can each believe what we want and worship as we want, as long as we do not trample on the rights of others.  But what many evangelicals regard as religious freedom is their right to impose their religious beliefs on others by changing laws and the interpretation of laws of the land.  When this is done they are imposing on the religious beliefs of others as well as secular humanists, who also have beliefs.  What they are doing is identical to the Sharia they find so repugnant in Islam.  What hypocrites they are!.  They do not perceive the mote in their own eye (Matt 7:3).

A classical religious debate is which is more important: beliefs or deeds.  HM argues that it is unequivocally deeds.  Beliefs are specific to religions and religions are institutions created by human beings.  Beliefs are the special sauce, if you will, to either frighten or attract people to the particular religion.  However, GOD is eternal and predates all religions.  HM believes that deeds are important to GOD and that GOD is indifferent to beliefs.  HM believes that GOD has given us brains and expects us to use them.  These students used their brains and came to correct conclusions different from their religious leader.  I would encourage readers to do the same.  When churches are encouraging questionable practices, you can likely find a church closer to your understanding as to what GOD wants.  There are plenty of churches from which to choose.  But a church is not required.  Individuals can develop their own relationship with GOD through prayer and meditation.  A church is only required when social interactions are important.

© 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.

How Donald Trump Manages to Do It

November 1, 2016

This post is inspired by a piece in the October 29, 2016 edition of  the “New Scientist” by an article titled, “Lying feels bad at first but our brains soon adapt to deceiving.”  The article reported an experiment run by Tali Sharot of University College London and her team.  This experiment encouraged volunteers to lie.  They were shown jars of pennies filled in varying degrees and asked to send estimates of how many there were to partners in another room.  The partners were shown blurrier images of the jar, so they relied on the volunteers’ estimates to guess the number of pennies in order to win a reward for each of them.

The volunteers were told that they would get a higher personal reward if their partner’s answer were wrong, and that the more inaccurate the answer, the greater the reward would be.  They started telling lies, which were small at first but then escalated.  For example a person who might have started with a lie that earned them one pound sterling, might have ended up telling fibs worth eight pounds sterling.

Brain scans showed that the first lie was associated with a burst of activity in the amygdalae, which are involved in emotional responding.  But this activity lessened as the lies progressed (Nature Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1038/nn.4426).

Donald Trump has had a long career lying, and his lies have rewarded him well.  HM doubts if there is any activity in his amygdalae when he lies.  Trump’s lies frequently contradict each other, so it is clear that he fails to remember lies.  The question is whether he is even aware that he is lying.  When confronted with the truth, including unequivocal evidence of the truth, he still denies it.  He invents conspiracies, which he apparently believes.  At first he complained that the Republican primary was rigged.  If so, it was rigged in his favor.  Now he threatens to disavow the results of the presidential election should he not be elected.  One concludes from this that Trump lives in an alternative reality, one which is largely divorced from reality.  A president who is divorced from reality would be disastrous.

Unfortunately, political polls have indicated that many have chosen to join Trump in his alternative reality.  This is frightening for democracy, and the size of the Trump vote will provide a good index of how frightened we should be.

One of the many ironies of this presidential election, is that Hillary Clinton is accused of lying and voters say that they do not believe her.  First of all, she is a politician.  Although the term politician has negative connotations, politicians are essential to a working democracy.  Saying that Hillary Clinton has lied is as enlightening as saying the Pope is a Catholic.  Even Honest Abe Lincoln lied.  Fact checkers have been monitoring  both candidates.  Comparing Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump regarding lies is like comparing the Chicago fire (Trump) to someone in his back yard burning leaves (Clinton).
Here is a link well worth clicking:

© 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.

Anything But a Healthy Memory

October 31, 2016

Paul McDevit, who edits Feedback Column of the New Scientist noted in the 13 August 2016 edition of the New Scientist that Donald Trump is a man who doesn’t lie so much as see the truth as a bad investment.  The following quotes are taken verbatim from his Twitter feed.

