Posts Tagged ‘Healthy Memory’

What’s Next for The March for Science?

April 24, 2017

To find out go to https://satellites.marchforscience.com

And remember that science is essential for a healthy memory!

Keys to a Healthy Memory: Growth Mindsets and Mindfulness

October 22, 2015

The advice from the beginning of this blog has been to continually grow your mind as long as you live.  Even if the term growth mindset was not used, growth mindsets were what was implied.  What also became clear in Carol Dweck’s, Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success was that growth mindsets are key to effective interpersonal relationships, parenting, coaching, and business, virtually in every aspect of living.

MIndfulness provide a means of effectively dealing with life, better health, better interpersonal relations, and effective focus and control of attention.  Attention is key to learning, so it is also key to an effective growth mindset.  There have been many healthy memory posts on Mindfulness and you can anticipate many more in the future.

Similarly, you can anticipate many more posts on growth mindsets, but bear in mind that many previous posts have provided techniques and information for effective growth mindsets.

© 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 Importance of a Growth Mindset

October 13, 2015

According to the psychologist Carol Dweck in Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success, there are two types of mindsets:  fixed and growth.  People with a fixed mindset believe that we are who we are, and abilities can only be revealed, not created and developed.  They say things like “I’m bad in math” and see that as a fixed feature like being female or left-handed (and as we know, even these features can be changed).  The problem with this mindset is that it has serious consequences because a person who thinks they are poor at math will remain poor at math and won’t try hard to improve; they believe this would be pointless.  Whatever potential these people have will not be realized if they think that these skills are immutable.

However, people with growth mindsets believe that skills can be developed if they are worked at.  The growth mindset is the true mindset, that allow for personal development.  Fixed mindsets are erroneous mindsets that preclude further development.

Dweck has conducted experiments that illustrate and provide insight into this difference.  In one experiment she gave relatively easy experiments to fifth graders, which they enjoyed. Then she gave the children harder puzzles. Some children suddenly lost interest and declined an offer to take the puzzles home.  Other children loved the harder puzzles more than the easy ones and wanted to know how they could get more of these puzzles.  Dweck noted that the difference between the two groups was not “puzzle-solving talent.”  Among the equally adept children, some were turned off by the tougher challenge while others were intrigued.  They key factor was mindset.

In another experiment Dweck found that even when the fixed-minded try, they don’t get as much from the experience as those who believe they can grow.  She scanned the brains of volunteers as they answered hard questions, then were told whether  their answers were right or wrong and given information that could help them improve.  The scans showed that volunteers with a fixed mindset were fully engaged when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong, but that’s all they apparently cared about.  Information that could help them improve their answers didn’t engage them.  Even when they’d  gotten an answer wrong, they were not interested in what the right answer was.  Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention  to information that could stretch their knowledge.  For them, learning was a top priority.

Having a growth mindset is important for building and maintaining a healthy memory.  Having a growth mindset is even more important as we grow older.  See the healthy memory blog posts (yes, there are two of them) “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.  Having a growth mindset will build a cognitive reserve and assist in warding off dementia.

© 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.

There Will Be Another Brief Hiatus in New Posts

February 1, 2015

Nevertheless with more than 550 Healthymemory Blog posts I think there is sufficient reading material.  If I had to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  This can be found by entering this title in the search box of the healthy memory blog.  This search block can be used to identify blog posts on the following topics.

Posts based on whom I regard as the most important cognitive psychologists:  Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, plus Stanovich and Davidson.  There are posts on the important topics of attention and cognitive reserve.  Other topics of potential interest are The Flynn Effect, mindfulness, meditation, memory champs, contemplative computing, behavioral economics, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you are encouraged to enter any of your favorite topics into the healthymemory blog search block

Enjoy.  I shall return.

© 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.

Public to Get Access to U.S. Research

May 1, 2013

This was a title of an article in the Washington Post.1 This news is long overdue. Most scientific professional publications are available through publishers and professional organizations. Usually there are discounts for members of professional organizations, but even we usually pay. I do have access to those published by societies to which I belong. Often, there is an article that I would like to read in a publication to which I don’t have access. Sometimes the fees to access these articles are $30 or higher. It is understandable that publishers, who are in the stated business of making a profit, have such charges. But the charters of most professional societies typically state that one of their objectives is to spread technical knowledge. I hope the irony is obvious here.

Bear in mind that the vast amount of this research is funded by the federal government. So we taxpayers are paying for this research. Then why don’t we have ready access to it? According to the article, agency leaders have been directed to develop rules for releasing federally backed research within a year of publication. Some argue that there should not even be a year’s delay in releasing the information. I agree with these people, but my priority is on the implementation of some policy, and I am against any lengthy debate that would delay implementation.

Aaron Swartz was a genius. He was a brilliant programmer with a list of accomplishments, one of which was the development of Reddit, one of the world’s most widely used social-networking news sites. Two years ago, he was indicted on multiple felony accounts for downloading several million articles from the academic database JSTOR. Although it is not known what his motivation was precisely, one idea is that he intended to upload them onto the Web, so that they could be accessed by anyone. Aaron Swartz was a brilliant and sensitive individual. He was indicted by the federal government and subsequently committed suicide. The March 11, 2013 New Yorker (beginning on page 48) does an admiral job of characterizing this fascinating and interesting individual.

This is more than an issue of fairness. The ready access to this information will benefit both science and the economy. An example cited in the Post article was about a teenage scientist, Jack Andraka, who relied on open access articles to develop a five-minute $3 test for pancreatic cancer.
Fortunately, he was successful, but the charged-for article were an obstacle to his progress.

It should be mentioned that progress has been made in this area. Since 2003 there has been a Public Library of Science (PloS). The healthymemory blog has cited publications from this source and finds it most useful. But this progress has been too slow. This is just another example of how extreme economics has plaques us (See the healthymemory blog post, “Extreme Economics.”)

Similar problems exist regarding the costs of books and higher education, but I’ll stop here before I begin that rant. Enter “higher education” into the search block to read previous rants.

1Vastag, B., & Brown, D. (2013). February 23, A5.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Self-Affirmation Rather Then Self-Esteem

April 28, 2013

This post is largely based on an article by Sharon Begley, “To Love You Is to Know You,” published in the June issue of Mindful magazine. The importance of self-esteem was emphasized in the 1980s. All sorts of benefits were supposed to accrue to those with high self-esteem. Consequently programs were developed to enhance self-esteem. I remember being criticized by a student in her course evaluation for my having damaged her self-esteem. Although I had given the student a solid “A” in the course, she said that her self-esteem had suffered due to her getting several incorrect answers on an exam.

Subsequent research has debunked the benefits of self-esteem. Although programs to build self-esteem might build self-esteem in individuals, this self-esteem does not manifest itself in better performance in school or work, in particular, and in life, in general. Fortunately a new concept has emerged to replace the concept of self-esteem. This new concept is self-affirmation. The simplest way to think of self-affirmation is as self-esteem absent the “I’m wonderful” component. Another way of thinking of self-affirmation is as “mindfulness of the self.” According to the article, “Self-affirmation is the process of reminding yourself of the values and interests that constitute your true or core self.”

Research into self-affirmation has shown that self-affirmation can not only reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that usually arise when we make mistakes, but it can also help us to learn from our mistakes so that we do better the next time. Self-affirmation makes us less defensive when receiving threatening information, be it negative feedback from a supervisor, criticism from a loved one, or poor performance. We become more open to opposing views and more self-controlled.

A study done by the psychologist Lisa Legault provides some insight as to the mechanisms underlying the benefits of self-affirmation. Two groups of college students were provided different instructions. One group performed an exercise to foster self-affirmation; the control group performed an exercise that did not foster self-affirmation. Both groups performed the same simple task: to press a button whenever an “M” appeared on a computer screen for one-tenth of a second. If a “W” appeared, they were to refrain from pushing the button. Brain activity was monitored when they performed this task. The group given the self-affirmation instructions made fewer errors of commission, pressing the button when the “W” appeared (7% vs. 12.4%). The more important result was the difference in brain activity. There is a brain wave that occurs when a mistake is made called error-related negativity (ERN). This ERN is generated by the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in detecting errors, anticipating rewards, and being emotionally aware. It generates the feeling that a mistake was made. It has a strong emotional component and is why we feel bad when we mess up. The more we care, the stronger the ERN that results when we fail or receive criticism. In this study, the self-affirmation group had stronger ERN waves than the control group. It appears that this enhanced response to the task resulted in better performance.

In view of these results, it becomes clear why self-esteem is ineffective. A person with high self-esteem might not care how well he does. He already thinks that he is great. Similarly, a person with high self-esteem is likely to reject criticism because he thinks he is great. The result is that learning does not occur. Now a person with self-affirmation will have among her core beliefs that she is capable of succeeding, but is open to criticism and failure as the means to success. Mistakes will feel more troublesome, but that results in more attention and better learning.

Voice-Activated Texting is Still Dangerous

April 24, 2013

The effects of voice-activated texting were tested at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.1 Quite a few years ago, I, along with my colleagues, spent a very interesting day at this institute. It is an impressive institute that conducts quality research. The institute assessed a mobile device that translates words into text messages. They found that it is every bit as dangerous as conventional texting. Reaction times were twice as slow, and eyes were on the road much less often than when they were not texting. This result is not surprising; it is analogous to using hands free phones while driving. Research has shown that using a hands free phone while driving is analogous to driving under the influence of alcohol. The problem is one of attentional limitations, our limited ability to process information. Texting or speaking on the phone degrades driving performance. Although it is true that texting is more dangerous than speaking on the phone, what bothers me is that all the warnings involve texting. Using the phone while driving is still dangerous. And hands free laws are irrelevant to the problem.

According to the article, about 3,300 people a year die in crashes attributed to distracted driving , with 387,000 more injured in 2011. Frankly, I regard these numbers, particularly the numbers involving deaths, to be unrealistically low. What was especially alarming was the survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 35 percent of drivers admitted that they had recently read text messages or e-mail while driving, and that 26 percent said they had sent a text message. If you are wondering why I find these numbers so worrisome, please read the healthymemory blog post, “The “Now” is Really the “Then.” To learn more about the dangers of using the phone while driving, see the healthymemory blog posts, “Phone and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving,” “Doing Two Things at Once is NOT Better,” and “Multitasking is a Trade-Off.” Texting and phoning while driving might be conveniences, but remember that for many years we did just fine without these conveniences. If you want to put yourself and your passengers at risk is one matter, but consider the risk you are placing on others on the road.

1Halsey III, A. (2013) Drivers not safer with voice-activated texting study finds. Washington Post, 23 April, B1.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Antidote for Worry

April 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Update on the Prospect of a Cure for Alzheimer’s

April 17, 2013

A recent article provides an update on the prospect of a cure for Alzheimer’s.1 Here are some quotes from the article, attributed to neuropsychologist Peter J. Snyder, “There’s not going to be a single magic bullet… This isn’t a disease, but a syndrome with multiple etiologies.” Long time readers of the healthymemory blog might remember that Alzheimer himself was doubtful that this was a disease. His employment situation motivated him to make that argument (see the healthymemory blog post, “Sigmoid Freud and Alzheimer’s Disease”).

Previous healthymemory blog posts have made the point that autopsies of individuals who had never shown signs of Alzheimer’s were found to have substantial buildups of amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. That led me to conclude that the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles might be a necessary, but not a sufficient cause of Alzheimer’s. However, recent imaging studies have shown that about 30 percent of healthy adults who never develop Alzheimer’s have fairly substantial plaque buildups. A less common occurrence is people who have classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s but no amyloid in the brain. Consequently I have come to the conclusion that amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s.

It is important to note that large portion of the research on Alzheimer’s was targeted at this amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. This is an indication of how far off the mark this research has been. The conclusion reached by Snyder is that a cure for Alzheimer’s is not within reach. However, he argues that “If we can slow the progression by just five years, we can cut the cost of Alzheimer’s to society by 2050 by almost 50 percent. It’s an attainable goal.’

I would like to see the logic and the computations regarding this last statement. Won’t slowing the progression increase the duration of the disease and hence the costs? For myself, I have no interest in a treatment that will prolong the disease, prolong my agony.

There is the new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies (BRAIN). I am wildly enthusiastic about this project, and I am confident that much will be learned. However, I fear that it has been oversold with respect to cures for brain diseases and brain injuries. I hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that I am not.

And for you Baby Boomers , a cure is unlikely. Start building your cognitive reserve by following recommendation in the healthymemory blog and in similar publications. If you have not already, start building a healthy memory and a cognitive reserve (if you don’t know what a cognitive reserve is enter “cognitive reserve” into the search block of the healthymemory blog).

1Voelker, R. (2013) The pre-Alzheimer’s Brain. Monitor on Psychology, March, 46-49.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Alzheimer’s is the Most Expensive Malady in the United States

April 14, 2013

According to a recent Rand Study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, Alzheimer’s is the most expensive malady in the United States, costing somewhere from $157 billion to $215 billion per year. This makes it more expensive than heart disease and cancer, the two biggest killers, but as patients ultimately die from Alzheimer’s, this is a matter of how the books are kept. It is not the drugs nor other medical treatments that is the biggest cost of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, but the care that is needed to get mentally impaired people through daily life. Dementia’s direct costs, including medicines and nursing homes, are $109 billion in 2010 dollars.

According to the RAND study, nearly 15% of people aged 71 or older have dementia. That is about 3.8 million people. It is estimated that by 2040 the number will balloon to 9.1 million people. According to Dr. Richard J. Hodes, the director of the National Institute on Aging, “ I don’t know of any other disease predicting such a huge increase. And as we have the baby boomer group maturing, there are going to be more older people with fewer children to be informal caregivers for them, which is going to intensify the problem even more.”

The prospects of a cure are remote and drug treatments promise only to delay the progression of the disease. 74 to 84 percent of the costs involves helping patients in nursing homes or at home manage the most basic activities of life as they become increasingly impaired cognitively and then physically. A case of dementia costs from $41,000 to $56,000 a year. The projection is that the total costs of dementia care will more than double by 2040, to a range of $379 billion to $511 billion. They ranged from $159 billion to $215 billion in 2010. It is estimated that 22 percent of the people aged 71 and older (about 5.4 million) have mild cognitive impairment. This means that the level of cognitive impairment is mild and does not reach the threshold for dementia. About 12% of these people develop dementia each year.

The preceding solely concerns the economics of dementia. The personal loss is tragic. A lifelong of learning and experiences increasingly slip from memory. Friends and family members might not be recognized. Eventually, the self is lost, and the person does not remember who he or she is or whether he or she is a he or a she.

The best hope an individual has of avoiding or mitigating this loss is to live a healthy lifestyle, not only physically, but also cognitively, and to build a cognitive reserve. Research has shown that there are individuals with plaque and neurofibril tangles who have not exhibited symptoms of dementia. The healthymemory blog is dedicated to helping individuals build this cognitive reserve.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Microsoft and Its Annoying, Costly Upgrades

April 10, 2013

I’ve about had it with Microsoft and the so-called upgrades of its operating systems and applications. Not once have I been able to perceive any benefit. But there has been precious time lost and aggravation. Out comes an upgrade and suddenly I am unable to perform functions that I have long performed. Moreover, it is not easy to find the new procedures for performing these functions.

The impacts of these upgrades on business, government, and organizations are pernicious. Time is money and the inability to perform long used functions, and the need to learn new ways of performing these long practiced functions are costly in addition to being extremely aggravating. In psychology we would call this an A-B, A-C negative transfer paradigm. Yet business, government, organizations, and individuals continue to suffer in silence. It’s outrageous.

When buying a new computer it should not come with a pre-installed operating system. The purchaser should be offered a choice of operating systems, and older versions of software should still be able to run on new operating systems. The same requirements are needed for applications. As for applications, I’ve found the offerings at http://www.openoffice.org to be superior to those of Microsoft. Moreover, they are free, although it is in our own interest to offer support. I believe that Firefox is regarded as a superior browser. Mozilla also has an email program, Thunderbird. If you have not yet done so, I encourage you to visit their website at www.mozilla.org. Businesses, governments, and other organizations should also avail themselves of these options.

Even if upgrades are needed from a systems perspective, the interface that confronts the user should remain as identical as possible. The Dvorak keyboard is known to be superior to the standard QWERTY keyboard, yet there has been a wise decision made not to convert whole scale to the Dvorak keyboard. A similar attitude needs to maintain with respect to the interfaces of operation systems and applications.

Software companies should be required to support all versions of their products or be subject to fines and lawsuits. As you have already ascertained, I regard most upgrades as ripoffs, impure and complex.

Should we march on Washington, D.C., or the Microsoft Campus in the state of Washington? I am not suggesting that we carry torches and pitchforks as if we were attacking Dr. Frankenstein‘s castle, tempting as that might be. But orderly demonstrations would be in order. To quote from the movie, Network, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!”

Achieving Mindfulness

April 3, 2013

Mindfulness has become a hot topic. There is a new monthly magazine, Mindful, www.mindful.org, the the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind features articles on mindfulness. Most approaches to mindfulness involve meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. The psychologist Richard Davidson has identified six dimensions of emotional style (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style): resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attention. He has techniques, which can be found in the healthymemory blog (use the blogs search box), for cultivating each of these dimensions.

Meditation techniques range from exercises designed to train concentrative focus, a narrowing of attention, to exercises designed to train open monitoring, a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Both skills are necessary. There are times when we need to focus on a particular problem or idea and there are types where we need to allow new thoughts into our consciousness without rejecting them out of hand as a result of selection biases. In the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind there is a piece on Capturing Attention on page 33. This is an exercise by Scott Rogers, the Director of Programs and Training, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, that incorporates both types of training into a single meditation session. Here is the technique:

“Sit in an upright, stable position, hands resting on your thighs or cradled together.

Lower or close your eyes, whichever is more comfortable.

Attend to your breath, following its movement throughout your body.

Notice the sensations around your belly as air flows into and out of your nose and mouth. You have been breathing all day—all of your life—and in this moment, you are simply noticing your breath.

Select one area of your body affected by your breathing and focus your attention there. Control your focus, not the breathing itself.

When you notice your mind wandering – and it will – bring your attention back to your breath.

After five to ten minutes, switch from focusing to monitoring. Think of your mind as a vast open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.

Feel you whole body move with your breath. Be receptive to your sensations, noticing what arises in the moment. Be attentive to the changing quality of experience – sounds, aromas, the caress of a breeze…thoughts.

After about five more minutes, lift your gaze and open your eyes.

The “Now” is Really the “Then”

March 31, 2013

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mind vs. Brain

March 27, 2013

The first issue of the new publication, Mindfulness, features a column by Sharon Begley having the same title as this blog post. Her article motivated this current post. Scientists seem to be reluctant to talk about mind in a scientific context. Cartesian dualism is no longer in vogue. Neuroscience is the new kid on the block capturing fascinating images of the brain in action. The brain constitutes solid science; the mind remains somewhat questionable. There is a consensus that the mind is an emergent phenomenon emerging from the brain. However, the status of the mind remains questionable.

What is overlooked is that the neuroscience would be meaningless absent the mind. Images could be collected of the brain in action, but there would be no way of knowing what they mean. The typical brain imaging paradigm involves instructing people to do something and see what images emerge. That something is resident in the minds of both the experimental participants and the scientists doing the experiment. Otherwise the entire exercise would be meaningless.

The law of parsimony plays an important role in science. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best. So the simplest explanation is that the brain engenders activity which we interpret as the mind. This explanation assumes that the mind is epiphenomenal. In other words, it serves as a movie we passively observe and experience as mind. It is important to realize that parsimony can be overdone. The notion is that the explanation that should be chosen is the one that is simplest that still explains the most.

The first question to ask about the mind, is why is it there? Even if it is an epiphenomenon, why does it exist? Evolutionary explanations like to include reasons why things involved. So one should think that if the mind exists, there should be a reason for it. In my view the reason is for it to act on the brain. The entire notion of mindfulness is that the mind can act upon the brain, and there is ample evidence to accept this notion. Moreover, there is a pragmatic argument. Consider two individuals. One is a practitioner of mindfulness and engages in practices to control her emotions and to improve her cognitive function. The other believes that her mind is an epiphenomenon and that her brain will determine what happens. Which one do you think will be happier and more successful?

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Aging and Decline: A Self-fulfilling Prophecy?

March 24, 2013

An article in the Alexandria/Arlington Local Living insert of the March 14 Washington Post titled “Getting Stronger After a Century” inspired this healthymemory blog post. This article is about a man who did not start working out until he was 98. He is now 102 and is “able to curl 40 pounds, work out vigorously on a rowing machine and deftly pluck bouncing eight-pound kettle balls from the air with the hand-eye coordination of a much younger man.” The article later states that experts say that many people don’t realize that problems they associate with old age actually are caused by poor fitness. In other words, the experts are saying that the poor fitness aging individuals experience is, in large part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. People believe that this physical decline is a natural part of aging and start declining. If people would just start exercising, they could preclude or remediate many of these problems.

I believe that the same problem occurs with respect to mental fitness. People believe that mental decline is a natural part of aging. There are data showing that the average retirement ages of countries and the age of the onset of dementia for these same countries are correlated. That is, the earlier the retirement age, the earlier the onset of dementia. It isn’t retirement per se that is responsible, but rather the decline in social interactions, cognitive activities, and challenges (problems) that result in dementia.

So if you are retired you need to keep up social interactions and cognitive activity. Use your computer and keep learning new things. Read and take classes. And you don’t want to wait until you retire to start these activities. They should be lifelong activities. Nevertheless, it is never to late to start. Consider the gentleman in the article who did not start exercising until he was 98.

As the title of this blog implies, the healthymemory blog is devoted to healthy memories. It is constantly providing new, worthwhile information for your consideration. The category of transactive memory considers how you can employ others and technology for cognitive growth and health. The mnemonic techniques category includes articles on techniques that not only improve your memory, but also provide valuable cognitive exercise. Articles on mindfulness and meditation can also be found under this category. The Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on this very interesting and important topic. This is a good area in which to grow cognitively.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Early Testing For Alzheimer’s

March 20, 2013

Alzheimer’s disease often progresses slowly. In the early stages some level of mild cognitive impairment is experienced, but life proceeds as normal. Not everyone who experiences this mild cognitive impairment will progress into Alzheimer’s. They have a twelve percent chance of developing it each year. Some will never develop dementia or will develop it from causes other than Alzheimer’s disease.1

Substantial effort has gone into developing tests to identify those with mild cognitive impairment who will progress into Alzheimer’s. This is difficult as a definite diagnosis awaits finding the amyloid plaques and neurofibril tangles. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans have been done to search for amyloid plaques in the brain that may begin to appear before symptoms manifest themselves. Research has found that healthy people with these plaques in their brains are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s related dementia later in life. However, it should be remembered that although these plaques and tangles might be a necessary condition for Alzheimer’s, they are not a sufficient condition. They have been found in autopsies of people who never exhibited any symptoms. The notion is that they had a cognitive reserve that protected them from this damage.

Tests can employ PET scans and/or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans along with analyses of brain fluid. I have seen no data regarding the accuracy of these tests with respect to hits (correct diagnosis) versus false alarms (incorrectly diagnosing progression into Alzheimer’s). Moreover, none of the current tests can help determine whether a person with early signs will progress quickly to dementia or continue to live normally for years.2

MRI’s have been successful in treating a condition that is frequently been misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s (See the healthymemory blog post, “A Treatable Condition Misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s). The condition is Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus and occurs when the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain is not re-absorped. It is estimated that 5% of the people diagnosed with dementia have this condition. Unlike Alzheimer’s, this condition can be corrected.

It is somewhat ironic that early testing for Alzheimer’s can be beneficial for the diagnoses of conditions other than Alzheimer’s. Currently Alzheimer’s cannot be cured. Drugs can slow the progression of the disease, but one should consider, is this simply prolonging the agony of the sufferer? When there are opportunities for participating in a test of a new treatment, one can volunteer in the spirit of contributing to science and the development of a possible cure, but realizing that there will likely be adverse events and the likelihood of a personal cure is quite low.

There is some evidence that people can actually reduce their risk of dementia by quitting smoking, living a heart-healthy lifestyle, and treating any diabetes or hypertension that might be present. The healthymemory blog would add being both cognitively and physically active; to continue to grow cognitively, and to build and maintain social relationships. Most healthymemory blog posts address these topics. I would hope that they all make, at least, some small contribution to cognitive growth.

1Wolfe, S.M. (ed) (2013) Early Testing for Alzheimer’s. Public Citizen Health Letter, February, Vol 29, No. 2. 4-5.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2Ibid.

Innovative Alzheimer’s Therapies

March 17, 2013

The follow information comes from “A Place for Mom Newsletter.” When I was looking for a place for my Mom, I found this organization to be quite helpful. And I found this information in their newsletter both interesting and potentially useful.

Customized iPads have been provided to the residents of some memory care communities. Special apps provide reminders to residents needing prompting. The iPads include puzzles that exercise the minds of the residents and games that improve dexterity. Simple properly designed puzzles and games are engrossing and promote a sense of mastery. They provide the satisfying feeling you get when you accomplish a task that is neither too easy, nor too hard.

Art therapy has also been found to be helpful. Art therapy involves both viewing and creating art. There is an organization, Artz, http://www.artistsforalzheimers.org/,which promotes art therapy for Alzheimer patients. In 2005, under the guidance of Dr. John Ziesel, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York instituted an after-hours program for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias called “Meet Me at MoMA.” Dr Ziesel says that out therapy brings out the best in dementia sufferers, “If you met this people when they lived on an an ordinary day, you simply would not see them being this articulate and assured.” Subsequently dozens of other museums have implemented similar programs which proponents claim have benefits that last beyond therapy sessions.

Storytelling has also been found to be beneficial. Timeslips is a new dementia therapy program that involves showing a photo to a therapy group and asking members to make up a story based on the image. The states goal of the Timeslips program is to “inspire people with dementia to hone and share the gifts of their imaginations.” It also give memory impaired people an opportunity to socialize and be creatitive without having the pressure to remember.

It has also been found that light therapy that simply involves brightening room lights during the day may benefit elders with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia. A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that bright lighting improves mood and cognition in older people with memory disorders. A study at Wayne State University sugested that more intensive light therapy using UV light might also be beneficial. This involves sessions sitting by a special, full-spectrum light.

There is also a therapy known as favorite food therapy. Called a “comfort centered approach” it allow residents practically anything (excluding foods that could be harmful) that brings them comfort, from chocolate toa small bedtime drink. This has been found to reduce medication requirements.

Understand that there still is no cure for Alzheimer’s. These therapies reduce symptons and make life more comfortable for sufferers. It is the view of the healthymemory blog that mental exercise may help ward off Alzheimer’s and other dementias. It appears that mental exercise can also reduce symptoms and increase the quality of those who have already been struck by the dementia.

The Benefits of Nondrug Therapies

March 13, 2013

This February’s Public Citizen Health Letter summarized an interesting and important study published in the September 2012 American Journal of Psychiatry. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are regarded as the gold standard for medical studies. The study was a meta-analysis of RCT testing of nondrug therapies involving family caregivers of patients with dementia. Dementia is caused by progressive deterioration of the brain that results in impaired cognition and memory loss. These patients are unable to perform such daily activities as dressing, washing, cooking, eating, and using the toilet. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among the elderly and accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases. Currently around 4 million people in the US suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. It is estimated that by 2050, 11 million to 16 million Americans will have it.

Some of the problems occurring in advanced cases include screaming, physical aggression, arguments between patients and caregivers, repetitive questioning, wandering, depression, resistance to being helped with daily activities, paranoia, and not sleeping at night. The meta-analysis reviewed RCTs that collectively used 3279 dementia patients and their primary caregivers. The training was provided primarily to caregivers and included printed educational materials, telephone calls, individual sessions in the health care provider/office setting, group session in a classroom setting, and in-home sessions. The interventions included such skills training for caregivers as follows: managing behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Communicating better with care recipients. Using role playing videos modeling behavior management strategies, cognitive-behavioral interventions, vignettes, and live interviews They also involved enhancing care recipients quality of life, improving daily activities, increasing pleasant events.

The following education was provided to caregivers: Psychoeducation. Improving home care. Tailored advice and recommendations. Problem solving methods. Improving support networks. Computer-mediated automated interactive voice. Planning emergencies, legal, financial,

The following activity planning and environmental redesign were provided: Planning activities with caregiver and care recipient. Modifying care recipients physical and social environment.

Enhancing the following support caregivers: Social support. Web or telephone support. Strategies on how to access support, Family counseling.

Providing the following self-care techniques for caregivers: Health management. Stress management. Coping with change as a result care giving. Music therapy and counseling.

And the following miscellaneous items: Collaborative care with a health professional or care manager. Exercise for the care recipient.

Not all these delivery methods were used in all the studies reviewed, but many of the studies used a variety of these methods. The interventions in the different studies varied from 6 to 24 months.

For the 17 RCTs that measured outcomes in dementia patients, the analyses of the pooled data showed overall beneficial effects measured by reduction in the troublesome behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. For the 13 RCTs that measured outcomes in the caregivers, there was a significant overall improvement in measures of stress, anxiety, depression, and quality. This is no small finding for the lot of caregivers is a difficult one and interventions that ease their discomfort are most welcome.

