Posts Tagged ‘Association for Psychological Science’

Understanding Cognitive Enhancement

November 20, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the subtitle of an article titled “Better Minds Ahead” by Joe Dawson in the October 2017 issue of Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science. The article provides a summary to the session at the Integrative Science symposium at the 2017 International Convention of Psychological Science, which was held in Vienna.

Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Geneva, conducts research on the effects of action games. Early experiments showed vision improvements such as contrast sensitivity and visual acuity in long-time action gamers as well as experimental short-term gamers. Playing these games for as few as 30 hours per week produced these effects. Moreover, these effects persisted for months after the experiment and video-game playing ended.

Subsequent research suggested that action-game players were not just better at the skills specific to game play, such as vision, but also were better at more cognitive skills. These cognitive skills were driven, at least in part, by improved attentional control.

Other research has shown that young laparoscopic surgeons who play video games, and especially action video games, perform better in the simulators in terms of being faster and not making more errors than most season laparoscopic surgeons on the team. In these games, players must switch tasks and divide their attention. They monitors errors in skill and judgment. They must also plan goals and revise them on the fly. It appears that the combination of demands is what produces the kind of cognitive enhancements seen in relation to commercially available action games.

Arthur Kramer, the senior Vice President for Research and Graduate Education at Northeastern University, has studied the relationship between exercise and cognition for 25 years. Some of the first clues about the effects of exercise were produced by brain scans. Certain regions changed in volume in both long-term exercisers and in intervention groups. Size, white matter, and connectivity measurements all indicated that exercise has lasting effects on the brain. Exercise also seems seems to show benefits in many tests and also in several cognitive tasks. In 2003 meta-analysis of randomized control trial exercise and cognition studies, Kramer and Stanley Colcombe found that exercise positively affects cognition with an effect size of nearly half a standard deviation.

Kramer said, “Fitness interventions have been assessed in early Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment patients, multiple sclerosis patients, Parkinson’s patients and in breast cancer patients. In each case, there have been benefits.”

Kramer wants to do further work trying to establish the limits of cognitive enhancement, assuming there are limits, and determining which interventions and lifestyle choices work best for different individuals.

Illini Singh, a researcher of neuroscience, ethics, and society at the University of Oxford is focused on the present and potential future use of “smart drugs.” Although there are reports about taking drugs for increased attention, focus, mood modulation, or executive function, science has yet to produce convincing evidence that most common “smart” drugs—Ritalin, Adderall, and Modafinl, provide benefits in nonclinical populations. There is a large placebo effect Singh said “what you hear most is that students say they feel more awake,” but this is because these drugs are stimulants.

HM weighs in that drugs are for clinical situations. Inevitably, there are undesirable side effects to drugs, so they should only be used as a last resort.

© 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.

Why Does Misinformation Spread?

September 9, 2017

Psychological science has identified several seeds of false beliefs.

One is the power of mere repetition.
How often have people heard or read it: Climate change is a hoax. Islamic terrorism is a grave threat to the United States (never mind that, of 230,000 murders since 9/11, only 123 have been perpetuated by Muslims. Moreover, Islamic terrorists have killed many orders of magnitude more fellow Mulsims then Christians.
Mere repetition makes statements easier to process and remember. The power of familiar, hard-to-ease falsehoods and fake news is appreciated by political manipulators, from those in Orwelll’s “1984” to those running today’s presidential campaigns. Unfortunately, rebuttals sometimes backfire because they repeat the myth.

The power of confirmation bias.
In a may 2016 national survey, those favorable to Trump believed Obama was Muslim rather than Christian by a 65% to 13% margin. Those unfavorable to Trump believed the reverse by a mirror image of 64% to 13%.

The power of cognitively available anecdotes.
A brutal crime may make the world seem more violent that it actually is. Do not believe anecdotes. Insist upon data and statistics. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.

The power of group polarization. Groups tend to have similar beliefs. Indeed that is likely why the group has formed. However, do not blame this on the internet. (See the healthy memory blog post, “The Truth About the Internet.”

To understand why misinformation spreads as well as how to counter this misinformation. Kahneman’s Two Process View of Cognition can be quite helpful. 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. Islamophobic responses are essentially System 1 responses. 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 this types of processing rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions. System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly 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.

Moreover, System 1 is the default mode of processing. So when you read or hear something, the default mode is to believe it. Then further repetitions serve to consolidate this belief. Remember that one of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors. However, to do so require cognitive effort, thinking. So it pays to examine your beliefs carefully to see if they’re justified and whether they should be disbanded or modified.

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

© 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.

False Beliefs

September 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Benefits of Mindfulness for Uncertain Waiting

June 27, 2017

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

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

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



Cognitive Restoration Through Interactions in Nature

June 26, 2017

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

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

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


Is the Electorate Becoming More Stupid?

June 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and, 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.

Gone to the Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science

May 22, 2017

So although there will be a hiatus in new posts, there are already close to one thousand posts already available.  So that should be more than sufficient until the new posts resume.

Use the search block of the healthy memory blog to find posts of interest.
Here are some suggestions:
cognitive reserve
suggestible you
relaxation response
growth mindset
system 2

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 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 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   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 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 and 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, 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.

Burnout and the Brain

February 12, 2016

Burnout and the Brain is the cover story by Alexandra Michel for the February 2016 for Association for Psychological Science publication, “Observer.”  A psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger,  brought burnout into the research lexicon in 1974.  He defined is as the loss of motivation, a growing sense of emotional depletion,, and cynicism.  He found these symptoms among formally idealistic mental health workers who depleted and weary, resenting patients and the clinic.

Burnout is recognized as a legitimate medical disorder and has been given its own ICD-10 code(Z73.0—Burn-out state of vital exhaustion).  Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with depression including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.  A 2013 survey of human resource directors in the United Kingdom found that nearly 30% reported that burnout was widespread in their organization.  Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson collaborated on the most influential  framework for defining and assessing burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress.  People in careers focused on caregiving report the most prevalent rates of burnout, but the condition does not discriminate among call center representatives, professional athletes or CEOs.  Eventually jobs that require too much of employees will cultivate feelings of negativity and hopelessness as people struggle to meet unrealistic deadlines,  rude customers, and cope with the emotional tolls of their jobs.

Maslach and her collaborators have identified the following six key components of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout:  workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.  The physician Richard Underman describe he incremental onset of burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own.”

Research from psychological scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden ha shown that workplace burnout can alter neural circuits leading to a vicious cycle of neurological dysfunction.  They recruited 40 research participants with formal diagnosed burnout symptoms from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University.  They also recruited a control group of 70 health volunteers with no history of chronic street or other illnesses.  All participants completed two test sessions:  a task designed to measure their ability to regulate their negative emotions and an evaluation of their brain’s connectivity using resting state functional MRI (fMRI).

Researchers showed all participants standardized series of neutral and negative emotional images to assess reactions to stress.  After a participant had looked at an image for 5 seconds, a se of instructions appeared on the screen that directed each participant to either suppress (down-regulate), intensify (up-regulate), or maintain her emotional response to the picture.  Immediately following this instruction cue, the same image was presented again for 5 seconds.  As the participant  focused on the picture. a loud, startling burst of sound played.  An electrode taped to the participant’s cheek recorded the reflex reactions to this stressful stimulus.

