Posts Tagged ‘Cognitive Activity’

System 2 Processing for Building a Cognitive Reserve

November 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Cognitive Activity Decreases the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

November 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Activity and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

November 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Healthy Memory: Physical versus Cognitive Activity

August 25, 2011

Many articles on maintaining brain health and cognitive competence advocate the benefits of physical activity. This point is indisputable. Physical activity is good for the brain. However, cognitive activity is mentioned only rarely in this context, even though there is ample evidence that cognitive activity benefits both brain health and cognitive competence.

A study1 compared the benefits of mental and physical activity in older women over a period of six months. Two hundred and fifty-nine women aged 70 to 93 years were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a computer course, an exercise course, or a control group (for comparison purposes). Both the computer group and the exercise group showed improved delay story recall compared to the control group. They maintained performance in delayed word recall and working memory as opposed to the control group, which showed a decline over the 6 month period.

The authors concluded the following: “ In healthy older women, participation in new stimulating activities contributes to cognitive fitness and might delay cognitive decline. Exercise and computer classes seem to generate equivalent beneficial effects.”

An obvious question here is whether physical activities combined with cognitive activities would produce additive effects. I know of no study that has assessed the effects of both activities together. If anyone does know of such a study, please leave a comment. Nevertheless, a good argument could be made for engaging in both activities. Physical activities can maintain and build the body, and mental activities can maintain and expand the mind.

1Klusman, V., Evers, A., Schwarzer, R., Reishies, F., M., Heuser, I., &Dimeo, F.C. (2010). Complex mental and physical activity in older women and cognitive performance: a 6-month randomized and controlled trial.

© 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.