Posts Tagged ‘Learning’

Ten Fundamentals of Brain Plasticity

August 3, 2016

These ten fundamentals come from Dr. Merzenich’s book, “Soft-Wired” with elaboration and comments by Healthy Memory (HM).

1. Change is mostly limited to those situations in which the brain is in the mood for it.
If you force it the learning will be inefficient and of poor quality.  I find it surprising that Dr. Merzenich, in spite of his participation in the conferences at Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India  with the Dalai Lama that have demonstrated the pronounced effects of meditation, he makes no mention of meditation.  Meditation is one of the best, if not the best, means of restoring the mind.

2.  The harder we try, the more we are motivated, the more alert we are, and the better (or worse) the outcome, the bigger the brain change.
Once again HM marvels that Dr. Merzenich, in spite of his participation in the conferences at Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India  with the Dalai Lama that have demonstrated the pronounced effects of meditation.  Meditation provides an ideal means of gaining control of one’s attention, and an ideal means of focusing attention.

3.  What actually changes in the brain are the strength of the connections that are engage together, moment by moment, in time.
Both neurorgenesis, the forming of new neurons, and synaptogenesis, the forming of new connections among neurons are involved.  It is also important to realize that these neurons are not necessarily adjacent to each other.  Neurons transmit signals through axons that can be quite long.  So a single neuron in the prefrontal cortex can be sending a signal to another neuron in a distant part of the brain.  These connections can be quite long and complicated.  Their interactions have been described as being conversations within the brain.

4.  Learning-driven changes in connections increase cell-to-cell cooperation, which is crucial for increasing reliability.
So the process of learning involves increasing this cell-to-cell cooperation, cells which can be quite far apart depending upon the type of learning, and the reliability of the learning.

5.  The brain also strengthens the connections between those teams of neurons representing separate moments of activity that represent each little part of an action or thought.
So these signals need to be strengthened in terms of the time sequence of the actions or thoughts.

6  Initial changes are just temporary.
So with the exception of certain extraordinary conditions, these changes will be lost unless they are strengthened by further activity.

7.  The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways, and involving precisely the same processes, that construct changes with the external world
So thinking alone will strengthens these processes.  Thinking and mental rehearsal are very important.

8.  Memory guides and controls most learning.
Indeed, memory is key.  Memory is a device for time travel.  It reviews what it can find in memory and then uses it to solve problems, to consider alternative courses of action, to make a joke, or for pleasure.

9.  Every moment of learning provides a moment of opportunity for the brain to stabilize and to reduce the disruptive power of—potentially interfering and background or “noise.
This is all good.

10.  Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is to produce positive ones.
So brain activity can be destructive.  Thinking negative thoughts and having a fixed mindset are damaging and do not allow us to fulfill our potential.  HM is reminded of an incident that took place in his last place of employment.  He was riding down in an elevator and one of the fellow passengers in the elevator remarked to his friend, that when he retired he was going to do absolutely nothing.  If all he could find on television were Luci reruns,, he would just watch “I Love Lucy.”  HM would place a large wager that serious dementia was not too far in this individual’s future.

HM would like to add a couple of more comments.
Please read the healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline”, and “More on the Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  The longer we live, the more we have in memory, and if we have growth mindsets we have even more in memory.  This might appear to slow us down, but in reality we have rich mindsets with brains with many long interconnections within them.  In addition to adding to these mindsets it is healthy to review old memories.  Writing a biography or a family history can be enriching.

It is also important to realize that our brains continue to work even when you stop thinking about something.  My wife and I are frustrated when we know something, the name of an actress,for example, but can’t remember it.  We become frustrated, but find that the name comes into consciousness, unsolicited at some later time.  HM thinks this is very healthy, so he resists trying to google something that he is sure he knows.  He will try for a while to remember it.  He knows that when he stops consciously thinking about it, his brain will continue searching and will probably eventually find it.  HM believes that this unconscious bran activity is reactivating memory circuits and providing for memory health.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. 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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The Hippocampus: Key to the Future of Human Memory

February 13, 2016

As I was perusing “The Scientific American BRAVE NEW BRAIN”  by Judith Horstman  I came across a page titled “An Artificial Hippocampus.”  This caused me to speculate about an artificial hippocampus.  Actually each of us has two hippocampi, as there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere.  The importance of these hippocampi was noticed as the result of surgery done on an epileptic patient to protect him from the violent seizures he was having.  The surgery removed most of both his hippocampi, which prevented him from storing any new memories.

I have my own personal story regarding defective hippocampi.  It occurred during the later stage of my Mom’s dementia.  I would visit her and fortunately she remembered me and was glad to see me.  However, if an attendant took her to the bathroom when she returned she acted as if I had just arrived.  Clearly both her hippocampi were shot.

