Posts Tagged ‘Cognition’

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter nine of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”  In the 1970s, Davidson and his colleagues discovered striking differences in the patterns of brain activity that characterize people at opposite ends of the “eudaemonic scale,” which provides the spectrum of baseline happiness.  There are specific brain states that correlate with happiness.

Secondly, brain-activation patterns can change as a result of therapy and mindfulness meditation, in which people learn to think differently about their thoughts.  This has been shown in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with patients suffering from depression.  Mental training practice and effort can bring about changes in the function of the brain.

Given these two facts Davidson built the hypothesis that meditation or other forms of mental training can, by exploiting the brain’s neuroplasticity, produce changes, most likely in patterns of neuronal activation, but perhaps even in the structure of neural circuitry that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.  Then therapists and even individuals by exploiting the brain’s potential to change its wiring can restore the brain and the mind to emotional health.

In 1992 Davidson and his colleagues found that activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as detected by EEG, is a reflection of a person’s emotional state.  Asymmetric activation in this region corresponds to different “affective styles.”  When activity in the left prefrontal cortex is markedly and chronically higher than in the right, people report feeling alert, energized, enthusiastic, and joyous, enjoying life more and having a greater sense of  well-being.  In other words, they tend to be happier.  When there is greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people report feeling negative emotions including worry, anxiety, and sadness.  They express discontent with life and rarely feel elation or joy.  If the asymmetry is so extreme that activity in the right prefrontal cortex swamps that in the left, the person has a high risk of falling into clinical depression.

The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind.  The findings that, in highly experienced  meditators, there is greater activity in the left frontal cortex “imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain.”

Research has shown that every area of the brain that had been implicated in some aspect of emotion had also been linked to some aspect of thought:  circuitry that crackles with electrical activity  when when the mind feels an emotion and circuitry  that comes alive when the mind undergoes cognitive processing, whether it is remembering, or thinking, or planning, or calculating, are intertwined as yarn on a loom.  Neurons principally associated with thinking connect to those mostly associated with emotion, and vice versa.  This neuroanatomy is consistent with two thousand years of Buddhist thought, which holds that emotion and cognition cannot be separated.

Using fMRI Davidson measured activity in the brain’s amygdala, an area that is active during such afflictive emotions as distress, fear, anger,and anxiety.  Davidson said, “Simply by mental rehearsal of the aspiration that a person in a photo be free of suffering, people can change the strength of the signal in the amygdala.  This signal in he fear-generating amygdala can be modulated with mental training.

Eight Buddhist adepts and eight controls  with 256 electrodes glued to their scalps engaged in the form of meditation called pure compassion, in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving-kindness toward all living beings.  This produces a state in which love and compassion permeates the whole mind, with no other considerations, reasoning, or discursive thoughts.  The brain waves that predominated were gamma waves.  Scientists  believe that brain waves of this frequency reflect the activation and recruitment of neural resources and general mental effort.  They are also a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-found brain circuits.  In 2004 the results of this study were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Not surprisingly the results of the monks were quite pronounced.  But it was encouraging to discover that some of the controls who received a crash crash course and only a week’s worth of compassion meditation, showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal.

fMRI images were also taken.  The differences between the adepts and the controls were quite interesting.  There was significantly greater activation in the right ins and caudate, a network that other research has linked to empathy and maternal love.  These differences were most pronounced in monks with more years of meditation.  Connections from the frontal regions to the brain’s emotion regions seemed to become stronger with more years practicing meditation.  It was clear that mental training that engages concentration and thought can alter connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.

A surprising finding was that when the monks engaged in compassion meditation, their brains showed increased activity in regions responsible for planned movement.   It appeared that the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.  Another spot of activation in the brains of the meditating monks jumped out in  an area in the left prefrontal cortex, the site of activity association with happiness.  Activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal  to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.

Davidson concluded, “ I believe that Buddhism has something to teach us as scientists about the possibilities of human transformation and in providing a set of methods and a road map of how to achieve that.  We can have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish.  We’ve gotten the idea in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five intervention, which is completely cockamamy.  Athletes and musicians train many hours every day.  As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways.  To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science.”

Davidson continues, “I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years.  Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states.  That view is shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity will be the counter to the deterministic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash).  The message I take for my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility.”

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Psychology is a STEM Discipline

August 22, 2015

STEM is an acronym referring to the academic discipline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  It  is significant in that it recognizes the importance of these disciplines to economic competitiveness and, accordingly, stresses their importance to educational  policy,  Psychology is recognized as a STEM discipline by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  These STEM disciplines affect immigration policy.

Unfortunately, there are people who confuse psychology with psychiatry, a medical specialty.  Although clinical psychology does deal with mental illness, and clinical psychologists do work with psychiatrists, it is but one branch of psychology, as is counseling psychology.  Psychology is concerned with how humans and animals behave.  This interest extends beyond just behavior and is heavily involved with cognitive processes and neuroscience.  This includes the behavior and interactions of groups of people.  There is a branch known as industrial and organizational psychology that deals with businesses and organizations.  One of the divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA) is the Division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology.  I have had the honor of serving as president of this division.

Although psychology is an important discipline and deserves recognition as a STEM discipline, I had long thought that it was best to postpone psychology courses until college.  However, my thinking has changed.  I have long advocated that statistics and experimental design be taught in high school.  The reason for this is that it is difficult to be a responsible citizen, or to make informed decisions about medical care, without a fundamental understanding of statistics.   However, I think all adults should have some understanding about how human cognition works, and the information processing shortcomings and biases we are all prey to.  People need to learn how we understand and come into contact with our environment and our fellow human beings.   People need to understand that we are conscious of only a small percentage of our cognitive processes.  And we all need to learn about mindfulness so we can deal better not only with our own cognitive processes, but also with our interactions with our fellow human beings.

I have also found that psychology, that is scientifically based psychology, provides an expert platform for learning about science.  Psychology involves more than neuroimaging.  There are psychologists who use biological assays in their research.  Cognitive psychology is concerned with how cognition works to include memory, perception, concept formation, problem solving, language, and creativity.  Educational psychology studies the best ways to learn including teaching and computer assisted instruction.  Social psychology is concerned with how groups of humans act, how opinions are formed, and the best ways to persuade.  Industrial organizational psychology is concerned with how organizations work, and how their functioning can be performed.  This includes the performance of teams.  Different areas of research require different techniques, so a wide variety of experimental methods and statistical approaches are used.

It has been my experience that many, certainly not all, but many, from the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering, know well the methods and techniques needed for their disciplines.  But they still lack a general ability to apply the scientific method.  The function more as technicians in their disciplines, rather than as broadly trained scientists.

© 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.

Happy Thanksgiving 2013!

November 27, 2013

This is the time of the year when every healthy member of homo sapiens should give thanks for our cognitive resources. The best way of giving thanks is to keep our memories healthy and to continue to develop and grown our cognitive resources throughout our lives. The healthymemory blog is devoted to developing and growing our cognitive resources. There are well over 400 posts devoted to this end.

Perhaps the first step here is to understand our memories and how we process information. The first category of posts, “Human Memory: Theory and Data,” includes posts on theories of memory, how memories work, and how our memory impacts our lives.

The second category of posts, “Mnemonic Techniques” does include specific techniques for improving memory. But it also includes topics that will enhance our memories and our lives. Included here are topics on meditation and mindfulness.

The third category of posts, “Transactive Memory” contains posts on how to use technology and interact with our fellow human beings to enhance our memories and our lives. There is a series of posts on contemplative computing.

Please use the healthymemory blog search block. Enter topics of interests in the block to find posts on these interests. You might be surprised what you find.

© 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 Tri-Process Model of Cognition and Cognitive Miserliness

November 13, 2013

The Tri-Process Model of Cognition (Stanovich, 2011) offers a more complete model of cognition and a better prescriptive model of how to think. All System Two processes, including both the Algorithmic Mind and the Rational Mind require attention. In other words, they require thinking and mental effort. It’s a model of how to think thoroughly. Try to recall all relevant information. Run mental simulations regarding how different courses of action might result. The failure to use adequate mental resources (the failure to think) is what is termed cognitive miserliness. We are cognitive misers when we don’t use the cognitive resources we have. And most of the time this is due to an unwillingness to exert adequate mental effort.

Now for our minds to work effectively we need to have stored relevant information. Our Rational Mind should inform us when we need to look for more information. Mindware is also needed. Mindware needs to include methods for critical thinking. All of this should be part of our formal education, but the majority of what we need to do is a matter of self-education. We need to be auto-didacts throughout the entire course of our lives. It is true that our thinking is often time constrained. In those situations all we can do is to expend as much mental effort as time affords.

So especially for the important decisions we need to make in our lives, we cannot afford to be cognitive misers. It is unfortunate that the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until our mid-twenties. By this time we have had the opportunity to make serious erroneous decisions. But this is all the more reason to think for as long and as much as possible so that we are making maximum use of whatever prefrontal cortex we have.

We also need to avoid being cognitive misers as citizens. Considering the problems the U.S. Government is having, it appears that the country is filled with cognitive misers. People blame the government, but it is the people who elect the government.

The idea that people do not vote in their own interests is not new. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to support this view. Income equality has grown for the past thirty years. How can this be possible if voters are voting in their own interests? How can 1% of the population garner so much of the wealth? Mitt Romney called 47% of the U.S. Population deadbeats, or something of the sort. He also was against in supporting funds for college educations, in spite of the fact that the G.I. Bill was largely responsible the subsequent economic growth of the country. Romney’s argument was that if parents had the funds to send their children to college, that was their privilege, otherwise students needed to fund for themselves. Now how does this square with the ideal of equality? Yet 48% of the vote went to this man. How can this be?

This answer is that there is an epidemic of cognitive misers. Ideologies provide a handy vehicle for avoiding thinking. The ideologies, beliefs, hold the answer. There is no need to think. Contrary evidence is disregarded as being biased, being from a liberal press, for example. Now ideologies are even more pernicious when they are held by those in legislative bodies. Effective legislative bodies require negotiation and compromise, something that ideologues are not wont to do.

Beliefs need to be justified with logic and evidence. It is not a matter of believing in big government or small government, whatever those terms might mean. Regardless if someone tells me they are against, or for, big government, I regard them to be cognitive misers of the highest magnitude. Rather it is a matter of the honest examination of data and reflection that should be the means of determining what government should and should not do.

If this epidemic of cognitive miserliness continues, too many voters will be manipulated by skilled politicians and their advisors into voting against their own interests.

But by far, the worst and most dangerous ideologues are those who on the grounds of their religious beliefs, perform acts of terrorism. Religious ideologues can pervert religious beliefs into acts that are contrary to their religions. This is certainly the worst consequence of cognitive miserliness.

Reference

Stanovich, K.E. (2011). Rationality & the Reflective Mind. New York: The Oxford University Press..

© 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.

Intelligence and the Tri-Process Model of Cognition

November 3, 2013

The immediately preceding post was on the Flynn Effect, which referred to a 3-point increase in IQ scores over the course of each decade since 1930. However, Flynn himself did not think that there had been an actual increase in intelligence over time, but rather an increase in IQ scores. Criticisms of the IQ test are nothing new. Stanovich has been criticizing the IQ test for years and has started research to address this shortcoming (enter “Stanovich” into the healthymemory blog search box to find more posts on Stanovich).

