Posts Tagged ‘healthymemory.wordpress.com’

An Informative and Timely Read

January 20, 2013

That would be The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa (www.rebecca.costa.com). As the title promises she presents a theory of why civilizations collapse. The simple explanation is that a civilization’s beliefs do not keep up with the environmental facts in which they operate. She uses the Mayans, the Roman, and the Kymer civilizations for examples. Given the exponential increase in technology that has occurred, the problem is much greater today than in the times of those ancient civilizations.

Biological evolution is slow. At one time the evolution of technology was also slow, but the rate of change in technology is truly exponential today. So how can homo sapiens keep up? Unless the singularity predicted by Ray Kurzweil in which humans become one with technology (enter “singularity” into the search box) this is a definite problem. This failure to “keep up” is quite evident in the stagnation of governments in the United States and European Union.

Costa introduces the concept of supermemes, which are overriding habits of processing information that lead to stagnation and fail to solve pressing problems. These supermemes will be addressed individually in later healthymemory blog posts: they are “Irrational Opposition,” “The Personalization of Blame,” “Counterfeit Correlation,” “Silo Thinking,” and “Extreme Economics.”

She does provide rational solutions for dealing with the irrational world in which we live, and strategies for implementing those solutions. One chapter is titled “Building Better Brains,” a title to which the healthymemory blog resonates. She argues that insight can deal with our problems successfully and discusses conditions conducive to cognition for achieving this insight. Future healthymemory blog posts will discuss these topics.

Nevertheless, I shall be unable to do justice to these topics, so I suggest you get the book and read it for yourself.

© 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.

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Forgetting Is Important to a Healthy Memory

March 14, 2012

The common complaint is forgetting. Consequently the importance of forgetting is overlooked. A recent article1 provides a strong reminder of the importance of forgetting. The famous study of someone who remembered everything he experienced or tried to remember is recounted in a book by the Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist. Although this person made a good living giving demonstrations of his phenomenal memory, he regarded his exceptional talent as a curse. He wanted to forget, but he could not. His was truly a pathological case.

Traumas, in particular, and unpleasant thoughts, are things we want to forget. There unwelcome recall makes our lives unpleasant and can lead to depression and serious mental problems. We should all be aware of the benefits of optimism, and these memories make it difficult to be optimistic.

Fortunately, we can learn to forget and Michael Anderson and his colleagues have developed an experimental paradigm that not only shows that we can, but shows how to forget more effectively.2 Here’s how the experiment works. The first stage is simple paired associate learning. Words are paired and the research participants learn to recall the second word when the first word is presented.

In the second stage some of these same word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked to think about the second word when the first is presented. However some of the word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked not to think about the second word when the first word is presented. And some of the word pairs are not presented and serve as controls for the third stage of the procedure.

In the third stage the research participants are given the first word of all the three sets of the word pairs that have been presented. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked to think about both words in the second stage recalled the most words. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked not to think about the second word remembered the fewest words (showed the most forgetting) and the word pairs that were not presented during the second stage were recalled second best. So even those words that were seen less than the words with the forget instructions were better remembered. It is also interesting to note that forgetting increases as a function of the number of “not think” trials. So we can control our forgetting.

According to the theoretical account of these results that have been substantiated by brain imaging studies, the prefrontal cortex is the executive control area that inhibits the activity of the hippocampus, which is a primary subcortical structure for learning and apparently also for forgetting.

You might still be curious as to how to make yourself forget things you don’t want to remember. Well, technically you are not forgetting them. Rather you are instructing yourself not to think about them, so they will not pop up unwanted in your consciousness. In the experiment the research participants were implicitly recalling the words but instructing themselves not to think about them. This led to the nonintuitive finding that the more times they did this, the less likely they were to recall them.

Anderson and his colleagues have also presented research indicating that our ability to exercise this voluntary forgetting declines as we age.3 However, other research has failed to find this result and concluded that there was no difference in the ability to forget between old and young research participants4. The only difference I could find between the two studies, besides the second study using German research participants, and the first study using U.S. research participants, was that the elderly research group was slightly older in the U.S. than in the German study.