As the hippocampus is required for the storage of new memories, it clearly is key to he future of human memory.  Effectively functioning artificial hippocampi would provide the vehicle for storing new memories, for new learning.

We have yet to develop an artificial hippocampus that works.  I believe preliminary work is being done with animals.  Researchers are recording from the hippocampi of these animals as they learn new tasks.  Then they will try to transfer these recordings to the hippocampi of new naive animals who have not learned the task to see if they can use these recordings to perform these new tasks.  I don’t know if any successful trials have been run.  But this is exactly the type of research that needs to be done before an artificial hippocampus can be developed.  I believe that the course of this research will necessarily take a long time.

If an artificial hippocampus is developed, we know that this is a necessary structure for the storage of new memories.  However, we cannot be sure that the hippocampus alone is a sufficient solution.  There may be more to the storage of new memories of which we are unaware.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. 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.

Multitasking is a Trade-Off

December 9, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explicit and Implicit Memory

October 5, 2011

When we normally think of memory, we are thinking of explicit memory. Memory techniques and most of the posts on memory in this blog are concerned with explicit memory. Implicit memory refers to memory that occurs without your consciousness awareness. Implicit memory covers a wide range of activities. Classical conditioning, habit learning, emotional memory, procedural and motor memory typically are implicit. So implicit memory involves both maladaptive behaviors, such as bad habits and addiction, but it is also involved in the development of optimal strategies in skill acquisition. Implicit learning could also be helpful for amnesiacs and Alzheimer’s patients.1

Theorists have wondered why we have two types of memory. Although theorists wonder about this, it is nice to have a type of memory that requires little or no consciousness. Although consciousness might not be required, trials or repetitions are required. For example, classical conditioning in which a conditioned stimulus, say a bell, is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, say food, before the sound of the bell alone will cause you, or a dog, to salivate. Similarly habits take repetitions to develop, and procedural and motor skills can take a great deal of practice to perfect. On the other hand, emotions, depending on the strength of the emotion, can be learned quite rapidly.

I think it is obvious why we have explicit memory. Explicit memory involves consciousness. Had we only implicit memory we would be acting like Zombies, behaving and learning with little or no understanding as to why. So it is understandable that most educational practices and most of the Healthymemory Blog posts involve explicit memory. But we should be thankful for these implicit memory processes. Consider how burdensome it would be if all memories were explicit.

We do need to learn more about implicit memory. Much athletic and artistic performance is a matter of practicing to the point where skills become automatic. Usually performance falters when the performer or athlete starts to think about what they are doing. Implicit memory also offers a path into the memories of those for whom explicit memory has been lost such as Alzheimer’s patients and other suffering from traumas to the medial temporal lobes.

1Much of this blog post is taken from an article by David W.L. Wu. Implicit Memory: How It Works and Why We Need It. The Joournal of Young Investigators, Vol. 22, Issue, 1, July 2011.

© 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.

Mnemonic Techniques for Cognitive Exercise

September 18, 2011

The Healthy Memory Blog is concerned with developing and maintaining a healthy memory throughout one’s lifespan. Mnemonic techniques are techniques that have been developed specifically for enhancing memory. So it should not be surprising that one of the blog categories is titled mnemonic techniques. It might be surprising that the category is relatively small and that postings to the mnemonic techniques are not that frequent. Mnemonic techniques are very old; they go back to the ancient Greeks at least, and probably further. At one time they played a key part of education, rhetoric and elocution. With the development of external storage media, what the Healthymemory Blog calls transactive memory, less and less reliance was placed on mnemonic techniques. So when paper became generally available, they became less commonly used. Now that we have electronic storage, some might argue that they have become irrelevant.

I would argue that they are not irrelevant and that it was a mistake to drop them from formal education. Although I could make that argument, I shall not make it in this blog post. Instead, I am going to argue that they provide a good form of cognitive exercise, one that promotes memory health. First of all, they obviously involve the memory circuits in the brain. They also require recoding and creativity. Imagery is typically involved, so both hemispheres of the brain are exercised.

Most of these mnemonic techniques are found in older posts. The reason that postings in this category are infrequent, is that practically all of these techniques have already been presented. That does not mean that simply reading these old posts will be sufficient. You need to do them conscientiously and then continue practicing on your own.

I would recommend by beginning with the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Method of Loci.” This is a classic mnemonic technique used by the ancients and also used in contemporary memory contests. Then I would do “The One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic” post. The next post would be “Paired Associates Learning: Concrete Concrete Pairs” The I would recommend “How to Memorize Abstract Information,” followed by “Paired Associates Learning: Concrete Abstract Pairs,” “Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Concrete Pairs,” and “Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Abstract Pairs.” Then I would recommend “Remembering the Names of People.” Then I would recommend “More on Recoding: Learning Foreign and Strange Vocabulary Words.”

