Posts Tagged ‘Brain’

Some Thoughts About Donald Trump

March 14, 2019

If you’ve read the preceding posts about emotional intelligence based on Daniel Goleman’s book, you’ve already read some hints that Trump’s behavior might be governed in some part by deficiencies in his brain. Trump does not behave like a president, and he is an embarrassment to the United States. When HM and his wife go on a cruise, they try to pass as Canadians. Trump behaves like a schoolyard bully. He uses degrading nicknames and fires back at whatever he regards as an insult or a failure to pay him proper respect. He does not speak the truth because he lives in his own reality that determines what he regards, at the moment, as the truth. He has no regard for facts, because what is true already exists in his mind. He disregards science and ignores the best intelligence system in the world.

If Trump’s actions are, at least in part, due to deficiencies in his brain, then he warrants sympathy, or maybe even pity. Unfortunately, he also warrants fear for a variety of reasons. Foremost is his control over nuclear weapons. He also is destroying international relations. He has already caused an enormous deficit and knowledgeable economists predict economic failures due to his policies.

Although Trump might warrant sympathy, the same cannot be said of the Republican Party, where the Republican Congress has ignored their constitutional responsibility to keep watch on the President. Instead, they have protected him and lied about the effectiveness of his policies. All genuine Republicans have left the party. Those who remain are either members of Trump’s base, viz., Nazis or White Supremacists, or want to maintain positions of power so they can enrich themselves.

It has been noted that Trump is likely to try to stay in power even if he loses the next election. He constitutes a genuine threat to the rule of law and our democracy.

The Republican Party died, a causality of the stupidity pandemic. What a shame. The loss of the GOP. The loss of the party of Lincoln.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Social Emotional Learning

March 12, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman is a strong advocate of the movement in social/emotional learning (SEL), school-based programs that teach the whole spectrum of emotional intelligence abilities. This topic has been addressed in a previous healthy memory blog post (see “Schooling the Emotions”). The best programs run from kindergarten through high school, and teach these abilities at every age in a developmentally appropriate way.

All the emotional intelligence skills develop in the curriculum of life, from childhood on—but SEL gives every child an equal opportunity to master them. That’s why Goleman co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at Yale (CASEL) (Now at the University of Illinois at Chicago).

The brain is the last organ in the body to become anatomically mature. When you see the changes from year to year in how a child thinks, behaves, and reacts, what you’re really looking at is how their brain is developing. For example, when it comes to creativity, children are fabulously open and imaginative, especially young children. But there are two stages of brain growth that change this. The first is called the five-to-seven shifts, where the emotional circuitry comes under stronger prefrontal control. So children are better able to control their impulses, and to coordinate their imaginative efforts, to say nothing of them being better behaved.

At puberty there’s what is called a sculpting of the brain, a huge loss of under-used neurons. We are born with many more neurons that we use later in life, and the principal is use-it-or-lose-it (this is not the same as a steady deterioration. This occurs during puberty. This is not the same as a steady deterioration throughout life. Neurogenesis still creates new neurons daily, throughout our lives).

Social Emotional Learning programs are designed to give children the near lessons they need as their brain grows. This is what developmentally appropriate means.

On the wall in every SEL program there’s picture of a stoplight with its red, yellow, and green lights. It says, “When you’re getting upset, remember the stop light, stop! Calm down ad think before you act.” Stop is behavioral inhibition: activate the left prefrontal circuitry that can manage your amygdala impulses. Calm down shows that you can change your state to a better one. Think before you act teaches a critical lesson: you can’t control what you’re going to feel, but you can decide what you do next. Then, yellow light—think of a range of things you might do and what the consequences would be, and pick the best alternative. And green light: try it out and see what happens. This is drilled into kids. And this kind of lesson, along with all the others in the SEL program actually works.

Roger Weissberg, the psychologist who directs CASE analyzed data at over 200 SEL programs that were compared to schools without them, involving a total of 270,000 students. He found that , on average, SEL programs reduce anti-social behavior like misbehaving in class, fights, or substance abuse by about ten percent. The biggest gains are seen in the schools that need it the most.

Moreover, academic scores went up by eleven percent. Goleman suspects that this has to do with a large part of how the hypothalamic pituitary, amygdala (HPA) axis arousal interferes with cognitive efficiency and learning. If you’re a kid who’s preoccupied by worry, anger, distress, anxiety, or whatever stress causes in you, you’re going to have a diminished capacity to pay attention to what the teacher is telling you. But if you can manage those emotional upsets, your working memory, the capacity of attention to take in information increases. SEL teaches you how to manage these disruptive feelings—not just through lessons like the stop light, but through learning how to get along better with others kids (a major source of turbulent feelings). This lets you be a better learner.

For us adults at work, this identical skill set will make us better performers. And it’s never to late to develop further strengths in emotional intelligence.

The Genius Within: Unlocking Your Brain’s Potential

December 17, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a new book by David Allen. David Allen is a British journalist with a highly entertaining writing style. HM is envious of his writing style. So for a more enjoyable presentation of this material read the book. Much of the book will be ignored. Although it is both interesting and scholarly, it contains many red herrings with respect to genius. Foremost among them is the intelligence quotient (IQ). Mr. Allen is so captivated by IQ that he applied for the high IQ group Mensa. To join Mensa you need to have an IQ of at least 130. About 2% of the population would be eligible. Mr. Adam passed and in an effort to raise his IQ after different training attempts he managed to raise it by one point. This is well within the margin of error of IQ tests. He used the drug modafil, but it didn’t seem to help.

Mr. Allen did not find anything exceptional about members of Mensa. They were doing all right in life, but nothing exceptional. Much research has been done on the size and structure of the brain, but this research has not revealed anything substantive.

Mr. Allen does devote space to the evils of IQ testing. It has been used to disqualify large groups and races as being intellectually inferior. It has been used to justify sterilization and even the killing of what was regarded as inferior populations. To learn more about IQ tests enter “Flynn” into the search block of the healthy memory blog. To learn more about the inadequacy of intelligence tests enter “Stanovich” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Perhaps the worse effect of IQ is that it has led people to believe that they are not smart and are unlikely to succeed at anything difficult. What has found to be important for IQ is mindset.[enter “mindset” into the search block of the healthy memory blog] The psychologist Carol Dweck has identified two kinds of mindsets: fixed and growth.  People with a fixed mindset believe that we are who we are, and abilities can only be revealed, not created and developed.  They say things like “I’m bad in math” and see that as a fixed feature like being female or left-handed.  The problem with this mindset is that it has serious consequences because a person who thinks they are poor at math will remain poor at math and won’t try hard to improve; they believe this would be pointless.  Whatever potential these people have will not be realized if they think that these skills are immutable.

However, people with growth mindsets believe that skills can be developed if they are worked at. The growth mindset is the true mindset that allows for personal development.  Fixed mindsets are erroneous mindsets that preclude further development. Dweck has conducted experiments that illustrate and provide insight into this difference.  In one experiment she gave relatively easy puzzles to fifth graders, which they enjoyed. Then she gave the children harder puzzles. Some children suddenly lost interest and declined an offer to take the puzzles home.  Other children loved the harder puzzles more than the easy ones and wanted to know how they could get more of these puzzles.  Dweck noted that the difference between the two groups was not “puzzle-solving talent.”  Among the equally adept children, some were turned off by the tougher challenge while others were intrigued.  They key factor was mindset. In another experiment Dweck found that even when people with the fixed-mindset try, they don’t get as much from the experience as those who believe they can grow.  She scanned the brains of volunteers as they answered hard questions, then were told whether  their answers were right or wrong and given information that could help them improve.  The scans showed that volunteers with a fixed mindset were fully engaged when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong, but that’s all they apparently cared about.  Information that could help them improve their answers didn’t engage them.  Even when they’d  gotten an answer wrong, they were not interested in what the right answer was.  Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention  to information that could stretch their knowledge.  For them, learning was a top priority.

Too many people try something, have difficulty doing it, and then abandon it thinking that pursuing it will be a waste of time. However, there are many people who were not discouraged by their initial failures. Rather they regarded these failures as motivation to succeed and became very successful in their pursuits. Barbara Oakley is a prime example. [Enter “Oakley” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts.] Barbara Oakley is someone who despised mathematics, but who eventually decided that mathematics would be critical to her success. She began work slowly but diligently. And she discovered as her skills improved, she began to increasingly like mathematics, which ultimately led her to becoming a highly successful engineer.

The take away lesson here is not to let any one or any test define you. Define yourself and then work diligently to succeed.

Perhaps more important than professional success is personal success and personal fulfillment. Rather than a number, you want to have personal knowledge and skills that result from growth mindsets.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World

September 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

June 5, 2016

The title of this blog post is the title of a book by Sharon Begley.  Please ponder this title for a moment and consider its ramifications.

It overturns two longstanding dogmas.  One is that the brain is hardwired and fixed.  The second is that although we are conscious, this consciousness is epiphenomenal in that his consciousness cannot change the brain.

Healthy memory was pleased to learn that William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word “plasticity to the science of the brain.  In 1890 James posited that “organic matter,” especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”As Ms. Begley notes, “But James was ‘only’ a psychologist, not a neurologist (there was no such thing as a neuroscientist a century ago) and his speculation went nowhere.”Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a great Spanish neuroanatomist who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.  In 1913 near the conclusion of his treatise on the nervous system he declared, “In the adult center the nerve paths are somewhat fixed, ended and immutable, thus stating that the physiology of the brain itself could not be changed. Nevertheless, he did continue with the hope, “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”  Fortunately, empirical evidence that emerged in the 1990s and will be discussed in subsequent posts found that this statement is wrong.

The second dogma, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that only the brain is made of solid stuff that science can study was never accepted by the Buddhists.  In Buddhism the mind is contra and can be used not only to influence but to change the brain.  The Dalai Lama ins very much interested in science and uses science to alter religious beliefs.  This will be discussed in the immediately following post.

As this is an important book, healthy memory shall devote many posts to it.  Even so, Healthymemory will not be able to do Sharon Begley’s book justices.  Thus, healthy memory encourages you to read the book, and Healthymemory is egotistical enough to think that there will be added value in also reading the posts.

Your Heart is In Your Brain

April 27, 2016

The brain and the heart are two organs that are typically thought of as opposites.  The brain is for logical thinking, and the heart is for feeling.  Although the heart is certainly important for the brain as it supplies oxygen and other important nutrients, it has nothing to do with feeling, emotion, or empathy.   This fact that your heart is in your brain became abundantly clear in the books “Switched On:  A Memoir of Brain Changes and Emotional Awakening,” by John Elder Robison.

The author lived with autism.  He could not read the emotions of other humans, nor could he understand sarcasm.  He could not understand many personal insults.  His shortcomings in interpersonal skills contributed to his dropping out of school.  But these shortcomings were in some sense compensated for with other extraordinary talents.  He had extraordinary ability with electronics.  He had perfect pitch and could tune a guitar with both perfection and ease.  These talents led to his working with rock groups in creating and setting up their sound systems and video effects.  He worked for the group Kiss and was one of the leaders in this area.

HIs specific type of autism, there is an autism spectrum, was Asperger’s syndrome.  He wrote a book about his condition, “Look at Me in the Eye,”  which was quite successful and led to his giving many talks at organizations interested in autism.  Nevertheless, he was aware of his deficiency and very much wanted to be able to cure or compensate for it.

So at the age of 50 he volunteered to participate in research using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).  This involved placing an apparatus that generated magnetic fields that were targeted for certain areas of the brain.  This procedure had had some success in treating depression.  However, this was a research project designed primarily to learn about the brain rather than as a cure or remedy for autism.  John was doubly excited about this procedure as it involved electronics, which he loved, and because he wanted to see if it would have any effect on his autism.

As it turned out, it did.  In the past when he listened to music he understood the electronics producing the music, but the music had no emotional effects on him.  For the first time he actually cried from the lyrics of a piece.  Now he was able to have emotional feelings.  He was also about to read the expressions of others and to make inferences about how they were feeling and what their true intentions were.  In most cases he found this to be beneficial.  He owned a car repair shop, and was now able to have a better understanding of how customers felt.

In the past, he would miss most insults and any sarcasm from other people.  However, now he did not miss these comments.  And in reviewing past relationships, he realized that certain people had been routinely putting him down and insulting him without his noticing it.  He ended up ending most of these relationships.

So all the effects were not beneficial.  Sometimes ignorance can be bliss.  His wife had a serious problem dealing with depression.  In the past, although he was aware that his wife was depressed, he did not suffer any emotional effects.  After TMS he did suffer the emotional effects of his wife.  He felt her pain.  Unfortunately the end result was a divorce.