Stanovich (2011) is doing this by building on Kahneman’s Two System View of Cognition (See the healthymemory blog post “The Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions.

System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through.

It is clear that System 2 is very important and covers a lot of territory, but there remains much to be done to develop System 2. This is precisely what Stanovich is doing. He calls System 1 the Autonomous Mind. System 2 is divided into what Stanovich terms the Algorithmic Mind and the Reflective Mind. It is the Reflective Mind that catches errors in System 1 processing. However, the Algorithmic Mind can still commit errors and terminate processing prematurely. The algorithmic mind engages in serial associative cognition. Consider the now famous bat and ball problem. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The mind tends to offer the answer $0.10 because the answer seems simple, just the parsing of the $1 from the $0.10 In fact, 50% of Princeton students and 56% of the students at the University of Michigan came up with this answer. But this answer is wrong. If the bat costs $1 more than the ball and the ball costs $0.10, then the bat would cost $1.10, which when added to the ball cost would reach $1.20. The correct answer is $0.05. That would mean that the bat costs $1.05, and the two added together would yield the desired $1.10. Now if the Reflective Mind is on the job, the Algorithmic Mind will run a check and discover that the ball costing $0.10 would yield an erroneous total of $1.20, conduct some mental arithmetic and arrive at the correct answer of $0.05.

Wason’s four card selection task provides another example of how the Tri-Process Model works. A research participant is presented four cards: K, A, 8, and 5. She is told that there is a letter or number on the opposite side of the card. The rule is that if a card has a vowel on its letter side, then it has an even number on its opposite side. The task is to decide which card or cards must be turned over to determine if the rule is true or false. The correct answer is A and 5, the only two cards that could show that the rule is false. However, the majority of research participants typically respond A and 8. So presumably they are engaging the Algorithmic Mind and making choices that would confirm the hypothesis. If the Reflective Mind is doing its job, it will catch this error and engage in simulations of all the possibilities and discover that there could be an even number on the other side of the K. The Reflective Mind might also be aware that a confirmation bias pervades most of our thinking and that we typically look for confirming, not disconfirming information. But it is disconfirmation information that refutes rules or hypothesis.

There is no way I can do justice to the Tri-Process Model of Cognition, but it is fleshing out the Two System View and addressing serious problems in intelligence tests. Perhaps Stanovich can develop a Rational Quotient (RQ) in addition to the IQ, or perhaps a more comprehensive intelligence test can be developed.

Reference
Stanovich, K.E. (2011). Rationality & the Reflective Mind. New York: The Oxford University Press..

© 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.

4 Ways to Fight Alzheimer’s

June 1, 2013

This post is largely based on the article by Dr. Gary Small, “Four Ways to Save Yourself From Alzheimer’s Disease1. There is also a book by Dr. Small, The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. The prospects for either a cure or a vaccine to prevent Alzheimer’s are becoming increasingly dim (see the healthymemory blog post, “An Update on the Prospect of a Cure for Alzheimer’s). However, there is much we can do to decrease significantly, if not avoid completely, the ravages of Alzheimer’s. This post outlines 4 ways to fight Alzheimer’s.

One way is to engage in physical exercise. The Mind Health Report notes that strength training can improve cognitive function and brain health. It also cites a study that found that walking briskly for just 20 minutes a day can lower the risk for Alzheimer’s. Walking 40 minutes a day, three times a week has also been shown to be beneficial (see the healthymemory blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”). Walking is not the only beneficial activity. Jogging, swimming, and other activities pump oxygen and nutrients to brain cells. Try working these activities into daily routines.

Another way is to manage stress. Stress cannot be eliminated, nor should it be. But too much stress is harmful and increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. Cortisol-induced stress has produced temporary impairment in memory and recall abilities. Fortunately, stress can be managed. According to the Mind Health Report article, “…Dr. Helen Lavretsky at UCLA showed that tai chi can improve markers of inflammation in the blood. She also reported that functional MRI scans showed that meditation actually strengthens neural networks in important brain areas controlling cognition.” There are many healthymemory blog posts on meditation. Actually, meditation is a subtopic of the more encompassing concept of mindfulness. (enter “meditation” or “mindfulness” into the search block of this blog).

` A third way is to eat appropriately. From the article in The Mind Health Report: “For optimal brain performance, combine antioxidant fruits and vegetables with healthy proteins. Researchers at Columbia University have shown that when our diets emphasize proteins from fish and nuts along with fruits and vegetables, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease decreases compared with the risk from diets emphasizing read meat and butter and fewer fruits and vegetables.” For healthymemory blog posts on the benefits of diet enter “diet” into the search block.

The fourth way, and the way emphasized in the healthy memory blog,is through cognitive exercise. Mnemonic techniques are techniques that not only improve memory performance, but also provide beneficial cognitive exercise (See the healthymemory category “mnemonic techniques”). The healthymemory blog category, “Transactive Memory” has posts on how to employ technology and our fellow human beings in building and exercises our memories. Social relationships and interactions are important to a healthy memory. The “Human Memory: Theory and Data” healthymemory blog category provides posts on human memory and behavior., and neuroscience. You will note that the category is widely construed as human memory is at the bottom of all issues involving humans. All posts go to the goal of building a “cognitive reserve” to fight Alzheimer’s and dementia. It is never too early, or too late, to build this cognitive reserve.

1Small, G.D. (2013). Four Ways to Save Yourself From Alzheimer’s Disease. The Mind Health Report, May.

How Our Brain and Mind Work

May 5, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bat and a ball cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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 Antidote for Worry

April 21, 2013

First of all, worry is important. Worry is important so that you pay your taxes, save money, eat a proper diet, exercise, both physically and cognitively, and build a cognitive reserve. But uncontrolled worry leads to unhealthy rumination and unhappiness. What is the point of worrying about something that is out of your control? You are likely to suffer more anticipating the event than the event itself. Control what you can control, and try not to worry about the rest.

Of course, that is easier said that done. Here meditation can help. 1 There are two extremes of meditation. At one end of the meditation continuum you focus your attention on one thing, for example, your breath or a word or phrase. At the other end of the continuum there is open monitoring to a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Thoughts are allowed to freely pass through the mind without evaluation. The absence of evaluation is what is important. If what is worrying you passes through your consciousness without causing worry or discomfort, that is okay. But if you evaluate these thoughts so that they cause you to worry, then this is counterproductive.

What is recommended is to find a midpoint between these two extremes. Let your mind run free until it hits a worrying thought, in which case you redirect your thoughts to something pleasant. Perhaps it sounds too simple to say that you can be happy just by thinking happy thoughts, but it is true. Just smiling can improve your mode. But remember not to lose contact with reality completely.

Let me just add that my Ph.D. is in cognitive psychology. I am neither a clinical nor counseling psychologist.

1To find more blog posts about mediation enter “meditation,” “mindfulness,” or “Davidson” into the healthymemory search box

© 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 “Now” is Really the “Then”

March 31, 2013

The “Now” is a key concept in mindfulness with the objective of staying present in the “now.” As will be mentioned later in this post, the objective is good, but it is misnamed. Our information processing limitations are such that we can never be present in the “now.” It takes about 0.1 seconds to read data out of our sensory stores. Further processing is then required before the data becomes information that we can understand. So all we know is history, although an extremely small portion of it is very recent history. We use our memories to predict and cope with the future. One of the most remarkable athletic feats is hitting a ball with a bat. The ball is arriving quickly, sometimes extremely fast. The projection of where that ball will be and how we are going to meet it with a bat requires literally a split second decision based on past information that has just recently arrived. Very few people seem to be aware of these delays that preclude us from being precisely in the “now.” This is of particular concern to me as there does not seem to be an awareness among many of the drivers how long it will take them to react should they need to take action. Even if one is devoting full attention to responding to a signal, that decision cannot be immediate. When one is scanning the highway and thinking the car will have traveled considerable distance before one can react. This time is further increased when one is on a cell phone.

We use this historical information stored in our memories to cope with the external world. We build models of the world to project ourselves into the future and try to predict it. I once knew a physicist who was disturbed that light could be both a wave (having frequencies) and a particle (photons). As a psychologist this never bothered me. There are models in our minds. Different models can be better suited for understanding different phenomena. This is the case with light. I don’t believe that we, as corporal beings, can ever experience the external world directly, but only via the models we develop in our minds,

In mindfulness what is really meant by being in the “now” is being in control of our attention. Our brains remain active 24 hours a day, and I doubt absent any pathology that there is any time that our minds our not filled with something. The exercises one performs to be “mindful” involve controlling one’s attention. There are a wide variety of meditation techniques to do this. At one extreme is the focusing and maintaining attention on a single action, breath, word, or phrase. It is very important to be able to focus attention processing at certain times. At the other extreme, meditation involves letting thoughts flow through our minds unedited. The goal here is to bypass filters or information processing biases that cause us to reject certain thoughts or ideas. Insight and creativity are critically dependent on both these types of attention (See the healthymemory blog post, “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up”).

Although I am a strong proponent of mindfulness and many of its practices, I am a bit put off by some of the terms that are used.

© 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.

More on Avoiding Collapse

March 3, 2013

Preceding posts have been on Costa’s The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. The immediately preceding post has been on Insight, a cognitive capability that Costa believes could prevent collapse. This post expands on that theme. Insight is closely related to creativity, and there have been many healthymemory blog posts on creativity (just enter creativity into the Search Box on the healthymemory blog).

The central thesis of Costa’s The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse is that societies collapse as a result of beliefs not keeping up with facts. She writes of five supermemes that threaten civilization. They are: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. These supermemes result in defective cognitive processes and unhealthy memories. We need to be aware of them in both ourselves and others. When appropriate, challenge others you find fostering these supermemes. The reality is that the solutions to the vast majority of our problems exist, but these supermemes operate to prevent their implementation.

These supermemes are types of unhealthy memories. And they are unhealthy memories that threaten civilization. They need to be stamped out.

Transactive memory is one of the major topics of the healthymemory blog. There are two types of transactive memory. One is technological, and includes conventional technology, paper publications, and modern technology of electronic publication and communication. Many of the solutions can be found there as well as the technology for collaborations and discussions that lead to these solutions. Our rapidly changing and increasingly complex societies requires collaboration and team efforts to reach solution. Social interactions are important to maintaining a healthy memory, and interactions among many, many healthy memories are what is needed not only for our civilization to survive, but also for our species to survive.

In addition to the supermemes, one of the risks is the amount of misinformation that is available. What is particularly alarming is that there is ample evidence of concerted efforts by vested interests to disseminate misinformation (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Origins of Misinformation). This willful manufacture of mistaken beliefs has earned its own term, “agnogenesis.” The comic strip Doonesbury introduced an online service, myFacts, that would provide you with facts that would support anything you believed or wanted to support. Although Doonesbury is a comic strip it is portraying a parody of an underlying reality. One needs to be on the alert for these efforts.

