Posts Tagged ‘fMRI’

Our Bodies and Brains on Tech

November 7, 2019

This is the sixth post in the book by doreen dodgen-magee titled “DEVICED: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World.” The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in that book. The title is accurate. Technology affects both our bodies and our brains. Unfortunately, many of these effects are bad.

Fortunately, the author offers tips for decreasing these bad effects. Here are some suggestions for taking action to decrease some bad physical effects:
*Take breaks from screens for movement through the day to help you stay not only healthy, but engaged.
*Get into the habit of walking away from your devices at least every hour to ge fresh air and move both your legs and small muscle groups. Just stepping outside for three deep breaths can be helpful.
*Try many different types of physical movement. Doing so will help you stay flexible both in your physiology as well as in your beliefs about your body’s capabilities.
*Associate one of your tech hobbies with a set of basic and easy-to-do-wherever-you-are stretches. Do these stretches every time you engage that tech habit. For example, do a sun salutation or two every time you pick up your game controller or log on to social media.

Negative postural effects are also a problem. The author offers these suggestions:
*Remember to step away from your devices regularly.
*Practice good ergonomics.
*Stretch regularly.
*Engage in flexibility exercises.
*Make sure your screens are level with your eyes when looking straight ahead.
*When using a keyboard, keep your back straight and your arms parallel to the floor and close in at your sides. Also, rotate your wrists occasionally.
*When using small devices, be sure to stand and stretch, shift your weight, and rotate your thumbs and wrists occasionally. Look up and around and intentionally stretch the top of your head toward the sky.
*When using any device, be careful not to round your shoulders or lean your head excessively forward.
*Practice mindful, thoughtful device engagement.

Blue light related to screen use also has negative effects. Here are some tips offered by the author to minimize this negative impact.
*Take breaks from screens throughout the day.
*Make sure screens are not placed in front of windows, forcing your eyes to adjust to both light sources.
*Use lighting at eye level rather than overhead when working with screens indoors.

Technology use also affects the brain. And these effects are large enough such that neuromarketing has emerged as a field of study. Neuromarketers use brain-imaging technology along with biometric measures (heart rate, respiration) to determine why consumers make the decisions they do. By studying fMRI scans and other physiological data while individuals interact with technology, the researchers see how activation of particular areas of the brain due to specific technological content exposure can result in specific behaviors, ideas, or feelings in people. By changing the way content is delivered within the digital framework, the researchers can change the way the brain is activated, hence changing the lived experience of the subject. This effort is predicated on the knowledge that activation of certain brain regions will bring about certain responses. As the brain wires together where it fires together, repetitive exposure and responses to technology must be having some impact on the way our brains are wired.

In a 1969 episode of Sesame Street the images were black and white and each sustained camera shot lasted somewhere between six and fifteen seconds. It is reasonable to assume that individuals who are exposed to this kind of pacing in the presentation of screen imagery will develop circuitry used to waiting for up to fifteen seconds for a new stimulus. Doing this over and over would force the brain to develop the ability to focus attention without becoming bored or distracted.

In a 1984 Sesame Street episode the sustained camera shots lasted between three to six seconds, with a few lasting only one and a half seconds. The author notes that the brain exposed to this rapid cycling of stimulation and images doesn’t wire with the same tendency toward focus and boredom tolerance that we explored earlier. Instead, it will anticipate a change of scenery every three to five seconds, wiring for efficiency in handling multiple images in fast succession.

The author finds no sustained unmoving camera shots on Sesame Street. She concludes the brain is trained to expect constantly, changing stimulation. If things don’t change on the screen immediately our brain is trained to look away to find something novel to attend to. When the preponderance of visual stimuli presented to us follows this pattern over time, we no longer have the neurologically practiced skills of waiting and focus. It is not every day that one can find such a condemning indictment of Sesame Street.

Dopamine is released during video game use and game developers work to exploit tis. When dopamine levels are high, we feel a sense of pleasure, Once we’ve experienced these feelings, it’s hard not to want to live with less.

Developers are trying to increase users’ screen time. And this can most definitely be harmful. Here are telltales signs that the author offers:
*Moving from incidental use to nearly constant use.
*Needing increasing levels of tech time of stimulation for satisfaction.
*Being jittery or anxious in response to stepping away from technology.
*Lying in order to garner more time/specific content/etc. or to cover up certain forms of use.
*Isolating in order to engage technology.

Here are tips offered by the author for preventing tech addiction and getting help.

Set clear boundaries, communicate them, and enforce them .

Think ahead before adding a technology.

Make sure technology is not your only “sweet spot.”

Introduce high quality, slow moving technologies first, and stick with them as long as possible.

If you feel you’ve moved into use patterns that are hurting you or keeping you from your embodied life, get help.

There is so much information on the dangers of multitasking in the healthy memory blog that anything the author offers on this topic would be repetitive.

She does note the good news of neuroplasticity and doing “deep work.” One of the principle goals of the healthy memory blog is to move past superficial system one processing, which is very fast and avoids deep thinking, and to engage in system 2 processing which is deep thinking. So much learning can be enhanced via technology. There is a virtual infinity of useful knowledge on the web. But people become preoccupied with games, staying in touch, being liked and other superficial activities. In terms of memory health, it is deeper system 2 processing which provides for a more fulfilling and meaningful life. It also decreases the probability of suffering from dementia. Autopsies have found many cases of people who died with the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary ranges, which are the defining features Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited any behavioral or cognitive symptoms. The explanation for this is that these people had developed a cognitive reserve during their lives through continual learning and critical use of their brains.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

October 19, 2019

This is the fifth post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in this book. The science writer Winfred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event. The event was a cancer diagnosis and Gallagher noted, “not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind.” In her book “Rapt” (there are many healthy memory blog posts on this book and on this topic) she recalls as she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis she formed a sudden and strong intuition: “This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” She focused on what was good in her life, “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini” and it worked surprisingly well. Instead of being mired in fear and pity during this period, she was instead often quite pleasant.

After five years of science reporting she came away convinced that she was witness to a “grand unified theory” of the mind:

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics, and 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.”

Newport writes, “This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this misunderstanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: “What you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.’”

Research has shown that the elderly tend to be happier than their younger brethren. This seems paradoxical as the elderly are closer to their final exit; But Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen used an FMRI scanner to study the brain behavior of participants presented with both positive and negative imagery. She found that for young people, their amygdala, important for emotion, fired with activity at both types of imagery. But when she scanned the elderly, the amygdala fired only for the positive images. Carstensen conjectured that the elderly participants had trained their prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. So these elderly participants were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; instead they were happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive. By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.

Author Newport picks up on Gallanger’s grand theory. “This theory states that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work.” Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance. Newport adds a hidden but equally important benefit to cultivating rapt attention. Such concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

September 24, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

As AD progresses from earlier to later stages, atrophy starts in the medial temporal lobe, extends to the parietal lobe, and finally includes the frontal lobe. The long-term memory impairment in early AD patients can be attributed to the disrupted processing in the hippocampus and parietal cortex, to regions that have been associated with this cognitive process. As the disease progresses, other cognitive processes are disrupted such as attention and language, which both depend on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

In early AD patients, as atrophy begins in the parietal cortex and the frontal cortex, there have also been reports of increases in fMRI activity within cortical regions. It is unknown whether these increases in cortical fMRI activity reflect a compensatory mechanism, which is often assumed to be the case, or reflect non-compensatory hyperactivity due to neural disruption.

In addition to brain atrophy, AD patients have abnormal high levels of proteins in different brain regions. In the medial temporal lobe, the accumulation of tau protein leads to neurofibrillary tangles. In cortical regions, such as the parietal cortex in early AD, the accumulation of amyloid-B protein leads to amyloid plaques. The neurofibrillary tangles in the medial temporal lobe and amyloid plaques in cortical regions can be assumed to disrupt neural processing in these regions.

Dr. Slotnick writes, “There is an influential hypothesis that there is a causal relationship between default network activity that leads to deposition of amyloid that results in atrophy and disrupted metabolic activity, which impairs long-term memory in AD patients. The regions in the default network are active when participants are not engaged in a task and include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, the inferior prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. In AD patients, amyloid deposition occurs in the same regions, which suggest the default network activity may lead to amyloid deposition. Dr. Slotnick suggests that perhaps higher level of amyloid deposition, which occurs in late AD patients, is necessary to produce atrophy in the frontal cortex.

Healthy memory readers should recognize the similarity between the default network and Kahneman’s System 1 processing. System 1 processing is the default network that needs to be disrupted to engage in System 2 processing, better known as thinking.

Dr. Slotnick continues, “If high amyloid deposition is a causal factor in developing AD, older adults with low levels of amyloid should be at decreased risk for developing this disease. There is some evidence that cognitive engagement and exercise throughout life may reduce the amyloid level in the brains of healthy older adults as a function of cognitive engagement (System 2 processing), and this was compared to the cortical amyloid levels . Participants rated the frequency which they engaged in cognitively demanding tasks such as reading, writing, going to the library, or playing games at five different ages (6, 12, 18, 40, and their current age). Healthy older adults with greater cognitive engagement throughout their lifetime, as measured by the average cognitive activity at the five ages, had lower levels of amyloid in default network regions. Moreover, the healthy older adults in the lowest one-third of lifetime engagement had amyloid levels that were equivalent to AD patients, and the healthy older adults in the highest one-third of lifetime cognitive engagement had amyloid levels that were equivalent to young adults.

It should also be noted that many have died who upon autopsy had levels of amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles definitive of AD, but who never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms characteristics of the disease. The explanation typically offered for these individuals is that they had built a cognitive reserve as a result of the mental activities they had engaged in during their lifetimes.