In addition to  John’s  talks on autism, he participates actively non only in research, but also in review panels deciding which proposal should be funded.  This is remarkable when you consider that John did not finish even rudimentary schooling.  Yet he is a good choice for reviewing these proposals and for helping decide the future of research.    After all, he is an author, and an author who writes quite well.  This book should be of wide interest not only for people interested in autism and TMS, but for the general reading public.

The research points to a bright future in brain science.  As for where TMS therapy stands today, as of early 2016 TMS is an FDA-accepted  therapy for depression at hundreds of hospitals in clinics across the United States.  It is also available in Canada, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

TMS is not yet an FDA-approved therapy for autism or ADHD, but it is believed that this will come in the next decade.

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

Brain, Mind, Memory

November 22, 2015

These are three terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but each has distinctive meanings.  The term brain certainly has the most prestige,  Someone who is known as a researcher of the brain has more prestige that someone who is known for studying the mind or memory.  The study of the brain, neuroscience, is regarded as hard science, whereas the study of either the mind or memory is regarded as soft science.

The adult brain weighs about three pounds, has the consistency of firm jelly, and has a wrinkled performance (deep valleys carving a puffy landscape).  There are an average of 86 billion neurons in the adult male brain.  These neurons are connected by about fifty trillion synapses.  Research is underway to map the brain.  The complete mapping of the brain would be an enormous achievement for anatomy.  But apart from anatomy, what would it tell us?  If we had a detailed understanding of how the brain worked, we would have important information, but we would not understand what the brain does.

The primary accomplishment of the brain is that it provides the physiological substrate of the mind.  We are aware of the conscious component of the mind, consciousness.  But most of the mind lies below the level of consciousness.   It is constantly working, even when we are asleep, although we remain unaware of what it is doing.  It is the mind that is of primary interest.  David Eagleman titled his book, “The Brain:  The Story of You.”  Eagleman is an neuroscientist and can title the book how he likes.  I am a psychologist and I would prefer “The Mind:  The Story of You.”  Of course, the brain is important as it constitutes the physiological substrate for the mind.

I believe that memory is thought of by most people as a place where information is stored.  Usually the complaint is that their memory is poor because they forget things.  Memory is central to the mind and to cognitive processing.  Remember that in the visual system there are ten times as many neural pathways going down from the brain as their are pathways proceeding up from the eyes.  Memory is involved in the processing of all incoming information.  This provides for the rapid processing of information, but it also leaves us vulnerable to our many biases and preconceptions.

Memory is involved in more than retrieval of information from the past.  It is a device for time travel where possible futures, dangers, and opportunities can be imagined.  Perception is never immediate.  Incoming data is first stored in a very short term store (hundreds of milliseconds in the iconic storage of visual memory), then a selective portion of this information is processed into working memory where it becomes consciousness.  Whether the information is stored so that it can be remembered is largely a function of how much and how effectively attention has been applied to the information.  Once stored, there is a distinction between memory that is available in memory, and information that is accessible in memory.  Information that is accessible is readily recalled.  Information that cannot be recalled is likely available in memory but cannot be accessed at a particular time.  The healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline”  explains that the slowness of recall and the apparent loss of memory is primarily due to the enormous amount of information stored in the elderly brain.  There is much more to search through than in younger brains, so it is often slower and can appear to be faulty.  However, often when you fail to recall an item, your non-conscious memory continues to search for it, and it might pop into your consciousness a day later or even more.

It is more accurate to say that the mind recreates rather than recall memories.  Memories are not exact copies of prior experiences.  Moreover the act of recall improves the likelihood that the memory will be accessible in the future.  This is why when studying it is important to try to recall information rather than simply reviewing.  Testing provides the basis for improving memory.

So we cannot underestimate the importance of memory, and the healthy memory blog is devoted to keeping memories healthy.

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

Let Me Think It Over

August 19, 2015

“Let me think it over”  is something we should say to any proposition other than the most trivial.  Included here are conversations with ourselves.  If we have an idea we should think it over before acting on it.  Whenever we read, hear. or think of something we are only accessing an extremely small portion of our memory.  Our conscious awareness is quite limited and the vast majority of cognition occurs below our level of awareness (See the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  Moreover, the amount of information we are able to access at any given time is quite limited.  Trying to recall something or thinking about something at a different time should yield some new information.

Think of your brain as a large corporation.  You are the CEO at its executive headquarters.  Most of this corporation is below your level of consciousness.  So not only is information stored, but information is also processed at this nonconsciousness level.  After you have finished your initial consideration of a topic, other parts of this corporation will continuing processing.  Allowing time to think something over allows this nonconscious processing to occur.  Perhaps the best example of this nonconscious processing occurs after you have tried, but failed, to remember something.  Some time later, perhaps the next day even, what you were trying to remember pops into your conscious awareness.

Memory theorists speak of accessible memory, which is information we can easily remember.  Then there is information which we cannot access at a particular time, which is nevertheless available in memory.  It might become accessible during another recall attempt, or after detailed search and processing by your unconscious memory.   This is called available memory.

Then there is also transactive memory.  Transactive memory is memory that is not stored in our own brains, but exists in the brains of fellow humans or technology.  So we can speak of accessible transactive memory which is information we cannot recall but we know how to look it up or whom to ask.  Available  transactive  memory is information that we know exists, but that we need to conduct some research to find it.

I have lost money because I failed to think something over.  Had I just done some quick research on the internet i would not have spent money on unnecessary repairs.  I fear this has happened more than once.  I have suffered undesirable consequences from failing to ask someone making a proposal, or from failing to adequately think over my own ideas.

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

Belief

April 18, 2015

Our beliefs direct our lives and how we think.  The initial part of this post comes from an American Scientist (4 April 2015, 28-33) article by Graham Lawton.

Initially our beliefs are determined by default.  Children believe what they are told.  This is fortunate, otherwise the child’s development would be retarded.  So our brains are credulous.  A brain imaging study by Sam Harris illustrated how our brain responds to belief.  People were put in a brain scanner and asked whether the believed in various written statements.   Statements that people believed in produced little characteristic brain activity, just a few flickers in regions associated with reasoning and emotional reward.  However, disbelief  produced longer and stronger activation in regions associated with deliberation and decision making.  Apparently it takes the brain longer to reach a state of disbelief.  Statements that were not believed also activated regions associated  with emotion such as pain and disgust.  These responses make sense when regarded from an evolutionary perspective.

There is also a feeling of rightness that accompanies our beliefs.  This makes evolutionary sense except in the case of delusional beliefs.  People suffering from mental illness can feel quite strongly about delusional beliefs.  And when we here a belief from a friend or acquaintance we find to be incredulous, we might ask, “Are you out of your mind?”

So a reasonable question is where does this feel in of rightness originate.  One is our evolved biology, that has already been discussed.   Another is personal biology.  The case of mental illness has already been mentioned, but there are less extreme examples that researchers have found.  For example, conservatives generally react more fearfully than liberals to frightening images as reflected in measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate.

Of course, the society we keep influences both what we believe and the feeling of rightness.  We tend to associate with like minded people and this has a reinforcing effect on our beliefs.

The problem with beliefs is that progress depends on the questioning of beliefs.  The development and advancement of science depended on questioning not only religious beliefs, but the adequacy of these beliefs.  Progress in the political arena depended on questioning the validity of the concepts of royalty and privileged positions.

Beliefs are a good default position.  Absent beliefs, it would be both difficult and uncomfortable to live.  Nevertheless, beliefs should be challenged when they are clearly incorrect or when they are having undesired consequences,

My personal belief about beliefs is that we manage to live on the basis of internal models we develop about the world.  But I don’t believe that any of my beliefs are certain.  They are weighted with probabilities that can change as the result of new information (data) or as the result of new thinking and reasoning.  Even my most strongly held beliefs are still hedged with some small degree of uncertainty.

A good example of this is Pascal’s argument for believing in God.  His argument was that the payoff for not believing in God could be extremely painful.  However, even if one’s belief was infinitesimally small, one should believe.  I have always found this to be one of the few philosophical arguments to be compelling.  So I believe in God.  Anyone who does believe in God has the comfort of this belief while living.  And if there is no God, one will be dead and have no means of knowing that one was wrong.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist that has made significant contributions to science.  However, he is one of the most outspoken atheists.  Recently he has admitted that he does have some uncertainty and that he is more accurately an agnostic.  However, he argues that he is far enough down on the agnosticism scale to call himself an atheist.  Here we have a stupid argument from a brilliant man.

I find that  many of the problems people have regarding the existence of God stem from religion.  It is important to keep in mind that religions are human institutions and are flawed.  Religions have done much good, but they have also done harm.  Apart from Pascal’s wager, I have a philosophical need for God.  Of course, I realize that my philosophical needs are not necessarily supported by reality.

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

Food for a Healthy Memory

January 24, 2015

When I saw the lead article in the Washington Post Health & Science Section (6 Jan 2015) by Bonnie Berkowitz and Laura Stanton titled “Food for thought: Is your brain missing something?” I felt obligated to pass it on to my healthymemory blog readers. The neuroscience professor Gay Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings, notes “Our brains need certain nutrients to keep us happy, focused, and functioning at our best. But moderation is key, and gobbling more of a particular nutrient helps only if you are making up for a deficiency.” Now on to substances that are good for the brain.

Antioxidants are important because they delay cognitive decline by neutralizing free radicals, which are by products of our oxygen guzzling metabolism that damage cells by causing inflammation. People who exercise a lot tend to eat more and breathe more heavily, which results in more free radicals. Flavonoids, one type of antioxidant, improve blood flow to the brain and enhance its ability to form memories, especially in conjunction with exercise. Antioxidants can be found in colorful vegetables and fruits, red wine, cocoa, calf and beef liver.

Caffeine seems to protect the brain, although scientists are not sure exactly how. Caffeine is found in coffee, many kinds of tea, cocoa, many sodas, and dark chocolate.

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and an important component of brain cell membranes. A deficiency has been linked to brain disorders such as depression. Correcting a deficiency can boost the brain’s plasticity enhancing cognition and learning. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in salmon, tuna and other fatty fish, plants such as flaxseed, walnuts and other nuts.

Tryptophan is an amino acid used to make seratonin, an essential mood-regulating neurotransmitter. The brain can’t store tryptophan, so we need to get a regular supply from protein in our diets. Tryptophan is found in eggs, nuts, spinach, meat, fish, and poultry.

Curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties. It is found in the spice turmeric and seems to protect the brain against Alzheimer’s and possibly Parkinson’s disease. Turmeric has been used in Asian herbal remedies for centuries to treat inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Curcumin is also a powerful anti-oxidant. Curry and sine mustards contain, and turmeric can be added to many foods. My wife uses it and it is delicious.

B vitamins, folate, or folic acid is needed to keep the enzymes related to energy metabolism humming alone. If a woman is deficient, additional folate may improve memory and ease depression. Studies indicate it may also help protect the brain from dementia. It is found in fatty fish, mushrooms, fortified products, milk, soy milk, cereal grains, orange juice, spinach, and yeast.

Shortly after reading the Washington Post article I received the January 7th Scientific American article, “Get the New Skinny on Dietary Fat.” It included the following quote from David Perlmutter, the author of Grain Brain. “The brain thrives on a fat-rich, low carbohydrate diet, which is unfortunately relatively uncommon in human populations today.” Mayo Clinic researchers showed that individuals favoring carbohydrates in their diets had a remarkable 89 percent increased risk for developing dementia as contrasted to those whose diets contained the most fat. Having the highest levels of fat consumption was actually found to be associated with an incredible 44 percent reduction in the risk for developing dementia.”

The article goes on to state that certain types of fats are more beneficial than others. “Good” fats include monounsaturated fats, found abundantly in olive oil, peanut oil, hazelnuts, avocados, pumpkin seads, and polyunsturated fats (omega 3 and omega 6), which are found in flaxseed oil, chia seeds, marine algae oil and walnuts.

Olivia Okereke of Brigham & Women’s Hospital tested how different types of fats affect cognition and memory in women. Over the course of four years she found that women who consumed high amounts of monounsaturated fats had better overall cognitive function and memory. Similar findings resulted from a study by researchers in Laval University in Quebec. They found that diets high in monounsaturated fats increased the production and release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is critical for learning and memory. The loss of acetylcholine production in the brain has been associated with Alzheimer’s.

Although canola oil, which is high in monounsaturated fats in its natural form, is often hydrogenated so that it can stay fresh longer in processed foods. Partially hydrogenated foods, also known as Trans fats, were shown to be detrimental to memory in a University of California at San Diego study. According to Beatrice Golomb, “Trans fats increase the shelf life of the food, but reduce the shelf life of the person.”