There is an increasing realization that being cognitively active is important not only to reduce or preclude the effects of dementia as we age, but also to allow us to participate effectively in our complex society. Costa writes of businesses, analogous to gyms and health centers designed for our bodies, that are set up like exercise facilities, but the exercises and workouts are designed to sharpen our minds. The digital brain health market is expanding at a rapid rate. Just enter “Healthy Memory” into a search site such as duckduckgo.com to find a wealth of resources (enter Healthy Memory Blog to find the current blog). Brain fitness will also return a wealth of sites. Many of these sites are commercial, but others are free. Readers who have found worthwhile sites are encouraged to enter these sites and their reviews as comments to this post.

© 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.

Insight

February 27, 2013

According to Costa, the author of The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, what will save us all is the ability of the human mind to achieve insight. She writes of insight as it it is a new discovery. The notion of insight and an “aha” moment in solving problems goes back to the Gestalt psychologists at least. What is new is the identification cognitive structures involved in achieving insight.

Costa stresses that insight is a biological capability that we all have. She cites an article1 that describes an experiment in which the cognitive structures were identified. Nineteen experimental participants were asked to solve word problems while the activity in their brains was monitored. Three words were presented, such as pine, crab, and sauce, to each participant. The task was to think of another word that could be combined with each of these words to make three new words. For example, a solution to these words would be “apple,” to produce “pineapple,” “crabapple,” and “applesauce.” The participants did many of these problems and brain activity was tracked to identify and differences that signaled an insightful answer. When insight was used the anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus (aSTG) became highly excited producing a sudden burst of gamma oscillatory activity. This occurred 300 milliseconds in advance of solving the problem. They also discovered that the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACG), which is responsible for relaying signals between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, appears to suppress irrelevant thoughts prior to invoking insight. The notion is that insightful thinking is more vulnerable to external interference than is nonsightful processing necessitating greater suppression of external thoughts. When insight is achieved, the problem solver is confident of her insight. Insight is cognitively taxing. Increased electrical activity takes place in the left posterior M/STG, the anterior cingulate, the right posterior M/STG, and the amygdala. Costa argues that insight is the brain’s special weapon against complexity. A simplifying insight eliminates the complexity.

Insight and creativity are closely related. I would suggest that insight is a special type of creativity, one aimed and solving a particular problem. Insight is creative, but creativity also includes literature, fine art, music, and dance to name just a few activities.

1 Kouinios, J.K., Frymiare, J.L., Bowden, e.M., Fleck, J.I., Subramanaiam,K, Parrish, T.B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2006). The Prepared Mind: Neural Activity Prior to Problem Presentaion Predicts Subsequent Solution by Sudden Insight. Psychological Science, 17:882, DOI:10.111/j.1467-9280.2006.01798.

© 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 Origins of Misinformation

October 8, 2012

The immediately preceding post introduced the problem of misinformation. This post discusses the origins of misinformation. The sources discussed here are rumors and fiction, government and politicians, vested interests, and the media. This post, as was the preceding post and the next post, draws heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1

Although the believability of information is one factor determining the propagation of information, there is a strong preference to pass information that will invoke an emotional response in the recipient, regardless of the truth value of the information. People also extract information from fictional sources, both in literature, the movies, and the theater arts. People rely on misinformation acquired from clearly fictitious stories to respond to quiz question even when the misinformation contradicted common knowledge and when people where aware that the source was fictional.2 These effects of fictional misinformation are difficult to correct. Prior warnings were ineffective in reducing the acquisition of misinformation from fiction, and that misinformation was reduced, but not eliminated only when participants were instructed to actively monitor the contents they were reading and to press a key whenever they encountered a piece of misinformation.3 Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear misrepresented the science of global change yet was introduced as “scientific” evidence into a U.S. Senate committee.

Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. Government officials proclaimed that there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Bush administration also juxtaposed Iraq and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the frontline in the “War on Terror.” Moreover, it implied that it had intelligence linking Iraq to al–Qaida. All of this turned out to be misinformation, yet large segments of the American public continued to believe these claims. Moreover, 20% to 30% believed that WMDs had actually been discovered in Iraq after the invasion and about half the public believed in the links between Iraq and al–Qaeda.

In the political arena Sarah Palin made the claim that Obama’s health care plan had provisions for “death panels.” In five weeks 86% of American had heard this claim and half either believed this myth or were uncertain as to its veracity. Although the public is aware of politically motivated misinformation, particularly during election campaigns, they are poor in identifying specific instances of misinformation, being unable to distinguish between false and correct information.

There is also ample evidence of concerted efforts by vested interests to disseminate misinformation. This willful manufacture of mistaken beliefs has earned its own term, “agnogenesis.” In 2006 a U.S. Federal Court ruled that cigarette manufacturers were guilty of conspiring to deny, distort, and minimize the effects of cigarette smoking. In the early 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Fuels Association, and The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) drafted and promoted campaigns to case doubt on the science of climate change. These industry groups have formed alliances with conservative think tanks, using a handful of scientist as spokesmen. More than 90% of books published between 1972 and 2005 that expressed skepticism about environmental issues have been linked to conservative think tanks. This review is hardly exhaustive and supplies only a hint of the magnitude of this type of misinformation.

The media, defined roughly as print newspapers and magazines, radio, TV, and the internet are also a source of misinformation. There are a variety of factors at play here. Journalists with weak backgrounds in the subjects they are addressing can oversimplify the topic they are addressing. There is also a strong motivation to sensationalize their stories. Sometimes, in an effort to be fair and balanced, they can be misleading. For example, an overwhelming majority (more than 95%) of actively publishing climate scientists agree on the fundamental fact that the globe is warming and that this warming is due to greenhouse-gas emissions caused by humans. Yet, the media, in an attempt to be even-handed will give equal time to individuals, often without appropriate backgrounds, who hold a contrary view. Consequently, the public misses the relative weighting of opinion among knowledgeable scientists.

There are also differences among media outlets as to how much misinformation they disseminate. Research4 has shown that the level of belief in misinformation among segments of the public varies according to preferred news outlets. The continuum runs from Fox News (whose viewers are the most misinformed on most issues) to National Public Radio (whose listeners are the least misinformed overall).

This blog has argued that the internet is not the cause of misinformation, but merely the means of communicating misinformation. A good argument can be made that this is not entirely true. There is a phenomenon known as selective exposure that can produce fractionation. Blogs and other social media tend to link to blogs and social media having similar viewpoints and to exclude opposing views. This can lead to “cyber-ghettos.” It is likely that this bears some responsibility for extreme divergent views in the political arena and an unwillingness to compromise or negotiate.

1Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., , Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

2Marsh, E.J., Mease, M.L., & Roediger, H.L. III. (2003). Learning Fact from Fiction. Memory & Cognition, 49, 519-536.

3Marsh, E.J., & Fazio, L.K. (2006). Learning Errors from Fiction: Difficulties in Reducing Reliance on Fictional Sources. Memory & Cognition, 34, 1140-1149.

4For example Kull, S., Ramsay, C., & Lewis, E. (2003). Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq war. Political Science Quarterly, 118, 569-598.

© 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.

SuperAgers with a Super Memory

October 3, 2012

In a recent experiment1 SuperAgers were defined as individuals over 80 with episodic memory performance at least as good as normative values for 50- to 65-year olds. The performance of these SuperAgers was compared to two cognitively normal cohorts: age-matched elderly and 50- to 65-year olds. The brains of all three groups were compared using cortical morphometry.

With respect to memory performance, the SuperAgers performed better than both control groups (but the difference between the SuperAgers and the middle-age controls was not statistically significant, p>0.05). The sample consisted of 12 SuperAgers, 10 elderly controls, and 14 middle-age controls. The elderly control group performed significantly worse than the other two groups.

With respect to whole-brain cortical thickness elderly controls exhibited significant atrophy in the older cohort compared against the middle-aged controls in multiple regions across the frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes, including medial temporal regions important for memory. However, the whole brain cortical thickness analysis comparing the SuperAgers with the middle-aged controls did not reveal significant atrophy in the SuperAgers.

With respect to the thickness of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, the thickness of the SuperAgers was higher than both the Elderly Controls and the Middle-Aged Controls. Somewhat surprisingly, only the difference between the SuperAgers and the Middle-Aged controls was statistically significant (p<0.05). However, the likelihood of achieving statistical significance increases as sample size increases. Research has indicated that the cingulate constitutes a critical site of transmodel integration related to episodic memory, spatial attention, cognitive control, and motivational modulation. It is unclear whether the SuperAgers were born with a particularly thick cortex or whether they resisted cortical change over time.

The relationship between brain and memory is an interesting one. The notion that more brain equates to more memory is fairly common, but this finding needs to be placed in context. Alzheimer’s cannot be diagnosed conclusively until an autopsy has been done. The key signatures for the diagnosis are amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. But these same signatures have been found in autopsies of people WHO HAD SHOWN NO SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S WHEN THEY WERE ALIVE! So it would appear that these amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s.

I remember reading an article when I was in graduate school about someone who had hydroencephalocele, which is more commonly called “water in the brain.” As a result of this condition, this individual had only about 10% of the normal volume of cortex. Yet this person led a normal life and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in mathematics!

The plasticity of the brain is truly remarkable. Healthymemory believes that this plasticity is fostered by cognitive exercise and cognitive challenges. So, stay cognitively active and seek cognitive growth!

1Harrison, T.M., Weintraub, S., Mesulam, M.-M, & Rogalski, E. (2012). Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Aging, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 18, 1-5.

© 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 Benefits of Speaking a Second Language

August 29, 2012

According to an article in the New Scientist1 speaking a second language can change everything from problem-solving skills to personality. It is like having two brains or being two people. Of course, there are the obvious benefits of knowing a second language. You can converse and write to people who speak the language as well as understand what they say and read. You don’t need to rely on translations or sub-titles. It definitely enhances visits to places where the language is spoken (or in one of the many areas of the United States where the language is spoken).

But the benefits go beyond this and foster a healthy memory and enhanced cognitive skills. These benefits are enhancements of the brain’s executive system. They increase the ability to focus attention and block out irrelevant information. And they also enhance the ability to switch between tasks, to multi-task. And as we all are painfully aware, the need to multi-task has increased with the advent of new technology.

A study was done of 184 people diagnosed with dementia. Half of these people were bilingual. The symptoms of dementia started to appear in bilingual people four years later than their monolingual peers.2 Another study was done with a further sample of 200 people showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. This time they found a five-year delay in the onset of symptoms in the bilingual patients.3 These data support the notion of a cognitive reserve built up as a result of the bilingualism that delays the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is quite possible that for some people, bilingualism might reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s to zero.

So if you are already bilingual, congratulations. You are blessed. But if you do not know a second language, you can still learn. Language learning provides ideal mental exercise. And there are plenty of resources available to help you learn another language. One resource is the Healthymemory Blog (see “More on Recoding: Learning Foreign and Strange Vocabulary Words”).

1de Lange, C. (2012), My Two Minds. New Scientist, 5 May, 31-33.

2Neuropsychologia, 45, p. 459.

3Neurology, 75, p. 1726

© 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.