There is a wide variety of products sold to prevent AD, such as computer games and pills that increase short-term memory. But it should be clear from the posts on cognitive science that the entire brain is involved. That is why the healthy memory blog strongly recommends growth mindsets with continual learning throughout the lifespan. These make heavy use of System 2 processing. Of course, a healthy lifestyle that includes physical exercise must also be part of the mix.

Mild Traumatic Brain Imagery (mTBI)

September 22, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

Patients with mTBI do not have any brain abnormalities, as measured using structural neuroimaging methods such as anatomic MRI. The diagnosis of mTBI includes loss of consciousness for less than 30 minutes and post-traumatic amnesia for less than 24 hours. Patients with mTBI can have attention and memory deficits, but these typically resolve within a few weeks.

The performance between mTBI patients and control participants did not differ on the memory task they were performing, but the mTBI patients had a greater extent and magnitude of fMRI activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex than control participants.

Fifteen mTBI patients with concussions due to sports-related injuries were tested 2 days, 2 weeks, and 2 months after the injury. Only one of the 15 patients still had symptoms 2 months after the injury. Consistent with the previous research, there were no differences in the performance of the memory task between the patients and the control participants, but there was greater fMRI activity in the mTBI patients than the control participants within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex at all three time points and within the parietal cortex at the first two time points. This greater fMRI activity 2 months after injury is concerning because they indicate there are differences in brain processing even after behavioral symptoms have been resolved. So there can be persistent brain disruptions even though there are no behavioral symptoms or brain abnormalities observable with anatomic neuroimaging methods.

Dr. Slotnick writes, “As mTBI patients may be more sensitive to repeated head trauma, it is arguable that they should not be allowed to continue participating in impact sports until their fMRI activity returns to normal.

There is also evidence that the magnitude of fMRI activity decreases in mTBI imagery with more severe or repeated head injuries. One working memory fMRI study had mTBI patients with more severe sports-related head injuries. These not-so-mild mTBI patients were tested 1 to 14 months after the most recent head injury. The large majority of participants had multiple previous concussions, and 15 of the 16 participants had persistent symptoms. As before, behavioral measures did not differ on the memory tasks between the mTBI patients and the control subjects. There was greater activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for the control participants than in mTBI patients, in direct opposition to the previous findings for less severe mTBI patients. Additionally, participants with greater post-concussive symptoms had a smaller magnitude and extent of firm activity within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during visual working memory blocks. The same pattern of fMRI results was obtained in a subsequent study that employed the identical visual working memory task and a similar group of not-so-mild mTBI participants. It is important to realized that repeated mTBI and sub-concussive head injuries ( due to boxing or football, for example) can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

There are eleven previous posts addressing chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment

September 21, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) occurs in a small but significant percentage of adults who are older than 60 years of age, with incidence increasing as a function of age. Approximately 50% of these cases will become Alzheimer’s sufferers. Individuals with aMCI have a selective impairment in long-term memory as compared to healthy age-matched control participants, and are unimpaired in other cognitive domains. There is an increasing body of evidence indicating that the long-term memory impairment in aMCI patients is due to atrophy of medial temporal lobe sub regions that is increased by a paradoxical increase in fMRI activity within the medial temporal lobe.

Structural MRI was used to compare the size of the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex in aMCI patients and control participants. aMCI patients had a smaller hippocampal value and a smaller entorhinal cortex volume in both hemispheres as compared to age-matched control participants, indicating atrophy of these regions. In addition, the white matter pathway between the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus had a smaller volume in aMCI patients than control participants, and this was the only white matter region in the entire brain that differed in volume. These results indicate that the long-term memory impairments in aMCI patients are due to isolated atrophy in the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus.

A relatively higher magnitude of fMRI activity within the CA3/DG sub-region during a pattern separation task reflects a non-compensatory change in processing related to neural disruption in aMCI patients.

Motivated Forgetting

September 18, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

Like retrieval-induced forgetting, motivated forgetting refers to an active process where retrieval of an item from memory is suppressed. Unlike retrieval-induced forgetting process, motivated forgetting is an intentional process.

So the research paradigm is obvious, present lists of words where words are designated to be remembered or forgotten. But the behavioral results of such an experiment would be obvious, and many would wonder why the study was done. Participants simply ignored the words designated to be forgotten and would study the words to be remembered.

Although a simple behavioral experiment would be silly, the same experiment measuring brain regions would be informative. The first study that investigated the brain regions associated with motivated forgetting employed fMRI. During the study phase, pairs of words were presented. During the think/no think phase, the initial words of some pairs were shown in red, which meant the associated word should not be thought about. The initial words of some pairs were shown in green, which meant that the associated word should be rehearsed. The initial words of some pairs were not shown, which served as a baseline measure of memory performance. During the final recall phase, all of the initial words pairs were shown.

The percentage of associated words recalled in the no-think condition was lower than the percentage of associated words recalled in the baseline condition, which reflected motivated forgetting. The percentage of associate words recalled in the think condition was higher than baseline performance, which was expected due to additional rehearsal.

Brain activity associated with motivated forgetting was identified by contrasting non-think trials (which were assisted with subsequent forgetting) and think trials (which were not associated with subsequent forgetting). Motivated forgetting was associated with an increase in activity within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and a decrease of activity in the hippocampus.

A literature review has shown that motivated forgetting consistently produces an increase in activity within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and a decrease of activity within the hippocampus. In addition, motivated forgetting of visual information produces a decrease in activity within the visual sensory regions. This overall pattern of brain activity during motivated forgetting is identical to that of retrieval-induced forgetting. These findings provide convergent evidence that active forgetting, whether retrieval-based or motivated, is cause by a top-down signal within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that inhibits the hippocampus and sensory cortical regions.

Retrieval-Induced Forgetting

September 17, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

Retrieval-induced is an active process where retrieval of an item from memory inhibits the retrieval of related words. For example, if the word “banana” is recalled, the memory representation of the related word “orange,” which is also a fruit, will be inhibited to some degree. Presumably such inhibition occurs to reduce the likelihood that a similar but incorrect item will be retrieved (to avoid mistakenly saying “orange” when one intends to say “banana.”)

The paradigm used to study retrieval-induced forgetting includes an initial study phase, an intermediate retrieval practice, and a final recall phase. In one fMRI experiment, participants were presented with word pairs consisting of a category and an example of the category in the study phase. During the intermediate retrieval practice phase, participants were presented with a subset of the categories along with a two-letter word cue and were asked to mentally complete each word (during this phase, non-presented words from the same categories were inhibited). In the final recall phase, participants were presented with all of the categories and word cues corresponding to the word pairs from the study phase. Categories/words that were presented in the study phase but were not presented in the retrieval practice served as a baseline level of performance (since these words were not inhibited.) Retrieval-induced forgetting was revealed as a lower percentage of recall for words that were from the same category than the percentage of recall for words that were from a different category that were not presented during retrieval practice.

To identify brain regions associated with retrieval-induced forgetting during the final recall phase, non-presented words from the same category as those presented during retrieval practice (which were inhibited) were compared with practice words (which were not inhibited). This contrast produced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The larger the magnitude of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the higher the percentage of retrieval-induced forgetting. This suggests that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex actively inhibits non-presented words from the same category as words presented during retrieval practice.

Another retrieval-induced forgetting study used transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to disrupt activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during the practice phase. This completely eliminated the retrieval-induced forgetting effect, indicating that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is necessary to produce this type of forgetting.

Superior Long Term Memory

September 14, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

Perhaps the most famous research on superior memory, one that has been reported in previous healthy memory blog posts regards London taxi drivers. At one time they needed to memorize the layout of 25,000 city streets and the locations of thousands of city attractions. One study investigated whether there were differences in the size of brain regions between taxi drivers and control participants. They found that these taxi drivers had changes in the size of only their hippocampus, with a relative increase in the amount of gray matter within the posterior hippocampus and a relative decrease in the amount of gray matter within the anterior hippocampus. Moreover, the types changes in both types of hippocampal gray matter size correlated with the length of time they had been taxi drivers, which ranged from 1.5 to 52 years (with the largest changes for those who had been taxi drivers the longest).

A follow-up study compared the brain region sizes between London taxi drivers and London bus drivers, who were a better matched control in terms of driving experience, stress, and other factors. The same results were obtained, where the taxi drivers had a relatively larger posterior hippocampus and a relatively smaller anterior hippocampus than bus drivers, and this correlated with the length of time they had been driving a taxi.

Another group of people who have superior memory are those who participate in the World Memory Championships and those who are known for extraordinary memory abilities. A study compared such individuals with control participants to asses whether there were differences in cognitive abilities, differences in the size of brain regions, and differences in the magnitude of fMRI activation during memory tasks. People defined as having superior memory did not differ from control participants in the cognitive abilities tested (IQ ranges were 95 to 119 and 98 to 119, respectively) or in the size of an brain regions. The fMRI task required superior memory for a sequence of digits (a task where those whose superior memory excelled), memory for a sequence of faces, or memory for a sequence of snowflakes. Across tasks, those with superior memory had greater activation in the posterior hippocampus, the retrosplenial cortex, and the medial parietal cortex, which are regions that have been associated with long term memory. Almost all of the participants with superior memory reported using a memory strategy called the method of loci. (entering method of loci into the search block of the healthy memory blog yields 11 hits).

Another case study investigated another individual with a superior memory, who is known as PI, was able to recall the digits of pi to more than 65,000 decimal places. His performance was similar to control participants on the large majority of cognitive tasks. Not surprisingly his working memory was in the 99.9th percentile. But it is conceivable that that might be the result of the extraordinary amount of time he spent memorizing pi. His general memory was average. He was impaired on test of visual memory (3rd percentile or below).