To fully appreciate the significance of this study one must realize that there are currently no effective drug treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Although there are drugs that can slow the progression of the decline, the end remains inevitable. So there is some question as to whether these drugs are truly beneficial or are a means of prolonging the agony of both the sufferer and the caregiver.

This study also adds credence to the position of the renowned Alzheimer’s researcher, Peter J. Whitehous, Ph.D, M.D, who regards a drug cure for Alzheimer’s as being extremely unlikely. He argues for more research into nondrug therapies (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hunger, Caffeine, Cognition

March 11, 2013

How are these three words related? All three are related to the word adenosine. Adenosine is a molecule that is produced by the brain’s metabolism, during cognitive activity, and when we are hungry. The drug caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine. When I am hungry, I find thinking difficult. This would explain why. In both cases, I am feeling the effects of adenosine. Caffeine assists me in putting off eating. When I have been doing a great deal of cognitive effort, I am feeling the effects of adenosine. Caffeine is a drug that restores mental energy by blocking the effects of adenosine.

There are other ways of refreshing our brains. Exercise, even brief amounts of exercise, can be restorative. Meditation is another route to refreshing our brains as is taking a nap. When going the drug route, however, caffeine is quite effective.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Using Our Minds to Control Our Eating

March 9, 2013

Obesity is a worldwide problem now, and dieting is a personal problem for many of us. It appears that both evolution and the food industry has conspired to make us desire fattening foods. Consequently, dieting is difficult. Are there any good techniques for controlling our eating? The answer is, yes. One of these techniques is our mind. Mindfulness can help us control our eating.

An experiment1 investigated whether eating lunch mindfully, in contrast to eating with distractions or no particular focus, reduced later snack intake. Twenty-nine female undergraduates either ate a fixed lunch while (1) focusing on the sensory characteristics of the food as they ate (food focus group), (2) reading a newspaper article about food (food thoughts control group), or (3) in the absence of any secondary task (neutral control group). Later in the afternoon cookie intake was measured as well as rated vividness of memory for lunch. Participants in the food focus group ate significantly fewer cookies that participants in both the food thoughts control group or the neutral control group. Rated appetite before the snack session was lower in the food focus group than in the other two groups. Their rated vividness of their memory of lunch was higher in the food focus group. The rated vividness of lunch memory was negatively correlated with snack intake.

This study strongly suggests that memory plays an important role in appetite control. Paying attention to food while eating enhances this meal memory.

So to control our appetites we should not eat while we are either watching television or reading. Moreover, if we concentrate on the meal and the enjoyment of the meal, our subsequent hunger and desire for snacks will lessen. Conversation remains an open issue. Conversation typically slows down our consumption of food, but if it takes our minds off what we are eating, it might be problematic. Perhaps its best to work comments about the meal into our conversations.

1Higgs, S., & Donohoe, J.E. (2011). Focusing on food during lunch enhances lunch memory and decreases later snack intake. Appetite, Aug57(1):202-6. Doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.04.016. Epib2011 May4.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on Avoiding Collapse

March 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Extreme Economics

February 24, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the supermeme Extreme Economics. According to Costa (p. 138) “The economics supermeme occurs when simple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, become the litmus test for determining the value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions.

The reason that extreme economics is so dangerous is that profit can prevent or retard technological solutions. (p.140) That’s because broad systemic solutions that benefit humankind don’t always fit accepted economic models. And when they don’t, progress is inhibited.

The emphasis on short-term returns can preclude a technological solution that in the long term would be both more profitable and beneficial. Extreme economics has increased educational costs and resulted in an inefficient delivering of medical and pharmaceutical services. Wherever one looks, college athletics, for example, one finds the adverse effects of extreme economics. I have read that Alan Greenspan, a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve had the phrase, “Greed is good,” posted in his office. I shall remind the reader that greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Moreover, Greenspan’s policies and lack of action helped lay the groundwork for the economic crisis. Sometimes I think the world has become one enormous whorehouse.

It is actually somewhat worse than Costa portrays. Research has indicated that the predominant model in economics is obsolete. Humans cannot be entirely rational because our information processing limitations allow us only to process only a minute amount of data bearing on a decision. Behavioral economics has indicted that the decisions humans make are not always in accordance with the rational paradigm. Yet the majority of economists, and unfortunately those in key positions, still cling to an obsolete model.

There have been a number of healthymemory blog posts bearing on this issue. See the following healthymemory blog posts: “Thinking Fast and Slow,” “Happy Labor Day: Why Are We Working so Hard?” “Why With All This Technology, Are We Working so Hard?” and “Gross National Happiness.” This last post discussed a substitute metric to the Gross National Product (GNP), one that is much more directly related to human needs and human happiness. Another metric that has been proposed as a replacement to the GNP and is discussed in the same healthymemory blog post is the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Relevant and effective metrics would be valuable in addressing the world’s economic problems.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Silo Thinking

February 20, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the supermeme Silo Thinking. According to Costa, “…silo thinking: compartmentalized thinking and behaviors that prohibit the collaboration needed to address complex problems.

It’s unfortunate that our institutions of higher learning are organized into academic departments. The following is from Costa’s book on page 135. “In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E.O. Wilson explained that silos have a more insidious effect than preventing a few problems from being solved here and there. Wilson warned that “professional atomization” also works against unifying the cumulative knowledge, discoveries, and science we have at our disposal. Whether it’s black holes in outer space or the current global recession, Wilson argues that thinking in silos prevents us from leveraging the known laws in physics, music, chemistry, engineering, economics, and biology together to explain natural phenomena. In his view, the barricades that stand in the way of centuries of knowledge must be torn down in order for humanity to progress.” So these barricades need to be broken and we need to think and work in an interdisciplinary fashion looking how to leverage our respective disciplines. Educational programs need to break down these disciplinary walls. Often creative and insight are a matter of combining ideas from different areas.

My personal area of expertise is in human factors or engineering psychology. This field is concerned with the interactions between human beings and technology. This includes the design of devices and systems so that they are easy to use. The supporting materials, wizards, manuals, help files, to help people use technology. It is also concerned with the development of effective training systems are all part of human factors. Given the explosion of technology, you might be surprised to learn that this is a fairly small field. Whenever you experience using technology you should wonder why this field was not engaged in the development of the particular technology presenting the problem.

We also tend to place different aspects of our lives in independent silos. Consider religion and politics, for example. Consider the teachings of Jesus Christ. He told us to love one another, to turn the other cheek, and devoted himself to the sick and unfortunate. Many of the same people who hold Christian beliefs do not apply them to their political behavior. They will be against government programs and policies that are aimed at helping the poor. They will be against national health insurance. They will embrace policies that deal harshly with immigrants. And they will insist on arming themselves. I find these beliefs and behaviors contradictory, and I think we would all be better off if they voted for politicians that supported policies that were in consonance with their religious beliefs. All of us should examine our thinking and beliefs to identify silos and eliminate them.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Counterfeit Correlation

February 17, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the Counterfeit Correlation supermeme.

When 1,009 Americans were asked,”Do you believe that correlation implies causation, 62 % responded “yes.” This statistic is both depressing and informative. It’s depressing because such a large percentage of people believe it to be true. It’s informative in that in provides some insight into the current stagnation we are suffering. It is essential that, to the extent possible, there is a good correspondence between beliefs and facts. Confusing correlation with causation can lead to many incorrect facts.

Correlation refers to how to variables or factors vary together. A correlation coefficient is a numerical measure of this co-variation. It varies from -1.00 to 1.00. A correlation of 1.0 indicates that you can predict one variable perfectly if you know the other variable. More of one variable implies a corresponding increase in the other variable. A correlation of -1.0 also indicates that you can predict one variable perfectly if you know the other variable. But the relationship is inverse. That is, more of one variable predicts less of another variable. A correlation of 0.0 implies that there is no relationship between the two variables. In other words, they are independent. You can determine the variability accounted for between the two variables by squaring this correlation coefficient. So a correlation of 0.50 would account for 25% of the variance between the two variables.

Usually the only fact reported in the popular press when a correlation is reported is whether it is statistically significant. Statistical significance refers to the probability that the correlation is due to chance. So if you read that the correlation is statistically significant beyond the p<0.05 level, it means that there is only a 5% probability that the correlation is due to chance. One of the factors determining whether a correlation is statistically significant is the size of the sample on which the correlation was computed. For example, with a sample size of 20,000 a correlation of 0.02, which would account for only 0.04% of the variance, is statistically significant at the 0.05 level. Moreover, statistical significance does not imply practical significance. So do not be impressed when you hear that a study found a statistically significant relationship without knowing the exact value of the correlation coefficient.

Now even if you have an impressively large correlation coefficient that is statistically significant, that does not necessarily imply causality. There are spurious correlations and correlations that result from other related variables. For example, one study found a significant correlation between cell phone use and sleep. That is a large amounts of cell phone use were correlated with poorer quality sleep. However, it was also true that those who had high cell phone use consumed more caffeinated beverages, consumed more alcohol, woke up later, and showed higher levels of anxiety and agitation. It was found that taking away their cell phones made them more anxious, which exacerbated their condition.

There are both spurious correlations that are spurious on the face of it, and spurious correlations that seem reasonable. A good website for exploring these problems more thoroughly can be found at

http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/100/correlation_or_causation.htm

Establishing causation is a difficult problem that can require many years of research to establish. Ideally one wants to conduct controlled experiments in which the factors of interest are manipulated. This is not always possible, and correlational studies are clearly needed, but they must be interpreted with care. Often there is not enough time does not allow the definitive establishment of causation. In these cases, one needs to use the best information available, knowing that it might be wrong, and knowing that it might be changed and enhanced in the future.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Personalization of Blame Supermeme

February 13, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the personalization of blame supermeme.

Whenever there is a problem the immediate response is to try to find the individual or individuals who are responsible for the problem, and to blame that person or persons. The problem here is that the causes of most problems in our complex world are systemic. By blaming an individual or individuals the system problems can be overlooked and the problem will continue to occur.

One of the best examples is when there is an airplane crash and the crash is attributed to pilot error. All this does is to confirm that we humans are all fallible. So what’s new? The questions is why did the pilot commit the error, or series of errors. If the pilot was not alone, then the question goes to the crew level to ascertain why the crew did not respond appropriately. If the pilot was alone, reasonable questions follow. Was the pilot adequately trained? Was the pilot overly tired, or in poor health, and if so, why? Did the design of the flight deck contribute to the problem? These are the questions that need to be asked at the system level if future crashes are to be avoided.

A very serious problem is medical error. Again, the initial response is to blame a nurse or doctor. Doing this is counterproductive and makes it difficult to find the problem when everyone and the hospital itself is preoccupied with saving its respective keister. A 2000 Institute of Medicine report estimated that medical errors are estimated to result in about between 44,000 and 98,000 preventable deaths and 1,000,000 excess injuries each year in U.S. Hospitals. This is a virtual holocaust that occurs annually that exceeds highway deaths and most war deaths. These deaths and injuries are often due to communication problems, being it the failure to pass information, illegible writing, or failing to contact and involve the correct people. The failure to use simple checklists results in unnecessary deaths and injury (see the healthymemory blog post, “A Cognitive Safety Net”). There is much that can be done here, but the first step is not to look for someone to blame, but instead to look at the entire system and look for points of systemic failure.

Osama bin Laden has been the face of terrorism. But his killing, while being satisfying to many, has not led to the end of terrorism. There are many terrorist organizations and a variety of causes of terrorism. They must be understood and approached from a systemic perspective. Looking at terrorism in terms of a most wanted list is not going to be effective.

Obesity, pollution and global warming are major societal problems that can be blamed on ourselves. Although the argument can be made that these problems can be addressed at an individual level, individuals can stop overeating and stop polluting, these approaches will not be effective. First it must be recognized that we are fallible human beings. With respect to obesity, eating as much high caloric whenever it was available was a good adaptive mechanism that allowed our species to survive. Unfortunately, we are left with this evolutionary adaptive mechanism, which is not longer adaptive Unfortunately, will power is a resource that can easily be depleted. This ego depletion is a loss in will or mental energy and can be measured by glucose metabolism.1

So systemic approaches need to be applied. In the case of obesity, sizes of fast foods can be restricted. Unhealthy foods can be taxed. Healthy foods could be made easier to obtain (for example, replacing the junk food in most vending machines with healthy foods). Ultimately, I think the food industry needs to become more creative and make food and drink with fewer calories more palatable. I believe they have made progress in the beverage industry.

With respect to environmental pollution and global warming, possible solutions include heavy taxes on heavy vehicles, and higher gas taxes to pay for better public transportation. Tax credits can be given for environmental friendly vehicles. Incentives for both individuals and industry to more away from fossil fuels can be provided.

A major flaw in Costa’s book is her misunderstanding and consequent mis-characterization of B.F. Skinner and behavioral psychology, which has much to offer. It espouses an empirical approach in which facts and beliefs are strongly linked. Systemic approaches to behavioral modification to promote environmental friendly and personal healthy behaviors are quite possible.

1Baumeister, R.E., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Irrational Opposition Supermeme

February 10, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the irrational opposition supermeme. According to Costa, Irrational Opposition Occurs when the act of rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, marginalizing, and resisting rational solutions becomes the accepted norm.   Again according to Costa, “When oppositional thinking and behavior is merely a meme, tenacity and evidence might be all that is required to allow rational solutions to prevail. But when opposition evolves into a supermeme, solutions to our greatest threats may be prevented from coming to fruition because the resources required to overcome the opposition may simply be too great.

The standing rule should be that if you oppose something, you need to propose an alternative solution, or justify why what you are opposing is not needed or that any adverse consequences are small or inconsequential. Take taxes, for example. The United States, or the colonies at that time, revolted against the British because of the taxes they were imposing were done without representation from the colonies. The proposed solution was a war that they won. Today many citizens and politicians are against taxes. Grover Norquist has made a career lobbying against taxes. Indeed he has encouraged politicians to sign pledges against raising taxes. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan the national debt of the United States has grown drastically, its infrastructure has deteriorated to an alarming extent, and the cost of a college education has risen to levels causing students to either forgo a higher education or to acquire ridiculous levels of debt. I do not believe I have ever heard Norquist queried regarding these matters. It is perfectly legitimate to be against taxes, but you most also address the consequences of being against taxes.

The typical justification given is that the person is against “big government.” For me “big government” is another supermeme. It’s something to be against, and presumably these individuals are for small or no government. But what does this mean? What is “Big Government?” Some would say that it is socialism. Again, this is a term used clearly in a pejorative sense that is not defined. There are many socialistic democracies that function quite successfully. If you are against “Big Government” you should define the services that should not be provided by government. These services would either be eliminated or provided by private companies. So who should provide the services, of defense, education, safeguarding food and drugs, safeguarding the financial markets, health services, special populations such as those who are physically or mentally challenged, veterans, and retirees, to name just a few. One can take the position that something is not the responsibility of government. So we could let the elderly without financial resources rot arguing that these people should have provided for themselves, it is not our responsibility. We shall just ignore the dying elderly we pass in the streets or have them arrested for vagrancy.

However, assuming that certain services are needed, a reasonable question is whether they can be better provided by government or the private sector. Many people have strong opinions regarding this, but here is the time to marry facts with beliefs. For me, if your opinion is based solely on your beliefs, I don’t want to hear it. You can wipe your keister with your opinion. So find your facts, first. Often there is no clear answer, but there is the option of doing controlled studies to pin the answer down. When we move from yelling our opinions without accurate facts, to justifying them with accurate facts, to doing controlled studies when the solution is in dispute, then we shall be deserving of the name homo sapiens. Clearly we are not there yet.

To understand why we are not there yet we can go to Daniel Kahneman‘s Two System View of Cognition. According to Kahneman, we have two systems for processing information. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. So we need to engage System 2, but System 2 is effortful. Thinking is hard. Thinking through ramifications of being against something and trying to think of a solution is hard. Ideologues, those who have a set of strong beliefs, are usually happy. Give them a problem and they have a solution to it. But they live in a fools paradise, because their beliefs and reasoning are flawed.

So, when you encounter the Irrational Opposition Supermeme, challenge it. Force the person to work through the ramifications and propose a solution. Force the engagement of System 2 processing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Beliefs vs. Facts and Knowledge

February 6, 2013

According to Rebecca Costa, civilizations collapse when beliefs do not keep up with facts and knowledge.1 Of course, the facts and knowledge must be accurate. Facts and knowledge change and grow. The rate of growth of facts and knowledge has become exponential, so it is quite difficult for beliefs to keep up. Moreover, we grow comfortable in our beliefs and are reluctant to change them. So the deadlock and stagnation many of us are experiencing is not surprising. Nevertheless, to achieve the ends of both a healthy memory and an advancing civilization it is important, to the extent possible, to try to keep our beliefs in correspondence with ever changing and developing facts and knowledge. We have to be like the great economist, John Maynard Keynes who said, when the facts change, I change my mind.

In science, tentative beliefs, called hypothesis, are tested by looking for facts and by designing experiments to determine the correct facts. The facts and knowledge in science are never certain and continually growing. Indeed, if there is no means of falsifying a belief, then it is not science. New facts lead to new knowledge and new beliefs. New knowledge identifies new problems that need to be addressed. Before the advent of science, beliefs changed slowly as facts and knowledge accumulated slowly. However, since the advent of science, finding new facts and knowledge has increased at an exponential rate. Unfortunately, beliefs are falling further and further behind .

For example, free markets are extolled. Although, there is no doubt regarding the benefits of free enterprise, the notion of a free market is an ideal. Free markets do not remain free in the real world. There are eight centuries of data proving this point.2 Markets are manipulated and monopolies are formed. Most of the world came close to a financial collapse due to ill behaving markets that were insufficiently regulated. Although it is true that regulation can be stifling if done improperly, it is almost a certainty that if they are unregulated, serious problems develop. Given the limited corrections that were implemented as a result of the previous market crisis, there is no reason to be confident that there is not a market collapse in the future.

Another example is global warming. There seems to be a scientific consensus that global warming is a serious problem. Now science is never certain. Facts and knowledge can be change. But the ramifications of global warming should not be ignored and considerations need to be given to how global warming could be mitigated or eliminated. Even in the unlikely event that the predictions of global warming are wrong, we would have erred on the side of caution. But it is easier to cling to the belief that there is no global warming, as it avoids the inconvenience and costs of taking action. Our situation is analogous to the Mayans who failed to deal with their conditions of drought.

Evolution is another belief widely held in the scientific community. Nevertheless, there are people who disagree with evolution and do not want it taught in the schools. They offer an alternative theory, creationism. It should be understood that a belief in God does not preclude one from believing in evolution. Nevertheless, some religious people do find the concept of evolution uncomfortable. Frankly, I think both creationism and evolution should be taught together in school because it provides an ideal means of explaining how science works. The first question to ask a creationist is whether creationism can be proven false, and if so, how. If it cannot be proven false, then it is not science. An evolutionist should also admit that evolution could be proven false. The evolutionist certainly can explain how the theory of evolution has been changing over the years, but the fundamental premise remains. I find it ironic that one of the proofs, a teleological proof, for the existence of God is the human eye. But when you examine the eye, it appears that the retina is designed backward. Before light hits the cones and rods it first goes through the neurological wiring from the eye to the brain. Although it is true that there are many beauties in nature, there are also many uglies. And there are millions and millions, perhaps billions of extinct species that did not survive. It was the humorist and sports maven Tony Kornheiser, I believe, who remarked, after he had experienced vomiting and diarrhea at the same time, what a perverse sense of humor God had when he designed the human body! One of the primary deficiencies we humans have is that we look for confirmations of our beliefs, but fail to look for disproofs of our beliefs.

1Costa, R.D. (2010).The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. Philadelphia: Vanguard Press.

2Reinhart, C.H. & Rogoff (2009). This Time is Different. Princeton University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Quiz

January 23, 2013

The healthymemory blog will be going on a brief hiatus. There are over 350 blog posts to peruse, so there is plenty of material to consider in the absence of new posts. You can test your knowledge of just a small percentage of the material covered by taking the test below. If you want to check your answers or to look up the answers, use the search block for the healthymemory blog.

What are the seven sins of memory?

Agnogenesis

Dumbledore Hypothesis

cognitive reserve

Flynn Effect

fluid intelligence

How to remember numbers

What tragedies have resulted from failures in prospective memory?

How can you improve your prospective memory?

How can you remember names?

What are the five dimensions of personality?

What is meant by emotional style?

What types of meditation are there?

What does psychological science have to offer law and the justice system?

What are some effective study techniques?

What makes a nation intelligent?

What are some solutions to the excessive costs of a college education?

What is Gross National Happiness (GNH)?

What are the two basic types of transactive memory?

What are the distinctions among accessible, available, and potential transactive memory?

How many friends are too many?

Are we incurable Infovores?

How can we cope with complexity?

What are folksonomies?

What are some common sense techniques for improving memory?

An Update on the Unnecessary Costs of Higher Education

January 16, 2013

Here is an update of these unnecessary costs from the Washington Post.1 Previous healthymemory blog posts (enter “Costs of a Higher Education” into the search block) have complained about the increasing increases in the costs of a college education at a time when technology should be bringing these costs down. It is especially ironic when prestigious universities are making some of their courses available online for free, the so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Although this content is available for free, course credit is not offered, nor is there a prospect of a diploma being offered upon the completion of these courses. Now some universities are offering, for a fee, certificates for completing these courses. According to the article “For a fee of less than $100, a student who takes a class in genetics and evolution from Duke University on a MOOC platform called Coursera—and agrees to submit to identity-verification screening—could earn a “verified certificate” for passing the course.” “For $95, a student in an online circuits and electronics class affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the MOOC Platform edX will be able to take a proctored exam this month at one of thousands of test sites around the world and earn a certificate.” What is not clear is whether at some time in the future these certificates would lead to college credit and a degree. Technology provides manifold opportunities for the autodidact, but the degrees provide the desired end-states of these formal curricula.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs on this topic is that I have met some people who have college degrees, but on the basis of their work, writing, and conversation, it is difficult to believe that they have these degrees. I have also met people with excellent, writing, work, and conversational skills, who do not have college degrees. I think we need to have an organization or organizations that provide tests and evaluations to determine the level of competence in different subject areas. Presumably, nominal fees would be involved, but this would allow the true autodidact to benefit fully from her self-educational efforts.

1Anderson, N. (2013). Online classes will grant credentials, for a fee.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Memory and Endurance

January 14, 2013

Diane Van Deren is one of the world’s elite ultra runners. She has run more than 1500 kilometers over 22 days. Note that that is kilometers, not meters. She has run for as long as 20 hours in a single day. When she is asked to estimate the amount of time she has been running she has underestimated her time by as much as 8 hours.

Her incredible endurance needs to be understood in the context of her memory. She, like the individuals in the immediately preceding post on Memory and Obesity, has had brain surgery to treat epilepsy.1 This surgery undoubtedly involved areas of the brain affecting the transfer of information into long term memory, such as the hippocampus.

It is hoped that this surgery effectively dealt with her epilepsy. It did have the benefit of letting her get into a more zen-like state that lets her run for longer without feeling so much strain, but the loss of the ability to retain new information is an unfortunate trade.

1De Lante, C. (2012). Stuck in the Present. New Scientist, 6 October, p.41.

Can Memory Affect Obesity?

January 12, 2013

M is an individual who has had part of his memory removed, that part likely including the hippocampus, in an attempt to cure epilepsy. Sixty seconds after polishing off a three course meal, he started on a second three course meal having forgotten the three course meal he had already eaten. This finding was replicated with two other individuals who had undergone the same surgery. Not only did these two people eat a second meal fifteen minutes after eating the first, but sometimes went on to eat a third meal.

It appears that their amnesia has caused these individuals to forget they that have eaten, but not entirely as recent research has identified sensory specific satiety. We are familiar that our liking for a specific food decreases the more we eat of it, whereas a different dish can be more appetizing. People with the described amnesia will prefer crisps or cookies rather than more sandwiches after eating a hearty lunch of sandwiches even though they cannot remember what they have just eaten.

Research has also shown that imagining the process of eating something can lead us to feel more satiated such that we eat less. So memory does affect our appetites and our appetites affect obesity. Moreover, we can call upon our memories to help us imagine something tasty that we have eaten. For this to be effective, it is important that it be done slowly and with sufficient imagination to closely recreate the sensation of eating. Imagine whatever you like as calories do not count in a bad way when your eating is imaginary. It is even possible that the more calories you are imagining the more effective this memory ruse might be.

De Lante, C. (2012). Stuck in the Present. New Scientist, 6 October, p.41.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Controlling our Thoughts, Emotions, and Behavior

January 3, 2013

Suppose some jerk cuts you off in traffic. Most of us would likely become upset, even enraged, and be mulling over the incident the remainder of our drive. This is not a good response. Your blood pressure increases, which is not good, and your judgment might be impaired. You can call a process called “self-distancing”1 into play.

Dominik Mischkowski and his fellow psychology graduate students at Ohio State University conducted an experiment in which they deliberately upset students waiting to participate in an experiment by making them wait and being rude to them. The students who had been upset were asked to relive the situation: half the group was asked to relive the experience through their own eyes, and the other half by mentally moving away from the experience and watching it at a distance as if it were happening to someone else. According to results published in the September 2012 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology the self-distancing students had less anger and were less likely to respond aggressively to others in a subsequent task.

The way you think about a bad experience can determine the difference between successful and unsuccessful coping. The September 2012 Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry published a study using people who had recently experienced a highly stressing event—such as a crime, the death of a loved one or a relationship breakup. One group was instructed to write about their experiences in a concrete, objective way and to focus on such questions as “How do I feel right now? How did I feel at the time of the event, and what did I see, hear, and think? How might I deal with a similar situation in the future? “ The other group was instructed to write in an abstract evaluative manner and address such questions as “Why did the event happen? Why do I feel this way about it? Why didn’t I handle it differently?” Later, the concrete-thinking group reported fewer intrusive memories of the event than the abstract thinking group. The researchers think a concrete focus helps to facilitate emotional processing and problem solving, whereas an abstract perspective does not and perhaps even hinders these undertakings.

The recent healthymemory blog post, “Happy New Year: What About Your Resolutions” reported research from the August 2012 Journal of Consumer Research that showed that when participants framed a refusal as “I don’t,” which connotes personal control, instead of “I can’t,” which connotes deprivation. So, for example, one could say “I don’t eat fatty foods,” rather than “I can’t eat fatty foods.” Vanessa Patrick, the author of the study said, “I believe that an effective route to self regulation is by managing one’s desire for temptation, instead of relying solely on willpower… Saying,“I can’t” denotes deprivation while saying “I don’t” makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”

Meditation is another means to help us control our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You will find many healthymemory blog posts on this topic by entering “meditation” into the search block.

1Roridguez, T. (2013). Ameliorate Anxiety and Anger. Scientific American Mind, January/February, p. 10.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy New Year: What About Your Resolutions?

December 30, 2012

It’s time to choose and make our resolutions for the new year. Although making New Year’s Resolutions is a splendid idea, the problem is that we fail to keep most of these resolutions. One way of improving your success is to cast willpower as a choice. This can be done by carefully choosing the words you use to talk to yourself. Research1 has shown that when participants framed a refusal as “I don’t” instead of “I can’t connotes deprivation, while saying ). So, for example, one could say “I don’t eat fatty foods,” rather than “I can’t eat fatty foods.” Vanessa Patrick, the author of the study said, “I believe that an effective route to self regulation is by managing one’s desire for temptation, instead of relying solely on willpower… Saying,“I can’t” denotes deprivation while saying “I don’t” makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”

So it is a good idea to rely on willpower as little as possible. A book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, explains why. Keeping New Year’s Resolutions results in ego depletion. You can think of ego depletion as being a loss in will or mental energy and it can be measured by glucose metabolism. Whenever you are trying to resist temptation, make a decision, or need to concentrate on certain tasks, there is this loss in willpower or mental energy, such that it is difficult to resist additional temptations, to make more decisions, or to concentrate on additional tasks. So it is unwise to try to give up two vices at the same time. The probability of success if much greater if you address one vice and then later address the other vice.

So the more resolutions you make, the less likely you are to keep them. And the more difficult a given resolution is, the more difficult it will be to keep it. So here is a strategy for you consideration. Decide upon only two resolutions. One should be fairly easy, and the other more difficult. You are more likely to keep the easy resolution, so you will have one in the win column. Should you also keep the second resolution, then you are entitled to a YA HAH moment. This strategy should produce at least a .500 win percentage.

As for what resolutions to make, the Healthymemory Blog has some suggestions.

Taking at least a forty minute walk at least three times a week.

Learn at least three new words a day (or 21 words a week) in the language of your choice.

Contribute to a Wikipedia page on a topic of interest and continue to build you knowledge in that topic or a new topic.

Find several new friends with a similar interest and pursue that interest with a passion.

