Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Willpower 101, First Lesson, Know Your Limits

April 15, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in he book “Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Strength” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.  It is important to reiterate that your supply of willpower is limited, and you use this same resource for many different things.  Throughout the day you do many things that deplete your willpower of which you are likely unaware.  One activity that definitely depletes willpower is making decisions.  Practically nobody is aware of just how tiring it is to decide.  Even apparently simple decisions such as choosing what to have for dinner depletes willpower..  But deciding where to go on vacation, whom to hire, or where to look for a new job, which purchases to make and how much to spend are all decisions that deplete willpower.

Also remember that what matters is the exertion and not the outcome.  If you struggle with temptation and then give in, you have depleted your willpower regardless of the result.  You even use up willpower when you partake in indulgences that don’t appeal to you.  Forcing yourself to do something you don’t really want to do at the moment, be it chugging tequila, having sex, or smoking a cigar, depletes your willpower.

Unfortunately there is no obvious “feeling” of depletion, so you need to watch yourself for subtle, easily misinterpreted signs.  For example:  Do things seem to bother you more than they should?  Has the volume somehow been turned up on your life so that things are felt more strongly than usual?  Is it suddenly hard to make up your mind about even simple things?  Are you more than usually reluctant to make a decision to exert yourself mentally or physically?  When you notice these feelings, then review the last few hours and see if it seems likely likely that you have depleted your will power?

Although your supply of willpower is limited, it is obvious it can be replenished.  Obviously, a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast should restore your willpower.  But during the day pleasant down time should also do some replenishing.   There is another activity that HM strongly recommends, and that is meditation.  HM finds meditation most definitely to be restorative.  It is unfortunately that Baumeister and Tierney do not have meditation play a more central role.  It is mentioned that meditation rituals are a “kind of anaerobic workout for self control.”  And that “Meditation activates the same brain centers used for self-regulation.”  HM understand why they do not emphasize meditation.  They are conscientious researchers who want controlled research on the topic.  Although HM understands why they do not emphasize meditation, he criticizes their not conducting obvious research on the topic.  HM can, at least, provide his recommendation on the basis of his personal experience.  And that is that, perhaps apart from a good sound night’s sleep, meditation is the most restorative activity.  A short period, a half hour or less, of effective meditation has remarkable restorative powers.  (Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts.  Additional posts can be found by entering “meditation”  or “mindfulness”)

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Inside Knowledge: Why Knowing Thyself is the Hardest Thing

April 10, 2017

The title of this post is identical to a Feature article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the 1 April 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  As Anil writes, We are within ourselves, so any attempt to build a full picture is fraught with our own cognitive biases and problems of self-reference.  Moreover a big part of our self perception is tied up with how others see us, yet we can never now the biases that cloud their perception.

Philosophical investigation and scientific observation of human behavior allow us to delineate the question of what the self is a little more sharply.  There are several ways of doing this.

There is the phenomenal self.  This corresponds to our signs of existing, and that there is a distinct entity in our mind that experiences this existence.  The self is very real to each of us:  it’s a sense of being a body situated in the here and now, and also of being a person existing over time.  Unfortunately, this is not always a reliable source of true knowledge.  There is a rate neurological disorder Cotard’s syndrome in which the individual has the distinct and disturbing experience of non existence—a  subjective self-knowledge clearly at odds with the truth.  There are also people who do not feel that parts of their bodies, say particular limbs, are not theirs.  And when we dream we have a robust sense of self while being completely deluded about who and where we are.

The epistemic self is a more sophisticated type of self-knowledge.  The epistemic self is a sense of self that knows it knows.  The epistemic self is aware of the working of the phenomenal self, and can make us more aware of our motivations.  It is a new way of relating to oneself.

Imagine you are sitting in a mind-numbing meeting and start fantasying about an exotic vacation.  Your phenomenal self wanders with you into this dream world, but as you snap back to the reality of your meeting and become aware you’ve been daydreaming, your epistemic self flashes into action, only to disappear again as you mind focuses (or wanders) once more.

The aim of mindfulness and meditation is to enhance the epistemic self.  Doing so gives us greater mental autonomy, “the capacity to stop or better control what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing.”  There are many healthy memory posts on mindfulness and meditation.

SPACE

March 7, 2017

SPACE is the title of Part Three of Victor Strecher’s Book, “Life on Purpose.”  The Japanese have a word for “Life on Purpose” and that is ikigai, which is used in these posts because it has an earlier appearance in this blog and is shorter.