The two groups showed similar startle responses when they were instructed to maintain or intensify  their emotional reactions.  But when groups were asked to down-regulate their emotional responses to negative images. clear differences emerged.  Participants diagnosed with burnout reported more difficulty modulating their strong negative emotional responses compared with the healthy controls, which was confirmed by their physical responses.  They had much stronger reactions to the startling noise than did the healthy control group.

On another day a subset of the participants came into the lab where they were scanned while lying quietly.  Activity among several brain areas involved in processing and regulating emotions were examined.  Participants in the burnout group  had relatively enlarged amygdalae, and also appeared to have significantly  weaker connections  between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress, especially the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The more stressed an individual reported feeling, the weaker the connectivity  between these brain regions appeared on the R-fMRI.

Compared with the control group, the overworked group also showed weaker correlations between activity in the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a structure important to executive function. Weaker connections between these to brain structures could help explain why participants in the burnout group had more difficulty controlling their negative emotions.

Another researcher at the Karolinska Institute, Ivanka Savic, confirmed that brains of individuals suffering from burnout don’t just function differently—their very structure might change.  He took MRI-based measurements of cortical thickness and amygdala, ACC, and mPFC volumes to gauge the physical toll of stress.   A brain area essential to cognitive functioning, the frontal cortex, begins to think as part of the normal aging process, but patients suffering from burnout showed more pronounced thinning in the mPFC compared to the controls as well as the effects of aging being more prominent in the scans of the burnout group.  Burnout patients appeared to have larger amygdalae and shrinking of the caudate which correlated with their perceptions of workplace stress.

Savic theorizes that over activation of the amygdalae leads to impaired modulation of the mPFC regions, which trigger further stimulation of the amygdalae, which leads to even more activation of the mPFC.  As the cycle spirals further out of control over time, neural structures being to show signs of wear and tear, which lead to cortical thinning as well as memory, attentional, and emotional difficulties.

A team of Greek psychological scientists led by Pavlos Deligkaris have examined the cognitive costs of burnout.  In 13 of the 15 studies he examined he found that executive  attentional and memory systems appear to suffer in association with burnout, and cognitive functioning is impaired in burned-out individuals.  Of the seven studies assessing sustained or controlled attention, five indicated that individuals with burnout were more prone to attentional lapses.  Of the  seven studies that included assessments of memory, six showed an association between burnout and memory impairments.

So burnout is a serious problem that goes beyond its symptoms and results in damage not only to cognitive processes, burt also to the brain.  Can it be treated?  It is both unfortunate and surprising that little research has been done in this area.  The little research that has been done suggests that the answer is positive, but much more research needs to be done.  It strikes me that meditation might prove beneficial both in  prevent burnout and in treating burnout once it has occurred.

Of course, if burnout is caught early, then perhaps treatments will not be necessary.  The costs of burnout are severe.  Jobs need to be modified, and individuals need to understand that there is no glory in destroying their brains.  Although the damage from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy might be more severe, the effects of burnout are likely more prevalent.  A new philosophy is needed.  Where is all the leisure time that was supposed to result from technology?  When I was in elementary school in the fifties I was promised that by the turn of the century, leisure time would be greatly increased.  Why are we all working more in this age of technology?  (Put “Labor Day”  in the healthy memory blog search).  Also see the healthy memory blog post “The Wellbeing of Nations:  Meaning, Motive, and Measurement”.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Free Will

July 13, 2015

On the last day of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention I attended a session on the general topic of free will.  One of the papers analyzed choices people make as a source of data, which is very close to the approach advocated in a book I had recently read.  I recommended this book to the presenter.  He thanked me as was unaware of this volume.  I decided that a review of this book would be more informative than a discussion of the papers at this session.

Free Will is an important philosophical topic and is also the title of the book by Mark Ballagher in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles.  He is the most remarkable philosophical author I have ever read.  In my experience philosophical writing involves making the same point with the most subtle nuisances over and over again to what is, in my view, beating a dead horse.  I think in many cases Cliff Notes will suffice and one need not suffer the abuse of philosophical writing.  Mark Ballagher is  an exception.   He is writing is highly readable and to the point.  He allows the horse to live.  He neatly dissects the topic and makes his points concisely.

In the case of free will he dismisses arguments that justify free will on external basis not relevant to the philosophical argument per se.  For example, arguing that free will is necessary or there would not basis for law and punishment.  Ballagher states up front that he has no religious beliefs and does not believe in God.  So those issues are out of the way.

He argues that the big problem with the classical argument against free will is that it just assumes determinism is true.  That makes it easy.  But what makes determinism true? Determinism is still an open philosophical and scientific question.  Quantum physics undermines determinism because it entails uncertainty, but there are still clever arguments that attempt to deal with this uncertainty in undermining free will.  But these are arguments, not compelling arguments, and do not disprove free will.  Philosophical arguments against free will do not hold up  to Ballagher’s analysis.

Then he addresses the scientific argument that there is empirical evidence against free will.  Psychologists might argue that subliminal perception and the fact that the vast amount of mental activity is unconscious (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  But to argue that we are unaware of some, even most of our mental activity, does not mean that we never control or make decisions on the basis of mental activity.

Evidence from neuroscience appears to be stronger.  There is LIbet’s experiment that there was neural activity indicating the action before we decided to perform the action.   Ballagher does not mention this, but I believe that LIbet himself did not believe this, although many have used his data to make the argument.  Haynes’ studies appear to be a more successful attempt to debunk free will, but Ballagher digs into the scientific data to reveal its flaws.

Ballagher even criticizes philosophical arguments for free will, for example Hume’s compatabilism.  Ballagher gets to his point by asking what is meant by Free  Will actually.   It is true that most of our information processing  occurs below our level of consciousness.  Ballagher introduces the notion of torn decisions to explain what he means by free will.  Examples of  torn decisions are which restaurant to go do, which movie to see, which college to go to, and so forth.  One can still argue that these decisions are made subconsciously, but this is an assertion, not proof.  Ballagher would not claim that he has proved the existence of free will.  Rather he has defended it from those who attempt to debunk free will.

It is impossible to do justice to Ballagher’s dissection of this topic.  For those interested in this topic, I strongly recommend reading the book.  I would also recommend reading this book to see how informative philosophy can be when incisively analyzed and concisely written.

I would close by providing my reasons for believing in free will.  I am sure that Ballagher would disagree with what I am about to write on philosophical grounds.  Also it is important to realize the Ballagher makes no attempt to prove the existence of free will.  Rather, he is debunking arguments that attempt to disprove free will.  I would argue for believing in free will on pragmatic grounds.  The basic concept of mindfulness is that we have enough control of our conscious minds to modify our behavior and emotions.  And there is much evidence that mindfulness works for those who believe in and practice mindfulness.  If one does not believe in free will, then there is little basis for trying.  If we are without free will, then we are stuck sitting in front of a television set with no ability to change channels.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Timothy Wilson and REDIRECT

July 5, 2015

Timothy Wilson gave an interesting talk at APS, but rather than blogging about the talk, I will be doing several blog posts on the recent book he has published, REDIRECT:  Changing the Stories We Live By.  This is a very important book and deserves a thorough treatment, although there is no way I can do justice to this book, and I highly recommend that you read it yourselves.  There is a previous healthy memory blog post on a previous book by Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves, which I also strongly recommend.