Regardless, I am not impressed by research showing that older research participants perform more poorly than younger research participants without providing any suggestions as to how the deficit might be remediated. Given the importance of the prefrontal cortex for deliberate forgetting I would suggest the possible benefit of exercising the prefrontal cortex (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Working Memory”).

1Wickelgren, I. (2012). Trying to Forget. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 33-39.

2Anderson, M.C. (2009). Suppressing Unwanted Memories, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 189-194.

3Anderson, M.C., Reinholz, J., Kuhl, B., & Mayr, U. (2011). Psychology and Aging, 26, 397- 405.

4Alp, A., Bauml, K-H, & Pastotter, B. (2007). No Inhibitory Deficit in Older Adults’ Episodic Memory, Psychological Science, 18, 72-78.

© 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.

Supertaskers

March 11, 2012

What is this? After a couple of blog posts on the dangers of multitasking comes a post on supertaskers? Well, the extensive research by Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah (my alma mater) has identified certain people as supertaskers.1 In their database of research participants, they found individuals who had virtually identical scores for doing either just one or both activities. Out of a database of 700 participants, only 19 (2.7%) met this criterion.

They did a follow up study with 16 of these supertaskers and a group of control participants matched with respect to single-task scores, working-memory capacity, gender, and age. Then they had these participants concurrently maintain and manipulate separate visual and auditory streams of information while they imaged their brains. Significant differences were found between the two groups in their patterns of neural activation. Supertaskers showed less activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. The control participants showed more activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. Supertaskers seemed to be able to keep their brains cool under a heavy load. Supertaskers differed most from controls in three frontal brain areas that had been identified in earlier neuropsychological research: the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers found that the frontopolar cortex to be the most intriguing brain region that separated the supertaskers from the controls. They said that comparative studies with humans and great apes indicate that this area is relatively larger and more richly interconnected in humans, whereas other frontal cortical areas are more equivalent in size and connectivity. They speculate that “The emergence of human’s multitasking ability, however flawed, might be a relatively recent evolutionary change in hominid brains, helping to distinguish humans from other animals. In addition, neuropsychological patients with more extensive frontopolar damage have been shown to be more impaired in multitasking”2

The authors go on to speculate about the possible role of a particular gene. They note that whether multitaskers are just an extreme on a continuum or are qualitatively different remains an open question. It should be remembered that these are supertaskers in a relative sense, that is they are supertaskers with respect to other humans. I am curious to know what happens when the total information load is increased. Does the performance of both tasks suffer equally or does the supertasker become similar to the rest of us humans, sacrificing one task for the other. I am also curious as to whether appropriate training and deliberate practice (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice”), more of us might become supertaskers.

As I cautionary note, I would advise against self assessments as to your supertasking abilities. Remember that those who think they are good multitaskers, tend to be the poorest multitaskers.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

2Ibid.p.29

© 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.

Believing You Can Increase Your Intelligence Is Important

February 26, 2012

A recent study1 demonstrates why this is so. How people respond to their mistakes depends on what they believe about learning and intelligence. People who believe that intelligence develops through effort see mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. People who believe that intelligence is a stable characteristic see mistakes as indications of a lack of ability. The former group is said to have growth mind-sets, and the latter group is said to have fixed mind-sets. The nature of an individual’s mind-set can be determined from questionnaire items. The researchers examined performance-monitoring event-related potentials (ERPs) to study the neural mechanisms underlying these different reactions to mistakes.

Twenty-five experimental participants performed a classification task, in which accuracy and speed were equally emphasized, while their ERPs were recorded. Upon completion of the experimental task, the participants completed a questionnaire using a Theory of Intelligence Scale to assess their implicit theories of intelligence (fixed or with growth potential). The findings indicated that participants with a growth mindset showed an enhancement of the error positivity component (Pe) of the ERP. This component reflects awareness of and allocation of attention to mistakes. So participants with a growth mind-set were more aware of their mistakes and allocated more attention to correcting these mistakes.