Engage in deliberate practice in a skill of interest (See the Healthymemory Blog Post Deliberate Practice”)

Develop and practice mnemonic techniques on a regular basis (Click on the Category “Mnemonic Techniques” and you find a comprehensive listing of mnemonic techniques along with descriptions of the techniques and exercises. Try starting at the bottom of the category and proceeding up. There is a specific Healthymemory Blog post, “Memory Course”, which suggests an order in which the mnemonic techniques should be approached. There are also some websites for learning and developing proficiency in mnemonic techniques. One is www.NeuroMod.org. Click on the Human Memory Site. Then click on the “read more” link under your preferred language. You can open up an account and record and track your progress. Another site is www.Thememorypage.net. Both of these websites are free.)

Good luck.

1Rodriguez, T. (2013). :I Don’t” Beats “I Can’t” for Self Control. Scientific American Mind, January/February p.14.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy Holidays 2012!

December 22, 2012

Besides the wish expressed in the title, all I have to offer you is this healthymemory blog. It consists of more than 350 posts devoted to the topic of growing and maintaining a healthy memory. It has blog posts on memory, how it works, and how it malfunctions. Posts explain how to improve memory performance with mnemonic techniques, and through both human and technological transactive memory. These posts are divided into three categories:

Human Memory: Theory and Data

Mnemonic Techniques

Transactive Memory

Clicking on those categories listed on the sideboard yields the pertinent posts.

Are there specific topics of interest to you? Just enter them into the search box and see what the healthymemory blog has to offer. You might be surprised on the wide range of topics covered. Try entering “emotions,” or “intelligence,” for example.

Why Are Older People More Vulnerable to Fraud?

December 19, 2012

It is always depressing hearing a story about an elderly couple who have lost their entire life savings to a scam. But one also wonders how people with so many years of experience can fall for such a scam. One would think that as we age we would become less, not more, vulnerable. An article in a Special Section on Aging in the Washington Post1 provides some insight.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), up to 80% of scam victims are older than 65. The tendency of the elderly to accentuate the positive makes them easy marks according to the FTC and the FBI. According to social neuroscientist Shelly Taylor, “Older people are good at regulating their emotions, seeing things in a positive light, and not overreacting to everyday problems.”2 Taylor and her colleagues showed pictures of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group up of 119 older adults (aged 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (aged 20 to 42). “Signs of untrustworthiness included averted eyes; an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes; a smug, smirky mouth, and a backward tilt of the head.”3 Each face was rated on a scale from minus 3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy). The results indicated that the untrustworthy faces were rated as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones.

The same researchers then performed the same test with new participants. However, this time the brains of the participants were imaged looking for differences in brain activity between the age groups. When the younger subjects were asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active. This activity increased during the sight of an untrustworthy face. However, older people showed little or no activation. According to Taylor the insula’s job is to collect information not about others, but about one’s own body, sensing feelings and the so-called gut instincts, and presenting that information to the rest of the brain. “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.” It appears that the optimistic tendency of the elderly might be overriding this warning signal.

It is curious to speculate as to why the elderly tend towards optimism. As we age, we close in on the prospect of our own death, and have likely experienced the passing of loved ones. Physical and cognitive problems are likely to present themselves. Social relationships can deteriorate and be lost, so loneliness can be a problem. An optimistic attitude can be quite helpful in coping with these difficulties. Nevertheless, the elderly need to realize that this optimistic attitude can make them vulnerable to fraud. See also the healthymemory blog posts, “Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?” and “The Distinctiveness Heuristic.” Enter “Optimism” in the search box to find more posts regarding optimism and its positive and negative merits.

1Norton, E. (2012). Why Older People Get Scammed, Washington Post, December 11, E4.

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory for Names Seem to Deteriorate?

December 16, 2012

This question was posed on a Scientific American Blog. The response provided by Professor Paul Reber reflects what we currently understand about memory.1 The first point to realize is that remembering names is a problem for most of us, regardless of age. There is a common expression “I can never remember a name, but I always remember a face.” This expression is wrong on two counts. First of all, regardless of age, some names are remembered. Secondly, regardless of age, some faces are not recognized or are mistaken for the wrong person. Unfortunately, the legal system has mistakenly adopted this myth, with the result of many innocent people being wrongfully convicted (Enter “Eyewitness Testimony” into the search block). Nevertheless our memories for faces are good, and the brain has special facial recognition circuits. Names are frequently forgotten, and there is a reason that names are difficult to remember. The mind is not a camera. Recall is a creative act that changes our memories whenever we recall. During recall our brains recall traces and then try to reconstruct a coherent, meaningful response. That is why mnemonic techniques are procedures for turning input that is inherently not meaningful into something meaningful that we recall. Sometimes this recreation can be too creative and recall something that did not occur.

Suppose you see somebody at your son’s baseball practice. You remember this person as being the father of one of your son’s teammates. You are able to recognize his son, and you also are able to remember that he is an accountant with a daughter in addition to his son. Furthermore, you remember that he recently became a widower and is now a single parent. You are able to recall all this information, but you cannot recall his name.

How can this be the case? How can you remember all this information, but still suffer the embarrassment of failing to recall his name? The reason is that what you can recall is meaningful information. Unfortunately, his name is arbitrary and essentially meaningless.

As was mentioned, absent the use of mnemonic techniques to remember names, this occurs throughout our lives. Perhaps these failures become more frequent as we age, but there are techniques for countering these failures. See the healthymemory blog post, “Remembering the Names of People.”

1Reber, P. As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory Seem to Deteriorate? Http://www.scientificaamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ask-the-brains-why

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sleep and a Healthy Memory

December 12, 2012

The Health & Science Section of the Washington Post included a piece of sleep1. Sleep is so important to a healthy memory that I feel compelled to relay the contents of that article to you. Our brains are active throughout the four stages of sleep, which are:

Stage 1: Falling asleep, which is characterized by Beta waves.

Stage 2: Light sleep, which is characterized by Alpha waves.

Stage 3: Deepest sleep, which is characterized by Theta waves.

Stage 4: Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which is characterized by Delta waves.

Memory and learning is impaired. The hippocampus is critical in transferring information into long term storage. Losing two hours of sleep in a single night can impair this information transfer. REM sleep is especially important because that appears to be when the brain filters out irrelevant information.

Missing a few hours sleep can result in accidents. This can produce “local sleep,” in which parts of the brain nod off while a person is nominally awake. One study found that middle school and high school athletes who slept eight or more hours each night were 60% less likely to be injured playing sports than those who slept less.

People who sleep four hours or less a night spend a lower percentage of time in Stage 2 and REM sleep. Consequently, they feel hungrier, crave more sweet and salty foods, and consume more calories than those who sleep longer. This makes them more susceptible to obesity and diabetes.

A study involving mice found that when Alzheimer’s plaques began to build in their brains, their sleep was disrupted. This suggests that poor sleep might be one of the first signs of the disease. It has also been found that connections between areas of a network in the brain used in daydreaming and introspection are disrupted in people who are chronically sleepy during the day. Alzheimer’s damages the same network, so these shaky connections might signal a susceptibility to the disease.

So, get a good night’s sleep. It is refreshing and will keep your memory healthy.

1Berkowitz B., & Cuadra, A. (2012). The Rest of the Story on Sleep. Washington Post, Health & Science, e2, December 4.

Multitasking is a Trade-Off

December 9, 2012

I completed my Bachelor’s Degree at Ohio State. Multitasking is an important and frequent topic for this blog (just enter “multitasking” in the search block to find related articles). So when I came across an article with this title in the alumni magazine, I could not resist using this source.1

Multitasking interferes with learning and performance. Studying while watching TV results in less learning. Communicating via instant messaging leads to a 50% drop in the performance of a simultaneous visual task. Communicating via voice phone leads to a 30% drop in the same task. Consequently, you should never engage in these tasks while driving. It is also true that hands free laws do not solve the problem.

A group of researchers at Ohio State recruited 32 college students who reported on their activities three times a day for four weeks. These students tracked their use of media (computer, radio, print, and television) as well as their use of social networking and other activities. For each activity and combination of activities the students listed their motivations using a list of potential needs including social, fun/entertainment, study/work, and habits/background noise. They reported on the strength of each need and whether it was met. The results indicated that if the cognitive need that was the reason for the multitasking in the first place, it was poorly met. The obvious reason is the distraction effect. In addition to the other task, the act of switching between tasks makes attentional demands. The students indicate that multitasking was very good at meeting their emotional needs (fun/entertainment/relaxation) even though they were not seeking to satisfy these needs.

Probably the most common reason that they multitask is that they are busy and time constraints demand it. Although that might be true, another reason is that it is enjoyable. Or, at least, it allows the pursuit of enjoyable activities. Students, indeed everyone, should be aware of this. If something is important, we probably should not multitask. However, if we do, we should be aware of the loss in efficiency and devote more time to the primary task. Students might not realize this and multitask because it is more enjoyable. This probably results in a lower grade unless the student has compensated for the less efficient learning.

I multitask. I frequently multitask by reading when I’m watching a sporting event. I know that if something important happens, they will replay it. I might even read while I’m watching the news or similar programs where a variety of topics are being covered, and I am only interested in some of them. But if what I am reading is important, the television is off

The choice between pleasure/enjoyment and what is good for us is a common one. Diet is another one. All we can do is make reasonable trade-offs.

1Mullin, M. (2012). Multitasking is a trade-off. Ohio State Alumni Magazine, September-October, p.24.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Human Transactive Memory

December 5, 2012

Transactive memory refers to memories that are available to you but are not present in your own biological memory. Transactive memory is one of this blog’s categories. However, most the posts in this category are about technical transactive memory. Memories that you can retrieve via the internet, the computer, books, and paper are termed technical transactive memory. Actually most of the research into transactive memory has been in the area of human transactive memory. Many of the results from this research have not been particularly surprising. For example, couples who remembered together rather than independently were able to recall significantly more than those who remembered individually. There are also frequent reports of someone losing their long-term partner all of a sudden experiencing a rapid memory decline, as if they’ve lost part of their mind.1

Shared memories provide the foundation for long term relationships and are a source of enjoyment and comfort throughout our lifetimes. I have so many precious memories of my family and friends that I can recall and enjoy. For the goal of keeping our memories healthy and continuing to grow them, fostering human transactive memory is especially important. There are two reasons for doing so. First of all you are expanding and enhancing your own memory. And you are also fostering social relationships, which are also important for a healthy brain and memory.

Marilu Henner of Taxi fame, and is one of the few elite individuals with a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, and the author of Total Memory Makeover (see the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Importance of Memory,” and “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us?”). Her family planned and attended events that they continued to remember and share after they occurred. She also discusses memory games that are fun for families.

So grow your social relationships and your transactive memory. Reminiscence and share fond memories with others, challenge each others’ memories, and play memory games.

1Weir, K. (2012). Shared Recall. New Scientist, 6 October, p.37.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Another Risk in Cyberspace

December 2, 2012

Victor Mayer Schoenberger noted the common and well publicized concern regarding billions of Facebook messages, the more than 300,000 daily tweets plus private e-mail accounts with their messages, photos, and videos. However the concern usually expressed regards violations of privacy and, perhaps, identity theft. Schoenberger was concerned what it can do to Thanksgiving if the warmth and joy is lost when we keep being reminded of every mistake, every quarrel, every disagreement.1 Schoenberger concern extends far beyond Thanksgiving and has written a book on the topic: Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is a problem with technical transactive memory. Technical transactive memory does not decay or transform, in contrast to human transactive memory that does decay and is modified every time it tried to recall something. People complain about what they forget. Although it is certainly true that we forget information that we want and sometimes need to recall, much forgetting is adaptive. This is especially true to relations with our fellow humans. Hurtful and embarrassing items are forgotten. This forgetting makes it much easier to forgive and forget.

It is very important to remember this when sending something into cyberspace. It could lead to embarrassing and possibly indictable information becoming public. It could reunion friendships and create new enemies. Now who needs more enemies? Unfortunately, technology frequently has the opposite effect. When there is a computer between people and the target of their animosity, sometimes the vitriol is unfortunately increased. This is what happens in flaming.

We should think and behave carefully when sending anything into cyberspace, remembering that it is literally “for keeps.” So to avoid losing friends, gaining enemies, or being indicted, be careful and circumspect about what you send to cyberspace!

1Meyer-Schoenberger, V. (2012). Washington Post, B2, Sunday November 25, B2.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Can Be Done About Older Drivers?

November 28, 2012

This current blog post reminded me of my dear senior citizen colleague, Fletcher Platt, Sr. Although Fletch had retired from the auto industry and had played an important role in placing seat belts in autos and in establishing a center for research into safe driving, he had become concerned about whether he could still drive safely. We continued to communicate about this and other topics. Eventually my wife and I had the privilege of visiting him at his retirement home a couple of times. He established, maintained, and constantly upgraded a website I wrote about in this blog (see the healthymemory blog posts, “An Interesting and Inspirational Website,” “A Life That Leads to a Healthy Memory,” and “Transactive Memory: An Important Concept Not to Be Overlooked”). Unfortunately his website is gone with his passing, but I know he would have been much interested in this post.

When number of miles driven is equated, elderly drivers have higher crash rates than all other drivers, with the exception of teenagers. Moreover, drivers older than 70 are over involved in right-of-way crashes primarily at intersections where hazards typically emerge from the side of the driver’s vehicle. A wide variety of causes have been proposed to include:

diminished cognitive abilities such as the narrowing of the drivers’ useful field of view.

a loss of ability to attend selectively to what is important.

poor judgment of vehicle speed

diminished physical abilities that interfere with ability to control their vehicle

failure to turn their heads

older drivers scan at intersections less effectively than do younger experienced drivers.

Pollatsek, Romoser, and Fisher1 conducted research to determine whether scanning itself, in the absence of distractions and other traffic, was also a problem. To address this question they used two groups of drivers as research participants using driving simulators. A group of drivers over 70 and a control group of experienced drivers aged 25-55. The difference in scanning behavior occurred in the scenario in which the driver first has to stop at a stop sign and then go straight through the intersection. The critical threat region here is the two seconds before the driver entered the intersection and the one second after the driver entered (when the driver still might have been able to avoid a crash). It was during this critical period when the older drivers did not look around as much as the younger drivers. After they left the intersection and at less hazardous intersections, both groups looked around equally. The conclusion the researchers reached was that the older drivers had simply fallen into a bad habit.

Of course, the critical question here is whether anything can be done about this. Accordingly, the researchers examined the effect of training. The driving behavior of one group was recorded by three cameras that were placed in their cars. The research involved two other groups. One was a control group that was given no training. Another control group was given 30 to 40 minutes of instruction that included coaching about where to look at intersections and why less careful scanning was an important cause of crashes for elderly drivers. The group that had had their driving behavior recorded was shown the video of their driving behavior in addition to receiving the 30 to 40 minute block of instruction. At the end of this training the group given both the training and the video feedback reached a level of driving performance that was indistinguishable from the performance of younger experienced drivers.

Apparently, the feedback on their individual driving performance was critical. It is likely that the group that received only the instruction concluded that they knew and did that and that the training was not necessary. Feedback was required to show the drivers that they had fallen into a bad habit and needed to correct it.

As far as losses in the ability to divide attention, in peripheral vision, visual working memory, in visual processing and in the useful field of view, there are computer-based courses to rebuild and enhance these skills. Some of these can be found at www.PositScience.com.

As for the question posed in the title of this article. Develop training programs for the elderly and train them.

1Pollatsek, A., Romoser, M.R.E., & Fisher, D.L. (2012). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 3-7.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Successful Strategies for Compromise

November 25, 2012

Compromise is key to a wide range of human interactions, from a marriage between two individuals, to legislative bodies, to negotiations among nation states. A recent article1 summarized empirical research into effective strategies for successful compromises. One effective strategy is perspective-taking, that is seeing the world through another viewpoint. Another strategy is to try to empathize with the party with whom you are negotiating. 152 participants played the role of either the buyer or seller in the sale of a gas station. Prior to the negotiation half the buyers were told to focus on the feelings and emotions of the seller (the empathy group), whereas the other half were told to consider what the seller was thinking (the perspective-taking group). The deal was complicated because the buyer’s maximum allowed expenditure was less than the seller’s minimum acceptable sale price. The optimal agreement here was for the seller to accept a lower price for the station in exchange for future monetary considerations, such as a guarantee of employment for the seller. The perspective-takers were much more successful in striking a compromise. About 76 percent of this group reached the ideal solution compared with 54 percent of the empathizers. In another study over the terms of employment, perspective-takers were able to achieve strong outcomes for both sides, whereas empathizers produced deals that hurt their own interests. Other research has discovered that you need not be naturally fair-minded to consider the opposing viewpoint. Even gentle reminders about perspective-taking can be enough to lessen the problems of a selfish mindset.

Another study gathered a coed sample of participants for an experimental negotiation that simulated a divorce settlement. The goal was to determine an equitable distribution of nine items. Some of the participants were told to be egoistic and to work toward the best personal outcome. Half of these participants were also told to consider the other person’s perspective during the deal. The results indicated that egoistic participants who used the the perspective-taking strategy had fewer impasses and also ended up with higher quality group outcomes.

Optimism, anticipating a successful outcome to the negotiation, is also an important factor. One experimental negotiation involved Israeli participants and a Palistinian research confederate. The negotiation involved the funding allocation for a security fence between Israeli and Palestinian communities. Half the Israeli negotiators told just to do their best to reach an agreement. The other half were given the same instruction, but were also told that every other team of negotiators had been able to achieve a successful agreement. The Palestinian negotiator, a confederate of the experiments, made the same starting and counter offers to each Israeli negotiator. About 82 percent of the Israeli negotiators given the positive expectation were able to achieve a successful negotiation, whereas only 34 percent of the control group, the ones just told to reach an agreement, achieved a successful outcome.

Unfortunately, this effect of optimism does not bode well for the outcome of negotiations that have been going on for many years without success. But in any case, negotiators have to be motivated and be willing to compromise for negotiations to succeed.

The Congress in the United States has been at loggerheads for quite some time. If compromises are not made, there is the real risk that the country will fall off a financial cliff. Unfortunately, there are many members of congress who refuse to compromise and have signed pledges refusing to perform certain acts. These congressmen are anathema to a democracy. All legislators need to compromise otherwise democratic governments collapse. The public blames congress, although it is the public that ultimately is to blame, either for not voting or for voting for candidates who do not compromise.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Give and Take: Empirical Strategies for Compromise. Obsewrver, October 2012, 25,8, pp. 9-11.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy Thanksgiving 2012!

November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving from the Healthymemory Blog! The purpose of this holiday is to remind us to be thankful. Each of us has something to be thankful for. Many of us are fortunate enough to have much to be thankful for. We should not forget to be thankful for our memories. They provide our identity and a machine for time travel. We can travel to times before we were born using our memories and our imagination. And we can travel into the future. Our memories enable us to use what we have experienced and learned in the past to plan for and deal with the future. They provide the basis for imagination and creativity.

So we need to do everything we can to foster and develop our memories. They will provide the basis for a more successful, fulfilling, and enjoyable life. The goal of the Healthymemory Blog is to help us foster and develop our memories. See the immediately preceding post, “Memory in Old Age: Different from Memory in the Young?” Regardless of our ages, we can build cognitive reserves that can diminish or ward off the prospects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

As internet users there is something for which we can all be thankful, and that is a new search engine, duckduckgo.com. DuckDuckGo does not track users, so no record is kept of your searches or the links you click. Consequently, the search results are cleaner and absent the large amount of sales and promotional results. I, for one, am truly thankful. Please provide your personal comments.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

 

Memory in Old Age: Different from Memory in the Young?

November 18, 2012

This blog post was motivated by an article in Scientific American Mind, “Memory in Old Age: Not a Lost Cause.”1 The article notes that older people retain their vocabulary, their knowledge about the world, how to perform routine tasks, but become worse at recalling recent events, short-term memory, and prospective memory (remembering to do things). While all this is correct, it is also the case that memory failures in older people are attributed to their age. They are referred to as senior moments and are sometime taken as warnings of incipient Alzheimer’s Disease. It should be remembered that memory failures are common at all ages and that while there is some decline in memory, not all memory failures in the elderly are attributable to aging.

The article provides techniques for remedying and mitigating these losses. They describe a variety of mnemonic techniques, which has its own category of posts in this blog, and external aids, which are referred to in this blog as transactive memory. These techniques are thoroughly covered in the Healthymemory Blog. You can also do a search on Prospective Memory. Of special relevance is the Healthymemory Blog post, “Prospective Memory and Technology.” The Scientific American Mind article also mentions the importance of physical and cognitive activity, recommendations you will also find in the Healthymemory Blog. The beneficial effects of nature, meditation, and social engagement were omitted from the Mind article, but are topics found in the Healthymemory Blog.

What strikes me is that these techniques benefit everyone, not just elderly. We should not wait until we reach old age, start becoming sensitized to our memory failures, fearful of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, before using these techniques and improving our memories and cognitive performance. These techniques should be introduced, as appropriate, beginning at home and in pre-school, throughout our formal education, and be part of a process of lifetime learning.

Most everyone has become knowledgeable and fearful of the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles of Alzheimer’s. A final diagnosis of Alzheimer’s awaits an autopsy confirming the presence of these plaques and tangles. What is not well known is that their have been autopsies of cadavers whose brains had these amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, but who had not exhibited any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s while they were living. The explanation for this finding is that these people had built up a cognitive reserve that enabled them to overcome these physical manifestations of Alzheimer’s. So whatever your age, if you have not started yet, START BUILDING YOUR COGNITIVE RESERVE!

1Arkowitz, H. , & Lilienfeld, S.O., (2012). Memory in Old Age: Not a Lost Cause, Scientific American Mind, November/December, 72-73.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Treatable Condition Misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s

November 14, 2012

I came across an article1 in Parade magazine that motivated this post. There is a condition, Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), that is frequently misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Worse yet, sometimes it is attributable to aging. This is a tragedy because NPH is treatable. The most distinguishing feature of NPH is a disturbed gait while walking. Memory losses and a loss of bladder control are other symptoms. These symptoms occur gradually. NPH occurs when the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounding the brain fails to be reabsorbed. Treatment for NPH involves the surgical implantation of a shunt in the brain to drain excess CSF into the abdomen where it can be reabsorbed.

Although this disease can occur at any age, it is more prevalent in the elderly. The Hydrocephalus Association estimates that at least 350,000 Americans, and 5 percent of people with dementia, have the condition. Mark Luciano, M.D., the director at Cleveland Clinic says that about 30 percent of his NPH patients were originally told that they had Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

In the case of Jimmy Nowell that was discussed in the Parade article, one specialist diagnosed his condition as Parkinson’s. Another specialist diagnosed it as Alzheimer’s. Had Nowell and his wife stopped at this point, his conditioned would have worsened until he died. Unless an autopsy had been taken, everyone would have thought he had died of Alzheimer’s. If an autopsy had been done they would have discovered that the distinctive plaque and neurofibril tangles were missing and would have been pondering as to what killed him. Fortunately they found a neurologist who correctly diagnosed the condition when he took an MRI and compared it to an MRI taken several years earlier. His treatment was successful.

I confess my ignorance of NPH until reading the Parade article. I had mistakenly thought that I was fairly familiar with the literature in the Alzheimer’s area. Unfortunately, I am not alone in my ignorance as it is apparently shared by too many in the medical community. Please spread the word regarding NPH, so that people suffering from the condition mistakenly think they have or are misdiagnosed with another condition. NPH is a condition that can be successfully treated.

 

1Chen, J. (2012). What If Grandpa Doesn’t Really Have Alzheimer’s? Parade, November 11, p.22

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Truth Decay

November 11, 2012

Truth Decay is the title of an intriguing and important article in the New Scientist.1 The author writes that when his grandfather was in dental school he learned that there were 48 chromosomes in a human cell. This was regarded as an established fact. But in 1956 Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan discovered using an improved and more accurate technique that there were only 46 chromosomes in a human cell.

It is the nature of science that facts change. Scientometrics is the field that studies how these facts change. The rate of change will likely surprise you. Thierry Poynard and his colleagues measured the churning of facts in two medical fields in which they specialized. Cirrhosis and hepatitis are two liver diseases. They took almost 500 articles in these fields from over a period of 50 years and gave them to a panel of experts to review. Each expert needed to rate each paper as to whether it was factual, out-of-date, or disproved.2 They discovered that 45 years after publication, 50% of journal articles had effectively decayed. They concluded that these articles had a 45 year “half-life.” Another study came to the same conclusion in a review of studies on surgery.3

The above studies were extremely pain-staking to conduct, so another method is used, and that is how long it takes for researchers to stop citing the average paper in the field. This technique is not as good as the failure to cite a paper does not necessarily indicate that the findings of the paper are no longer true. It could be that there are more recent and up to date papers, or that the journal’s focus has moved on to other topics. Nevertheless, this technique does provide an approximation. A study of Physical Review journals found that the half-life in physics is about 10 years.4 Half-lives also vary as a function of publication formats for different fields. In a study of scholarly books, physics has a different half-life (13.7 years), economics (9.4 years), which is longer than half lives of mathematics, psychology, and history.5 However, in journal articles, as opposed to scholarly books, the frontiers of hard science are overturned more rapidly than the frontiers of the social sciences.

The estimates of half lives and the rates of turn over in different publications and in different fields, although interesting, are not the main point here. The main point is that facts change and they change rapidly. For many years the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) was strongly recommended for all men over a certain age. Now it is only recommended for high risk groups and even then, only after consulting with their physician. I have been through many different ideal food groups in my life. At one time dairy products were supposed to be nature’s most perfect food. At another time the US had four basic food groups. Then there was a food pyramid that underwent multiple changes. Now there are five food groups. Advice on the consumption of fatty foods, carbohydrates and many other things change.

The purpose of this blog post is not to discredit science. At any given time, science provides the best facts for that time. But science is in constant flux, and what is factual today might not be factual at some future date. So remember that some of what you learned during your formal education might not be true today. This underscores the importance of lifelong learning, and lifelong learning fosters healthy memories.

1Arbesman, S. (2012). Truth Decay. New Scientist, 22 September, 37-39.

2Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol 136, p.888).

3The Lancet, vol 350, p.1752.

4Arxiv.org/abs/physics/0407137.

5College and Research Libraries, vol 69, p 356.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Value of Openness

November 7, 2012

The prevailing opinion in personality theory is that there are five majority personality traits: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness. Openness measures cognitive flexibility and the willingness to entertain novel ideas. According to a brief article1 summarizing recent research in this area, the linchpin for Openness being associated to a longer, healthier life is creativity. Creative thinking reduces stress. Creative people likely see stresses more as challenges that they can overcome rather than as obstacles that they can’t overcome. Another, and perhaps the most central reason, is that creativity draws on a variety of neural networks within the brain. A study conducted at Yale University correlated openness with the robustness of white matter, which supports connections between neurons in different parts of the brain. Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center says “Individuals high in creativity maintain the integrity of their neural networks even into old age.” He further states, “Keeping the brain healthy may be one of the most important aspects of aging successfully—a fact shown by creative persons living longer…”

I would extrapolate from these results and also conclude that creative individuals are also less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some people might still hold to the old theory that personality traits are fixed and cannot be changed. I challenge that view. Current ideas regarding neuroplasticity inform us that we can change our brains and our behaviors. So we can work to be more open and creative. I would refer you to the healthymemory blog post “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Down, Then Up” to learn more about creativity and how you can foster your own creativity.

1Rodriguez, T. (2012). Open Mind, Longer Life, Scientific American Mind, September/October, 18.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Six Tips for Improving Your Memory

November 4, 2012

These tips were taken from an article, “Master Your Memory,” in the New Scientist.1

      1. Hit the Sweet Spot. The sweet spot referred to here is the most effective means of remembering information that you want to remember. This topic is covered quite thoroughly in the Healthymemory Blog (see the category on mnemonic techniques). In addition to specific mnemonic techniques, it is good to space the study of material rather than cramming. Also important is testing yourself (see the Healthymemory Blog posts, “The Benefits of Testing,” “To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First!,” and “Trying to Recall Benefits a Healthy Memory.”). I’ve thought that the difference between students who get As and Bs, and students who get Cs, Ds, and Fs, is that the former recall the highlighted portions of their texts whereas the latter simply read them.
      2. Limber up. A bit of exercise can offer immediate benefits to anyone trying to learn new material. Exercise seems to increase mental alertness. One study found that students taking a 10-minute walk found it much easier to learn of list of 30 nouns when compared to a group who just sat around. Short, intense bursts of exercise appear to be more effective. In one experiment students learning a new vocabulary performed better if they studied after two 3-minute runs as compared to a 40-minute gentle jog. They believe that the exercise encouraged the release of neurotransmitters involved in forming new connections among brain cells.
      3. Make a gesture. It is easier to learn abstract concepts if they can be related to simple physical sensations. A variety of experiments have found that acting out an idea with relevant hand gestures can improve later recall, whether the subject is the new vocabulary of a foreign language or the rules of physics.
      4. Engage your nose. The French novelist Marcel Proust could write pages inspired by a remembered odor. Reminiscing about the good old days and recalling whole events from our past has been linked to a raft of benefits and can combat loneliness and feelings of angst. One way to assist in releasing these memories is by using odors. Andy Warhol used to keep an organized library of perfumes, each associated with a specific period of his life. Sniffing particular bottle would bring back a flood of memories associated with that odor. Research has supported the validity of Warhol’s approach for others. Odors do tend to trigger particular emotional memories such as the excitement of a birthday. They are also good at retrieving childhood memories.
      5. Oil the cogs. Diet can be helpful, and I think you can anticipate what is going to follow. Avoid high-sugar fast foods that seem to encourage the build-up of protein plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Now diets full of flavonoids (see the Healthymemory Blog posts, “Flavonoids for a Healthy Memory,” and “31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012”) are good for us. Flavonoids are found in blueberries, strawberries, and omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in oily fish and olive oil. They seem to stave off cognitive decline by a few years as a result of the antioxidants protecting the brain cells from an early death perhaps.
      6. Learn to forget (or rather how not to remember). There might be ways of stopping fresh memories of painful events from being consolidated into long term storage. One study asked participants to watch a disturbing video before asking them to engage in various activities. Participants who played the video game Tetris experienced fewer flash backs to the disturbing as compared to the participants who took the general knowledge quiz. It is thought that the game made greater demands on attentional resources that reduced the processing of the disturbing film. Playing relaxing music after an event that you would rather forget also seems to help. Perhaps it takes the sting out of the negative feelings that cause these events to stick in our minds.