One of the objectives of the book is to debunk the self-help book industry, which is not to say that all self-help books are junk, but most of them definitely are.  Consider such best selling volumes as, You Can Heal Your Life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Secret.  These books ran up more than $700 million in sales in 2005.  When other forms of self-help are added to the mix, such as infomercials, seminars, and sen personal coaches, the total amount spent on self-improvement reached $9.6 billion in 2006.  The fact that there are so many self-help books on the market might indicate that none of them is highly effective.  If one of them did unlock the secret to everlasting happiness, it would corner the market and crown out the others.  In the self-help industry there is what is known as the eighteenth-month rule, which is that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is someone who bought one eighteen months earlier.

Consider “The Secret,” which was distributed as both a film and a companion book released in 2006.  Both have been phenomenology successful.  The DVD has sold more than two million copies and the book more than 4 million copies.  The secret revealed in this book is the “law of attraction,” which says that thinking about something makes it more likely to happen to you.  If you understand this basic “law of the universe,” there are these three simple steps to getting to what you want: first, think about it—focus on the positive and not the negative.  The second step is to believe in what you want and have faith that it will soon be yours.  The third step is to receive the idea of having what you want, feeling as you will once you get.  Now here’s how all this works.  “Thoughts have frequencies that are magnetic, attracting things that are on the same frequency.  Moreover, the frequency you transmit reaches beyond cities, beyond countries, beyond the world.  It reverberates throughout the entire universe.”  Can you believe this?  Is there such stupidity rampant in the world?  Is the name of our species, homo sapiens, a misnomer?  Please tell me that people are buying these books and videos for laughs.  I realize that most self-help books are not this much off the wall, BUT LOOK AT THE LARGE NUMBERS OF SALES!

Now there is nothing wrong with being positive per se.  It is a quite prominent theme in self-help books,  Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than five million copies.  Positive Psychology has similar problems that were reviewed and remedied in the healthy memory blog post the “Other Side of Positive Psychology.”  And you will see the positivity also plays an important role in REDIRECT, but positivity cannot stand alone.

Why False Confessions Trump Evidence

June 30, 2015

Perhaps the most blatant example of the title  is the case of the Central Park Five.  This case attracted enormous attention as it supposedly characterized “wildings”  that were taking place.  Here five black men were convicted of raping and brutalizing a young woman.  There is a video piece on this that I encourage you to watch should you get the opportunity. You will see how the police interrogated these suspects, not with the hope of getting at the truth, but rather at getting them to confess, which they did.  However, it was quite clear from the physical evidence that the police were intent on getting confessions rather than seeking the truth.  The physical evidence at the scene indicated that this was not a gang rape.  And the DNA evidence, which is regarded as close to a gold standard as one can find for legal proceedings, completely exonerated these five men.

One of the reasons that confessions are regarded so highly is that juries ask themselves “Why would individuals incriminate themselves?  Don’t they know about their Fifth Amendment rights?
If you have viewed or get the opportunity to view the interrogations of the Central Park Five  you will see the extreme pressure these individuals are placed under in uncomfortable conditions for prolonged periods of time.  Moreover, there is psychological research showing that people can be falsely convinced that they did actually commit the crime (see the healthy memory blog post “False Memories Leading to Confessions” ).  And they are told that the investigation will continue, so being desperate or wrongly convinced, they reason that eventually truth will out and that they will be exonerated.

Research has indicated why these false confessions are so powerfully persuasive.  Common sense informs people that people will not incriminate themselves, these confession contain credible narratives (which often are created during the interrogation process), these narratives corrupt other evidence and undermine the truth-seeking process.

So what can be done about this?  First of all,  people, police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and appeals courts should be made aware of this research and question the reliability of these confessions.  Interrogations should be videotaped and reviewed.  There are recommended procedures for these interrogations and these procedures need to be followed.

Other Side of Positive Psychology

June 27, 2015

If you’re not up on positive psychology enter “positive psychology’ into the healthy memory search block.  In brief, it  emphasizes the focus of psychology on positive factors rather than conventional problems such as depression, neuroses, and psychoses.  The title of this session, presented at the 27th meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) would lead one to believe that this session was going to debunk positive psychology.  Instead it produced research shoring up some holes in psychology and providing methods for making positive psychology more effective.

An optimistic outlook and positivity alone can be counterproductive and have the opposite effect.  They discussed mental contrasting mechanisms for considering possible future outcomes.  One of these mechanisms is captured in the acronym WOOP.  This stands for wish, outcomes, obstacles, and plan.  So one begins with a positive realistic wish.  Then one imagines possible outcomes of this wish, including negative and neutral outcomes with the goal of identifying unintended outcomes.  Then one thinks of possible obstacles to achieving positive outcomes.  When these obstacles are identified, then feasible plan(s) are developed to overcome these obstacles.  If an effective plan cannot be developed, then one would abandon this wish, and wish for something more achievable.

An important concept that was discussed is emodiversity.  Emodiversity is an appreciation for the desirability of experiencing a variety of emotions.  It is neither possible nor desirable to be positive and happy all the time.  In music, there are the blues.  In the theater, there are tragedies.  These are legitimate emotions to be experienced and appreciated.  Problems occur when one becomes stuck in them.  Diversity is key.  Hence, emodiversity.

So instead of debunking positive psychology, this session discussed research for making positive psychology more realistic and achievable.  If the session could be summarized in one phrase, that phrase would likely be to “keep an even keel.”

Cognitive Capital

June 21, 2015

I was intrigued by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) session on cognitive capital, primarily because of the title.  I had not encountered this concept very often in the past, yet the concept would seem to hold much promise.  The papers presented at the session defined factors leading into what they called cognitive capital and then showed a high positive correlation between cognitive capital and the the economic success of  different nations.  Although interesting, I really was not interested that much in the papers themselves.  First of all, even if they have regressions equation indicating the contributions different variables make to cognitive capital and economic success, and no matter how big the data are, they are still correlational studies and do not prove causation.  And some of the variables were political in my view, such as private ownership.  Private ownership might indeed be a factor in a country’s success, but I don’t regard it as being a measure of cognitive capital.  It might help the exploitation of cognitive capital, but I regard the concept to be too important to be muddied up by questionable factors.

When I did a search for “cognitive capital”  I discovered a variety of enterprises capitalizing on the name, but I found no entry in the Wikipedia.  To me, this indicates that the concept deserves serious attention from serious researchers.  The concept has enormous intuitive appeal.  So much work and productivity is dependent upon thinking, and that is cognition.  Brains do provide the neurological substrate for cognition, but it is effective cognition that leads to success, and the failure to recognize good ideas, that is, the cognitive failure to recognize cognitive success.

One of the best examples I can think of regarding the importance of cognitive capital is Korea.  Korea was a rural country that was colonized by Japan in the early 20th century.  The Japanese exploited Korea until they were defeated in World War 2.  Unfortunately, the United States permitted the country to be divided in half with the result of the northern half becoming a ruthless communist dictatorship, and the southern half being a struggling capitalistic state.  However, the Koreans put a great deal of importance and had a high literacy rate.  They had cognitive capital to develop and exploit, which they did.  The result is one of the most advanced countries with respect to technology.  And it is important to realize that it is only half a country.  North Korea is one of the poorest and most oppressive countries on earth.  One that suppresses rather than fosters cognitive capital.  Unfortunately, the limited fostering of cognitive capital that they have done has lead to nuclear weapons and computer hackers.

