Posts Tagged ‘Healthymemory’

Doing Two Things at Once is NOT Better

March 6, 2013

I feel compelled to write this post because of blaring commercials claiming that doing two things at once is better. The healthymemory blog has many posts on the effects of multi-tasking (enter “multi-tasking” into the search block of the blog). Out attentional capacity is limited, such that when we try to do two tasks, the performance on one or both tasks usually suffers. Moreover, the switching between tasks involves attentional costs.

Now it might be true that we enjoy doing two things at once because we want to talk and watch television at the same time. And it is definitely true that there are times when we are required to do two things at once. Nevertheles, there are cognitive costs to doing two things at once. We can both perform and enjoy an activity more when we are devoting all our attention to it than when we multi-task. We might want to read or study at the same time we are watching television, but the efficiency of the reading or study will suffer.

We also need to realize that we can jeopardize ourselves and others when we multi-tasking. Texting and driving has received a lot of deserved adverse publicity. Unfortunately using a phone while driving has not received as much adverse publicity. There is also a misconception, that it is the hands that present a problem while driving and using the phone. Consequently there are hands-free laws on the books in many places. These laws accomplish little or nothing. It is the attentional demands of using a phone while driving that presents the danger. Research has indicated that driving performance while on the phone is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08%, the most common standard for driving under the influence (DUI).

Another myth is that youngsters who have grown up with technology can multi-task without costs. Evolution is slow and insufficient time has passed for this to be the case. Moreover, research has found that this is not true. It was found that even students at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT), who thought that they could multi-task without costs, were proven to be wrong.

The argument here is not to ever multi-task. Sometimes multi-tasking is convenient or enjoyable. There are other times when multi-tasking is required. But we must all be aware that multi-tasking does involve costs, and that we should never place ourselves or others in danger.

© 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.

Commentary on Newseek’s Cover Story “iCrazy”

July 11, 2012

More specifically “iCRAZY: PANIC. DEPRESSION. PSYCHOSIS. HOW CONNECTION ADDICTION IS REWIRING OUR BRAINS” in the July 16, 2012 edition. The inside title is ‘IS THE ONSLAUGHT MAKING US CRAZY?” I have no quarrel with the research cited, nor with the thesis that there are problems that result from the manner in which people interact with technology. My problem is with the portrayal of humans as helpless victims of technology. Perhaps one can make an analogy with alcohol. Some users of alcohol become alcoholics while the majority of us are able to enjoy alcoholic beverages safely. However, a minority of users suffer from alcoholism. Where the analogy breaks down is in the relative benefits of alcohol and technology. The benefits of alcohol are personal enjoyment and, perhaps, some health benefits. However, the benefits of technology are so many orders of magnitude larger that the analogy breaks down. The Healthymemory Blog maintains that technology provides means of fostering cognitive growth and personal development as well as providing means of minimizing or eliminating the risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most of the relevant Healthymemory Blog posts on this topic can be found under the category “Transactive Memory.”

I become infuriated whenever I read articles that portray humans as helpless victims of technology. The hype in the titles of the Newsweek activated my crap detector (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “Has the Internet Really Made the Assessment of the Reliability of Information More Difficult?”). If I may be given the liberty of distinguishing levels of “crap,” the reading of the Newsweek article raised the distinction from “garden variety” crap to “world class” crap.

We need to seize control of technology and use it to our benefit rather than to our detriment. The book Net Smart by Howard Rheingold provides good advice on how to do so. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is How to Thrive Online. See the Healthymemory Blog Post “Net Smart” for a review.

© 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.

Election Season: Time for Critical Thinking

June 27, 2012

At this time of year the good citizen is likely to say, “I’ll keep an open mind, watch the ads, listen to the candidate‘s speeches, and decide for whom to vote.” I think that watching ads and listening to the candidate’s speeches are a waste of time and attention. Here is what I would recommend.

First read the Constitution, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html.