1Jarret, C. (2012). Master Your Memory. New Scientist, 6 October, p. 42-43.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Time Travel: The Ultimate Purpose of Memory?

October 28, 2012

Most of the time we think of memory as being a place of historical storage where old information and experiences are kept. But another way of thinking about it is as a vehicle for time travel (see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Human Memory: A Machine for Time Travel”). You are able to travel to times long before you were born using what you have learned and your imagination. You can also project yourself into the future with science fiction or your own imagination. Actually we do quite a bit of projection in our daily lives, imagining what it will be like and making appropriate plans. Brain images of people when they are remembering the past and imagining the future show a great degree of overlap in the areas of the brain that are responding.

The distinguished memory researcher Endel Tulving found an unfortunate individual with amnesia who could remember facts but not episodic memories relating to past events in his life. When this person was asked about plans, be it for later in the day, the next day, or in summer, his mind went blank. Brain scans support this idea. When we think of a possible future, we tear through our memories in autobiographical memory and stitch together fragments into a montage that represents a new scenario. Our memories become frayed and reorganized in the process.1

So it appears that the ability to project ourselves forward in time, using what we have learned and experienced to guide the projection, might be the ultimate purpose of memory. Gestalt psychologists believe that in both the processing of information and its memory that laws were operating to create order and make information more meaningful. Emergence was an important concept in which new ideas emerged from the information at hand. These processes help us deal with the future.

Although our brains are working from the time we are born (and there is data indicating that they are working before we are born) to understand and make sense of the world in order to cope with it. In the early stages of life we are preoccupied with mastering language and moving about our environments. Consequently we rarely remember specific events before the ages of 2 or 3, when our autobiographical memories begin to develop And they develop slowly as it is difficult to remember much before our sixth birthday. We are also developing a sense of identity. When we are able to recognize ourselves in a mirror, we have achieved a critical stage of development. A child’s ability to imagine the future seems to develop in tandem with autobiographical memory. Obviously our culture and our families have a profound influence on these memories and our preparation for coping with the world. Our autobiographical memories continue to mature when we leave our parents. A ten year old can rarely relay a coherent life story, but a twenty year old can ramble on for hours. There is a “reminiscence bump,” where we are able to recall much more information that occurs in late adolescence.2 Consequently we are prepared or semi-prepared to assume responsibilities just in the nick of time.

1Robson, D. (2012). Memory: The Ultimate Guide. New Scientist, 6 October, p.33.

2Weir, K. (2012). A Likely Story. New Scientist, 6 October, 36-37.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Electrical Activity, Chemical Activity, Connectivity, and Epigenetic Activity

October 24, 2012

All of these are involved in making our memories. Our short term or working memories are held in fleeting changes in the brain‘s electrical and chemical activity. They quickly fade as our attention wanders, but they provide the basis of our conscious awareness.

Our long term memories are woven into webs of connections among the brain cells. The brain alters the communication between networks of cells by the creation of new receptors at the end of a neuron, by a surge in the production of a neurotransmitter, or by the forging of new ion channels that allows a brain cell to boost the voltage of its signals. The same pattern of neurons will fire when we recall the memory bringing the thought back into our consciousness. Long term memories include our autobiographical memories, our episodic memories of specific events in our lives, our sensory memories, as well as our semantic memories that comprise our knowledge of the world. One of the most important brain regions involved in this process are the hippocampi. The are located near the base of the brain and are especially important in the consolidation of new memories. When they are surgically removed or damaged, no new memories can be stored. Thus, no new learning can take place.

The preceding has been known for some time, what is new is an understanding of the epigenetic changes that are involved in memory. These involve small alterations in the structure of a gene and determine its activity within the cell. For instance, certain genes linked to the formation of memories have been shown to have fewer methyl groups attached to their DNA after learning. This is a clear example of an epigenetic change.1 Every time we recall a memory, new proteins are made. The epigenetic markers are altered changing the memory in subtle ways. So the brain is not like a video camera. It is dynamic and changes itself.

1Young, E. (2012). The Making of a Memory, New Scientist, 6 October, p.34.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can Pigeons Learn Faster the Humans?

October 21, 2012

Would you believe that the answer is “yes.” And would you further believe that the learning involves conditional probabilities? The problem is the famed “Monty Hall Dilemma” from the old TV show Let’s Make a Deal. On one segment of the show the contestant was asked to make a choice regarding three doors. There was a valuable prize behind one door and trash prizes behind the other two doors. After the contestant chose one of the doors, Monty Hall would open one of the other two doors, which would have a trash prize behind it. Monty then asks the contestant whether she wants to switch her choice to the other remaining door. Most people, including some prominent statisticians, saw no point to switching the choice. However, the contestant would increase her chances of winning something valuable to 67% from 33% by switching. This result is non-intuitive. The simple explanation is that the sample space changed with the opening of one of the doors. Very detailed explanations can be fond on the Wikipedia or you can play the game itself at

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/science/08monty.html

and prove that the answer is correct. Be sure to play the game enough times to acquire a large enough sample. Concluding on the basis of your first few tries could lead to an erroneous conclusion.

But our question is whether pigeons could do better the humans. Probably not on Let’s Make a Deal, as the typical pigeon just as the typical human is unlikely to know the problem or to be especially knowledgeable about conditional probabilities. But how would humans and pigeons compare after playing a game like the simulation provided above?

An experiment1 addressed this question. Here’s how this experiment was run for the pigeons. Prior to each trial the prize, a grain pellet, was randomly assigned to each of three keys. The keys were illuminated and the pigeon pecked a key locking in the choice. Following a brief delay, the two remaining keys were again illuminated again and a second peck produced a prize, the grain, or a time-out. Pigeons completed up to 100 trials per day over 30 days. Human participants completed 200 trials using a computer display and were presented with visual feedback. Pigeons began with a tendency to stay, but eventually settled on a strategy to switch on virtually all trials. Human participants quickly developed a tendency to switch on about two-thirds of the trials. That is, they tried to probability match rather than moving to the optimal strategy of always switching. If you do not believe that this is the optimal strategy, then go back to the simulation and test your hypothesis, remembering to run a large number of trials.

So how could this be? Could pigeons be smarter than humans (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals”)? Or could it be that humans are being too smart for their own good in this case? Remember the distinction between System 1 and System 2 Processes (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 consists of well learned processes that run virtually automatically. System 2 is close to our conscious processing and is what we commonly experienced as thinking. It is possible that we over think the problem to our disadvantage. It would have been interesting to continue humans in the experiment to see when, if ever, they learned the optimal strategy of not switching. The pigeons, in spite of their conscious capacity, might have learned the optimal strategy via very basic learning processes. Be assured this is all conjecture, done in fun. But the empirical results are real.

1Hebranson, W.T. (2012). Pigeons, Humans and the Monty Hall Dilemma. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012 21:297 DOI: 10.1177/0963721412453585.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

New Approaches to Alzheimer’s Disease

October 17, 2012

Between 1998 and 2011, 101 experimental treatments for Alzheimer’s were scrapped. Only three drugs made it to market, and they do not cure Alzheimer’s, they merely slow it down. Treatments that target the obvious hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are the sticky plaques that clog up people’s brains. Two of the largest trials of treatments to attack these plaques failed. So it appears that other approaches are needed that focus on other earlier events. The immediately preceding post outlined one of these new approaches. Another article1 described new trials that are focusing on protecting synapses. Synapses are the gaps across which neurons communicate.

Bryostatin 1 is a cancer drug that has been shown to boost an enzyme, PKC episilon. This enzyme both helps form synapses and protects them against plaque. A trial that will test this drug in people with Alzheimer’s is about to begin.

Patricia Salinas and her colleagues at University College in London have shown that soluble beta-amyloid raises concentration of a synapse destroying enzyme called Dkk1. When the enzyme was blocked in cultures of brain cells, synapses remained intact. Potentially this could provide a way to protect the aging brain.

Gary Landreth and his team at Case Western University have found that another cancer drug, bexarotene, got rid of half the plaques within three days in an experiment using mice. The drug also reduced levels of beta-amyloid and the animals rapidly recovered their cognitive abilities.

The Healthymemory blog always takes pains to note that although these amyloid plaques appear to be a necessary condition, they do not appear to be a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s. There have been autopsies of individuals whose brains all show conspicuous signs of Alzheimer’s, yet these individuals never evidenced any of its symptoms when they were alive. The explanation offered for this finding is that these people had built up a cognitive reserve during their lifetimes. The healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of building this cognitive reserve through cognitive exercise (e.g.,mnemonic techniques), and by remaining cognitively active and engaging in cognitive growth throughout one’s entire life.

1Hamzelou, J., (2012). A New Direction. New Scientist, 29 September, p. 7.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Astrocytes and Alzheimer’s

October 14, 2012

Astrocytes are star shaped glial cells found in the brain and the spinal cord. An interesting article1 explains how these astrocytes could possibly prevent or provide a cure for Alzheimer’s. It is thought that these astrocytes make up a large percentage of the brain and have an important role supporting neurons to include clearing the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. It was recently shown that cells in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s “senesce.” This mechanism stops them from dividing and starts them on a path of destruction.

It is generally believed that cell senescence evolved to protect us from cancer. Cells can accumulate DNA damage as they age and they senesce to avoid incorrect division that can lead to cancer. The benefit of senescence over self-destruction is that it sends out a call to the immune system to destroy nearby cells that might also be affected. If the damaged cell is not killed, it goes on pumping out inflammatory proteins, which can cause damage thought to underlie age related ailments such as Alzheimer’s.

To provide some empirical data, brain slices were taken from cadavers. Slices were taken from fetuses, from people aged 35 to 50, and from people aged between 78 and 90.  The healthy brains from adults over 35 had six to eight times more senescent cells than those taken from fetuses. Cells from corpses who had had Alzheimer’s had more of these cells than their Alzheimer-free pairs of similar age. About 30 percent of the of the astrocytes seem to have senesced, a figure that was 10 percent higher in those with Alzheimer’s.

The theory is that the plaques and aging astrocytes get caught in a vicious cycle.  As the astrocytes senesce, they are less able to perform their plaque cleaning duties, and the accumulation of plaques drives more cells to senesce.2 If the astrocytes could be kept young, they could clear the plaque. The problem with preventing senescence is that it could increase the risk of cancer. Another approach is to get rid of the senescent cells. Research using mice has found that a technique for removing all of the senescent cells in a mouse prevented the onset of a range of age-related disorders. If this technique can be adapted for humans and the senescent cells can be cleared, then Alzheimer;s could probably be cleared.

Another approach might be to stop senescing brain cells from secreting their inflammatory brew. They have been found a compound that suppresses the secretions of senescent cells in the laboratory. That needs to be transitioned and tested with humans.

This work is quite promising. However, it should be remembered that beta-amyloid plaque might be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition for the onset of Alzheimer’s. There have been autopsies done of individuals whose brains were plagued by beta-amyloid plaque who had never shown any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they were alive.

It is thought that keeping cognitively and physically active, and continuing to grow cognitively as we age builds up a cognitive reserve that resists or offsets these physical symptoms.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Why Alzheimer’s Hits Older Brains. New Scientist, 29 September, 6-7.

2Bhat, R., Crowe, E.P., Bitto, A. , Moh, M., Katsetos, C.D., Garcia, F.U., Johnson, F.B., Trojanski, J.Q., Sell, C., Torres, C. (2012). Astrocyte Senescence as a Component of Alzheimer;s Disease. PloS, doi.org/jdz.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Solutions and Good Practices for Misinformation

October 10, 2012

The preceding three blog posts, “Misinformation,” “The Origins of Misinformation,”, and “Cognitive Processing of Information,” have painted a pessimistic view of the problem of misinformation. This post will propose some solutions to the problem. All four posts draw heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1 This post also draws on Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman‘s two system view of human cognition.2 According to Kahneman, we have two systems for processing information. System 1, called Intuition, is very fast, and seems to work effortlessly. System 2, called reasoning, is slow and effortful. System 1 is the default system that we use when we are walking, driving, conversing, engaging in any type of skilled performance. System 2 is what we might term conscious thinking. One of the reasons that System 1 is so fast is that it employs heuristics and biases in its processing. Although most of the time they are correct, occasionally they are wrong. System 2 is supposed to monitor System 1 processing and should step in and do some thinking to assure that nothing is wrong. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition.”)

It is System 1, which facilitates the processing of good information, that inadvertently processes misinformation. System 2 is supposed to monitor and correct these mistakes, but it is a very difficult task. A person’s worldview, what the person already believes, has an enormous effect on what is regarded as misinformation. One person’s information can be another’s misinformation. Skepticism reduces susceptibility to misinformation effects when it prompts people to question the origins of information that may later turn out to be false. One way of dealing with this worldview is by framing solutions to a problem in worldview-consonant terms. For example, people who might oppose nanotechnology because they have an “eco-centric” outlook might be less likely to dismiss evidence of its safety if the use of nanotechnology is presented as part of an effort to protect the environment.

There is a danger one needs to recognize when trying to correct the effects of misinformation, particularly misinformation about complex real-world issues. People will refer more to misinformation that is in line with their attitudes and will be relatively immune to corrections. Retractions might even backfire and strengthen the initially held beliefs.

So much for the difficulties. Four common misinformation problems follow along with associated solutions and good practices.

Continued Influence Effect. Despite a retraction, people continue to believe the misinformation. The solution is to provide an alternative explanation that fills the gap left by retracting the misinformation without reiterating the misinformation. Then continue to strengthen the retraction through repetition (without reinforcing the myth).

Familiarity Backfire Effect. Repeating the myth increases familiarity reinforcing it. The solution is to avoid repetition of the myth by reinforcing the correct facts instead. When possible provide a pre-exposure warning that misleading information is coming.

Overkill Backfire Effect. Simple myths are more cognitively attractive than complicated refutations. The solution is to provide a simple, brief, rebuttal that uses fewer arguments in refuting the myth—less is more. Try to foster healthy skepticism. Skepticism about information source reduces the influence of misinformation.

Worldview Backfire Effect. Evidence that threatens worldview can strengthen initially held beliefs. The solution is to affirm worldview by framing evidence in a worldview-affirming manner by endorsing the values of the audience. Self-affirmation of personal values increases receptivity to evidence.

It should be clear that correcting the effects of misinformation is not easy. Moreover, the effects are likely to be modest. Nevertheless, correcting misinformation is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Clearly more research is needed.

We also need to be aware that our own worldviews influence System 1 processing and the failure to reject misinformation. Here I am reminded of something Mark Twain said. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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

2Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Processing of Information

October 9, 2012

This is the third in a series of four posts on the topic of misinformation and its correction. All four posts draw heavily on a review article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.1 The first post, “Misinformation,” introduced the problem of misinformation. The second post, “The Origins of Misinformation” discussed the mechanisms of misinformation. The current post discusses how we process information, assess its truth, and correct misinformation we have received and, mistakenly, believed. This post draws on Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman‘s two system view of human cognition.2 According to Kahneman, we have two systems for processing information. System 1, called Intuition, is very fast, and seems to work effortlessly. System 2, called reasoning, is slow and effortful. System 1 is the default system that we use when we are walking, driving, conversing, engaging in any type of skilled performance. System 2 is what we might term conscious thinking. One of the reasons that System 1 is so fast is that it employs heuristics and biases in its processing. Although most of the time they are correct, occasionally they are wrong. System 2 is supposed to monitor System 1 processing and should step in and do some thinking to assure that nothing is wrong. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition.”)

The default mode for System 1 processing is that the information is true, unless the source is questionable at the outset. Then System 2 would raise an alert regarding the accuracy/truth of the information. Otherwise our processing of information would be quite slow and others would tend to lose patience with us. There is a sense of familiarity or fluency regarding the information. Should it be unfamiliar System 2 will likely pay more attention to the information including its veracity.

System 2 does raise some questions. For example, is the information compatible with what I believe? If it isn’t, it is likely either to be disregarded or to be examined quite carefully. If it is a story, System 2 will judge whether it is coherent. If it is incoherent and does not fit together, it will be regarded with suspicion.

Repeated exposure to a statement is known to increase its acceptance as true. Repetition effects can create a perceived social consensus even when no consensus exists. This is important as one of the factors determining whether the information is believed is whether others believe the information. Social-consensus information is particularly influential when it pertains to one’s reference group. One possible consequence of this repetition is pluralistic ignorance, which is the divergence between the actual prevalence of a belief in a society and what people in the society think that others believe. The flip side of pluralistic ignorance is the false-consensus effect in which a minority of people incorrectly feel that they are in the majority. These effects can be quite strong. It has been found that people in Australia who have particularly negative attitudes toward Aboriginal Australians or asylum seekers overestimate public support for their attitudes by 67% and 80% respectively. Although only 1.8% of people in a sample of Australians were found to have strongly negative attitudes towards Aboriginals, those few individuals thought that 69% of all Australians (and 79% of their friends) shared their extreme beliefs.

Unfortunately research indicates that retractions rarely eliminate the influence of misinformation. This is true even when people believe, understand, and later remember the retraction. This is true of research in the laboratory where misinformation is often retracted immediately and within the same narrative. Of course the situation is even worse when misinformation is presented through media sources and a correction is presented. This correction is usually presented in a later edition, so the format is temporally disjointed.

Most misinformation is the result of fast System 1 processes. The failure of retractions is due to faulty System 2 processes. We construct mental models of events. When a portion of this model is disrupted, System 2 processes should recognize that the entire model falls apart. But we don’t. Sometimes the false information that was retracted is still employed in the model. So System 2 is not doing the strategic monitoring it is supposed to do. Misinformation can have a fluency and familiarity about it, which is the result of System 1 processes and the failure of System 2 processes to correct the misinformation even when the correct information is available.

There is also the psychological phenomenon of reactance. People generally do not like to be told how to think or how to act, so they may reject especially authoritative retractions. This effect has be documented in courtroom settings where mock jurors are presented with a piece of evidence that is later ruled inadmissable. When the jurors are asked to disregard the tainted evidence, their conviction rates are higher when an inadmissable ruling was accompanied by the judge’s extensive legal explanations than when the inadmissability was left unexplained.

To this point the presentations have been pretty pessimistic. Misinformation is a large problem produced by many sources and processed by cognitive mechanisms that are vulnerable to misinformation but fairly indifferent to corrections. The next post, the final one in these series, will provide some partial solutions to this serious problem.

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

2Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Origins of Misinformation

October 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Misinformation

October 7, 2012

The explosion of the internet has led many to fear misinformation on the internet. A recent review article1 on misinformation and its correction has motivated this post and the next three posts. As will be seen, misinformation is not a new problem; it has been with us a long time. The problem is more psychological than technological, and it is difficult, but not impossible to correct.

Misinformation is widespread and persistent. Here are some prominent examples:

Barack Obama’s Birth Certificate. In addition to his Hawaiian birth certificate, birth announcements in the local papers, and information that his pregnant mother went into the Honolulu hospital and left it cradling a baby “birthers” claimed that he had been born outside the United States and was not eligible to be president. Undoubtedly Obama had been vetted by the Republican Party and the US government prior to the election. Still a majority of Republican primary voters believed this myth. Birthers still exist even after Obama eventually and unnecessarily produced his birth certificate.

In 1998 in the United Kingdom a study suggesting a link between a common childhood vaccine and autism generated considerable fear. The UK Department of Health along with other health organizations immediately pointed to the lack of evidence for such claims and urged parents not to reject the vaccine. The media also reported that none of the claims had been substantiated. Nevertheless in 2002 between 20% and 25% continued to believe in the vaccine-autism link. 39% to 53% of the public still believed there was equal evidence on both sides of the debate. What is even more disturbing is that a substantial number of health professionals continued to believe the misinformation (so don’t assume that your doctor is up to date on the medical literature—you might be more current than your doctor is). Eventually the fact came out that the first author of the study had failed to disclose that he had substantial conflicts of interest. His co-authors distanced themselves from the study, and the journal officially retracted the article. The first author was found guilty of misconduct and lost his license to practice medicine. The basis of this information was one article. Consider the effort in correcting this misinformation. There have been several similar incidents in the United States, and they will continue to occur.

When the few lucky North Koreans manage to escape North Korea and make it to South Korea, they go to sessions where they learn how to live in a free society. They are also provided some relevant history. In North Korea they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the belief that South Korea and the US Imperialists started the war. In spite of their total disillusionment with North Korea, to the point that they risked their lives to escape the North Korean nightmare, they find this correction of this egregious misinformation difficult to accept.

It can be extremely difficult to correct misconceptions. Advertisements for Listerine mouthwash claimed for more than 50 years that the product helped prevent or reduce the severity of colds and sore throats. After a long legal battle The U.S. Federal Trade Commission mandated corrective advertising that explicitly withdrew the deceptive claims. In spite of a $10 million dollar campaign, the corrections were modest. Overall levels of acceptance of the false claim remained high. 42% of Listerine users still believed that the product was still promoted as an effective cold remedy and more than half (57%) reported that the product’s presumed medical effects were a key factor in their purchasing decision.

So misinformation is a serious problem that is neither new nor unique to the internet. This problem is psychological, not technological. The internet is merely a delivery system.

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SuperAgers with a Super Memory

October 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Could We Lose What Is in Cyberspace?

September 30, 2012

The preceding healthymemory blog post addressed the vast amount of information in cyberspace. Could we lose these information? An article in the Economist addressed this question.1

The task appears to be enormous. Consider the vast amounts of data discussed in the preceding post that is constantly changing and growing. Could it end up like the famed Library of Alexandria that was built in the 3rd century BC that is reputed to have every copy of every book in the world at that time? I suspect that this statement betrays a characteristic western bias. If the Library of Alexandria had a counterpart in the far east or books from the far east, please comment. Nevertheless, the Library of Alexandria was a tremendous repository of knowledge that burned to the ground sometime between Julius Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in 48 BC and the Muslim invasion in 640 AD. It is believed by some historians that the loss of the Alexandria library along with the dissolution of its community of scribes and scholars created the conditions for the Dark Ages.

Of course, it is possible that a nuclear holocaust or some astronomical event could cause the loss of cyberspace and a descent into another Dark Age. However, absent such a cataclysm the infrastructure is already in place for the historical recording and saving of cyberspace. The Internet Archive, http://archive.org/ is a free internet library capable of storing a copy of every web page of every website ever on line. The Wayback Machine, http://archive.org/web/web.php, allows users to view the library’s archived web pages as they appeared when published. The Open Library, http://openlibrary.org/, is working to provide a web page for every book in existence. They are offering 1,000,000 free e-book titles for downloading. Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/, offers 40,000 e-books that can be downloaded for free in any of the popular e-reader formats.

Cyberspace also provides a means of leaving memorials that will long outlast us and will possibly be used by historians and a wide range of scholars far into the future. A couple of healthymemory blog posts discussed this new type of memorial, “Transactive Memory and the Dearly Departed,” and “Online Memorials.” I hope to leave memorials like this for both my wife, who is a talented artist, and myself. I hope I’ll be able to justify my having walked the earth, but that is a tall order. I need to get to work!

1(2012). Lost in Cyberspace, The Economist Technical Quarterly, September 1, p.11.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Much Information Is There and What Does It Mean?

September 27, 2012

A recent article by Martin Hilbert was published in the Big Data Special Issue of the publication Significance: statistics making sense titled “How Much Information Is There in the Information Society”? Hilbert together with his collaborator Priscila Lopez tackled the task of estimating the world’s technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information over the period from 1986 to 2007/2012. The complete collection of these studies can be accessed free of charge at

http://martinhilbert.net/WorldInfoCapacity.html

In 1949 the father of information theory, Claude E. Shannon, estimated that the largest information stockpile he could think of was the Library of Congress with about 12,500 megabytes (106). The current estimate for the amount of storage for the Library of Congress has grown to a terabyte 1012. During the two decades of their study the amount of information quadrupled from 432 exabytes (1018) to 1.9 zetabytes (1021). For our personal and business computation we are familiar with gigabytes (109). Next are terabytes (1012), then petabytes (1015), the aforementioned exabytes, and zetabytes. Yottabytes (1024) await us in the future.

Although these are measures of information in the technical sense, I prefer to think of them as data. I think of information in technical transactive memory as data. When it is perceived by a human it becomes information. When it is further processed into the human information processing system, it becomes knowledge. Suppose we all disappeared and the machines kept remembering and processing. What would that be? Perhaps sometime in the future machines will become intelligent enough to function on their own. There is a movie, Colossus: the Forbin Project in which intelligent machines take over the world because they have concluded that humans are not intelligent enough to govern. Then there is Ray Kurzwiel‘s concept of the Singularity, when humans and technology become one. However, coming back to reality, I think there would just be machines storing and processing information absent true knowledge. We need to use technology to help us cope with all these data and fortunately according to Hilbert computation is grown at a faster rate than storage.

Hilbert makes some interesting comparisons between technical processing and storage of information and biological processing and storage of information. In 2007, the DNA of the 60 trillion cells of one single human body would have stored more information than all of our technological devices together. He notes that in both cases information is highly redundant. One hundred human brains can roughly execute as many nerve pulses as our general purpose computers can execute instructions per second. Hilbert asks the question why we currently spend 3.5 trillion dollars per year on our information and communication technology but less than $50 dollars per year on the education of many children in Africa? I think what he is proposing is that we not lose sight of human potential. Although our brains and DNA have phenomenal processing and storage capacities, we only have access to a very small percentage of this information in our conscious awareness. The healthymemory blog makes a distinction among potential transactive memory, available transactive memory, and accessible transactive memory. Potential transactive memory is all the information about which Hilbert writes as well as information held by our fellow humans. Available transactive memory is that information we are able to find. And accessible transactive memory is that information we are able to access readily. The goal is that this accessible transactive memory grows into knowledge, understanding, and insight, as it is in these final stages where its true value is realized.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems?

September 23, 2012

An article in The Economist1 raised this question. According to an article in 2011, Facebook analysed 72 million users of its social networking site and found that an average of 4.7 hops could link any two of them via mutual friends. This is even less that the Six Degrees of Separation popularized by John Guare in his play by the same name.

In the United States the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) staged the Red Balloon Challenge in 2009. It was trying to determine how quickly and efficiently information could be gathered using social media. Competitors were to race to find ten red weather balloons that had been tethered at random locations throughout the United States for a $40,000 prize. MIT had the winning team that found all ten balloons in nine hours using the following incentive-based system to encourage participation. The first person to send the correct coordinates of a balloon received $2,000. Whoever recruited that person received $1,000, and the recruiters recruiter received $500, and so forth and so forth.

DARPA staged a new challenge this year, the Tag Challenge. This time the goal was to locate and photograph five people each wearing unique T-shirts in five named cities across two continents. All five had to be identified within 12 hours from nothing more than a mugshot. The prize fund was $5,000. This time none of the teams managed to find all five targets. However, one team with members from MIT,the universities of Edinburgh and Southampton, and the University of California at San Diego did manage to fine three, one in each of the following cities, New York, Washington DC, and Bratislava. This team had a website and a mobile app to make it easier to report findings and to recruit people. Each finder was offered $500 and whoever recruited the finder $100. So anyone who did not know anyone in one of the target cities had no incentive to recruit someone who did. The team promoted itself on Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, most participants just used conventional email. It was conjectured that in the future smart phones might have an app that can query people all over the world, who can then steer the query towards people with the right information.

To return to the title of this post, Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems, I would conclude, if the social problem involves finding someone or something, the answer would be yes. But I think that real-world problems typically involve collaboration of diverse people. In this respect one might argue that social media are actually a detriment to solving real world problems. Social media are good at bringing people of like minds together about something. If what is needed is collaboration among people of diverse opinions, this would not seem productive, and might very likely be counterproductive.