So I think a good question is how can cognitive capital be fostered.  Free higher education is one means.  Perhaps the best investment the United States ever made in cognitive capital was the GI Bill after World War 2 that provided the means for millions of veterans to pursue higher education.  I believe that much of the subsequent success of the United States was the result of the GI Bill.  So why is higher education so expensive in the United States? Research should be targeted at initially reducing and ultimately eliminating these costs and examine the benefits that stem from this investment in cognitive capital.  Similar experimental studies should be done so that causation can be established in lieu of correlational studies.  In elections I want to see politicians saying that they will invest in cognitive capital.  And citizens should demand public investments in cognitive capital.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Integrative Body-Mind Training

June 17, 2015

As was mentioned in the immediately preceding post, during his Opening Address at the Meeting of  the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Posner discussed Attention and two main approaches to training the mind.  The previous post discussed his talk on attention training.   This post discusses his talk on attention state training. Integrative body-mind training (IBMT) is an example of the attention state approach to training the mind.  IBMT was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s in China, where it is being practice by thousands of people. Posner  has brought this technique to the United States at the University of Oregon.

IBMT does not try to control thought, but instead relies on a state of restful alertness that allows for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach.  The coach provides breath-adjustment guidance, mental imagery and other techniques as soothing music plays in the background.  Gradually thought control is achieved through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balancing breathing.  Having a good coach is important.

Two experiments were run at Chinese universities.  In both experiments participants who had not previously practiced relaxation or meditation received either IBMT or general relaxation instruction for 20 minutes a day for five days.  Although both groups experienced some benefit from the training,  those in IBMT showed dramatic differences  based on brain-imaging and physiological testing.

IBMT subjects had increased blood flow in the right anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region associated with self regulation of cognition and emotion.  Compared with the relaxation group, IBMT subjects had lower heart rates and skin conductance responses, increased belly breathing amplitude and decreased chest respiration rates all of which reflected less effort exertion by participants, more relaxation of body and a calm state of mind.  The following is complicated, so please bear with me, “IBMT subjects had more high-frequency variability than their relaxation counterparts, indicating successful inhibition of sympathetic tone and activation of parasympathetic tone in the autonomic nervous system.”  Sympathetic tone becomes more active when stressed.

Posner has essentially replicated these results at the University of Oregon.    He has conducted another study using a group of smokers (randomly assigned either to basic relaxation training or to IBMT.  Although this study used smokers it was not portrayed as a study designed to help them stop smoking.  After two weeks the IBMT group (but not the relaxation group) showed an average 60% reduction in cigarette smoking.  Brain scans confirmed  an increase in brain activity in areas related to self-control, including the anterior cingulate..

What specially amazed Posner was that many of the subjects did not realize that they were smoking less, despite the fact some of the reduction levels approached those of a quitter!

Posner on Mind Over Matter

June 13, 2015

Mind Over Matter was the title of the opening address given by Posner at the 27th Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.  He began his address by saying that humans are an easily distracted species.  He quoted from an ancient Hindu book called the Bhagavad Gita in which Arijuna remarks to Krishna that the mind “is as difficult to control as the wind.”  The blessed lord replies that with practice and indifference to worldly objects, the mind indeed can be restrained.

Posner noted that psychological science has figured out quite a bit about controlling the mind.  We know how the attention system develops in childhood, how it operates in adults and how to restrain it with practice.  He noted that these insights might help relieve mental illness.  “There are many, many attractive projects in psychology these days,” said Posner.  “I believe among  them will be the effort to understand attention in way which can improve the human condition.”

Posner defined attention as the product of two neural systems.  One is called the “orienting network.”  This is the part of the brain that helps us orient to external stimuli in our environment.  The other neural system is called the executive network, which helps us resolve conflicts and execute goals.  One of the key areas that assists this executing network is the anterior cingulate gyrus.  When children reach the age of 7 or 8, the executive network assumes most of the responsibility for maintaining attention.

One of the tools Posner uses is the Attention Network Test (ANT).   Individuals watch a target arrow and press a left button if the arrow is pointing left, and a right button if it is pointing right.  This target arrow can be flanked by congruent arrows (pointing in the same way) or incongruent arrows (pointing different directions).  The differences in reaction time for the congruent and incongruent condition is a strong measure of attention and of self-control.  Research has shown that higher effortful control scores as early as age 4 can predict health (less sickness), wealth (higher income), and crime (lower rates) at age 35.

Posner and his colleagues have identified two main approaches to learning how to control our minds with practice:  attention training and attention state training.  Attention training helps strengthen the mind with executive network tasks.  In one stud, young children were given a juvenile version of the ANT, then trained for 5 days on tasks such as using a joystick to control movement, improving working memory, and resolving mental conflicts.  When they took the ANT again at the end of the training period, the children showed changes in reaction time toward the direction of adult functioning.  He said that least 10 subsequent studies, using a variety of executive training methods have found similar results.

The second approach to learning to control our minds through practice is called attention state training.  Attention state training will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.

Attendance at 27th Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS)

June 9, 2015

I attended the first meeting of APS (although it was called the American Psychological Society then) and gave a poster presentation.  I haven’t attended all of these meetings, but I have attended some of them, and I’ve found that they don’t disappointment.  Nor did the 27th meeting.

The Keynote Address at the Opening Ceremony was given my Michael Posner.  It was titled “Fostering Attention for Human Needs.”  Posner is one of the leading researchers of attention, and attention is central to human cognition, human behavior, and human health.  At least one additional post will be done on Posner’s work.

One of the first session was titled “Cognitive Capital:  Causes and Consequences.”  The researchers were relating the economic success of different countries to what they called cognitive capital.  To do this they needed measures of cognitive capital, which they produced.  The notion of Cognitive Capital is an intriguing, one which will be addressed in subsequent posts.

Another session was on the “Biased Processing of Political Information.”  This is an important topic and is one of the obstacles to an effective democracy.  Some interesting reach was presented that suggested that judges and lawyers process information different that we lay people.  Obviously, they have biases also, but within these biases the evidence suggests that legal minds think differently.  This session also included a paper on the topic of why historical misconceptions endure, such as the holocaust being a myth, or that 9/11 was a tragedy done by the United States to the United States for nefarious purposes.  Unfortunately, there was no information on how holders of these misconceptions can be disabused of their misconceptions.  People’s biases simply blind them from facts.

There were many papers on how cognition works, and on the neural structures underlying cognition.

Michael Gazzaniga gave a presentation that I was unable to attend, but I think it was similar to the presentation he gave at the 2013 meeting of APS that was reviewed in this blog.

LeDoux presented his new concepts on the differences between fear and anxiety.

Angela Duckworth, who is a 2003 MacArthur Award recipient gave a presentation on Grit, which she defined as staying engaged to overcome frustration.  There will be a post devoted to her work that will includes some tips for fostering grit.

A highly worthwhile session was given on the “Other Side of Positive Psychology.”  There have been prior healthy memory blog posts on Positive Psychology.  Instead of debunking Positive Psychology, this session provided some very useful advice on “fine tuning” Positive Psychology.  There will be blog posts on this topic.

There was an interesting session of false confessions that will be covered in subsequent healthy memory blog posts as well as on a session on the “Central Park Five.”

The work on Timothy Wilson was covered in the Healthymemory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves.”  He gave a presentation expanding on this topic.

