Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’

Passion’s Slaves

March 13, 2018

Passion’s Slaves is the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Since the time of Plato a sense of self-mastery, of being able to withstand the emotional storms that the buffeting of Fortune brings rather than being “passion’s slave,” has been praised as a virtue. The ancient Greek word for it was “sophrosyne.” Page DuBois, a Greek scholar translates it as “care and intelligence in conducting one’s life; a tempered balance and wisdom.” The Romans and the early Christian church called it “temperantia”, temperance, the restraining of emotional excess. The goal is balance, not emotional suppression. Aristotle observed, what is wanted is appropriate emotion, feeling proportionate to circumstance. The passions discussed in this post are anger and rage, worry and anxiety, and depression and melancholy.

Anger and Rage

The design of the brain means that we very often have little or no control over when we are swept by emotion, nor over what emotion it will be. However, we can have some say on how long an emotion will last. Consider the anatomy of rage. Say you are cut off in traffic by a driver. You think, “He could have hit me! That bastard—I can’t let him get away with that!” Your knuckles whiten as you tighten your hold on the steering wheel, which you regard as a surrogate for strangling his throat. You body mobilizes to fight not run—leaving you trembling, beads of sweat on your forehead, your heart pounding, the muscles in your face locked in a scowl.”

Compare that sequence of building rage with a more charitable line of thought toward the driver who cut you off. “Maybe he didn’t see me, or maybe he had some good reason for driving so carelessly, such as a medical emergency.” Such thoughts tempers anger with mercy or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage. Aristotle’s challenge is to have only appropriate anger reminds us, is that more often than not, our anger surges out of control. Benjamin Franklin put it well: “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom a good one.” There are different kinds of anger. The amygdala is a main source of the sudden spark of rage we feel at the driver whose carelessness endangers us. On the other end of emotional circuitry, the neocortex, most likely foments more calculated angers, such as cool-headed revenge or outrange at unfairness or injustice.

Rage seems to be the most intransigent of al the moods. Researcher Diana Tice found that anger is the mood people are worst at controlling. Anger is the most seductive of the negative emotions; the self-righteous inner monologue that propels it along fills the mind with the most convincing arguments for venting range. Unlike sadness, anger is energizing, even exhilarating. Anger’s persuasive power might explain why some views about it are so common: that anger is uncontrollable, or that it should not be controlled, and venting anger in “catharsis” is to the good. A contrasting view holds that anger can be prevented entirely. However, a careful reading of research findings suggests that all these common attitudes toward anger are misguided if not outright myths.

The train of angry thoughts that stokes anger is also potentially the key to one of the most powerful ways to defuse anger: undermining the convictions that are fueling the anger in the first case. The longer we ruminate about what has made us angry, the more “good reasons” and self-justification for being angry we can event. Brooding just fuels anger’s flames. Seeing things differently douses those flames. Tice found that reframing a situation more positively was one of the most potent ways to put anger to rest. Timing matters. The earlier in the anger cycle, the more effective. Anger can be completely short-circuited if the mitigating information comes before the anger is acted on.

The second way of de-escalating anger is cooling off physiologically by waiting out the adrenal surge in a setting where there are not likely to be further triggers for rage. This is a common way of dealing with anger according to Tice’s research. One such fairly effective strategy is going off to be alone while cooling down. People go for a drive or a walk. Of these two, the second is preferable. Exercise also works. Relaxation methods such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation, perhaps because they change the body’s physiology from the high arousal of anger to a low-arousal state, and perhaps too because they distract from whatever triggered the anger. [enter “Relaxation Response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts].

However, a cooling-down period will not work if that time is used to pursue the train of anger-inducing thought, since each such though will trigger more cascades of anger.

Distractions like TV, movies, reading and the like work, but not shopping or eating.

Ventilation does not work. In fact there is a ventilation fallacy. Ventilation may feel satisfying, but it is counterproductive. Tice found that ventilating anger is one of the worst ways to cool down: outbursts of rage typically pump up the emotional brain’s arousal, leaving people feeling more angry not less.

Worry and Anxiety

Worrying is at the heart of all anxiety. The reaction that underlies worry is the vigilance for potential for potential danger that has, no doubt been essential for survival over the course of evolution. When fear triggers the emotional brain, part of the resulting anxiety fixates attention on the threat at hand, thus forcing the mind to obsess about how to handle it and ignore anything else. Worry is a rehearsal of what might go wrong and how to deal with it. The purpose of worrying is to come up with positive solutions for life’s perils by anticipating dangers before they arise.