However, there still might be solutions using technology. Wikis provide a useful tool for collaboration. Another approach would having people of relevant, but diverse perspective could interact with each other anonymously using computers. Physical cues and identities would be absent. This would negate or minimize ego or group involvement and would be an exchange of information and ideas with the goal of arriving at a viable consensus. The number of people who can collaborate at a given time appears to be a constraint.

1Six Degrees of Mobilization, The Economist Technology Quarterly, September 2012, p.8.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Importance of Memory

September 19, 2012

If you have ever watched a loved one suffering from dementia lose their memory, you will appreciate the importance of memory. Memories of her past gradually slip away, and she can eventually forget who you are and who she herself is. It is like the Chesire Cat that disappears leaving its mischievous grin. Our memories define ourselves and when we lose them, we lose ourselves.

Another perspective on the importance of memory is provided by someone with a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) (see the healthymemory blog post, “Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Can She Tell Us”). One of the stars of the TV show Taxi, Marilu Henner informs us in her book, Total Memory Makeover. She describes how she uses her detailed memory of her past to prevent her from making mistakes and to make wise choices. She remembers what she has done well in the past to point the way to future success. She also uses memories of her past mistakes to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

People understand why she retains pleasant memories but are puzzled why she maintains and finds value in keeping the painful memories. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, she uses them to avoid making past mistakes. But there are other reasons. Psychotherapy often involves a process of dredging up forgotten memories that are the source of current psychological difficulties. I don’t know if Marilu would get a discount at a psychotherapist, but her memory has already taken her to an advanced stage of therapy. She writes that she maintains good relationships with her past two husbands and well as her current one.

One of the therapies for dealing with post traumatic stress syndrome is to relive the traumatic event and to eventually extinguish the traumatic responses to it. Elaborate virtual reality simulations have been developed for these treatments, but someone with a memory like Marilu’s can call up these memories at will and eventually extinguish the adverse emotional reactions to them.

The role of memory in interpersonal relationships is important. The ability to remember information about other people helps one to build relationships including good friendships, relationships with colleagues, and business relationships.

Marilu expounds on how her detailed memory helps her acting. Good actors effectively become the person in the role they are playing. Marilu calls upon her memory to recall emotional states and the way her character would relate to other characters in the performance.

Then, of course, is the matter of education, which is a matter of memory. Not only must information and procedures be learned, but memory plays a role in decision making, problem solving, and the creative process (try entering “decison making,” then “problem solving,” and then “creativity,” in the search box).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Are Our Brains So Large?

September 16, 2012

A recent article1 provides a possible answer. The article’s title is Social Network Size Linked to Brain Size. Perhaps the most prominent hypothesis is that our enlarged brains allow us to be smarter than our competitors. We are better at abstract thinking, better with tools (I am a personal exception here), and better at adapting our behavior than our prey and predators.

In 1992 anthropologist Robin Dunbar (Remember Dunbar’s Number? See healthymemory blog posts, “Why Is Facebook So Popular?”, and “How Many Friends are Too Many?”) published research showing that in primates the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increases in the size of the social group. So the Tamarin monkey has a brain size ratio of around 2.3 and an average social group size of around 5 members, whereas a Macaque monkey has a brain size ratio of about 3.8 but a large average group size of around 40 members. Consequently, Dunbar advanced his “social brain hypothesis,” which states that the relative size of the neo-cortex rose as social groups became larger in order to maintain the complex set of relationships necessary for stable co-existence. Moreover, he suggested that given the human brain ratio we have an expected social group size of about 150, the size of what Dunbar called a clan.

Dunbar’s previous worked was focused on differences among species. His more recent work focuses on differences within species. He has found that the size of each individual’s social network is linearly related to the neural volume in the orbital prefrontal cortex. His research has shown that more than just more neural material in the prefrontal cortex is needed. Psychological skills are also needed, especially an ability to understand the other person’s state of mind. This cognitive skill is called a “theory of mind.”

So we have two explanations of why are brain’s are so large. One is that we are better at abstract thinking and adapting our behavior. The other is that the larger brain is needed to accommodate larger social networks that are beneficial to our survival. The astute healthymemory blog reader will likely quickly realize that these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Most likely they are both at work.

1http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=social-network-size-linked-brain-size

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Might She Tell Us?

September 12, 2012

Perhaps the first question is what is a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). There have been a variety of studies about people with superior memories. Perhaps the first was Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist. This was about an individual with synesthesia wherein different senses interacted with each other, sound producing images for example. This ability to readily form images produced remarkable abilities. The man made a living demonstrating these abilities. Unfortunately this amazing ability to remember also had the downside of an inability to forget. Consequently his life wasn’t as happy as it might have been. There are also books by people like Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas who discovered mnemonic techniques, like those covered in this blog, developed a great deal of proficiency with them, performed, wrote books, and taught classes about mnemonics.

The discovery of HSAM is very recent. This is not to say that HSAM has not been present in certain individuals for centuries, but the research community has been unaware of such individuals. I was unaware of these people until I viewed a piece on the TV Program Sixty Minutes. Dr. James McGaugh, a Research Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a Fellow in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California-Irvine, became aware of and started studying these extraordinary people. To the best of my knowledge only about 34 such individuals have been identified and studied so far. The nature of this recall ability as shown on Sixty Minutes was the ability to recall what happened on a specific day in the past. So if you asked one of them what happened on 6 August 1999, they would be able to tell you what day of the week that was, and what they did. They might even be able to tell you what they wore and what they ate. If they had watched a sporting event, they could tell the score and the particulars of the event. Marilu Henner, who most of us know from the TV show Taxi and who has had a very successful acting career, was one of the people on the show. When I later learned that she had written a book, Total Memory Makeover, I was tempted to buy but was a little put off by the hype in the title. As I looked further into it I learned that Marilu had a self-improvement business. So my initial decision was not to purchase the book. As time passed, I realized that I could not pass up the opportunity to learn what someone who had such a remarkable memory had to offer. It was a good decision. Here’s what Professor McGaugh wrote in the Foreword to the book. “This book is like no other book about memory, and the insights offered are unique. In these pages we learn from Marilu what it is like to have such a memory, why it is important to her, and why she thinks we can all benefit by taking steps to improve our own remembering. Readers will learn that Marilu is as well organized as she is thoughtful, insightful, enthusiastic, and, well, delightfully humorous. The advice she offers us may not turn all of us (or any of us)into HSAMers, but every reader will learn much about the importance of memory, as well as things we might do to help us maintain memories of our own personal experiences.”

Brain scans of Marilu have shown that certain brain structures important to memory, such as the hippocampus, are larger than normal. But it is important not to confuse cause and effect here. London cab drivers have also found to have hippocampi larger than normal, but this has been attributed to them having to memorize the entire map of London. So it is likely that Marilu’s larger than normal memory structures are the result of her use of them rather than having been born with them.

I found her home life significant. Her father emphasized anticipating an event, participating in the event, and then recollecting the event (her book is organized into three sections of anticipating, participating, and recollection). They liked to have parties and enjoyed the anticipation and the recollection of the parties, and not just the participation in the parties. As a small child she would not only pay attention to the day, date, and month, but would also remember what happened during the day. Then she would periodically review what happened during a past day, week, or month. I was gratified to learn this as I suspected this is what these HSAMers had been doing. Most often, I do not even know what day it is now and need to consult a calendar. So I pay little attention to when something is happening, and I do not systematically review what has happened during these dates. This is something that is entirely feasible, if one has the discipline. Recall actually increases as the time between recall attempts increases. So one might review what happened during the preceding week. Then not review it again until the next month. Then two months, four months, six months, one year, two years, four years. So systematic review is feasible and such review could result in becoming a blossoming HSAMer.

Marilu developed a variety of techniques throughout her life and shares them with you. She also discusses uses of technology and our fellow humans to enhance memory. This is termed transactive memory in the lingo of the healthymemory blog. She discusses memory games for friends, family, and for the development of the memories of children.

The book delivers what the title promises, a Total Memory Makeover. However, there is no requirement that the makeover be total. You can devote as much time as your interest and schedule permits. I think whatever time you devote to this effort will foster a healthy memory. Virtually everything offered in the book will foster a healthy memory.

If you are a parent or grandparent, I would strongly recommend that you get the book and use some of the games and exercises with your children. Perhaps the best gift you can give them is a healthy, well functioning memory. This is even more important with the temptation to rely increasingly on technology instead of our biological memories.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Type 3 Diabetes and Dementia

September 9, 2012

Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children when an autoimmune response destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas such that the body can no longer regulate levels of blood sugar. Insulin therapy is required. Type 2 diabetes, the most common type of diabetes, occurs when the pancreas either does not produce enough insulin or the muscle, liver, and fat cells ignore the insulin and fail to remove such excess sugar from the blood. High insulin levels and high blood sugar raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, nerve damage, and amputation. Being overweight increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Type 3 diabetes1, coined by Suzanne de la Monte, refers to the condition when brain tissue becomes resistant to insulin. This is similar to Type 2 diabetes, but the brain is injured.

Here’s the proposed toxic cycle. A high-sugar high-fat diet leads to higher levels of insulin in the brain. The high levels of insulin block the enzyme that normally eats the beta amyloid protein. It is this amyloid protein that leads to plaque buildup which is one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. These beta amyloid proteins amass in toxic quantities. Neurons become resistant to the effects of insulin. Beta amyloid protein blocks insulin receptors on neurons. The neurons make greater quantities of beta amyloid protein. Eventually insulin production becomes exhausted and drops off This leads to brain damage and dementia. Now insulin can offset beta amyloid damage by blocking its landing site on neurons. Otherwise the cell is more vulnerable to damage.

According to the New Scientist article, a variety of animal studies have supported this explanation. The article also cites two studies involving humans. One of them involves human cadavers. Steven Arnold of the University of Pennsylvania bathed various tissue samples in insulin to see how they would react. Neurons from cadavers of those who had had Alzheimer’s barely reacted at all, but the neurons from cadavers who had not had Alzheimer’s seemed to spring back to life.

Research with living humans is investigating whether a boost of insulin might improve symptoms of those with Alzheimer’s. They used a device that delivers insulin deep into the nose, where it then travels to the brain. A four month study involving 104 people found that the treatment resulted in the recall of more details of stories, longer attention spans, more interest in their hobbies and being better able to care for themselves. The treatment also improved the glucose metabolism in their brains.

There is ample evidence that a healthy diet fosters a healthy memory. However, it should be remembered that although amyloid plaque might be a necessary condition for Alzheimer’s, it is not a sufficient condition. There have been autopsies of people whose brain’s were in sad shape due to the buildup of amyloid plaque, but who had not exhibited any symptoms of Alzheimer’s while they were alive. So the buildup of a cognitive reserve through healthy cognitive activities throughout one’s lifetime is quite important. One of the primary goals of the healthymemory blog is to provide guidance on these healthy cognitive activities.

1Trivedi, B. (2012). Eat Your Way to Dementia, New Scientist, 1 September, 32-37.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals

September 5, 2012

When I was a graduate student being accused of anthropomorphism was a condemning indictment. If I said that it was clear to me that my dog clearly had consciousness I would have been accused of projecting my human attributes on the dog, something that an objective scientist would never do. It struck me that if I imposed the same standards for consciousness on my fellow humans as I was supposed to impose on non-humans, I would not have been able to conclude that my fellow humans were conscious! Fortunately, as a result of advances in neuroscience and imaging techniques that view has changed. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness has been published

http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

It begins as follows:

On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:

The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I have long thought that dogs were man’s best friend, rather than men being man’s best friend, because dogs had the neurological substrates for love and loyalty, but were lacking a neocortex that allowed for rationalization and deviousness. So I find the conclusions of these distinguished scientists reassuring. I also feel good about my friends who had parrots, who had similar convictions. And I was glad to see that octupuses were included as what I have read about their behaviors indicates that they are highly intelligent and have consciousness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy Labor Day: Why Are We Working So Hard?

September 2, 2012

For Labor Day I think it is appropriate to repost “Why, With All This Technology Are We Working So Hard?”

When I was in elementary school the predictions were that due to technology we would have much more leisure time in the future. I’ll remind you that at this time it was highly unusual for married mothers to be working. In my view some of the technological achievements, particularly in computing and in broadband, have vastly exceeded these predictions. So I ask you, why are we working so hard? We’re working much harder than when I was in elementary school.

I would ask further what, exactly, are we producing? Suppose only those who provided the essentials for living and for safety went to work? What percentage of the working population would that be? Make your own guess, but mine would be less than 10%. So what is going on here?

Currently we are working hard to achieve an unemployment rate at or below 5%. We are finding that exceedingly hard to achieve. But should we be? Remember that the previous two occasions when the employment rate was at or below 5%, the economic prosperity was bogus. There was the dot com bogus, when people expected to become rich via the internet, only the path to these riches remained unspecified. Then there was the bogus finance/real estate boom where riches were created via bogus and unsubstantiated financial instruments. So why, absent some other fictitious basis for a boom, do we expect to get back to 5% unemployment?

To examine the question of why we are working so hard, I present the results of the following study.1 It found that being poor, is bad. Of course, this finding is not surprising. The surprising finding is that a household income of $75,000.00 represented a satiation level beyond which experienced well being no longer increased. And this was in high cost living areas. In other areas the number would be lower. And this was for experienced well being. Emotional well being might have carried additional therapeutic costs. So it is clear that we are working more for no real benefit. Why?

One reason might be the that the economic theorists who currently formulate policy are classical economists using the rational theory of man. Behavioral economists have debunked this theory. Moreover, computing GNP in terms of hard dollars might smack of objectivity, but reminds one of the drunk who is looking for his car keys under the streetlamp rather than in the dimly illuminated part of the parking lot where he dropped his keys. Economic measures should include such subjective, but relevant, measures as happiness and life satisfaction.

Perhaps with the appropriate measures and appropriate philosophies regarding self fulfillment and self actualization we can get off the treadmill and enjoy the fruits of technology and our lives.

You also might visit or revisit the Healthymemory Blog post “Gross National Happiness (GNU).

1Kahneman, D., & Angus, D. (2010). High Income Improves the Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well Being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 16489-93

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Benefits of Speaking a Second Language

August 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

2Neuropsychologia, 45, p. 459.

3Neurology, 75, p. 1726

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The STEM Disciplines

August 26, 2012

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. And why are they important? They are regarded by many as being important to the economy and to our country. It is much easier to justify funding for these disciplines than for non STEM disciplines.

Here is where the fun begins. It is generally clear what is included in engineering and technology. But what constitutes science? Many people think that scientists wear lab coats and work in laboratories. They think of physics and chemistry first, then perhaps molecular biology and zoology. But what about the social sciences?

First of all, it needs to be understood that science does not refer to any particular discipline. Rather, science refers to a type of thought, a discipline we impose on our thinking. Moreover, all scientific thinking is constrained by empiricism, by collecting facts that can confirm or refute theories. Now there are two general methods of conducting science. One involves systematic observations of nature. Examples are astronomy and natural history. Astronomy involves observations, often with very sophisticated instruments of the universe. Natural history involves the systematic observation of nature. Both support the development of theories and both rely upon empirical observations to support these theories.

The other involves conducting systematically designed experiments to quantify the effects of variables. Experiments are common in chemistry and physics. Some of the experiments in physics are quite expensive. These experiments support or refute theories.

There are shortcomings with naturalistic observations because the scientist cannot systematically control the variables of interest and these variables are often confounded so it is difficult trying to determine what variable affects what, and how the variables interact (affect each other). Addressing these issues requires statistics and experimental design. A knowledge of statistics and experimental design is essential to science.

Although I am biased, I think psychology provides one of the best means of understanding science because it is applied at so many levels. It is applied at the level of the single neuron where recordings are taken. It is applied at the level of individual behavior. It is applied at the level of human cognition. And it is applied at the level of groups of people. Each of these areas develops its own methods, but they are all based on the fundamentals of the scientific method. And they all require a knowledge of statistics and experimental design.

In my professional life I have been surprised about the lack of knowledge in the areas of statistics and experimental design by some professionals in the non-controversial STEM areas, namely technology, engineering, and math. I was surprised by this when I saw the efforts of some engineers and mathematicians trying to design an experiment. They were pathetic. Essentially they were familiar with the limited parts of statistics and experimental design that were used in their disciplines, but could not generalize beyond them. Unfortunately, most people think that people with strong mathematical backgrounds are knowledgeable in statistics and experimental design. Although their backgrounds should facilitate their acquisition of statistical and design skills, the knowledge must be acquired. I have seem engineers running simulations that would have profited immensely by a good experimental design. What is worse is that, generally speaking, they are unaware of and will not acknowledge their shortcomings. I have lost track of the large number of projects that could have benefited from my assistance, but was not requested because they saw no need for it.

There is a general problem regarding the employment of Ph.Ds. Funding is provided for their education, but largely disappears when they are pursuing their careers. So they end up being a migratory work force pursuing post docs or pursue careers remotely related to their training.

Personally speaking, I have had a good life and have remained gainfully employed. But I have fallen way short of what I know I could have accomplished had I been in the right situation with adequate resources. And I believe that our country would be much better off without this underemployment of Ph.Ds. Some might argue that there too many PhDs. I argue that there is insufficient funding from government and industry.

But there is a much larger problem. And that has to do with the rejections of the findings of science and to the reluctance to use science to solve problems. There are internal political forces of ignorance and darkness. I believe that these forces present a larger danger to the United States than terrorists or hostile countries.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Solutions to the Excessive Cost of a Higher Education

August 22, 2012

This is a slight revision to an earlier post. It is thought that this post is especially relevant at a time when people are dealing with extraordinarily excessive tuition costs and excesive textbook costs.

When I attended college, the costs were affordable. Indeed, the tuition at some outstanding universities was free. Somehow the cost of a higher education has grossly escalated. Graduates end up with a ridiculous debt burden to begin their careers. And some cannot even begin their careers because they cannot find jobs!

How has this happened? Most public universities have undergone significant reductions from their respective governments. This is unfortunate. The most valuable resource of any nation is its people. And the failure of governments to underwrite the costs of higher education to leverage this potential is inexcusable. At the end of World War II the United States had incurred severe debts, yet it underwrote the large expense of the GI Bill that allowed millions of returning GIs to earn college degrees. I believe that the high growth of the United States after World War II was due in large part to the GI Bill. Any candidate arguing that this government support cannot be afforded due to debt is exhibiting a severe myopia that puts the country at risk.

Even so, these reductions do not account for all of the increased costs. And why the large increases at private universities?

Given the advances in technology, costs should have decreased, not increased. Textbooks should be available in pdf and electronic formats. Classes can be delivered over the internet resulting in very large economies of scale. Students, their spouses and parents, should not put up with this and should demand change.

Some esteemed universities are making public, via the internet, their course materials. The internet offers vast resources for learning. The opportunities for the autodidact are manifold. The problem is that although educational materials are readily available, the coin of the realm is the degree. These need to be offered by accredited colleges, and that costs money. The term diploma mill is pejorative and connotes certain types of colleges, but, in truth, all colleges are fundamentally diploma mills. They are in the business of selling diplomas.

Here is my proposal. We need a testing organization offering something like a GED for the different degree levels, but without the stigma of a GED. For example, lawyers have their bar tests, accountants have tests to become CPAs. The Graduate Record Examination offers advanced subject tests for virtually all college majors. We need accredited testing organizations to develop and administer these tests. Colleges might do this. In addition to hours completed, degrees could be offered on the basis of proficiency tests. Although tests would be involved, autodidacts would be rewarded for their efforts in providing their own education.

In my career I have encountered many individuals who have college degrees, but I still find it hard to believe that they have college degrees. Similarly I have encountered some individuals who have not attended college, and I find it difficult to believe that they have not attended college. I am not arguing that attending college is not a worthwhile activity. Rather, I am saying that it is not necessary to have attended college to manifest the benefits of a college education. It is what someone knows, and how well they communicate and think that is essential. I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “College is just a second chance to read the books you should have read in high school.” Should this be a misquote, please comment and correct me.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Using tDCS to Help Children with Developmental Disabilities and to Foster Creativity in Adults

August 19, 2012

An earlier Healthy Memory Blog Post, “Brain Boosts”, described means of boosting the brain’s performance. One of these was transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The current is very small, from 1 to 2 milliamps. This method is much safer than other types of brain simulation as tDCS does not cause neurons to fire directly. It must make the neurons more excitable. When tDCS is applied over the right parietal lobe of the brain, mathematical ability is boosted. When it is applied to the right anterior temporal lobe, visual perception and memory is boosted.

An experiment examining enhancing mathematical ability was summarized in Scientific American Mind1 . Children with developmental dyscalia, a learning disability that affects math skill, served in the experiment. These children were to associate numbers with arbitrary symbols, such as triangles or cylinders. After practicing this task, they were rapidly presented with pairs of symbols of different visual sizes and they had to choose the physically larger one as quickly as they could. On some trials there was a mismatch between the size of the symbol and the magnitude it represented (for example a huge symbol meaning two was paired with a tiny symbol representing 5. Such mismatches could cause a delay in reaction because the impulse to choose the larger number needed to be overridden. The experimental group received tDCS over the right parietal cortex for 20 minutes at the beginning of each of the six training sessions. The control group did not receive the stimulation. By the fourth session the children in the experimental group became slower for mismatched pairs as compared with the matched pairs. This is the performance that adults show when they respond to real digits. The control group showed no difference between these trials suggesting that they had not internalized the symbols meaning. These superior performance lasted for six months, which suggests that this method might someday benefit those with developmental dyscalia.

In a special box2 inside her article on creativity in Scientific American Mind, Prof. Chrysikou of the University of Kansas reports on how tDCS, transcranial direct simulation can foster creativity. She reports a study published in 2011 by neuroscientist Allan Snyder of the Center for the Mind in Sydney in which Snyder and his colleagues used this technique to affect the ability of individuals to solve arithmetic puzzles involving matchsticks. The initial problems could all be solved with a similar strategy, but the approach would not work with the last two problems. These problems required a novel approach. For half the subjects tDCS was used to depress activity in the left frontal cortex, while exciting the right frontal cortex, whereas for the other half tDCS was used to excite activity in the left frontal cortex and depress activity in the right frontal cortex. The former group solved the last two problems at higher rates than the latter group. So it appears that the right hemisphere enhances creativity, whereas the left hemisphere impedes it.

Prof. Chrysikou also provided data that tDCS could also support the generation of novel ideas. She again used the method of suppressing one groups’ left prefrontal cortex while suppressing a second groups’ right prefrontal cortex. Yet a third group received sham simulation. The task was to think of novel uses of objects presented in pictures. The group receiving left prefrontal suppression thought of significantly more novel uses and did so significantly faster than the other two groups. These results support the notion that blocking the cognitive filter by inhibiting the left prefrontal cortex during idea generation can promote creative thought.

To the best of my knowledge tDCS is a research tool and not yet ready for prime time. If and when tDCS moves to practical applications remains an open question.

1Weaver, J. (2011). A Stimulating Solution for Math Problems. Scientific American Mind, March/April p.12

2Chrysikou, E.G. (2012). Tickling the Brain. Scientific American Mind, July/August, p. 29.

Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up

August 15, 2012

For many years creativity was thought to be something for a gifted few. Research in cognitive psychology has indicated that we all have creative potential. It is simply a matter of fostering it. It appears that your prefrontal cortex plays a key role in creativity. Hypoactivity (low) activity in your prefrontal cortex is characteristic of people coming up with new ideas. Indeed, novelty is a necessary condition for creativity. However, novelty is not enough. The idea must be useful or have some artistic value for it to be creative. Here is where critical thinking is involved, and this involves increased activity (hyperactivity) in your prefrontal cortex. If your prefrontal cortex remains in a state of hypoactivity, no worthwhile goal will be achieved unless you want to end up in a psychotic state. Typically the way this will be described is that creativity involves two states. The first state involves the hypoactivity of your prefrontal cortex for the generation of novel ideas. The second state involves the hyperactivity of the prefrontal cortex in which you critically assess these new ideas. In reality, this is not an orderly process. In real life effective creative thought involves the switching between these two stages. First to generate ideas, and second to evaluate them. This becomes an iterative process. The Healthymemory Blog Post “Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness” provides a meditation technique inducing hypoactivity of your prefrontal cortes. The Healthymemory Blog Post “Improving Selective Attention” provides a meditation technique to induce hyperactivty in your prefrontal cortex.

An article in Scientific American Mind1 provides the following tips to maximize your creativity (with some enhancements by your blogger).

Become an expert. If your going to be creative you need something in which to be creative. You need to develop a solid knowledge base to connect remote ideas and to see their relevance to a problem.

Observe. When trying to come up with a new product or service, study how people use what is currently available and what problems they face. If this is an artistic endeavor, try to understand why people like what they like.

Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. How would child use a remote controller? How would an elderly person access a voting booth. How can I make this for a vegan? How can I produce a piece of art appealing to this audience?

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. Take a class; read a book; travel to a foreign country. The hope is that new experiences will foster novel thoughts.

Be willing to work alone. Although group brainstorming can help you synthesize your ideas, it is more effective if you have started the creative process on your own.

Talk to outsiders about your work. A different perspective help you see alternative solutions or possible faults with your original idea.

Have fun. Good moods forge remote associations. Up beat music might help, but also makes tasks that demand focus more difficult. To concentrate, dampen your demeanor with sad songs.

Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can make yo work your unconscious mind work on a problem that is stumping you. (This is my favorite technique!)

Take a break. Occupying your mind with a different task can unleash novel solutions. (another personal favorite!)

Challenge yourself. Disrupt you daily routine. Abandon your initial idea (even if it works) and look for a new one. Borrow from other people’s answers and try to improve them.

This last item reminds me of a statement that is attributable to Picasso, I believe (again if I err, please comment and correct me). “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

1Chrysikou, E, G. (2012). Your Creative Brain at Work. July/August, pp. 24-31

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Retrieval Exercise for a Healthy Memory

August 12, 2012

Mnemonic techniques provide good mental exercise and can significantly increase your success at recalling information you want to recall. But what about information that is already in your memory? What is the point in trying to retrieve it?

There are a number of points here. The act of trying to remember information aids memory as has been noted in previous Healthymemory Blog posts (“The Benefits of Testing, for example). There is also the distinction between information that is available in your memory, but which you can’t retrieve. That is information that is available but not accessible. Trying to remember information is a good exercise for rendering information that was previously only available, accessible. It reestablished previous memory circuits that have wasted away and can establish new memory circuits.

Here is an exercise. Try to remember the precise year when significant events occurred during the past ten years. Here is part of my experience when I tried this exercise. I made two trips to Japan. I had difficulty remembering the year although I did remember that both trips took place in the same year. I did remember that the trips took place before we moved from our apartment to our house, and I remember that that year was 2003, because it was one year before the election in 2004. But when did I go to Japan. I knew it was sometime in 2003 or earlier because I remember being picked up by a limo at our apartment house for one of the trips. So I knew that it was 2003 or earlier. Then I remembered that the FIFA World Cup was taking place during one of the trips. I looked that up on the internet and discovered that the year was 2002. So now I know that 2002 was the year I took two trips to Japan.

I also took a trip to London with my wife, but when did that happen? I remembered that the trip was taken for our 25th wedding anniversary. Now something I need to remember, and do remember, is our anniversary. We were married on January 3, 1978. So I can safely infer, and now remember, that that trip took place during 2003.

I used the same strategy to remember when we moved my Mom from Florida. That was shortly after celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary, so that was 2008.

So I gave my memory circuits a good workout and established or reestablished some memories. I remember events with respect to their relative position to other events. When I traveled to Japan or London, I was not trying to remember the years I took those trips. At the time it was irrelevant information. Similarly when we moved my Mom, that was irrelevant information at the time. But I was able to establish the specific years by throwing the order of the events I was trying to remember against the years I did remember for other reasons.

They have recently discovered people who have super memories and can remember, as best as can be ascertained, what happened during each day of their lives by date. I am curious as to how they do this. It is possible that they consciously attend to the days and what happens and are effectively keeping a mental diary. I don’t do that. Perhaps if I did, I would have a similar phenomenal memory and would appear on 60 Minutes with Marilu Henner. But I don’t see any purpose in doing this, regardless of how much I like Marilu Henner, so I don’t spend the attention necessary to recall what happened during these days. This recall does imply a substantial amount of attentional processing to recall this amount of detail with significant accuracy. This is pure conjecture on my part, but we all are working with basically the same amount of brain, and it is mainly a matter of how we spend our attentional resources as to what and how much we’ll remember.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Are the Atoms of Memory?

August 8, 2012

If you answered, “neurons,” you get partial credit. You need to remember the earlier Healthymemory Blog Post, “Glial Cells and Short Term Memory.” So neurons and glial cells are the atoms of memory. However, memories are not allocated to single neural or glial cells. Many years ago, the psychologist Karl Spencer Lashley published a report, “In Search of the Engram1” He would train animals to perform a specific task. Then in a series of experiments he would systematically remove different segments of cortex. Much less finding the engram in specific neurons, he was unable to locate specific areas of the associative cortex in which memories were stored. Let me stress associative cortex. If portions of the sensory cortex are removed, then the sense specific to that area of the cortex will be lost or seriously degraded. There are also subcortical structures, such as the hippocampus, that are important for the processing of memories.