The article concludes by noting that “a well-rounded diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables may still may be the best way to stay healthy. But it’s good to know that a little fat here and there won’t kill you. In fact, it might well help you live a healthier, more productive life.”

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

The Benefits of Diet and Nutrition on Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind

June 8, 2014

This post draws heavily on the chapter on the benefits of diet and nutrition in Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind by Greenwood  and Parasuraman.  They do not conclude that there are no benefits of diet and nutrition on cognition.  Rather they are concluding that most evidence for this claim is weak.

Now there is strong evidence that dietary restriction with respect to calories consumed does confer significant benefits for cardiovascular health, but there is no strong evidence for its benefits on cognition.  We often read that what is good for the heart is good for the brain and cognition, but that is not necessarily so.  Consumption of foods containing reservaterol may confer benefits on healthy and cognition that are similar to dietary restriction.  Greenwood and Parasuraman are hesitant to make this recommendation due to the dangers of alcohol abuse.  Here your healthy memory blog post author will say that along as alcohol is not abused, there are benefits.  Indeed, moderate alcohol consumption, one or two drinks per day, has been found to have benefits on health in general.

Goodman and Parasuraman also note that the substitution of polyunsaturated fatty acids for saturated fat in the diet has convincing evidence for the human risk of heart disease, but the evidence for beneficial effects on human cognition is inconclusive.

Goodman and Parasumanan state that there is little evidence that B-vitamin supplementation has any beneficial efftext on the brain or cognition.

Well-controlled studies of the effects of specific foods, spices, herbs, and micronutients are few in number and the results are inconclusive, but there is some evidence for the benefits of antioxidants in the diet consistent with other evidence for a ole of oxidative stress in negative effects on aging.

The Benefits of Diet and Nutrition on Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind

This post draws heavily on the chapter on the benefits of diet and nutrition in Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind by Greenwood  and Parasuraman.  They do not conclude that there are no benefits of diet and nutrition on cognition.  Rather they are concluding that most evidence for this claim is weak.

Now there is strong evidence that dietary restriction with respect to calories consumed does confer significant benefits for cardiovascular health, but there is no strong evidence for its benefits on cognition.  We often read that what is good for the heart is good for the brain and cognition, but that is not necessarily so.  Consumption of foods containing reservaterol may confer benefits on healthy and cognition that are similar to dietary restriction.  Greenwood and Parasuraman are hesitant to make this recommendation due to the dangers of alcohol abuse.  Here your healthy memory blog post author will say that along as alcohol is not abused, there are benefits.  Indeed, moderate alcohol consumption, one or two drinks per day, has been found to have benefits on health in general.

Goodman and Parasuraman also note that the substitution of polyunsaturated fatty acids for saturated fat in the diet has convincing evidence for the human risk of heart disease, but the evidence for beneficial effects on human cognition is inconclusive.

Goodman and Parasumanan state that there is little evidence that B-vitamin supplementation has any beneficial efftext on the brain or cognition.

Well-controlled studies of the effects of specific foods, spices, herbs, and micronutients are few in number and the results are inconclusive, but there is some evidence for the benefits of antioxidants in the diet consistent with other evidence for a ole of oxidative stress in negative effects on aging.

An Important Book for All to Read

May 26, 2014

And that book is Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind by Pamela M. Greenwood and Raja Parasuraman of George Mason University.  The book is an extensive review of the literature on the older brain and mind in general, and on Alzheimer’s and dementia, in particular.  Although younger people might think this book is only for us BabyBoomers that would be WRONG WRONG WRONG!  First of all, the magnitude of the problem must be considered.  As people age the probability of suffering  Alzheimer’s increases and with aging populations it will soon reach epidemic proportions.  Hopes for drug cures or preventative vaccines are slim (see the healthy memory blog posts, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s” and “Sigmund Freud and Alzheimer’s Disease”).   Moreover actions you take now can reduce the likelihood of suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.  If you have parents, there are things they can do to reduce the likelihood of suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.  And if you have children, there are things that both you and your children can do to reduce the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia.  These “activities” or “things” are described in Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind.

Greenwood and Parasuraman note that although the brain might age, cognitive aging is neither universal nor inevitable.  Most individuals do not show a decline in cognitive functioning in old age, even though the probability of suffering such a cognitive decline increases as we age.  Moreover it has been noted in many healthymemory blog posts that there are many individuals who do not suffer cognitive decline in spite of the tell-tale amyloid plaque and neurofibril tangles of Alzheimer’s.  The only explanation of this fact has been that these people have developed a cognitive reserve.  Greenwood and Parasuraman present a neurocognitive framework to describe how this might be done.

Nurtuiing the Older Brain and Mind is a  scholarly work of the highest order reviewing an extensive research literature on the topic including both human and non-human species.  Nevertheless, I believe that it is written on a level where it should be accessible to the general reader.  Even if it takes a bit of a reach for the general reader, it is a reach well worth taking.  Although the healthymemory blog will draw heavily on this work, there is no way I can even hope of doing it justice.

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

 

The only criticism I have of this work is that it does not address mindfulness, although I do understand why it was not addressed.  Part of the reason can be found in the immediately preceding blog post on random controlled trials or random clinical trials (RCTs).  The researchers do not regard the research on mindfulness as being significantly “rigorous.”  I remember when I was a graduate student there was a debate on whether we humans can control our autonomic nervous systems with out minds (heart rate, for example).  Now there were people in the east who were highly trained meditators who were able to do this.  Nevertheless, most psychologists would not accept this conclusion unless they could train someone to do it in a psychological laboratory.  They regarded these meditators as using some sort of “trick.”  Well the same thing has been said of mnemonic techniques, but these mnemonic techniques not only enhance memory, but also reveal important insights into how memory works.  Similarly mindfulness research will provide practical insights into how we can control our minds and our bodies.  These skills will be central not only to preserving cognitive functioning, but also to enhancing cognitive functioning.   I predict that mindfulness will play an increasingly strong role in nurturing the older brain and mind.

The Brain

March 11, 2014

Within the triangle of well-being (see the immediately preceding post) it is important to have some understanding of the brain, as that is the organ that the mind needs to control and grow. All of the following are estimates:1

  • There are 1 million neuronal connections formed every second.

  • There are 100 billion nerve cells in the brain.

  • It computes 100 trillion instructions per second compared to the 25 billion instruction per second done by a typical desktop computer.

  • There are 500 trillion synaptic connections in an adult human brain.

Moreover, there are trillions of glial cells providing support.

It is also important to know that neurogenesis occurs throughout the entire life span and involves the differentiation of neuro stem cells into fully mature neurons in the brain.

This brain is one tremendous device we have. Unfortunately, the brain frequently seems to have a mind of its own. And it requires dedicated focused attention for the brain to grow and fulfill its potential.

Transactive memory is a resource consisting of the memories of our fellow humans. These memories can be accessed through direct personal relationships or through technology. Technology brings us the wisdom of the ancients. It also allows us to profit from the mistakes of our predecessors.

Mindfulness and meditation help our minds control our brains including our emotions. They also develop our attentional powers so we are able to grow and achieve in desired directions.

Our brains are a terrible thing to waste. But our minds can prevent our brains from being wasted.

1Huang, G.T. (2008). Essence of thought. New Scientist, 31 May, 30-33.

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

The Triangle of Well-Being

March 8, 2014

The Triangle of Well-Being is a chapter in Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. This triangle of well-being is a three pointed figure that is a metaphor for the idea that mind, brain, and relationships are each part of a whole. The notion is that this triangle is a metaphoric map that signifies one reality with three interdependent facets. The triangle represents the process by which energy and information flow. This process changes over time. Relationships are the sharing of this flow. The brain refers to the extended nervous system distributed throughout the body that serves as the embodied mechanism of that flow. The mind is an emergent process that arises from the system of energy information flow within and among people. A critical aspect of the mind is the emergent process of self-regulation that regulates that from which it arises.

So the mind can regulate and change the brain, which is the process of neuroplasticity. The energy information flow within us, our thinking and behavioral process, along with our communication with our fellow human beings can produce resultant changes in the brain for better or worse. The worse part is when maladaptive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors occur. The better part is when we acquire new knowledge, modulate our emotions, and foster beneficial and enjoyable relationships.

Siegel is a psychiatrist who is the Co-Director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. He uses this conceptual treatment both in his treatment of psychiatric patients and in the development of healthy mindfulness. His pocket guide goes into great detail regarding the parts of the brain and how they are modified in the process.

Permit me to elaborate on this triangle using the lingo of the healthymemory blog. Interpersonal relationships are part of transactive memory, but transactive memory includes technology as well as live interactions among individuals. Books and other technical media allow us to establish relationships with humans who have long departed. Admittedly, these relationships are uni-directional, but they are nevertheless valuable. We can also establish relationships through technology with living individuals throughout the world, and these relationships are definitely bi-directional.  Relationships among groups are omnidirectional. Such relationships can be valuable, but they need to be distinguished from relationships in social media, such as Facbook, where “friending” can be largely superficial.

Interpersonal Neurobiology

March 4, 2014

The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind by Daniel J. Siegel is a valuable and fairly unique book. I find the text especially relevant as it fits well with the philosophy of the healthymemory blog. Dr. Siegel posits a Triangle of Well-Being, more of which will be written in the subsequent post. It consists of three components: a mind, a brain, and relationships. The mind is an emergent phenomena that emerges from the sophistication of the brain and is represented in our conscious mind. The brain includes not only the physical brain, but also the entire nervous system. Relationships refer to our relations and interactions with fellow human beings. In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, this concept of relationships is captured in the category of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to the memories of our fellow human beings and to the memories resident in technology. But be aware that these memories available in technology are the result of memories of fellow human beings. Thanks to technology, we are privy to the thoughts of the ancient Greeks, as well as all the great philosophers and scholars throughout the course of recorded time. This also includes the memories of people from diverse cultures speaking diverse languages. The key concept here is that we can and should use our minds to control and develop our brains to best advantage. This is not always easy as the brain often appears to have a mind of its own. But mindfulness techniques are there to help us control and develop our thinking, as well as control our emotions. Using the mind in this way allows us to exploit the neuroplasticity of the nervous system throughout our lives. Similarly, our minds can interact with our relationships to foster those relationships so that they achieve maximum benefits.

The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology does not have chapters. Rather it has numbered entry points with titles, but there is no requirement to follow the numbers. The guide is written so that you can enter at any numbered topic you find to be of immediate interest and start reading. Each entry point has several terms that are nodes in a larger interconnected network. There are 168 nodes in this nodal network. The nodes and other important general terms are italicized for ease of reference throughout the text. They can be found with brief definitions in an annotated index. The nodes serve as a bridge to read different entries so that you can interweave the conceptual framework as you move in and out of the different entries to satisfy your own personal interest.

The Complexity of the Brain and Neuroimaging

January 14, 2014

This blog post is based on the book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lillenfeld. Please bear with me as this is the second post that I’ve written based on a source viewed on my Kindle.

The notion that a specific area in the brain is solely responsible for a given mental function is intuitively appealing, and it would definitely simplify matters. Unfortunately that is rarely the case. Mental activities do not map neatly onto discrete brain regions. At one time a specific area of the brain, Broca’s area was believed to be the brain’s one and only language-production center. Subsequent research has found it to be one of the key nodes, or convergence centers, for the pathways that process language. Similarly, there is no one designated site in charge of speech comprehension as it also relies on patterns of connectivity across multiple brain regions. “Although neuroscientists regard a few cortical regions as being highly specialized for particular operations—such as the perception of faces, places, body parts, ascribing mental states to others (“theory of mind”) and processing visually presented words—most neural real estate is zoned for mixed-use development.”1 This is most fortunate as the brain can rewire itself and allows the newly discovered remarkable plasticity of the brain. So when the brain is damaged it can rewire itself to regain its lost functionality. This rewiring might partially account for those individuals whose autopsies revealed the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited the symptoms. People who are born blind are able to use their visual cortex to perceive touch and learn to read braille letters.

This complexity of the brain should be kept in mind both when viewing images and when reading reports that draw conclusions from neuroimages. As will be seen many reports are overstated, incorrect, or only partially correct.

1Satel, S. & Lillenfold, S.L. (2013) Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

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

An Important Part of the Brain Unknown to Most

November 30, 2013

That would be the precuneus. The precuneus is located on the inside of the brain between the two cerebral hemispheres in the rear region between the somatosensory cortex and forward of the visual cortex, which contains the cuneus. One of the reasons so few people are aware of the precuneus is that it has been difficult to study because it is difficult to access. Moreover, it is rarely subject to isolated injury due to strokes or trauma, such as gunshot wounds.