Pay particular attention to the duties of the President. You will not see create or provide jobs anywhere in the Constitution. Yet, listening to the speeches of the two candidates for president, one would conclude that creating or providing jobs is their primary responsibility. Go to the web and read up on economics. When the economy is good, jobs are plentiful; when the economy is bad, jobs are in short supply. Usually, the primary factor determining who wins the presidential election is the economy. If the economy is good the incumbent or the party of the incumbent is re-elected. If the economy is poor, the incumbent or the party of the incumbent is defeated. It is important to realize that there are business cycles and lags in the economy. When something bad happens, that effect can prevail for years before new policies or changes in the business cycle can have an effect. So a president may fail to be be re-elected not for policies of his own, but because of the policies of his predecessor. This problem is further compounded when the party bearing primary responsibility for the economic decline is elected and brings back the policies that caused the problem in the first place.

Although it is true that the president does affect the economy and domestic policy, he is limited by the congress with which he has to work. It is foreign policy where the president has the largest and most immediate effect. So when voting for president, it makes sense to weight most heavily his ability to conduct foreign policy.

For me, a red flag is raised whenever I hear a candidate tell me what he believes. I want to hear what the candidate thinks along with the facts supporting what he thinks. In evaluating the facts that are used a useful source is www.factcheck.org. When the facts don’t check out it detracts not only from the thinking of the candidate, but also from the candidate’s integrity. Ideologues believe in a dogma so that their minds are made up. Moreover, their minds are made up to the extent that their minds are impervious to evidence to the contrary. Humankind has advanced due to the embracing of empiricism at the expense of ideology.

It is unfortunate that the word “politician” has been soaked with negative connotations. It has a good and very important sense for a democracy. For business to be conducted in a democracy, compromises must be struck and agreements made among people with different perspectives. So I would definitely not vote for someone claiming not to be a politician or who would never compromise his position.

So ignore the daily fray, the negative ads and the charges the candidates hurl at each other. Review what a democracy is and how it needs to function. Familiarize yourself with the policies and philosophies of the candidates and their respective parties. More importantly, consider how well those policies square with past experience and with the future needs of the country.

© 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 Its Underlying Brain Structures

December 4, 2011

A variety of Healthymemory Blog posts have discussed the various brain structures underlying memory. As a book1 I have been reading has provided a succinct overview describing the interacting structures and areas of the brain that are responsible for memory I have decided to write the following post.

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. This takes place in short term or working memory. Meaningless information is quickly lost without further processing. Even the current instance of meaningful information will be lost without further processing (for example I need to meet Fred for lunch or I need to remember this for the examination). This working memory is maintained in an active mental state within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes. Maintaining information here requires glucose metabolism.

This glucose metabolism is the physiological indication of paying attention. So when you are performing a task that requires you to pay attention, glucose metabolism is required. It is interesting to note that as you become more proficient in performing the task, the rate of glucose metabolism actually decreases. This indicates that you need to pay less attention due to your increase in proficiency.

The successful storing of information in long term memory via the hippocampi requires the establishing of links to other items in long term memory. Mnemonic techniques are developed to make what appears to be inherently meaningless into something meaningful so it can be linked to other items I long term memory for later retrieval. 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. Some memory theorists have likened human memory to a hologram. Holograms differ from photographs in that the entire image can be reconstructed from portions of the hologram. So if you break a hologram into two pieces, the entire hologram can be reconstructed from either piece, but the resulting image will be less distinct.

Memory theorists make a distinction between information being available in memory and information being accessible in memory. Information that can be readily retrieved is said to be accessible. However, if you cannot retrieve something at a given time, it is likely that that information is still not available in memory, but it is still accessible. Moreover, even after you have consciously given up trying to recall this information, it sometimes happens that at a later point in time when you are consciously thinking about something else, that this apparently lost memory pops into consciousness.