Worrying becomes a problem with chronic repetitive worries that go on and on never getting nearer to a positive solution. Goleman writes that a “close analysis of chronic worry suggests that it has all the attributes of a low-grade emotional hijacking. Worries that seem to come from nowhere and are uncontrollable generate a study hum of anxiety, are impervious to reason and lock the worrier into a single, inflexible view of the topic of worry. When this cycle of worry intensifies and persists, it crosses over the line into a full-blown neural hijacking, the anxiety disorders: phobias, obsessions and compulsions, panic attacks.

For each disorder worry fixates in a distinct fashion: phobic anxieties rivet on the feared situation; obsessive disorders fixate on preventing some feared calamity; panic attacks can focus on fear of dying or on the prospect of having the anxiety attack itself.

Researchers have observed that anxiety comes in two forms: cognitive, or worrisome thoughts, and somatic, the physiological symptoms of anxiety, like sweating, a racing heart, or muscle tension. Insomniacs are suffering from anxiety attacks. Their main problem preventing them from sleeping were intrusive thoughts. No matter how sleepy they were, they could not stop worrying. The one technique that worked in helping them get to sleep was getting their minds off their worries, focusing instead on the sensations produced by a relaxation method. In summary, the worries could be stopped by shifting attention away.

Unfortunately, most worriers seem unable to do this. These worriers get a partial payoff from worrying that reinforces the habit. It seems that there is something positive in worries: worries are ways to deal with potential threats. When the work of worrying succeeds, it is to rehearse what those dangers are, and to reflect on ways to deal with them. But Goleman writes that worry doesn’t work that well. “New solutions and fresh ways of seeing a problem do not typically come from worrying, especially chronic worry. Instead of coming up with solutions to these potential problems, worriers typically simply ruminate on the danger itself, immersing themselves in a low-key way in the dread associated with it while staying in the same run of thought. Chronic worriers worry about a wide range of things, most of which have almost no chance of happening; they read dangers into life’s journey that others never notice.”

Still chronic worriers report that worrying helps them, and that their worries are self-perpetuating. So why should worry become what seems to amount to a mental addiction? Borkovec notes that the worry habit is reinforcing in the same sense that superstitions are. Since people worry about many things that have a very low probability of actually occurring, to the primitive limbic brain there appears to be something magical about it. “Like an amulet that wards off some anticipated evil, the worry psychologically gets the credit for preventing the danger it obsesses about.”

Borkovic discovered simple steps the can help even the most chronic worrier control the habit.

The first step is self-awareness, catching the worrisome episodes as near their beginning as possible. Borkovec trains people in this approach by first teaching them to monitor cues for anxiety, especially learning to identify situations that trigger worry, or the fleeting thoughts and images that initiate the worry, as well as the accompanying sensation of anxiety in the body. With practice people can identify the worries at an earlier and earlier point in the anxiety spiral. People also learn relaxation methods that they can apply at the moment they recognize the worry beginning, and practice the relaxation method daily so they will be able to use it on the spot. [Much has been written about relaxation in the healthy memory blog. Enter ‘relaxation’ into search block of the healthy memory blog.]

Goleman offers the following precaution: “for people with worries so severe they have flowered into phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or paid disorder, it may be prudent—indeed a sign of self-awareness—to turn to medication to interrupt the cycle A retraining of the emotional circuitry through therapy is still called for, however, in order to lessen the likelihood that anxiety disorders will recur when medication is stopped.

Melancholy and Depression

The single mood people put most effort into shaking is sadness: Tice found that people are most inventive when it comes to trying to escape the blues. Melancholy like every other mood has its benefits. The sadness that a loss brings has certain effects: it closes down our interest in divisions and pleasures, focuses attention on what’s been lost, and saps our energy for starting new endeavors, hopefully for the time being. It causes a reflective retreat from life’s pursuits, and leaves us in a state to mourn the loss, mull over its meaning, and make the psychological adjustments and new plans to continue with out lives.

Although bereavement is useful, a full-blown depression is not. In a major depression, love is paralyzed: no new beginnings emerge. The very symptoms of severe depression place a life on hold. For most people psychotherapy can help as can medication.

The far more common sadness that at its upper limits becomes a “subclinical depression” is sometimes referred to as melancholy. This is a range of despondency that people can handle on their own, if they have the internal resources. Unfortunately, some of the strategies most often resorted to can backfire, leaving people feeling worse than before. One such strategy is staying alone. However, more often than not this only adds a sense of loneliness and isolation to the sadness.