He also reports on individuals who are considered as having highly superior autobiographical memory or HSAMers. There have been eight previous posts on HSAMers. These are people who have detailed episodic memory for every day of their later childhood and adult life. If they are given any date, they can recall the day of the week, and public events that occurred on that day of the week. In one study of HSAMers their performance was normal on most standard cognitive tasks. A comparison of different brain regions between HSAMers and control participants revealed a number of differences including greater white matter coherence in the parahippocampal gyrus, which could reflect greater contextual processing associated with episodic retrieval, and a relatively smaller anterior temporal cortex. The decrease in size of the anterior temporal cortex, which has been associated with semantic memory, may reflect the disuse of this region because those with HSAM rely more on episodic retrieval. Much more research needs to be done with this interesting group.

Sex Differences in Long Term Memory

September 13, 2019

This post is based on an important book by Scott D. Slotnick titled “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.” Remember to consult the website http://www.brainfacts.org/
to see the anatomical information referred to in this post.

Males usually perform better on navigating previously learned environment. Females usually perform better on long-term memory tasks that can depend on verbal memory such as word list recognition and recall, associative memory, and autobiographical memory. Since almost all long-term memory tasks can be performed using verbal memory strategies, females generally have better behavioral performance than males. Females have larger numbers of estrogen receptors in the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These are two of the three regions associated with long-term memory, which can increase the activity of these regions. The hippocampus and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are larger in females than males, relative to overall brain size. Additionally, females have relatively larger volumes of language processing cortex, which likely contributes to their superior verbal memory.

In addition, females and males often employ different cognitive strategies and have distinct patterns of brain activity while they perform the same task. An fMRI study investigated whether there were sex differences in the hippocampus during memory for object-location associations. There were 10 female and 10 male participants. During study blocks, participants viewed a video as if they were walking through a virtual environment with five colored geometric objects. During recognition blocks, an aerial view of each object was shown in a old location or a new location. Participants responded whether each was in an “old” or “new” location. Each participant also used a four-point rating scale to describe the strategy they used to learn the object locations: (1) completely verbal, (2) more verbal than pictorial, (3) more pictorial than verbal, and (4) completely pictorial.

Although there was no difference in behavioral performance between female participants and male participants, the average strategy for female participants was 2.5 and the average strategy rating for male participants was 4.0 indicating that female participants employed more verbal memory strategies and male participants employed purely spatial/non-verbal strategies. The fMRI data indicated that activity was localized to the left hippocampus in the large majority of female participants and that activity was localize to the right hippocampus in the large majority of male participants. These results are consistent with patient studies indicating the lesions in the left medial temporal lobe impair verbal memory and lesions in the right medial temporal lobe impair visual memory.

Nurture: This Is Your Brain on Attention

August 14, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There have been many healthy memory posts on the research of neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin (Enter “Davidson” into the search box at
healthymemory.worpress.com or go to his website https://www.richardjdavidson.com).

He uses EEG and fMRI in showing how experience in general and attention in particular affect your brain and behavior. He says this physiological as well as psychological shift sounds dramatic, but shouldn’t be so surprising because your nervous system is built to respond to your experience. He writes, “That’s what learning is. Anything that changes behavior changes the brain.” The mental-fitness regimens that he and colleagues in a half-dozen labs around the world are working with are based on meditation. Various Eastern and Western religions have used it over the past 2,500 years to enhance spiritual practice, but meditation is easily stripped of sectarian overtones to its behavioral essence of deliberate, targeted concentration that invited a calm steady psychophysiological state.

The point of a secular attentional workout is the enhancement of the ability to focus, emotional balance, or both. The author writes in the mindfulness meditation that’s the most widely used form, you sit silently for forty-five minutes and attend to your breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably do, you just shift your awareness back to breathing, right here and now, without distraction from the tape loops usually running in your head. Davidson says, “A complete atheist can use these procedures and derive as much benefit from them as an ardent believer.”

The healthy memory blog has many posts on meditation. Enter “relaxation response” in the search block. Benefits can be attained with as little at ten minutes a day meditating. Moreover, epigenetic benefits have been found . You might also want to try entering “loving kindness” into the search block.

Another area of Davidson’s interests is the way in which temperamental features, such as an inclination toward positive or negative emotionality, affect and even drive attention—an interaction that is vitally important to the quality of your experience. Davidson says, “One of life’s challenges is to maintain your focus despite the continual distracting emotional stimuli that can capture it.” Certain lucky individuals are born with an affective temperament that naturally inclines them toward an upbeat proactive focus, but research increasingly shows that others can move in that direction through attentional training.

Davidson says that although many other regions of the brain are also involved, “people who have greater activation in very specific prefrontal regions—not the whole hemisphere—report and display more of a certain positive emotion—not simply ‘happiness’—that’s associated with moving toward you goals and taking an active approach to life. Average subjects who had completed an eight-week meditation course showed significantly increased activity in the left prefrontal regions that are linked to this optimistic, goal-oriented orientation.

Not only how you focus, but also what you focus on can have important neurophysiological and behavioral consequences. Just as one-pointed concentration on a neutral target, such as your breath, particularly strengthens certain of the brain’s attentional systems, meditation on a specific emotion—unconditional love—seems to tune up certain of its affective networks.When monks who are focusing on this feeling of pure compassion are exposed to emotional sounds, brain activity increases in the insula, a region involved in visceral perception and empathy, and in the right temporo-parietal junction, an area implicated in inferring and empathizing with others’s mental states. These data complement research done by Barbara Fredrickson and others showing that concentration on positive emotions improves your affect and expands your focus. Davidson thinks that deliberately focusing on feelings such as compassion, joy, and gratitude may strengthen neurons in the left prefrontal cortex and inhibit disturbing messages from the fear-oriented amygdala.

Training your brain to pay more attention to compassion for others and less to the self’s narcissistic preoccupations would be a giant step toward a better, more enjoyable life. When you aren’t doing anything in particular but are just “at rest” our brain’s default mode kicks in. This baseline mental state often leads to inward-looking, negative rumination that tend to be, as Davidson says, “all about my, me, and mine,” Before long, you find yourself thinking, “I actually don’t feel so great,” or “Maybe the boss doesn’t really like me.” Davidson is investigating whether the brain areas associated with this “self-referencing processing” may be much less active in the monks, whether they’re meditating or not: indeed, he speculates that super advanced practitioners may perceive little of no difference between the two states.

His research increasingly shows that just as regular physical exercise can transform the proverbial 110-pound weakling into an athlete, focusing workouts can make you more focused, engaged with life, and perhaps even kinder. Davidson says “My strong intuition is that attentional training is very like the sports or musical kinds. It’s not something you can just do for a couple of weeks or years, then enjoy lifelong benefits. To maintain an optimum level of any complex skill takes work, and like great athletes and virtuosos, great meditators continue to drill intensively.”

Outside In: What You See Is What You Get

August 12, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There is impressive research that shows that “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life. In a large study of 941 Dutch subjects over ten years, the most upbeat individuals, who agreed with statements such as “often feel that life is full of promise,” were 45% less likely to die during the long experiment than were the most pessimistic.

Research reveals that the cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus confirmed that what happens to us, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to our well-being than how we respond to it. Psychologist Barbara Fredickson says that if you want to get over a bad feeling, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.” This does not mean that when something upsetting happens, we should not immediately try to force ourselves to “be happy.” First, Fredrickson says you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how we honestly feel about what occurred. Then we direct our attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light.

Unfortunately, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

With the exception of these anhedonic individuals, Fredrickson says, “Very few circumstances are one hundred percent bad.” Even in very difficult situations, she finds, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even our own values thoughts, and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a “nice thing to do,” but a proven way to expand our view of reality and lift our spirits, thus improving our ability to cope.

William James said wisdom is “the art of knowing what to overlook.” And many elders master this way of focusing. Many studies show that younger adults pay as much or more to negative information than to the positive sort. However, by middle age their focus starts to shift until in old age, they’re likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.

Research has shown that older brains attend to and remember emotional stimuli differently from younger ones. In one study, compared to younger people, they remembered twice as many positive images as the negative or neutral sort. Moreover, when the experiment was repeated using fMRI brain scans, the tests showed that in younger adults, the emotional center, the amygdala, reacted to both positive and negative images, but in older adults, only in response to positive cues. The author suggests, “Perhaps because elders use the “smart” prefrontal cortex to dampen activity in the more volatile amygdala, their brains actually encode less negative information, which naturally reduces their recall of it and its impact on their behavior.

The final paragraph to this chapter follows: “WHATEVER YOUR TEMPERAMENT, living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time, which would be both futile and grotesque. Rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grown there. Your ability to function comfortably in a dirty, germy world is just one illustration of your powerful capacity to put mind over matter and control you experience by shifting your focus from counterproductive to adaptive thoughts and feelings. In this regard, one reason why certain cultures venerate the aged for their wisdom is that elders tend to maximize opportunities to attend to the meaningful and serene, and to the possibility that, as E.M. Foster put it in A Room With a View, ”…by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

The Varieties of Empathy

March 7, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman notes that there are three kinds of empathy. One is cognitive empathy. I know how you see things. I can take your perspective. Managers high in this kind of empathy are able to get better than expected performance from employees because they put things in terms that people can understand. Executives higher in cognitive empathy do better in foreign postings, because they pick up the unspoken norms of different cultures more quickly.

Emotional empathy is a second kind of empathy: I feel with you. This is the basis for rapport and chemistry. People who excel in emotional empathy make good counselors, teachers, client managers, and group leaders because of the ability to sense in the moment how others are reacting.

Empathic concern is the third kind of empathy: I sense you need some help and I spontaneously am ready to give it. Those with empathic concern are good citizens in a group, organization, or community, who voluntarily help out as needed.

Empathy is the essential building block for compassion. We have to sense what another person is going through, what they’re feeling, in order to spark compassion in us. A spectrum runs from total self-absorption (where we don’t notice other people) to noticing them and beginning to tune in, to empathizing, to understanding their needs and having empathic concern. Next comes compassionate action, where we help them out.