For a long time the argument was made that IQ tests indicated a fixed level of intelligence that was difficult or impossible to change. Recent research has indicated that this view of intelligence is not fixed, and that it can be improved. However, for intelligence to be improved the individual must believe that it can be improved. When this is believed, attentional resources are allocated for improvement. Otherwise, attentional resources are not allocated for improvement. This is in accordance with what makes a person a true expert. Many, many, many hours of deliberate practice are required to achieve true expertise (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice.”. Similarly to improve your IQ, you need to believe that it can be improved and work to improve.

It appears that whether or not you improve your intelligence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe it can be improved, it will likely improve. If you don’t believe that it can be improved, then it will not be improved. In other words, if you believe you are stupid or of average intelligence, you will remain being stupid or of average intelligence. To increase your intelligence, believe and apply yourself.

1Moser, J.S., Schroder, H.S., Heeter, C., Moran, T.P., & Lee, Y.H. (2011). M ind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments., Psychological Science, 22, 1484-1489.

© 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.

Transactive Memory for Cognitive and Artistic Growth

February 22, 2012

Transactive memory includes memories/information that are stored in technology. The technology can range from paper to Cyberspace. So this blob post provides some examples. Consider the following link

http://cliptank.com/PeopleofInfluencePainting.htm

You do not need to “Click to Start” to use the web page. Scroll up and down and left to right to see the picture. When you mouse over an individual picture, the name of the individual pictured should be displayed. (Sometimes it is not displayed, you can see it in the lower left updating of the URL.) Clicking on the picture will take you to a reference, usually in the Wikipedia, telling you about the individual. So this is a good test of how much you know. It is also a good vehicle for increasing your knowledge.

The social aspect of transactive memory, that is memories of your fellow humans, can be explored by using this website to play a game. You could draw cards or straws to determine the order of play. The first person would move the cursor just below an individual. The other players would try to name the person. Naming the person would win one point. Naming the person and saying something indicating that you know something about the individual would earn a second point. Turns would rotate, with each player trying to pick relatively obscure characters that the other(s) did not know. However, in all cases, missing the name, not knowing anything about the individual, or a correct answer, the name and the reference would be checked. So if no one recognized the individual, both would learn something. The game could go on until a certain number of points were reached, or a time limit was reached. This game could be extended to multiple players. Of course, the first to respond correctly would be the only one rewarded points.

For artistic growth, go to http://www.artcyclopedia.com/museums.html

There you can explore museums and masterpieces throughout the world.

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. In addition to increasing your ability to remember, these mnemonic techniques also provide cognitive exercise (See the healthymemory blog post, “How Using Mnemonic Techniques Exercise the Brain.”

© 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.

Computer Use and Cognition Across Adulthood

February 19, 2012

The results of the first national population-based investigation of the association between computer activity and cognitive performance across adulthood has been published.1 This study involved a large national sample (N = 2,671) of adults ranging from 32 to 84 years old. Cognition was assessed by telephone with the Brief Test of Adult Cognition.2 Executive function was assessed with the Stop and Go Switch Task.3 Individuals who used the computer frequently scored significantly higher than those who seldom used the computer. The variables of age, sex, education, and health status were statistically controlled so this result maintained across all these variables. Greater computer use was also associated with better executive function on a task-switching test. Again this result held up across the basic cognitive and demographic variables. So computer activity is associated with good cognitive function and executive control across adulthood and into old age. Individuals with low intellectual ability benefited even more from computer use.

Unfortunately, computer usage declines across age. Of course, the personal computer is a relatively new technology, one that was not available earlier in the lifespans of many. It is hoped that this will be less of a problem in the future for those who have had access to computer technology throughout their lives. There are issues with perceptual and motor decline as we age, and computer technology needs to accommodate them. It is not surprising that that people with lower income and less education are less likely to use computers. It would be good to develop programs for these people that provide not only ready access to computers, but also to training in their use.