Tice found the most popular tactic for battling depression is socializing. Going out to eat, to a ball game or movie. Doing something with friends or family. This works well if the effect is to get the person’s mind off his sadness.

One of the main determinants of whether a depressed mood will persist or lift is the degree to which people ruminate. Worrying about what’s depressing us seems to make the depression all the more intense and prolonged. In depression, worry takes several forms, all focusing on some aspect of the depression itself, such as how tired we feel, how little energy or motivation we have, or how little work we’re getting done. Typically this reflection is not accompanied by any concrete course of action that might alleviate the problem.

Cognitive therapy aimed at changing these thought patterns has been found in some studies to be on a pair with medication for treating mild clinical depression, and superior to medication in preventing the return of mild depression. Two strategies are particularly effective. One is to learn to challenge the thoughts at the center of rumination. The other is to purposely schedule pleasant, distracting events.

Tice found that aerobic exercise is one of the more effective tactics for lifting mild depression, as well as other bad moods. A caveat here is that the mood-lifting benefits of exercise work best for the lazy, those who don’t work out very much. For those with a daily exercise routine there is a reverse effect on mood: they start to feel bad on those days when they skip their workout. Exercise seems to work well because it changes the physiological state the mood evolves: depression is a low-arousal state, and aerobics pitches the body into high arousal. Relaxation techniques, which put the body into a low-arousal state work for anxiety, a high-arousal state, but not so well for depression.

Tice reports that a more constructive approach to mood-lifting is engineering a small triumph or easy success: tackling some long-delayed chore around the house of getting to some other duty they’ve been wanting to clear up. Lifts to self-image were also cheering, even if only in the form of getting dressed up or putting makeup.

One of the most potent antidotes is cognitive reframing. For example, stepping back and thinking about the ways a relationship wasn’t so great, and ways you and your partner were mismatched, seeing the loss in a more positive light is an antidote to sadness.

This post offers some tips for dealing with emotional problems. Should problems persist and become chronic, please see professional help. Should you ever fear that you are a danger to yourself or others, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP IMMEDIATELY. If necessary, go to an emergency room.


It Should be Life Quality Not Household Income

December 17, 2017

Being at the forefront of the baby boomers, HM becomes extremely agitated when he reads of how bad the more recent generations have it. The argument usually consists of adjustments of median income, and that this is not keeping up with previous generations. Monetary income is used to quantify life quality. This is extremely shortsighted and wrong.

Do any of these new generations wish they could have been in the good old days of the baby boomers? If they do, then they are fools. Personal computers were not available to say nothing of the internet and mobile computing. Would anyone in these new generations be willing to part with their smartphones? Medical care, automobiles, and other technologies have markedly improved.

Many baby boomers had to register for the draft and fight in the Viet Nam war. They had the privilege of possibly having their names added to the wall on the Mall. Of course, if one was wealthy, it was quite possible to find a physician who would provide the basis for a medical deferment.

Unfortunately, dollars are equated with happiness and life satisfaction. The Gross Domestic Product is the most common means of assessing life satisfaction, if not happiness. A healthy economy requires the GDP to grow. We are placed on a treadmill to continue working to buy more material goods. This is the rat race that is only occasionally mentioned.

There have been several healthy memory blog posts on the expectations HM was given when he was in elementary school. He learned that advances in technology would allow a large increase in leisure time. At that time women with children rarely worked. Now everybody is working longer hours. Why? There is a fear of technology taking away jobs. Why? Why can’t technology be used to increase leisure time and to make life more enjoyable?

A previous post, Flourishing, described what Aristotle and other wise people, both ancient and contemporary, wrote about what constitutes the good life. Rather than hedonism, the goals should be eudaemonia and ikigai, having a purpose in life other than having a job to earn money to engage in a futile effort to achieve happiness. Follow the wisdom of the Dalai Lama and go to

There are metrics for Gross National Happiness that are more relevant to happiness than are gross domestic products. (Enter “Gross National Happiness” into the search block of the healthymemory blog to find relevant posts.)

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


November 27, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” Aristotle posited the goal of life as a virtue-based eudaemonia, a quality of flourishing, a view that continues under many guises in modern thought. Aristotle said that virtues are attained in part by finding the “right mean” between extremes; courage lies between impulsive risk-taking and cowardice, a tempered moderation between self-indulgence and ascetic denial.