Apparently memories are stored in patterns of firing among the circuits of neurons and glial cells. So memory circuits are established. The more they fire, the stronger they become, and more connections are established with other memory circuits. In this manner, one thought or memory leads to another. Many of these firings are below the level of consciousness. But your mind does manage to tap into some of them, and they constitute your flow of conscious thought. This can be regarded as short term or working memory. There is some question as to whether circuits in long term memory decay or are permanent. This is difficult to answer. Surely, you have experienced times when you knew you knew something, but could not recall it. This is called the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon. Later the desired item will suddenly pop into memory.

Generally speaking, I think it is a good idea to make a practice of recalling old memories. This puts you in touch with your past and prior knowledge. Even when you give up consciously trying to recall something, your subconscious will likely keep working to find it. Then, at an unexpected time, it can suddenly pop into consciousness. Unless you are working under time constraints, when you cannot recall something, it is best not to fall back on transactive memory immediately (that is, look it up or search for it, or ask someone), as your subconscious will likely keep working looking for it. This process of searching might well activate unused memory circuits.

A complicated experiment reported in Scientific American Mind2 done using mice came up with the estimate that on the order of 10,000 interlaced neurons in one very specific area of the brain is sufficient to form an engram, a specific memory. It is not yet known whether these interlaced neurons are necessary for the memory, or whether their removal will obliterate the memory.

1Lashley,K.S. (1950). In Search of the Engram. Society of Experimental Biology Symposium. 4, 454-482.

2Kock, C. (2012). Searching for the Memory. Scientific American Mind, July/August, 22-23.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

iPads for Those Suffering from Dementia

August 4, 2012

When I was looking for an assisted living facility for my Mom, I found A Place for Mom to be quite helpful. The following post is taken from the Blog on the A Place for Mom Website, http://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/9-reasons-why-ipads-are-good-for-memory-care-residents/

According to the post the director of the Health Central Park Nursing Home, Judy Skelton, “It came to us as a happy accident. What started out as one resident’s curiosity turned into something that is helping them spell, track items, make choices and read words. It’s amazing.” Mice and other control devices sometimes present problems for elders, but they find the touch pad technology easy to use, and, what I found somewhat surprising, easy to navigate. Here are nine reasons why iPads enhance the lives of seniors:

1. They’re lightweight and carry like a book.

2. They interact with residents, provide excitement and open-up a new means of communication to those who can’t express themselves in the way they desire.

3. They can monitor an elderly person’s movements, habits, temperature in their home and remind them when to take their pills.

4. Their music and music library options help to trigger memories of the past through songs of their youth and family years.

5. They encourage socialization among residents with their games, varying apps, reading and Internet search features.

6. There are apps to help encourage mobility. For example, one app shows videos of animated figures performing activities of daily living such as climbing stairs. This help patients picture themselves doing these tasks, and even mimic the behaviors.

7. Computer access allows residents more frequent contact with their children and grandchildren of the Internet generation.

8. Email updates and downloaded photos are now pride of place in residents’ rooms.

9. They encourage residents to create simple graphics and pictures and exercise their creativity.

In short, they

help improve motor skills

provide memory stimulation and cognitive function

create a positive impact on the interaction of those with dementia

More formal studies are underway, but the initial informal studies are quite positive.

The Need for Consciousness

August 1, 2012

The preceding blog post, “VENs: The Key to Consciousness” ended with a promise to provide evidence that consciousness is not epiphenomenal, that it serves a real purpose. Unfortunately, reductionists like to conclude that whenever a neural basis is found the phenomenon is understood. This post is timely as the Olympics provide a good justification for the reality of consciousness. The theme of the importance of the mind will emerge as being essential to success. Athletes need to remain cool, calm, collected, and focused. Focus is very important. Getting into the right state of mind, “the zone,” is regarded to be of utmost importance.

Neurofeedback is employed by some athletes.1 This involves placing electrodes on a person’s head to measure their brain’s electrical activity. The information is displayed on a computer screen while the individual watches it in real time and learns through practice how to control it. The objective is to get the brain into a state associated with improved attention, focus and aim. Surgeons who have used neurofeedback had improved control over their movement and performed more efficiently in the operating theater.

Meditation is another technique where consciousness is used to improve behavior. There are many healthymemory blog posts on meditation (simply use the search box to find them). You will find different meditation techniques to achieve different aims. Improving focus is the objective of many techniques. Through meditation, the autonomic nervous system can be controlled. At one time this was thought to be impossible by some psychologists and neuroscientists.

Even dreaming can be done to achieve desirable benefits. Victor Spoormaker of the Max Plank Instutute of Psychiatry has developed techniques to eliminate nightmares through lucid dreaming (See the healthymemory blog post, “Lucid Dreams). Lucid dreaming refers to a state between wake and sleep where becomes aware that they are dreaming while they are still in the dreaming. Spoormaker says that you can become lucid in a nightmare and and change it any way you wish. He cured himself of recurring nightmares using this technique.

In a study conducted in the 1970s, 12 American gymnasts who hoped to make the Olympic team were asked how frequently they dreamed about gymnastics and about the nature of their dreams. The six who qualified said that they had had more dreams about success beforehand.

Another study found that lucid dreamers who were able to dream about tossing a coin into a cup had better aim the following day compared against those who don’t train in their dreams.
800 German athletes were asked about their dreaming habits. Twenty percent said that they were frequent lucid dreamers, and those who used it to practice said it helped their performance.

So consciousness is not epiphenomenal. It is very real. Use it and make it work for you.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Olympic Extremes. New Scientist, 21 July, 44-49.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

VENs: the Key to Consciousness?

July 28, 2012

VENs stands for Von Economo Neurons. Constantin von Economo was the neuroscientist who discovered these neurons.1 VENs are quite distinctive in appearance. They are at least 50 per cent and sometimes up to 200 percent larger that typical neurons. They have a long spindly cell body with a single projection at each end and very few branches. They are quite rare. They make up just about one per cent of the neurons in two small areas of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex. The ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of cognition and feeling. They make up a social monitoring network that keeps track of social cues so that we can react appropriately.

The ACC and FI keep a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and direct attention to the most important events as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes. Both these brain regions are active when we recognize our reflection in a mirror. This suggests that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self. It is a key component of consciousness providing a sense of self identify and a sense of the identity of others. They provide the sense of how we feel.

The notion is that VENs provide a fast relay system, a kind of social superhighway that allows the gist of a situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively. This is a crucial survival skill in social species such as our own. VENs are also found in social mammals.

People with fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease. The main symptom of the diseases is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy, and self-control.

According to one study2 people with autism fall into two groups. One group consists of those who have too few VENs, so they might not have the necessary wiring to process social cues. The other group consists of those who have far too many VENs. Having too many VENS might make emotional systems fire intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed.

Another study3 found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes, The notion is that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute has pointed out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. He said, “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the brain. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilization that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”4

The author of the New Scientist article concludes “If he’s right—and there is a long way to go before we can be sure—it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might been a big, and very successful accident.”5

Although I am excited by the possibility that the neurological basis of consciousness has been found, I am disturbed by their reductionist conclusions. Most of us assume that there is a neural basis for consciousness. But the finding of this neural basis does not prove that consciousness is an epiphenomenon (not real). The next post will provide evidence regard the reality and purpose of consciousness.

1Williams, C. (2012). The Conscious Connection. New Scientist, 21 July, 33-35.

3PloS One, vol 6, pe20936).

4Op cit.p. 35

5Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Glial Cells and Working Memory

July 25, 2012

When I was a graduate student, glial cells presented a problem. No one seemed to know their function, yet there were so many of them. Gradually we are gaining insight into their important functions (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Our Neurons Make Up only 15 Percent of our Brain Cells,” “Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease,” and “Alzheimer’s and Amyloid Plaques.”) A recent study reported in Scientific American Mind1 indicates that certain types of glial cells might play a role in conscious thought. Astrocytes, a type of glia, appear to play an important role in short term or working memory.

It is well known that marijuana plays a role is disrupting short term memory. Although this might be fine for recreational uses of the drug, it can be disconcerting to those who are taking it for medical reasons to relieve pain. The experiment was done by Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux in France and his colleagues. They removed the cannabinoid receptors that respond to marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient THC. These mice were just as poor at memorizing the location of a hidden platform in a water pool. However, when the receptors were removed from the astrocytes, the mice could find the platform just fine while on THC.

Of course, we are generalizing findings from research on mice to humans. Although one should be caution, many such generalizations have held up in the past. You can understand why research like this is difficult to perform with humans. Mariscano made the following statement: “It is likely that astrocytes have many more functions than we thought. Certainly their role in cognition is no being revealed.”

Fortunately the pain-relieving property of THC appears to work through the neurons, so it might be possible to design THC-type drugs that target neurons, and not glia, so that pain relief can be provided without the cognitive disruptions.

1Williams, R. (2012). What Marijuana Reveals About Memory. Scientific American Mind, July/August, p.10.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Progress Making Higher Education More Affordable

July 22, 2012

I was heartened by a short piece in Newsweek1 that addressed some concerns I raised in the Healthymemory Blog Post, “A Solution to the Excessive Cost of a Higher Education.” According the the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the costs of a higher education have skyrocketed 450 percent in the past 25 years. As I argued in my blog post, the proper use of technology should have decreased, not increased, the costs of a higher education.

Apparently, two professors of computer science at Stanford University, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng agree. They believe that the Internet should allow millions of people to receive first-class educations at little or no cost. They have launched Coursera, www.coursear.org, to make courses from first rate universities online at no charge to anyone. They offer full courses to include homework assignments, examinations, and grades. Go to the website to view the wide range of course offerings. It is worthwhile to note, that professors are not paid. So kudos to these professors who place education first and realize the potential of the Internet.

Ng and Koller made a class available at no cost online. The class in machine learning drew more than 100,00 enrolled students, 13,000 of whom completed the course. This result impressed not only Ng and Koller, but also such venture-capital firms as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates, which together have invested $16 million combined in Coursera.

Providing free education is one matter, but as was pointed out in the healthymemory blog post, the money comes from the granting of degrees. The following is taken from the Coursera Website.

“…This Letter of Completion, if provided to you, would be from Coursera and/or from the instructors. You acknowledge that the Letter of Completion, if provided to you, may not be affiliated with Coursera or any college or university. Further, Coursera offers the right to offer or not offer any such Letter of Completion for a class. You acknowledge that the Letter of Completion, and Coursera’s Online Courses, will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution, and do not convey academic credit. You acknowledge that neither the instructors of any Online Course nor the associated Participating Institutions will be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution. The format of the Letter of Completion will be determined at the discretion of Coursera and the instructors, and may vary by class in terms of formatting, e.g., whether or not it reports your detailed scores or grades in the class, and in other ways.”

In my view they are not addressing this issue in a satisfactory manner. Some ideas regarding how to do so are offered in the healthymemory blog post.

1Lyons, D/ (2012). Cheaper Than Harvard: An Ivy League Education Online—For Free. Newsweek, 14 May, p.13.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Searching for and Evaluating Scholarly Articles

July 18, 2012

 If you are looking for scholarly articles on a topic, Google has a dedicated search engine, www.scholar.google.com. You can set up alerts to learn of new articles on topics or authors of interest. Although one can expect and will usually receive, higher quality information from authors extremely knowledgeable in their respective areas of interest, there are certain realities that should be understood. Refereed articles are articles that have been reviewed by several authors knowledgeable in the topic prior to publication. Prior to the internet era this refereeing was needed because paper publication was costly and journals needed to be selective. Typically, there were large delays between the submission of the article, its acceptance, and its eventual publication. There were also journals that did not use referees, that would publish articles for a fee.

With the advent of the internet, the cost of publishing articles and the time to publish articles have been drastically reduced. Yet the archaic artifacts from the print era persist. An author can disseminate an article as soon as she deems it worthy. Why delay the dissemination of information? Some argue that refereeing is still necessary. I’ve participated in this review process both as an author and also as a reviewer. I’ve had articles accepted, and I’ve had articles that I thought worthy that were rejected, but subsequently published by another journal and another review process. As a reviewer I’ve seen articles that I thought worthy of publication be rejected. I’ve also seen articles accepted that, while adequately done, made a questionable contribution to substantive knowledge. Published statistics on the review process are not impressive. Statistics on agreement among reviewers have typically been low. There is also a bar that the editor needs to set to assure that accepted articles have enough allowable pages to accommodate them. I find it odd that academics tend to be impressed by high rejection rates rather than forlorn about research that has gone unpublished. Academics also are keen on refereed journals. Personally, I can quickly ascertain whether an article is worth my time and I don’t need some reviewers editing or censoring the information that is available to me. I think one of the primary reasons academics are keen on refereed journals is that they can use the number of publications in refereed journals in making decision about whom should be awarded tenure. Otherwise, they might actually have to read articles written by tenure candidates.

I see little justification for the traditional institutions for publication. Research can be disseminated quickly via the internet and judgments made regarding the value of the research and on whether it should be ignored or put to good use. The problem is that big moneyed interests are involved. They are the publishers and the professional associations that sell publications. Typically authors and reviewers are not paid. Their efforts are pro bono. The editor might be given an honorarium, but the amounts of small. But the journals and professional books are expensive. And there is no need for them to be. They provide little of added value.

I am able to get online access to journals published by the professional organizations to which I belong for nominal rates. Others are typically quite expensive, as I’m sure some of you can attest. There is a quality online journal that anyone can access for free, PloS 1, Public Library of Science, www.plusone.org.Moreover, this is a referred journal. We should be able to access any research done with taxpayer support online for free. And I, personally, would be willing to forgo the referring requirement.

You should also be wary of biases in different academic disciplines. I’ll provide a couple of examples from my discipline, psychology. When I was a graduate student, there was a large controversy as to whether humans could learn to control their own autonomic processes, heart rate for example. Now it was well known and well documented that Buddhists proficient in meditation could do so. However, this did not constitute the appropriate evidence hard-nosed psychologists required. They wanted to see it done by some student fulfilling a course requirement in a one or two hour psychology experiment.

Shortly after I received my Ph.D and began working at the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, I tried to replicate an experiment that I had read in the psychological literature. Although I was able to do so, I was only able to replicate the finding in the group that had General Technical (IQ) scores comparable to college students. The vast majority of reseach in cognitive psychology is based on research done with college students. Although one of the fundamental requirements for generalizing statistical results is that the population to which one is generalizing have been represented in the sample participating in the experiment. I have yet to see a finding in a psychology with the caveat that the results should be restricted to those representated in the statistical sample, college students, for example. I am a working statistician and I am constantly amazed how statistical requirements vary from discipline to discipline when the underlying statistics and their assumptions remain unchanged.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Exercise and Aging

July 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

3Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why, With All This Technology, Are We Working So Hard?

July 1, 2012

When I was in elementary school the predictions were that due to technology we would have much more leisure time in the future. I’ll remind you that at this time it was highly unusual for married mothers to be working. In my view some of the technological achievements, particularly in computing and in broadband, have vastly exceeded these predictions. So I ask you, why are we working so hard? We’re working much harder than when I was in elementary school.

I would ask further what, exactly, are we producing? Suppose only those who provided the essentials for living and for safety went to work? What percentage of the working population would that be? Make your own guess, but mine would be less than 10%. So what is going on here?

Currently we are working hard to achieve an unemployment rate at or below 5%. We are finding that exceedingly hard to achieve. But should we be? Remember that the previous two occasions when the employment rate was at or below 5%, the economic prosperity was bogus. There was the dot com bogus, when people expected to become rich via the internet, only the path to these riches remained unspecified. Then there was the bogus finance/real estate boom where riches were created via bogus and unsubstantiated financial instruments. So why, absent some other fictitious basis for a boom, do we expect to get back to 5% unemployment/

To examine the question of why we are working so hard, I present the results of the following study.1 It found that being poor, is bad. Of course, this finding is not surprising. The surprising finding is that a household income of $75,000.00 represented a satiation level beyond which experienced well being no longer increased. And this was in high cost living areas. In other areas the number would be lower. And this was for experienced well being. Emotional well being might have carried additional therapeutic costs. So it is clear that we are working more for no real benefit. Why?

One reason might be the that the economic theorists who currently formulate policy are classical economists using the rational theory of man. Behavioral economists have debunked this theory. Moreover, computing GNP in terms of hard dollars might smack of objectivity, but reminds one of the drunk who is looking for his car keys under the streetlamp rather than in the dimly illuminated part of the parking lot where he dropped his keys. Economic measures should include such subjective, but relevant, measures as happiness and life satisfaction.

Perhaps with the appropriate measures and appropriate philosophies regarding self fulfillment and self actualization we can get off the treadmill and enjoy the fruits of technology and our lives.

1Kahneman, D., & Angus, D. (2010). High Income Improves the Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well Being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 16489-93

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Has the Internet Really Made the Assessment of the Reliability of Information More Difficult?

June 24, 2012

This is a common complaint. Its justification seems simple enough. Anyone can place anything on the web. Prior to the web, some sort of vetting was involved before something went into print. The following is a quote from Ernest Hemingway cited in 1965: “Every man should have a built-in crap detector operating inside him.” Now this statement was made before the internet and Ernest Hemingway never experienced the internet. Unreliable or blatantly wrong information is nothing new. We’ve always had it with us. Perhaps one of the good effects of the internet is that it has sensitized us to be wary of the accuracy or reliability of information. Although it is true that the internet allows the communication of bad information to spread much faster, we also have more tools at our disposal to check the accuracy of information. For outright hoaxes there is www.hoax.com.

Rumors can usually be quickly checked out at www.snopes.com. The people sponsoring or running a website can usually be found by going to http://www.ip-address.org/tracer/ip-whois.php.

Usually the first step in looking for information about a topic is to go to www.wikipedia.org.

As this is a wiki, users can change information that they think is wrong. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that is vetted by its users. Moreover, it provides references to other sources, so people can bootstrap themselves regarding any topic. One should become aware of controversies and differing points of view. One source leads to another source and additional searches. The problem is that there is a cost in terms of time and attentional resources. How much time and attention one spends on a topic is a matter of individual choice. There is always more than can be learned and more that can be understood. Indeed, one can be easily exhausted just keeping up with new information.

One needs to estimate how well different topics are understood. One can be expert in very few, but have a glancing familiarity with many. This self-assessment can be difficult. My personal experience is that the longer I have lived, and hopefully learned, the more I am aware of my own ignorance. I felt much smarter when I graduated from high school than after I earned my Ph.D. Now after several more decades of learning and experience I am painfully aware of how little I knew when I first earned my Ph.D. compared to how much I know now. Yet, now I am even more painfully aware of how much I still don’t know. One of my favorite lines is from the play Da by Hugh Leonard. In a conversation between two academics, the elder responds to the statement by the younger that he is certain about his statement by saying something along the lines of, “after all my years of study and learning the only thing of which I am certain is that the incoming traffic in a public rest room always has the right of way.” So I am certain of nothing and try to weight my confidence in what I know in terms of my subjective probability of it being accurate. My personal interests and my assessment of the importance of the topic bear on how much more attention I will devote to the topic. Even if information is, as best as can be ascertained, correct at the moment, it could always change.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Net Smart

June 21, 2012

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online is a most welcome book by Howard Rheingold. A common theme for many articles and books is on the dangers the internet and its accompanying technologies. They argue that it is causing us to lose our ability to focus and concentrate on tasks; that technology is causing widespread attention deficit disorder. It is causing us to be isolated, connected with technology rather than our fellow humans. What I resent about these publications is that they make us seem like helpless victims of technology. This is not to deny that there are dangers that can result from the misuse of technology, but we can use them to our advantage so that we leverage technology to our own benefit rather than become helpless victims. Howard Rheingold informs us how to use technology to our benefit. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is transactive memory. Transactive memory encompasses our fellow humans as well as technology. So does Rheingold’s approach to thriving online.

The first chapter is titled “Attention: How to Control Your Mind’s Most Powerful Instrument.” Many Healthymemory Blog Posts have addressed this topic (try entering “Attention” into the search box.). The first step involves harnessing our own attentional processes and becoming more mindful.

Chapter 2 is titled “Crap Detection 101: How to Find What You Need to Know, and How to Decide if It’s True.” A major criticism of the web is how to determined the veracity of stuff posted on the web. Actually this problem is not unique to the web, as this skill is needed for evaluating texts, newscasts, and statements by friends and acquaintances. A less well-recognized problem involves finding this good information. Search is a skill in itself that needs to be learned to benefit fully from the offerings on the web.

Chapter 3 is titled “Participation Power.” It provides guidance on how to be an active participant on the web and explains the benefits of this participation.

Chapter 4 is titled “Social-Digital Know How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence.” This chapter explains how interactions with your fellow humans can produce collective intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Chapter 5 is titled “Social Has a Shape Why Networks Matter.” This chapter explains how networks function and why they are important.

Chapter 6 is titled “How (Using) the Web (Mindfully” Can Make Your Smarter.” This chapter echoes an ongoing theme of the Healthymemory Blog, that Transactive Memory can help you grow your intelligence and enhance your cognitive health.

I highly recommend Net Smart. Although some future posts will be based on this book, particularly those dealing with developing and enhancing your memory and cognition, there is no way I can come close to doing justice to Rheingold’s superb volume.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Exploitation of Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease

June 17, 2012

The Outrage of the Month published in the Public Citizen Health Letter1 begins “For the second time in less than two years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the behest of companies seeking to exploit the large market for Alzheimer’s Disease has approved a product with little proven benefit and documented risks.” According to the article, the earlier of these unwarranted FDA approvals occurred in July 2010 when the FDA approved a new high-dose version of the top selling Alzheimer’s drug Aricept 23. The article states that the agency approved the drug over the objections of most of its own scientists who argued that the drug did not improve overall functioning, but caused considerably more side effects than the older, lower does version of the drug.

According to the article, the most current example is the dye Amyvid that is injected into patients with possible Alzheimer’s disease and on the basis of a brain scan is used to detect amyloid plaque in the brains of such patients. Although amyloid plaque is found in the autopsies of those who have died from Alzheimer’s disease, it can also be found in individuals who never evidenced any symptoms of the disease. This test is inaccurate. It has been found to detect plaque in some patients who do not have Alzheimer’s disease and failed to detect the plaque in some patients who have the disease. Nevertheless, the dye is a financial boon for the drug manufacturer as was Aricept 23.

It is important to realize that there is no drug that cures Alzheimer’s disease. Some drugs have been shown to slow the progression of the disease. A friend of mine has a father-in-law who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is undergoing expensive drug treatments. His father-in-law has no idea who is son-in-law is or even who himself is. This raises an interesting question. Are these drug treatments enhancing life or delaying the release from suffering that death provides? I stress that this is a question for each individual to decide.

See the Healthymemory Blog post “The Myth of Alzheimer’s” that reviews the book written by Peter J. Whitehous, M.D. Ph.D. Whitehouse is a renowned researcher into drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. He has given up on there being a drug to cure the disease and is researching other methods for coping with dementia. He does not believe that Alzheimer’s is a distinct disease, but is rather a manifestation of dementia. It is interesting to note that the founder of Alzheimer’s disease, Alois Alzheimer, never was convinced that it was a distinct disease.

It should be realized that this is just another instance of the problem with medical care in the United States. Hardly anyone in the United States receives the best medical treatment. The plight of the uninsured is well known, but few realize that those at the other end of the treatment spectrum, those who receive treatment in the most expensive health care system in the world, are also ill-served. People at this end are grossly overmedicated and undergo unneccesary costly operations. See the book, Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America,” by Nortin M. Hadler, M.D.

1May 2012, 28, 5. Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D. (ed).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Solution to the Excessive Cost of a Higher Education

June 13, 2012

When I attended college, the costs were affordable. Indeed, the tuition at some outstanding universities was free. Somehow the cost of a higher education has grossly escalated. Graduates end up with a ridiculous debt burden to begin their careers. And some cannot even begin their careers because they cannot find jobs!

How has this happened? Most public universities have undergone significant reductions from their respective governments. Even so, these reductions do not account for all of the increased costs. And why the large increases at private universities?

Given the advances in technology, costs should have decreased, not increased. Texts should be available in pdf and electronic formats. Classes can be delivered over the internet resulting in very large economies of scale. Students, their spouses and parents, should not put up with this and should demand change.

Some esteemed universities are making public, via the internet, their course materials. The internet offers vast resources for learning. The opportunities for the autodidact are manifold. The problem is that although educational materials are readily available, the coin of the realm is the degree. These need to be offered by accredited colleges, and that costs money. The term diploma mill is pejorative and connotes certain types of colleges, but, in truth, all colleges are fundamentally diploma mills. They are in the business of selling diplomas.

Here is my proposal. We need a testing organization offering something like a GED for the different degree levels, but without the stigma of a GED. For example, lawyers have their bar tests, accountants have tests to become CPAs. The Graduate Record Examination offers advanced subject tests for virtually all college majors. We need accredited testing organizations to develop and administer these tests. Colleges might do this. In addition to hours completed, degrees could be offered on the basis of proficiency tests. Although tests would be involved, autodidacts would be rewarded for their efforts in providing their own education.

In my career I have encountered many individuals who have college degrees, but I still find it hard to believe that they have college degrees. Similarly I have encountered some individuals who have not attended college, and I find it difficult to believe that they have not attended college. I am not arguing that attending college is not a worthwhile activity. Rather, I am saying that it is not necessary to have attended college to manifest the benefits of a college education. It is what someone knows, and how well they communicate and think that is essential. I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “College is just a second chance to read the books you should have read in high school.” Should this be a misquote, please comment and correct me.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

My Problems with Facebook

June 9, 2012

I don’t like Facebook. I find it to be unwieldy and cluttered up with junk in which I have no interest. I assume there are means for tidying things up, but I don’t have the time or patience to learn them. There are two reasons I have a Facebook account. One is to have a means of providing additional exposure for this blog. The other reason is that I do not want to offend friends and old acquaintances. My facility with Facebook is such that there are times when I think I might have responded, but I am not sure, so I don’t know whether I am fulfilling my second objective.

In the early days, I responded positively to all friending requests. I didn’t want to offend anyone and I was especially afraid that I might offend an old acquaintance who had momentarily slipped my mind. However, there came a time when I realized that this is foolish. Why be a friend to someone I do not know and have no reason to know just so they can boast of the number of people they have friended. Tbere is a fairly limited number of people with whom one can be genuinely friends (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “How Many Friends are Too Many.”)

The vast majority of stuff on my page consists of items and people that are of no interest to me. Of course, the stuff from my real friends is there and I treasure it. It is just that I would rather correspond privately by email, but Facebook discourages one from doing this. I appreciate their convenience of being able to contact many people, so I continue to endure.

One of my pet peeves is Farmville. Notes on purchasing something or other for Farmville periodically appear. I am still working and don’t have time to deal with this. I have a hunch that most of these requests are coming from people who are retired. If retirement reduces one to playing the Farmville game, then you can count on me never retiring!

Feel free to tell me what a fuddy-duddy I am; what a poor sport I am; or to pity the poor people I am offending. What would be most appreciated are tips on how to clean up my Facebook Page!

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Healthymemory’s 300th Post

May 30, 2012

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

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

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

Enjoy, and maintain and grow your memories.

Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?

May 27, 2012

Personally, I am very large on technology. In my view, technology, properly developed and applied, can leverage human potential. That is one of the underlying views of the Healthymemory Blog, that technology can grow and enhance human potential (see the “Transactive Memory” category). Some of my primary interests and supposed areas of expertise are in human factors and engineering psychology. These areas are concerned with the interactions of humans with technology and in how technology can be designed so it can achieve maximum use. Had anyone asked me many years ago if hand held devices would become popular, I would have opined that they would not, because the keyboards and displays would be way too small. It’s a good thing that no one ever asked me!

I am thrilled by certain types of technology. Email is one of my favorites. In my world, there is no protocol involving email other than not to spam or otherwise annoy people with messages that are not of interest to them. So they can be short or long and can be sent at anytime. You do not have to be concerned about the time, because the recipient can view them at leisure. When you send an email there can be no question of what you wrote and when sent it. Of course, there is no guarantee that the recipient either read or understood your message. A few years ago I learned from a young lady that my protocol was out of date. If a message was short, email was inappropriate, whereas a text message was. I still do not understand why there was a need to complicate matters.

I don’t understand texting. I never text and I never read texts. When I receive a text message on my phone that I have received x number of text messages and asked if I want to read them now, I invariably respond “no.” These messages will never be read. I find inputting a text to be a nuisance. If time is of the essence, then I’ll phone. Otherwise, I much prefer waiting until I can get to a computer with a decent keyboard to texting.

So I have admitted to having a mobile phone. And I do like them, but mostly when I’m traveling. They most definitely should not be used when we are driving (see the Healthymemory Blog post “Phoning and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving”), but I must confess to using the phone briefly while driving in certain situations. Although I have a mobile phone, it is not one of the smart ones. It is a rare circumstance when I have not gathered all the information I need before leaving my residence to go or do something. I was awarded one of those navigation devices for so many years of service with my company, but I have not installed it and my wife has no interest in my installing it. I like to have my directions in advance, with an accompanying map in the event that things go wrong. I don’t like getting my directions on the fly, particularly in the dynamic (or more accurately, chaotic) traffic in which I usually drive. Perhaps I am adapting to a diminished ability to multitask as I age. But even with a younger person at the wheel, I am not comfortable as a passenger when the driver is consulting the navigation gizmo in rapidly changing traffic. I suspect that some traffic accidents occur as a result of drivers interacting with their navigation devices.