The precuneus appears to be a recently expanded part of the brain. It is poorly developed in the less developed primates such as New World monkeys. The human precuneus comprises a larger portion of the brain than in non-human primates or other animals. It has the most complex columnar organization and is among the last regions to myelinate.

Mental imagery regarding the self has been located in the forward part of the precuneus with the poster areas being involved in episodic memory. Episodic memory refers to events in our own personal lives. Another area of the precuneus has been linked to visuospatial imagery. Visuospatial imagery is central to many mnemonic techniques.

Functional imaging has linked the precuneus to processes involved in self-consciousness. This includes the important function of reflective self-awareness. For example, it would be involved in comparing ones own personality traits to those of other people.

Not surprisingly the precuneus is involved in many memory tasks, for example when people look at images and try to respond based on what they have remembered in regard to verbal questions about spatial details. It is also involved in source memories such as when you try to remember where you read a particular article or where you saw a particular person. It is believed that the precuneus is involved in a variety of processes in addition to episodic memory retrieval such as attention, working memory, and conscious attention.

One idea is that the precuneus, together with the posterior cingulate is pivotal for conscious information processing. The evidence for this idea comes from the effects of its disruption in epilepsy, brain lesions, and vegetative state. It is also thought that the ventral precuneus is involved with the default mode network, and that this involvement might underlie its role in self-consciousness.

As this research is fairly new some of these ideas should be regarded with caution. But even at this early state of research it is clear that the precuneus is important and and deserves to be more widely known.

Sleep, the Brain, and Alzheimer’s

November 24, 2013

Sleep has always presented a problem for science. It is an activity in which we humans spend approximately one-third of our lives. So there must be some justification, but what is it? Dreaming is an important area of study. The healthymemory blog has a substantial number of posts on dreaming, which will not be reviewed here (to find them, enter “dreaming” into the search block of the healthymemory blog). Recent research has identified how waste materials are removed from the brain, and how this removal increases when we sleep. A healthymemory blog reader has led me to some of this research and I do thank him for his assistance.

For most of the body there is a complex system of lymphatic vessels that cleanse tissues of potentially harmful metabolic waste products, accumulations of soluble proteins and excess interstitial fluid. Unfortunately, the central nervous system lacks a lymphatic vasculature, so the problem was to identify how waste products are removed from the brain. Research by Maiken Nedergaard and her research group at the University of Rochester has appeared to have solved this problem.1 This finding is especially important as the breakdown of the brain’s innate clearance system might underlie the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease, as well as ALS and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The research team injected fluorescent tracers into the brains of living mice, and then imaged the movement of the tracers using two-photon microscopy in real time. They were able to identify a complete anatomical pathway, which they dubbed the “glymphatic system” due to its dependence on glial cells performing a “lymphatic” cleansing of the brain interstitial fluid. (enter “glial” into the healthymemory blog search block to learn more about glial cells).

“During sleep, the cerbrospinal fluid flushed through the brain very quickly and broadly,” said Rochester neuropharmacologist Lulu Xi/”2. Another experiment revealed that sleep causes the space between cells to increase by 60%, allowing the flow to increase. When the mouse was awakened, the flow in the brain was greatly constrained.

“Brain cells shrink when we sleep, allowing fluid to enter and flush out the brain,” Nedergaard said. “It’s like opening and closing a faucet.”3 The research also found that beta-amyloid protein cleans out of the brain twice as fast in a sleeping rodent as in one who is awake.

This research once again underscores the importance of getting enough sleep. It also suggests that failures in this cleansing system might contribute to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease, as well as ALS and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. So this research opens up new research avenues for studying and, possibly curing or remediating these diseases.

2Kim, M. (2013). During sleep, the brain clears up. The Washington Post, October 20, p. A5.

3ibid.

What Einstein’s Brain Tells Us

November 19, 2013

Fortunately Einstein’s heirs allowed for the removal of his brain for study after his demise. As the title of the Washington Post Article indicates “Einstein’s brain was more connected than most. His large corpus callosum, which helps the left and right hemispheres work together, is part of what made the physicist so creative, researchers say.”1 The corpus callosum runs nearly the full length of the brain from behind the forehead to the nape of the neck. Its dense network of neural fibers carries electrical signals between the two hemispheres that make brain regions with very different functions work together.

Peter U. Tse is a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College who studies the underpinnings of artistic, scientific, and mathematical creativity. He argues that “the ways in which we use our brains – and the consistency with which we do so – may matter more as we age.” “He noted that, while Einstein’s brain was much better connected than those of similarly aged men, it was not so different than those of young and healthy controls.”

“That might reflect the fact that Einstein continue to exercise his brain strenuously, forestalling much of the atrophy that comes with age.”

Although we are not Einsteins, it is the continuing theme of the healthmemory blog that we need to continue to exercise our brains strenuously.

1(2013) Healy, M. The Washingtonpost, 13 October, A4.

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

An Update on the Prospect of a Cure for Alzheimer’s

April 17, 2013

A recent article provides an update on the prospect of a cure for Alzheimer’s.1 Here are some quotes from the article, attributed to neuropsychologist Peter J. Snyder, “There’s not going to be a single magic bullet… This isn’t a disease, but a syndrome with multiple etiologies.” Long time readers of the healthymemory blog might remember that Alzheimer himself was doubtful that this was a disease. His employment situation motivated him to make that argument (see the healthymemory blog post, “Sigmoid Freud and Alzheimer’s Disease”).

Previous healthymemory blog posts have made the point that autopsies of individuals who had never shown signs of Alzheimer’s were found to have substantial buildups of amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. That led me to conclude that the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles might be a necessary, but not a sufficient cause of Alzheimer’s. However, recent imaging studies have shown that about 30 percent of healthy adults who never develop Alzheimer’s have fairly substantial plaque buildups. A less common occurrence is people who have classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s but no amyloid in the brain. Consequently I have come to the conclusion that amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s.

It is important to note that large portion of the research on Alzheimer’s was targeted at this amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. This is an indication of how far off the mark this research has been. The conclusion reached by Snyder is that a cure for Alzheimer’s is not within reach. However, he argues that “If we can slow the progression by just five years, we can cut the cost of Alzheimer’s to society by 2050 by almost 50 percent. It’s an attainable goal.’

I would like to see the logic and the computations regarding this last statement. Won’t slowing the progression increase the duration of the disease and hence the costs? For myself, I have no interest in a treatment that will prolong the disease, prolong my agony.

There is the new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies (BRAIN). I am wildly enthusiastic about this project, and I am confident that much will be learned. However, I fear that it has been oversold with respect to cures for brain diseases and brain injuries. I hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that I am not.

And for you Baby Boomers , a cure is unlikely. Start building your cognitive reserve by following recommendation in the healthymemory blog and in similar publications. If you have not already, start building a healthy memory and a cognitive reserve (if you don’t know what a cognitive reserve is enter “cognitive reserve” into the search block of the healthymemory blog).

1Voelker, R. (2013) The pre-Alzheimer’s Brain. Monitor on Psychology, March, 46-49.

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

The Benefits of Mindfulness

April 7, 2013

This blog post has been derived primarily from the Scientific American Mind article1 “Being in the Now.” A preceding healthymemory blog post, “Being in the Now is Really Being in the Then,” made a technical correction, but the term as used in the Scientific American Mind article is generally accepted. Moreover, the healthymemory blog heartily endorses the claims made in this article. The immediately preceding healthymemory blog post describes a technique to help in achieving the benefits of mindfulness.

According to the Scientific American Mind article, mindfulness is a mental mode of being engaged in the present moment without evaluating or emotionally reacting to it. Currently, there are more than 250 medical centers worldwide that offer mindfulness-based therapies for mood and other disorders. Mindfulness training works by strengthening the brain’s ability to pay attention. The healthymemory blog strongly believes that this is the key benefit from mindfulness training. Memory is the center for human information processing including its maladies and disorders. Attention is the key process that determines what gets into memory and what is retrieved from memory. Accordingly, the ability to control one’s attention is a most important skill.

Another item from the Scientific American Mind article, “After receiving mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, patients report noticing that negative thoughts lose their power over time.” Also from the article, “Mindfulness training can relieve symptoms of ailments that stress can exacerbate such as psoriasis and fibromyalgia.” And, “By improving the ability to direct and monitor attention, mindfulness meditation could enhance people’s performance in pursuits as diverse as sports and surgery.” Mindfulness also provides an antidote to rumination, worry, and fear, and their adverse effects on mental health.

To find more healthymemory blog posts on mindfulness, enter “mindfulness” into the blog’s search block. Entering “meditation” will reveal even more relevant articles. Entering “Davidson,” will retrieve articles on Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style, as well as meditation techniques to enhance and refine these respective dimensions.

1Jha., A.P. (2013) March/April, 26-33.

Mind vs. Brain

March 27, 2013

The first issue of the new publication, Mindfulness, features a column by Sharon Begley having the same title as this blog post. Her article motivated this current post. Scientists seem to be reluctant to talk about mind in a scientific context. Cartesian dualism is no longer in vogue. Neuroscience is the new kid on the block capturing fascinating images of the brain in action. The brain constitutes solid science; the mind remains somewhat questionable. There is a consensus that the mind is an emergent phenomenon emerging from the brain. However, the status of the mind remains questionable.

What is overlooked is that the neuroscience would be meaningless absent the mind. Images could be collected of the brain in action, but there would be no way of knowing what they mean. The typical brain imaging paradigm involves instructing people to do something and see what images emerge. That something is resident in the minds of both the experimental participants and the scientists doing the experiment. Otherwise the entire exercise would be meaningless.

The law of parsimony plays an important role in science. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best. So the simplest explanation is that the brain engenders activity which we interpret as the mind. This explanation assumes that the mind is epiphenomenal. In other words, it serves as a movie we passively observe and experience as mind. It is important to realize that parsimony can be overdone. The notion is that the explanation that should be chosen is the one that is simplest that still explains the most.

The first question to ask about the mind, is why is it there? Even if it is an epiphenomenon, why does it exist? Evolutionary explanations like to include reasons why things involved. So one should think that if the mind exists, there should be a reason for it. In my view the reason is for it to act on the brain. The entire notion of mindfulness is that the mind can act upon the brain, and there is ample evidence to accept this notion. Moreover, there is a pragmatic argument. Consider two individuals. One is a practitioner of mindfulness and engages in practices to control her emotions and to improve her cognitive function. The other believes that her mind is an epiphenomenon and that her brain will determine what happens. Which one do you think will be happier and more successful?

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

Hunger, Caffeine, Cognition

March 11, 2013

How are these three words related? All three are related to the word adenosine. Adenosine is a molecule that is produced by the brain’s metabolism, during cognitive activity, and when we are hungry. The drug caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine. When I am hungry, I find thinking difficult. This would explain why. In both cases, I am feeling the effects of adenosine. Caffeine assists me in putting off eating. When I have been doing a great deal of cognitive effort, I am feeling the effects of adenosine. Caffeine is a drug that restores mental energy by blocking the effects of adenosine.

There are other ways of refreshing our brains. Exercise, even brief amounts of exercise, can be restorative. Meditation is another route to refreshing our brains as is taking a nap. When going the drug route, however, caffeine is quite effective.

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

How Physical Exercise Contributes to a Healthy Memory

January 9, 2013

Enter “exercise” into the search block on the healthymemory blog and you will find a listing of many articles. Although the majority of them are discussing the benefits of cognitive exercise, you can still find many on the benefits of physical exercise. So a reasonable question is how can physical exercise benefit memory? Research indicating how this might happened in an article1 in Scientific American Mind,which, in turn, was reporting the results from a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. This study, conducted by J. Mark Davis and his colleagues at the University of South Carolina, used mice. They found that quantities of a signaling molecule, which they called a “master regulator” of mitochondria production increased in the brain after a half hour a day of running on a treadmill. These brain cells of the mice also had more mitochondrial DNA as distinguished from the regular cellular DNA found in the nucleus. The researchers said that this provided “gold standard” evidence of more mitochondria. Mitochondria generate energy, and these increased mitochondria provide additional energy that allow the brain to work faster and more efficiently.

As we age, neurons naturally lose mitochondria. This loss of mitochondria can contribute to losses in brain and cognitive function resulting in dementia and other age-related declines in brain function. By increasing the energy supply new mitochondria can be produced offsetting this mitochondria loss.

Although we’ve known for a long time that physical exercise is good for both physical and cognitive health, we are beginning to gain insights as to why this is the case.