And if you have a computer, use it, don’t lose cognitive functioning or executive control. The internet provides a good vehicle for cognitive growth. It includes a vast amount of transactive memory. The computer also provides a good means of interacting with your fellow humans, although it should not be the exclusive means of interacting with fellow humans.

1Tun, P.A., & Lachman, M.E. (2010). The Association Between Computer Use and Cognition Across Adulthood: Use It So You Won’t Lose It? Psychology and Aging. 25, 560-568.

2Tun, P.A., & Lachman, M.E. (2006). Telephone Assessment of Cognitive Function in Adulthood: The Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone. Age and Ageing, 35, 629-632.

3Tun, P.A., & Lachman, M.E. (2008). Age Differences in Reaction Time in a National Telephone Sample of Adults: Task Complexity, Education, and Sex Matter. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1421-1429. doi:10.1037/a00128456

© 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 Pharmacology Offer for a Healthy Memory?

February 1, 2012

For some people, the answer might be everything, or given time, everything. They believe that pharmacology will eventually provide a cure and/or a preventative to Alzheimer’s and dementia, and that it will enhance cognitive performance so that we can learn more and master more difficult subjects. This is to say nothing about the eventual beneficial effects to the economy and society. A recent article1 has motivated this blogger to post some cautionary remarks. It should be remembered that our cognitive abilities are the product of evolution. A common misconception is that evolution produces optimal results. No, evolution satisfices, that is provides a satisfactory solution to environmental challenges. These solutions involve trade-offs. For example, a woman’s pelvis is the sized so that it can both support bipedalism and the large cranium of an emerging baby.

Although our cognitive abilities might not be optimal, they have been shaped by evolution. We have two systems for processing information, System 1, which is fast, and System 2 which is slow but more thorough (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “The Two System View of Cognition”and “Thinking Fast and Slow). Without System 1 we would have become extinct a long time ago. But without System 2 both our cognitive and cultural achievements would be extremely limited. One way of thinking about trade-offs is to think of an inverted U. Initially more of a factor is beneficial. However, at some point (the apex of the inverted U) more of this factor is causing losses someplace else.

Robert Bjork has suggested that there is a symbiosis of forgetting, remembering, and learning.2 John Anderson has written an entire book3 documenting how human cognition has been shaped to deal with the environment in an effective manner. Luria’s famous book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, about an individual referred to as “S” who had a phenomenal memory and earned his living by giving performances using his fantastic memory, had too much of a good thing. For example, he had difficulty remembering faces, which appeared to him as changing patterns. Research has also indicated that savant-like abilities such as S‘s can be induced in normal participants by turning off particular functional areas of the brain via repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.4

There are also individual differences determining whether pharmacology will be beneficial. Individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance from certain drugs. One study5 found that modafinal improved performance only among individuals with lower IQs. In another study6, low-performing individuals showed enhanced performance, but high-performing individuals showed reduced performance after taking amphetamines. Inverted U shaped dose-response curves are quite common.7

This is not to say that there is no role for pharmacology in fostering a healthy memory. Clearly in the preceding examples low-performing individuals were showing benefits. But more is not necessarily better. Long term side effects of medication must also be considered.

1Hills, T. & Hertwig, R. (2011). Why Aren’t We Smarter Already: Evolutionary Trade-Offs and Cognitive Enhancements. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20:373. http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/20/6/373

2Bjork, R.A. (2011). On the Symbiosis of Forgetting, Remembering, and Learning. In A.S. Benjamin (Ed.) Successful Remembering and Successful Forgetting: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. Bjork. (pp 1-22). London, England:Psychology Press.

3Anderson, J.R., (1990). The Adaptive Character of Thought. Psychology Press.

4Snyder, A. (2009). Explaining and Inducing Savant Skills: Privileged Access to Lower Level Less Processed Information. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 1399-1405.