He believed that we are not by nature virtuous, but all have the potential to become so through the right effort. This effort includes what we would call today self-monitoring, the ongoing practice of noting our thoughts and acts. For the Stoics, one key was seeing that our feelings about life’s events, not those events themselves, determine our happiness. This is a fundamental insight at which Siddhartha, the Buddha, arrived. We find equanimity by distinguishing what we can control in life from what we cannot. That creed finds an echo in the popularized Twelve Step version of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Goleman and Davidson write, “The classical way to the ‘wisdom to know the difference’ lay in mental training. Greek philosophers saw philosophy as an applied art and taught contemplative exercises and self-discipline as paths to flourishing. Like their peers to the East, the Greeks saw that we can cultivate qualities of mind that foster well-being.

Goleman and Davidson write “In the Greco-Roman tradition, qualities such as integrity, kindness, patience, and humility were considered keys to enduring well-being. These Western thinkers and Asian spiritual traditions alike saw value in cultivating a virtuous being via a roughly similar transformation of being. In Buddhism, for example , the ideal of inner flourishing gets put in terms of ‘bodhi’ (in Pali and Sanskrit), a path of self-actualization that nourishes ‘the very best within oneself.’”

University of Wisconsin psychologist Carol Ryff, drawing on Aristotle among many other thinkers, posits a model of well-being with six arms:

*Self acceptance, being positive about yourself, acknowledging both your best and not-so-good qualities, and feeling fine about being just as you are. This takes a non-judgmental self-awareness.

*Personal growth, the sense you continue to change and develop toward your full potential—getting better as time goes on—adopting new ways of seeing or being and making the most of your talents. ‘Each of you is perfect the way you are,’ Zen master Suzuki Roshi told his students, adding, ‘and you can use a little improvement’—neatly reconciling acceptance with growth.

*Autonomy, independence in thought and deed, freedom from social pressure, and using your own standards to measure yourself. This, by the way, applies most strongly in individualistic cultures like Australia and the United States, as compared with cultures like Japan, where harmony with one’s group looms larger.

*Mastery, feeling competent to handle life’s complexities, seizing opportunities as they come your way, and creating situations that suit your needs and values.

*Satisfying relationships, with warmth, empathy, and trust, along with mutual concern for each other and a healthy give-and-take,

*Life purpose, goals and beliefs that give you a sense of meaning and direction, Some philosophers argue that true happiness comes as a by-product of meaning and purpose in life.

Ryff sees the qualities as a modern version of eudamonia—Aristotle’s “highest of all human good,” the realization of you unique potential. Goleman and Davidson write,”…different varieties of meditation seem to cultivate one or more of these capacities. More immediately, several studies have looked at how meditation boosted people’s ratings on Ryffs own measure of well-being.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fewer than half of Americans report feeling a strong purpose in life beyond their jobs and family. Healthy memory blog readers should remember that ikigai is the Japanese term for having a purpose in life. Many healthy memory blogs have emphasized its importance.

It was found that after a three-month meditation retreat (540 hours total), those participants who had strengthened a sense of purpose in life during that time also showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells, even five months later. Telomerase protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect how long a cell will live.

Another study found that eight weeks of a variety of mindfulness practices seemed to enlarge a region in the brain stem that correlated with a person’s well-being on Ryff’s test. But Goleman and Davidson caution that only fourteen people were involved in the study, so it needs to be replicated with a larger group before becoming more than tentative conclusion.

In yet another study, people practicing a popular form of mindfulness reported higher levels of well-being and other such benefits for up to a year. The more everyday mindfulness, the greater the subjective boost in well-being. Again the authors caveat this study by saying that not only was the sample size small, but also a brain measure rather than self-evaluations would have been more convincing.

Goleman and Davidson write, “Studies such as these are often cited as “proving” the merits of meditation, particularly these days, when mindfulness has become the flavor du jour. But meditation research varies enormously when it comes to scientific soundness—though when used to promote some brand of meditation, app, or other contemplative “product,” this inconvenient truth goes missing.”

The authors promise that they have used rigorous standards to sort out fluff from fact. They want to determine what science actually does tell us about the impacts of meditation.