Franz B.M. de Waal gave the Bring the Family Address titles “Humans and Animals:  Politics, Culture and Morality.  It was very interesting and highly entertaining.

There was a very interesting presentation on Free Will.  I shall be discussing a book, in a future healthy memory blog titled “Free Will” by the philosopher Mark Balaguer.   I informed the presenter about this book as they have similar views to Balaguer.  They were grateful for this information.

As always, there were too many interesting presentation to attend.  And even when one was able to attend presentations, there was too much information to absorb.  These conventions leave me physically and mentally depleted, but with the knowledge that I have learned much.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

My iPAD at the Association for Psychological Science Meeting

June 7, 2015

I hope that regular readers of this blog will know what transactive memory is.  This iPAD certainly doesn’t as it repeatedly change my spelling to “transitive.”  Transactive memory refers to memories that are not held in our biological brains, but rather in our fellow humans or in technology, which can vary from paper to computers.  I think the APS did a splendid job of putting the program on the iPAD.  It had the schedule with links to paper abstracts and to locations, which made it easy to find the presentations.   The primary failure I experienced was not the iPAD, but to my failure to consult the iPAD.  I relied on my biological memory and arrived late for an interview with Steven Pinker that I wanted to attend.

I took notes the old fashioned way on a paper pad.  I still lack the proficiency to enter notes on the iPAD keypad, and my writing on the iPAD is even worse than my writing on a paper pad.  But I needed to take fewer notes as I could use the iPAD later to enhance the notes.

I also thought of how future technology could change the convention.  For example, the actual presentations could be streamed to mobile devices, so we could still interact with the speaker without being physically present in the room.  However, I doubt this will ever happen.  The convention could be attended live without ever leaving home.  Of course, the flesh component of the meeting would be missing, and these conventions are money makers for the societies.  Still, they could charge fees for participating, and the savings in travel and hotel fees would be enormous!

In an earlier state of technology, similar conventions did take place.  In 1999, 2002, and 2005 Cyberg  conventions were held remotely.  The topic of these conventions was human factors and ergonomics.  The idea originated with colleagues from the southern hemisphere where travel is especially troublesome.  I actively participate in all of these conferences and actually won an award for my active participation in 2005.  I found it interesting learning about research throughout the world.  Third world countries had some interesting ergonomic problems that we in the advance world would never consider.  Unfortunately, we have not had another meeting since 2005.  This is understandable as they do constitute quite a bit of work for the hosting countries.  Yes, there needs to be a physical host.

If anyone has had any experience with similar meetings, I would be interested in learning about them.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

Gone to the Annual Meeting of the APS

May 18, 2015

APS is the Association for Psychological Science.   There will be a hiatus in new posts as I attend the meeting.  Of course, I shall still need to assimilate the knowledge acquired and then I need to write new posts.  So the hiatus will not be trivial.

However, there are close to 600 posts here, so there is much to read and consider.  As for as what to read, there are the categories (scroll down the right hand column to find them) to consider.  I think the titles should be obvious with perhaps the exception of “Transactive Memory.”  Transactive memory refers to memories resident in technology and in our fellow human beings.  Then you can use the search block (scroll back up to find the search block with “search this site” in it to find posts of interests.  Here are some search terms for you to consider:

cognitive reserve
crystalized intelligence
contemplative computing

And if I were to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”

Enjoy and remember, “I shall return.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Importance of a Growth Mindset

April 16, 2014

Carol S. Dweck, the recipient of a James McKeen Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science, has developed the concept of and proven the importance of a growth mindset. This research has shown how praise for intelligence can undermine motivation and learning.
When we see ourselves as possessing fixed attributes, such as intelligence, we can blind ourselves to our potential for growth and prematurely give up on engaging in constructive self-improving behaviors. However, if we see the self as a development work in progress (the growth mindset) can lead to the acquisition of new skills and capabilities.
Her work has shown that victims of negative stereotypes who have (or are taught to adopt) a growth mindset then take a mastery-oriented stance to achieve their goals even in unfavorable learning environments. Consequently, they can excel despite the obstacles they face.
The impact of Dweck’s work has spread to domains other than academic achievement, to include willpower, conflict resolution in the Middle East, racial prejudice, and adolescent aggression. Her research has been applied extensively in both schools and organizations to empower children and adults throughout the world.
So the message to healthymemory blog posts is clear, should you not already have a growth mindset, adopt one ASAP.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.

APS Bring the Family Address on Diverse Brains

July 17, 2013

Morton Ann Gernsbacher from the Universe of Wisconsin-Madison gave this address on Diverse Brains. She began by reviewing a long list of imaging studies of the brain that found differences between male and female brains, autism, and a variety of other topics. The problem was that the consistent replication of these findings was not found. Rather they were inconsistent and pointed to different differences. Just now I have downloaded a book to my Kindle titled Brainwashed: the Seductive Appear of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Although brain imaging is a valuable research tool, it has generated a lot of junk. I’ll have more posts on this topic after I’ve read the book.

The remainder of her talk centered on accepting disability as diversity. There is an acceptance of disability scale. There is a positive relationship between this scale and a positive personal state. Although it might not be surprising that one’s acceptance of a disability predicts a positive personal state, this relationship persists regardless of the severity of the disability! The stress of the parent of a disabled child depends upon the subjective judgment of the parent. For example, the stronger the agreement of the parent’s response to the item “It is important for me to accept my child’s disability from doing things that I want to do”, the lower the stress of the parent. It is a matter of reframing the situation and taking the following attitude: Life might not be the party I hoped for, but maybe as long as we’re here we should dance.

Gernsbacher also commented on how accommodations that have been made for the disabled have benefited others. For example, the multiple benefits of captions. I, for one, welcome them in noisy taverns where no one can hear. One can also watch television without bothering others. The sloping of curves, which was done to accommodate those in wheelchairs, are also beneficial to bicyclists, and people pushing strollers or other wheeled devices. Unfortunately, they have made it more difficult for the blind navigating with canes as it makes it more difficult for them to find the curb. Clothing tags, which were especially problematic for people with sensitive skin have been removed by some clothing manufacturers. This policy has been welcomed by many others who find them annoying.

Her final remarks were on neither the brain or diversity, but were addressed to her fellow teachers. This had to do with speed versus power tests. Speed tests need to be completed in a specific time. For power tests, the time is unlimited (practically speaking). She sad that the most common complaint she received from her students is the limited time for tests. Consequently, she provides unlimited time, when it is possible, or shortens the test so that it can easily be completed within the time limitation. Apparently the Stanford Achievement Tests and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) no longer impose time limits on their tests.

© 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.

The Memory Factory

June 23, 2013

The Memory Factory is the title of the address delivered by Elizabeth Loftus at the Presidential Symposium of the 2013 Association for Psychological Science (APS) Convention. Research has revealed that 63% of the public believes that memory works like a video camera. Unfortunately, not only the public, but also the courts have believed this. Consequently, many have been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony because jurors have an erroneous view of the accuracy of memory. Worse yet, parents have been jailed for the sexual abuse of their children as the result of false memories placed by their psychotherapist. The theoretical predilections of these psychotherapists was that repressed sexual abuse as children was the source of their clients’ current psychological problems. In the course of the therapy they unwittingly placed these false memories in their clients’ minds. Can you imagine a worse nightmare that having your child accuse you of sexual abuse that you know never happened? It is truly Kafkaesque! Well it happened many times, and parents, teachers, and childcare specialists were falsely accused, convicted and sent to jail. It was through the research of Elizabeth Loftus and her many painstaking court appearances that eventually overturned these convictions. I think it unlikely that there will be similar convictions in the future.