5Randall, D.C. Shneerson, J.M., & File, S.E. (2005) . Cognitive Effects of Modafinil in Student
Volunteers May Depend on IQ. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 82, 133-139.

6Farah, M.J., Haimm, C., Sankoorika, G., & Chatterjee (2009). When We Enhance Cognition with Adderall, Do We Sacrifice Creativity? A Preliminary Study. Psychopharmacology, 202, 541-547.

7Cools, R., & Robbins, T.W. (2004). Chemistry of the Adaptive Mind. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, A, 362, 2871-2888.

© 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.

Words With Friends

January 18, 2012

Alec Baldwin is responsible for a large amount of publicity going to the word game Words With Friends, www.wordswithfriends.com. So the Healthymemory Blog does not want to miss the opportunity to say that Words With Friends exemplifies both types of transactive memory, technical and human. As the Healthymemory Blog advocates both types of transactive memory for fostering both memory and brain health, it seems that a few words are in order given the opportunity that Alec Baldwin’s inappropriate behavior has afforded.

The game itself fosters vocabulary building, activates brain circuits searching through memory for appropriate words, as well as strategic thinking. All of which contribute to a healthy memory. Add to this the interaction with your fellow players that in itself is beneficial to a healthy memory.

It would be interesting to see brain imaging studies during the playing of Words with Friends. I would envision a large degree of activation of the hippocampus, the associative cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The competitive aspect of the game might activate the amygdala. I would also wager that glucose metabolism would increase during the playing of the game, but would gradually decrease during the playing of the game as proficiency was gained.

It should be understood that this blog post in no way endorses the behavior of Alex Baldwin, and when the flight attendant tells you to shut down the game, shut down the game.

For readers who might not be so technologically oriented, I would suggest that an older form of technology, a scrabble board, would provide similar benefits.

© 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 New Year’s Resolutions So Difficult to Keep?

December 21, 2011

It’s that time of year when we 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. A recent 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 your 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 YAHAH 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.

© 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.

How Using Mnemonic Techniques Exercises the Brain

December 18, 2011

The Healthymemory Blog has a category labeled “Mnemonic Techniques.” Not all of the posts in this category are strictly speaking mnemonic techniques. Posts on specific activities you can do to foster a healthy memory, meditation, for example, are also included here. But the mnemonic techniques specific to remembering specific items of information are touted as being doubly beneficial as they not only directly improve memory, but they also provide good mental exercise for the brain. Today’s post elaborates on how the different parts of the brain are exercised.

The first action that needs to be taken on information that you want to remember is to pay attention. Paying attention involves using working memory. This involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Maintaining information here requires glucose metabolism. The initially encoding is done in the hippocampi (there is one hippocampus in each of the two brain hemispheres) from which it is distributed throughout the rest of the brain. This distribution is needed to determine the meaning, or lack of meaning, of this information. Where there is meaning, this meaning is used to elaborate the meaning by relating it to other associations in the associative cortex. When there is little or no meaning, then the mnemonic provides a means of making the apparently meaningless information meaningful. This involves recoding, which involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activating other associations found in the associative cortex. Often the technique involves the formation of a visual image which activates associative networks in both cerebral hemispheres via transmissions across the corpus callosum. There is no central memory center in the brain. Rather information is stored throughout the brain. Sensory information in the sensory portions, motor information in the motor portions, and verbal and semantic information is the associative portions. Information that you know well likely has many many links to other items of information, the job of the mnemonic technique is to establish solid new links to this new information you want to remember.

Mnemonic techniques require you to pay attention. Paying attention increases the glucose metabolism to the brain. This, in turn, activates the all important hippocampi and activates memory pathways throughout the associative and sensory cortices of the brain.

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.

© 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.