“I predicted the 9/11 attack on American in my book “The America We Deserve”” (29 December 2011).

“Not only are wind farms disgusting looking, but even worse they are bad for people’s health” (23 April 2012).

“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud” (6 August 2012).

“Remember, hew “Environmental friendly” lightbulbs can cause cancer.  Be careful—the idiots who came up with this stuff don’t care.”  (17 October 2012).

“If we didn’t remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn’t work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down.” (17 October 2012).

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  (6 November 2012).

“How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in a plane crash today.  All others lived”  (12 December 2013)

“Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond.  Global warming is an expensive hoax!”  (29 Januaty 2014)

“Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes—AUTISM.  Many such cases.” (28 March 2014).

“The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back.  People that go to far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!”  (2 August 2014).

“I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied.  Save our children and their future.”  (3 September 2014).

“Ebola is much easier to transmit that the CDC government representatives are admitting.   Spreading all over Africa—and fast.  Stop flights”  (2 October 2014)

“We must suspend immigration from regions linked with terrorism until a proven vetting method is in place.”  (26 June 2016)
McDevit concludes with “Feedback can at least are with one bombastic pronouncement from the ornery demagogue:  “The global warming we should be worried about is the global warming caused by NUCLEAR WEAPONS in the hands of crazy or incompetent leaders!”
“Quite”

Wealth and Empathy

October 30, 2016

This post is motivated by an Opinion piece in the Outlook Section of the 23 October issue of the Washington Post by Karen Weese.  The title of the piece is “How can you tell if someone is kind?  Ask how rich they are.”

Past healthy memory blog posts have reported arguments by some who say that humans have the quality of empathy, which computers can never have.  HM has never bought these arguments.  One might argue that computers might not be able to feel empathy, computers can, and perhaps already have, shown the capacity to show empathy.  Moreover, this facility will increase over time.  If you read some of the healthymemory blog posts based on the book “Progress,” one finds scant historical evidence for empathy. Current events lead to the belief that perhaps most of the world’s problems can be attributed to a famine of empathy.

Ms. Weese begins with an anecdote about the tips she and a friend left at a Denny’s restaurant.  The bill was $11 and her friend tossed a $5 tip on the table.  Ms Weese was amazed.  Her friend worked as a caregiver and was raising two children on less than $19k a year.  Her friend explained, cocking her head at their waitress, who was visibly pregnant and speed-walking from table to table with laden platters in the busy restaurant.  “She’s been on her feet for probably six hours already and has three more to go, she has a baby on the way, you know she’s exhausted, and somehow she still took great care of us like she’s supposed to.  She needs it more than I do.”

Reese writes that “There’s little question that people find it easier to give when they see something of themselves in the recipient.”  She notes that families of cancer survivors participate eagerly in fundraising walks.  She also argues that it is also why hedge fund manager John Paulson gave $400 million last year to endowment rich Harvard University, and not to, say, Habitat for Humanity.

A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities.  People in homogeneous rich communities are less likely to see homeless people.

A study by Yale professor Michael Kraus found that when shown human faces with different expressions, lower-income participants are better than their more affluent counterparts at identifying the emotions correctly.

University of California psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner recorded video at four way stop signs.  They found that the drivers of Toyotas and other inexpensive cars were four times less likely to cut off other drivers than the people steering BMWs and other high-end cars.  In a related experiment, drivers of more modest cars were more likely to respect the right-of-way of pedestrians in a cross-walk, while half the drivers of high-end cars motored right past them.  Other experiments have shown that lower income subjects were less likely than high income subjects to cheat, lie, and help themselves to a jar of candy meant for kids.

Other research has shown that just thinking about money can make people act more selfishly.  An experiment by University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs primed some study participants with images of money or asked them to unscramble lists of words than included terms like “cash” and “bill”.  They were less likely than the unprimed participants to give money to a hypothetical charity.  And when a research assistant appeared to accidentally drop a box of pencils on the floor right beside the participants, money-primed subjects were less willing to help pick them up.