There is a popular notion that due to the prevalence of all these devices, the brains of young people have been rewired for multitasking. Although young people might be more prone to multitasking, they do pay a cognitive cost (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Dangers of Multitasking”). It is important to realize that we are very poor at gauging our ability to multitask. There is an inverse relationship between the perceived ability to multitask and actual multitasking performance. So the unfortunate tendency is that those who are poorest at it, tend to do more of it.

To return to the title of this post, “Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?” Am I missing out on technology that is of potential value to me? Or am I adapting my use of technology to my waning attentional abilities? Please enter your comments, recommendations, and advice.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Passing 66

May 23, 2012

A couple of weeks back I passed my 66th birthday. This occasion caused me to reflect on the retirement advertisements I see on TV. There is one where a couple is flying in a private plane to a lakeside villa as they view whales playing on the water. The underlying theme here is with adequate retirement funds, this is what your retirement will be; with the proper retirement plan, this can be yours.

The problem is that there are two factors critical to retirement planning that are unknown. The first is how long we will live. We might expire later today or we could live to be well into our hundreds given future medical advances. We also don’t know what will happen to our investments. The regulations that were made to our most recent financial catastrophic were fairly modest. There is also the prospect of the financial system collapsing as a result of cyberwarfare. Then there is also the prospect of a Coronal Mass Ejection wiping out all the electronic systems for over a decade. Now there is the idea of a bucket list that includes everything we want to do before expiring. This can work given adequate resources, our living long enough, and the absence of cataclysmic financial events.

My least favorite advertisement is of someone waking up on the first day of retirement joyful that they did not have to get up and that they have nothing to do. I’ll grant that person, one joyful day, perhaps two. But to live life without meaningful challenges is to increase the likelihood of dementia and to put one foot in the grave. There is a Japanese word Ikigai which roughly translated as “the reason for which we wake up in the morning” (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Importance of Ikigai”. Countries that have lower retirement ages tend also to have lower ages for the onset of dementia. If you retire from work it is important to have activities that keep you both physically and mentally active.

A Healthymemory blog reader emailed me an article “Working 9 to 5 – at 75”1 (thank you Healthymemory Blog reader). There was a story about a 73 year old who was commuting 90 miles each way, and enjoying it. The article states that “…working well into one’s seventh decade is a scenario that has become—seemingly overnight—relatively commonplace.” Although financial pressures seemed to be the major motivating factor, they were enjoying the work they were doing. It was fulfilling. It provided Ikigai. It is also likely extending their lifespans and extending or warding off dementia.

So passing 66 is not particularly significant. I am continuing in my job. The best means of surviving a financial collapse is by having and keeping a job. More importantly, it is keeping me mentally and socially engaged, but I do need to do more physical exercise. Regardless of my employment status, I plan to stay mentally and physically active.

1http://finance.yahoo.com/news/working-9-to-5—-at-75.html

Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness

May 20, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with nonjudgmental awareness.

Dr. Davidson recommends open-monitoring meditation, in which your attention is not focused on any particular object. Instead you cultivate an awareness of awareness itself. Before beginning this type of meditation, Dr. Davidson recommends beginning with focused-attention meditation such as breath meditation to to give you a level of basic attentional stability. This should make open-monitoring meditation.

He provides the following basics of open-minded meditation:

“1. Sit in a quiet room with a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep your eyes open or closed whichever is more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.

      1. Maintain a clear awareness and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid and transparent.

      2. Lightly attend to whatever object rises to the top of your consciousness, but do not latch on to it. You want to observe the thinking process itself, perhaps saying to yourself, Oh, I notice that the first thing I think about as I sit down to meditate is…

      3. Give your full attention to the most current salient object of consciousness, focusing on it to the exclusion of anything else, but without thinking about it. That is, you are simply aware of it, observing it as disinterestedly as possible, but do not explore it intellectually.

      4. Generate a state of total openness, in which the mind is as vast as the sky, able to welcome and absorb any stray thought, feeling, or sensation like a new star that begins shining. When thoughts arise, simply let them pass through your mind without leaving any trace of it. When you perceive noises, images, tastes, or other sensations, let them be as they are without engaging with them or rejecting them. Tell yourself that they can’t affect the serene equanimity of your mind.

      5. If you notice your mind moving toward thought or feeling, let it do so, letting the newcomer slip into consciousness. Unlike in attention-strengthening forms of meditation, you do not try to shoo away the “intruding” thought, but allow your mind to turn to it. The key difference between breath-focused attention discussed previously is that in open-monitoring meditation there is no single focus to which the attention is redirected if it wanders. Rather, you simply become aware of whatever is in the center of attention at the moment.

      6. Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.

      7. Do this for five to ten minutes.2

Dr. Davidson lists the following meditation centers that offer courses, books, and CDs on open-monitoring meditation: Insight meditation Society in Barre, MA; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodcare, CA; and Tergar Meditation Group in Minneapolis, MN.

Dr. Davidson did a study in 2009 in which it was found that practitioner of open-monitoring meditation showed phase locking in their EEGs. That is, their brain waves were modulated to make them more receptive to outside stimuli. It is somewhat ironic to note that this phase locking is also an indication of selective attention as we noted in the “Attentional Style” Healthymemory Blog Post. But as it was noted in that blog post, these two types of attention complement each other.

You can also alter your environment to expand your attentional awareness. Put books and magazines around to tempt yourself to read something new. Keep your room or office open to the outside world. Place photos of loved ones on your desk so you can glance at them as you work. Set the alarm on your cell phone or computer to chirp every twenty to thirty minutes to cue you to think of something else.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. pp. 240-241.

Improving Selective Attention

May 16, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with improving selective attention. Selective attention involves the enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.

Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation for improving selective attention. The following section, copied for your convenience from the immediately preceding Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Self-Awareness”, is how Dr. Davidson recommends that you begin mindfulness meditation.

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

He also recommends the Body Scan, which is also copied from the preceding Healthymemory Blog post for your convenience.

Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

      1. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

Dr. Davidson also recommends the following focused attention meditation, also known as one-pointed meditation.

“1. In a quiet room free of distractions, sit with you eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that your focus of attention be visual, rather than on your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.

      1. Focus all your attention on this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.

      2. If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.”2

        He recommends that you do this daily for about ten minutes. Once you are able to maintain your focus of attention for most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month until you reach one hour.

You can also modify your environment to improve your selective attention. Minimize distractions, clear out your environment eliminating as many distractions as you can. Close your door. AND DO NOT MULTITASK!

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2 Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. p.239.

Improving Self Awareness

May 13, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Self-Awareness”, it would be good to do so before reading this post on improving self-awareness. Self-Awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable in that there can be too much or too little of it. People with high levels of Self-Awareness have greater activation of their insula, whereas people with low levels of Self-Awareness have low activation of their insula. However, more than the insula is involved. How outputs from the insula are interpreted are also critical. For this reason mindfulness meditation provides a good method of achieving an optimal level of self-awareness. The following advice is taken from Dr. Davidson’s book.1 This advice can also be found in the “Improving Resilience” post.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

Dr. Davidson also recommends what he calls the “body scan”.

        1. Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

        2. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

        3. Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

A 2008 study found that people who had practice mindfulness meditation every day for about eight years had larger insula that people of the same age and sex who did not meditate.2 This apparent paradox of a practice that increases the size of the insula but does not produce pathological levels of self-awareness is resolved when it is realized that these meditative practices also improve and modulate the messages from the insula.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Holzel, B.K., Ott, U. Gard, T. Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K., Vaitl, D. (2008). Investigation of Mindfulness Meditatin Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affeciive Neuroscience. 3, 55-61.

Improving Your Sensitivity to Social Context

May 9, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context,” it is recommended that you do so before reading this current post. This post will deal with ways of diminishing or eliminating social contexts that make you feel frightened or uncomfortable. It is based on The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a pathological condition in which a person, due to past traumatic experiences, becomes frightened inappropriately in a relatively innocuous environment. Exposure therapy has proven successful in treating this disorder just as it has with phobias of specific objects or situations. Exposure therapy involves progressively more direct exposure to cues that are associated with the trauma, but in a safe context. For example, if someone had a fear of flying you might first have them watch movies about flying. Then you might drive them to the airport. You might make several trips each involving more exposure to airplanes. Then you might arrange sitting I an airplane while its on the ground. Finally, you might arrange a series of progressively longer flights in an airplane.

Dr. Davidson recommends the following exercise for gradually inuring yourself to cues that make you anxious or angry.1

1. To help you relax, start with a breathing exercise from hatha yoga. With your eyes closed attend to your breathing as you would in mindfulness meditation, counting the duration of each inhalation and exhalation.

      1. Once, you have counted several breaths, lengthen you breathing cycle so that it takes one more second. Keep increasing their length as long as it feels comfortable.

      2. Pay attention to whether inhalation and exhalation are the same length. If one is longer, try to increase the length of the other so that they both are about the same length. Do this for five minutes and then open your eyes.

After you feel comfortable with this exercise, you can move on to context training.2

      1. Make a list of the cues or behaviors that upset you. Form images of these cues or behaviors. Be as specific and as detailed as you can.

      2. In a safe context conjure up these images in as much detail as possible.

      3. At the same time, practice the breathing exercise described just before this one. Continue to do this until you feel comfortable with the images you formed. Continue at this for about fifteen minutes.

        Dr. Davidson writes that you should experience from doing this after four sessions, and that the hour spent doing this is well worth it.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Ibid.

Improving Social Intuition

May 6, 2012

If you have not yet read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context” it is recommended that you read about it before considering improving it. These recommendations for improving social intuition can be found in The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley. It you have already read “Social Intuition” then you might anticipate that he would advise you to pump up your fusiform activity and quiet your amygdala activity. In practical terms he offers the following advice:

“1. Start with strangers. When you are out in public pick a couple or a small group of friends and discreetly watch them. Pay particular attention to their faces, which communicate so much social information. Remind yourself to look at other people’s faces when you watch them, and, particularly when you interact with them.

  1. See how well you can predict how they will touch each other (or not), how close they will walk together, whether they will look into each other’s eyes when speaking.

  2. Get close enough to overhear them (assuming you can do this unobtrusively. I recommend doing this is a crowded public place such as a party, a packed department store, or a jammed movie theater lobby). See if their tone of voice seems to match their body language and facial expression.

  3. If not, then you are probably misunderstanding something. Take note of that and apply this lesson to the next people you observe.

  4. Once you feel confident that you can tell what people are feeling, try it with friends or colleagues.”1

    I have the utmost respect for Dr Davidson, but I would strongly advise against staring into a stranger’s face or eyes. This can lead to uncomfortable situations. I also cannot understand why he recommends working with strangers rather than friends first.

    He also offers exercises for becoming proficient at interpreting specific cues.

    1. When you are in a public place where friends are chattering or at an airport terminal close you eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune in to specific voices and focus on the tone rather than the content.

      1. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys. The open your eyes and see what comes next. Were you able to anticipate it based on your interpretation of the tone.

      2. Now repeat the exercise with posture and body language (without closing your eyes, of course).

      3. Designate one channel, tone of voice or body language, and concentrate on it throughout the entire day.

      4. The next day switch to the other channel and repeat the exercise.

Dr. Davidson write that you should see results after a short period of time.

Now some people might be too tuned in to social cues. For example, someone might be excessively tuned in to social cues and will always be trying to please other people. Dr. Goldman would say that such people need to give their fusiform a respite. They should try to focus on other parts of the environment and increase their amount of introspection.

The next Healthymemory Blog post will deal with improving your sensitivity to context.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Improving Resilience

May 2, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Resilience,” it is suggested that you do this now. Before it can be improved you must understand what resilience is and roughly where you stand on the resilience dimension. Resilience is one of Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1. Dr. Davidson stresses that you can adjust your emotional style and provides suggestions as to how you can do so.

If you are slow to recover from emotional setbacks, Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness produces emotional balance and helps you recover, but not too quickly, from emotional setbacks. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and wallowing in a setback. Mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala promoting equanimity and braking the obsessive associations.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

  1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.
        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Goldman writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

If mindfulness training does not work for you, Dr. Goldman suggests cognitive reappraisal therapy.

On the other hand, if you are too close to the fast to recover end of the resilience dimension try a type of meditation from Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen,which means “taking and receiving.” This meditation is designed to foster compassion and involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in that suffering and transforming it into compassion. This is very effective at fostering empathy. Dr. Goldman recommends doing the following exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

      1. Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. The closer this person is to you , the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. You can also visualize a generic sufferer, such as someone starving in Africa, or a cancer patient in a hospice.

      2. Imagine the suffering leaving this person as you inhale. Conjure an image of the suffering leaving this person’s body like fog dissipating as the sun burns it off.

      3. On each exhalation imagine that the suffering is turned into compassion. Direct this compassion towards this person. As you exhale imaging your breath flowing towards this person with a gift of empathy and love that will assuage the pain.

You can also arrange your environment to accommodate variations in resilience style. To speed up recovery from adversity leave the situation where the adversity occurred and go to a place les emotionally charged. To slow down your recovery, do the opposite.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Improving Your Outlook

April 29, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Outlook,” it is recommended that you read it prior to reading the current post. You should remember that you can be too optimistic or too pessimistic, so you should first assess where you are on this outlook dimension before deciding how it might be improved. Dr. Davidson provides suggestions1 to make yourself more optimistic or less optimistic.

To increase your level of optimism, Dr. Davidson suggests the following:

Every day for a week, do these three exercises:

      1. Write down one positive characteristic of yourself and one positive characteristic of someone with whom you regularly interact. Do this three times a day. Ideally write down a different trait each time.

      2. Express gratitude regularly. Pay attention to times you say thank you and look directly into the eyes of the person you are thanking and display genuine gratitude. Keep a journal and note the specific times you felt a genuine, however brief, connection with this person to whom you expressed gratitude.

      3. Complement others regularly for such things as a job well done, a well kept yard, or something they are wearing, even if they are a stranger. Again, look directly into the eyes of the person you are complementing and record your feelings in your journal.

At the end of the week reassess your level of optimism. If you are where you think you should be, continue to monitor your optimism and repeat the above exercises if you feel you have regressed. If you think you have become too optimistic, you can try some of the suggestions for people who feel they are too optimistic.

Envision negative outcomes. Try to imagine how things could go wrong. If you are considering a purchase, be sure to consider all the negative consequences that do or could result from the purchase. To build your negativity, work at it until you think you are at the right dimension along the optimistic pessimistic outlook dimension. I would also recommend making a practice of regularly watching and reading the news.

You can also adjust your environment. To move to the positive end of the dimension fill your workspace and home with upbeat, optimistic gratifying times, and people who bring meaning to your life. Try to change pictures often so that you do not become habituated to them.

To move to the negative end of the dimension, fill your home and workspace with reminders of threats to your well being, such a pictures of disasters, and newspapers, magazines, and books dealing with all the problems facing the world.

If you feel you have moved too far in either direction, rearrange your environment accordingly.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Attentional Style

April 25, 2012

Attentional Style is the last of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 to be discussed. But it is certainly not the least important dimension. It is the most important dimension as regular readers of this blog should have anticipated. With respect to a healthy memory, it is the most important dimensions as memory failures are typically due to a failure to pay attention. It is also a key building block for other dimensions as it is difficult to be self-aware or to be tuned in to social cues or sensitive to social context if one is not paying attention.

Davidson notes that there are two types of attention. One is the ability to selectively attend to stimuli that are of interest and to tune out extraneous stimulus. The other type of attention is nonjudgmental awareness. These two types of attention complement each other. Without the ability to selectively attend, the amount of stimulation and information is overwhelming. However, excessive selective attention can cause you to miss important cues or information.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in selective attention. Davidson describes an experiment in which the participants were to push a button when a sound of a certain pitch (high or low) was presented to a particular ear (left or right). EEGs were taken while the participants performed this task. Analyses of the recorded brain waves indicated that participants who performed this task better (where better able to selectively attend) had electrical signals from the prefrontal cortext that exhibited “Phase locking.” That is, the signals from the prefrontal lobes became synchronized precisely with the arrival of the tones.

Specific patterns of brain activation were also found during a study of open, nonjudgmental awareness that Davidson conducted. In this study strings of digits and letter were presented and the task was to to respond whenever a digit occurred. There is a phenomenon termed the attentional blink (or psychological refractory period) in which the response to the second occurrence of a digit is either missed or delayed. EEG recordings were taken of the participants while they performed this task. The EEG data recorded an event related potential known as the P300. It refers to a positive electrical response that occurs about 300 milliseconds after the presentation of a stimulus. Too strong a P300 response indicated that too much attention was expended on the first occurrence of the target stimulus, so that second presentation was missed. Too weak a P300 response typically indicated that both target stimuli were missed. So balanced, nonjudgmental awareness is characterized by a “Goldilocks” P300, not too much and not too little, but just right.

Here is where the emotional brain and the rational, thinking overlap. Clearly the emotional brain affects rational thinking, and is important to a healthy memory.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Self-Awareness

April 22, 2012

To this point, the dimensions of the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 that have received more detailed consideration, Outlook, Resilience, Social Intuition, and Context Sensitivity are fairly obvious dimensions of emotional style. However, some might be confused by Self-Awareness. How could someone not be aware of their emotions? There is a condition, alexithymia, in which people have difficulty identifying and describing their feelings. In fact, there is a scale to assess the severity of this problem. Understand that these people have feelings, the problem lies in identifying and describing these feelings. And it should be apparent what kinds of difficulties one could have if they do not understand what they are feeling.

There is a brain structure, the insula, which receives signals from the viscera and the somatosensory cortex, that is at the root of this problem. High levels of activity in the insula support high degrees of self-awareness, and low levels of activity in the insula result in low levels of self-awareness. Researchers have found through neuroimaging techniques that people who are more accurate in estimating their heart rate have larger insula. The larger the insula, the more accurate the estimate. Now people who have devoted a large portion of their lives to meditation, Buddhist monks for example, not only are aware of their heart rate, but are actually able to slow their heart rates to what some of us might regard as alarming.

This deficiency in understanding ones physiological responding goes beyond emotions. Some people suffer from chronic dehydration because they are unaware that they are thirsty. They have to be reminded to follow a strict schedule of hydration, even when they don’t feel like it, to avoid dehydration.

It should be noted that self-awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable. It is possible to have “too much” self-awareness. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity can produce excessive degress of body awareness that sometimes result in panic disorder and hypochondria. People with these disorder are hypersensitive to pulse, respiration rate, temperature, and other estimates of anxiety. The tend to overestimate and over interpret.. They might feel a slight uptick in heart rate and fear an impending heart attack.

There is one more emotional dimensions that needs to be discussed in more detail, attention. The next blog post will deal with attention. After that, techniques for modifying emotional states that Dr. Goldman has developed will be discussed.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Social Intuition and Social Context

April 18, 2012

Social intuition is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 (See the Healthymemory Blog post “The Six Dimensons of Emotional Style”). The two immediately preceding blog posts have discussed the Outlook and Reslience dimensions. Social intuition refers to how attuned individuals are to social signals and to their ability to pick up social cues. People with autism are at the pathological end of this dimension. Others are deficient in their social interactions being mildly puzzled by the behaviors of others. People high in social intuition can read others like a book.

The brain structures most relevant to social intuition are the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala. High levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus and low to moderate levels in the amygdala are typical of people who are moderate to highly socially intuitive. Low levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus and high levels of activity in the amygdala characterize people who are puzzled by social interactions. Studies of the autistic brain have confirmed this heightened level of activity.

Social context is similar to social intuition with these two differences. Social context refers to how one responds to the what is present and happening in the environment in general. It also involves a different brain structure. The brain structure central to social context is the hippocampus. The hippocampus should be familiar to readers of the Healthymemory blog due to its importance in memory (try entering “hippocampus” into the search box and see how many hits you get). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be regarded as a disorder of disrupted context. Studies have shown PTSD is associated with losses in the volume of the hippocampus. This diminished hippocampus has difficulty forming memories of the context in which something occurred thus conflating the dangers of a war zone with the relatively safety of home. Davidson has concluded that unusually low levels of activity in the hippocampus underlies the “tuned out” end of the sensitivity to context dimension. At the tuned in extreme high levels of activity in the hippocampus can lead to too much focus on context can make one overly self-conscious and socially inhibited. It can also lead to an obsessive need to please other people. At the other end of the continuum, too little activation of the hippocampus can lead to a lack of focus on context that might cause one to overlook something that is important or even dangerous. So Sensitivity to Social Context is another “Goldilocks” variable. Too much or too little can be bad. It needs to be “Just Right.”

Connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex are also important. The hippocampus needs to communicate with the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex and well as memories held in long term storage. Stronger connections increase sensitivity to context. Weaker connections decrease sensitivity to social context.

Later posts will indicate how you change where you are on these social dimensions.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Outlook

April 11, 2012

Outlook is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 Outlook refers to how one characteristically views life, typically along an optimism/pessimism dimension. There have already been a host of healthymemory blog posts on optimism (enter “optimism” into the search box). One can be too optimistic, or one can be too pessimistic. However, it is interesting to note that mental health tends toward the optimistic end. People who are clinically depressed tend to be more accurate making predictions where norms exist (for example, life expectation, or the likelihood of suffering from different diseases). This condition is known as depressive realism. Being more optimistic increases the likelihood of persevering and eventually achieving success. Optimism is a “Goldilocks” variable. You can have either too much or too little optimism. Somewhere in the middle is “just right.”

Davidson and his colleagues did a study2 in which the compared the brain activity of two groups: Healthy vs. Clinically Depressed. fMRI was used while they viewed pictures of people doing something joyous or, at least mildly pleasurable (children playing and enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that they were clearly enjoying. When the picture went off, they were asked to try to prolong the emotion (think of themselves in the same situation, imagine that the joy they felt would last and last). Seventy-two such images were projected to each participant over a forty-five minute session.

The brain imaging revealed activity in the reward circuit of the brain. This circuit involves the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum. Both groups showed activation in this reward circuit while the pictures were presented. However, it was only the Healthy participants who were able to maintain this activity once the pictures were turned off. The clinically depressed participants exhibited low activity in the ventral striatum due to decreased input from the prefrontal cortex.

I find these results to be both interesting and useful. It provides added context for interpreting my feelings. When my mood turns pessimistic, I can appreciate that my outlook, even though it might be more accurate, is less adaptive and less likely to lead to future success and happiness. I am also aware that my mood is likely due to decreased input from my prefrontal cortex to my ventral striatum, and if I can increase that input, via either internal or external means, I should become more optimistic.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

April 4, 2012

These six dimensions are taken from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Resilience style. When you’re knocked down, do you bounce back quickly and get back into the ring of life, or do you fall into a puddle of depression and resignation? Do you respond to setbacks with determination and energy, or do you give up? If you have an argument with your significant other, is the remainder of your day ruined, or do you recover quickly and put it behind you? These are examples of the two poles of the resilience dimension A person can be at either pole of the dimension or somewhere in between.

Outlook style. Do you tend towards optimism or pessimism? Even when things don’t go your way, do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement? Or are you cynical and pessimistic struggling to see anything positive? Again, these statements are intended to represent to poles of the Outlook dimension. You can fall at either extreme or anywhere in between.

Self Awareness style. Are you aware of the messages your body sends you? Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? Is your inner self opaque to your conscious mind such that you act or react without knowing why you do what you do? Do people who know you ask you why you never engage in introspection and wonder why you seem oblivious to your being anxious, jealous, impatient or threatened? Again, these statements are meant to represent the poles of the Self Awareness dimension. You can be at either extreme or fall anywhere in between.

Social Intuition style. Can you determine whether people want to talk or be alone, or whether they are extremely stressed or feeling mellow? Or are you puzzled by or blind to the outward indications of people’s physical or emotional states? So at one end of the dimension are the socially intuitive types and at the other end are those who are puzzled. Again, you can fall at either end or anywhere in between.

Sensitivity to Context style. Are you able to pick up the roles of social interaction so that you do not embarrass yourself, or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate? If you are at one end of the Sensitivity to Context dimension you are tuned in. If you are at the other end you are tuned out. Of course, you can fall anywhere between these two poles, The Sensitivity to Context dimension might seem to be be very similar to the Social Intuition dimension, but there are reasons for distinguishing between them. Different brain structures are involved, and there are other reasons for this distinction that will become apparent in subsequent posts.

Attention style. Are you able to tune our distracting information and focus on the important information to which you are trying to attend? It is this dimension that is most relevant to a healthy memory. If you have read the Healthymemory Blog extensively, you should be well aware of the importance of attention to memory. Most memory failures are a failure to attend. So difficulties in your attention style will affect the importance of your memory.

Subsequent posts will relate these dimensions to personality theory and to pathological conditions. Each dimension will be considered in more detail and discuss the underlying brain structures that are involved. And methods for altering you emotional style will be discussed. However, at this point you should realize that there is not one ideal emotional style. Emotional styles can and should vary among individuals. It is when your emotional style is hindering your happiness and the health of your memory that they need to be addressed.

Emotions and a Healthy Memory

April 1, 2012

When I was a graduate student in the seventies studying cognition, emotions were of little interest. We needed to research cognition, the important stuff. Emotions were something of concern to clinicians and those dealing with mental illness, not something with which we hard-nosed scientists needed to be concerned. Richard Davidson was a graduate student the same time that I was, but he immediately saw the folly in this view. He completed his requirements for a doctoral degree and has done research which has developed a coherent view of emotion, the brain structures and processes underlying emotion, and methods for modifying our emotions. The last point is most important because he has shown that, regardless of any innate predispositions, we can control and change our emotions.

I did not have the prescience of Davidson. I held the contempt for the study of emotion that was prevalent at that time. In retrospect I can see how foolish I was. It is our emotional states that determine not only our happiness and satisfaction, but also the effectiveness of our interactions with the environment. Emotions are a key factor in a healthy memory. Emotional problems promote an unhealthy and ineffective memory.

Davidson is a most remarkable fellow. He is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Time magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2006. Much of Davidson’s work has been published in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

He has identified six dimensions of emotional style: Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Social Context, and Attention. Each of these dimensions is characterized by different interactions of structures in the brain, the activities of which can be observed and measured. He relates these dimensions to personality and explains how they develop. He relates them to normal and abnormal patterns and explains when “different” becomes pathological. What is most important is his elucidation of the plasticity of the brain and how emotional styles can be changed. He provides a questionnaire test to self-assess one’s position on the six dimensions. He also provides exercises one can use to modify one’s emotional style. External resources are also identified.

This book is highly readable. It is a joy to read. He added a co-author, Sharon Begley, to assure its readability and accessibility. Many personal stories are included. His experiences as a research assistant in a sleep laboratory when he was in high school, his undergraduate studies, his graduate studies including his meetings with fellow graduate student Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his professional career including his trips to Central Asia, and his relationship with the Dali Lama are entertainingly presented.

This is an important book. Accordingly, I plan to devote a substantial number of Healthymemory Blog posts to it. But there is no way I can even come close to giving this book its just due. I strongly encourage you to get and read the book. It should not only be interesting, but also personally rewarding.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Do We Still Need to Know How to Spell?

March 25, 2012

Well, we need to know how to spell enough to give the spell checkers something with which to work. But beyond that, do we really need to know how to spell? Can’t we rely upon transactive memory (technology)? We could, but there are reasons why we might not want to.

One of these reasons is for mental exercise. The neuroscientist Richard Restak provided these observations he made while watching a spelling bee.1 He noted the looks of effortful strain whenever they were asked words in which the pronunciation provides little information regarding their spelling. Words like that are difficult because the contestant must activate a different part of the brain in order to spell the word correctly. These words activate areas of the brain that process word meaning, such as the frontal and parietal lobes, which process printed text. Regular words preferentially activate part of the superior temporal lobe that is devoted toe spelling of words in which the sound corresponds closely with the letters.

You might think that you left these spelling bees behind when you left school. Be advised that there are spelling bees for adults. The National Adult Spelling Bee is held yearly in Long Beach, California (www.adultspellingbee.com). Dr. Restak contacted the winner of the 2007 winner of the National Adult Spelling Bee, Hal Prince. He wasn’t especially interested in words or spelling until his early fifties. Here is the explanation Prince provided about his methods: “First, I went through the dictionary recommended by the Bee page by page. I made a database of words for drilling and also made tests of the words for listening while commuting or running. I borrowed or bought every book about words that I could find and went through them to find words that looked interesting.”

When Dr. Restak asked Prince if he attributed his success to a “gift” for spelling, Prince responded,”While I think that I do have a facility for words and spelling, I suspect that it’s more like a top10 percent rather that a top .01 percent. Mostly, it’s just a matter of being interested in words and taking the time to study them.”