So how does this relate to maintaining and growing a healthy memory? Engaging in activities requiring significant amounts of attention increase the metabolic activity going to your working memory. This metabolic activity will decrease as you become more proficient in the activity. In many respects this is analogous to the effects of physical activity on cardiopulmonary activity. It should be noted that this practice effect is the result of transferring information to long term memory so less attention is required.

To maintain and grow long term memory developing new associative pathways throughout the brain is required. This will not be done by simply surfing the internet (which is primarily a working memory exercise). Long term memory growth is a matter of pursuing knowledge and skill in more depth to develop and strengthen associative pathways so that they are more resistant to forgetting. In other words, increasing the accessibility of the information. The very act of retrieving information is beneficial even if your initial retrieval attempts are unsuccessful. The searching for information activates memory pathways, some of which might have been long inactive. The memory search can reactivate them. Moreover, your memory will likely continuing working even after you have consciously given up the attempt.

1Restak, R., (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Brain Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

© 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 Adult Brain

November 30, 2011

The brain reaches its maximum size (by weight) in early adult life.1 It decreases by about ten percent over the remainder of the life span. It ways about three pounds and contains about one hundred billion brain cells (neurons). There are about a million billion connections (synapses) linking those cells together. As a person ages the number of synapses generally decreases, but the commonly cited figure of 50,000 cells a day is no longer believed by most neuroscientists. The loss of neurons that does occur is not evenly distributed across the brain. There is little or no significant loss in many cortical regions used in normal cognition.

More important than the loss of neurons and the thinning of synaptic connections that occurs as we age, is the loss of cells from cluster of cells (nuclei) about the size of a pinhead located in the brain stem. This brain stem is about the length of an adult forefinger. The neuroscientist Paul Coleman calls these nuclei “juice machines.” They send ascending fanlike projections to many parts of the cortex. The brains neurotransmitters travel along these projections. Reductions in levels of these neurotransmitters leads to many of the infirmities that inflict us as we age: memory loss, depression, decrease in overall mental sharpness, and inefficient mental processing. Fortunately these infirmities can be improved by drugs that increase these neurotransmitters.

Although the loss of neurons occurs normally with aging, this loss can be compensated for by increases in the networking capacity of the remaining neurons. Although the number of neurons decreases from birth onward, fewer but stronger and more enduring connections form among the remaining neurons (see the healthymemory blog posts “HAROLD,” “Is Dementia an Inevitable Part of Aging,” and “Hope for an Aging Population: STAC”).

“This capacity to compensate for the loss of its components makes the brain the only known structure in the universe that works more efficiently despite a loss of its components. To this extent the brain is unique among both biological and mechanical structures: over the years it doesn’t ‘wear out’.”2

1Much of this blog post is abstracted from Restak, R. (2009).Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2Ibid. p.21

Managing Stress

September 28, 2011

There is an interesting article on managing stress in a recent Scientific American Mind.1 The author outlines four general competencies in managing stress: Practicing Relaxation Techniques, Managing Thoughts, Managing Sources of Stress, and Preventing Stress from Occurring. Relaxation Techniques have been covered in this Healthymemory Blog (enter “Relaxation Techniques” in the search block of this blog). They can range from simple visualization and breathing techniques to intensive methods of meditation. Managing thoughts is a matter of trying to control your thoughts and reinterpreting stressful situations into something less stressful. If you seek counseling for your stress issues, the therapist is likely to coach you in thought management techniques. Managing sources of stress is a matter of arranging your workspace and time to avoid stress. Preventing stress from occurring is the practice of avoiding, when possible, stressful situations, planning your day, keeping a list of things to do, and having a clear picture of how you’d like your life to proceed over the next few years.