Distinct brain circuitry seems be involved in different varieties of empathy. Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany studies emotional empathy. Singer sees the role of the insula as key to empathy (this is one of the neural areas that is crucial to emotional intelligence) The insula senses signals from our whole body. When we’re empathizing with someone, our mirror neurons mimic within us that person’s state of mind. The anterior area of the insula reads that pattern and tells us what that state is.

Singer has found that reading emotions in others means, at the brain level, first reading those emotions in ourselves; the insula lights up when we tune into our own sensations. She’s done fMRI studies of couples where one partner is getting a brain scan while seeing that theater partner is about to get a shock. At the moment the partner sees this the part of his or her brain lights up that would do so if he or sh were actually getting the shock, rather then just seeing the partner get it.

The recommended route to developing greater empathy abilities, involves getting feedback on what the other person actually is thinking—to verify or correct our hunches. Another means for boosting empathy has people watch a video or film without the sound and guess the emotions being depicted onscreen, checking their guesses against the actuality. Giving the neural circuits for empathy feedback on how the other person actually feels or thinks helps this circuitry learn.

The Brain’s Secret Powerhouse That Makes Us Who We Are

July 7, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Caroline Williams in the Features section of the 7 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist. The cerebellum is tucked beneath the rest of the brain and only a tenth of its size. In the 19th century phrenologists, who examined the shape of the skull to determine a person’s character, declared the cerebellum to be the root of sexual desire. They thought, the larger the cerebellum, the greater the likelihood of sexual desire.

During World War 1, the British neurologist Gordon Holmes noticed that the main problems for men whose cerebellum had been damaged by gunshot wounds had nothing to do with their sex lives and everything to do with the fine control of movements, ranging from a lack of balance to difficulties with walking, speech, and eye movements. From then on, the cerebellum was considered the mastermind of our smooth and effortless motions, with no role in thinking.

In the mid 1980s when brain imaging came along researchers noted activity in the cerebellum while people were lying still in a brain scanner and thinking. Unsure as to why this was occurring it was explained away as the neural signature of eye movements.

It took until the 1990s that it became undeniable that something else was occurring. Reports emerged describing people who had clear damage to their cerebellums but no trouble with movement. They experienced a host of emotional and cognitive issues, from depression to attention problems and an inability to navigate.

By this time, advances in neuroscience made it possible to trace long-range connections to and from the cerebellum. It was found that only a small proportion of the cerebellum was wired to the motor cortex, which is the brain region involved in making deliberate movements, explaining why movement was unaffected for some people with a damaged cerebellum. The vast majority of the cerebellum connects to regions of the cortex that are involved in cognition, perception, language and emotional processing.

A review of maps of the cerebellum built from functional MRI brain scans confirmed that all major cortical regions have loops of connections running to and from the cerebellum. The cerebellum has conversations with different areas of the cortex: taking information from them, transforming it and sending it back to where it came from.

One of the more unexpected connections was with the prefrontal cortex, which lies far from the cerebellum at the front of the brain and has long been considered the most advanced part of the brain. This region is in charge of abilities such as planning, impulse control, and emotional intelligence. It is disproportionately large and complex in humans compared with our closest species.

Robert Barton, an evolutionary neuroscientist at Durham in the UK says that when compared to primate brains, he found there is something special about the ape cerebellum, particularly our own. Throughout most of mammal evolution, the cerebellum increased in size at the same rate as the rest of the brain. But when apes split off from other primates, something strange began to happen. The ape cerebellum had a runaway growth spurt, becoming disproportionately larger than it evolved in the lesser apes. In our own brains the cerebellum is 31% larger than you would expect scaling up the brain of a non-ape primate. And it is jam-packed with brain cells, containing 16 billion more than you would anticipate finding if a monkey brain were enlarged to the size of ours. By strange coincidence, there are 16 billion neurons in the entire cortex. Neurons are particularly energy hungry cells, so this represents a huge investment of resources of the kind the brain wouldn’t both with without good reason.

Barton suspects that what started this unlikely growth spurt was the challenge of moving a much larger body through the trees. While small primates can run along the branches even gibbon-sized apes are too heavy to do the same, at least without holding on to branches above. This led apes to switch to swinging through the branches, known as brachiation, which in turn made the ability to plan ahead a distinct advantage. Barton says, “Brachiation is a relatively complex locomotor strategy. It involves fine sensory motor control, but it also involved a need to plan your route so that you can avoid accidents.”

To be able to plan a route, it helps to be be able to predict what is likely to happen next. To do that, you need to make unconscious adjustments to the speed, strength and direction of your movements on the fly.

Neuroscientists believe that the cerebellum achieves this by computing the most likely outcome based on previous experience using so-called forward models. Once it has these models in place through learning, it can then update and amend them depending on what is happening now. Narebder Ramnani, a neuroscientist at Royal Holloway University in London says, “Forward models respond very quickly because they allow the brain to generate what are likely to be the correct movements without waiting around for feedback.”

The leap in motor skills that came with brachiation and forward planning doesn’t completely explain the vast increased in the size of the cerebellum. Vineyard-like rows of bushy neurons called purkinje cells are linked by parallel fibers coming from the senses and vertical climbing fibers, which are thought to carry error messenger with which to update the internal model.

This structure is copied and pasted across the entire cerebellum with processing units set up like banks of computers, spitting out predictions all day long. Unlike the cortex, the structure of the cerebellum looks exactly the same regardless of where you look or which part of the cortex it is connected to. The only distinction is that different “modules” connect to different parts of the cortex.

Ramona says, “This suggests that whatever kind of computation that the cerebellum is carrying out for the motor regions of the brain, it is likely to be doing much the same for the cognitive and emotional regions too. And if the cerebellum is learning to automate rules for movements, it is probably doing likewise for social and emotional interactions, which it can call up, adapt and use at lightning speed.

Barton believes that having the ability to learn, plan, predict and updates was a key movement in our evolution, opening up a whole new world of complex behaviors. At first, these behaviors revolved around planning sequential movements to reach a goal, such as adapting twigs as a tool for termite fishing. But eventually thinking unhooked from movement, allowing us to plan our behaviors without moving a muscle. Barton thinks that being able to understand sequences could have allowed our ancestors to decode the gestures of others, setting the stage for the development of language.

The idea that the cerebellum makes and updates forward models contribute to the understanding of how the brain builds a picture of the word around us. The brain makes sense of the cacophony of sensory information with which it is bombarded by using past experience to make predictions that it updates as it goes along. With its forward planning capabilities, the cerebellum plays a more important role in the general working of the brain than we thought.

This new thinking strongly suggests that the cerebellum is involved in everything from planning to social interactions, and has a role in a range of conditions. For example, differences in how the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex are connected are thought to affects the ability of people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to focus.

Schizophrenia is commonly linked with cerebellum changes, which could result in an inability to balance internally generated models of reality with sensory information entering the brain.

There is some hope that giving the cerebellum a boost using a type of brain stimulation called transcranial magnetic stimulation could help. A clinical trial is under way for schizophrenia.

This stimulation could even do us all some good; a recent study found that applying it to the cerebellum of healthy volunteers improved their ability to sustain attention.

We’ve Finally Seen How the Sleeping Brain Stores Memories

December 29, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a post by Jessica Hamzelou in the 7 October 2017 issue of the New Scientist. To do this research needed to find volunteers who were able to sleep in an fMRI scanner. They needed to scan 50 people to find the 13 who were able to do so. These volunteers were taught to press a set of keys in a specific sequence. It took each person between 10 to 20 minutes to master this sequence.

Once they learned this sequence they each put on a cap of EEG electrodes to monitor the electrical activity of their brains, and entered an fMRI scanner, which detects which regions of the brain are active.

There was a specific pattern of brain activity when the volunteers performed the key-pressing task. Once they stopped, this pattern kept replaying in their brains as if each person was subconsciously reviewing what they had learned.

The volunteers were then asked to go to sleep, and they were monitored for two and a half hours. At first, the pattern of brain activity continued to replay in the outer region of the brain called the cortex, which is involved in higher thought.

When the volunteers entered non-REM sleep, which is known as the stage when we have relatively mundane dreams, the pattern started to fade in the cortex, but a similar pattern of activity started in the putamen, a region deep within the brain
(eLife, doi.org/cdsz). Shabbat Vahdat, the team leader at Stanford University, said that the memory trace evolved during sleep.

The researchers think that movement-related memories are transferred to deeper brain regions for long-term storage. Christoph Nissen at University Psychiatric Services in Bern Switzerland says, “this chimes with the hypothesis that the brain;’s cortex must free up space so that it can continue to learn new information.

The title of this post is identical to the title of a post by Jessica Hamzelou in the 7 October 2017 issue of the New Scientist. To do this research needed to find volunteers who were able to sleep in an fMRI scanner. They needed to scan 50 people to find the 13 who were able to do so. These volunteers were taught to press a set of keys in a specific sequence. It took each person between 10 to 20 minutes to master this sequence.

Once they learned this sequence they each put on a cap of EEG electrodes to monitor the electrical activity of their brains, and entered an fMRI scanner, which detects which regions of the brain are active.

There was a specific pattern of brain activity when the volunteers performed the key-pressing task. Once they stopped, this pattern kept replaying in their brains as if each person was subconsciously reviewing what they had learned.

The volunteers were then asked to go to sleep, and they were monitored for two and a half hours. At first, the pattern of brain activity continued to replay in the outer region of the brain called the cortex, which is involved in higher thought.

When the volunteers entered non-REM sleep, which is known as the stage when we have relatively mundane dreams, the pattern started to fade in the cortex, but a similar pattern of activity started in the putamen, a region deep within the brain
(eLife, doi.org/cdsz). Shabbat Vahdat, the team leader at Stanford University, said that the memory trace evolved during sleep.