Deliberate Practice

December 14, 2011

Deliberate practice is a term coined by K. Anders Ericsson1 to define the type of practice needed to achieve superior performance or expertise. He wrote, “ For the superior performance in any field the goal isn’t just repeating the same thing again and again, but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of performance. That’s why they (experts) don’t find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time. Intense solitary deliberate practice is the hallmark of the superior in every competitive field that I have studied over my forty year career.” He contrasts the practice method of professional versus amateur golfers: Most amateurs participate almost exclusively in recreational play with others. When they ‘practice’ they tend to do things that they are comfortable with and can do with minimal control, such as whacking buckets of golf balls at a driving range. Professionals, in contrast, engage in practice activities that require full concentration to improve specific aspects of their performance, Further, they voluntarily choose practice routines in which they initially experience difficulties in order to improve a specific weakness…The expert golfer’s ability to perceive minute differences and exert control of the ball trajectories does not emerge naturally but through the process of acquiring refined mental representation for perceiving, monitoring, and controlling the muscles involved in the various required movements.”

The pianist Angela Hewitt wrote, “In my recording sessions I find that the improvement comes not in endlessly repeating a piece, but in listening intently to what has been recorded and then thinking about how it can be done better. The editing process then becomes an art in itself and requires intelligent musical decisions.”

In formulating his theories of relativity Einstein needed to master non Euclidean geometries. Acquiring expertise requires constantly going beyond what you know and mastering new material.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “How the Memory Champs Do It” to understand the fantastic feats of memory that they can perform as well as the types of deliberate practice they employ to build these phenomenal skills.

Remember the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice man, practice.” This needs to be changed to, “Deliberate practice, man, deliberate practice.”

It is remarkable what you can do. But true expertise requires deliberate practice.

1Anderson, K.A. (2007). Deliberate Practice and the Modifiability of Body and Mind: Toward a Science of the Structure and Acquisition of Expert and Elite Performance. International Journal of Sports Psychology.

© 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.

Are We Becoming More Intelligent?

December 11, 2011

The Flynn Effect1 refers to the substantial and long-sustained increase in intelligence test scores that has occurred over the last one hundred years in the industrialized countries. The average score for an IQ test is 100. Periodically these tests are redone and renormed (that is the average is recomputed with a standard deviation of 15). When the scores of people taking the new test are compared against the scores of the same people taking the previous test, the scores are typically higher. One estimates is that an IQ of 80 today would equate to an IQ of 100 in 1932. How can this be? Are we becoming more intelligent? If we are becoming more intelligent this increase is occurring much more quickly than could be explained by genetic evolution.

According to Flynn, statistical estimates are that genes account for 36 percent of the IQ variance and that environmental and experiential factors account for the remaining 64 percent. The problem is that it is impossible to conduct a study where genetic and environmental factors are independently controlled. The reality is that there is an interaction between these two factors, and it is this interaction that explains the Flynn effect.

Flynn uses an analogy with basketball to make his point. Suppose a pair of identical twins genetically endowed to play basketball are separated at birth. Regardless of the different environments under which they are raised, they are both likely to play basketball and to practice assiduously. Consequently they will excel at basketball and eventually attract the attention of coaches who will further foster their talents and abilities. A similar interaction between genetic inheritance and environmental factors can be found with identical twins with high IQs who are raised in different environments. Regardless of their respective environments they are more likely to be drawn to learning and will perform better in school. They are more likely to be admitted to competitive universities where their IQs will be increased even more.

Flynn says, “There is a strong tendency for genetic advantage or disadvantage to get more and more matched to a corresponding environment.” Accordingly, the environment will always be the determining factor of whether or not a genetic predisposition gets expressed. This applies to all our cognitive powers, not just IQ. So we can increase our own cognitive powers by our own deliberate efforts. This calls to mind what Thomas Edison said about genius, that it was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

So the answer to the question, “Are We Becoming More Intelligent?”, the question to the answer is “What is Intelligence?” But we do have the ability to increase our cognitive powers throughout our lifetimes through our own deliberate efforts.

1Flynn, J.R. (2007). What Is Intelligence? Cambridge University 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.