Cognitive Exercise and Aging

July 15, 2012

There is evidence that training older adults in memory, processing speed, and reasoning skills produces substantial improvements in these skills. Moreover, these skills maintain over a number of years.1 Studies of retirement also provide additional evidence that cognitive exercise slows down the process of intellectual decay. Episodic memory is the memory of personal events. It is among the first cognitive abilities to show a decline with age. A study of the effects of retirement on episodic memory was conducted.2 It was conducted with two groups of men: one aged 50 to 54 and one aged 60-64. Twelve nations were ranked in terms of the persistence of employment into old age. If the percentage of men still working dropped by 90% from the 50 to 54 age group to the 60 to 64 age group (Austria and France) there was a 15% decline in episodic memory. If the percentage still working dropped by 25% (United States and Sweden) the decline was only 7%.

There is also correlational evidence from a study in the United Kingdom showing that an extra year of work is associated with a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s on average by six weeks.3 These are just a few studies from a body of research showing that cognitive exercise builds a cognitive reserve that that delays the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. The Healthymemory Blog respects this defensive position, but advocates an offensive rather than a defensive approach in which the goal is to continue to grow and enhance cognition as we grow older.

1Ball, K., Berch, D.B., Heimers, D.F., Jobe, J.B., Leveck, M.D. Marsiske, M.,…Willis, S.L. (2002). Effects of cognitive training interventions with older adults. A randomized controlled trial. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 2271-2281. doi:10.1001/jama.288.18.2271.

2Adam, S., Bonsang, E., Germain, S., & Perelman, S. (2007). Retirement and Cognitive Reserve: A Stochastic Frontier Approach to Survey Data (CREPP Working Paper 2007/04). Liege, Belgium: Centre de Recherche on Economie et de la Population..

3Ibid.

© 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.

Healthymemory’s 300th Post

May 30, 2012

There will be a very short hiatus until post 301. Still, there should be plenty of interest here. The Healthymemory Blog is for anyone interested in the processes of human memory and in maintaining and growing a healthy memory. As someone on the leading edge of the baby boomers, I think that this is one demographic group that should be especially interested. The three main categories are Human Memory: Theory and Data, Mnemonic Techniques, and Transactive Memory. Human Memory: Theory and data includes posts about memory experiments and theories about memory and related cognitive processes. Mnemonic Techniques includes posts about classic memory techniques, as well retrieval strategies and study techniques. Different meditation practices are also included here as they have beneficial effects on memory. Transactive Memory includes posts about how technology and interactions with your fellow humans can not only help in maintaining a healthy memory, but also how to grow your memory and enhance your life.

Interested in a specific topic. Try using the search box. Enter “retrieval” and see what you get.

Enter “dreaming” and see what you get. Enter “cognitive exercise.” Baby Boomers, try entering “retirement.”

Enjoy, and maintain and grow your memories.

What is the Analogy Between Mental and Physical Exercise?

March 28, 2012

There is a clear analogy between mental, or cognitive, exercise and physical exercise. Athletes will engage in mental exercise that benefits their physical performance. So ice skaters and gymnasts will mentally rehearse their routines. Divers will run through their dives in their mind. Batters might imagine hitting that hanging curve ball out of the park. Physical exercise can enlarge your hippocampus (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”. The mental demands of memorizing and navigating all the streets of London enlarges the hippocampus of apprentice London cab drivers preparing for their licensing exam.

So both cognitive and physical exercise assist in keeping and enhancing a healthy memory. A modern society provides many devices that keep us from doing physical exercise, so some people decide to by pass these devices and walk to the store and climb the stairs to derive the benefits of physical exercise.

Similarly, there are many devices that help us avoid cognitive exercise. Spell checkers were discussed in the immediately preceding blog post. But we can rely on digital devices to relieve our memories of needing to remember phone numbers, addresses, or appointments. We can look up information as needed on the internet. So our cognitive demands have been reduced substantially analogous to our physical demands.

So why not consider eschewing some of this technology to afford cognitive exercise similar to taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or walking rather than driving to some destination? Use your personal memory rather than transactive memory. You will find a host of techniques for remembering information under the Healthymemory Blog category “Mnemonic Techniques.” There are also free websites to help you master these techniques see

http://www.neuromod.org/ and http://www.thememorypage.net/. Still, for very important appointments I recommend that you use transactive memory as a backup and either write it down or enter it into your digital device! (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “An Embarrassing Failure of Transactive Memory,” and “Another Embarrassing Failure of Transactive Memory)

© 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 Dangers of MultiTasking

March 4, 2012

A common notion is that young people who have grown up with technology have effectively rewired their brains for multitasking and are proficient at multitasking. This common notion is wrong according to research.1 A group of psychologists at UCLA led by Karin Foerde conducted an experiment to determine whether multitasking impairs learning. They trained 14 participants to perform a single task, predicting the weather based on certain cues. Their brains were scanned while they did this. Their brains were also scanned while they did this task and had a secondary task added to it, keeping count of the number of high pitched auditory tones in a series of auditory tones.

The participants were able to perform both tasks, but they paid a cognitive cost when they performed both tasks. When they performed the weather task alone they used a region of the brain that enables us to apply knowledge gained to other situations when needed (System 2 processing). However, when they performed both tasks at once, they activated a part of their brain linked with habit learning (System 1 processing), The psychologist William James knew this more than one hundred years ago when he wrote that “we can’t easily do more than one thing at once, “unless the processes are very habitual.”2 So if anything surprising or unusual is encountered, it is likely to be missed.

Subsequently, a group of researchers at Stanford classified a group of participants as whether heavy or light multitaskers. They administered a series of cognitive tests, each designed to measure some aspect of distractibility to see which group handled the load better. They were surprised to find that compared to light multitaskers, the heavy multitaskers did a worse job filtering out irrelevant distractions, had a harder time ignoring irrelevant memories, and took a longer time switch from one task to another. Now both groups performed the same on tasks when there were no distractions. But it appears that the heavy multitaskers “may be sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information.3

The problem is that people typically are not aware of this loss in performance. Other researchers4 found that people who were high in real-world multitasking not only had lower working-memory capacity, but also were more impulsive and sensation-seeking. Worse yet, they rated their own ability to multitask as higher than average. So their perceived ability and actual ability to multitask were inversely related. It appears that overconfidence rather than skill drives this proliferation of multitasking. The fear is that academic activity will receive less focused time, resulting in cursory processing of information and shoddy outcomes.

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

2James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psycholog. NY: Holt.

3. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, E.D., Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583-15587.

4Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

© 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.

Computer Use and Cognition Across Adulthood

February 19, 2012

The results of the first national population-based investigation of the association between computer activity and cognitive performance across adulthood has been published.1 This study involved a large national sample (N = 2,671) of adults ranging from 32 to 84 years old. Cognition was assessed by telephone with the Brief Test of Adult Cognition.2 Executive function was assessed with the Stop and Go Switch Task.3 Individuals who used the computer frequently scored significantly higher than those who seldom used the computer. The variables of age, sex, education, and health status were statistically controlled so this result maintained across all these variables. Greater computer use was also associated with better executive function on a task-switching test. Again this result held up across the basic cognitive and demographic variables. So computer activity is associated with good cognitive function and executive control across adulthood and into old age. Individuals with low intellectual ability benefited even more from computer use.

Unfortunately, computer usage declines across age. Of course, the personal computer is a relatively new technology, one that was not available earlier in the lifespans of many. It is hoped that this will be less of a problem in the future for those who have had access to computer technology throughout their lives. There are issues with perceptual and motor decline as we age, and computer technology needs to accommodate them. It is not surprising that that people with lower income and less education are less likely to use computers. It would be good to develop programs for these people that provide not only ready access to computers, but also to training in their use.

And if you have a computer, use it, don’t lose cognitive functioning or executive control. The internet provides a good vehicle for cognitive growth. It includes a vast amount of transactive memory. The computer also provides a good means of interacting with your fellow humans, although it should not be the exclusive means of interacting with fellow humans.

1Tun, P.A., & Lachman, M.E. (2010). The Association Between Computer Use and Cognition Across Adulthood: Use It So You Won’t Lose It? Psychology and Aging. 25, 560-568.

2Tun, P.A., & Lachman, M.E. (2006). Telephone Assessment of Cognitive Function in Adulthood: The Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone. Age and Ageing, 35, 629-632.

3Tun, P.A., & Lachman, M.E. (2008). Age Differences in Reaction Time in a National Telephone Sample of Adults: Task Complexity, Education, and Sex Matter. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1421-1429. doi:10.1037/a00128456

© 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.

Age-Proof Your Brain

February 15, 2012

Age-Proof Your Brain: 10 Easy Ways to Keep Your Mind Fit Forever is a recent article in AARP The Magazine.1 Articles like this are summarized periodically in the healthymemory blog. There are many, many things you can do to age proof your brain, but articles like these are helpful in suggesting a manageable handful from which to choose (“31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012” was a similar posting earlier this year). Some of the ways presented in the AARP article do not readily fall into specific healthymemory blog categories, although most have been mentioned in passing in healthymemory blog posts.

Finding your purpose is a general recommendation strongly endorsed by the healthymemory blog. The AARP article cites a study done at the Rush University Medical Center of more than 950 older adults. The study ran for seven years and it was found that participants who approached life with clear intentions and goals at the start of the study were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the following seven years.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is implicit, but not usually specifically mentioned in healthymemory blog posts. It is important to Reduce your risks. Chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension are associated with dementia. Diabetes approximately doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. So it is important to follow doctor’s orders regarding diet, exercise and taking prescribed medications on schedule.

It is important to Check for vitamin deficiences. Vitamin deficiences, especially vitamin B12 can also affect brain vitality. Research from Rush University Medical Center found that older adults at risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies, had smaller brains and scored lowest on tests measuring thinking, reasoning and memory.

Diet is another topic discussed infrequently in the healthymemory blog, but as the AARP article notes “Your brain enjoys spices as much as your taste buds do. Herbs and spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, basil, parsley, ginger and vanilla are high in antioxidants.” Antioxidants are important to brain health. Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric is common in Indian curries. Indians have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. One theory is that curcumin bonds to amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have shown that curcumin reduces amyloid plaques and lowers inflammation levels. A study with humans found that people who ate curried foods often had higher scores on standard cognitive tests.

Another diet recommendation is to Eat like a Greek. The Mediterranean Diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and beans reduced Alzheimer’s risk by 34 to 48 percent in a study done by Columbia University. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are important in heart health and are suspected of also being important for brain health. Generally speaking, what is healthy for the heart is healthy for the brain.

Exercise is another activity that is good for both heart and brain. According to the AARP article, higher exercise levels can reduce dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent compared to low activity levels. People who exercise regularly also tend to have better cognition and memory than inactive people. Exercise helps your hippocampi, subdcortical memory structures well known to readers of the healthymemory blog (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus, and do a search using the term “Hippocampus”.) Experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, although as little as 15 minutes of exercise three times a week can be helpful. So Get moving.

And Pump some iron. Older women participating in a yearlong weight-training program did 13 percent better on tests of cognitive function that did a group of women who did balance and toning exercises. According to Tereas Liu-Ambrose, “Resistance training may increase the levels of growth factors in the brain such as IGFI, which nourish and protect nerve cells.”

