Posts Tagged ‘default-mode network’

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

August 9, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Winifred Gallagher. Remember the post “Best Way to Think About Memory” where it was proposed that the best way to think about memory is as a corporate building and the corporation is you. At the top level is where the executive offices reside. On the lower floors are offices holding your experience, your knowledge, your thinking and performance capabilities. The whole shebang is run by you corporate offices, where your consciousness resides. Attention is needed to run these offices and due to limitations in our attention focus is required. Consequently, the key to living is a focused life.

Five years before Ms. Gallagher finished her book she had a common-enough crisis that plunged here into a study of the nature of experience. This experiment led her to cutting-edge scientific research and a psychological version of what physicists trying to explain the universe call a “grand unified theory” or a “theory of everything”: your life—who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.

She continues, “Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience from mood to productivity to relationships.”

Continuing further, “…what you focus on from this moment will create the life and person yet to be. … If we think in terms of the present and future, we might encounter an intuition lurking in the back of your mind, as it was in mine: if you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create: not a series of accidents, but a work of art. My interest in attention goes back to childhood, when I ran the usual experiments on its effects on behavior. I saw that by focusing on one thing, you could ignore another. If you concentrated on some enjoyable activity, you could make time simultaneously race and stand still. Staying focused on a goal over time might not guarantee you’d achieve it but was a crucial step in that direction.”

She writes, “In midlife, an attention experiment of a different magnitude set me on the path that led to this book. Walking away from the hospital after the biopsy from hell—not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind—I had the intuition of a highly unusual blue-white clarity. This disease wants to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.”

It worked. She was successful. By skillfully managing your attention, you’re able to experience in both a balanced way and stay oriented in a positive productive direction. She quotes John Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell , a hell of heav’n.”

Ms. Gallagher notes that the German physician Wilhem Wundt officially discovered attention, but the founder of American psychology, William James is its philosopher king. James argued that because the mind is profoundly shaped by what it imposes on itself, where you choose to focus it is vitally important. This conviction underlies many of his best maxims, such as “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

In James major work, “The Principles of Psychology” he wrote, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Localization of consciousness is its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to eat effectively with others.”

Ms. Gallagher writes, “Neuroscience’s truly groundbreaking insight into attention is the discovery that its basic mechanism is a process of selection. This two-part neurological sorting operation allows you to focus by enhancing the most compelling, or ‘salient,’ physical object or ‘high-value’ mental subject in your ken and suppressing the rest. Outside an elite scientific circle, however, this finding’s implications for everyday life have been stunningly unremarked.”

“Rapt” is the term that describes being completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated experiences that underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to a lover’s obsession. Research shows that with some reflection, experimentation, and practice, all of us can cultivate this profoundly attentive state more often. Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases our capacity for concentration, expands our inner boundaries, and lifts our spirits, but more important, it simply makes us feel that life is worth living.

Deciding what to pay attention to is critically important. We must resist the temptation to drift along our default mode network, reacting to whatever happens next and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time an attention.

Alzheimer’s Researchers Shift Focus After Failures

July 7, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a front page article by Christopher Rowland in the 4 July 2019 issue of the Washington Post. These researchers are shifting their focus to new drug treatments that deal with other factors than the defining features for an Alzheimer’s diagnose, which are amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. The conclusion that this research is fruitless was made by a former researcher in this area. The Myth of Alzheimer’s is a book by Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D. and Ph.D and Daniel George, M.Sc. Whitehouse is the former researcher who came to the conclusion that this research would never yield results. There was a healthy memory post on this book in 2011. HM believes Dr. Whitehouse is working on non drug treatments for Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s association provides little, if any, support in this area. The Alzheimer’s association provides financial support for drug research. HM wonders in the unlikely event that a useful drug was produced, whether the Alzheimer’s Association had some agreement to limit costs or would this company be allowed to prey on the public. Before giving any money to the Alzheimer’s association, potential donors should demand an answer to this question.

There have been many posts on this topic including one titled “The Myth of Alzheimer’s.” Perhaps the most significant finding is one that is rarely, if ever, mentioned. And that is that people die with the defining characteristics for an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, but who never knew that they had the disease because they never had any behavioral or cognitive symptoms of the disease. The explanation offered is that these people had developed a cognitive reserve as a result of being cognitively active during their lifetimes.

The reappearing theme in this blog is that people should live cognitively fulfilling lives with growth mindsets in which they are continuing to learn. This involves System 2 processing, more commonly referred to as thinking. Our normal processing mode is System 1, which is quite fast and efficient. Here we are in cruise control where the conscious content just keeps flowing. As one proceeds through life this becomes easier and easier. Much has been learned, there is little interest in learning anything new, so the mind effectively is on cruise control. Cognitive neuroscience has termed this the default mode network, which is quite similar, if not identical, to Kahneman’s System 2 processing which is from cognitive psychology.

