Posts Tagged ‘Human Potential’

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

October 8, 2014

This post is based on “Old dog, new tricks” in The Scientific Guide to a Better You: New Scientist: The Collection. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been around for a long, long time. Too long, in fact, to hold under the new findings in science. Neurogenesis continues as long as we live, as well as the ability to learn new things.

I had long believed that there was a critical age for language acquisition. The idea was that we were designed to pick up languages naturally at an early age. However, after the onset of puberty, the task became more difficult. A study by Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, Canada, disabused me of this notion. She studied US census records that detailed the linguistic skills of more than 2 million Hispanic and Chinese immigrants. If there had been a “critical period” for learning a second language in infancy should have created a sharp difference between those who changed country in early childhood and those who were uprooted in adolescence. There was no sharp difference. Rather there was a very gradual decline with age among immigrants. This could reflect differences in environment as well as adults’ rusty brain circuits. It is not that old dogs can’t learn, but rather a matter of old dogs not expending the effort to learn.

Gary Marcus, a psychologist devoted himself to learning how to play the guitar when he was 38. He wrote a book on his experience titled Guitar Zero. Initially his family laughed at him, but eventually they saw that he was that he was making progress. Typically adults are impatient when learning to play a new instrument. They do not want to put up with the frustration associated with this learning, something to which most students adapt.

Another study by Uang Zang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults. When the adults were given recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adults progressed quite rapidly.

Volunteers visiting Virginia Penhune’s lab at Concordia University in Montreal learned to press keys in a certain sequence, the adult volunteers outperformed the younger volunteers.

Juggling is a challenging ask of hand-eye coordination. Nearly 1,000 volunteers from all age groups learned to juggle over six training sessions. Although the 60 to 80-year olds started slowly, they soon caught up with the 30-year-olds. At the end of the six session all adults were juggling more confidently than the 5 to 10 year olds.

Adults also tend to hamper progress with their own perfectionism, whereas children jump onto tasks while adults are agonizing over the mechanics of movement. Adults tend to conceptualize exactly what is required. Gabriele Wulf of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas says “Adults think so much more about what they are doing. Children just copy what they see.” Wulf’s work shows that we should focus on the outcome of our actions rather than on the intricacies of movement. Similarly overly rigid practice regimes can stifle long term learning. For example, it is better to shoot around the court, rather than trying to perfect a shot from a particular position. Even if one really feels compelled to do this, they should intersperse their shooting with shots from different positions on the court.

We also may have a tendency to lose confidence as we get older, and this can have a big impact on performance. In one study half the students were given a sham test on pitching a ball in which they were told that their performance was above average. They performed better on a test than a ground that had practiced but had not been given sham feedback.

One of the big problems we adults have is finding time to learn. We work, have errands and commitments to others including our families. However, babies have all the time in the world to learn. Food, drink, even their personal hygiene is taking care of for them. Gradually some obligations develop, but some of them regard learning and they still have gobs of time to learn. When we are freed of these obligations, we adults should not forget to take advantage of this additional time to learn new things and to engage in new pursuits.

To address the short amount of time that working adults have, the cognitive scientist Ed Cooke has developed a website, that works to integrate learning into the adult day and to take some of the pain out of testing.

It is also important to remember that exercise is important and the amount of exercise can be fairly modest. (See the healthymemory blog post, “To improve your memory, build you hippocampus.”)

The Heroic Imagination Project

August 27, 2014

The immediately preceding blog explained Professor Zimbardo’s concept of the potential for good versus evil that is present in our species. There are situational factors that can push most of us to the evil side. Research regarding these situational factors was presented in the immediately preceding healthymemory blog post. There are also systemic factors stemming largely from poverty. However, I believe that Zimbardo would argue that there is present in all of us the potential to make us heroes in adverse circumstances. That is the objective of the Heroic Imagination Project. Moreover, this project can assist us in fostering our personal and social growth. The mission is to teach  individuals the skills and awareness needed to  make effective decisions in challenging situations.

They have developed a number of programs which have been designed to be useful for anyone and which incorporate the findings of recent and classic research in social psychology and related fields. Their programs teach ordinary people how to develop the skills needed to resist such behaviors as bullying, negative conformity, and mindless obedience and to act wisely and effectively during challenging social situations. Their programs use videos, stories from research, and hands on exercises to teach people about the psychological tendencies we all share, as well as how relying on them in unclear or novel situations can cause problems or even be dangerous. They evaluate our programs to verify that these programs are providing a measurable and lasting benefits for our participants and partners.

The Human Imagination Project believes that true heroism is not something reserved for those rare individuals who  accomplish something extraordinary or who take impulsive risks, but rather is a mindset and set of habits possible for anyone to achieve. They seek to redefine heroism and make it more relevant for a 21st century world as no longer being the exclusive province of the physically brave, but also embodied by any individual with firmly held ethics and the courage to act on them. Perhaps the most important aspect of heroism is the ability to create positive change in challenging situations.

According to the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) heroism is the active attempt to address injustice or create positive change in the world despite pressures to do otherwise. It may involve coping effectively in unclear or emergency situations, helping others in need, or may involve setting and achieving goals to promote the well-being of others. Habits of wise and effective acts of heroism can be learned, encouraged, modeled, and are achievable by anyone at any point in their lives. Inspirational heroes like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vaclav Havel, and Irena Sendler harness the power of heroic imagination. The heroic imagination is the natural capacity we each possess to dream of a better tomorrow. At the HIP, they teach individuals the skills and awareness they will need to begin to translate these ambitions into reality. They believe that each of us possesses the ability to grow and to create meaningful and lasting change; a mindset that encourages our willingness to act on behalf of others or in the defense fairness and equality.

The approach of the HIP centers around:

1) Making people more aware of their universal (or culturally bound) human tendencies in social situations, as well as when uncritically relying on them can be problematic or even dangerous.

  1. Providing them with a model of key psychological processes which affect important outcomes and which are difficult to perceive without training.

  2. Teaching them research-based strategies and techniques for creating change in each areas

    I strongly urge you to visit

How Much Information Is There and What Does It Mean?

September 27, 2012

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.