Say “Omm” refers to meditation. Meditation techniques can usually be found under the healthymemory blog post category “Mnemonic Techniques.” The AARP article discusses a study of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR involves focusing one’s attention on sensations, feelings, and states of mindfulness. This has been shown to reduce harmful stress hormones. At the end of an eight week study MRI scans of participants’ brains showed that the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increased significantly in the MBSR group, compared to a control group. Studies have found that other types of meditation have also been beneficial. Search the healthymemory blog on “meditation” to find related healthymemory blog posts.

The remaining two recommendations fall under the healthymemory blog category “Ttansactive Memory.” Get a (social) life means interact with your fellow human beings for a healthy memory. The AARP articles mentions a University of Michigan Study in which research participants did better on tests of short-term memory after just 10 minutes of conversation with another person. There are two types of transactive memory. One type refers to the memories of our fellow humans, and the practice of seeking them out and swapping information between our swapping memories is beneficial.

Seek out new skills can involve both types of transactive memory: human and technological. So learning new things from our fellow humans, as well as from periodicals, books, and the internet is beneficial to our brains and our memories. The important point is to continue to grow cognitively and to not just do things that you routinely do.

1http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-01-2012/boost-brain-health.html

My Mom’s Gone

February 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and 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.

What Can Pharmacology Offer for a Healthy Memory?

February 1, 2012

For some people, the answer might be everything, or given time, everything. They believe that pharmacology will eventually provide a cure and/or a preventative to Alzheimer’s and dementia, and that it will enhance cognitive performance so that we can learn more and master more difficult subjects. This is to say nothing about the eventual beneficial effects to the economy and society. A recent article1 has motivated this blogger to post some cautionary remarks. It should be remembered that our cognitive abilities are the product of evolution. A common misconception is that evolution produces optimal results. No, evolution satisfices, that is provides a satisfactory solution to environmental challenges. These solutions involve trade-offs. For example, a woman’s pelvis is the sized so that it can both support bipedalism and the large cranium of an emerging baby.

Although our cognitive abilities might not be optimal, they have been shaped by evolution. We have two systems for processing information, System 1, which is fast, and System 2 which is slow but more thorough (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “The Two System View of Cognition”and “Thinking Fast and Slow). Without System 1 we would have become extinct a long time ago. But without System 2 both our cognitive and cultural achievements would be extremely limited. One way of thinking about trade-offs is to think of an inverted U. Initially more of a factor is beneficial. However, at some point (the apex of the inverted U) more of this factor is causing losses someplace else.

Robert Bjork has suggested that there is a symbiosis of forgetting, remembering, and learning.2 John Anderson has written an entire book3 documenting how human cognition has been shaped to deal with the environment in an effective manner. Luria’s famous book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, about an individual referred to as “S” who had a phenomenal memory and earned his living by giving performances using his fantastic memory, had too much of a good thing. For example, he had difficulty remembering faces, which appeared to him as changing patterns. Research has also indicated that savant-like abilities such as S‘s can be induced in normal participants by turning off particular functional areas of the brain via repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.4

There are also individual differences determining whether pharmacology will be beneficial. Individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance from certain drugs. One study5 found that modafinal improved performance only among individuals with lower IQs. In another study6, low-performing individuals showed enhanced performance, but high-performing individuals showed reduced performance after taking amphetamines. Inverted U shaped dose-response curves are quite common.7

This is not to say that there is no role for pharmacology in fostering a healthy memory. Clearly in the preceding examples low-performing individuals were showing benefits. But more is not necessarily better. Long term side effects of medication must also be considered.

1Hills, T. & Hertwig, R. (2011). Why Aren’t We Smarter Already: Evolutionary Trade-Offs and Cognitive Enhancements. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20:373. http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/20/6/373

2Bjork, R.A. (2011). On the Symbiosis of Forgetting, Remembering, and Learning. In A.S. Benjamin (Ed.) Successful Remembering and Successful Forgetting: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. Bjork. (pp 1-22). London, England:Psychology Press.

3Anderson, J.R., (1990). The Adaptive Character of Thought. Psychology Press.

4Snyder, A. (2009). Explaining and Inducing Savant Skills: Privileged Access to Lower Level Less Processed Information. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 1399-1405.

5Randall, D.C. Shneerson, J.M., & File, S.E. (2005) . Cognitive Effects of Modafinil in Student
Volunteers May Depend on IQ. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 82, 133-139.

6Farah, M.J., Haimm, C., Sankoorika, G., & Chatterjee (2009). When We Enhance Cognition with Adderall, Do We Sacrifice Creativity? A Preliminary Study. Psychopharmacology, 202, 541-547.

7Cools, R., & Robbins, T.W. (2004). Chemistry of the Adaptive Mind. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, A, 362, 2871-2888.

© 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.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

January 29, 2012

Thinking, Fast, and Slow is the title of the current best selling book by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman has won the Nobel Prize, not in psychology as there is no Nobel Prize in psychology, but for his work with Amos Tversky in Economics. This work ushered in the era of behavioral economics and further debunked the myth of the rational human being. Kahneman has been misinterpreted for arguing that humans are irrational or seriously flawed. What he has been arguing is that our information processing capabilities are limited, and that we use clever heuristics to deal with this limitations. These limitations lead us astray.

The title refers to two systems we use for processing information. System 1 is fast and allows us to cope with high rates of information in a dynamic environment. Without System 1, we would not have survived as a species. But this fast processing speed has its costs, which sometimes lead to errors. System 2 is slow, and is what can be thought of as thinking. If you know your multiplication tables, if I ask you what is 6 time 7, you’ll respond 42 without really thinking about it. But if I ask you to multiply 67 times 42 you would find it difficult to compute in your head, and would most likely use a calculator or use paper and pencil (which are examples of transactive memory). This multiplication requires System 2 processing without or most likely with technological aids.

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

A bat and a ball cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

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

If this example does not strike you as relevant, Kahneman provides many examples with clear relevance throughout the book. We shall be hitting some of these examples in future Healthymemory Blog posts. Kahneman’s Two System Theory is not new to the Healthymemory Blog (enter “Two System View” in the search block). Kahneman has already had a clear influence on economics. Additional behavioral and brain imaging research has further enhanced his view. Unfortunately it is still not the dominant view in economics, which still embraces the model of the rational man. An argument can be made that our current economic problems are due to an outdated paradigm in economics, and the wholesale adoption of behavioral problems could help us avoid these reoccurring disasters. I also think that the two system view is relevant to Political Science. I think a compelling reason why people do not vote in their own best interests can be found in the two system view. System 1 is automatic, whereas System 2 requires effort.

The Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain fits well within the two system view. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis, we have learned so much as a result of our aging, that we rely on our old habits and do not make as many demands on our attentional resources. In other words, too heavy a reliance on System 1 at the cost of not engaging System 2 causes cognitive decline because we are not exercising System 2. It’s a matter of use it or lose it.

Thinking, Fast, and Slow is a must read for anyone interested in human cognition. Actually everyone should be interested because it provides examples and insights regarding the errors we make everyday. Although Thinking, Fast, and Slow is certainly not a cure all, it provides us with awareness and does offer some means of coping with our information processing shortcomings.

Note that the book is a best seller, so it is an easy read and not an imponderable academic tome. Kahneman also includes personal stories, especially of his relationship with Amos Tversky, that are interesting and entertaining.

© 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.

Improving Working Memory

January 15, 2012

As readers of the Healthymemory Blog well know, the primary constraint on cognitive performance is our limitation in working memory. The simplest way of thinking about working memory is that it is the information you can hold at one time. Phone numbers are a common example, although they are less relevant with today’s technology than they use to be. But suppose someone shouts out a phone number you want before you can get to your desk and either write it down or dial it. It is likely that you will need to keep rehearsing the number or it will be forgotten before you return to your desk. Phone numbers might appear to be trivial, but working memory limits the number of ideas you can keep active in your memory at one time. In other words, it limits the number of things that you can actively think about at the same time. Unfortunately, working memory is a function that tends to decline as we age. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the physiological substrate where working memory takes place. It requires glucose to operate. As working memory improves, the rate of glucose metabolism decreases (that is, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex functions more efficiently).

Given the importance of working memory, exercising it to improve its efficiency is highly recommended. Fortunately, there are exercises that do just that. Paul Verhaegen published a paper titled “A Working Memory Workout: How to Expand the Focus of Serial Attention from One to Four Items in 10 Hours or Less” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 30. no.6, 2004. Suppose you toss a handful of coins, somewhere between 10 and 15, and then count the number of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The easiest way to do this is to count each denomination before moving to the next. Unfortunately, this places minimal demands on working memory. If you want to expand your working memory, begin by tossing two denominations of coins. Rather than counting them systematically, count them randomly removing each coin as you count it. Here you need to keep a running count of each denomination in working memory. This should be easy, but do this until you can count each denomination without error. Then move on to three denominations. This will place much greater demands on working memory as you need to keep track of three tallies. Keep doing this until you can do it accurately consistently. This might take some time, multiple days, weeks even. When this is mastered move on to four denominations and keep working until you can keep count of four denominations accurately. This will probably take even more time. But once you reach this point you will have reached what is currently as the capacity of working memory, four items. You can be proud to have a highly efficient dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

© 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.

31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012

January 8, 2012

“31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012” was an article in Newsweek, (2012) Jan 9 & 16, pp. 31-34.  This Healthymemory Blog Post summarizes and categorizes them into the Healthymemory categories:

Human Memory: Theory and Data

Mnemonic Techniques

Transactive Memory

Human Memory: Theory and Data

Eat Tumeric. Turmeric is a spice that contains curcumin, which may reduce dementia’

Tak Tae Kwon Do. or any physical activity that raises your heart rate and requires a lot of coordination.

Eat Dark Chocolate. Chocolate is supposed to have memory improving flavonoids as does red wine.

Join a Knitting Circle. Refining motor ability can benefit cognitive skills.

Wipe the Smile Off Your Face. The act of frowning can make you more skeptical and analytic.

Eat Yogurt. Probiotics may benefit your brain as they have in studies on mice.

Refine Your Thinking Understand how your systems of memory work (System 1 fast; System 2 slow), and learn how to use them for maximum benefit. (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Two System View of Cognition,” “Review of the Washington Post‘s “The Aging Brain,”, and “Disabusing the Myth that Older People Do No Have New Ideas”)

Hydrate. Dehydration forces the brain to work harder and can hinder its planning and decision making ability.

Play an Instrument. This can boost IQ by increasing activity in parts of the brain controlling memory and coordination.

Write By Hand. Brain imaging studies had shown how handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing. It might also help you remember what you have written.

Drink Coffee. Studies have shown that coffee can bolster short-term memory and assist in warding off depression.

Delay Gratification. This can help you focus your attention and increase the probability of achieving your goalss

Mnemonic Techniques.

Build a Memory Palace. Mnemonic techniques can both boost memory and provide cognitive exercise. The Memory Palace is described in the Healthymemory Blog Post “How the Memory Champs Do It.”

Zone Out. Strictly speaking Zoning Out and Meditation are not mnemonic techniques.
They are include under mnemonic techniques as they are specific processes that can enhance memory.