1Sutherland, S. (2012). How Exercise Jogs the Brain: Physical activity boosts cognition by improving neurons’ power supply. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 12.

The Value of Openness

November 7, 2012

The prevailing opinion in personality theory is that there are five majority personality traits: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness. Openness measures cognitive flexibility and the willingness to entertain novel ideas. According to a brief article1 summarizing recent research in this area, the linchpin for Openness being associated to a longer, healthier life is creativity. Creative thinking reduces stress. Creative people likely see stresses more as challenges that they can overcome rather than as obstacles that they can’t overcome. Another, and perhaps the most central reason, is that creativity draws on a variety of neural networks within the brain. A study conducted at Yale University correlated openness with the robustness of white matter, which supports connections between neurons in different parts of the brain. Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center says “Individuals high in creativity maintain the integrity of their neural networks even into old age.” He further states, “Keeping the brain healthy may be one of the most important aspects of aging successfully—a fact shown by creative persons living longer…”

I would extrapolate from these results and also conclude that creative individuals are also less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some people might still hold to the old theory that personality traits are fixed and cannot be changed. I challenge that view. Current ideas regarding neuroplasticity inform us that we can change our brains and our behaviors. So we can work to be more open and creative. I would refer you to the healthymemory blog post “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Down, Then Up” to learn more about creativity and how you can foster your own creativity.

1Rodriguez, T. (2012). Open Mind, Longer Life, Scientific American Mind, September/October, 18.

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

Electrical Activity, Chemical Activity, Connectivity, and Epigenetic Activity

October 24, 2012

All of these are involved in making our memories. Our short term or working memories are held in fleeting changes in the brain‘s electrical and chemical activity. They quickly fade as our attention wanders, but they provide the basis of our conscious awareness.

Our long term memories are woven into webs of connections among the brain cells. The brain alters the communication between networks of cells by the creation of new receptors at the end of a neuron, by a surge in the production of a neurotransmitter, or by the forging of new ion channels that allows a brain cell to boost the voltage of its signals. The same pattern of neurons will fire when we recall the memory bringing the thought back into our consciousness. Long term memories include our autobiographical memories, our episodic memories of specific events in our lives, our sensory memories, as well as our semantic memories that comprise our knowledge of the world. One of the most important brain regions involved in this process are the hippocampi. The are located near the base of the brain and are especially important in the consolidation of new memories. When they are surgically removed or damaged, no new memories can be stored. Thus, no new learning can take place.

The preceding has been known for some time, what is new is an understanding of the epigenetic changes that are involved in memory. These involve small alterations in the structure of a gene and determine its activity within the cell. For instance, certain genes linked to the formation of memories have been shown to have fewer methyl groups attached to their DNA after learning. This is a clear example of an epigenetic change.1 Every time we recall a memory, new proteins are made. The epigenetic markers are altered changing the memory in subtle ways. So the brain is not like a video camera. It is dynamic and changes itself.

1Young, E. (2012). The Making of a Memory, New Scientist, 6 October, p.34.

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

The Need for Consciousness

August 1, 2012

The preceding blog post, “VENs: The Key to Consciousness” ended with a promise to provide evidence that consciousness is not epiphenomenal, that it serves a real purpose. Unfortunately, reductionists like to conclude that whenever a neural basis is found the phenomenon is understood. This post is timely as the Olympics provide a good justification for the reality of consciousness. The theme of the importance of the mind will emerge as being essential to success. Athletes need to remain cool, calm, collected, and focused. Focus is very important. Getting into the right state of mind, “the zone,” is regarded to be of utmost importance.

Neurofeedback is employed by some athletes.1 This involves placing electrodes on a person’s head to measure their brain’s electrical activity. The information is displayed on a computer screen while the individual watches it in real time and learns through practice how to control it. The objective is to get the brain into a state associated with improved attention, focus and aim. Surgeons who have used neurofeedback had improved control over their movement and performed more efficiently in the operating theater.

Meditation is another technique where consciousness is used to improve behavior. There are many healthymemory blog posts on meditation (simply use the search box to find them). You will find different meditation techniques to achieve different aims. Improving focus is the objective of many techniques. Through meditation, the autonomic nervous system can be controlled. At one time this was thought to be impossible by some psychologists and neuroscientists.

Even dreaming can be done to achieve desirable benefits. Victor Spoormaker of the Max Plank Instutute of Psychiatry has developed techniques to eliminate nightmares through lucid dreaming (See the healthymemory blog post, “Lucid Dreams). Lucid dreaming refers to a state between wake and sleep where becomes aware that they are dreaming while they are still in the dreaming. Spoormaker says that you can become lucid in a nightmare and and change it any way you wish. He cured himself of recurring nightmares using this technique.

In a study conducted in the 1970s, 12 American gymnasts who hoped to make the Olympic team were asked how frequently they dreamed about gymnastics and about the nature of their dreams. The six who qualified said that they had had more dreams about success beforehand.

Another study found that lucid dreamers who were able to dream about tossing a coin into a cup had better aim the following day compared against those who don’t train in their dreams.
800 German athletes were asked about their dreaming habits. Twenty percent said that they were frequent lucid dreamers, and those who used it to practice said it helped their performance.

So consciousness is not epiphenomenal. It is very real. Use it and make it work for you.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Olympic Extremes. New Scientist, 21 July, 44-49.

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

VENs: the Key to Consciousness?

July 28, 2012

VENs stands for Von Economo Neurons. Constantin von Economo was the neuroscientist who discovered these neurons.1 VENs are quite distinctive in appearance. They are at least 50 per cent and sometimes up to 200 percent larger that typical neurons. They have a long spindly cell body with a single projection at each end and very few branches. They are quite rare. They make up just about one per cent of the neurons in two small areas of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex. The ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of cognition and feeling. They make up a social monitoring network that keeps track of social cues so that we can react appropriately.

The ACC and FI keep a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and direct attention to the most important events as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes. Both these brain regions are active when we recognize our reflection in a mirror. This suggests that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self. It is a key component of consciousness providing a sense of self identify and a sense of the identity of others. They provide the sense of how we feel.

The notion is that VENs provide a fast relay system, a kind of social superhighway that allows the gist of a situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively. This is a crucial survival skill in social species such as our own. VENs are also found in social mammals.

People with fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease. The main symptom of the diseases is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy, and self-control.

According to one study2 people with autism fall into two groups. One group consists of those who have too few VENs, so they might not have the necessary wiring to process social cues. The other group consists of those who have far too many VENs. Having too many VENS might make emotional systems fire intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed.

Another study3 found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes, The notion is that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute has pointed out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. He said, “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the brain. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilization that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”4

The author of the New Scientist article concludes “If he’s right—and there is a long way to go before we can be sure—it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might been a big, and very successful accident.”5

Although I am excited by the possibility that the neurological basis of consciousness has been found, I am disturbed by their reductionist conclusions. Most of us assume that there is a neural basis for consciousness. But the finding of this neural basis does not prove that consciousness is an epiphenomenon (not real). The next post will provide evidence regard the reality and purpose of consciousness.

1Williams, C. (2012). The Conscious Connection. New Scientist, 21 July, 33-35.

3PloS One, vol 6, pe20936).

4Op cit.p. 35

5Ibid.

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

Supertaskers

March 11, 2012

What is this? After a couple of blog posts on the dangers of multitasking comes a post on supertaskers? Well, the extensive research by Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah (my alma mater) has identified certain people as supertaskers.1 In their database of research participants, they found individuals who had virtually identical scores for doing either just one or both activities. Out of a database of 700 participants, only 19 (2.7%) met this criterion.

They did a follow up study with 16 of these supertaskers and a group of control participants matched with respect to single-task scores, working-memory capacity, gender, and age. Then they had these participants concurrently maintain and manipulate separate visual and auditory streams of information while they imaged their brains. Significant differences were found between the two groups in their patterns of neural activation. Supertaskers showed less activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. The control participants showed more activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. Supertaskers seemed to be able to keep their brains cool under a heavy load. Supertaskers differed most from controls in three frontal brain areas that had been identified in earlier neuropsychological research: the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers found that the frontopolar cortex to be the most intriguing brain region that separated the supertaskers from the controls. They said that comparative studies with humans and great apes indicate that this area is relatively larger and more richly interconnected in humans, whereas other frontal cortical areas are more equivalent in size and connectivity. They speculate that “The emergence of human’s multitasking ability, however flawed, might be a relatively recent evolutionary change in hominid brains, helping to distinguish humans from other animals. In addition, neuropsychological patients with more extensive frontopolar damage have been shown to be more impaired in multitasking”2

The authors go on to speculate about the possible role of a particular gene. They note that whether multitaskers are just an extreme on a continuum or are qualitatively different remains an open question. It should be remembered that these are supertaskers in a relative sense, that is they are supertaskers with respect to other humans. I am curious to know what happens when the total information load is increased. Does the performance of both tasks suffer equally or does the supertasker become similar to the rest of us humans, sacrificing one task for the other. I am also curious as to whether appropriate training and deliberate practice (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice”), more of us might become supertaskers.

As I cautionary note, I would advise against self assessments as to your supertasking abilities. Remember that those who think they are good multitaskers, tend to be the poorest multitaskers.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

2Ibid.p.29

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

Rewiring the Brain

February 29, 2012

Research1 has shown that the use of the internet can result in the rewiring of the brain. Four neuroscientists at UCLA recruited 24 people ranging in age from 55 to 76 who underwent brain imaging while they did internet tasks. Twelve participants were termed net naïve, meaning that they went online just once or twice a week. The remaining 12 participants were termed net savvy, meaning that they went online at least once a day. All participants performed two tasks while their brains were being scanned. In the traditional reading task they read text on the computer presented in the format of a book. In the internet task, they performed a Web search and read content displayed on a simulated web page.

Both groups exhibited basically the same brain activity performing the traditional reading task. They used areas of the brain connected to language, memory, and reading. During the internet task, the net naïve group exhibited the same pattern of brain activity. However, the net savvy group exhibited additional areas of brain activity. These were areas associated with decision making and complex reasoning. Moreover, the net savvy group exhibited more than twice as much brain activity as the net naïve group, 21,872 voxels to 8,642 voxels of brain scan.

Subsequent research indicated that after just five days of Web training after the initial experiment, naïve brains began to work as savvy ones. So this rewiring takes place fairly quickly.

Some might argue, that although this result might be impressive, what is its bearing on a healthy memory. I would refer you to the healthymemory blog post, “Computer Use and Cognition Across Adulthood,” which shows the correlation between computer use and a healthy memory.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Rewired: Cognition in the Digital Age. Observer, 25,2, 16-20. A Publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

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

Words With Friends

January 18, 2012

Alec Baldwin is responsible for a large amount of publicity going to the word game Words With Friends, www.wordswithfriends.com. So the Healthymemory Blog does not want to miss the opportunity to say that Words With Friends exemplifies both types of transactive memory, technical and human. As the Healthymemory Blog advocates both types of transactive memory for fostering both memory and brain health, it seems that a few words are in order given the opportunity that Alec Baldwin’s inappropriate behavior has afforded.

The game itself fosters vocabulary building, activates brain circuits searching through memory for appropriate words, as well as strategic thinking. All of which contribute to a healthy memory. Add to this the interaction with your fellow players that in itself is beneficial to a healthy memory.

It would be interesting to see brain imaging studies during the playing of Words with Friends. I would envision a large degree of activation of the hippocampus, the associative cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The competitive aspect of the game might activate the amygdala. I would also wager that glucose metabolism would increase during the playing of the game, but would gradually decrease during the playing of the game as proficiency was gained.

It should be understood that this blog post in no way endorses the behavior of Alex Baldwin, and when the flight attendant tells you to shut down the game, shut down the game.

For readers who might not be so technologically oriented, I would suggest that an older form of technology, a scrabble board, would provide similar benefits.

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

Happy Holidays from Healthymemory Blog!

December 24, 2011

The Healthymemory Blog will be taking a brief hiatus until 2012. Although there will be no new posts until 2012, there are 258 posts for your perusal. As its name implies, the Healthymemory Blog is devoted to the promotion of healthy memories. Posts are divided into three categories:

Human memory includes relevant posts regarding how memory works, its strengths and failures, as well as factors and practices that benefit memory.

Mnemonic techniques includes relevant posts on techniques that not only improve recall, but also provide beneficial brain and cognitive exercise.

Transactive memory includes posts on how to interact with fellow humans and to best use technology to promote cognitive growth.

The overall objective is to promote cognitive health throughout our lives, and not to just reduce or stop cognitive decline, but to continue to grow mentally as we age.

