Posts Tagged ‘Helen Thomson’

Hallucinations

January 8, 2019

Part of this post is taken from Helen Thomson’s book, “Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey the World’s Strangest Brains.”

Hearing voices that are not there is often considered a sign of mental illness. In 1973, David Rosenhan, a professor emeritus at Stanford, got himself and seven other completely healthy friends admitted to the mental wards of hospitals across the United States. The point of this experiment was to question the validity of psychiatric diagnosis, but they were surprised to find that it was so easy to be admitted as a mental patient. Each participant phoned a hospital complaining of hearing voices. The rest of their medical history and other life stories were true. All eight were admitted. Seven were diagnosed with schizophrenia, and one with manic-depressive disorder. As soon as they entered the hospital they said their hallucinations had disappeared. Then it was up to each individual to convince the staff to discharge them. This task took between seven and fifty-two days.

Most hallucinations are not associated with schizophrenia. John McGrath, a professor at the Queensland Brain Institute interviewed 31,000 people from eighteen different countries. When participants were asked whether they had ever experienced a hallucination, such as hearing voices that other people said did not exist, 5% of men and 6.6% of women responded yes.

Oliver Sacks said, “The brain doesn’t tolerate inactivity. It seems to respond to diminished sensory input by creating autonomous sensations of its own choosing.” It was noted soon after WW2 that high-flying aviators in featureless skies and truck drivers on long, empty roads were prone to hallucinations.

Psychologists believe that these unreal experiences provide a glimpse into the way our brains stitch together our perception of reality. Our brains are bombarded with thousands of sensations every second of the day. Our brains rarely stop providing us with a steady stream of consciousness. Processing everything that we experience in the world all of the time would be a very inefficient way to run a brain. Instead it takes a few shortcuts. However when this input is low or absent, it creates sensations, that is, hallucinations.

You can create your own hallucinations safely at home. All you need is a table-tennis ball, some headphones and a bit of tape. Cut the ball in half and tape each segment over your eyes, Sit in a room that is evenly lit, find some white noise to play over your headphones, sit back and relax. This is called the ganzfield technique, this technique has been used to investigate the appearance of hallucinations for decades.

Should you not want to bother with this technique you can read the following descriptions that were reported in a paper published in the journal Cortex by Jiri Wackermann at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health.

“For quite a long time were was nothing except a green-grayish fog. It was really boring. I thought, ‘Ah, what a nonsense experiment!’ Then for an indefinite period of time, I was ‘off,’ like completely absent-minded. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a hand holding a piece of chalk and writing on a blackboard something like a mathematical formula. The vision was very clear, but it stayed only for a few seconds and disappeared again…it was like a window into that foggy stuff.’ Later, she saw a clearing in a forest and a woman who passed by on a bike, her long blond hair waving in the wind.”

Another participant felt like she and a friend were inside a cave, ‘We made a fire. There was a creek flowing under our feet, and we were on a stone. She had fallen into the creek, and she had to wait to have her things dried. Then she said to me: ‘Hey, move on, we should go now.’

Here is what the author, Helen Wilson, writes of her own experience with the ganzfield technique. “Nothing happened for at least 30 minutes, other than a myriad of random thoughts and waves of sleep. Just as I was wondering whether I should give up, I saw an image coming out from what seemed like a window full of smoke. It was of a man lying curled up next to me. It appeared for a few seconds, then disappeared. It certainly differed from a dream, or from a random image plucked from my imagination. It was an intriguing demonstration of what can occur when our senses are impaired.”

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM)

January 7, 2019

This post is based partly on Helen Thomson’s ‘Unthinkable: “An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains.” There have been previous healthy memory posts on this topic. HSAMers are people who can recall the events by date (say 12 October 1999) for most of the days of their lives. McGaugh is the psychologist who first identified this and he has made a study of more than fifty people with this condition.

The most famous HSAMer is the actress Marilu Henner who most people should remember from the TV show Taxi. There is a healthy memory post devoted almost exclusively to Marilu (“Who Has a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory and What Might She Tell Us?”). She has written a book, “Total Memory Makeover.”

For the most part, these individuals live normal lives. But it has been difficult finding a reason or reasons for these HSAMers. McGaugh did brain scans of these individuals and found some subtle differences in the structure of nine regions. Unfortunately Ms. Thomson only included two of these regions in her write up, an enlarged caudate nucleus and putamen McGaugh seized upon this finding because both of these areas have also been implicated in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). McGaugh conjectures that these extraordinary powers of memory are rooted in an unconscious rehearsal of their pasts.