The author conducted a study of how people managed stress. The research participants completed a survey (which is accessible at http://MyStressManagementSkills.com) asking them how stressed they were, how generally happy they were, and how much success they had had in their personal and professional lives. The author expected that relaxation techniques and thought management would be the two most effective methods of managing stress. To his surprise he found that stress management and stress prevention were the two most effective methods. Presumably this reflects the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure. Although this is certainly true, it is also possible that relaxation and thought management techniques are both less well known and possibly, more difficult to practice. Of course, there is no reason not to practice all four techniques. And for those of us who are not that well organized, it is good that we have relaxation and thought management techniques to fall back on.

As a result of the study, the author offers six strategies for fighting stress before it starts.

  1. Seek and kill – (e.g., if your cell phone annoys you, get a new phone.)

  2. Commit to the positive – engage in healthy as opposed to self-destructive activities (e.g,, yoga)

  3. Be your own personal secretary – get organized.

  4. Immunize yourself – Through exercise, thought management, and the practice of daily relaxation techniques.

  5. Make a little plan – in the morning to prioritize and organize your activities for the day.

  6. Make a big plan – for the next few years of your life.

1Epstein, R. (2011). Fight the Frazzled Mind, Scientific American Mind, September/October, 30-35.

A Day in the Life of Mr. and Mrs. Healthymemory

February 6, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Healthymemory are a retired couple who are interested in memory health and stay mentally active. The following is a summary of a typical day in their lives.

They sleep in as they are careful to be sure that they get enough sleep. During breakfast the share the morning paper and discuss topics of mutual interest. They include flavonoids in their breakfast as they do with all their meals (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “Flavonoids for a Healthy Memory”). They discuss their plans for the day both to assure that they are efficient (they are not making unnecessary trips or taking routes that are time consuming) and mutually supportive (their plans fit well together). They commit both their plans to prospective memory so that each know where the other will be at what times. They use mnemonic techniques to commit their plans for the day to memory. They don’t feel a need to use technical transactive memory (to write the plans down or enter them into a Personal Digital Assistant) because they are confident that they will remember and that nothing catastrophic will result in the event that either forgets something.

Mrs. Healthymemory prepares to leave to go to the supermarket. Again she chooses not to write down a shopping list, but rather uses a mnemonic technique to commit the list to memory. Mr. Healthymemory goes to the computer to work on a history of their families. Currently, he is using geneological websites to see how far back he can trace their family histories.

Later in the morning, they take a walk before lunch, recognizing that physical health is important to a healthy memory. During lunch they converse about topics of mutual interest.

In the afternoon they meet with their separate friends. Mrs. Healthymemory meets with her book discussion group. Her group not only discusses the book, but also does research online regarding the author, critiques of the book, and about the context in which the book takes place. So in addition to reading the book, each member spends time doing research online and preparing presentations to the group.

Mr. Healthymemory is in a sports trivia group. Currently they are researching the history of baseball. Most of this research is done online. This research involves numbers in addition to names. They are especially interested in how such statistics as batting averages, home runs, complete games pitched and earned run average have changed over time and have animated discussions regarding possible reasons for these changes.

During dinner they discuss their respective days. Each makes an effort to understand some of the interests of the other in the interests of fostering mutual transactive memories. This is beneficial both to their respective memories and their relationship. They also discuss strategy for the bridge games they have planned with another couple for the evening. They have developed a fairly sophisticated bidding strategy using mnemonic techniques. Later that evening, they find that they are tired and ready for a good night’s sleep. 

© 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.

Neuroplasticity

August 1, 2010

This blog post was inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 When I was a graduate student I learned that the brain was hardwired like a machine or a computer (which were much less common in those days). This was dogma that was not challenged. It was widely accepted and affected the way that people who suffered strokes or other brain traumas were treated. The belief was that once the damage was done, little more could be done than to teach the victim how to deal with the remaining functionality that was left. Recent research has refuted this dogma and the term neuroplasticity has become the norm. The brain is remarkably plastic or flexible. And if one part of the brain is damaged, another part of the brain can frequently take over that function. An earlier Healthymemory blog post, “Transactive Memory: An Aid to Short and Long Term Memory and to Stroke Recovery” addressed some issues regarding stroke, and subsequent posts will address it further.