Of course, the question is why does this difference occur.  Initial evidence indicates that the difference can be found in brain activity.  When Keely Muscatell of the University of North Carolina Keely Muscatell showed high and low income subjects photos of human faces with accompanying human stories, the brains of the low-income subjects demonstrated much more activity in the areas associated with empathy than the rich subjects’ brains.

When Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto showed videos of children at St. Jude’s hospital undergoing medical procedures, lower-income viewers exhibited more heart-rate deceleration than their higher-income counterparts.  Scientists use heart-rate deceleration as a measure of compassion.

So, how can rich people become more empathetic?  Other research has found that rich subjects began to act more empathetically toward others when shown a vivid, emotional video about kids in poverty.

Regardless of wealth, it is well known that people respond better to the plight of a single case than that of a whole group.  This has been termed the “identifiable victim bias.”

Reese ends her piece as follows: “Perhaps all of us who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from could stand to widen our lens.”

HM believes that meditation will increase empathy.  Should it not increase empathy, then it is not being done properly.

© 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.

Are Video Games Luring Men From the Workforce?

October 29, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Ana Swanson in the 24 September issue of the Washington Post.  It begins with the story of a high school graduate who has dropped out of the workforce because he finds little satisfaction in the part-time, low wage jobs he’s had since graduating from high school.  Instead he plays video games, including FIFA 16 and Rocket League on Xbox One and Pokemon Go on his smartphone.

The article notes that of last year 22% of the men between the ages of 21 and  30 with less than a bachelor’s degree reported not working at all in the previous year.  This is up from 9.5% in 2000.  These young men have replaced 75% of the time they used to spend working with time on the computer mostly playing video games.

From 2004 to 2007, before the recession, unemployed men averaged 5.7 hours on he computer, whereas employed men average 3.4 hours. This included video game time.  After the recession, between 2011 to 2014 unemployed men average 12.2 hours per week, whereas employed men averaged 4.7 hours.  With respect to video games from 2004-07 unemployed men averaged 3.4 hours per week versus 2.1 hours fro employed men.  During the period from 2011-2014 unemployed men average 8.6 hours playing video games verses 3.2 hours for employed men.

Researchers are arguing that these increases in game playing are partially  due to the games appeal having been increased. The estimate runs from one-fifth to one-third of the decreased work is attributable to the rising appeal of video games.  HM believes that prior to these games most unemployed were confronted primarily to daytime television, which provided a strong inducement to seek work.  Today video games provide an entertaining alternative to seeking work.  As the games improve and become more sophisticated, the argument is that they have become even more appealing.

The article notes that the extremely low cost makes these games even more accessible.  It states that recent research has found that households making $25K to $35K a year spent 92 more minutes a week online that households making $100K or more per year.

The article also notes that for the first time since the 1930s more U.S. men ages 18 to 34 are living with their parents than with romantic partners according to the Pew Research center.

The article argues that these men are happy.  HM feels that this happiness is likely to be short-lived, and that there is a serious risk that these men will end up as adults who are stunted intellectually and emotionally.

© 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.

Understanding Anxiety and How to Control It

October 27, 2016

This post is based largely on an article by Linda Geddes in the Feature Section of the 8 October 2016 issue of the “New Scientist” titled “Why we worry:  Understanding anxiety and how to control it”.  The reason why we worry is because we have brains to protect us from danger.  The prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex amplify negative information and makes us pay attention to it.  Emotional memories and our learned reactions to them are stored in the amygdala.  When active, it triggers the release of hormones responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

In 1980 the American Psychological Association estimated that between 2% and 4%of people in the US had anxiety disorder.  Of course, that was before wired technology and smart phones.  Today, some studies suggest it’s more like 18% in the US and 14% in Europe.

It is normal to be anxious when confronted by threats.  It is the frequency and severity of anxiety that makes it maladapting.  Moreover, people can be anxious to specific events.  The most common type of anxiety disorder is social anxiety disorder, where you might believe the blushing will result in people laughing or shunning you.  This type of disorder  is persistent and overwhelming fear before, during and after social events.