How Using Mnemonic Techniques Exercises the Brain

December 18, 2011

The Healthymemory Blog has a category labeled “Mnemonic Techniques.” Not all of the posts in this category are strictly speaking mnemonic techniques. Posts on specific activities you can do to foster a healthy memory, meditation, for example, are also included here. But the mnemonic techniques specific to remembering specific items of information are touted as being doubly beneficial as they not only directly improve memory, but they also provide good mental exercise for the brain. Today’s post elaborates on how the different parts of the brain are exercised.

The first action that needs to be taken on information that you want to remember is to pay attention. Paying attention involves using working memory. This involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Maintaining information here requires glucose metabolism. The initially encoding is done in the hippocampi (there is one hippocampus in each of the two brain hemispheres) from which it is distributed throughout the rest of the brain. This distribution is needed to determine the meaning, or lack of meaning, of this information. Where there is meaning, this meaning is used to elaborate the meaning by relating it to other associations in the associative cortex. When there is little or no meaning, then the mnemonic provides a means of making the apparently meaningless information meaningful. This involves recoding, which involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activating other associations found in the associative cortex. Often the technique involves the formation of a visual image which activates associative networks in both cerebral hemispheres via transmissions across the corpus callosum. There is no central memory center in the brain. Rather information is stored throughout the brain. Sensory information in the sensory portions, motor information in the motor portions, and verbal and semantic information is the associative portions. Information that you know well likely has many many links to other items of information, the job of the mnemonic technique is to establish solid new links to this new information you want to remember.

Mnemonic techniques require you to pay attention. Paying attention increases the glucose metabolism to the brain. This, in turn, activates the all important hippocampi and activates memory pathways throughout the associative and sensory cortices of the brain.

Click on the Category “Mnemonic Techniques” and you find a comprehensive listing of mnemonic techniques along with descriptions of the techniques and exercises. Try starting at the bottom of the category and proceeding up. There is a specific Healthymemory Blog post, “Memory Course”, which suggests an order in which the mnemonic techniques should be approached.

There are also some websites for learning and developing proficiency in mnemonic techniques. One is www.NeuroMod.org. Click on the Human Memory Site. Then click on the “read more” link under your preferred language. You can open up an account and record and track your progress. Another site is www.Thememorypage.net. Both of these websites are free.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Adult Brain

November 30, 2011

The brain reaches its maximum size (by weight) in early adult life.1 It decreases by about ten percent over the remainder of the life span. It ways about three pounds and contains about one hundred billion brain cells (neurons). There are about a million billion connections (synapses) linking those cells together. As a person ages the number of synapses generally decreases, but the commonly cited figure of 50,000 cells a day is no longer believed by most neuroscientists. The loss of neurons that does occur is not evenly distributed across the brain. There is little or no significant loss in many cortical regions used in normal cognition.

More important than the loss of neurons and the thinning of synaptic connections that occurs as we age, is the loss of cells from cluster of cells (nuclei) about the size of a pinhead located in the brain stem. This brain stem is about the length of an adult forefinger. The neuroscientist Paul Coleman calls these nuclei “juice machines.” They send ascending fanlike projections to many parts of the cortex. The brains neurotransmitters travel along these projections. Reductions in levels of these neurotransmitters leads to many of the infirmities that inflict us as we age: memory loss, depression, decrease in overall mental sharpness, and inefficient mental processing. Fortunately these infirmities can be improved by drugs that increase these neurotransmitters.

Although the loss of neurons occurs normally with aging, this loss can be compensated for by increases in the networking capacity of the remaining neurons. Although the number of neurons decreases from birth onward, fewer but stronger and more enduring connections form among the remaining neurons (see the healthymemory blog posts “HAROLD,” “Is Dementia an Inevitable Part of Aging,” and “Hope for an Aging Population: STAC”).

“This capacity to compensate for the loss of its components makes the brain the only known structure in the universe that works more efficiently despite a loss of its components. To this extent the brain is unique among both biological and mechanical structures: over the years it doesn’t ‘wear out’.”2

1Much of this blog post is abstracted from Restak, R. (2009).Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2Ibid. p.21

A Quote Worth Pondering

November 27, 2011

“To remain mentally sharp, you have to deal with familiar things in novel ways. But most important of all, you have to have a sense of curiosity. If interest and curiosity stop coming automatically to you, then you’re in trouble, no matter how young or old you are.”Art Buchwald

That is Art Buchwald the Pulitzer Prize winning humorist offering a profound insight. He’s written many books and many, many columns. My favorite book is his last, Art Buchwald: Too Soon to Say Goodbye. He wrote this book while he was in a hospice waiting to die. He had had one of his legs amputated and was told that he needed to go on dialysis if he wanted to continue living. He decided that he had had enough and did not want to go on living. So he moved to a hospice where he lived much longer than anyone would have expected. He lived long enough to write his last book.

I found this quote on the page before the introduction to Richard Restak‘s book, Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. He regards Art Buchwald as one of the most intelligent people he has ever met. Dr. Restak has written many interesting books and this one certainly does not disappoint. The book is divided into six parts followed by an epilogue. They are

Part One Discovering the Brain

Part Two Care and Feeding of the Brain: The Basics

Part Three Specific Steps for Enhancing Your Brain’s Performance

Part Four Using Technology to Achieve a More Powerful Brain

Part Five Fashioning the Creative Brain

Part Six Impediments to Brain Function and How to Compensate for Them

Epilogue The Twenty-first-Century Brain

Some Healthymemory Blog posts will be on excerpts from this book. But there is no way that I can do this book justice. I highly recommend it.

And please ponder Buchwald’s quote and give it the attention it deserves.

Happy Thanksgiving 2011

November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. As its name implies, this is the time of the year to be optimistic and thankful. Among our many blessings are our memories and cognitive abilities. They are many and remarkable and we need to be thankful. One of the best ways of giving thanks is to not only take care of your abilities and keep them healthy, but also to grow and develop them. These are the objectives of the Healthymemory Blog. It provides information on our brains and cognitive faculties as well as advice on how to keep them healthy and to grow them.

Lucid Dreams

November 13, 2011

Lucid dreams are dreams that are extremely intense while the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. Approximately eight out of 10 people have had a lucid dream at least once in their life and a small fraction of these have them as often as once or twice a week.1 Lucid dreams are of interest as their study can inform us about both dreaming and the functioning of the brain. There is evidence that lucid dreaming is useful for treating chronic nightmares and perhaps even anxiety.2

One of the first problems is studying lucid dreaming is to have a method for determining whether a lucid dream is occurring. Sleep researcher Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University came up with the technique of instructing research participants to move their eyes a certain way when they realized they were dreaming. These eye movement signals enabled the researchers to distinguish them from REMs that occur during regular dreaming. Later Ursula Dross and her research team discovered another electrical signal from the brain that distinguished lucid dreaming. This was increased activity in the 40-hertz range(the “gamma band”), that occurred primarily in the frontal lobe. These are the same high frequency waves we generate when we concentrate on a particular object. The coherence of electrical activity in the brain is increased, whereas it is generally decreased during REM sleep. You can thinkof the brain’s activation during REM sleep as being similar to a party where all the guests are speaking simultaneously. In lucid dreams, the party guests tend to converse with one another with lower overall background noise.3

Lucid dreaming has been found useful in treating people who suffer from nightmares. People who learned how to increase their frequency of lucid dreams reported fewer nightmares. It is also hoped that lucid dreaming might alleviate anxiety or phobias, but more research is needed. Lucid dreaming has been helpful for creative endeavors such as creating metaphors, but not for rational exercises such as solving brain teasers.4 Much more research into clinical and practical applications is clearly needed.

It is said that people who follow the following regimen regularly are able to have one or two lucid dreams per week:

Throughout the day, ask yourself repeatedly if you are awake. When this habit becomes ingrained, you might find yourself asking the same question in a dream—at which point your chances of realizing you are dreaming skyrocket.

Look in a mirror or read a bit of text every so often as a “reality check.” In dreams our appearance is often altered and the written word can be hard to pin down. You may carry the habit of checking for these dream signs into sleep, where they could alert you to the fact that you are dreaming.

Keep a dream journal by your bed and jot down the dreams you remember immediately upon waking. Studies who that this practice makes you more aware of your dreams in general, and people who are more aware of their dreams are more likely to have a lucid dream.

Before falling asleep, focus intently on the fantasy you hope to experience in a much detail as possible. Research show that “incubating” an idea just before bed dramatically increased the likelihood that you will dream about it . And if you suddenly notice that you are dancing with a moving star you hoped to meet, you might just realize you are having a dream and be able to take control of what happens next.5

Leonardo da Vinci is said to have practiced this “incubation” before he went to sleep.

1Voss, U. (2011)/. Unlocking the Lucid Dream. Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011, pp. 33-35.

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Adapted from the Lucidity’s Institute Web Site, www.lucidity.com.

Why Have Our Brains Shrunk?

October 12, 2011

According to an article1 in the New Scientist in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years the average size of the human brain compared to the human body has shrunk from 3 to 4 per cent. The question is why. One explanation for this shrinkage is that the brain has evolved to make better use of less gray and white matter. Some genetic studies suggest that our brain’s wiring is more efficient than it was in the past. However, another explanation is that this shrinkage is a sign of a slight decline in our cognitive abilities.

David Geary of the University of Missouri-Columbia believes that after complex societies developed, the less intelligent could survive on the backs of their more intelligent peers. Previously, the less intelligent would either have died or failed to mate. It appears that this decline might be continuing. Studies have found that the more intelligent people are, the fewer children they have. Today intellectual and economic success are not linked with larger families.

It is interesting to speculate whether this trend will continue or perhaps even accelerate given the widespread use of technology. Is this technology making us smarter by giving us greater access to computations and to external storage (transactive memory)? Or is it making us dumber due to our increasing reliance on technology? At one time multiplication tables needed to be memorized. Now the use of calculators is widespread. At one time more information needed to be committed to memory. Now it can be looked up.

There is even the suggestion that at some point we might no longer need our biological brains. Ray Kurzweil contends that there will be a singularity in the future when our biological brains are replaced by silicon brains (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Are Our Memories Becoming Too Dependent on Technology,” “Achieving the Max in Technical Transactive Memory,’ and “Brain, Mind, and Body”). These questions are interesting to ponder.

1Robson, D. (2011). A brief history of the brain. New Scientist, 24 September, 40-45.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mnemonic Techniques for Cognitive Exercise

September 18, 2011

The Healthy Memory Blog is concerned with developing and maintaining a healthy memory throughout one’s lifespan. Mnemonic techniques are techniques that have been developed specifically for enhancing memory. So it should not be surprising that one of the blog categories is titled mnemonic techniques. It might be surprising that the category is relatively small and that postings to the mnemonic techniques are not that frequent. Mnemonic techniques are very old; they go back to the ancient Greeks at least, and probably further. At one time they played a key part of education, rhetoric and elocution. With the development of external storage media, what the Healthymemory Blog calls transactive memory, less and less reliance was placed on mnemonic techniques. So when paper became generally available, they became less commonly used. Now that we have electronic storage, some might argue that they have become irrelevant.

I would argue that they are not irrelevant and that it was a mistake to drop them from formal education. Although I could make that argument, I shall not make it in this blog post. Instead, I am going to argue that they provide a good form of cognitive exercise, one that promotes memory health. First of all, they obviously involve the memory circuits in the brain. They also require recoding and creativity. Imagery is typically involved, so both hemispheres of the brain are exercised.

Most of these mnemonic techniques are found in older posts. The reason that postings in this category are infrequent, is that practically all of these techniques have already been presented. That does not mean that simply reading these old posts will be sufficient. You need to do them conscientiously and then continue practicing on your own.

I would recommend by beginning with the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Method of Loci.” This is a classic mnemonic technique used by the ancients and also used in contemporary memory contests. Then I would do “The One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic” post. The next post would be “Paired Associates Learning: Concrete Concrete Pairs” The I would recommend “How to Memorize Abstract Information,” followed by “Paired Associates Learning: Concrete Abstract Pairs,” “Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Concrete Pairs,” and “Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Abstract Pairs.” Then I would recommend “Remembering the Names of People.” Then I would recommend “More on Recoding: Learning Foreign and Strange Vocabulary Words.”

Numbers are abstract and one of the most difficult types of information to remember. Here I recommend “Remembering Numbers,” “More on Remembering Numbers,” “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.”