Brave New Brain states that the current consensus is that “your brain is changing every second in response to the environment and mind.” The Healthymemory Blog strongly concurs. Brave New Brain also states that tomorrow you change and mold your brain as you want and need. Now here the Healthymemory Blog would argue that already today you can change and mold your brain as you want and need. Indeed, if the brain is changing every second in response to the environment and your mind, you can change and mold your brain by selecting the environment in which it operates and the manner in which your mind wakes. Presumably Brave New Brain is implying that the future will bring technology, for example chemicals or electronic means of stimulating the brain, that will facilitate your changing and molding your brain as you want and need. The prospects of this happening will be discussed in future posts, but you need to realize that today you can change and mold your brain as you want and need. True there are limitations. You might want to change your brain so that you can invent means of travel that exceed the speed of light. Nevertheless, your brain holds enormous potential that you should not overlook.

This admonition certainly applies to young people. However, it also applies to older people, including we Baby Boomers. We are not done learning. Our goal should be not only to ward off cognitive decline and dementia, but to continue to learn, create, and grow cognitively. We can change and mold our brains by choosing how we apply them. There are vast resources available in what the Healthymemory Blog terms transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to all the information that is external to your own biological brain. Included here is the information stored in the biological brains of other humans, and all the information stored in the libraries of the world, and, of course, the internet. There are three types of transactive memory. Accessible transactive memory is information that you know exists and can readily access. Available transactive memory is information that you know exists but that you cannot readily access. This is information that needs to be searched for and sought. Then there is potential transactive memory, which is all the information you have not yet discovered. You should note that the Healthymemory has a whole category of posts on transactive memory.

You should also note that there is another category of Healthymemory Blog posts on Mnemonic Techniques. Mnemonic techniques are specific strategies for learning difficult material, especially information that lacks or is deficient in inherent meaning. It is also believe that these techniques can serve as healthy mental exercises. The “Human Memory: Theory and Data” category includes posts such as this current one. As the title suggests it addresses human memory and also includes posts on common cognitive errors and how they can be avoided.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.

Healthy Memory: You Need Not Pay for It

April 26, 2010

“Brain-training software may be a waste of time. People who played “mind-boosting” games made the same modest cognitive gains as those who spent a similar amount of time surfing the web.”1 This conclusion comes from a study done by Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who tested brain-training software on volunteers recruited through a BBC television program.

There are many commercial programs that claim to contribute to healthy memories, but many are not based on scientific evidence and do not come with experimental evalutions of their effectiveness. When they do come with scientific evaluations of their effectiveness, it is important to note the nature of the control group that was used for comparison. Studies where the benefits of web-surfing were compared against a control group that did nothing special showed the benefits of web-surfing. In the English study where brain-training software was compared against a web-surfing control group, no benefits were found.

So before spending money out of pocket to build a healthy memory, consider what can be done for free. The Healthymemory Blog advocates using the internet as a means of maintaining and building brain health. We advocate going beyond simple web-surfing and building social relationships and learning substantive bodies of knowledge. This is called transactive memory and is one of the three themes of this blog.

We also believe that having a fundamental understanding of the way that memory and cognitive works is helpful in building a healthy memory. Here you build an understanding of memory performance and how it changes as we age. You will also become aware of fundamental shortcomings of memory, the consequences of these shortcomings, and how to avoid them. Accordingly, Human Memory is another one of the three theses of this blog.

A third theme involves mnemonic techniques themselves. These are techniques that have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks that can lead to phenomenal memory performance. Here memory techniques are addressed directly. Using them not only can improve memory, but the act of using them can also improve your ability to concentrate and provide exercise for a healthy memory.

1Callaway, E. (2010). Skills from the mind gym don’t transfer. New Scientist, 24 April, 10

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.