The researchers think that movement-related memories are transferred to deeper brain regions for long-term storage. Christoph Nissen at University Psychiatric Services in Bern Switzerland says, “this chimes with the hypothesis that the brain;’s cortex must free up space so that it can continue to learn new information.

Suggestible You 3

March 19, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the third post on this book.

Irving Kirsch took up psychology out of a philosophical curiosity about the brain.  He mentored Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher who earned a Chinese doctorate in Eastern medicine and was an expert in acupuncture and other alternative therapies.  These two set up a lab at Harvard and for a long time their names have been synonymous with placebo research.  Kaptchuk’s work spans many complicated aspects of placebo research—genetic, biochemical—but Vance’s favorite study is a relatively simple one.  He handed patients pills and told them it was a placebo.  He explained that placebos had been shown to be very effective agains all manner of conditions, and so forth.  When these patients took the pill, it still worked.  Not as well as a secret placebo—but it worked, even though the people taking it knew it wasn’t real.

Tor Wager conducted research using functional magnetic resonance imaging f(MRI).  fMRI measures blood flow in the brain.  This blood flow is used to infer brain activity.  It is captured in voxels. A single voxel has about 63,000 neurons in it (and four times as much connective).  Nevertheless, fMRI has been invaluable in gaining insights regarding the brain.  Wager used fMRI to capture the placebo effect in action.  The first experiment used electric shock.  The research participants saw either a red or a blue spiral on a screen warning them hey would get either a strong or a mild shock, which would hit between 3 and 12 seconds later to keep them off guard (and build expectation).  Wager  looked two skin creams explaining that a one was designed to reduce the  pain and the other was a placebo.  Actually both skin creams were placebos, but the research participants said they felt less pain with the “active” cream.

The second experiment used a hot metal pad that seared the skin for 20 seconds.  This time the screen just read, “Get Ready,” and then the pad heated up.  As in the first experiment, the research participants received placebo and “pain killing” creams, both of which were actually placebos.  Wager surreptitiously lowered the temperature of the heat pad on the fake “active” cream, fooling the research participants into thinking that the cream was reducing the level of pain they felt.  Then, in the last phase (as Collca had with Vance’s shocks), he kept the temperature high.  Researchers carefully recorded how much pain the subjects reported feeling, and Wager also had their fMRI brain scans.  What the research participants reported about their pain tracked perfectly with the activation of several parts of the brain associated with pain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a role in emotions, reward systems, and empathy), the thalamus (which handles sensory perception and alertness), and the insula (which is related to consciousness and perception).  Those reporting less pain from the placebo effect showed less activity in the key pain-related brain regions.  And those who felt less of the placebo effect showed more activity.  So these research participants were not imaging less pain; they were feeling it.

More importantly, Wager observed the route that the placebo response takes from anticipation to the release of drugs inside the brain.  Pain signals normally begin in the more primitive base of the brain (relaying information from wherever in the body the pain starts) and radiate outwards.  What Ager observed was backward, with the pain signals starting in the prefrontal cortex—the most advanced logic part of the brain with executive functions—and working back to the more primitive regions.  Vance noted that this seemed to suggest a sort of collision of information:  half originating in the body as pain, and half originating in the advanced part of the brain as expectation.  Whatever comes out of that collision is what we feel.

The following summary comes directly from Vance’s book,”Pain, like any sensation, starts in the body, goes up the spine, and then travels to the deeper brain structures that distribute that information to places like the prefrontal cortex, where we can contemplate it.  Placebos, on the other hand, seem to start in the prefrontal cortex (just behind the right temple) and go backward.  They work their way to parts of the brain that handle opioids and release chemicals that dull the pain.  That also seem to tamp down activity in the parts of the brain that recognize pain in the first place.  And you feel better.  All in a fraction of a second.”

How powerful these placebo effects are varies.  In some people they barely register.  However, in others the opioid dumps can be so powerful that people become physically addicted to their own internal opioids, similar, in theory, to how people become addicted to laudanum. One theory even suggests that chronic pain might be the result of a brain addicted to its inner pharmacy, in essence, looking for a fix.

More than opioids are involved.  Over the past few decades, other brain chemical have been shown to trigger the placebo effect.    Our inner pharmacy also stocks endocannabinoids—the same chemicals found in marijuana that play an important role in pain suppression—and serotonin,  which is important intestinal movements and is the primary neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness and well-being.

The Happiness U-Curve

March 16, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association of Psychological Science (APS).

Despite all the negative components of aging, researchers consistently find a happiness paradox:  As the body declines, happiness tends to increase.  Across the lifespan this “Positivity effect” follows a U-shaped pattern:  happiness starts out high in late adolescence, bottoms out in middle age, and reaches a second zenith in old age.

A 2011 Gallup analysis of 500,000 phone interviews found that “a septuagenarian is far more likely than someone in their 30s to have high emotional health.  This happiness advantage held true even after controlling for demographic factors, including gender, race, education, marital status, employment, and regional location.

This happiness U-shape appears across the world.  Economists Andrew Oswald and David G. Blanchfower documented this pattern in more than 500,000 people living in more than 70 different countries.  Their analysis concluded that from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, people around the world tend to be happiest in their old age regardless of their nationality.

Oswald says, “Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period.  But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20 year old.  Perhaps realizing that such feelings are completely normal in midlife might even help individuals survive this phase better.”

This universality of happiness U-curve implies the aging may play a positive role in the brain.  A team of Australian researchers led by Leanne Williams, who is now at the Stanford University School of Medicine, argues that a combination of neurological changes and life experiences account for this phenomenon.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor emotional processing as people of various ages viewed photographs of different facial expressions, the researchers found that older people were more emotionally stable and less reactive to negative emotional stimuli than younger people.

Contrary to the ubiquitous negative stereotypes of declining memory and cognitive integrity, Williams and colleagues found emotional well-being may increase with normal aging.  Their study included 242 individuals (122 males and 120 females) divided up into four major age categories:  12-19 years, 20-29 years, 30-49 years, and 50-79 years.  Participants were assessed in the scanner for the neural activation evoked by emotions of threat and happiness depicted in facial expressions.  After being shown a photograph of a face, participants had to select the best option for identifying the emotion being displayed in the photograph.  They also rated on a 1-to-5 scale, the intensity of the emotion being displayed.
Rather than showing an inevitable decline across all functions, the images displayed a linear increase in emotional stability with age, meaning that people in their 70s ultimately experience better emotional well-being than most people in their 20s.

The fMRI results suggest that as we age, the way our brains process emotional stimuli  changes in ways that favor emotional stability.  The brain scans indicated that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is a brain area involved in the governance of emotional functions, processed stimuli differently across the lifespan, contributing to better emotional stability for older adults.  As we age, the mPFC areas become increasingly active while processing negative emotions compared with positive ones, suggesting that older people were comparatively better at controlling negative emotions.

This article ends as follows: “Ultimately Williams and colleagues argue that as we age this combination of neural processing, as well as an accumulation of life experience, provides older adults with the neural tools to take life in stride—a capability their younger counterparts will just have to wait for.”

In Search of the Daimon Inside

March 4, 2017

The title of this post is the title of a section in Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

The daimon is the term the Greeks used to represent the inner self.  Dr. Strecher and his research team was interested in learning how the affirmation of core values works in the brain.  This research was led by Emily Falk of the University of Pennsylvania.  The researchers started with already-identified  part of the brain related to the “self.”  It’s in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).  This part of the brain becomes active when we are processing information about our selves.

The researchers invited a group of sedentary people who would benefit from physical activity and gave each of them an accelerometer to measure activity changes.  After a week of learning about each participant’s activity patterns, the researchers used fMRI.  They asked half of them about the values they cared about most while scanning their brains.  For example, they’d ask a person who valued religion to “think of a time when religious values might give you a purpose in life.  Participants in the control group were asked to think about the values they cared least about.

Four four weeks following the scanning session, while their physical activity was still being monitored,  all participants were sent messages about increasing it.  Participants in the values affirmation group also received messages about their most important values, whereas those in the control group received messages about their least important values.

Compared to the control group, those in the group who considered their most important core values had greater activation of their vmPFC and went to increase their physical activity over the next month.  Moreover, the more the vmPFC became activated, the more physical activity occurred over the next month.  So the affirmation of core  purposeful values seemed to “open their minds” to change.

In another study psychologist Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues asked study participants either to write about their most important core value and why it was meaningful to them (the values affirmation group) or to write about their least important value and why it might be important and meaningful to other people (the control group).  Then, the participants were asked to rate how the essay they wrote made them feel.  Finally, they tested the participants’ defensiveness.  Participants affirming their most important values felt love, connectedness, and empathy, and these transcending feelings reduced their defensiveness.

Research Into Eudaemonia vs. Hedonia

March 2, 2017

This is another in a series of blogs based on Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is “ikigai”, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

Aristotle stated that eudaemonia is found more among those who have “kept acquisition of external goods within moderate limits” and that “any excessive amount of such things must either cause its possessor some injury, or, at any rate, bring him no benefit.  Niemiec and colleagues were interested in whether eudaemonic versus hedonic aspiration  of individuals just beginning their careers had an influence on well-being.  So they did a study of graduating college students, and found first, and not surprisingly, that they were more likely to attain what they had aspired to.  Those who placed importance on hedonic pursuits, money, fame, and image were more likely to find them, whereas those who aspired to eudaemonic pursuits, greater personal growth, relationships, and community, were more likely to achieve them.

The key finding follows:  Those who attained hedonic aspirations reported greater anxiety and  physical symptoms of poor health, whereas those attaining eudaemonic aspirations reported greater life satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive feelings.