Review of The Washington Post’s The Aging Brain

December 7, 2011

This piece1 is informative and offers some good advice, but is woefully deficient in some areas that should have been included. The article is basically an annotated diagram that begins with the first step of the eye seeing something. The second step is the information arriving at the visual cortex that identifies what the eyes see. The third step is the information flowing through the associative cortex to develop further understanding. The fourth step is the information arriving at the hippocampus (actually it should be hippocampi as there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain. Information must be processed by these hippocampi if it is to be recalled later. People who have lost their hippocampi via surgery, accidents, or dementia, are unable to learn/remember new information. But it is the prefrontal cortext decides whether this new information warrants processing by the hippocampi for later use. The prefrontal cortex is an important part of the brain as it not only decides what is worth remembering, but it is involved in all the decisions we make and is responsible for regulating our behavior. Unfortunately, it is late maturing (not until our twenties) and early to decline (sometime after age 50). So far this description is accurate and it is understood that there would be similar, but not identical stages of processing for other modalities of information.

There is another section of the article on how to slow the effects of aging that provides the following advice:

Calm Down – this is good advice as the piece correctly states that stress can destroy synapses , it fouls up the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. It does not mention that the various types of meditation are beneficial in helping us to calm down.

Exercise – this is good advice as the increased blood flow and oxygen uptake it engenders is beneficial to the brain.

Make friends – more good advice. There have been a number of Healthymemory Blog Post extolling the benefits of socialization.

Sleep well – more good advice. Getting adequate sleep is important not only to general health, but is also critical to important brain and memory processes.

Ask about estrogen – Ladies, you can judge this one for yourselves. This recommendation is based on one study. Given the somewhat uneven results from estrogen therapies, some skepticism might be in order.

Do what you do best – Although it is true that expertise is maintained well into old age and that you are less likely to lose what you know well, it is a somewhat misleading strategy for slowing the effects of aging. Although it is fine to continuing growing in your area of expertise, it would be a mistake not to expand into some new areas. Research has indicated that maintaining brain and cognitive health should not be a reactive, defensive matter, but rather a proactive effort to continue growing cognitive competence.

An interesting question to ask, is why does the prefrontal cortex start to decline after age 50? Is it solely a matter of aging? There is the Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain (See the Healthymemory Blog posts, “More on Attention and Cognitive Control,”, “Passing 65,” and “Memory and Aging.). This hypothesis fits well with the Two System View of Cognition (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Two System View of Cognition.”). According to this view, there are two primary means of processing information. System One is fast and automatic. It is the result of prior learning. This is the system that is doing the majority of the processing when we converse, drive a car, etc. System Two is slow, effortful, and demands attention. This is what is at work when we are trying to learning something new, to solve a math problem, or recognize something that is illogical or contradictory in what the person we are conversing with has said (or in our own conversation if we recognize something illogical or contradictory in what we have said. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis as we age we increasingly rely on System One processing because we have learned much and don’t need to do as much processing as a younger person who does not have such a wealth of experience to draw upon. The problem is that since we do less System Two processing we use our prefrontal cortex less. The use it or lose it advice that we know from physical exercise also applies to cognitive exercise. When we use our prefrontal cortex more glucose is sent there. So the loss in the functioning in the prefrontal cortex might not be solely do to aging. It might be in part, perhaps in large part, to a loss in the frequency of its use.

So the new idea is to challenge our minds and to continue to learn new things as we age. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “A Quote Worth Pondering.”) It is not too late to learn a new language, or new subject matter. These activities will engage the prefrontal cortex. Mnemonic techniques have the benefit of not only being a technique that enhances memory, but are also means of providing cognitive exercise that exercises the prefrontal cortex and activates both cortices of the brain. So aging should not cause us to be reactive and defensive, but we should go on offense, be proactive, and continue to grow cognitively.

1Berkowitz, B. & Cuadra, C. (2011). The Aging Brain in The Washington Post Health & Science Section, E1, 6 December.

© 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.

Brain Conversations

November 6, 2011

For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world. These people would be surprised to learn that for many psychologists and philosophers, consciousness is an epiphenomenon, meaning that it is not real. They would argue that we do experience consciousness but that it is a byproduct of cognitive processes that have already occurred at an unconscious level. In other words, consciousness is just along for the ride. Articles1 in a recent Scientific American Mind present this view.