Although unconscious rehearsal might provide an explanation in the absence of others, HM takes strong exception to McGaugh using the term OCD. OCD is only a problem, or a disorder as McGaugh so cavalierly claims, if it is regarded by the individual as a disorder or something the individual would like to be rid of. There may be some whose HSAM is causing them difficulties, but they are a distinct minority. Marilu Henner regards her ability as assisting her in being a better actress.

Here is a quote from one of these HSAMers. “You know, one of the best things about having a perfect memory is the ability remember those I have lost. I make sure I think a lot of people I love when they’re alive so that I can go back to any time in their life that was with them and remember it like it was yesterday. Then if they’re no longer with me, it’s like I can still spend time with them. The people I’ve lost don’t feel like they’re truly gone because my memories of them are so clear. I can go back to my younger years of my life and not have to mourn like others do, because I can remember our times together so well. I think about people a lot and appreciate my time with them because once they’ve gone, they won’t be here, but my memories always will be.”

HM does not have HSAM, but he does use his mental ability to time travel and visit past times. He does not remember precise dates, but he can return to his fifth birthday, return to his grades 1- 12, to his undergraduate education, his time in the military, and graduate school. He can recall the time he worked as a musician and taught drum lessons, as well as his professional career. He passed on attending his 50th high school reunion because his best four friends had passed. He can revisit them any time via his memory. Memory is for time travel, into the past, and into the future. It is most precious.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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.

Navigation

January 6, 2019

A large part of this post is based on Helen Thomson’s book, “Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains.” We have two basic means of navigation. One is to have specific landmarks that tell us what to do at that landmark. And the other is to have a map of the area of interest in our mind, a mental map. Although GPS’s might have an analogue of a mental map in the database they are interrogating, the instructions they provide to the user is a series of instructions as what to do when you arrive at what point. Point to point instructions are fine until you get lost or redirected and need to find an alternative route.

At one time cab drivers in London were tested on whether they had stored a mental map of London in the brains. It took years of study to pass this test, but to get the desired license they needed to memorize twenty-five thousand roads within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. An interesting and important question was if this knowledge affected their brains, and if so, which part of their brain. To answer this question, Eleanor Maguire scanned the brains of 79 trainee taxi drivers several times over four years as they began to learn what is called the Knowledge. Those who passed the test had a bigger posterior hippocampus than when they started, whereas there were no changes in trainee taxi drivers who had failed their exams or in 31 people whose age, education and intelligence were similar to the taxi drivers’, but who had never attempted to learn the Knowledge. Clearly, the hipppocampi were growing alongside navigational abilities.

How the hippocampus learns to navigate was done buy using rats as subjects. O’Keene placed a set of thin electrodes into their hippocampi, which could record the little spike of electricity that occurs when an individual neuron is communicating with its neighbors. O’keene discovered a type of cell that fired only when the animal was in a specific location. Each time the rat passed through this location—pop!—that cell would fire. A nearby cell seemed to care only about a different location. Pop! It would fire whenever the rat walked through that location. The next cell would respond only to another location, and so on. The combination of activity of many of these cells could tell you exactly where that rat was to within five square cm. O’keene named them place cells and showed how together they told the rest of the brain.

Place cells don’t do this job alone. They receive input from three other kinds of cells in a nearby region called the entorhinal cortex. One type of cell is called a grid cell, and was discovered by May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser. The Mosers realized that our ability to navigate relies on us being able to think about how we are moving and where we have come from. Consider the way you head to the ticket machine in a parking lot and then reverse the movements of your body to return to your car. The Mosers discovered that grid cells were the neurons responsible for integrating this information into our cognitive map.

Our ability to recognize familiar landmarks is so important that there’s a part of the brain that is dedicated to the task.. This is the retrosplenial cortex and when it’s damaged it leads to severe problems in navigating.

Here is something we can do to improve our navigational skills. If you’re in a new area you should return to one point—your home base—often this will help you build a better mental map. You should also pay much more attention to your surroundings, take note of specific landmarks and think about their orientation to one another. And don’t forget to turn around or look backwards from time to time: it’s a trick that animals do to make it easier to recognize their way home.

It is also good to have a fold out map of the area of interest. This is a literal map than can inform your mental map.