Transactive Memory

Play Words with Friends. Transactive memory involves using both your fellow humans and technology to maintain and enhance a healthy memory.

Get News from Al Jazerra. Using unused sources of information broadens your view and enhances cognition.

Toss Your Smartphone. This involves getting rid of technology that can disrupt your focus and sap your productivity.

Download the TED APP. On the other hand there is information available in technology that fosters cognitive growth.

Go to a Literary Festival is an example of an transactive memory activity that involves your fellow human beings in your cognitive enhancement.

Learn a Language can involve both humans and technology and can genuinely enhance cognitive health.

Play Violent Videogames. Well, perhaps not violent videogames, but appropriately chosen viedogames can quicken reactions and improve multitasking.

Follow These People on Twitter. Although this is an example of transactive memory, the Healthymemory Blog respectfully disagrees and urges you to avoid Twitter (so never mind the “who” part).

Install Supermemo. This software can help you catalog new data and then remind you to remember it before it slips away.

See a Shakespeare Play. Viewing the work of the bard is an example of transactive memory involving interactions with your fellow humans.

Check Out ITUNES U. Top schools put their lectures online at iTunes U in subjects ranging from philosophy to astrophysics.

Visit MOMA. That is the Museum of Modern Art to enhance your cognitive experience.

Become an Expert. Becoming an expert in a subject involves interactions with both your fellow humans and technology.

Write Reviews Online. Be proactive in your use of technology.

Get Out of Town. This involves interacting with humans but remember to bring along your laptop.

In Summary

This should give you some ideas. Feel free to substitute relevant appropriate activities of your own choosing.

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.

Review of The Washington Post’s The Aging Brain

December 7, 2011

This piece1 is informative and offers some good advice, but is woefully deficient in some areas that should have been included. The article is basically an annotated diagram that begins with the first step of the eye seeing something. The second step is the information arriving at the visual cortex that identifies what the eyes see. The third step is the information flowing through the associative cortex to develop further understanding. The fourth step is the information arriving at the hippocampus (actually it should be hippocampi as there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain. Information must be processed by these hippocampi if it is to be recalled later. People who have lost their hippocampi via surgery, accidents, or dementia, are unable to learn/remember new information. But it is the prefrontal cortext decides whether this new information warrants processing by the hippocampi for later use. The prefrontal cortex is an important part of the brain as it not only decides what is worth remembering, but it is involved in all the decisions we make and is responsible for regulating our behavior. Unfortunately, it is late maturing (not until our twenties) and early to decline (sometime after age 50). So far this description is accurate and it is understood that there would be similar, but not identical stages of processing for other modalities of information.

There is another section of the article on how to slow the effects of aging that provides the following advice:

Calm Down – this is good advice as the piece correctly states that stress can destroy synapses , it fouls up the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. It does not mention that the various types of meditation are beneficial in helping us to calm down.

Exercise – this is good advice as the increased blood flow and oxygen uptake it engenders is beneficial to the brain.

Make friends – more good advice. There have been a number of Healthymemory Blog Post extolling the benefits of socialization.

Sleep well – more good advice. Getting adequate sleep is important not only to general health, but is also critical to important brain and memory processes.

Ask about estrogen – Ladies, you can judge this one for yourselves. This recommendation is based on one study. Given the somewhat uneven results from estrogen therapies, some skepticism might be in order.

Do what you do best – Although it is true that expertise is maintained well into old age and that you are less likely to lose what you know well, it is a somewhat misleading strategy for slowing the effects of aging. Although it is fine to continuing growing in your area of expertise, it would be a mistake not to expand into some new areas. Research has indicated that maintaining brain and cognitive health should not be a reactive, defensive matter, but rather a proactive effort to continue growing cognitive competence.

An interesting question to ask, is why does the prefrontal cortex start to decline after age 50? Is it solely a matter of aging? There is the Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain (See the Healthymemory Blog posts, “More on Attention and Cognitive Control,”, “Passing 65,” and “Memory and Aging.). This hypothesis fits well with the Two System View of Cognition (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Two System View of Cognition.”). According to this view, there are two primary means of processing information. System One is fast and automatic. It is the result of prior learning. This is the system that is doing the majority of the processing when we converse, drive a car, etc. System Two is slow, effortful, and demands attention. This is what is at work when we are trying to learning something new, to solve a math problem, or recognize something that is illogical or contradictory in what the person we are conversing with has said (or in our own conversation if we recognize something illogical or contradictory in what we have said. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis as we age we increasingly rely on System One processing because we have learned much and don’t need to do as much processing as a younger person who does not have such a wealth of experience to draw upon. The problem is that since we do less System Two processing we use our prefrontal cortex less. The use it or lose it advice that we know from physical exercise also applies to cognitive exercise. When we use our prefrontal cortex more glucose is sent there. So the loss in the functioning in the prefrontal cortex might not be solely do to aging. It might be in part, perhaps in large part, to a loss in the frequency of its use.

So the new idea is to challenge our minds and to continue to learn new things as we age. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “A Quote Worth Pondering.”) It is not too late to learn a new language, or new subject matter. These activities will engage the prefrontal cortex. Mnemonic techniques have the benefit of not only being a technique that enhances memory, but are also means of providing cognitive exercise that exercises the prefrontal cortex and activates both cortices of the brain. So aging should not cause us to be reactive and defensive, but we should go on offense, be proactive, and continue to grow cognitively.

1Berkowitz, B. & Cuadra, C. (2011). The Aging Brain in The Washington Post Health & Science Section, E1, 6 December.

© 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.

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.

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.

Brain Conversations

November 6, 2011

For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world. These people would be surprised to learn that for many psychologists and philosophers, consciousness is an epiphenomenon, meaning that it is not real. They would argue that we do experience consciousness but that it is a byproduct of cognitive processes that have already occurred at an unconscious level. In other words, consciousness is just along for the ride. Articles1 in a recent Scientific American Mind present this view.

Although it is true that the vast majority of cognitive processing does occur below the level of consciousness, does that mean that consciousness is irrelevant? The purpose of consciousness has been and continues to be a hotly discussed topic. Baumeister has provided perhaps the most compelling explanations of the purpose of consciousness. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events. (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Conscious Thought”)

An article2 written for a different purpose provides support for Baumeister’s ideas. This article dealt with awareness. This topic is important in the context of trying to diagnose patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Misdiagnosis rates here can be as high as 40 percent. A neural correlate for consciousness is much needed. For many years theorists thought that the prefrontal cortex was key and that neural thoughts that reached this area emerged from unconscious obscurity into awareness. However, new research supports the notion that consciousness is a conversation rather than a revelation, and that no single brain structure leads the dialogue.

The neuroscientist Simon van Gaal conducts experiments in which he asks participants to push a button every time they see a certain symbol flash on a screen, except when they see a different symbol that means “stop.” On some trials the stop signal is presented below the level of conscious awareness. Although participants do not see the stop signal, they do hesitate to push the button as though some part of the brain perceived the information. Brain activity is recorded during the experiment via functional MRI and electroencephalography (EEG). The unconsciousness inhibitory signal seems to make it all the way up to parts of the prefrontal cortex despite the participants not being consciously aware of the signal.

Another study supports the claim that awareness emerges when information travels back and forth between brain areas rather than from an ascending linear chain. EEG signals were recorded in patients with brain damage as they listened to stimulating tones. All the patients were awake and alert but exhibited different levels of responsiveness. Mathematical models derived from the data suggest that feedback between the frontal cortex and lower-level sensory areas are crucial to producing conscious awareness. Similar results have been obtained with monkeys and healthy human participants.

Although these studies do not prove Baumeister’s notions regarding the role of consciousness, they do seem to provide supportive evidence.

1Nichols, S. (2011). Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientific American Mind, November/December, 18-19.

and

Koch, C. (2011). Probing the Unconscious Mind, Scientific American Mind, November/December,, 20-21.

2Peck, M.E. (2011). A Conversation in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 12.

© 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.

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.

Bilingualism

June 29, 2011

A recent article1 extolled the benefits of bilingualism. It stated that recent research found that it can enhance multitasking (by helping you focus) and stave off Alzheimer’s. Although the research was based on lifelong bilinguals, it stated that scientists say that late-life learning can exercise your mind and help you maintain cognitive function. The Healthymemory Blog agrees.

In addition to the benefits of mental exercise and the learning of new information, there is the benefit of meeting new people and broadening social networks, activities in and of themselves that promote healthy memories. The article relates the story of a 59 year old man who decided to learn Arabaic. Two years later he now Skypes with a new friend who lives in Egypt.

The article notes that 48 percent of Rosetta Stone’s customers are 50 plus. So Baby Boomers are availing themselves of technology to learn new languages. Learning a new language in and of itself is a demanding activity with promises of cognitive enhancement. But there are associated activities that also can be beneficial. Learning about new cultures is one. The benefits of meeting new people has already been mentioned. But there is also the prospect of travel in which you would be able to communicate with the people you are visiting in their own language.

The Healthymemory Blog provides many suggestions for mental growth and enhancement. Mnemonics techniques include one broad category. There is also cybertechnology that offers the possibility not only of cognitive growth through the learning of new material, but also through meeting new people and the resultant social interactions. In the aggregate the recommendations and suggesitons of the Healthymemory Blog are overwhelming. They are way more than a single individual could pursue. These offering are made in the spirit of a menu offered at a restaurant. There is way more there than could be enjoyed even after many visits to the restaurant. So it is a matter of picking and choosing a sample you find enjoyable. It is in this spirit that the offerings of the Healthymemory Blog are made.

Please continue reading even after you have filled your plate. The posts are short and can be quickly enjoyed. New material is constantly being offered, so it is good to review, learn something new, and perhaps change the selections on your plate. So consider subscribing so you never miss a post.

1Wooldrige, L.Q. (2011). Say Hello to a Second Language., AARP The Magazine, July/August, 14.

© 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.

What Makes a Nation Intelligent?

June 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of trained teachers and equipment.

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

The opposition of education aimed at modern cognitive skills.

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

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

Passing 65

May 15, 2011

Just recently I passed my 65 birthday. Being at the forefront of the Baby Boomers, many more will soon be passing this milestone. For those who are younger, let me warn you how quickly this age descends upon you.

But what exactly is the significance of reaching 65? At one time it indicated that you were eligible for full Social Security Benefits, but not for us Baby Boomers. For us that age has been increased to 66. It also was the traditional age for retirement. Some people were forced to retire when they reached this age. So this meant leaving the productive workforce and beginning the pursuit of leisure activities.

But the significance of reaching 65 has changed and it involves more than the year increase in the required age to receive full Social Security Benefits. There are a variety of reasons for this change. One is demographic. People are living longer. This, in turn, has financial consequences. As people live longer a greater burden is placed on Social Security. A greater burden is also placed on the individual as Social Security Benefits were intended as a safety net and not as a guarantee for a comfortable retirement. So the retiree is confronted with the dilemma of how quickly to spend down whatever has been saved for retirement. There is the risk of outliving one’s money. There is also the risk of outliving the ability to enjoy one’s retirement nest egg. Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia have the prospect not only of outliving one’s ability to enjoy retirement, but also of outliving one’s ability to understand what is going on or even one’s personal identity. That is, the risk of outliving one’s memory.