Numbers are abstract and one of the most difficult types of information to remember. Here I recommend “Remembering Numbers,” “More on Remembering Numbers,” “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.”

If you want to learn about memory competitions and how memory champs become memory champs I would recommend “Moonwalking with Einstein,” and “How the Memory Champs Do It.” Given the importance of preserving memory as we age, I think it would be a good idea to start memory competitions for Baby Boomers and Senior Citizens. I think this is an activity the AARP should seriously consider.

© 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.

Take a Nap: Sleep is Important for a Healthy Memory

December 5, 2010

A recent article1 in the SharpBrains blog relates a study by Matthew Walker presented at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convention. Young adults were separated into two groups: one that napped and one that didn’t. At noon, both groups performed a learning task. At 2 PM the napping group took a 90 minute nap while the other group remained awake. Then both groups performed more learning tasks. The group that had napped performed better than the group that remained awake.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be familiar with the role of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical for learning. These researchers interpreted their findings as supporting the notion that a function of sleep is to clear away all the clutter stored in the hippocampus to make room for new information. Walker said “Sleep is critical to learning. It’s like the brain is a sponge. Sleep wrings certain key regions out so you’re able to soak up new information the next day. It’s as though the e-mail box in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail. It’s just going to bounce until you sleep and move it to another folder.

We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. So sleep must serve some important functions. There is much theory and conjecture regarding why we sleep, but experiments such as this one provide empirical evidence. It is well established that sleep is good for you. Getting the appropriate amount of sleep is tied to a better immune system, metabolic control, memory, learning, and emotional functioning.

It is said that pulling an all-nighter the night before an exam can decrease the ability to remember information by about 40 percent. Personally, I worked my way through the entire educational system receiving a Ph.D and I never pulled an all-nighter.

As we get older, we tend to sleep less. Learning proficiency also declines. Walker is interested in investigating whether there is a cause and effect relationship here. It is also interesting to speculate regarding the direction of any cause and effect. If we continue to learn and remain mentally active as we age, will our sleep increase proportionately. Perhaps this observed relationship is due to disengaging from life and new experiences when we age, which results in reduced sleep and perhaps even neurogenerative decline. Remaining mentally active, as advocated by the Healthy Memory Blog, might reduce or eliminate this decline.

1http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2010/10/18/take-that-nap-it-may-boost-your-learning.

© 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.

A Review of Brain Exercises and Training Induced Learning

December 1, 2010

This post in based on a review article in Psychology and Aging.1 This article notes that there are volumes of evidence that even as we age, training in specific tasks generally results in improved performance on those tasks. The problem is that most of this research indicates that improvements are specific to the task and do not generalize to measurable benefits in daily life. This does not mean that this training is worthless. It can still provide beneficial exercise to the brain. Consider doing push-ups for physical exercise. Undoubtedly, doing push ups regularly is beneficial to your health. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find that doing them provided measurable benefits in daily life outside your exercise regime.

So providing measurable benefits in daily life, say an overall increase in the rate of learning, is a difficult goal to achieve. Yet certain programs have provided evidence to this effect, and the authors of this article sought to capture the features of these programs that lead to generalizable results. They identified the following characteristics: Task difficulty, motivation and arousal, feedback, and variability.

With respect to the characteristic of task difficulty it is important to begin with an easy level of difficulty and then gradually advance through levels of increasing task difficulty. Obviously, if the task is too difficult to begin with, people become discouraged and learning suffers. However, if people are able to accomplish the task fairly easily, then can gradually increase their skill while advancing to increasing levels of difficulty.

Perhaps it is obvious, but if people are motivated to learn, they are more likely to succeed. Arousal goes hand in hand with motivation. Aroused learners, within limits, learn faster. So tasks that are enjoyable and rewarding increase arousal levels, and so forth, and so forth.

Feedback is important so that people know that they are performing the task correctly. This also relates back to motivation, arousal, and task difficulty. When task difficulty can be accommodated, the feedback is positive, which is arousing and increases motivation. Now task difficulty can be too easy, in which case the feedback is trivial, not rewarding and does not lead to arousal and increased motivation. So task difficulty is what is termed a “Goldilocks” characteristic—not too easy and not too difficult, but just right.

Variability is the final key characteristic. The training program should exercise a wide variety of skills. It is this variability that increases the likelihood that the benefits will transfer to everyday life and learning.