The next question is whether we vary in our neural responses to eudaemonic versus hedonic rewards.  To address this question researchers examined activation in the ventral striatum of adolescents when engaged in eudaemonic versus hedonic decision making.  The ventral striatum is located in a part deep in the brain that’s associated with rewards. The adolescents’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while making eudaemonic decisions to donate money to others or hedonic decisions to keep the money.  Adolescents who had more blood flow to the ventral striatum during eudaemonic versus hedonic choices could be identified.  The symptoms of depression were measured in the beginning of the study and one year later.  After a year, adolescents with greater activation of their brain’s reward system while giving money had, on average, a decline in depressive symptoms, whereas those with greater activation in this system when keeping the money had an increase in depressive symptoms.

Dr. Strecher concludes, “This further confirms that eudaemonic and hedonic forms of happiness are indeed different and that they produce very different effects.”

Reading a Novel Affects the Connectivity in the Brain

December 11, 2016

This post is based on an article in BRAIN CONNECTIVITY, Volume 3, Number 6,
DOI:  10.1089/brain.2013.0166 titled “Short and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.”

This study used fMRI recording resting states both before and after reading a novel.   The novel was “Pompeii: A Novel” by Robert Fawcett.  Nineteen participants read this novel over a nine day period.  Resting-state  networks (RSNs) were assessed before and after reading on each of the nine days.  Baseline RSNs were taken five days before the experiment proper and for 5 days after the conclusion of the novel.

On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity  were centered on hubs in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri.  These hubs correspond to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a time course that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel.  Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in the bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for “embodied semantics.”  What the authors are referring to in embodied semantics is that the body is responding emotionally to the reading.

What HM finds most interesting about this study is that it provides data showing the
changes that take place in the brain as the result of reading.  This can be regarded as “cognitive exercise” that activates brain circuits and System 2 processing building a cognitive reserve decreasing the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

© 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.

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.”

The Silent

May 14, 2016

The fifth cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is The Silent.  This chapter is about those we cannot communicate with who, because of trauma to the brain, cannot communicate with us.  The EEG can be used to take measurements.  Disordered conscious states can be diagnosed by the EEG patterns.  An ordering of conscious states follows:

Wakefulness
Locked in syndrome
Minimally conscious
Coma
Vegetative State
Brain Death

It is unfortunate that unless EEG measurements are done along with further diagnosis the Locked in syndrome can be mistaken for a lower level of consciousness.

The term locked-in syndrome was coined by Fred Plume and Jerome Posner.  For many years it was not realized that someone was actually locked-in.  Healthy memory remembers watching a movie when someone asked suppose some is locked inside the unconscious state.  The reply was that that was something too horrible to imagine.  But there are real people who can accomplish some impressive feats.  Jean-Dominique Bauby was an editor who suffered a stroke and found himself locked-in.  But he was able to communicate by blinking his one eye that was functioning.  It took him 200,000 blinks to write the Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  He lived to see the book published, but he died before he saw the enormous success of the book and the beautiful movie  with the same title that was based on the book.

People react and adapt to this locked-in state differently.  Bauby could have continued a productive career had he not died.  But an Englishman, Tony Nicklinson, did not and wanted to commit suicide.  However, being locked-in he could not commit suicide.  He petitioned the court to allow doctors to provide an assisted suicide.  After much deliberation, the courts decline.  However, he did manage to commit suicide by refusing to swallow.

In addition to EEGs, fMRIs can provide very useful information.  The primary problem with fMRI’s is that they are expensive.

To read more about current research on this topic, see some of the healthy memory blog posts by Dehaene (see the Healthymemory blog post titled, “The Ultimate Test”).

The authors of  “The Mind Club” also examine the other end of life.  That is, when does life begin.  This is a large religious issue that can impact people of different religious beliefs.  A symposium organized in 1968 by the Christian Medical Society affirmed that “the preservation of fetal life…may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life, as well as in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and threat to the mother’s well-being, whether physical or emotional.  However, evangelical opinion swung after church leaders such as the eminent Jerry Falwell reacted to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and advocate a “life at conception” interpretation of the Bible.   As the Catholic Church claims that life begins at conception certain Protestant sects did not want to appear remiss.

However, if memory serves healthy memory correctly, at one time there were arguments among Catholic philosophers as to when the soul entered the body.  Furthermore, healthy memory believes that there were different times depending upon whether a male of female was involved.  If any readers can help me out on this particular point, it would be much appreciated.

Nevertheless, it is healthymemory’s belief that the soul is the issue.  The soul is a religious entity and the argument should be argued in theological terms.  Biological terms are irrelevant.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Ultimate Test

April 7, 2016

The Ultimate Test is the sixth chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the seventh consecutive post on this outstanding book. According to Dr. Dehaene the ultimate test of any theory of consciousness is the clinic.  Every year thousands of patients fall into a coma.  Unfortunately, many of these patients will remain permanently unresponsive in a dreaded condition called the “vegetative state.”  Worse yet, is that in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) over all the world, half of the deaths result from a clinical decision to remove life support.  How many of these decisions are wrongly made?

Coma is defined  clinically as a prolonged  loss of the capacity to be aroused.  However, coma patients are not brain-dead.  Brain death is a distinct state,characterized by a total absence of brain stem reflexes.  In brain-dead patients, positron emission tomography (PET) and other measures such as Doppler ultrasonography show that cortical metabolism and the perfusion of blood to the brain are annihilated.  Most countries, the Vatican included, identity brain death with death, period.

What is of primary interest is the “locked-in syndrome.”  This state typically results from a well-delimited lesion, usually on the protuberance of the brain stem.  Such a lesion disconnects the cortex the cortex from its output pathways  in the spinal cord.  If the cortex and the thalamus are spared, it often leaves consciousness intact.  As you can well imagine, this is a terrible state in which to find oneself.

The book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (there is also an outstanding movie by the same name) was written by Jean-Dominique Baby, who was the editor of the French fashion magazine, “Elle.”  He wrote this book one character at a time by blinking his left eyelid while an assistant recited the letters of the alphabet.  He eloquently told his story with two hundred thousand blinks telling the story of a beautiful mind shattered by a cerebral stroke.  Fortunately he lived to se the book published, but, unfortunately, he died three days later.

Comparatively speaking, Jean-Domonique Baby was well-off. Many locked-in patients have no motor responses, no means of communicating with the world.  Fortunately fMRIs can identify these individuals, given enough time.  Unfortunately, fMRIs are extremely expensive and are beyond the budgets of too many medical facilities.  But, fortunately, Dr. Dehaene has developed an inexpensive test using EEG recordings using 256 electrodes.  Information exchanged over long cortical distances is an excellent index of consciousness in patients with brain lesions.  Computations are done for each pair of electrodes for a mathematical index of the amount of information shared by the underlying brain areas.  Vegetative-state patients showed a much smaller  amount of shared information than conscious patients and control patients.  This finding fits with  with a central tenet of global workspace theory, that information exchange is an essential function of consciousness.  A follow-up study showed that the few vegetative patients who showed high information sharing had a better chance of regaining consciousness within the next days or  months.

So technology and the global workspace theory provide good diagnostic techniques.  It is hoped that interventions will be developed in the future to unlock those in a locked-in state.  Dr. Dehaene has described some promising work being done in this area.

The Signatures of Conscious Thought

April 5, 2016

“The Signatures of Conscious Thought” is the fourth chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” is an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the fifth consecutive post on this outstanding book.  In this chapter Dr. Dehaene discusses four reliable signatures of consciousness—physiological  markers that index whether the participant experienced a conscious percept.

The first signature is a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits that is caused by a conscious stimulus (remember that the participant indicates whether the stimulus is conscious).

The second signature is found in the EEG in which conscious access is accompanied by a slow wave called the P3 wave, which emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus.

The third signature is the result of conscious ignition that also triggers a late and sudden burst of high frequency oscillations.

The fourth signature  consists of many regions exchanging bidirectional messages over long distances in the cortes, which form a global brain web.

The conscious brain can perceive only a single chunk at a time.  Working memory rehearses these chunks to keep the active so they can be further processed.  The processing of a second chunk can be delayed if it occurs prior to the processing of the first chunk.  This is known as the psychological refractory period.

We can process a stimulus before we become consciously aware of the stimulus.  For example, if we place a hand on a hot stove, we’ll take it off the stove before we consciously perceive the pain caused by the hot stove.

Consciousness lives in  loops of reverberating neuronal activity, circulating in the web of our cortical connections, causing our conscious experience.

fMRI and scalp recording of brain potentials catch just a glimpse of the underlying brain activity.  Explorations of the third and fourth signatures require electrodes being placed directly inside the brain.  Such implantations of electrodes are indicated for certain epileptic patients, so science can capitalize on victims of this unfortunate malady.  I hope it provides some satisfaction to these patients that the data that is derived from these electrodes is greatly advancing science.

Subliminal stimuli can propagate  deeply into the cortex, but this brain activity is strongly amplified when the threshold for awareness is crossed, thus yielding reliable and valid signatures of consciousness.

Can You Remember Things that Never Happened?

March 24, 2016

This post is based largely on portions of the fourth chapter in Elixir J. Sternberg’s Book “Neurologic and the Brain’s idea Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.” The title of this post is the same as the title of Chapter 4.  Regular readers of the health memory blog should know the answer to the question posed in the title.  The answer is “yes.”  Elizabeth Loftus and others have done extensive research in this area.  They have a variety of methodologies for implanting false memories so that they are definitely believed.  I saw an example of one of these experiments on the PBS program NOVA.  In this case the research participants were convinced of a crime that they never had committed.  To find previous posts on this topic enter “Loftus” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Sternberg begins the chapter with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez that largely captures the workings of our memories.  “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

A research group in Israel filmed a young woman, with no history of memory problems for two days straight.  Except for the cameras they were ordinary days.  At various intervals over the next few years she filled out questionnaires that tested her memories of those days.  The researchers used fMRI while she was filling out these questionnaires.  Over time the more distorted her memory became for the details.  What was especially interesting was how her brain activity changed over time while filling out the recall questionnaires.  As time passed and the memory errors accumulated, her memory appeared to be less endless reliant on the activity of the hippocampus.  The fMRI revealed reduced activation there as her recollection became more distant.  Other regions of the brain, including the medial prefrontal cortex and associated regions, became more and more active.  The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with self-centered thinking.  Her memory was accessing not simply a record from a neurological file, but a representation stored across multiple systems.  Her memory drifted away from accurately recording the details of that time period and instead became focused on her.