Two impressive Memories

January 5, 2019

This post is based on the book written by Helen Thomson titled “Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains.” One of these impressive memories was that of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist. His editor was annoyed with him. He had just come out of a news meeting in which he had given Shereshevsky a list of instructions—people he needed to interview, information about a breaking story, addresses of places he had to visit. Shereshevsky had not taken a single note. The editor called him into his office and told him off for being inattentive. Sherevshevsky did not apologize. He hadn’t needed to take any notes, he said, and proceeded to repeat back his editor’s complicated instructions word for word.

Being quite impressed, his editor persuaded him to pay a visit to Alexander Luria, a Russian psychologist. Luria discovered that the secret to Shershevsky’s performance recall was a condition called synesthesia. Synesthesia is when a person experience the joining of senses that are normally experience apart. For instance, they might taste lemon when they hear the sound of a bell, or see red when they think of a number. Shereshevsky’s linked senses meant that if asked to memorize a word, he would also taste and hear the word simultaneously. This meant that when recalling the word at a later date, he had several triggers to remind him of it. His imagination was so vivid that in one experiment he was able to raise the temperature of one hand while lowering the temperature of the other, merely by imagining one on a stove and one on a block of ice.

Shereshevesky’s talent was natural, but there are many who have learned to perform extraordinary feats of memory. George Koltanowski took up chess at the age of fourteen, and three years later was Belgian champion. He was able to play blindfolded by memorizing his opponents moves after being told them by a referee. In 1937, he set a world record by playing 34 simultaneous games of chess blindfolded. His opponents were sighted, yet he won 24 games and drew ten. That record remains unbeaten today.

There is an entire category in the healthy memory blog about mnemonics and mnemotechnics, which are techniques for memorizing different type of material. Use the search block on the healthy memory blog web page and enter “Moonwalking with Einstein” and learn how these techniques are used in memory competitions.

UNTHINKABLE

January 4, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Helen Thomson. The subtitle is “An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains.” In the opening chapter Ms. Thomson provides an overview of the brain. The most recognizable region of the human brain is the cerebral cortex. It forms the outside shell and is divided into two almost identical hemispheres. Each side of the cortex is divided into four lobes, which together are responsible for all our most impressive mental functions. If you touch your forehead, the lobe closest to your finger is called the frontal cortex and it allows us to make decisions, controls our emotions and helps us understand the actions of others. It gives us all sorts of aspects of our personality; our ambition, our foresight and our moral standards.

If you were to trace your finger around either side of your head toward your ear, you would find the temporal lobe, which helps us understand the meaning of words and speech and gives us the ability to recognize people’s faces.

Run you finger up toward the crown of your ear and you’ll reach the parietal lobe, which is involved in many of our senses, as well as certain aspects of language.

Low down toward the nape of the neck is the occipital lobe, whose primary concern is vision.

Hanging of the back of the brain we have a second “little brain,” a distinctive cauliflower-shaped mass. This is the cerebellum and it is vital for our balance, movement and posture. The vast majority of the cerebellum connects to regions of the cortex that are involved in cognition, perception, language and emotional processing.
A review of maps of the cerebellum built from functional MRI brain scans confirmed that all major cortical regions have loops of connections running to and from the cerebellum. The cerebellum has conversations with different areas of the cortex: taking information from them, transforming it and sending it back to where it came from. One of the more unexpected connections was with the prefrontal cortex, which lies far from the cerebellum at the front of the brain and has long been considered the most advanced part of the brain. This region is in charge of abilities such as planning, impulse control, and emotional intelligence. It is disproportionately large and complex in humans compared with our closest species. To learn more about the cerebellum see the healthy memory blog post “The Brain’s Secret Powerhouse That Makes Us Who We Are.”

If you were to pry open the two hemispheres, you would find the brain stem, the area that controls each breath and every heartbeat, as well as the thalamus, which acts as a grand central station, relaying information back and forth between all the other regions.
The brain is full of cells called neurons which are too small to be see with the naked eye. These cells pass messages from one side of the brain to the other in the form of electrical impulses. Neurons branch out forming connections with its neighbors. If you were to count one of these connections every second, it would take you three million years to finish.

Ms. Thomson writes, “We now know the mind arises from the precise physical state of these neurons at any one moment. It is from this chaotic activity that our emotions appear, our personalities are formed. and our imaginations are stirred. It is arguably one of the most impressive and complex phenomena known to man.

So it’s not surprising that sometimes it al goes wrong.”

Memory Special: Is Technology Making Your Memory Worse?