My Mom is living in an assisted living facility. I visit her a couple of times each week. For the past several years I’ve watched her cognitive decline. Once we were able to enjoy watching television programs together. We were able to watch both sporting events and stories. I saw her ability to understand both the sporting events and stories slip away. When I gave her a Mother’s Day card, she thought she needed to sign it and send it on to her Mom. Now my Mom will be 99 in a couple of months, yet she thought that her mother was still alive. She confuses me with my brother who passed away some time ago. And I know that it is only a matter of time before she will no longer either recognize me or confuse me with my brother.

My primary objective is to die with my cognitive facilities intact. The psychologist Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.1 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span. .  Stine-Morrow argues that cognitive effort can directly impact cognitive change in the form of attentional engagement and indirectly as it alters neuronal changes that give rise to component capabilities.  Her ideas coincide nicely with those of Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscienses at the University of California at San Diego.  In turn, Dr. Merzenich’s ideas fit nicely with Kahneman’s Two System Theory (see blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System One processes are effortful and require attention.  System Two processes, which are the product of learning and experience, are relatively effortless.   The older an individual is, the more developed are those System Two processes that facilitate cognition.  Consequently, there is a great temptation to rely upon these System Two processes and become a creature of habit.  Merzenich and the Stine-Morrow Hypothesis warn against relying too heavily on System Two Processes.  Effortful engagement of System One processes can be beneficial in warding off cognitive decline.  System One processes are engaged whenever we try or learn new things.  Thus engaging in new activities and in new areas of knowledge can be quite beneficial. 

Consequently, I am continuing to work and I plan on continuing to work as long as possible. My primary reason for working is that it forces me to use my System One processes and to learn and understand new concepts. Although I make use of my System Two processes that have developed over the years, I continue to learn new topics, new activities, and to meet new people. Yes, social engagement is critical to maintaining and growing a healthy memory. I also try to grow cognitively outside of work. This Healthymemory Blog is just one of those activities. I also engage in physical exercise and mental exercise. I try to maintain a positive attitude. I also try to watch my diet, although this item is engaged with less enthusiasm.  

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

© 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.

Can Early Retirement Lead to Memory Decline?

January 30, 2011

An article in the SharpBrains Blog1 noted that an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives titled “Mental Retirement” stated that data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggested that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

Of course, the question to be asked here is “why?” A variety of possible causes come to mind. There is the social engagement and interaction that is found on most jobs. Or it could be the cognitive component of work. Or perhaps even the aerobic component of work. Or it could be the TV watching that increased subsequent to retirement.

None of these possibilities are mutually exclusive. They could all be working to different degrees depending on the job and the individual. The critical question is which of these activities have declined since retirement. So retirement per se is not the culprit, but certain changes that have resulted from the retirement.
Some people retire to second careers so that the nature and mix of the activities do not change significantly. Others become preoccupied with their hobbies and activities for which there was insufficient time to pursue when they were working. Unfortunately, others watch television and become couch potatoes and engage in minimal social activity.

The answer to the question posed in the title can be found in the title of the SharpBrains Blog Post “When Early Retirement Equals Mental Retirement and Memory Decline.” That is, if there is no mental retirement, then memory decline will be unlikely.

The Healthymemory Blog provides a means of preventing mental retirement through cognitive and social activity. Reading its blog postings provide information and data regarding human memory to include the effects of aging and the mitigation of these effects. It also provides information on mnemonic techniques, techniques specifically designed for improving memory. In addition to improving memory, these techniques provide mental exercise for both hemispheres of the brain. They also exercise creativity and recoding. Articles in the transactive memory category provide suggestions regarding how to use the internet not only to provide for mental activity, but also to achieve cognitive growth. An important component of transactive memory is social interaction. Although the Healthymemory Blog should be of special interest to baby boomers, it should have interest and value for all visitors.

1Http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2010/10/14/work-helps-maintain-the-brain/ When Early Retirement Equals Mental Retirement and Memory Decline by Dr. Pascale Michelon 

© 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.

Google vs. Facebook

January 19, 2011

I found the news that Facebook had surpassed Google in usage quite depressing, particularly with respect to considerations regarding cognitive growth and development. Of course, it seems that everyone, myself included, is on Facebook. Included here are professional organizations and businesses. So the news should not be surprising; so why then do I find it depressing?
Let us compare and contrast the reasons for using Google against the reasons for using facebook. Someone who uses Google is usually trying to learn something. This might simply be information on a restaurant, or a movie, or a stock investment. Or someone might be looking for the definition of a word or trying to understanding a topic. Someone who is really interested in a topic might be using Google Scholar. Or someone might be trying to remember what the name of something is by searching for other things that remind you of the thing. It seems to me that these activities lead to cognitive growth, of course, some to deeper levels than others. And you can use Google to find people and build social relationships.

Perhaps it is this last activity where Facebook excels over Google. It is true hat one can build and renew social relationships, but it seems that most “friending” is done at a superficial level. Some people “friend” just to boast of the number of friends they have. I continually receive “friend” requests from people I don’t know and can find no reason for wanting to know. With the exception of genuine social relationships, I see little on Facebook that would foster cognitive growth or a healthy memory. When I review most of the postings on Facebook, I do not think that it would be any great loss if they were lost forever. Now the loss of a truly great search engine like Google would be catastrophic.

Of course, Myspace was once a top website that has declined seriously in popularity. I just looked at the top websites as of January 5, 2011 and saw that Google was back on top. Now wikipedia.org was in 7th place. Wikipedia should be one of the premier websites for cognitive growth.

I would like to hear your opinions on this topic. Please submit your comments.

© 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.

Flavonoids for a Healthy Memory

January 15, 2011

A recent article, “Your Brain on Blueberries1, extolled that benefits of flavonoids on a healthy memory. Blueberries happen to be the most visible food containing these valuable flavonoids. The article recounts a number of empirical studies that show that consumption of these flavonoids does result in improved memory, learning, and general cognitive function. Moreover, it is believed that flavonoids could slow age-related decline in cognitive function.

Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants protecting us from the cellular damage caused by free radicals, which are formed by our bodies during metabolism as well as by pollution, cigarette smoke and radiation. However, researchers now believe that flavanoids primarily affect cognition by interacting with proteins that are key to brain-cell structure and function.

To this point, scientists have identified more than 6,000 different flavonoids. They can be found in fruits and vegetables, cereal grains, cocoa, soy foods, tea, and wine. The table below shows the food sources for different flavonoid groups.

Flavonoid Group Food Sources
Flavonois Spinach, peppers, and onions
Flavones Parsley and celery
Flavonones Citris fruits
Flavonois Tea, cocoa and wine
Anthocyandins Berries, grapes, and wine
Isoflavones Soy foods such as tofu

 Some spices and herbs are also filled with flavonoids. Included here are sage, oregano, and thyme. Recent research has indicated that these compounds might also be beneficial to mood as well as our mental facilities.

Clearly there are many opportunities here to boost our memory, learning, and general cognitive function. Moreover, there is the potential of slowing age-related decline in cognitive function and of bneficial effects on mind. It would be foolish for us to not take advantage of these opportunities.

Of course, the Healthymemory Blog believes that there is no one magic bullet.  Cognitive growth should be a goal.  To this end learning new information and cognitive exercise are key components. 

1Franz, M. (2011). Scientific American Mind. January/February, 55-59.

Neurobics

January 3, 2011

Neurobics1 purports to do for the mind/brain what aerobics does for the cardio-pulmonary systems. It is very much in synch with the Healthymemory Blog. The authors are Chris Maslanka and David Owen. Maslanka is an experienced puzzler and puzzle creator. He sees puzzles and games as a way of stimulating creativity and of promoting healthy cognitive processes. Owen is an engineer who moved from the aerospace industry into scientific writing and journalism. They have collaborated on a splendid volume.

The first two chapters provide background for the book. They discuss the potential for building a better brain and a strategy for assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of your brain.

Chapter 3, “Build Mental Muscle”, consists of logical puzzles. These involve common-sense reasoning, proceeding from information that is already known. The chapter provides strategies for solving these puzzles.

Chapter 4, “Find Yourself in Space”, consists of spatial puzzles. Tactics for solving these problems are presented.

Chapter 5, “Boost Your Word Power”, consists of verbal puzzles. Methods for solving these probems are discussed.

Chapter 6, “Figure It Out”, presents of numerical puzzles. The different types of numerical puzzles and their solutions are provided.

Chapter 7, “Hold That Thought”, presents memory puzzles along with memory techniques for dealing with them. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should find many of the postings under Mnemonic Techniques helpful here.

Chapter 8, “Get Creative”, discusses means of promoting creativity and, of course, creative puzzles.

In each of the chapters each puzzle is labeled as a “Light Workout”, “Getting Harder”, or “Feel the Burn.” The second chapter recommends going through the “Light Workout” puzzles in each chapter to see how many you can solve. This should provide a indication of the relative strengths and weaknesses of your current cognitive functioning. The solutions to all of the puzzles are provided at the end of each chapter apart from the initial presentation of the puzzles (so there will be less of a temptation to cheat).

Chapter 9, “Brain Conditioning”, discusses diet and exercise issues that are relevant to a healthy brain.

The only criticism I have of this book is its lack of documentation. Although I agree with most of the claims made in the book, and could find the references for many of them, I still think it is incumbent on authors to provide as much documentation as is feasible. 

1Maslanka, C. & Owen, D. (2010). A Reader’s Digest Book. Quintet Publishing Limited.

Season’s Greetings and a Happy New Year from the Healthymemory Blog

December 23, 2010

 

Enjoy the season, but consider making a New Year’s Resolution not to be a cognitive couch potato. Now “couch potato” has become a cliché for not going out and exercising. A cognitve couch potato is someone who does not exercise his cognitive abilities. Just as failures to exercise the body can lead to physical failures and premature and exacerbated effects of aging, the failure to exercise the mind can result in declines in cognitive performance and premature and exacerbated effects of aging. The Healthymemory Blog provides recent information on the brain and cognitive performance, and how to enhance cognitive performance and and avoid or reduce the effects of aging. Blog posts to this effect can be found under the category of “Human Memory: Theory and Data.” It also provides information of specific techniques used to improve memory performance, mnemonic techniques. Blog posts on the topic can be found under the category titled, appropriately enough, “Mnemonic Techniques.” The category “Transactive Memory” refers to the use of technology and your fellow human beings to grow cognitively. New technology, the internet for example and old technology, books and journals for example, provide the basis for cognitive growth. Moreover, interactions with your fellow human beings can aid not only cognitive growth, but also social growth. As you can see, there is a feast of offerings under each of these topics.

Sometimes I make the claim that you might be able to improve your memory over what it was when you where young. This is especially true it you have never used mnemonic techniques before. Mnemonic techniques might well improve your performance over when you where young. Similarly, you can learn new topics, perhaps even master another language and become someone who has managed to grown head and shoulders over what they once were. So do not become a cognitive couch potato. Either start or continue on the path of cognitive improvement over the coming year.

© 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.