HM knows people who have been cognitively active throughout their lives, yet still succumbed to Alzheimer’s or dementia. But there are other causes. One of HM’s friends trained himself to get by on 4 hours of sleep per night. Research shows us that 7 to 8 hours of sleep are required. Other ambitious people burn the candle and both ends, which also leads to sleep deprivation.

HM wishes the researchers well in their research. But everyone should know that by engaging in a cognitively challenging life with growth mindsets they should greatly decrease, if not eliminate, the prospect of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Of course, a healthy lifestyle is also assumed.

Please use the search block of the blog (healthymemory.wordpress.com) to learn more about any of the terms in this post.

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

Unhealthful Memories Can Lead to Alzheimer’s and the Loss of Democracy

May 3, 2019

This post is motivated by an article by Greg Miller titled “With Mueller silent, Barr speaks for him—and defends the president” in the 2 May 2019 issue of the Washington Post. The article is about how Barr has gotten ahead of Mueller and completely misrepresented the report of the special council. Mueller has remained silent trying to observe the normal protocols. Barr has completely misrepresented Mueller’s report and continues to lie and misrepresent his characterization of the report when questioned by Democratic members of the Senate. Most Republicans seem to be complicit in Barr’s lies and misrepresentation.

Mueller will eventually testify, but much damage has been done by Trump’s puppet Barr. However, it is more than time that truth will need to overcome. The failure of too many Americans to use their critical thinking processes also hinders their reaching truth.

A brief review of Kahneman’s two process theory of cognition is appropriate here. 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.

The default mode network will be mentioned in future posts. Basically it corresponds to System 1 processing. What is important is the word “default.” Once misinformation has gotten into memory it takes cognitive effort to remove and correct it.

Without knowing it, Trump is a genius at exploiting the default mode network. The default mode network is also responsive to emotion. Emotion comes first. That’s why it is important to stop and think, when you become angry, so you do not respond foolishly. But by exploiting pre-existing biases and out and out lying, misinformation gets into memory. And it will remain there until the individual thinks, discovers the information is wrong, and corrects this memory.

This problem is exacerbated by social media. As has been shown in previous posts, social media reinforces this disinformation. Much of this misinformation is emotional. Hate spreads easily, unfortunately, much faster than does love and caring.

There have been many previous posts on how cognitive activity, system 2 processing, getting free of the default mode network decreases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Moreover, there are many cases of individuals whose brains have the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s, the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, who die never knowing that they had Alzheimer’s because they had none of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms.

Effective democracy also depends on healthy memories. It requires that citizens know how democracy works and seek and evaluate information as to how the democracy should proceed. There is ample evidence that few citizens know how the government is supposed to work as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. And there is ample evidence that most voting citizens have little understanding of the issues and candidates on which they are voting.

If Russia waged a conventional military attack on the United States, citizens would be outraged and demand that we fight back. But the Russians are smart, and too many Americans are stupid. The Russians used cyberattacks. These cyberattacks have been described in previous healthy memory posts. These cyberattacks promoted Trump for president and created disruption and polarization among the American public. Remember that Trump was not elected in the popular vote. He lost that by three million votes. He won due to an irresponsible electoral college.

Trump built his campaign on lies, and continues to support himself on lies. Obviously it requires too much mental effort for too many citizens to recognize this individual as the fraud and obscenity he actually is.

Regardless of the Mueller report, there is ample evidence that Trump needs to be impeached. And reading the Mueller report one quickly realizes that if Trump did not commit any crimes of which he could be convicted, his behavior still puts democracy at risk. Should he not be impeached and should he lose a reelection, he will claim fraud and refuse to leave the office. Our democracy is at risk of becoming a de facto totalitarian dictatorship. Obviously that is something that Barr would prefer, as he thinks there are no limits on presidential power.

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

Lightness of Being

December 3, 2017

This post is based on a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson titled, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” When we let our mind wander, we hash over thoughts and feelings (often unpleasant) that focus on ourselves, constructing the narrative we experience as our “self.” The default mode circuits quiet during mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation). In early stages of meditation this quieting of self-esteem entails brain circuits that inhibit default zones. In later practice the connections and activity within those areas wane.

The quieting of the self-circuitry begins as a state effect seen during or immediately after meditation. However, with long-term practitioners it becomes an enduring trait, together with decreased activity in the default mode itself. This resulting decrease in stickiness means that the self-focused thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind have much les “grab” and decreasing ability to hijack attention. This is what is meant by “lightness of being.”