SPACE is an acronym that stands for Sleep, Presence, Activity, Creativity, and Eating.  An entire chapter is devoted to each of these topics, as the author goes into great detail regarding the importance and the implementation of these activities.  Only Presence will be addressed in the healthy memory blog.

Presence begins with this quote from Steve Jobs:
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to  hear more subtle things—that’s when  you intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more that you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice.”

Jobs is talking about meditation.  He personally consulted Zen masters and made periodic trips to Japan to sharpen his meditations.

Much has been written in the healthy memory blog about meditation.  What will be included here is “LOVING-KINDNESS MEDITATION.”  This particular meditation is famous.  One reason for its popularity comes from the recordings of the brains of Buddhist monks while doing this meditation.  The phrase, “off-the-charts” might capture these recordings.

*Find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on the floor (HM reclines, which is okay provided you do not fall asleep).  Close your eyes.  Take a few moments to just be, noticing the sounds, smells, and feelings.  Allowing yourself to settle down, turn your attention to your breathing.

*Notice the way you body automatically, effortlessly inhales and exhales.

*Don’t try to manipulate you breath in any way.  Notice the feeling of air moving in and out of the nose and the easy, natural way your body moves

*Imagine yourself in a beautiful place.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May I be happy and free of suffering.”  (You can use many other salutary phrases here such as “health” or “strength”—or create your own.)

*Next, imagine a new person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person you care for a great deal.  Again, as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Now move to another person entering your beautiful place.  This is a person who provokes no feeling of like or dislike.  A neutral person.  It could be a bank teller or a waitress you recently interacted with.  As you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”
*Now move to another person.  A person who provokes feelings of dislike.  Again as you continue breathing in and out, say to yourself, “May you be happy and free of suffering.”

*Finally, extend these feeling of loving-kindness to the world.  To all living beings.  Bring them into your special place and say to yourself. “May all beings be happy and free of suffering.”

*Take a minute or so with your eyes shut before going back to your daily routine.

How to Make the Unconscious Conscious

January 13, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Caroline Williams in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthymemory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and other blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.

Russell Hurlburt, a psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas uses the following technique to make the unconscious conscious.  He asks volunteers to wear an earpiece linked to a beeper, which goes off at random intervals six times a day, prompting them to note they thoughts.  At the conclusion of the day, Hurlburt conducts an hour long interview to tease out what people were thinking and how.  After four decades of research, Hurlburt has concluded that most people have no idea of what is running through their minds, but that they can be taught to tune into it in just a few days.

Hurlburt believes that we’re conscious of such thoughts while having them, but then they vanish “like a dream upon waking.”  The beeper is similar to mindfulness meditation.  Zen monks have a similar system —they sound a gong and you  pay attention to what’s going on right now.

Research has shown that regular meditators were quicker than others to consciously register a decision made by the unconscious mind.  There are many healthy memory blog posts on mindfulness and meditation.  And this is one of the many reasons for mindfulness and meditation, to get in touch with our unconscious minds.

Anyone with a cellphone can download Dr. Hurlburt’s app, IPromptU, cogtherapy.com

What Constitutes Proof that Alzheimer’s or Dementia Could be Cured or Prevented?

January 4, 2017

Two excellent questions for consideration.  The first question, what constitutes a cure can be easily answered, that is the administration of operations or medications that would eliminate the affliction.  Currently, the only medications for Alzheimer’s do not cure the disease, but rather slow the progression.  One can question whether this prolongs meaningful or enjoyable life, or merely prolongs suffering.  This is a question for individuals to decide.
With respect to Alzheimer’s, there are many individuals who died with the defining features of the disease—neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, but who never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive characteristics of the disease.  Apparently there were many people who died not knowing that they had the disease.  So for these individuals, at least, the debilitating features of the disease had been prevented.  The only explanation that has been provided for this prevention is that they had built up a cognitive reserve during their lifetimes, by using their brains.  This is the justification for advocating growth mindsets.  But there are other factors such as being socially active, which also requires the use of one’s mind.

The only way of trying to determine the factors fostering prevention is through longitudinal studies.  There are two longitudinal investigation—the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which have enrolled more than 3200 older adults across the United States.  This studies are being led by David A. Bennet at the Rush Alzheimer’s  Disease Center in Chicago.  The volunteers enter these studies dementia-free, anywhere from their mid-50s to their 100’s and agree to hours of testing each year.  They all have agreed to undergo autopsies once they have died.  Here are the two primary findings that have emerged from these investigations.

