Posts Tagged ‘Daniel J. Levitin’

Memory Health and Technology

January 18, 2015

Memory Health and Technology is the subtitle for this blog. One of the primary themes of this blog is that we are not victims of technology. Rather, technology provides a means for cognitive development and growth throughout the entire lifespan. Thirteen of the previous fourteen posts were based on Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (the odd post was on tips for fulfilling New Year’s resolutions). The reason for this is that the book directly addresses the goals of the healthy memory blog. It was not possible for my posts to do justice to the entire book, so I would recommend reading the book itself.

Another outstanding book that addresses the goals of the healthymemory blog is The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. I strongly recommend this book. If you do not read the book, I urge you at least to read the healthymemory blog posts based on the book. You can find these posts by entering “contemplative computing” into the healthymemory blog search box.

© 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.

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Creative Time

December 27, 2014

Creative Time is another section in the chapter Organizing Our Time in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. The section begins with a discussion of creativity and insight. We’ll skip this as many posts were written about insight fairly recently. Then he moves on to the topic of flow. Although flow has been discussed previously in this blog, it is an important enough topic and Levitin does provide some new information. Flow refers to the experience of getting wonderfully, blissfully lost in an activity losing all track of time, of ourselves, our problems. Flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing as formulated by Dr.Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book The Distraction Addiction (you can use the search box to find these posts). The phenomena of flow were identified and discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-high, CHEECH-sent-mee-high). It feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. Flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. Two key regions deactivate during flow: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the brain’s fear center, the amygdala.

Flow can occur during either the planning or he execution phase of an activity, but it is most often associated with the execution of a complex task, such as playing a solo on a musical instrument, writing an essay or shooting baskets. A lack of distractability characterizes flow. A second characteristic of flow is that we monitor our performance without the kinds of self-defeating negative judgments that often accompany creative work. When we’re not in flow, a nagging voice inside our head often says, “It’s not good enough.” In flow, a reassuring voice says, “we can fix that.”

Flow is a Goldilocks experience. The task cannot be too easy or too difficult, it has to be at just the right level. It takes less energy to be in flow than to be distracted. This is why flow states are characterized by great productivity and efficiency.

As mentioned earlier, flow is also in a chemically different state, although the particular neurochemical soup has yet to be identified. There needs to be a balance of dopamine and noradrenaline, particularly as they are modulated in a brain region known as the striatum, the locus of the attentional switch, serotonin, for freedom to access stream-of-consciousness associations, and adrenaline, to stay focused and energized. GABA neurons that normally function to inhibit actions and help us exercise self-control need to reduce their activity so that we are not overly critical of ourselves, and so that we can be less inhibited in the generation of ideas.

Flow is not always good. If it becomes an addiction, it can be disruptive. And it can be socially disruptive if flow-ers withdraw from others.

Levitin goes on to describe how creative individuals and groups structure their environments and lives to enhance flow.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Organizing Our Time When Multi-Tasking Is Required

December 17, 2014

Previous healthymemory blog posts have discussed the costs of multi-tasking. Overall task performance suffers, and there are additional costs entailed in switching between tasks. Nevertheless, there are times when some type of multitasking is unavoidable, and they are discussed in the Organizing Out Time Chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. For example, creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of alterations between dedicated focus and daydreaming. Moreover, the brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias such that its attention can be easily highjacked by something new. Levitin maintains that humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we do to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty we have when trying to focus among competing activities is that the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by new stimuli to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex that wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Remember that the awareness of an unread email sitting in your inbox can effectively lower your IQ by as much as 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain.

Both our experience and research tells us that if we have chores to do, to put similar chores together. So if you have bills to pay, just pay the bills, don’t do anything else. Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set until the task is completed. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period.

Performing most tasks requires flexible thinking and adaptiveness. The prefrontal cortex gives us the flexibility to change behavior based on context. The prefrontal cortex is necessary for adaptive strategies for daily life be it foraging for food on the savanna or living in skyscrapers in the city.

To reach our goals efficiently requires us to selectively focus on the features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, ignoring other features in the environment that our competing for our attention. What distinguishes experts from novices is that experts no which features are important and require attention.

We encode information in meaningful chunks, To manage our time efficiently we must organize and segment what we see and do into chunks of activity. Levitin uses Superman to illustrate this point. He might tell Lois Lane, “I’m off to save the world, honey,” but what he tells himself is the laundry list of chunked tasks that need to be done t accomplish that goal, each with a well-defined beginning and ending. (1. Capture Lex Luther. 2. Dispose of Kryptonite safely. 3. Hurl ticking time bomb into outer space. 4. Pick up clean cape from the dry cleaner). Chunking performs two important functions. It renders large-scale projects doable by providing well-differentiated tasks, and renders the experiences of our lives memorable by segmenting them into well-defined beginnings and endings. This allows memories to be stored and retrieved in manageable chunks.

The dedicated portion of our brains that partitions long events into chunks is in the prefrontal cortex. Hierarchies are created of this event segmentation without our thinking about them, and without instructing our brains to make them. We can review these representation in our mind’s eye from either direction—from the top down, from large time scales to small, or from bottom up, from small time scales to large. So, we should use our prefrontal cortex to best advantage, avoid multi-tasking unless it is necessary, and then multi-task in a strategic manner.

Organizing Our Homes

December 7, 2014

Organizing Our Homes is the title of a chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. His subtitle for this chapter is “Where Things Can Start to Get Better”.   I am probably more in need of the information in this chapter than any of the healthymemory blog’s readers. But my problem is primarily motivational in that although I know the systems for effective organization, but I don’t implement them. Unfortunately, Levitin does not provide any motivational advice. Perhaps one day some disaster will occur that will provide me the motivation for implementing these practices.. One practice I do strictly follow is to keep my most important items in the same place. Individual items might be in separate places, but each important item is always kept in the same place. When I travel or move to a new place, one of my first actions is to decide where these important items go. If I want to be sure to remember to take my umbrella on a given day, I place it in a conspicuous place on my way out. However, even this precautionary measure has sometimes failed.