The reality is that memory is far from being like a video recorder and is highly malleable. Loftus work began simply by showing how modifications in the wording of a statement would induce biases that would induce false recall. Bear in mind that misleading or biasing statements are not needed. The accounts of different witnesses of a crime will vary radically. There is a very good National Geographic television special on memory that illustrates. Loftus also appears on that same program.

Loftus work advanced to the point where it was possible to plant rich false memories in people’s minds. They have been made to think that as children they were lost in a mall or park and later found. They will provide vivid accounts of things that never happened. False memories of having become sick in the past from eating different foods have resulted in people no longer liking these foods. Loftus has also been able to plant false memories of foods that they either did not like or were indifferent to and made people believe that these were foods they liked. Consequently, people started liking these foods. Examples of this were illustrated in a TV special featuring Alan Alda and Loftus.

False memories have also been created in individuals classified as being HSAM, Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. So the best memories that have been found are still vulnerable!

Recent research has used fMRI to try to determine if there were any differences in true versus false memories. No differences were detected. People’s confidence in their memories provides no indication of their accuracy. People can be highly confident in memories that are patently false.

© 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.

APS Address on The Psychological Science Behind Hyperpartisanship and What to Do About It

June 16, 2013

This is the Association for Psychological Science (APS) James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award address presented by Diane E. Halpern. Much of Halpern’s research has been on critical thinking. In this address she chose the term hyperpartisanship to describe the condition underlying the current gridlock in the U.S. Congress. She said that it was similar to apartheid in the old South African regime. There blacks were segregated from whites and had their own restrooms and other facilities. This situation also existed in the southern states in the United States before the passage of Civil Rights legislation. In today’s congress, the two parties do not mix. They have their own rooms and there is little grounds for informal interactions among the two parties. This is a relatively new phenomenon that is concurrent with gridlock.

Diane recommended eight specific actions that can be done to remedy the problem of hypertisanship. Understand that these proposals are not just for the politicians. They are also for us citizens, and for the press.

Step 1. Make friends, or at least acquaintances, with people of the opposite political persuasion.

Try to understand why they think as they do, and try, regardless of how fruitless it might be, to acquaint them with your modes of thought.

Step 2. Stay informed. Extend the effort to keep up to date and to understand the positions of others. So don’t restrict yourself just to sources that reinforce your own opinions.

Step 3. Keep a cooperation scorecard. Scorecards are kept for fidelity to conservative positions, and to liberal positions. I know of no scorecard on politicians who make an effort to compromise. Should any reader be aware of such a scorecard, please inform us by leaving a comment. It would be extremely beneficial if the news media kept such scorecards and presented them along with the news. Were this done, I imagine that the gridlock would quickly crumble.

Step 4. Reward evidence-based thinking. Constantly ask what is the evidence supporting an advocated political position. Civilization advanced slowly and regressed until the beginning of science based on evidence derived from research, that the civilization advanced rapidly. Prior to that, progress was restrained by ideology. Unfortunately, ideology still exists and provides the fundamental basis for gridlock.

Step 5. Check accuracy. Check the accuracy of the evidence. The Washington Post features a Fact Check Column. There is also a website, that is very good. But there are many facts to be checked. Readers are encouraged to present additional recommended sources for checking facts as comments to this post.

Step 6. Reject groupthink. Reward naysayers. Also reward flip-flopping. It indicates thought. I believe John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Step 7. Follow the money. It has been said that the United States has the best Congress money can buy. Unfortunately, this is true, and we must ask whether a given politician’s position has bee bought.

Step 8. Think critically. Given that so much of Halpern’s research has been on thinking critically, this step was clearly obligatory. The problem is that thinking is a System 2 exercise and requires effort. Ideologies are fundamentally System 1 processes that provide easy political positions.

If you have not done so, please read the healthymemory blog post, “A Mindful Politician.” Even if you have read it, you might want to reread it.

© 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.

Back from APS

May 28, 2013

That is, I’m back from the convention of the Association for Psychological Science. It was an outstanding meeting. This blog post will present a brief synopsis and will promise some blog posts for the future. As I mentioned in my previous post, there were so many interesting topics that some overlapped and I could not attend both. I actually needed to miss a program with Daniel Kahneman, whom I regard as the leading psychologist today. I am not going to review every presentation I attended. Some were primarily for psychologists and of little interest to the general public, some were too technical, and, frankly, some didn’t warrant further discussion.

The Keynote Address was delivered the split-brain researcher, Michael S. Gazzaniga. It was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” I going to discuss his presentation along with the presentation by Edwin A. Locke, “Whatever Happened to the Conscious Mind” in a later healthymemory blog post.

Diane Halpern gave what was perhaps the most timely and relevant presentation, “The Psychological Science Behind Hyperpartisanship and What to do About It.” This certainly deserves its own healthymemory blog post, which will be appearing later.

Helen J. Neville gave an APS William James Fellow Address titled, Experiential, Genetic, and Epigenetic Effecs in Human Neurocognitive Development.” Here talk was highly technical, and I shall not go into a detailed presentation. However, it’s importance is easy to assess. She found that there was a much higher incidence of difficulties in focusing attention in pre-schoolers from low socioeconomic status families than from higher socioeconomic status children. She was able to develop a training program that was able to correct this problem. As the ability to focus attention is important to learning and success in school, this program is highly relevant. Moreover, it is fairly short term and can be administered cheaply. More can be found about this program at

David Strayer gave a presentation on multi-tasking and using a cell phone while driving. In short, the risk is becoming greater. Much more will be written in a later healthymemory post. This is a message that people do want to hear, but it needs to be told.

At the Presidential Symposium,r Ted Abel gave a presentation on “Epigenetics and Memory Storage.” Remember the Healthymemory blog, “How the Brain and Mind Work.” That might have sounded complicated, but Abel is studying the epigenetics of the translation from DNA to RNA to protein, which underlies the formation of our memories. This work is most remarkable, as is the complexity of our brains and their emergent phenomena.

At the same symposium, Elizabeth Loftus updated her work on False Memories. This work will also be addressed in a later healthymemory blog post.

Stanovich presented his latest work on a Rational Intelligence Quotient. He has persuasively argued that the standard IQ misses an important component of cognitive activity, rational thinking. I will be following up on his work after I finish his latest book.

Ralph Hertwig gave an invited talk, “The Psychology of Decisions from Experience. People behave differently when they make decisions based on written descriptions than when they make their decisions based on experience. Vulcanologists are convinced that Mount Vesuvius will erupt in the near future. However, most of the residents of Naples, who are at risk from Vesuvius, do not want to move, because an eruption has not occurred in their lifetimes.

Mortan Ann Gernsbacher gave an address on Diversity and the Brain. This, too, will receive a later blog post.

Finally, there was a session on the cognitive reserve. Most certainly, this will receive its own blog post.

Do not expect all these posts to follow directly. First of all, they take time to write. Secondly, some posts will better fit in the context of other healthymemory blog posts.