If you have panic disorder you might think you are having a heart attack if your heart starts to race.  Then the physical symptoms of anxiety—a pounding heart, difficulty breathing, feeling dizzy or flushed come on in a rush.  From time to time everyone can experience such panic attacks, but in panic disorder the attacks are regular and become a source of anxiety themselves.

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by worrying about a range of different events or activities for at least six months.  Should you have this condition, the belief driving your anxiety, or that you have responsibilities that you must meet at all costs.

According to the article, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is likely to be the gold standard in treatment that addresses the maladaptive  beliefs that drive your anxiety.  Once they have been identified, CBT helps you address them.  Although there is a shortage of therapists, this shortage has spurred the development of online delivery of CBT.  Try searching for online CBT.

Frankly, HM would recommend Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapy.  HM would also say you should consider just trying meditation and mindfulness.  This should not be surprising given all the HM posts on mindfulness and meditation.  Mindfulness meditation should serve as a preventive in the first place.  And it is never too late to try to regain control of your mind and emotions via mindfulness and meditation.

Physical exercise is another remedy for anxiety.  It triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins, and forces you to concentrate on something other than your own thoughts.

Try medications only as the last resort and only under the treatment of a physician.

© 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.

Tired All the Time?

October 25, 2016

Tired all the time is the title of a feature piece by Emma Young in the 15 October 2015 New Scientist.  The subtitle of the piece is “Why fatigue  isn’t just about sleep.”  Perhaps the most obvious answer is that life is more exhausting than it has ever been.  There are the many competing demands of work and family together with the ever-present smartphone notifications.  Today’s omnipresent technology is a likely reason that we feel as if we’re running on empty.  There is a book titled “Exhaustion:  A history” written by Anna Katharina Schaffner, who is a historian at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK.  She has documented that “people through the ages have consistently complained of being worn out, and harked back to the relative calm of simpler times.”  Throughout the centuries fatigue has been blamed on the alignment of the planets, a lack of godliness, and even an unconscious desire to die.  Schaffer says that “Freud argued that a very strong part of ourselves longs for a state of permanent  physical and mental rest.”

In the 19th century the American physician George M. Beard claimed that neurasthenia was caused by exhaustion of the nervous system and was responsible for physical and mental fatigue as well as irritability, hopelessness, bad teeth, cold feet, and dry hair.  Beard blamed neurasthenia on the advent of steam power and newfangled inventions such as the telegraph.  Schaffer says that “Beard feared that the modern subject was unable to cope with such chronic sensory overload.”

A lack of sleep is another apparent cause of fatigue.  Researchers are able to distinguish between the need for sleep and fatigue, considering them to be closely related but subtly different.  The sleep latency allows the subtle distinction between sleep and fatigue.  It is widely used in sleep clinics and is based on the idea that if you lie down somewhere quiet during the day and fall asleep within a few minutes, you are either lacking sleep or potentially suffering from a sleep disorder.  If you don’t drop off within 15 minutes or so, yet still feel tired, fatigue might be the problem.

Mary Harrington is one of the researchers looking for a tell tale biological signal.  One possibility is that daytime fatigue stems from a problem with the circadian clock, which regulates periods of mental alertness through the day and night.  This regulation is done by the brain’s suprachiasmastic nucleus (SCN), which coordinates hormones and brain activity to ensure that we feel generally alert during the day.  Normally, the SCN orchestrates a peak in alertness at the start of the day, a dip in the early afternoon, and a shift to sleepiness in the evening.   The amount of sleep you get at night has little impact on this cycle.  How alert you feel depends on the quality of the hormonal and electrical output signals from the SCN.  The SCN uses the amount of light hitting the retina to set its clock, so that it keeps in line with the solar day.  Too little light in the mornings, or too much at night, can disrupt SCN signals, and either can lead to a lethargic day.  Harrington says  “I think circadian rhythm disruption is quite common in our society and is getting worse with increased use of light at night.”  She says the if you spend the day feeling as if you have never quite woken up properly, but are not sleepy at bedtime, a poorly calibrated SCN might be to blame.  She recommends spending at least 20 minutes outside every morning and turning off screens by 10 pm to avoid tricking the SCN into staying in daytime mode.   Another way to reset the SCN is through exercise.  Studies have linked exercise to reduced fatigue.  Harrington says that exercise can make a big difference.  People who start exercising regularly often report sleeping better when some studies show that they don’t actually sleep any longer.  Quality of sleep appears to be more important than quantity.