How to Daydream Your Way to Better Concentration

May 20, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Caroline Williams in the Features Section of the 20 May 2017 Issue of the New Scientist.  Actually the magazine cover featured the title “CONCENTRATION!  How to take control of your wandering mind,” which referred to this article.

The article notes that “if losing concentration sometimes feels inevitable, that’s because it is—your brain is hardwired to give in to distractions and take you away with the fairies.  Unfortunately, science has long promoted the idea that a wandering mind is the enemy of productivity.  Failing to focus had been linked to a lack of success, unhappiness, stress, and poor relationships.  But remember that science should never be 100% confident.  There is always the chance that new research will change beliefs.  Beliefs always should be subject to change.

Psychologists have been wondering why we spend so much time in a state of revery if it’s truly harmful.  They’ve discovered that there are several kinds of mind-wandering, and they don’t all make us unhappy or unproductive.  If we know how to use it, a wandering mind could even be a key weapon in our cognitive arsenal.

Generally speaking, we have two attention systems that constantly keep track of what’s going on around us.  There is a constant tug of war between the executive control network, which is a set of brain areas responsible for goal-oriented thinking and controlling impulses, and the default mode network, which fires up when we think about nothing in particular.  The default mode network uses its time to do various bits of housekeeping—sorting through memories, forward planning and filing new information.  And it is also the brain region that is most active when we daydream.  “Our ability to stay on track largely depends on keeping the volume of chatter between them low.  Too much activity on the default mode network, or too little executive control, leads to a mind that is prone to losing focus.”

The brain seems to find mind-wandering easier than concentrating.  Recent research has shown that the default mode network is highly connected to itself and other brain regions, allowing it to flit between many different mental states with little energy input.  The executive control network is more sparsely connected, so it requires more input to shout over the noise, which is what is happening when we’re trying to concentrate.  Even on a normal day we spend as much as 50% of our time thinking about anything except what we should be doing.

There are advantages to this propensity to drift off.  For instance, we already know that daydreaming brings numerous benefits to do with creativity and forward planning.  After figuring out a flaw in previous research, we’re starting to see that those benefits extend even further.

Until recently, researchers assumed that volunteers asked to do a boring task in the lab would try their hardest to concentrate until mind-wandering unintentionally took over.  They failed to consider that sometimes we intentionally let our mind drift to more appealing topics, especially when doing something boring.

In an experiment, Paul Seli interrupted people during a task to ask if their minds were wandering.  If they were, he asked whether it had happened intentionally, or if their thoughts had just drifted unconsciously.  More than a third of the time, the mind-wandering was intentional.  Questionnaires asking people about their daydreaming habits put the number even higher suggesting that more than half the time it starts of as a choice.   Seli concluded “A considerable portion of our time seems to be spent off in la-la land.”

Seli used brain imaging to find out what’s going on during intentional and unintentional mind-wandering.  Seli and his team last year imaged the brains of people who tended towards one or the other and found that their brains are set up slightly differently.  Both groups did about the same amount of mind-wandering overall, but those who were prone to doing it intentionally had better connectivity between their brains’ executive control and default mode networks.  This result suggests that with intentional mind-wandering, rather than the executive control network losing its grip over the default mode network, it was actually in charge of the whole experience.  So although it feels like daydreaming, we are still in control of our mind.

The distinction between these different styles of mind-wandering is important.  Mind-wandering has been linked to some of the symptoms of ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder, both conditions in which a lack of control over certain behaviors can interfere with getting things done.  But this recent research shows that this is true only of unintentional mind-wandering, not the more directed kind.

Deliberate mental meandering might also help us remember more when we revise.  The trick is to make our minds wander on topic, by nudging our thoughts to things we’re trying to learn.  According to Karl Szpunar, one way to make this happen is to build mini quizzes into the revision process.  In his experiments, students learned the contents of a 40-minute lecture either by stopping to recap what they had covered every 5 minutes, or by rereading the slides at the end.  Those who regularly self-tested retained more information.  Both groups seemed to mind-wander the same amount, but a second experiment showed that what was different between the groups was that the self-testers were mind-wandering about the lecture, as opposed to something unrelated.  Szpunar suggests “rather than waiting to self-test the night before an exam, make time to do this again and again at increasingly longer intervals.”  This advice applies to any kind of learning.

The psychologist Jonathan Smallwood has found that whether our mental meanderings are focused on the future or the past determines whether they derail us from our goals to  prepare us for challenges to come.  Thoughts about the past are much more likely  to lead to low mood and motivation than those about the future.  Future -related mind-wandering actually seems to boost mood and motivation, even if they are thoughts of flunking out.  As long as there is a future element, Small says that it can at least motivate you back to work.