So spelling can provide mental exercise and contribute to brain and memory health. Is there any other reason? It can contribute to your understanding of etymology (the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time). This, in turn, can increase your understanding of English (or whatever language you’re spelling in) and increase your communication skills.

Searching for “Spelling Test Online” in your browser will provide a variety of possible resources.

1Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books., p. 132.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Peripersonal Space

March 21, 2012

Peripersonal space (PPS) is defined as a force field that can be thought of as a virtual envelope around the skin’s surface that expands the body’s boundaries.1 It is PPS that provides a margin of error that enables us to consistently avoid walking into people as we pass by. This PPS actually extends to machinery and technology we use and is a factor in reducing collisions between motor vehicles. When we say that a person has become one with her cell phone or iPod, we mean that it has become one with her PPS. In baseball, the bat becomes part of the batter’s PPS (as does the glove when on defense). When we are eating, our PPS extends to our eating utensils.

The PPS of blind people includes the cane such as the space around the tip of the cane is as sensitive to touch as the space surrounding the hand. Neurons that detect both sound and touch also operate such that the blind person reacts as quickly to a sound originating from the tip of the cane as he would if it occurred close to the hand. An experiment by Italian scientists had sighted subjects use these canes to find objects placed on the floor of a darkened room. In this short ten minute experiment the PPSs of the sighted subjects came to resemble the PPS of the blind who regularly use the cane. The sighted subjects became as sensitive to touch and sound events originating at the tip of their canes as to similar events occurring near their hands. Unfortunately, this extended PPS did not last long after the experiment ended.

One of the most effective means of enhancing PPS is through the Chinese exercise, tai chi. Tai chi is an exercise in which slow choreographed movements are performed. These slow motions are performed as the practitioner is simultaneously focusing attention on specific body areas, especially the hands and the fingers. Experienced tai chi practitioners develop a tactile acuity in the fingers similar to that of certain musicians and blind braille readers. Tai chi may create a plasticity in the brain similar to musicians who play keyboard and string instruments, read Braille, or perform other activities that require finely toned fingertip sensitivity. “There is a strong connection between tactile spatial acuity at the fingertips and measures of brain function,”2

It should be noted that the benefits of tai chi extend beyond PPS. There are also benefits to psychological and physical health. You can learn tai chi by purchasing DVD videos, or by visiting a tai chi center in your local area. These can be readily found via Google searches.

1Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2 Kerr, C.E. et al.(2007). Tactile Acuity in Tai Chi Practioners. Society for Neuroscience, presentation 74.1.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Attend to Your Senses

March 18, 2012

Failures of memory are primarily due to failures in attention. Either you were distracted and did not pay attention or you were just failing to attend and registering what was going on around you.1 It is true that typically more is going on around you for you to attend to all of it, but, if you are like me, you often fail to attend to any of it. According to Dr. Restak, “…the first step to an enhanced memory involves exercises in sharpening our senses.”2

Actors are encouraged to perform sense-memory exercises. Here is an example. After filling a cup of coffee conduct a detailed sensory analysis of every aspect of a cup of coffee for fifteen minutes (this exercise is recommended to be repeated on a daily basis). Every visual aspect of the cup was to be examined in detail, to include the height of the cup, its diameter, its color, its material composition and the dimension’s of the cup’s handle. Look for the ridges of the cup’s lips, and note the shape and color of the artwork or ceramic design on the cup. Also check for the shape and color of any reflections from the lights of the room that might be visible on the cup. After every possible question regarding the visible aspects of light have been considered, repeat the exercise with the other senses smell and touch.

For a sound memory exercise, focus on the ambient sounds around you. You want to do this in a quiet area that allows you to distinguish individual sounds clearly. How many sounds can you hear? Can you identify them. Concentrate on one sound at a time and try to write down as many features as you can that enables you to distinguish it from other sounds. You can try the same exercise with bird songs. CDs are available of bird songs, which you can play and learn. There are also CDs of other animals such as frogs. Also listen to human speech and try to distinguish and identify different nuances. Record a conversation and try to mentally recall everything that was said in its correct sequence.

Do not forget the sense of touch. Arrange articles of clothing made with different materials on a bed and try to identify them by touch alone. Try to identify objects in your closet by touch alone. Randomly set out similar-sized objects, and sort them with your eyes closed, trying to identify each one by touch alone.

Nor should you forget taste and smell. Exercises can be found in the nearest garden, spice rack, or wine tasting group. Take a number of spices at random and set them on a table. Try to identify each spice by smell alone. Sometimes you might need to add the sense of taste to make the identification.

Sensory motor exercises can also be quite beneficial. No part of the body is more functionally linked to the brain than the hands. Any activity requiring finger dexterity enhances the brain. So, playing a musical instrument (particularly keyboard and string instruments), and hobbies such as knitting, model ship or train building, bike repair, painting, carpentry, painting and drawing are quite beneficial.

So attend to and sharpen your sense memory!

1Most of this post is adapted from Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2Ibid., p.78.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Paraprosdokians and a Healthy Memory

January 25, 2012

Probably the first question is, “what is a paraprosdokian?” A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that caused the reader or listener to re-frame or re-interpret the first part. Here are some examples1:

I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.

If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.

Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others whenever they go.

I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not sure.

When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

You’re never too old to learn something stupid.

Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

I didn’t say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.

Dolphins are so smart that within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish.

So what do paraprosdokians have to do with a healthy memory? First of all, the show how your memory processes sentences. It is doing it bit by bit constructing a meaning which leads you to expect a certain kind of ending. A paraprosdokian leads you to a different meaning, hopefully humorous, than you expected. So picture what is happening to your brain, certain circuits are being activated, but new circuits must be found to interpret the meaning correctly, and, we hope, appreciate a joke. So it is this activation of memory circuits that can foster memory health.

Now we can think of two ways of processing paraprosdokians. We’ll call one passive because it simply involves reading or hearing a paraprosdokian. Of course, active processing by your brain is required to interpret the paraprosdokian correctly, and, we hope, get the joke.

A second way of processing paraprosdokians we shall call active. This is when you create a new paraproprosdokian. Now this places special demands on your brain circuits and creativity, but it can lead to your perception as a humorous individual who can make friends and influence people.

This activity is similar to punning, but it is less demanding and much less likely to elicit groans than puns do.

Feel free to enter any new paraprosdokians as comments.

1http://www.economicnoise.com/2011/09/05/182-paraprosdokians/

The Google Effect and Transactive Memory

January 11, 2012

A brief piece1 in Scientific American Mind reports on some of the results of experiments done by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow. In one of the experiments two groups of undergraduates were presented with trivia statements. One group was told that they could retrieve this information later on their computers, and the other group were told that they could not retrieve this information on the computer. The former group exhibited worse recall than the latter group. This finding should not surprise anyone. Sparrow said that this finding does not mean that the internet is dumbing us down. Rather we are adapting to an internet world.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should realize that relying on the internet is an example of transactive memory. When we can readily access the information on the internet, that is referred to as accessible transactive memory. When we need to search for information on the internet, then that is an example of available transactive memory. All the information that is resident on the internet is part of the vast amount of information in potential transactive memory.

I can imagine tests in the internet age allowing students to bring their computers to class and to access the internet while taking essay examination. The capacity to find and assemble this information into coherent essays should easily be accepted as a valid measure of understanding. It is understood that the essays should include references and links to references.

Still, there are dangers to relying too heavily on transactive memory. There is useful analogy here to physical exercise. Currently, there is technology available to allow some of us to avoid all physical exertion. Unfortunately, making heavy use of this technology can have adverse effects on physical health. Similarly, placing too heavy reliance on transactive memory might have adverse effects on brain health. There are also questions regarding epistemology, how do we know what we know. A reasonable assumption is that information that can be recalled from our personal memories is more deeply encoded and better understood, than information we need to look up in some external source. Too much reliance on transactive memory can led to us becoming familiar with a large amount of information, without having anything akin to mastery with any of it. Whenever we encounter new information we need to decide how well we need to know it. Transactive memory is a great convenience. Committing everything to personal memory would slow us down and limit the breadth of our knowledge. There is this tradeoff between breadth and depth of knowledge that needs careful consideration.

1Casselman, A. (2012). The Google Effect. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 7.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Quote Worth Pondering

November 27, 2011

“To remain mentally sharp, you have to deal with familiar things in novel ways. But most important of all, you have to have a sense of curiosity. If interest and curiosity stop coming automatically to you, then you’re in trouble, no matter how young or old you are.”Art Buchwald

That is Art Buchwald the Pulitzer Prize winning humorist offering a profound insight. He’s written many books and many, many columns. My favorite book is his last, Art Buchwald: Too Soon to Say Goodbye. He wrote this book while he was in a hospice waiting to die. He had had one of his legs amputated and was told that he needed to go on dialysis if he wanted to continue living. He decided that he had had enough and did not want to go on living. So he moved to a hospice where he lived much longer than anyone would have expected. He lived long enough to write his last book.

I found this quote on the page before the introduction to Richard Restak‘s book, Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. He regards Art Buchwald as one of the most intelligent people he has ever met. Dr. Restak has written many interesting books and this one certainly does not disappoint. The book is divided into six parts followed by an epilogue. They are

Part One Discovering the Brain

Part Two Care and Feeding of the Brain: The Basics

Part Three Specific Steps for Enhancing Your Brain’s Performance

Part Four Using Technology to Achieve a More Powerful Brain

Part Five Fashioning the Creative Brain

Part Six Impediments to Brain Function and How to Compensate for Them

Epilogue The Twenty-first-Century Brain

Some Healthymemory Blog posts will be on excerpts from this book. But there is no way that I can do this book justice. I highly recommend it.

And please ponder Buchwald’s quote and give it the attention it deserves.

Happy Thanksgiving 2011

November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. As its name implies, this is the time of the year to be optimistic and thankful. Among our many blessings are our memories and cognitive abilities. They are many and remarkable and we need to be thankful. One of the best ways of giving thanks is to not only take care of your abilities and keep them healthy, but also to grow and develop them. These are the objectives of the Healthymemory Blog. It provides information on our brains and cognitive faculties as well as advice on how to keep them healthy and to grow them.

Self Hypnotism

October 30, 2011

It has been said that all hypnotism is actually self hypnotism. The New Scientist published an interesting article1 on hypnotism. It describe the treatment program that Peter Whorwell has developed for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a serious disorder that results in some sufferers contemplating suicide. Whorwell presents a tutorial to his patients on how the gut functions. Then he has his patients effectively hypnotize themselves to use visual and tactile sensations of warmth and to imagine the bowel working normally. The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recommended hypnosis as an effective treatment for IBS. Whorwell has shown that under hypnosis some IBS patients can reduce the contractions of their bowel, something that can not normally be done under conscious control2. Their bowel linings become less sensitive to pain.

The question is why this works. Irving Kirsch of the University of Kull thinks that hypnosis taps into physiological pathways that are similar to those involved in the placebo effect (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Placebo and Nocebo Effects”). The medical conditions that benefit from the placebo effect and hypnotism are similar. They both involve suggestion and expectation. The disappointing part is that there are individual differences in how well people respond to hypnosis.

For those who do respond well to hypnosis, the effects can be quite impressive. A common test used in studies of pain perception is called the cold presser test. The research participant is asked to keep her hand in ice water for as long as she can stand it. This does become quite painful. The research participant gives ratings of the pain as it increases as the time in the ice water increases. Eventually, the pain becomes unbearable and the participant removes the hand. People who are effectively hypnotized can keep their hand in the bucket for a long period of time. They are told when to remove their hand to prevent organic damage. They also give accurate ratings of the pain, so although they remain aware of the painful stimulus, the pain remains bearable.

1Marchant, J. (2011). Hypnotise Yourself. New Scientist, 27 August, 35.

2Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 64, p. 621.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Benefits of Meditation

October 26, 2011

The benefits of meditation are many.1 There is evidence that meditation boosts the immune system in vaccine recipients and people with cancer. Meditation protects against relapses in major depression and soothes skin conditions. It has even been shown to slow the progression of HIV.

There is even some evidence that meditation might slow the aging process. A proposed theoretical process by which this might happen is interesting. It is believed that telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes play a role in aging. These telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides. It is thought that this process fosters aging. Research conducted by Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, found that the levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a comparable control group who did not meditate.2 The increase in this enzyme and the build up of telomeres, could play a role in slowing aging.

It is also likely that meditation works by influencing stress response pathways. Meditators tend to have lower cortisol levels. A study sowed that meditators also have changes in their amygdalae.3 Amygdalae are brain areas involved in fear and the response to threat.

The good news is that you do not need to be a monk meditating in a monastery or a participant in a three-month study to benefit from meditating. Imaging studies have shown that meditating can cause structural changes in the brain in as little as 11 hours of training. A psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, Elissa Epel, suggests that fitting in short “mini-meditations” during the course of a day, such as taking a few minutes at your desk to focus on your breathing can be effective. “Little moments here and there all matter.”

Previous Healthymemory Blog posts on this topic can be found by entering “The Benefits of Meditation” in the search block.

1Much of this post is based on an article, Meditate, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, pp. 34-35.

2Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36., p.664

3Social and Affective Neuroscience, 5, p.11.

Placebo and Nocebo Effects

October 16, 2011

Although you’ve probably heard of placebo effects, it is less likely that you have heard of nocebo effects. The placebo effect occurs when an inert substance, say a sugar pill or a saline injection, has curative or beneficial effects. The nocebo effect is the opposite; merely believing that a drug has harmful effects can make you suffer them. The nocebo effect can even kill.1

The expression, “It’s only a placebo effect” has almost become a cliché. But the placebo effect is one of the most amazing effects in medicine. It underscores the role that the psychology of the mind plays in healing. No respectable research in medicine can be done without a placebo control. Otherwise the effect of whatever is being tested could be attributed to a placebo effect. Placebo effects are the rule, rather than the exception, and they can be substantial.

What is more remarkable is that placebos work even when the people receiving them know that they are placebos. In one study2 the experimental group was given placebo pills with the open label placebo pills presented as “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) through mind-body self healing processes.” The no treatment control group had the same quality of interaction with the providers, but they were not given the placebo.

The placebo group showed significantly higher scores than the control group on the IBS Global Improvement Scale, the IBS Symptom Severity Scale, and the IBS Adequate Relief Scale.

So the placebo effect cannot be simply the result of deception. Somehow, belief, a psychological variable, affects the body.

1Marchant, J. (2011). Fool Yourself. New Scientist, 27 August, 33.

2Kaptchuk, T.J., Friedlander, E., Kelley, J.M., Sanchez, M.N., Kokkotou, E., Singer, J.P., Kowalczykowski, M., Miller, F.G., Kirsch, I., Lembo, A.J. (2010). Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Http://www.plosone.org/article/info/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015591

Why Do We Dream?

October 2, 2011

Given that we are asleep about one-third of our lives, and given that dreaming is a predominant part of sleeping, dreaming must be important. Researchers have been working on this problem for many years and an article1 in the New Scientist summarizes some recent research. Changes in electrical activity in the brain and movements of the eyes allow us to identify five stages of sleep. Sleep begins with two stages of light sleep, followed by two stages of deep sleep, followed by a stage of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and is repeated until we awaken.

One of the roles of dreaming is memory consolidation (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “To Remember It, Sleep on It). There are a substantial number of studies reporting that sleep facilitates memory. The New Scientist article reported a study in which non-REM dreams boost people’s performance on a problem. The research participants were given an hour of training on a complex maze. Some participants were allowed to take a ninety-minute nap, while other participants were kept awake. When tested again on the maze, people who dreamed showed bigger improvements than people who did not dream. The largest improvements were in people who dreamed about the maze. This dream content could be somewhat bizarre. One of the participants who showed the largest improvement reported the following dream: “there were people at checkpoints in the maze as well as bat caves that he had visited a few years earlier.”

REM dreams contain more emotion, more aggression, and more unknown characters than non-REM dreams, whereas non-REM dreams are more likely to involve friendly encounters. A conjecture is that non-REM dreams help us practice friendly encounters, whereas REM dreams help us to rehearse threats. REM sleep strengthens negative emotional memories2 . The notion here is that if we don’t remember bad experiences, we will not learn from them. It is also thought that reliving the upsetting experience in the absence of the hormonal rush that accompanied the actual event helps to strip away the raw emotion from the memory. This is somewhat analogous to desensitization techniques employed by therapists. Although these REM dreams can be helpful for many situations, they do not work for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. This is unfortunate.

So sleep and dreaming are activities that are important to both cognitive and emotional health. Shortchanging yourself of this needed activity has adverse effects on your memory health.

1Young, E. (2011). The I in Dreaming. New Scientist, 12 March, 36-39.

2Cerebral Cortex, vol 19, p.1158

A Call to Us Baby Boomers

September 11, 2011

Dr. Whitehouse is one of us; he is a Baby Boomer. In The Myth of Alzheimer’s he issues a call to action for us Baby Boomers.1 As an extra incentive, he states that studies have shown that engaging in politics and keeping apprised of world events may be protective against cognitive loss.

He recommends that we encourage our local politicians to make life-span aging a priority issue. To argue for a more equitable distribution between funding for the “cure” and for “care.’ Currently most of the funding goes for the search for a cure, and in Dr. Whitehouse’s informed opinion, a cure is a long way off if one is ever found. Federal and state labor policies should help expand the pool of front-line caregivers. Youth apprenticeship programs can be created in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in which high school students can experience hands-on learning in the workplace in conjunction with classroom instruction and to have mentored on-the-job learning in an eldercare setting. These programs can provide up-and-coming workers with the skills and competencies they will need to care for the growing number of elders in our society and provide them with the knowledge, insight, and real-world experience they will need to take care of us in the future.

He also recommends that we e-mail the leaders of our local Alzheimer’s disease chapters and express the belief that money raised for AD should be invested in care and prevention, and not just in the race for a cure that might never be forthcoming. Investing in caregiving creates a compassionate infrastructure in our communities that can last for generations. Investing in prevention allows more of us living longer with clearer minds. Children are included to ensure that they are provided a good start in their development.

We need to think about the communities of the future that will emerge to care for our elderly. Creative living arrangements such as co-ops for the elderly, inter-generational living spaces, environmentally sound assisted-living facilities that promote cognitive stimulation and inclusion in community need serious consideration. The following is a direct quote, “I am not sure we want or can afford too much institutional care for the frail elderly. If we can break down the barriers between those with dementing conditions and the healthy, and the young and other old, perhaps we can create living arrangements where people help each other across the cognitive and ageing divides. Cooperative group arrangements supported by architectural and environmental design may allow groups of mutually halping and helpful people to survive and thrive through cooperation arrangements. We are entering a challenging era as a human species. But humans are the most adaptable beings on the planet and I hope that we can rise to the challenges of the twenty-first century.2

We Baby Boomers can considered ourselves “called.”

1Whitehouse, P.J., & George, D. (2008). The Myth of Alzheimer’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

2Pages 277-278.

Alzheimer’s and Transactive Memory

September 7, 2011

According to the authors of The Myth of Alzheimer’s,technology and social interaction play an important role in mitigating its risk.1 Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know that transactive memory includes the information stored in technological devices and in our fellow human beings. Hence transactive memory plays an important role in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Technology ranges from the simple book to the vast area of cyberspace. Dr. Whitehouse jokingly refers to the book as a multi-neurotransmitter lexical enhancement device. Both giving and receiving information from our fellow human beings is a healthy means of social interaction.

The remainder of this blog post lists online resources provided in The Myth of Alzheimer’s.

www.eldercare.gov provides information on community organizations offering programs that stimulate, thought, discussion, and personal connections.

www.themythofalzheimers.com is an online community that shares stories of dementia. The hope is that it will foster acknowledgment of the complexity and multiplicity of the many narratives of dementia and the stories of individual lives which make them up and that this will diminish the tyranny of dementia.

www.storycoprs.net records the life histories of elders and stores them in the Library of Congress.

www.duplexplanet.com is a site designed to portray the stories of elders who are in decline.

www.memorybridge.com is the site of an organization with a mission to foster intergenerational communication and facilitate relationships between younger persons and people with dementia

www.storycenter.org is the website of a nonprofit organization that assists young people and older adults in using tools of digital media to craft, record, share, and value stories of individuals and communities in ways that improve all our lives

www.elderssharethearts.org is a web site that affirms the role of elders as bearers of history and culture by using the power of the arts to transmit stories and life experiences throughout communities

www.alz.org is the website of the Alzheimer’s Association. There is a network of local chapters that provide education and support for people diagnosed with AD, their families, and caregivers. Chapters offer referrals to local resources and services, and sponsor support groups and educational programs. The site also offers online and print publications

http://adcs.ucsd.edu is the website of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS) which is the result of a cooperative agreement between the National Institute of Aging and the University of California at San Diego to advance the research in the development of drugs to treat AD

www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers is the website of the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center. It provides information on AD, caregiving, fact sheets and reports on research findings, a database of clinical trials, reading lists, and the Progress Report on Alzheimer’s Disease. It also provides referrals to local AD resources

www.caps4caregivers.org is the website for the Children of Aging Parents, a nonprofit organization that provides information and referrals for nursing homes, retirement communities, elder-law attorneys, adult-day-care centers, and state and county agencies. It also provides fact sheets on various topics, a bi-monthly newsletter, conferences and workshops, support group referrals and a speaker’s bureau

www.caregiver.org is the website for the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), a non-profit organizatin that offers support services for those caring for adults with AD, stroke, traumatic brain injuries, and other cognitive disorders. They also publish and Information Clearninghouse for FCA publications

www.nhpco.org is the website for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), a nonprofit organization working to enhance the quality of life for individuals who are terminally ill and advocating for people in the final stage of life. They provide information and referral to local hospice services. The provide information on many topics including how to evaluate hospice services

www.nia.nih.gov is the website for the governments lead agency for research on AD. It offers information on health and aging, including an Age Page series, and the NIA Exercise Kit, which countains and eighty page exercise guide

www.nlm.nih.gov is the website for the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medicl library with six million items (and growing), including books, journals, technical reports, manuscripts, microfilms, photographs, and images. A large searchable health informationo database of biomedical journals called MEDLINE/PubMed is accessible via the internet. A service called MEDLINEplus links the public to general information about AD and caregiving, plus many other sources of consumer health information. A searchable clinical trials database is located at

http://clinicaltrials.gov

www.wellspouse.org is the website of the Well Spouse Foundation, a nonprofit organizatin providing support to spouses and partners of the chronically ill and/or disabled. It maintains support groups, publishes a bimonthly newsletter, and helps organize letter writing program to help members deal with the effects of isolation.

1Whitehouse, P.J., & George, D. (2008). The Myth of Alzheimer’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sigmund Freud and Alzheimer’s Disease

August 31, 2011

No, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud did not have Alzheimer’s Disease. And, to the best of my knowledge, he knew of neither Alzheimer’s disease nor its founder, Alois Alzheimer. But according to at least one knowledgeable source1, Freud might have played an inadvertent role in Alzheimer’s being declared a disease. Alois Alzheimer was deeply conflicted about this issue. Clearly his patient was cognitively impaired. But was his patient suffering from a unique disease or was this just another manifestation of the many symptoms of dementia?

Alzheimer was offered a position in the laboratory of Emil Kraepelin. Emil Kraepelin was one of the most prominent psychiatrists of the era as was Sigmund Freud. However, the differed drastically in their approaches to psychiatry. Kraepelin was strongly of the opinion that psychiatry should be physically based just as the other medical specialties. However, at that time, Freud was all the rage with his psychological approach. Kraepelin wanted to move the emphasis in psychiatry back to a physical basis. Terming Alzheimer’s a disease, put it in the same category as tuberculosis and influenza. He was not claiming that mental diseases were necessarily infectious and transferable, but rather that they had a physical basis. As Alzheimer was an employee of Kraepelin, this might have played some role in it being declared a disease.

Some might wonder whether this is an important distinction. It is, as it affects the approaches taken. If it is a distinct disease, then it has a distinct diagnosis, and perhaps a distinct cure or treatment. If it is just another manifestation of dementia, then the question remains as to what is being treated. The best single predictor of whether a person will come down with Alzheimer’s is the person’s age. So Alzheimer’s is a product of aging, although it is not a necessary result of aging, as many age without suffering from the dementia known as Alzheimer’s. But the best predictor is not found in the genetics of an individual, although some people are more susceptible than others, but in age. Whether a person’s cognitive impairment can be diagnosed confidently must await an autopsy and the presence of amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles. But autopsies have been performed on people who had amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, yet never showed any evidence of cognitive impairment while living. So what is Alzheimer’s? Fortunately we can take actions to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Identifying these actions is one of the principal objectives of the Healthymemory Blog.

1Whitehouse, P.J., & George, D. (2008). The Myth of Alzheimer’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

The Myth of Alzheimer’s

August 28, 2011

The Myth of Alzheimer’s by Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D. and Daniel George, M.Sc. is an important book. The myth is that Alzheimer’s is a single disease, and that a drug will be developed that serves as a silver bullet and eradicate Alzheimer’s. Whitehouse is no crackpot. He knows whereof he speaks. Note that he has a Ph.D and an M.D. Although he is now working as a clinician, he spent many years at the forefront of research on drugs to mitigate or eradicate Alzheimer’s disease (AD). He was a prominent researcher who was well funded and promoted by drug companies. When he became convinced that a cure for Alzheimer’s was not forthcoming, he turned his efforts to treatment.

Note that a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, even with today’s brain imaging technology cannot be made while the patient is living. It must await the autopsy of the individual. The presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles would confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The problem is that autopsies of people who have shown no indications of cognitive impairments have also shown the presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Most drug treatments have been targeted to remove or mitigate these amyloid plaques or neurofibrillary tangles. Although some drug treatments have been able to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in some people, these drugs typically have side effects and cannot prevent its progression. In some cases they just slow the occurrence of death, which prevents release from this degraded state. In an interesting history of the disease it becomes clear that its founder, Alois Alzheimer, had doubts that this was a distinct disease and that scientific competition forced Alzheimer’s employer to convince Alzheimer to call it a distinct disease.

The thesis of the book is best captured from the following excerpt from page 220, …”It is unlikely that there will ever be a panacea for brain aging and baby boomers should not rely on extraordinary advancements being made in their lifetimes besides the promises of the AD empire that make their way into our headlines. Our attention must begin shifting from mythical cure to hard-earned prevention, from expecting a symptomatic treatment for AD to choosing behaviors that may delay the effects “of cognitve decline over the course of our lives.” Many, if not most, of the behaviors he discusses have been mentioned and advocated in the Healthymemory Blog.

The book provides a superb tutorial on the history of AD from its unassuming beginnings to the development of an AD Empire. It reviews the science underlying AD and the role of genetics in AD. It discusses past and present treatments for AD. It explains how to identify someone who might need a prescription for memory loss, and how to prepare for a doctor’s visit. It presents a new model for living with brain aging as well as a prescription for successful aging across the life span. An epilogue is titled “Thinking Like a Mountain: The Future of Aging.”

This is an important and interesting book for everyone, but especially for us Baby Boomers.

Healthy Memory: Physical versus Cognitive Activity

August 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Positive Psychology

August 21, 2011

Positive Psychology is a movement that was started by the psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman. In a way, this is a bit ironic as he gained earlier recognition in psychology for his research on learned helplessness. In this research he showed that if animals were exposed to an environment of random shocks from which there was no escape, these animals were unable to learn in another setting that they could avoid these shocks. These findings were extrapolated to a human setting in which there are few positive rewards and few opportunities in which people simply give up and stop trying.

Seligman was disturbed by the emphasis placed in clinical and counseling psychology on malfunctioning individuals. He was not arguing that these populations did not deserve attention, but, rather, that attention should also be given to positive behaviors and thought that lead to happiness. The website for Positive Psychology can be found at http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/index.html.

There was a session at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) on Positive Psychology. On the whole, I am impressed with this movement. In other words, I am positive about Positive Psychology. My position should no be surprising given some previous Healthymemory Blog posts (“Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving, “The Second Half of Life,” and “Change Your Brain By Transforming Your Mind.”). Buddhism encourages a positive attitude both to others and yourself. Positive thinking leads to happiness. It can also encourage perseverance and lead to success.

But there are parts of Positive Psychology that give me some concern. Emphasis is placed on finding and developing personal strengths. Although this is certainly good advice, I think it would be a mistake to focus on and develop personal strengths exclusively. If there are certain skills that are important to achieving your goals, but which are skills at which you do not excel, I think it would be a grave mistake to ignore them. For example, it certain mathematical skills would be helpful to achieving your interests, it would be good to focus on them and develop certain proficiencies. Once you have worked at something long enough you can become good enough where you actually enjoy the skill as it becomes a strength. Similarly, if giving presentation or public speaking is important to your pursuits, but you, like many, are fearful of speaking in public, consider addressing that fear. There are programs to help you overcome this fear and speak in public effectively and persuasively. Successful athletes do not usually work on what they are good at, but what they don’t do well, so they become more skilled at their sport. Deliberate practice is the term describing practice that focuses on correcting weaknesses or shortcomings.

Optimism is generally a good disposition, but it can be overdone (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “Can Optimism Be Bad?”). So be positive, but not too positive. Be optimistic, but not too optimistic.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.