A Review of Brain Exercises and Training Induced Learning

December 1, 2010

This post in based on a review article in Psychology and Aging.1 This article notes that there are volumes of evidence that even as we age, training in specific tasks generally results in improved performance on those tasks. The problem is that most of this research indicates that improvements are specific to the task and do not generalize to measurable benefits in daily life. This does not mean that this training is worthless. It can still provide beneficial exercise to the brain. Consider doing push-ups for physical exercise. Undoubtedly, doing push ups regularly is beneficial to your health. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find that doing them provided measurable benefits in daily life outside your exercise regime.

So providing measurable benefits in daily life, say an overall increase in the rate of learning, is a difficult goal to achieve. Yet certain programs have provided evidence to this effect, and the authors of this article sought to capture the features of these programs that lead to generalizable results. They identified the following characteristics: Task difficulty, motivation and arousal, feedback, and variability.

With respect to the characteristic of task difficulty it is important to begin with an easy level of difficulty and then gradually advance through levels of increasing task difficulty. Obviously, if the task is too difficult to begin with, people become discouraged and learning suffers. However, if people are able to accomplish the task fairly easily, then can gradually increase their skill while advancing to increasing levels of difficulty.

Perhaps it is obvious, but if people are motivated to learn, they are more likely to succeed. Arousal goes hand in hand with motivation. Aroused learners, within limits, learn faster. So tasks that are enjoyable and rewarding increase arousal levels, and so forth, and so forth.

Feedback is important so that people know that they are performing the task correctly. This also relates back to motivation, arousal, and task difficulty. When task difficulty can be accommodated, the feedback is positive, which is arousing and increases motivation. Now task difficulty can be too easy, in which case the feedback is trivial, not rewarding and does not lead to arousal and increased motivation. So task difficulty is what is termed a “Goldilocks” characteristic—not too easy and not too difficult, but just right.

Variability is the final key characteristic. The training program should exercise a wide variety of skills. It is this variability that increases the likelihood that the benefits will transfer to everyday life and learning.

Unfortunately, too many Baby Boomers and looking for the magic exercise, the magic program, or the magic vitamin or dietary supplementary to ward off the effects of aging. There is no magic exercise or pill. What is required is a range of activities and exercises to ward off the effects of aging. The Healthymemory Blog recommends such activities. Its blog posts provide a variety of mnemonic techniques (click on the category mnemonic techniques) that increase the efficiency of memory and provide mental exercises that make requirements on creativity, recoding, and both hemispheres of the brain. The Healthymemory Blog provides information on human cognition, that provide both exercise and insight into cognitive processes. Transactive memory provides for cognitive growth via the technology, the internet, books, as well as for interactions with your fellow human beings.

1Green, C.S., & Bavilier, D. (2010). Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning. Psychology and Aging, 23, 692-701. 

© 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.

Healthymemory Blog Wishes You a Happy Thanksgiving!

November 24, 2010

And, of course, a healthy memory. The Healthymemory Blog pursues this objective via three themes. One is to provide theory and data about human memory and cognition. Another theme is to provide memory techniques and results bearing upon the effectiveness of these memory techniques and how they may facilitate a healthymemory. A third theme is called Transactive Memory. This theme explores how technology and our fellow human beings can enhance memory health.
     The author of this blog is at the leading edge of the Baby Boomers. Although this blog should be of special interest to Baby Boomers, it should be of interest to anyone interested in the workings of memory, in techniques for improving memory, and in how technology and fellow humans can enhance memory health.
     Look under “Categories” in the right hand border of this blog. One category, Overview, provides a general overview of the Healthymemory Blog that is quite similar to this current blog post. Human Memory: Theory and Data provides information about human memory and cognition. Mnemonic Techniques presents specific techniques for improving memory. It is also thought that employing these techniques, in addition to improving memory, provides exercise to the brain that promotes memory health. One can find an entire memory course under this category. The category, Transactive Memory, provides information on how our fellow humans and technology can promote brain health. You will also find here topics regarding how the internet works and problems and dangers regarding the internet.
     Just click on the category to get to your current topic of interest, Remember that blogs are presented in reverse order. So to get to the beginning of the category, you need to go the the bottom and start from there.
     You should be able to find something of interest. There are 151 postings for your perusal.

© 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.

Hope for an Aging Population: STAC

November 21, 2010

By 2050 in wealthy, developed countries it is estimated that there will be many more older adults (26%) than children under 15 (about 16%). Today adults aged 85 and older have a dementia rate of nearly 50%. Projecting this into the future yields a frightening prospect. It portends a large percentage of underproductive older people. Beyond that, there would be a large percentage of older people living unfulfilling lives.

Looking at both the neurological and behavioral changes that occur in the aging brain can also be discouraging. There are decreases of volume in the caudate nucleus, the lateral prefrontal cortex, both cerebral hemispheres, and the hippocampus. There are also decreases in processing speed and in the ability to focus and screen out extraneous information. Fortunately, not everything declines. The primary visual cortex and the entorhinal cortex suffer minimal or no loss in volume. Similarly our vocabularies and expertise typically do not decline. Although sometimes it might be difficult finding a word, it usually comes to mind eventually.

Fortunately there is evidence that there are compensatory mechanisms to counter or ward off this decline (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “HAROLD”). And it is clear that these mechanisms work. Many people function quite well even in to advanced old age. What is even more remarkable that some people show little or no evidence for cognitive decline in spite of a great deal of pathology discovered during autopsies.

What is needed is a theory to understand the mechanisms that ward off this decline. The Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition (STAC)1 provides such a theory. Some of the basis of this theory comes from brain imaging, fMRI especially. This imaging has revealed differences in the pattern of neural activation between young and older adults. Whereas young adults show focal left prefrontal activity when engaged in certain cognitive tasks, older adults show activity in both the left and right prefrontal areas.

It should be understood that scaffolding is a process that occurs across the lifespan. It is not just the brain’s response to normal aging; it is the brain’s response to challenge. For anyone acquiring a new skill an initial set of neural circuits must be engaged and developed to provide the structure for task performance in the early stages of skill acquisition. With practice, performance becomes less effortful and the neural circuitry becomes more specific to the task.

The basic idea underlying STAC is that this same mechanism can compensate for losses in brain structure and function as we age. So what can be done to activate this mechanism? The answer is to challenge the brain and then address this challenge. As we age it becomes easier to rely upon old habits and ways of thinking and to avoid new challenging activities. But it is these challenging activities that activate the STAC process that can ward off cognitive decline.

One can regard the Healthymemory Blog as a means of providing this cognitive challenge. First of all, it provides information and data about human cognition. This can be new learning that can provide challenge in itself if not insight into the working and malfunctions of human cognition. It also presents mnemonic techniques that not only can improve cognitive performance, but offer cognitive exercise and challenge in trying to implement them. Finally, there is transactive memory, where there is knowledge from fellow humans and from the internet (and more traditional sources of knowledge) to challenge the mind.

1Park, D.C. & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The Adaptive Brain: Aging and Neurocognitive Scaffolding. Annual Review of Psychology,60, 173-196.

© 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.

Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention

November 11, 2010

Vigilance tasks require an observer to note when a target occurs. Much research has been done in this area due to important military and security applications. For example, an observer might need to detect enemy planes approaching on the radar scope. Or it might be security personnel monitoring baggage at an airport. Moreover, there is need to distinguish dangerous from benign targets on the scope. Although this is obviously a very important task, it would also appear to be a very simple task. The problem is that over prolonged periods of time performance drops off. In spite of all the research that has been done, techniques for sustaining attention have been found lacking. A recent article1 presented research that found that intensive meditation training can aid sustained attention. Other research2 has found that vigilance requires hard mental work and is stressful. Research using questionnaires and measurements of cerebral blood flow velocity have documented that vigilance is stressful and hard mental work. Attentional resource theory has been used to account for the vigilance decrement. The notion is that attentional resources are rapidly depleted by the demands of the vigilance task.

The meditation training used in the first article was quite intensive. It involved going to a retreat. Shamantha3 meditation training was used in at least five three day retreats. The meditation training was found to sustain vigilance for a longer time, presumably by increasing attentional resources.

You might ask, so what? My job does not involve vigilance tasks. The relevance to you is that meditation apparently does increase attentional resources. Meditation training has been found to be beneficial to temporal attention, attentional alerting, and visual discrimination. Moreover, readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be well aware of the critical role of attention in cognitive performance, and that many failures and breakdowns in cognitive processing are due to limited attentional resources.

See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Relaxation Response,” “Attention Its Different Roles,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “More on Restoring Attentional Resources.”

1MacLean, K. A., and many others (2010).  Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention.  Psychological Science, 21, 829-839.

2Warm, J.s., Parasururaman, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). Vigilance Requires Hard Mental Work and is Stressful. Human Factors, 50, 433-441.

3Wallace, B.A, (2006). The Attention Revolution. Boston: Wisdom 

© 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.

Dementia and Mental Stimulation

September 8, 2010

A recent article in The Economist1 presented a report on the benefits of mental stimulation in warding off dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The research was lead by Robert Wilson of the University of Chicago. Research participants were asked how frequently they engaged in cognitively stimulating activities such as reading newspapers, books, and magazines. They were also asked how frequently they played challenging games like chess and visited museums. They also included watching television and listening to radio, which are typically not regarded as mentally stimulating activities. Then they followed these participants to learn what developed. They found that frequent activity of this sort seemed to slow the rate of cognitive decline. But they also found that in those who did develop Alzheimer’s Disease the decline was more rapid. This they regarded as bad news.

A number of points need to be made about this study. Most importantly, it should not be regarded as conclusive. More definitive studies will be done, and I would not be surprised if more specific types of mental activity were found that actually did ward off Alzheimer’s. But even if we take these results at face value, they provide strong evidence for the benefits of mental activity. From my perspective, even what they term as bad news, that the decline after Alzheimer’s is more precipitous, I regard as beneficial. Were I to suffer from Alzheimer’s, I would want my suffering to be as short as possible.

The Healthymemory Blog is dedicated to promoting mental activity not only to preclude or ward off mental decline, but also to provide cognitive enrichment. Although the primary audience for this blog is comprised of baby boomers, all should benefit. There are three basic categories of blog posts. The first category, Human Memory: Theory and Data, provides information on how memory works and how cognition both functions and malfunctions. Tips are provided on how to avoid common information processing errors. I find the field of human memory very interesting and I use this category to share my interests.

The second category is on mnemonic techniques. Mnemonic techniques are specific strategies for enhancing memory. In addition to enhancing memory, they also provide mental exercise. It does not appear that this type of mental stimulation was included in the Rush research. When you access this category it is important that blog post are ordered from most recent to the oldest. For this category in particular, it should be more beneficial to read them from the bottom up.

The third category is transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to external sources of information. These external sources can be found in either fellow humans or in technology. Although the newspapers, books, and magazines used in the Rush study are included, no uses of the internet were mentioned. The Healthymemory Blog believes that the internet provides resources for both mental stimulation and cognitive growth.

So mental stimulation should be regarded not only as a defensive mechanism to prevent or ward off mental decline, but also as an offensive, proactive practice to promote cognitive growth to lead to a richer and more fulfilling life.

1Brain Gain.(2010). September 4-10th p. 88.

© 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.