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, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Our Brain and Mind Work

May 5, 2013

Aristotle and his contemporaries believed that the mind resided in the heart. It was Hippocrates who argued that the brain is responsible for thought, sensation, emotion, and cognition. However, it took almost 2500 years for the next major advance. At the beginning of the 20th century the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal identified the neuron as the building block of the brain. He identified different types of neurons and advanced the “connectionist” view that it was the connections and communications among the neurons that characterized the activities of the brain.

There are four basic types of neurons. Sensory neurons transmit signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Motor neurons send signals to parts of the body to direct movement, such as muscles. Interneurons provide connections between other neurons, Pyramidal neurons are involved in many areas of cognition.

The connectionist network is amazing. There are about 100 billion neurons in our brains. Each has about 1000 synapses connecting with other neurons. So there are about 100 trillion interconnections in our brain. Our brains are remarkably flexible. This plasticity is due to a special class of neurotransmitter that serve as “neuromodulators.” These neuromodulators “…alter the amount of other neurotransmitters released at the synapse and the degree to which the neurons respond to incoming signals. Some of these changes help to fine tune brain activity in response to immediate events, while others rewire the brain in the long term, which is thought to explain how memories are stored.

Many neuromodulators act on just a few neurons, but some can penetrate through large swathes of brain tissue creating sweeping changes. Nitric oxide, for example, is so small (the 10th smallest molecule in the known universe, in fact) that it can easily spread away from the neuron at its source. It alters receptive neurons by changing the amount of neurotransmitter released by each nerve impulse, kicking off the changes that are necessary for memory formulation in the hippocampus.”1

Much of this brain activity takes place outside our conscious awareness. According to Kahneman’s Two Process View of Human Cognition, there are two basic systems for processing information. information in a dynamic environment. System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions. Without System 1, we would not have survived as a species. But this fast processing speed has its costs, which sometimes lead to errors.

System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. System 2 can be thought of as thinking. If you know your multiplication tables, if I ask you what is 6 time 7, you’ll respond 42 without really thinking about it. But if I ask you to multiply 67 times 42 you would find it difficult to compute in your head, and would most likely use a calculator or use paper and pencil (which are examples of transactive memory). This multiplication requires System 2 processing without, or most likely with, technological aids.

System 1 requires little or no effort. System 2 requires effort. It is not only faster, but also less demanding to rely on System 1 processes. Consider the following question.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

The number that quickly comes to mind is 10 cents. But if you take the time and exert the mental effort you will note that the cost would be $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). If you do the math, which takes a little algebra, you will find that the ball costs 5 cents (the bat costing a $1.00 more than the ball would be $1.05 and $1.05 and $0.05 is $1.10). System 2 must be engaged to get the correct answer. This question has been asked of several thousand college students. More that 50% of the students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong, System 1, answer. At less selective universities more than 80% of the students gave the wrong answer. Good students tend to be suspicious of a question that is too easy!

So what happens to the brain as we age? The psychologist Dr. Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.2 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span.  So relying too much on our System 1 processes could increase our risk of suffering dementia. New experiences and new learning call upon our System 2 processes as do any problems that require active thinking. The neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques that define Alzheimer’s Disease have been found in both living and dead individuals who never showed any symptoms of the disease. They evidenced no cognitive impairment. The notion is that they had built a cognitive reserve that protected them from the disease.

So what might this cognitive reserve be? It is reasonable to believe that it consisted of rich interconnections in the brains of these individuals. The brain is remarkably plastic, so even when the plaques and tangles were present, apparently the interconnections were rerouted around them.

So how can someone build up this cognitive reserve? Lifelong learning, continuing to learn throughout one’s lifetime is key. Challenging the mind with tasks that require attention is important. It is also important to revisit those old memory circuits laid down years ago. Trying to remember all acquaintances and events can reactivate those circuits. Sometimes it will be difficult to recall these memories. Nevertheless, your unconscious mind will continue searching after your conscious mind has given up. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere it will just pop into your mind. Trivia games and games such as Jeopardy can be fun and potentially beneficial to a healthy memory. Reminiscing can also be beneficial provided the reminiscing is not always about the same old memories.

The healthymemory blog is devoted to building a cognitive reserve. The Mnemonic Techniques Category provides blog on mnemonic techniques that not only improve memory, but also provide cognitive exercise. Blog posts on meditation and mindfulness can also be found here. The Transactive Memory Category provided information on how technology and your fellow humans can foster memory health. The Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on memory and related topics bearing on a healthy memory.

1O’Shea, M. (2013). The Human Brain. New Scientist Instant Expert 31.

2Stine-Morrow, A. L. (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 295-299.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.