Key here is the ability to control our thoughts.  Here mindfulness and meditation come to the rescue.  There are many healthy memory blog posts on these topics.

The easiest alternative, according to Christian Olivers is to remind ourselves not to focus too hard.

Smallwood’s latest finding is that although frequent mind-wanderers are worse than other people at focusing on the outside world, they were better than most at retrieving information from memory.  The article concludes, “So if the information is in there somewhere, let your mind wander free.  Your grades might thank you.”  And HM reminds you of the availability accessibility distinction in memory.  Although information might not be available at the moment, most information is eventually accessible.  (enter “availability accessibility distinction”  in the healthy memory blog search block.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Hippocampus

May 18, 2017

The hippocampus receives considerable attention in “The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corvallis.  As the hippocampus plays a critical role in memory, it is not surprising that it is central to language and time travel.  As we each have a hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain, we have two hippocampi.

The importance of the hippocampus was first realized when an Englishman underwent surgery for epilepsy, and the surgery destroyed major parts of both hippocampi.  After this surgery he could no longer form new episodic memories.  Episodic memory involves memories having to do with the specific episodes of our lives.   Although his semantic memory, his general knowledge, remained intact.  Not only was he unable to recall the past, he was also incapable of imagining the future.

In the final years of my Mom’s life she suffered from dementia.  When I visited her, she was always glad to see me.  However, if an attendant took her to the restroom while I was visiting, when she returned she acted as if I had just arrived.  That is, she had stored no memory of my being there.

The hippocampus is the hub of the brain circuit involved in episodic memory and mental time travel.  Brain imaging shows it to be activated both when people remember past events and when they imagine possible future events.  It is also activated when people are asked to imagine purely fictitious  episodes.   Although other brain regions are involved, reflecting the fact that memory and imagination involve information stored in widely dispersed areas, the hippocampus appears to be the most critical component in that damage to it has the most debilitating effect on the ability to mentally escape the present.

The default-mode network, responsible for our mind wandering, is identifiable in primates and even in rats.  The hippocampus plays a critical role in both rat and human memory.  Recording from the hippocampus of the rat reveals that single neurons code where the animal is located in the spatial environment.  These neurons serve as place cells and together generate what has been termed a cognitive map of the environment that tells the rat where it is.  It plays the same role in humans.  Studies have shown that the hippocampus  is enlarged in licensed taxi drivers in London, who are required to memorize the map of London for their licenses.

Research using rats has indicated a similar competence.  In an experiment rats were trained to alternate left and right turns at a particular location in the maze.  Between trials they were introduced to a running wheel and, while they were running, activity in their hippocampi was recorded.  This activity coded which way the rats planned to turn in the maze on the next trial.  Apparently these rats were planning ahead for their next try at the maze.  The researchers also noted that autonomous activity in the hippocampus involved the computation of distances, and also supported the episodic recall of events and the planning of action sequences and goals.  One researcher wrote that “replay in the rat hippocampus can either lead or follow the behavior once the map of space is established.  This suggests that replay phenomena may support ‘mental time travel’ through the spatial map, both forward and backward in time.

Research on human patients about to undergo surgery had electrodes placed in cells in the medial temporal lobe, in an attempt to locate the source of epileptic seizures.  They were then asked to navigate a virtual town on a computer screen and to deliver items to one of the stores in the town.  Then were asked to recall only the items and not the location to which they were delivered.  However, the act of recall activated the place cells corresponding to that location, effectively mirroring the replay of place cells in the rat brain.

In another study, people were shown sequences of four videos of different events.  At one level. narratives were linked to each video, encouraging attention to individual details. At the next level, narratives linked a par of videos, and at the final level a narrative linked all four videos.  As the people processed these narratives, activation in the hippocampus progressed from the rearward end to the forward end as the scale of the narrative shifted from small and detailed to larger and more global.    Dr. Corvallis notes that this probably happens when we read novels.  Page by page, we focus on the details, but as the story progresses we build a more global understanding of what the story is about.  Dr. Corvallis writes, be thankful to your hippocampi that you can make sense of a novel at all.

Dr. Corvallis suggests that although  the generativity spatial mapping is nonlinguistic, it may well underlie the generativity of language itself.  “In the rat these elements may be restricted to simple aspects like sounds or smells, and we may perhaps allow ourselves the luxury of believing our own experiences to be incomparably richer.  Yet the generative component itself probably has a long evolutionary history.  As Darwin famously put it:  ‘The difference in mind between man the the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree, and not of kind.’”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.