Unfortunately, too many Baby Boomers and looking for the magic exercise, the magic program, or the magic vitamin or dietary supplementary to ward off the effects of aging. There is no magic exercise or pill. What is required is a range of activities and exercises to ward off the effects of aging. The Healthymemory Blog recommends such activities. Its blog posts provide a variety of mnemonic techniques (click on the category mnemonic techniques) that increase the efficiency of memory and provide mental exercises that make requirements on creativity, recoding, and both hemispheres of the brain. The Healthymemory Blog provides information on human cognition, that provide both exercise and insight into cognitive processes. Transactive memory provides for cognitive growth via the technology, the internet, books, as well as for interactions with your fellow human beings.

1Green, C.S., & Bavilier, D. (2010). Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning. Psychology and Aging, 23, 692-701. 

© 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.

To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First!

March 22, 2010

A recent article, “The Pluses of Getting it Wrong” by Henry Roediger and Bridgid Finn has profound implications for students, in particular, and education, in general.1 They present research that makes the case not only for difficult tests in school, but also for testing before any instruction takes place. Students who make an unsuccessful attempt to answer a test question before receiving the correct answer the material remember the material better than if they simply study the information. One can certainly ask, how can this be?

One possibility is that asking questions before studying the material focuses the students’ attention on critical concepts. This could be beneficial, but might not the same benefit be achieved by allowing students to preview the questions without having to answer them? This issue was addressed by comparing three groups in a study. One group, which you might call the standard control group, was allowed to study the material in advance of the first test. A second group previewed the questions before studying the material. The third group not only saw the questions, but was also required to attempt to answer them. All groups were allowed to study the material again and were given a final test.

The third group, the one that not only previewed the test questions, but were also required to attempt to answer them, performed the best. The group that previewed the questions came in second, and the standard traditional group performed the poorest. So testing in advance not only facilitates the identification of key concepts, but the attempt to answer the questions provides additional benefit. This might activate memory circuits that facilitate learning.

A previous blog post “The Benefits of Testing” also cited the work of Roediger. Testing before studying resulted in better recall. Roediger has used his results and the results of others to modify his teaching. Every class begins with a test on the material of the day. When this test is completed he proceeds to cover the material. This results in better retention, long term retention, in particular.

When or whether the educational establishment acts upon these findings remains to be seen. However, the industrious student can use these results to improve the effectiveness of her own study. If there are questions in the back of a chapter, attempt to answer them before reading the chapter. If there are no questions, then read headings and try to construct questions based on the headings and then attempt to answer them before reading the chapter. Then read the chapter.

1Roediger, H. L. III & Finn, B. (2010). The Pluses of Getting It Wrong, Scientific American Mind, March/April, 39-41.

© 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.

The Benefits of Testing

February 9, 2010

The distinguished psychologist Roddy Roediger was invited to give the keynote address for the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Psychonomic Society. The title of the address is “The Critical Role of Retrieval in Enhancing Long-Term Memory: From the Laboratory to the Classroom.” A streaming video of this keynote address came be found at

psychonomic.org/annual_meeting.html

Roediger begins his address by stating the implicit bargain that is usually made between teachers and students. Students don’t like taking tests and teachers don’t like giving them. Not only does the teacher need to construct the test, but she also needs to grade them, a time consuming task. So testing and exams are usually kept to a minimum. Moreover, testing is used to measure learning and the assumption has been that little or no learning takes place during testing. Roediger’s address should disabuse anyone of this notion.

Roediger presents a series of studies that vary the respective number of study and test trials. Little difference was observed during learning. But on retention tests that were given two days later, retention was solely a function of the number of test trials. He presents a series of studies varying the materials and the nature of the tests, but they all basically hammer home the same theme. Not only does learning occur during testing, but more learning occurs during testing than during study. One study done with a group of middle schoolers showed that repeated testing had the result of raising the average grade from a C+ to an A-.

It is interesting to examine the subjective ratings of students and test participants. They feel that they are learning more during study than during testing. When students keep re-reading highlighted material in a textbook, they get the filling that they really know the material and their confidence goes up. However, when a student tries to recall material from memory and fails, confidence is lowered. Yet the looking up of the material that was forgotten is more beneficial and the student has a more realistic appraisal of what is known and what needs to be studied. In the end, this latter experience is more beneficial.

The actual attempt to remember information forces the person to access the correct retrieval routes to that information. If the information is found, then that retrieval route is strengthened. When it is not found, the information is restudied and the retrieval route relaid. More effort is involved in testing than simply studying material, and there is evidence that this increased effort is also beneficial.

So what are the lessons to be learned here? First of all, cramming is not recommended. Even if you learn enough to pass the test, the information will quickly be lost. So its availability on a final exam or later in life is questionable.

Secondly, test yourself and recited the material frequently. This testing should be even more effective if spread out over time.

And what, if any, are the implications for the education system? Break the silent bargain between teachers and students and test more frequently. Roediger and his colleagues have taken to the practice of having a ten minute test at the end of every lecture. This practice not only forces students to keep up, but it also leads to better lifelong learning.

© 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.