November 28, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature article by Helen Thomson in the 27 Oct 2018 issue of the “New Scientist.” Previous healthymemory blog posts have implied that the answer to this question is worse. Thomson writes, “Outsourcing memories, for instance to pad and paper is nothing new, but it has become easier than ever to do using external devices, leading some to wonder whether our memories are suffering as a result.”

Taking pictures has become more of an obsession given the capabilities of smart phones to take and store high quality photos. Although you might think that taking pictures and sharing stories helps you to preserve memories of events, but the opposite is true. When Diana Tamir and her colleagues at Princeton University sent people out on tours, those encouraged to take pictures actually had a poorer memory of the tour at a later date. Prof. Tamir said, “Creating a hard copy of an experience through media leaves only a diminished copy in our own heads.” People who rely on a satellite navigation system to get around are also worse at working out where they have been than those who use maps.

The expectation of information being at our fingertips seems to have an effect. When we think of something that can be accessed later, regardless of whether we will be tested on it, we have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. Sam Gilbert of University College, London says, “These kinds of studies suggest that technology is changing our memories. We increasingly don’t need to remember content, but instead, where to find it.”

Unfortunately relying too heavily on devices can mess with our appreciation of how good our memory actually is. We are constantly making judgements about whether something is worth storing in mind. Will I remember this tomorrow? Does it need to be written down? Should I set a reminder? Meta-memory refers to our ability to understand and use our memory. Technology seems to screw it up.

People who can access the internet to help them answer general knowledge questions, such as “How does a zip work?” overestimate how much information they think they have remembered, as well as their knowledge of unrelated topics after the test,compared with people who answered questions without gong online. You lose touch with what you came from you and what came from the machine. This exacerbates the part of the Dunning-Krueger phenomena in which we think we know much more than we actually know. Gilbert says, “These are subtle biases that may not matter too much if you continue to have access to external resources. But if those resources disappear—in an exam, in an emergency, in a technological catastrophe—we may underestimate how much we would struggle without them. Having an accurate insight into how good your memory actually is, is just as important as having a good memory in the first place.”

Old People Can Produce as Many New Brain Cells as Teenagers

April 23, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a news piece by Helen Thomson in the 14 April 2018 issue of the New Scientist. The article begins, “People in their 70’s seem to produce just as many new neurons as teenagers. When HM was a graduate student it was dogma that new neurons could not be produced. It is only fairly recently that it was found that the human hippocampus, central to learning and memory, produces new neurons throughout life.

Maura Boldrini of Columbia University and her colleagues have analyzed the hippocampi from 28 people, aged between 14 and 79. These were examined soon after each person’s death to check for the number of new neurons they contained as well as other signs of neuron function and activity. Similar numbers of new neurons were found throughout each hippocampus, regardless of a person’s age. The team estimates that each person was making about 700 neurons a day when they died (Cell Stem Cell, doi.org/cm4z).

Jeff Davies at Swansea University, UK says he would be interested to see the study repeated in people who do and don’t exercise because this would provide some insight into whether the production of new neurons can be modified by environmental factors in humans to promote healthy brain aging. To this HM adds comparing people with high levels of brain activity against people with low levels of brain activity. This is likely one of the factors involved in developing a cognitive reserve and avoiding the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s even if the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles develop.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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.

Listening to Your Heartbeat Helps You Read Other People’s Minds

May 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Helen Thomson in the News & Technology section of the 6 May 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  She writes that “people who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of others—a finding that might help some people with autism.”

According to the Theory of Constructive Emotions, to generate emotions we first need to interpret our body’s internal state—a process called interoception.  So we feel fear only once we recognize an increase in our heart rate or feel our palms get sweaty.

Researchers have suggested that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking and even guessing what they think a their person might be thinking.  The notion is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret he emotions and mental states of others.

To investigate, Geoff Bird and his team asked 72 volunteers to sound their heartbeats using their fingers to take their pulse.  This is a measure of interoception.  The volunteers then watched videos of social interactions.  After viewing each video they were asked multiple choice questions testing their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.

When the volunteers were asked feelings about the emotions of the characters, the volunteers who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions.  They were more empathetic (Cortex, dos.org/b6m2).  However, there was no link between interoceptive ability and accuracy on questions that didn’t involve any emotions.

Bird says that interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in some features of schizophrenia and autism.  There is some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interception.  Bird says that it has not yet been shown whether interception training also improves empathy, but it’s an experiment that he’d like to try.