Virtually all brains in old age contain some pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but only some people suffer any symptoms as a result.  Those who do not develop dementia appear to have greater cognitive reserve to fall back on.

Choices we make throughout life, from learning a second language or studying music in childhood to finding purpose and remaining physical, intellectually, an socially active in retirement can build cognitive reserve and dramatically reduce the risk of dementia.

It is hoped that growth mindsets capture the general nature of intellectual activity.  Mindfulness and meditation foster greater control over one’s cognitive activity and lead to better control over one’s emotions and enhance personal interactions.  The healthy memory blog certainly endorses physical activity and a healthy lifestyle which includes, obviously, a healthy diet.

Regarding the defining characteristics of Alzheimer’s, the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque, seem to have little or no effect on individuals who have built up this cognitive reserve.  And there has been little success in the development of drugs to treat these physical symptoms.  One of the foremost experts in this area, Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D, who is the senior author of “The Myth of Alzheimer’s”  does not think that successful medications will ever be developed.

Perhaps one of the best resources on the extensive research that has been done in the area can be found in the book, “Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind” by Pamela M. Greenwood and Raja Parasuraman.

Dr. Michael Merzenich has been called “the father of brain plasticity,” and the co-founder of Scientific Learning and Posit Science.  You can go to brainhq.com
and find brain training exercises.  These exercises can be helpful, but by themselves cannot be regarded as providing a cognitive reserve.  Building a cognitive reserve requires a lifestyle devoted to cognitive and physical health.  Dr. Merzenich also has an interesting book, “Soft-Wired:  How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.”

Research reviewed by Norman Doidge, M.D.  has documented the extreme plasticity of the brain.  It is truly plastic in its ability to recover from severe injury.   His research is documented in two books,”The Brain that Changes Itself” and The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.”

HM would like to see extensive research done on individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s who apparently failed to build up this cognitive reserve.  What level of recovery might be achieved through exercises designed to recover lost capacity?  And at what level of dementia might individuals still be recoverable?  HM believes that money spent on this research would be more valuable that the extensive work that is being done on drug treatments that are likely to be doomed to failure.  Unfortunately, the money is in potential drug sales.

There have been many previous HM posts on these topics.  Enter “Bennet,”  “Whitehouse,”  “Parasuraman,”  “Merzenich,”  “Doidge,”  “The Relaxation Response Update,’ and  “Mindfulness” to find them.

© 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.

Happy New Years 2017: Some Suggested Resolutions

December 31, 2016

If you are not actively building growth mindsets, being mindful, or engaging in meditation, start doing them.  The advice from the beginning of this blog has been to grow your mind continually as long as you live.  Even if the term growth mindset was not used, growth mindsets were what was implied.  What also became clear in Carol Dweck’s, “Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success” was that growth mindsets are key to effective interpersonal relationships, parenting, coaching, and business, virtually in every aspect of living.  In addition this cognitive practice will produce a cognitive reserve, which is the best means of warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Enter “Growth Mindsets” into the search box of the healthy memory blog to find posts relevant to this topic.  However, it is hoped that all posts in this blog contribute to cognitive growth

Mindfulness provides a means of effectively dealing with life, better health, better interpersonal relations, and effective focus and control of attention.  Attention is key to learning, so it is also key to an effective growth mindset.  A central part of mindfulness is meditation.  Regular readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that attention is key to getting information into long term memory.  Very often when we cannot remember something, it is because we did not adequately attend to it in the first place.  Concentration and the ability to focus is central to effective thinking. Our attentional resources are both limited and precious, so we cannot afford not to use them efficiently.  Meditation helps us to control our attentional resources.  They are especially important to controlling the executive functioning of our brains.  Before responding in any situation it is important to remember the acronym STOP, which stands for
S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.
T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.
O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.
Effective cognitive functioning also fosters good interpersonal relations.

The healthy memory blog post “An Update to the Relaxation Response Update” will provide more information on how to induce the relaxation response.  To learn about the medical benefits of the relaxation response see the post “The Relaxation Response Update.”

If you are already engaging in these practices, congratulations, and use the occasion of this new year to rededicate yourself to their practice.  I am going to do this myself.  Have a happy and fulfilling new year.

© 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.