“To a large extent, our memories define us.  Our personal history forges our self-image and assembles our store of knowledge.  When the unconscious system in the brain encodes our memories, it is shaping who we are.  It doesn’t record our experiences impartially as a video camera would, because it focuses on our role in the story, on the aspects that we care about.   At any given moment, there is a context of how we are feeling, our emotions at that instant, what we are expecting or dreading, and what that moment means to us.  It is on that basis that the brain begins to compose its first draft.”

Three years after 9/11, two groups of New York City residents were enrolled in an experiment to learn how their emotions at the time of the attacks might have affected their memory.  The first group of people who were in downtown Manhattan that day close to the World Trade Center, and who personally witnessed the events of that day,  The second group consisted of people who were in midtown several miles away.  As would be expected, the downtown group rated their memories as being more vivid, more complete, and more emotional instances that the midtown group did.  And they had more confidence in the accuracy of their memories, but the neurological results revealed a different story.

The hippocampus is the area key to episodic memory, of which recalling 9/11 is a conspicuous example, but depending on the type of memory being accessed, other areas of the brain may be recruited to varying degrees.  For example, the amygdala may be activated when the memory is of an emotional nature, and the posterior parahippocampal cortex will become more involved when the brain attempts to access the more meticulous spatial details surrounding the event.  The members of the midtown group showed activation of the posterior  parahippocampal cortex as they recalled the details of 9/11, but only trivial amygdala activity.  It was just the opposite for the downtown group.  They exhibited striking activity in the amygdala but not in the posterior parahippocampal cortex.  This neuroimaging suggests that the downtown group recalled the events of the day for their emotional impact at the expense of remembering peripheral details.  Studies have revealed that the more emotionally  affected people are in recalling 9/11, the better they are at consistently describing the central events of what happened to them that day, but the worse they are at providing reliable description of the emotionally  neutral details.

There is a technical difference between telling a lie and confabulation.  A person telling a lie knows that he is telling a lie.  However, a person confabulating is trying to make a coherent story where substantial memory loss has occurred.  The chapter begins and ends with a man with both severe mental and addiction problems and a faulty memory.  He continually tries to put together a coherent story from the scraps of memory he can access, because he does not want to admit that he does not know.  Although his is a clinical case, we all work to make coherent stories from what memories we can find.  The unconscious system takes a self-centered egocentric approach to construct good narratives.

The War On Drugs

November 16, 2015

The War On Drugs

I’ve written that an understanding of the brain is critical to effective citizenship and effective law making.  A good example of this is the war on drugs.  In one study about 36% of convicted criminals were under the influence of drugs at the time of their criminal offense.  Here are the results of criminalizing drug use.  A few decades ago, 38,000 Americans were in prison for drug-related offenses.  Now, it is half a million.  As a results there are more Americans per capita in prison, than in any other country.  It is ironic to call the United States the land of the free.  Moreover, this  mass incarceration has not slowed the drug trade.  Not only is the War on Drugs not being won, it is also extremely counterproductive.

Ir is clear that criminalization is not working, and that a medical approach is more appropriate.  Dr. Eagleman is working on a potentially effective approach for treating drug addicts.  It provides real-time feedback  during brain imaging allowing cocaine users to view their own brain activity  and learn how to regulate it.  He puts an addict into a fMRI brain scanner.  Pictures of crack cocaine are shown  and the addict is asked to crave.  This activates the particular regions of the brain that are known as the craving network.  Then the addict is asked to think about the costs of using crack cocaine in terms of finances, relationships, and employment.  This activates a different set of brain areas that are known as the suppression network.  These two networks are always battling it out for supremacy, and whichever wins at any moment determined what the addict dos when offered crack cocaine.

The scanner can measure whether the short-term thinking of the craving network, or the long-term  thinking of the impulse control network is winning.  The addict is given real-time visual feedback in the form of a speedometer so she can see how the battle is going.  When craving is winning, the needle is in the red zone.  When the impulse is successfully suppressing, the needle moves to the blue zone.  The addict can use different approaches to discover what works to tip the balance of the networks.

By practicing over and over, the addict gets better understanding what she needs to do to move the needle.  Although the addict might not be consciously aware of how she is doing it, but through repeated practice she can strengthen the neural circuitry that enables her to suppress.  The hope is that when she’s next offered crack she’ll have the cognitive skills to overcome her immediate cravings.  . The training simply provides the cognitive skills to have more control over her choice, rather than be a slave to her impulses.

Time will allow the estimation of the effectiveness of this technique.  But it does provide some insight into how research into the brain can address the problem of addiction.

The Importance of Testing

September 17, 2015

Complaints are being received from teachers that testing is interfering with the education of students because they have to teach to the test.  There are two points to be made here.  First of all, testing is necessary to measure whether anything is being learned.  The second point is that testing rather than interfere with learning, can enhance learning.  These points were effectively made in a Scientific American Article that can be found at
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/researchers-find-that-frequent-tests-can-boost-learning/

An example of one of these effective teaching techniques was provided in the article.  The teacher posted a multiple choice question on a smartboard screen.  The students clicked in their answers which were posted on the bottom of the smart board screen.  So the students needed to retrieve information to make their selections.  The teacher received feedback on the knowledge of the class, and was able to provide feedback for the wrong answers.  When every student provides the correct answer, the class members raise their hands and wiggle their fingers in unison, which is an exuberant gesture that they call “spirit fingers.”

There is ample evidence from research in cognitive psychology that retrieval practice increases learning.  Whenever we retrieve a memory, the memory representation changes, and its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable, and more accessible.  If material is simply reread, this retrieval practice does not occur.  Retrieval strengthens and has additional benefits noted by cognitive psychologist Jeffrey Karpicke.  He notes that as our memory is necessarily selective, the usefulness of a fact or idea—as demonstrated by how often we have reason to recall it—makes a sound basis for selection.   He said that “our minds are sensitive to the likelihood that we’ll need knowledge at a future time, and if we retrieve a piece of information now, there’s a good chance that we’ll need it again.  The process of retrieving a memory alters that memory in anticipation of demands we may encounter in the future.”

Karpicke argues that retrieving is the principal way learning happens, “Recalling information we’re already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event that storing that information in the first place.  Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.”  Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related material that was not directly tested.  When we are sifting through our mind for the particular piece of information we are trying to recollect, we call up associated memories and in doing so strengthen them as well.

I remember from my college day the yellow marked sections whenever I had a previously owned text.  I made it a point to never rely upon those yellow marked sections.  It was my guess that when studying for a test, the previous user simply reread the highlighted section.  I never did that.   I always tried to recall the gist of the material, and then I checked my recall.  If just rereading highlighted sections was done, my guess is that the best result would be a C.  My goal was an A, and I often received them.

There are hundreds of studies hat have demonstrated retrieval practice is better than virtually any other method of teaching, including doing concept maps.

Research using fMRI has shown that calling up information from memory versus simply restudying it, produces higher levels of activity in particular areas of the brain. These regions are associated with the consolidation, or stabilization, of memories and with the generation of cues that makes memory readily accessible for later recall.  Research has demonstrated that the more active these regions are during an initial learning session, the more successful is recall weeks or months later.

So this testing versus learning complaint is a pseudo issue.  It is not an issue of teaching to the test.  Rather it is a matter of developing teaching plans that require students to actively recall information rather than to simply reread material that will likely be on the  test.  This is a pseudo complaint.  If done properly it is a win win issue.

However, according to the Scientific American article there is a feature of standardized tests that prevents them from being used more effectively as  occasions for learning, and that is that the questions they ask tend to be of a superficial natures, which tends to lead to superficial learning.  There is a tool called Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, created by Norman Webb, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.  This tool identifies four levels of mental rigor:
DOK1 (simple recall)
DOK2 (application of skills and concepts)
DOK3 (reasoning and inference)
DOK4 (extended planning and investigation)
Most questions on state tests were DOK1 or DOK2.

So rather than complain about testing, the complaints should be on the DOK required on the tests.  The deeper the depth of knowledge, the better the test, which leads to more effective learning.

© 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.

Controlling Pain in Our Minds

May 16, 2015

This blog post is based on an article in the New Scientist (17 Jan 2015, p.10) by Jessica Hamzelou titled “Pain Really Can Be All in Your Mind.”  She reported research  by Tor Wager at the University of Colorado Boulder that was published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS Biology, dpi.org/x55).    They used fMRI to examine the brain activity  of 33 healthy adults.  They first watched the changing activity  as they applied increasing  heat to the participants arms.  A range of brain structures lit up as the heat became painful.  This was a familiar pattern of activity  called the neurologic pain signature.

The researchers wanted to know if the participants  could control the pain by thought alone.  They asked the participants to rethink their pain either as blistering heat, or as a warm blanket on a cool day.  Although the participants couldn’t change the level of activity in the neurologic pain signature, they could alter the amount of pain they felt.  When they did this, a distinct  set of brain structures linking the nucleus accumbens and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex became active.

Vanaia Apkarian of Northwestern University noted,”It’s a major finding.  For the first time, we’ve established  the possibility of modulating pain through two different pathways.”  Brain scans can compare the strengths of activation of these two brain networks to work out how much pain has a physical cause, and how much is due to their thoughts and emotions.

These finding built on prior work by Apkarian’s team, who discovered that chronic back pain seems to be associated with a pattern of brain activity not usually seen with physical pain.  The brain regions active in Apkarian’s patients are the same as those active  in the participants controlling pain in Wager’s study.