If you want to learn about memory competitions and how memory champs become memory champs I would recommend “Moonwalking with Einstein,” and “How the Memory Champs Do It.” Given the importance of preserving memory as we age, I think it would be a good idea to start memory competitions for Baby Boomers and Senior Citizens. I think this is an activity the AARP should seriously consider.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The PFC: Vulnerable for Both Young and Old

July 13, 2011

The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is an executive center housing pathways for the selection of information and higher order thinking. The PFC remains vulnerable throughout life, but particularly during the critical early life development window, the PFC does not mature until the early 20’s, and then starts to decline in old age. The Experience Corps1 provides a paradigm for addressing both these groups. At all ages, PFC-navigated social connections along with physical activity are essential components to maintaining brain health. The Experience Corps2 is a community based social engagement program. It partners seniors with local schools to promote purpose-drive involvement. Both the young, who benefit from the experience of the participating seniors, and the participating seniors benefit. Participating seniors have shown immediate short term gains in brain regions vulnerable to aging such as the PFC. Consequently, the people with the most to lose also have the most to gain from environmental enrichment.

The PFC is the newest and the largest region of the brain to evolve. The increasing importance of social behavior to human survival has been manifested in the continued growth of the PFC over the millenia. The PFC takes so long to develop because the ability to integrate multiple streams of information requires the maturation of physical, linguistic, and emotional sensory networks. Its extended development window involves maturation of networks that control attention steadily from childhood to adulthood allowing the efficient filtering of multiple streams of information.

As we age, difficulties in executive control become increasingly common. Longitudinal research has found that components of executive function decline earlier than memory in older community dwelling adults and that interventions targeting these components may delay and mitigate memory decline that leads to dementia. Studies of the aging human brain show that loss of brain volume is greater in the PFC than in the posterior areas of the cortex.

Healthy aging involves healthy behaviors that include physical activity, social supports and engagement, and cognitive activity. These activities remain important to both overall health and the prevention of cognitive decline and disability well into old age. Moreover, the effects of cumulative environmental risks can be reversed in later life (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”).

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says that the third act of life represents an opportunity to use a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is not necessarily memorized from books, classroom lectures, or online searches, to find purpose. The Experience Corps find this purpose by working with young school children. Volunteers engage in mentoring activities including supporting children’s literacy and math skill development, assisting in school libraries and promoting positive conflict resolution. Volunteers exercise functions via collective problem solving with team members and teachers.

This research is still in progress. But the results already indicate gains for both the old and the young.

1Carlson, M.C. (2011). Promoting Healthy Meaningful Aging Through Social Involvement. Cerebrum, June. Available online at http://dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=33556

2http://www.experiencecorps.org/index.cfm

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease

May 8, 2011

A preceding post (“Our Neurons Make Up Only 15 Percent of Out Brain Cells”) highlighted the importance of glial cells to brain function. It was based on an article1 in Scientific American Mind, on which this current blog post is also based. The discoverer of Alzheimer’s Disease, Alos Alzheimer noted that microglia surround the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of the disease. Recent research suggests that microglia become weaker with age and begin to degenerate. This atrophy can be seen under a microscope. In aged brain tissue, senescent microglia become fragmented and lose many of their cellular branches.

One more sign of microglial involvement can be found in the way Alzheimer’s courses through the brain. Damage spreads in a predetermined manner. It begins near the hippocampus and eventually reaches the frontal context. Microglial deneneration follows the same pattern but precedes the advance of neuronal degeneration, Alzheimer and most experts had presumed that microglial degeneration was a response to neuron degeneration. This new research suggests that the senescence is a cause of Alzheimer’s dementia. The hope is that once researchers learn why microglia become senescent with in some people but not in others, new treatments for Alzheimer’s could be developed.

It is also interesting to note the path of progression of the disease. It begins near the hippocampus, a cortical structure critical to memory. Memory loss can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s. The disease then progresses through the cortex to the frontal cortex. So more memory loss occurs as more cortex is destroyed. The frontal cortex is where most planning occurs. It plays an important role in focal attention. The executive functions of the frontal lobes include the ability to recognize future consequences from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions, to override and suppress unacceptable social actions, and determine similarities and differences between things and events. In short, it is key to higher mental functions.

1Fields, D.R. (2011). The Hidden Brain. Scientific American Mind. May/June, 53-59.

Our Neurons Make Up Only 15 Percent of Our Brain Cells

May 4, 2011

So what makes up the rest of our brain cells—glial cells. When I was a graduate student no one had a good idea what glial cells did. Glia comes from the Greek word for glue, so the best bet was the glial cells helped hold the brain together. An article1 in Scientific American Mind brought me up to date and demonstrated how woefully ignorant we were at that time. There are different types of glial cells. Astrocytes ferry nutrients and waste and mediate neuronal communication. Oligodendrocytes coat axons with insulating mylein, boosting signal speeds. Microglia fight infection and promote repair.

Previously, the neuron doctrine governed our understanding of the brain. According to the neuron doctrine all information in the nervous system is transmitted by electrical impulses over networks of neurons linked through synaptic connections. Recent research has demonstrated that some bypasses neurons completely, and flows without electricity through networks of glial cells. It has shown the role of glial cells in information processing and learning, as well as in neurological disorders and psychiatric illness.

In contrast to neurons, which communicate serially across chains of synapses, glia broadcast their signals widely throughout the brain, similar to cell phones, In contrast to the rapid communication throughout neural networks, the chemical communication of glia is very slow and spreads like a tidal wave through neural tissue at a pace of seconds or tens of seconds.

New brain imaging techniques have shown that after having engaged in such activities as learning to play a musical instrument, to read, or to juggle, structural changes occur in brain areas that control these cognitive functions. What is remarkable is that changes are seen in regions whee there are no complete neurons. These are “white matter” areas that are formed from bundles of axons coated with myelin, a white electrical insulator. All theories of learning had held that it is solely by strengthening synaptic connections is how learning occurs. As there are few synapses in while matter, clearly something else is happening that involves glial cells.

With respect to neurological and psychological illnesses, glial cells have been found to play a role. Alzheimer’s Disease is one of these illnesses, but the discussion of Alzheimer’s and glial cells will be postponed to a subsequent post. Glial cells account for the mystery of why spinal cord injury results in permanent paralysis. Proteins in the myelin insulation that oligodendrocytes wrap around axons stop injured axons from sprouting and repairing damaged circuits. Chronic pain is the result of microglia do not stop releasing the substances that promote the healing processes after healing is complete. Consequently, sensitivity to pain continues after healing is complete.

It is not surprising that glia play a central role in neurological disease as astrocytes and microglia are first responders to disease. Compulsive behavior, schizophrenia, and depression might all have there roots in the glial cells. Epilepsy is also regarded as a prime-candidate for glial-based therapeutics.

1Fields, D.R. (2011). The Hidden Brain. Scientific American Mind. May/June, 53-59.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?

April 20, 2011

An interesting article1 in AARP online describes the benefits of meditating. It cites a study done by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2005. It found that a group practicing meditation for about 40 minutes a day had measurably thicker tissue in the left prefrontal cortex. This is an area of the brain important to cognitive emotional processing and well-being.

At the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging the brains of experienced mediators were compared with a control group of nonmediators. The mediators’s brains contained more gray matter than those of the nonmediators. This gray tissue is responsible for high-level information processing especially in the areas associated with attention, body awareness and the modulation of emotional responses.

In a study published in 2010, neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received eight weeks of training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). They found growth in the hippocampus and shrinkage in the amygdala. As readers of the Healthymemory Blog probably know, the hippocampus is an important part of the brain that is critical to memory and learning. The amygdala is a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress.

An MRI study at Emory University showed that experienced meditators were much better than a nonmeditating control group at ignoring extraneous thoughts and focusing on the matter at hand when bombarded by stimuli. This capability to focus at will is especially important in today’s multitasking world when we are constantly bombarded by information, often noise, from a variety of sources. This capability grows more important as we age, because research has indicated that the elderly have more difficulty focusing their attention that those who are younger.

Meditation along with positive emotion might even result in a healthier immune system.

This quote from Dr. Richardson is worth remembering. “We know that the brain is the one organ in our body build to change in response to experience and training. It’s a learning machine.”

It should be understood that meditating does not require going to an ashram or sitting in the lotus permission. Here are some guidelines for meditating that were provided in the AARP article.

  1. Sit in any position that’s comfortable for you; a chair is fine. Or, and this is my personal favorite, you can lie down.

  2. Start with a 5-minute session and then gradually increase to longer times.

  3. Start by just feeling your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. You don’t need to adjust the breath to make it deeper or finer; simply notice it as it is and as it changes.

  4. Sometimes thoughts or emotions come up and sweep us away, or we fall asleep. Know that your mind will wander, just notice where it went and then gently bring it back to the breath—every time, over and over.

  5. Above all, have patience with yourself. The more you practice meditation, the easier it gets to stay focused. So don’t get discouraged by your wandering mind. Eventually, it will get easier to return to concentrating on your breathing.

I would add that whenever you feel stressed or upset, it is a good idea, if possible, to go someplace where you will no be noticed and try to meditate. Even five minutes can be helpful in such situations.

1Salzberg, S. www.aarp.org/personal-growth/life-long-learning/info-0202011/meditation_grows_t…, February 25, 2011

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Buddha’s Brain

February 13, 2011

Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom1 is not a book proselytizing Buddhism. Its authors are Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, MD, who are a neuropsychologist and a neurologist, respectively. They address the intersection of three disciplines: Psychology, Neuroscience, and Contemplative Practice. In doing so, they avail us of wisdom from the East, wisdom that is not addressed by the West, in general, and by the Western educational system, in particular. Buddha’s Brain provides readers with a great deal of potential for cognitive growth and personal fulfillment.

Here are some basic facts from Buddha’s Brain. The brain consists of about 1.1 trillion cells, 100 billion of which are neurons. The average neuron receives about 5,000 connections, synapses, from other neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters carry signals across these synapses. A typical neuron fires from 5 to 50 times a second. The number possible neurons firing or not firing is about 10 to the millionth power (1 followed by a million zeroes). Now the number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be about 10 to the eightieth power. Conscious mental events, which represent a small percentage of brain activity, are based on temporary coalitions of synapses that form and disperse. Although the brain is only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, it consumes from 20 to 25 percent of the bodies oxygen and glucose. The brain is constantly working and uses about the same amount of energy whether you are sleeping or thinking hard. The brain interacts with the rest of your body and is shaped by the mind as well. Your mind is made by your brain, body, and natural culture as well as by the mind itself.

Buddha’s Brain covers the structures of the brain and neurotransmitters and explanations of what does what and how the different structures interact. More importantly, Buddha’s Brain explains how you can affect these structures and processes and mold your own brain and behavior. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know the importance of attention and selective attention to effective memory. Buddha’s Brain covers how to control and expand attention as well as how to control your emotions to lead to, as the title promises, happiness, love, and wisdom. People who are deeply into contemplative practices are able to control heart rate and blood pressure.

One prediction that I have read, and which I believe, is that within twenty years meditative practices will have become as frequent as aerobic exercising is today.

Some future blog posts will be based on excerpts from Buddha’s Brain, but they cannot do justice to the entire book. I strongly recommend its reading.

1Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Walking and a Healthy Memory

February 2, 2011

The Health Day Newsletter contained an article1 summarizing a news release from the November 29, 2010 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. The research suggests that walking about five miles a week may help slow the progression of cognitive illness among seniors already suffering from mild forms of cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s Disease. The research also indicated that walking just six miles a week can help prevent the onset of disease.

Two appealing features leap out at me from this news. First is the cost. Walking costs nothing (unless you choose walking shoes or consider the minimal wear placed on shoes). Secondly, this is a reasonable regimen. Six miles is not excessively demanding, particularly when you consider that it can be spread out over an entire week.

3-D MRI scans were done to measure brain volume. After accounting for age, gender, body-fat composition, head size, and education, it was found that the more the individual engaged in physical activity, the larger the brain volume. Greater brain volume is a sign of a lower degree of brain cell death as well as general brain health. Cognitive tests were also administered and these also indicated improved cognitive performance in healthy individuals and lower losses in cognitive performance for those who already had begun to decline cognitively.

Physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, changes neurotransmitters, and improves cardiac function. It also lessens the risk of obesity, improves insulin resistance and lowers the risk of diabetes, and lowers blood pressure, All of these things are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.

Clearly the Healthymemory Blog endorses physical activity in addition to the mental activities advocated in this blog. These include mnemonic techniques and transactive memory. Transactive memory entails cognitive growth via technology and our fellow human beings.