Another Quote Worth Pondering

October 21, 2016

This is from Chapter 12, “All in the Mind” in “The Epigenetics Revolution” by Nessa Carey. The quote is from John Milton.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
We should use this quote as a reminder to ourselves substituting “My” for “The”.
We are the ones who determine our own happiness.  This is one of the reasons that HM recommends meditation.

A similar quote comes from Victor Frankl; a survivor of Auschwitz (and a neurologist and psychologist):  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”

What makes Dr. Frankl’s statement so remarkable is that it was made under the most adverse of circumstances.

Siddhartha, who became the first Buddha was a wealthy man who left his wealth in his quest to remove misery from the world.  His solution was found in the mind in mindfulness and meditation.
Should you want to see the first healthymemory blog post worth pondering enter  “A Quote Worth Pondering” into the healthy memory search block.  It will be worth your while.

Pain and the Second Dart

October 16, 2016

This post is taken in part from “Siddhartha’s Brain”  by James Kingsland.   The Buddha used two darts as a metaphor to understand how to deal with pain.  “It is if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart.  He worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast and is distraught.  So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.  Someone who has not been taught how to cope with painful sensations resists and resents them.  The only way he knows to escape the suffering is by distracting himself with sensory pleasures, which come with dangers of their own attached.”  On the other hand, he said, “ a well-taught, noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and wail, nor will he be distraught.”  So even if the first dart had found its mark, the second one could no longer hurt him.

The developer of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Kabat Zin, learned as a young man enduring grueling Zen meditation sessions is that if you can turn your full attention on pain without pursuing the emotional narratives that usually accompany it, you suffer much less as a consequence.  He teaches this skill to patients with chronic pain.  He says, “We don’t just tell people, ‘accept it and it will be okay.  But paradoxically when you begin to befriend your pain—move into it, embrace it, hold it in awareness—you begin to see that the suffering lies in thinking ‘this is going to last forever’ and ‘it’s destroyed my life, I’m never going to be better again.’  That’s not actual pain, those are just thoughts.” He admits that this change in perspective is a challenging thing to ask of someone experiencing debilitating pain, but he says the key to reducing suffering associated with an intense sensation is to turn toward it rather than try to run away from it.  “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

In 1982 Kabat-Zinn published the results of the first clinical investigation into the efficacy of mindfulness meditation for easing chronic.  The 51 patients who participated in this study were experiencing various types of pain, mostly lower back, neck and shoulder pain, and headache.  After completing a ten week course, 65% saw their pain reduced by more than a third when scored on a standard index the combines pain intensity and unpleasantness.  For half of these patients pain ratings had fallen by more than 50%.  The changes in the patients’ ability to cope with their pain were accompanied by significant improvements in mood and psychiatric symptoms.

Since then there have been thousands more studies with clear benefits established for pain, stress, and anxiety.  The program has also been successfully adapted to prevent relapse in depression and to treat addiction.

These findings reminded HM of similar finding in hypnosis research.  In the cold pressor task, a participant’s hand is immersed in ice water.  This quickly becomes very painful and participants have difficulty keeping their hands in the ice water.  The participants are also asked to provide ratings of the pain.  However, when given hypnotic suggestions, participants are able to keep their hands immersed, while also providing the pain ratings that were comparable to what they were when they were not given hypnotic suggestions.  Apparently, they were able to reinterpret the pain so it was much less distressing just as in the situations described above.  Some people have even undergone surgery while under hypnotic suggestion.  In the most impressive example of which HM is aware, a patient had a tumor removed from his scrotum while hypnotized.

The following are instructions for Open-Minded Guided Meditation that were provided at the end of the Second Dart Chapter.

“A great way to return your mind to its “ground state,” neither overexcited nor torpid, simply alert and open, is to become aware of the natural rhythm of the breath as you inhale and exhale.  This is focused attention, prerequisite for the second state of mindfulness meditation:  insight.

Start by focusing on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving you body at the nostrils.  Remember, you are observing your breathing rather than controlling it.  Follow each inhalation and exhalation from the start to the finish.  Notice any slight gap between the in-breath and out-breath.

Don’t be hard on yourself if your mind wanders or you get distracted by a noise.  This is all perfectly normal.  Just remind yourself:  “That’s how the mind works,” and return to the breath.  With repetition, you will get better at noticing when you have lost focus and develop greater mindfulness of the present moment.