It is possible that in chronic pain conditions, psychological pain might overtake physical pain as the main contributor to the overall sensation.  This might be the reason that traditional pain relief such as opiods don’t offer much relief from pain.

Hamezelou notes, “Wager’s study suggests that cognitive therapies and techniques such as nuerofeedback—where people learn to control their brain activity by watching how it changes in real time—might offer a better approach.”

Ben Seymour, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge notes, “in the next five to 10 years, we’ll see a huge change in the way clinicians deal with pain.  Rather than being passed on what the patient says, we’ll be building  a richer picture of the connections in the person’s brain to identify what type of pain they have.

More on Erroneous Eyewitness Testimony

March 11, 2015

This post is based primarily on an article by Steven J. Frenda, Rebecca M. Nichols, and Elizabeth F. Loftus titled “Current Issues and Advances in Information Research,” in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2015) 20, 20-23.  They note a recent discussion of the distorting effects witnesses have on the memory of other witnesses by Wright, Memon, Skakerberg, and and Gabbert (2009) in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 174-178.  They propose that there three accounts of why eyewitnesses come to report incorrect information.
A witness’s report may be altered due to normative social influence.  A witness might decide that the cost of disagreeing with law enforcement—or with other witnesses—is too high, and so adjusts her report accordingly.
Through informational social influence processes, a witness comes to endorse a version of events that is different from what he remembers because he believes it to be truer or more accurate than hi own memory.
A witness’s memory can become distorted, sometimes as a result of being exposed to incorrect or misleading information.
It is this third possibility that this blog post addresses.

Perhaps the first question is “who is vulnerable?”  The short answer is that nobody is immune to the distorting effects of misinformation, but some people are more vulnerable than others.  Very young children and the elderly are more susceptible to misinformation than adolescents and adults.  People who report lapses in memory and attention are also specially vulnerable.  These facts suggest that a poverty of cognitive resources results in an increased reliance on external cues to reconstruct memories.  Misinformation effects are easier to obtain when individuals’ attentional resources are limited.  Similarly, people who perceive themselves to be forgetful and who experience memory lapses may be less able or willing to depend on their own resources as the sole source of information as they mental reconstruct an event.

Two major studies containing more than 400 participants explored cognitive ability and personality factors as predictors of susceptibility to misinformation.  In these studies participants viewed slides of two crimes and later read narratives of the crimes that contained misinformation.  Participants who had higher intelligence scores, greater perceptual abilities, greater working memory capacities, and greater performance on face recognition tasks tended to resist misinformation and produce fewer false memories.   Some personality characteristics were also shown to be associated with false memory formation, particularly in individuals with lesser cognitive ability.  Individuals low in fear of negative evaluation and harm avoidance, and those high in cooperativeness, reward dependence and self-directedness were associated with increased vulnerability to misinformation effects.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI is being used to investigate brain activity association with misinformation effects.  In one study participants were shown a series of photographs and later listed to an auditory narrative describing, which included misinformation.  Shortly thereafter, they were placed in an MRI scanner and given a test of their memory for the photographs.  fMRI data revealed similar patterns of brain activity, but the true memories (formed by visual information) showed somewhat more activation in the visual cortex, whereas the false memories (derived from the auditory narrative) showed somewhat more activity in the auditory cortex.

Obviously a critical question is how to protect against misinformation effects.  To this end a cognitive interview (CI) methodology, which consists of a set of rules and guidelines for  interviewing eyewitnesses.  For example, the recommended methodology uses free recall, contextual cues, temporal ordering of events, and recalling an event from a variety of perspectives (for example, from a perpetrator’s point of view).
The technique also recommends that investigators avoid suggestive questioning, that they develop rapport with the witness, and discourages witnesses from guessing.  Research has supported the idea that the CI reduces or eliminates the misinformation effect.

Here the misinformation effect is considered only in the context of eyewitness testimony.  Unfortunately misinformation is a large problem that has only been exacerbated with the advent of the internet.  The central problem is that it is difficult to correct misinformation.  I would contend that there is an epidemic of misinformation with large numbers of people holding notions contrary to science.  It is extremely difficult to correct their misconceptions.  To read more about misinformation simply enter “misinformation”  into the healthy memory search box.

Why People Play Slot Machines

May 13, 2014

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that its author believes that it is foolish to play casino games.  Casino games are structured such that the odds always favor the casino, so although there might be winnings in the short run, there is no way there will be winnings in the long run.  In the case of slot machines, they’re usually set up to for a 10% share of the play.  So if you spend $100 on a slot machine, you are likely to lose $10.
So I was quite pleased to come upon an article in The Economist1  that addressed this topic.  Slot machines are tweaked within the realm of randomness  such that “near wins” of two out of three symbols appear quite often.  The notion is that players are so pepped by “almost” winning that they are stimulated to carry on playing.
Brain imaging techniques were used by Dymond of Swansea University in Britain and his colleagues to try to determine why this is the case.  functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) , which show which part of the brain are especially active at any given moment was one technique.  A second technique was magnetoencephalography (MEG) measure the electrical nature of that activity.   These two techniques enabled the building of a map for each research participant’s brain as she played on a simulated slot machine.
The focus was on the theta response, the electrical activity in the 4-7 Hz range.  Previous research has identified this response to be related to the processing of experiences of winning and losing.  There were two groups in the experiment.  One group consisted of participants addicted to playing slot machines.  A second group consisted of non-gamblers.  All research participants showed high theta responses to wins and low ones to loses.  The responses to near wins showed similar responses with the exception of the right orbitofrontal cortex.  The theta activity in the right orbitofrontal cortex of the gamblers showed spikes of about 32% and 27% in their theta waves for wins and near wins respectively.  Non-gamblers showed similar responses for wins, but only a 13% increase in theta wave activity for near wins.
This provides a good example of where your mind needs to control your brain.  Compulsive gamblers should realize that they are compulsive due to their brain responses and adjust their behaviors accordingly.  They need to realize that they are competing against a machine that has been cleverly designed go make them believe they are going to win, when in reality, they will lose in the end.  In other words, their minds need to overrule their brains.

© 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.

What Is fMRI?

January 11, 2014

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

fMRI is the basis for most of the brain images we see. It stands for Functional Magnetic Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Here is a brief description of how it works. Functional MRI reveals oxygen consumption and regional blood flow in the brain. Blood that is carrying more oxygen has different magnetic properties than blood that has already given up its oxygen to supply neurons. The brain will first be scanned which the participant is resting in the device to establish a baseline level. Then the participant is asked to perform a particular task of interest. The difference between this baseline and the activity when this specific task is being performed is measured and called the BOLD (blood-oxygen level response). The higher the level of oxygenated to deoxygenated blood in a particular area of the brain, the higher the energy consumption in that region. The basic unit of analysis in fMRI is called the voxel, which is a combination of volume and pixel. It is a three dimensional unit.

Subtraction is performed on a voxel by voxel level. Each voxel is then assigned a color depending on the strength of the difference in activation of that individual voxel between the control and experimental conditions. The computer then generates an image highlighting the regions that become more active in one condition relative to the other. By convention, researchers use color gradations to reflect the likelihood that the subtraction was not due to chance. A bright color like yellow might mean that the there is only one chance in a thousand that the differences are due to chance, whereas a darker color like purple might mean that the chances are higher, and that the brain differences were more likely to be attributable to random fluctuations in the data. Finally, the computer filters out background noise and prepares the data to be mapped onto a three-dimensional template of the human brain.

The final brain scan that we see rarely portrays the brain activity of a single person. Instead it almost always represents the averaged results of all participants in the study. Any resemblance between brain scans and photographs is illusory. Photos capture images in real time and space. Functional imaging scans are constructed from information derived from the magnetic properties of blood flowing in the brain. Scans are simply a representation of local activation based on statistical differences in BOLD signals.

How Can The Brain Be Imaged?

November 20, 2009

Technologies that allow us to view what is going on inside the brain are a fairly new and exciting development. This blog provides a very brief explanation of these techniques. There will be frequent references to this blog in future presentations of brain imaging studies.

One of the first techniques was Positron Emission Tomography (PET). PET imaging requires that a radioactive substance called a radiotracer been injected into the bloodstream. This radiotracer makes its way into the brain. The level of radioactivity is extremely low so that the individual undergoing the imaging is not put at risk. The individual lies down within the PET imaging machine and is asked to perform different tasks. A computer processes the data to produce 2- or 3 – dimensional images. The images show blood flow and oxygen and glucose metabolism in the tissues of the brain. These images reflect the amount of brain activity in the different regions of the brain.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a more recent development that does not require the injection of radioisotopes into the blood stream. It is an enhancement of Magnetic Resonance Imaging where the individual lies on a table with her head inside a giant magnet. Protons inside the atoms in the brain align themselves with the magnetic field and are wacked temporarily out of alignment by a pulse of radio waves aimed at the brain. As the protons relax back into alignment again, they emit radio waves that a computer uses to create a brain snapshot. fMRI takes advantage of two more facts about the body: (1) blood contains iron and (2) blood rushes to a specific part of the brain when it is activated. As freshly oxygenated blood zooms into a region, the iron distorts the magnetic field enough for the scanner to pick it up.

Prior to the development of these imaging techniques, researchers were restricted to recording electrical activity in the brain from the scalps of humans. Still much valuable data was obtained and these techniques are still used today. Event-related potentials (ERPs) are electrical waveforms that are elicited by specific sights, sounds, or other stimuli. The P300 is a bump in the electrical waveform that occurs within one-third of a second after a person is exposed to a word or some other external stimulus. This heightened activity reflects the additional processing that the brain devotes to novel, distinctive events. Larger P300s tend to be associated with greater subsequent recall.[1]


[1] Reported in Schacter (1996).  Searching for memory:  the brain, the mind, and the past.    New York:  Basic Books.   p. 55.