Although it is true that the vast majority of cognitive processing does occur below the level of consciousness, does that mean that consciousness is irrelevant? The purpose of consciousness has been and continues to be a hotly discussed topic. Baumeister has provided perhaps the most compelling explanations of the purpose of consciousness. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events. (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Conscious Thought”)

An article2 written for a different purpose provides support for Baumeister’s ideas. This article dealt with awareness. This topic is important in the context of trying to diagnose patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Misdiagnosis rates here can be as high as 40 percent. A neural correlate for consciousness is much needed. For many years theorists thought that the prefrontal cortex was key and that neural thoughts that reached this area emerged from unconscious obscurity into awareness. However, new research supports the notion that consciousness is a conversation rather than a revelation, and that no single brain structure leads the dialogue.

The neuroscientist Simon van Gaal conducts experiments in which he asks participants to push a button every time they see a certain symbol flash on a screen, except when they see a different symbol that means “stop.” On some trials the stop signal is presented below the level of conscious awareness. Although participants do not see the stop signal, they do hesitate to push the button as though some part of the brain perceived the information. Brain activity is recorded during the experiment via functional MRI and electroencephalography (EEG). The unconsciousness inhibitory signal seems to make it all the way up to parts of the prefrontal cortex despite the participants not being consciously aware of the signal.

Another study supports the claim that awareness emerges when information travels back and forth between brain areas rather than from an ascending linear chain. EEG signals were recorded in patients with brain damage as they listened to stimulating tones. All the patients were awake and alert but exhibited different levels of responsiveness. Mathematical models derived from the data suggest that feedback between the frontal cortex and lower-level sensory areas are crucial to producing conscious awareness. Similar results have been obtained with monkeys and healthy human participants.

Although these studies do not prove Baumeister’s notions regarding the role of consciousness, they do seem to provide supportive evidence.

1Nichols, S. (2011). Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientific American Mind, November/December, 18-19.

and

Koch, C. (2011). Probing the Unconscious Mind, Scientific American Mind, November/December,, 20-21.

2Peck, M.E. (2011). A Conversation in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 12.

© 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 Importance of Ikigai

November 2, 2011

Ikigai is a Japanese word roughly translated as “the reason for which we wake up in the morning.” In other words, having a purpose in life. Knowing your purpose in life is important to your well being.1 Many studies have purported to show a link between some aspect of religion and better health. For example, religion has been associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, blood pressure, metabolic disorders, better immune functioning, improved outcomes for infections such as HIV and meningitis, and lower risk of developing cancer. Of course, it was not possible for any of these studies to be Random Controlled Trials (RCTs), where participants were randomly assigned to religious and non-religious groups. So it is possible that there is a strong element of self-selection here.

However, there are other possible reasons for these results. Religious people tend to pursue lower risk lifestyles. Churchgoers typically enjoy strong social support. And, of course, seriously ill people are less likely to attend church. However, there was recent study that tried to statistically control for these factors and concluded that “religiosity/spirituality” does have a protective effect, but only for healthy people.2 Some researchers attribute this to the placebo effect (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “”Placebo and Nocebo Effects”). Others believe that positive emotions (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Optimism”) associated with “spirituality” promote beneficial physiological responses.

Still others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Presumably knowing why we are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events making them less stressful. Remember the study by Saron that was reported in the Healthymemory Blog Post, “The Benefits of Meditation.” The increase in the levels of the enzyme that repairs teleomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. The meditators were doing something they loved and provided a purpose in life.

So, it is important to have a purpose in life when you awaken in the morning. This is important throughout one’s life and is something that needs to be considered before retiring (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Second Half of Life,” and “Could the AARP Be Telling Us Not to Retire?”).

1Much of this post is based on an article, Know your purpose, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, p. 35.

2Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 78, p.81.

© 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.