Reducing fat levels can also be helpful.  Body fat not only takes more energy to carry around, but also releases leptin, a hormone that signals to the brain that the body has adequate energy stores. People who carry excess fat also show higher levels of inflammation.  Body fat stores large levels of cytokine, which are released into the bloodstream.  In addition to stimulating the immune system, cytokines also make you feel drained of energy.

Even if you are not overweight, inflammation could still be running you down.  A sedentary lifestyle, regular stress, and poor diet have all been lined to chronic lower-level inflammation.  There is also preliminary evidence that disruption of circadian rhythms can increase inflammation.

Low dopamine is also implicated in depression as it reduces availability of serotonin.  Since the vast majority of people with major depression report severe fatigue, it’s not surprising that depression is also a potential common in fatigue.

Harrington’s advice is not to let fatigue stop you doing something you enjoy.  Force yourself to keep at it because a potent reward could trigger the release of dopamine in brain areas linked to motivation and alertness.  Or do something stressful:  the release of adrenaline could help you overcome lethargy.  Ideally put stress and enjoyment together.

Evolution Evolves: Beyond the Selfish Gene

October 23, 2016

The title of this post is identical to title of a short piece written by Kevin LeLand and and published in the 24 September 2016 issue of the “New Scientist.”   The cover of the issue notes that the theory of life needs an update.  The changes in the theory of evolution have been monumental.  In HM’s humble opinion, they are comparable to the changes between Newton and Einstein in physics.  Kevin Leland has provided a precise summary.

Gone is the radical notion of the selfish gene, which argues the goal of genes is to propagate themselves, and we are merely vehicles for that propagation.  Gone also is the nature vs. nurture issue.  Genes interact with the world.  They provide inputs, but perhaps for some exceptionally rare occasions, they are not deterministic.

Natural selection is not solely in charge as the way that an organism develops can influence the direction and rate of its own evolution and its fit to the environment.

Inheritance goes beyond genes and includes epigenetic, ecological, behavioral, and cultural inheritance.  Similar to, but different from, Lamarkian transmission, acquired characteristics can be passed to offspring and play diverse roles in evolution.

Phenotypic variation is not random.  Individuals develop in response to local conditions such that novel features they possess are typically well suited to their environment.

Evolution is much more rapid than previously viewed.  Developmental processes allow individuals to respond to environmental changes and mutations with coordinate changes in suites of traits.  The new view is organism-centered, with broader conceptions of evolutionary processes.  Individuals adjust to their environment as they develop and modify selection processes.  Additional phenomena explain macroevolutionary changes by increasing evolvability,  the ability to generate adaptive diversity.  They include plasticity and niche construction.

© 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.

Another Quote Worth Pondering

October 21, 2016

This is from Chapter 12, “All in the Mind” in “The Epigenetics Revolution” by Nessa Carey. The quote is from John Milton.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
We should use this quote as a reminder to ourselves substituting “My” for “The”.
We are the ones who determine our own happiness.  This is one of the reasons that HM recommends meditation.

A similar quote comes from Victor Frankl; a survivor of Auschwitz (and a neurologist and psychologist):  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”

What makes Dr. Frankl’s statement so remarkable is that it was made under the most adverse of circumstances.

Siddhartha, who became the first Buddha was a wealthy man who left his wealth in his quest to remove misery from the world.  His solution was found in the mind in mindfulness and meditation.
Should you want to see the first healthymemory blog post worth pondering enter  “A Quote Worth Pondering” into the healthy memory search block.  It will be worth your while.