Levitin uses the four system for remembering important items. Every time he leaves the house he checks that he has four things: keys, wallet, phone, and glasses. The number four is significant as we are constrained by the number of items we can hold in our working or short term memories. George Miller’s original number was 7 plus or minus 2. However, that number has shrunk over the years, and is currently down to four. If he needs to remember something else before leaving the house, say to remember to buy mild on the way home, he will either place an empty mild carton on the seat beside him in his car, or he’ll place the carton in his backpack. Of course a note will be do, but some reminder is needed so the note will not be forgotten.

The problem of misplacing items and being unable to find them is ubiquitous. Levitin writes about Magnus Carlsen the number one rated chess in the world when he was 23. He can keep ten games going on at once in memory without looking at the board, but he says, “I forget all kinds of other stuff. I regularly lose my credit cards, my mobile phones,keys, and so on. Actually all of these memory failures are the result of failing to attend where the object is being placed. Moreover, enough attention needs to be devoted to the object so that the location of the object will later be remembered.

Levitin also discusses the concept of affordances. The term is used in the sense that the environment affords you to do something. One of the best examples of affordances are the plates or handles that are placed on doors. The plate affords the pushing of the door. The handle affords the pulling of the door. Unfortunately, these affordances are frequently misplaced. For example, you try to push a door that has a handle on it and it does not move. Once I was following a lady out of the building. She tried to push a handle and then apologizes for being stupid when it did not move. I explained to her that she was not the stupid. Instead it was the architect of the building or the installer of the door who was stupid. The renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner elaborated on these affordances. If you have letters to mail put them near your car keys or house keys so that when you leave the house their affordance reminds you to take them. The goal is to off-load the information from your brain into the environment by using the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done. So the idea is to use the environent as a type of transactive memory.

To people who argue that they are not detailed-oriented, that they are a creative person or some such. Levitin provides some good examples from Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, John Lennon. Michael Jackson even had a person on his staff titled the chief archivist. Organization was essential to these creative people.

Levitin provides these three general rules of organization..

      1. A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.

      2. If there is an existing standard, use it.

      3. Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Personally I have much difficulty with this third rule.

Levitin devotes a section to the digital home where he recommends organizing by devices, where special devices perform special tasks. He has another section on the storage of information in different types of media and the advantages and disadvantages of each. He notes, rather discouragingly, that digital files are rarely readable for more than ten years. He notes that within the spreadsheet Excel you can link any entry in a cell to a document on the computer. So financial documents for a given year could be in a PDF file linked to a cell in a spreadsheet.

Above all, do not multi-task while you are organizing. He notes that just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognition. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College in London calls it infomania He has done research that demonstrated that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in the inbox can reduce the effective by 10 points. He has also shown that cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russ Poldrack, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. The information goes into the striatum, a region specialized for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Absent the distraction of TV the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organized and categorized in a number of ways so that it is easier to retrieve.

Moreover, there are metabolic costs to switching attention. Shifting the brain from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel needed to stay on task. The rapid, continual shifting when we multitask causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain compromisisng both cognitive and physical performance. In addition, repeated task switching leads to anxiety , which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain which in turn can lead to aggressive and compulsive behavior. In contrast, staing on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum ,and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose. .

One of the Biggest Advances in Neural Enhancement

December 3, 2014

In the introduction to The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin he mentions that one of the biggest advancements in neural enhancement occurred only 5,000 years ago. That was the development of a written language. This development took considerable time. First there were primitive notes taken to record important items that were too important to be forgotten. Then there were likely primitive forms of accounts for transactions. Unfortunately, there are no records that I know of that can trace the development. In spite of writing being one of the biggest advances in neural enhancement, it was not immediately recognized as such, nor was it accepted as being beneficial by one of the foremost Greek philosophers of the time, Socrates. Socrates was worried about what was lost in terms of vocal tone and expression, things that were in speech or conversation, but were lost in written language. Fortunately the resistance of Socrates and others gave way, for written language is certainly a requirement for a civilization to advance.

In the terminology of the healthy memory blog, written language is an example of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to information that is not recorded in one’s own biological memory, but is accessible from the memories of fellow human beings or from some artifact of technology. In this sense written language is a neural enhancement, and a very important as we are biologically constrained regarding the amount of information we can handle. Technology enables us to overcome evolutionary limitations, evolution being a very slow process.

Levitin writes that two of the most compelling properties of the human brain and its design are richness and associative access. Memory is rich in the sense that a large amount of information is in there. Associative access means that our thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations. So related words, smells, category names, or an old song can bring memories to our awareness. Even what are apparently random neural firings can bring them up to conscioussness. Being able to access memories regardless of where they are located is called random access like we experience on DVDs and hard drives and contrasted to data stored on a videotape.

The healthymemory blog likes to distinguish different types of associative access. Information that we know or know where to find quickly is termed accessible memory. Information that we know, but are not sure where to find it, is termed available associative memory. Some Google searches or more primitive forms of looking for information (old library card catalogs) are examples. Potential memory is all the information currently available in other human beings or in some type of artifact, be it a book, database, or in Wikipedia.

Given all this potential or available information in transactive memory, the problem becomes one of being able to access it quickly. Here the issue involves the organization of this information so that it can be more readily accessed. Levitin refers to this as conscientious organization. Systems are important as are different types of databases and search engines. More specifics will be found in the future chapters of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, some of which will be discussed in future healthymemory blog posts.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Memory, Attention, Consciousness

November 30, 2014

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.