Now for some general comments. I am continually impressed by the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and other personal devices at these conventions. This observation will get its own blog post. And I was disappointed about cognitive psychologists who were unfamiliar with meditation. It reminded me how parochial our discipline can be. It also reminded me of when I was a graduate student and there was a lively argument about whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled by individuals. Well proficient meditators were already doing this, so the answer was already known. So if you read the healthymemory blog posts on meditation (enter meditation, Davidson, and Mindfulness in the healthymemory blog search post), you can consider yourself more knowledgeable about the topic than some cognitive psychologists.

© 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.


Gone to APS

May 23, 2013

That is, the Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. The program is quite impressive with many interesting sessions. Unfortunately, some interesting sessions overlap meaning that I shall not be able to go to all the sessions I want to attend. I believe there will be some interesting and thought provoking healthymemory blog posts resulting from my attendance.

Can Pigeons Learn Faster the Humans?

October 21, 2012

Would you believe that the answer is “yes.” And would you further believe that the learning involves conditional probabilities? The problem is the famed “Monty Hall Dilemma” from the old TV show Let’s Make a Deal. On one segment of the show the contestant was asked to make a choice regarding three doors. There was a valuable prize behind one door and trash prizes behind the other two doors. After the contestant chose one of the doors, Monty Hall would open one of the other two doors, which would have a trash prize behind it. Monty then asks the contestant whether she wants to switch her choice to the other remaining door. Most people, including some prominent statisticians, saw no point to switching the choice. However, the contestant would increase her chances of winning something valuable to 67% from 33% by switching. This result is non-intuitive. The simple explanation is that the sample space changed with the opening of one of the doors. Very detailed explanations can be fond on the Wikipedia or you can play the game itself at

and prove that the answer is correct. Be sure to play the game enough times to acquire a large enough sample. Concluding on the basis of your first few tries could lead to an erroneous conclusion.

But our question is whether pigeons could do better the humans. Probably not on Let’s Make a Deal, as the typical pigeon just as the typical human is unlikely to know the problem or to be especially knowledgeable about conditional probabilities. But how would humans and pigeons compare after playing a game like the simulation provided above?

An experiment1 addressed this question. Here’s how this experiment was run for the pigeons. Prior to each trial the prize, a grain pellet, was randomly assigned to each of three keys. The keys were illuminated and the pigeon pecked a key locking in the choice. Following a brief delay, the two remaining keys were again illuminated again and a second peck produced a prize, the grain, or a time-out. Pigeons completed up to 100 trials per day over 30 days. Human participants completed 200 trials using a computer display and were presented with visual feedback. Pigeons began with a tendency to stay, but eventually settled on a strategy to switch on virtually all trials. Human participants quickly developed a tendency to switch on about two-thirds of the trials. That is, they tried to probability match rather than moving to the optimal strategy of always switching. If you do not believe that this is the optimal strategy, then go back to the simulation and test your hypothesis, remembering to run a large number of trials.

So how could this be? Could pigeons be smarter than humans (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals”)? Or could it be that humans are being too smart for their own good in this case? Remember the distinction between System 1 and System 2 Processes (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 consists of well learned processes that run virtually automatically. System 2 is close to our conscious processing and is what we commonly experienced as thinking. It is possible that we over think the problem to our disadvantage. It would have been interesting to continue humans in the experiment to see when, if ever, they learned the optimal strategy of not switching. The pigeons, in spite of their conscious capacity, might have learned the optimal strategy via very basic learning processes. Be assured this is all conjecture, done in fun. But the empirical results are real.

1Hebranson, W.T. (2012). Pigeons, Humans and the Monty Hall Dilemma. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012 21:297 DOI: 10.1177/0963721412453585.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

Forgetting Is Important to a Healthy Memory

March 14, 2012

The common complaint is forgetting. Consequently the importance of forgetting is overlooked. A recent article1 provides a strong reminder of the importance of forgetting. The famous study of someone who remembered everything he experienced or tried to remember is recounted in a book by the Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist. Although this person made a good living giving demonstrations of his phenomenal memory, he regarded his exceptional talent as a curse. He wanted to forget, but he could not. His was truly a pathological case.

Traumas, in particular, and unpleasant thoughts, are things we want to forget. There unwelcome recall makes our lives unpleasant and can lead to depression and serious mental problems. We should all be aware of the benefits of optimism, and these memories make it difficult to be optimistic.

Fortunately, we can learn to forget and Michael Anderson and his colleagues have developed an experimental paradigm that not only shows that we can, but shows how to forget more effectively.2 Here’s how the experiment works. The first stage is simple paired associate learning. Words are paired and the research participants learn to recall the second word when the first word is presented.

In the second stage some of these same word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked to think about the second word when the first is presented. However some of the word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked not to think about the second word when the first word is presented. And some of the word pairs are not presented and serve as controls for the third stage of the procedure.

In the third stage the research participants are given the first word of all the three sets of the word pairs that have been presented. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked to think about both words in the second stage recalled the most words. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked not to think about the second word remembered the fewest words (showed the most forgetting) and the word pairs that were not presented during the second stage were recalled second best. So even those words that were seen less than the words with the forget instructions were better remembered. It is also interesting to note that forgetting increases as a function of the number of “not think” trials. So we can control our forgetting.

According to the theoretical account of these results that have been substantiated by brain imaging studies, the prefrontal cortex is the executive control area that inhibits the activity of the hippocampus, which is a primary subcortical structure for learning and apparently also for forgetting.

You might still be curious as to how to make yourself forget things you don’t want to remember. Well, technically you are not forgetting them. Rather you are instructing yourself not to think about them, so they will not pop up unwanted in your consciousness. In the experiment the research participants were implicitly recalling the words but instructing themselves not to think about them. This led to the nonintuitive finding that the more times they did this, the less likely they were to recall them.

Anderson and his colleagues have also presented research indicating that our ability to exercise this voluntary forgetting declines as we age.3 However, other research has failed to find this result and concluded that there was no difference in the ability to forget between old and young research participants4. The only difference I could find between the two studies, besides the second study using German research participants, and the first study using U.S. research participants, was that the elderly research group was slightly older in the U.S. than in the German study.

Regardless, I am not impressed by research showing that older research participants perform more poorly than younger research participants without providing any suggestions as to how the deficit might be remediated. Given the importance of the prefrontal cortex for deliberate forgetting I would suggest the possible benefit of exercising the prefrontal cortex (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Working Memory”).

1Wickelgren, I. (2012). Trying to Forget. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 33-39.

2Anderson, M.C. (2009). Suppressing Unwanted Memories, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 189-194.

3Anderson, M.C., Reinholz, J., Kuhl, B., & Mayr, U. (2011). Psychology and Aging, 26, 397- 405.

4Alp, A., Bauml, K-H, & Pastotter, B. (2007). No Inhibitory Deficit in Older Adults’ Episodic Memory, Psychological Science, 18, 72-78.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

My Mom’s Gone

February 8, 2012

My Mom has just passed away. Although she made it into her 100th year, she did not make it to her 100th birthday. I was blessed with two fine parents. Our home had lots of love and lots of laughs. My Dad passed when he was 62. He was riding his bicycle when his heart went into fibrillation. He died all too young, and his passing was especially painful for me and my Mom. A number of years ago we moved my Mom to be close by us in an assisted living facility. Although I was not aware of it then, I believe that the onset of dementia had already occurred. Over the years she lost more and more of her memory and more and more of her cognitive functioning. This was very sad. We are largely what we are able to remember. I would search for family memories that she could recall and try to relive them, but over time fewer and fewer were accessible from her memory. Her physical health also declined and there were periodic stays in the hospital. At her last visit to the hospital, it was recommended that she be transitioned to hospice care, as there was no hope of recovery and the only prospect was prolonging her misery. I visited her daily knowing that I was watching her die. The hospice did what they legally could to reduce her discomfort, but it was clear that her existence was not a happy one. So although I am sad to lose my Mom, I am glad that her suffering is over.