1Regular Walking May Slow Decline of Alzheimer;s, http://consumer;healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=646656

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Interesting and Helpful Book

December 8, 2010

I apologize for this long overdue book review of Brain: the Complete Mind, How It Develops, How it Works, and How to Keep It Sharp by Michael S. Sweeney. It is published by National Geographic. The following is from the foreword by Richard Restak: “…here is the most inspiring of insights about the brain: We can enhance our brain’s performance by our own efforts. Thus learning about the brain provides a wonderful mix of instruction, amazement, and self-improvement. As you gain knowledge, you’re in a better position to improve its functioning and thereby increase the quality of your life.” So I think that this book should be of interest to anyone following the Healthymemory Blog.

To give you an idea of the breadth of topics, here is a rundown of the chapter titles:

The Amazing Brain

The Nervous System

Brain Development

The Senses

Motion

States of Mind

The Feeling Brain

Learning and Memory

The Aging Brain

Future of the Brain

Each chapter is divided into subsections. Each chapter has a glossary that defines key concepts within each chapter. There are diagrams showing the inner workings of the brain, its processes, and functions. There are fast facts that present bits of information that are not only informative but which you can pass on when you’re speaking. There are tables, fact boxes, and cross references. There are sidebars explaining what can go wrong. Flow charts illustrate processes and functions. There are Breakthrough Sidebars that describe the amazing discoveries that deepen our understanding of the brain. This is another source for interesting conversation. There are history sidebars that tell the stories behind historical neuroscience beliefs and practices and the men and women who shaped them. And there are Staying Sharp Sidebars that document smart practices and strategic tactics for keeping the brain healthy. These should be of special interest to readers of the Healthymemory Blog.

How Do We See?

October 3, 2010

The study of visual perception is difficult because it happens so fast. Somehow light comes into our eyes, makes contact with our memory and, lo and behold, we see a meaningful scene. A recent article1 in the New Scientist provides an overview of how this occurs, or, at least,with out current state of knowledge how we think this occurs.

Since perception happens so quickly, agnosias, specific disorders, can be quite informative. The previous blog post explored Propagnosia. Other types of agnosias include:

Simultanagnosia – seeing one object at a time when viewing a scene comprised of many items.

Integrative agnosia – Inability to recognize whole objects, tending instead to focus on individual features of an object.

Visual form agnosia – Inability to describe the shape, size, or orientation of objects, but still being able to manipulate them.

Optic ataxia – Ability to report the shape and size of an object, though manipulating the object clumsily.

Pure alexia (aka agnosia for words) – inability to identify individual characters or even text, although sometimes being able to write.

Topographical agnosia – Inability to recognize known landmarks or scenes.

Color agnosia – Ability to perceive colors without being able to identify, name, or group them according to similarity.

Research using brain scans can be quite useful in identifying the specific areas in the brain that accomplish these functions. Brain scans have revealed that people with visual form agnosia tend to have damage to the ventral (lower) part of the brain’s visual area. However, people with optic ataxia tend to have damage to the dorsal (upper part) of the brain’s visual area. So it appears that we have two streams of visual processing. The ventral pathway recognizes the object, while the dorsal pathway determines where that object is located in the visual field.

Some neuroscientists think that the brain binds all the different features of the ventral stream to a “master map of location”, which is held in the dorsal stream. They believe that this binding process is so fundamental that this link needs to be formed before an image can pop into consciousness.

So our perceptual system seems to be highly modular with many different modules contributing to conscious experience. All this activity occurs below the level of consciousness to yield the conscious world we do experience.

1Robeson, D. (2010). Seeing Isn’t Believing. New Scientist, 28 August, 30-33.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Consciousness

September 1, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain in the past, consciousness was regarded as a mystery. Today, consciousness is regarded as a mystery. And in the future, consciousness will still be regarded as a mystery. I strongly agree with the assessment and with the prediction. The most that can be said about consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon. That is, it is a byproduct that emerges from the complex operations of our brain. But this is not an explanation. All it says it that it just happens.

There is also the question as to what is the role of consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it does not play a causal role, that causation occurs below the level of consciousness, and that we are just along for the ride. Although one can make this argument, it does not provide a pragmatic view. If you live your life simply taking what comes along and not playing an active role, the results will likely be disappointing. To the extent possible, you want to use your consciousness to some end, to achieve outcomes that are desirable.

We know that effective learning requires conscious attention. Although there are accounts of scientific discoveries apparently occurring out of thin air when the individual was sleeping or musing about something else, it has always been the case that the scientist had spent countless hours working on the problem previously. I’m sure there are similar accounts in other cognitive endeavors. I frequently have the experience of after having failed to remember an item, that I will recall it at some later time when I was not thinking of it. However, in all cases I had spent considerable conscious effort trying to recall the item earlier. Presumably my unconscious mind continued to try to recall the information after I abandoned my consciousness effort. Nevertheless, it was the previous conscious activity that apparently initiated this unconscious effort.

Predictions have been made that in the future we shall be able to download information directly from computers and the internet into our brains. First of all, before this information could be transformed into a format usable by our brains, enormous advances would need to be made in brain science. But suppose this problem is solved, what would that mean? Unfortunately I purchase many publications that I never get around to reading. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is information in potential transactive memory that I have made available. What is the difference between this and information that might be downloaded directly into my brain. I need to read the material consciously before I can understand the information and relate it to other information I have processed.

So the big question for the future is whether consciousness can be expanded. Can we learn how to expand our short term and working memory capacity? To do so, we need to have a thorough understanding of consciousness. And the prospects for such an understanding developing are dim.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

 © Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Brain, Mind, and Body

August 7, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. This blog also draws upon a recent book published by National Geographic,2 which will be reviewed in a subsequent post.

According to The Scientific American Brave New Brain, brain, mind, and body are separate. Now this was true quite some time ago. According to the National Geographic book, the ancient Egyptians thought the brain to be worthless, thinking that the heart contained the soul and the mind. Although there seemed to be some dispute regarding this among the ancient Greeks, Hippocrates wrote that “The eyes and ears and tongue and hands and feet do whatsoever the brain determines. It is the brain that is the messenger to the understanding [and] the brain that interprets the understanding.” So it was fairly long ago that it was believed that the brain and the body were linked.

Apparently, it was not until Descartes came along that the mind was addressed. His famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, made the mind central. External reality was not known directly but rather was interpreted in the mind. Good science, as well as successful negotiations with and in the environment are dependent upon our internal reality being in some correspondence with external reality. There still is some question as to what is meant by mind. Is it consciousness? What role does it play. Some might contend that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it is like a movie playing in our head for our own entertainment. They would argue that the brain determines our decisions and behavior and that consciousness has no role. This is a rather extreme view that will be addressed in later posts. Brave New Brain contends that the current belief that brain, mind and body are intertwined and inseparable. That, indeed, is the current consensus.

Brave New Brain offers the conjecture that tomorrow brain, mind, and body are enhanced by machines and computers. Here a little thought might give rise to the question, “are not our brains and bodies already enhanced by machines and computers?” There are already seemingly countless machines aiding our bodies, and computers aiding our minds seem to be omnipresent. I believe that Brave New Brain is offering the conjecture of sci-fi type interventions of machines and computers along the lines of Kurzweil’s singularity.3 Kurzweil believes that in the near future technology will advance to the point where silicon chips will replace neurons, that we shall transcend biology and become effectively immortal. Kurzweil himself has change his lifestyle and diet to extend his life to the point where technology will be ready to take over before he dies.

It should be noted that an enormous leap is involved here. We have the conscious experience of our own senses and minds. And we can look at electronic recordings of our minds and senses and view brain images of our mind and senses. Nevertheless, we have no understanding of how this occurs other than to say our consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Whether consciousness will emerge from silicon is a very large question indeed.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

2Sweeney, M.S. (2010). Brain The Complete Mind: How It Develops, How It Works, and How to Keep It Sharp.

3Kurzweil, R. (2006). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Brain: Past, Present, Future

July 23, 2010

There is a recently published book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the brain, cognition, neuroscience, or in how to keep their memory healthy. In other words this is a book that should interest anyone who reads the Healthymemory Blog. This is a publication from Scientific American, more specifically Scientific American Mind, titled, Brave New Brain,by Judith Horstman. The following is taken from the cover, “How Neuroscience, Brain-Machine Interfaces, Neuroimaging, Psychopharmacology, The Internet, and our Own Minds are Stimulating and Enhancing the Future of Mental Power.” This book consists of 176 pages and is an easy read.

For anyone who wants to learn where the study of the brain was, where it is now, and where it might takes us in the future, this is definitely the book. The book contains color plates of pictures of the brain, showing where the important parts are and how they look. There are also pictorial representation of neuronal and epigenetic activity. Two pages contain a chart titled “The Way We Were” contain eleven ideas ranging from stroke to consciousness with brief synopses of what was once thought, what is now thought, and what tomorrow might bring. In just these two pages one can become informed and enlightened.

This book is more than informative; it is fun, particularly the conjectures about what the future might bring. However, I would encourage readers to bring a good deal of skepticism to their consideration. I am at the leading edge (born in 1946) of the baby boomers. I have distinct memories of what we were told our future lives would be like. For example, there would be no energy problem. We would be using nuclear energy and the pesky problem of what to do with nuclear waste would have been solved. We would be flying helicopters as personal vehicles. The work week would be much shorter, and we would have many more hours of leisure and free time. I find this last prediction particularly ironic. At that time, working mothers were the exception and not the norm. Now both partners typically work and usually full time. What happened to all those leisure hours that were predicted?

Now there was one item that permeates our lives that was not predicted. That one is personal computers. If there is anything I envy most about the younger generations is their access to personal computers. I wish that my formal education had included them.

Subsequent Healthmemory Blog postings will delve somewhat deeper into the research and ideas presented in Brave New Brain. There is much there worthy of future consideration

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Misconceptions About the Brain and Aging

November 10, 2009

  There are prominent misconceptions about the brain and aging. One is that you cannot change your brain, which is often caught in the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This expression is not a truism. It is, to coin a term, a falsism. Perhaps you cannot teach an unwilling dog new tricks, but if the dog is willing, the brain will support new learning. The brain retains its plasticity well into old age. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we change our thinking there are corresponding changes in the relevant brain systems.

It is true that we loose brain cells every day. But what most people do not realize is that when we are born is when the number of brain cells we have is the greatest. The paradox is that as we move from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the brains performance improves but does so with fewer neurons.[1] Although the number of neurons decreases, the number of connections between the neurons increases. And even though neurons do die, the brain continues to make new brain cells into the golden years of 70 and beyond. Although some nerve connections might be lost, the brain reallocates functions to compensate for these losses. It is also the case that it can be beneficial to lose nerve connections. This is called pruning. When we use our brains we can grow new brain cells, create new connections, and prevent useful connections from withering.

 Perhaps the worse myth is that memory decline is inevitable as we age. If we remain physically healthy, maintain social connections, manage stress, maintain or develop a positive attitude towards ourselves and our world, and engage in intellectually stimulating mental activity, we can maintain good brain and memory functioning throughout our lives. This blog provides techniques and ideas for stimulating mental activity.

Now it is true that things happen to the brain that at first sound bad. For example, the outer surface of the cortex thins. However, this process starts when we are about 20 years old. Studies have also linked aging with decreases in the brain’s white matter. This could affect the speed of our mental processes. As the brain ages, chemical messengers decrease, which can also affect processing. Here it is important to remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare. The greater storehouse of knowledge that has been built up due to the increased opportunity for learning that aging affords can more than compensate for losses in speed of processing.

 Some people, beginning in their 60’s or 70’s, experience a loss in overall brain mass. Important areas such as the frontal lobe and the hippocampus, which transfers information from Short Term Memory (STM) to Long Term Memory (LTM), can be affected. Again, there are compensatory mechanisms that can be found in the brain itself, in the storehouse of knowledge and, it is hoped, wisdom that has accumulated as a function of age, as well as some of the techniques and methods that are offered in past and future blogs.

Moreover, not all people experience in overall brain mass. Recent research2 concludes that healthy older brains are not significantly smaller than younger brains contrary to earlier findings. Researchers believe that brain volume loss observed in past studies is likely related to pathological changes in the brain that underlie significant cognitive decline instead of aging itself. As long as people keep healthy memories, the gray matter of areas supporting cognition might not shrink as much as the current opinion holds.

 


[1] Restak, R.  (2009).  Think Smart:  A neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance.  New York:  Riverside Books, p. 9.

2Burgmans, S., van Boxtel, M.P.J., Vuurman, E.F.P.M., Smeets, F., & Gronenschild, E.H.B.M. (2009). The Prevalence of Cortical Gray Matter Atrophy May Be Overestimated In the Healthy Aging Brain., Neuropsychology, 29, 541-550

 

 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.