I have thought and continue to think about how my Mom’s mental decline could have been prevented or at least mitigated. Professor Stine-Morrow has an interesting theory of cognitive aging1 (also see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Memory and Aging”). She thinks that as we age, we deploy our attentional resources less since we have compiled so much information that we can cruise along and think less. Her theory fits nicely in to Nobel Lauerate Danile Kahneman’s Two System View of human cognition (see the reason Healthymemory Blog Post, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” and search on “Two System View” for more posts on the topic). System 1 is fast and requires little mental effort. System 2 is slow and requires mental effort, which can be significant depending on the nature of the thinking.

So the view is that as we age we can become mental couch potatoes. There is a hardening of the categories regarding what we know and what we are willing to consider. To continue the analogy with physical exercise, engaging in System 2 processing , while effortful, provides mental exercise. In turn, this mental exercise might ward off or mitigate cognitive decline. The goal of the Healthymemory Blog is not just to ward off or slow cognitive decline, but to foster cognitive growth throughout our lives.

One way of looking at the Healthymemory Blog is as a tool for fostering System 2 processing. It is hoped that the blog posts themselves foster System 2 processing. The Mnemonic Techniques category includes posts that are specific to improving memory performance. In addition to improving memory performance, these techniques can also provide cognitive exercise. The Transactive Memory category provides posts describing how technology and our fellow human beings can foster System 2 processing.

The Healthymemory Blog is dedicated to my Mom. I am sorry that I did not do more for her. I hope to atone by providing information that will assist myself and others not only in avoiding or mitigating cognitive decline, but also to foster cognitive growth throughout our lifespans.

There will be a brief hiatus in Healthymemory Blog posts. But I trust there is plenty here to foster your System 2 processing.

1Stine-Morrow, A. L. (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 295-299.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Makes a Nation Intelligent?

June 5, 2011

There were many outstanding presentations at the recent meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). One of the best of these outstanding presentations was one by Earl Hunt with the title, “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?” This was his James McKeen Fellow Award Address. Hunt, who has a rich and diverse background in Physics, Business Administration, and Computer Science as well as Psychology, is currently a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington.

One of his primary interests is intelligence, and he published a book last year on the topic titled, appropriately enough, Human Intelligence. The approach he takes to intelligence is that of a cognitive psychologist rather than the traditional psychometric approach to intelligence. The psychometric approach provides estimates of the percentage of intelligence that is inherited versus the percentage of intelligence that is a product of the environment. The psychometric approach is primarily descriptive and offers few ideas for improving intelligence with the exception of eugenic approaches. The cognitive approach is interested in the cognitive processes that underlie intelligence as well as artifacts and interventions that can improve intelligence.

That is not to say that the psychometric approach is useless. Hunt points out that the correlation between IQ and occupational success is about 0.5 (the coefficient ranges with 0.0, no relationship, to 1.0, a perfect relationship, with a positive or negative sign indicating whether the relationship is direct or inverse). He said that this relationship is about twice as high as various personality measures. IQ tests measure what IQ tests measure, which is what is easy to measure. They’re good at assessing tasks that require speed, but they tend to miss culturally important skills.

To return to the question “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?”, one of his responses is cognitive artifacts. One example of such a cognitive artifact would be written records (e.g., cuneiform tables, papyrus, paper), where both business transactions and ideas could be recorded. I would call these examples of technical transactive memory, he calls them explicit artifacts. Hunt also uses the term implicit artifacts to refer to communication systems and personal trust. I would call these examples of human transactive memory. Regardless of what they are called, they are essential to a Nation’s intelligence.

Nation’s also need to respond to and adopt beneficial new ideas. Ideas spread along the Silk Road Trade Route and countries along this trade route tended to benefit from this intelligence and prosper. However, their needed to be an openness to new ideas. Japan initially closed up and ignored new ideas in favor of their own traditions. This was also true of China and Korea. These countries did not prosper until they opened up to new ideas from foreign cultures. This increased their respective national intelligence and led to increasing prosperity.

So what contributes to a nation’s intelligence? Of course there are explicit and implicit cognitive artifacts, but factors such as nutrition and environmental pollution cannot be ignored. Nutrition is essential to the development of intelligence, whereas environmental pollution degrades intelligence. The family and a formal education system are important. As Diane Halpern noted, “You learn to do what you practice doing”

Cultures, such as the Jewish culture and Northeast Asian cultures, that place a heavy emphasis on education do well on intelligence tests. Although there are sleight differences in mathematical performance between males and females, this gender effect is overwhelmed by practice. In other words, females who work at mathematics to very well on mathematics.

Hunt noted that when three outlier countries were removed, they was a correlation of 0.65 between IQ and financial success. As he put it there is an interaction between intelligence and financial success, the rich get smarter and the smart get richer.

Hunt advocates the creation of a cognitive elite, which he defines as college graduates. But he lists the obstacles to fostering this cognitive elite such as:

Lack of trained teachers and equipment.

The economic costs of a college education (this needs to be affordable and not require the acquisition of heavy financial debts).

The opposition of education aimed at modern cognitive skills.

The opposition to scientific ideas such as the opposing to vaccination because it is not in the Koran (or in our society the opposition to vaccination based on faulty scientific evidence and reasoning).

His conclusion: It is possible, although difficulty, to create better interactive environments to improve national intelligence.

Aging, Age-Related Cues, and a Healthy Memory

December 12, 2010

A recently published article1 provides evidence regarding the effect of our minds on our health as we age. The article presented the effects of a variety of age-related cues. The presence of these cues may prime diminished capacity; the absence of these cues may prime improved health. Here are their findings:

Women who think they look younger after having their hair colored/cut show a decrease in blood pressure and appear younger to independent raters who view their photographs in which their hair has been cropped out.

Clothing is an age-related cue and uniforms eliminate this age-related cue. Those who wear work uniforms have lower morbidity than than do those who earn the same amount of money and do not wear work uniforms.

Baldness cues old-age. Men who bald early see an older self and accordingly age faster. Prematurely bald men have an excess risk of getting prostate cancer and coronary heart disease than do men who do not prematurely bald.

Women who bear children later in life are surrounded by younger age-related cues. Older mothers have a longer life expectancy than do women who bear children earlier in life.

Large differences in ages between spouses result in age-incongruent cues. Younger spouses live shorter lives and older spouses live longer lives than do those in a comparison control group.

What has this to do with a healthy memory? The message here is that what we perceive in our minds affects our bodies. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that a positive young looking attitude will have a similar effect our our memories. So maintain a positive attitude. DO NOT ADMIT TO SENIOR MOMENTS. The memory you remember having is not as good as you thought it was. Memory failures occur at all ages. So do not assume and casually attribute memory failures to aging. Maintain a positive, youthful attitude as you age, and engage in proactive activities such as those advocated in this Healthymemory Blog.

1Hsu, L.M., Chung, J, & Langer, E.J. (2010). The Influence of Age=Related Cues on Health and Longevity. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 632-648.