Now that you have quieted your mind, allow your attention to broaden.  Whenever a positive or negative feeling arises, make it the focus of your meditation, noticing the bodily sensations associated with it:  perhaps a tightness, the heart beating faster or slower, butterflies in the stomach, relaxed or tensed muscles.  Whatever it is, address the feeling with friendly, objective curiosity.  You could silently label whatever arises in the mind, for example:  “There is anxiety,” “There is calm,: There is joy,” “There is boredom.”   Remember, everything is on the table, nothing is beneath your attention.

If you experience an ache or a pain, snitch or any other kind of discomfort, treat it in exactly the same way.  Turn the spotlight of your attention on the sensation but don’t allow yourself to get caught up in it.  Imagine that on the in-breath you are gently breathing air into the location where the sensation is strongest, then expelling it on the out-breath.  You may notice that when you explore the sensation with friendly curiosity—not trying to change it in any way, neither clinging to it or repressing it—the feeling will start to fade of its own accord.  When it has gone, return your full attention to your breath.

Mindfulness instructors will sometimes talk about “surfing” the wave of an unpleasant sensation such as pain, anxiety, or craving.  Instead of allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the wave of feeling, you get up on your mental surfboard and ride it.  You experience it fully, but your mind remains detached, dignified, and balanced.  Knowing that the power of even the most fearsome wave eventually dissipates, you ride it out.

If a thought, emotion, or feeling becomes too strong or intrusive, you can always use the breath as a calm refuge, returning you whole attention to the breathing sensations at your nostrils.  Similarly if you feel you can’t cope with a pain such as stiffness in your legs, neck, or back, shift your posture accordingly.  But make your attention move to a mindful close rather than a reflex, and make the movement itself slow and deliberate.”

A previous healthy memory blog post, “Controlling Pain in Our Minds” explores this topic further and discusses the possibility of there being two different neural pathways processing the “two darts.”

Siddhartha’s Brain

October 14, 2016

“Siddhartha’s Brain” is a book by the veteran science writer James Kingsland.  The subtitle of the book  is “Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment.”  Should you not know, Siddhartha, a well off noble who became a pauper to learn about suffering and, more importantly, how to deal with it, became known as the Buddha.  If people think they know one thing about Buddhism, it is probably that Buddhists believe in repeated rebirths after death.  However, when the Dalai Lama  was asked whether it is necessary to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, he emphatically replied:  “It doesn’t matter!   The most important thing was to practice the essence of the Buddha’s teaching—impermanence, selflessness, and compassion.”  He went on to say that with increasingly refined states of meditation, one would invariably  gain the insight that rebirth was real and that to escape from the cycle of suffering, one must attain nibbana. The Dalai Lama does not proselytize Buddhism.  What he does strongly advocate is secular humanism.  Even Buddhists in traditional schools dismiss any speculation about rebirth as a waste of time.  They believe instead that we  should focus on the karma that determines out psychological well being in this life.   It is important to realize that Buddhism is not a belief system.  Rather it is a religious approach based on experience.

Nor is it claimed that Buddhists developed meditation.  Rather it is believed that individual humans stumbled upon the meditative experience.  Moreover, meditation has been practiced by contemplatives in virtually every substantive religion.  Meditation can and should be expanded into mindfulness.  One is tempted to attribute the current state of the world, as well as the historical record, to a famine of mindfulness.  It is hoped that some day there will be a feast of mindfulness,  The practice of mindfulness involves regarding oneself in the third person and trying to understand others from their perspectives, and to be concerned about their well-being.

One learns much about Siddhartha and Buddhism in this volume to include practices of meditation and mindfulness. But it does not cover all the different branches  of Buddhism.  They range from the extremely ascetic Zen Buddhism to highly commercial versions.  There are Buddhist priests who marry and have families.  HM has been to Japan several times and has marveled at the selling of fortunes by some versions.

There are Buddhists who strongly object to the way the private companies have adopted mindfulness and meditation practices.  Philosophically, they are far from the Dalai Lama who presses for secular humanism.  Regardless, HM predicts that in the future it will be commonplace for businesses and agencies to have dedicated spaces for meditation and mindfulness.  Dedicated facilities for physical exercise have become commonplace, but dedicated facilities for meditation and mindfulness will not only promote physical health, they will also promote psychological health and beneficial interactions among personnel.

© 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.

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.

If Antidepressants Don’t Work Well, Why are They so Popular?

July 15, 2016

The title of this blog post is identical to the title of a piece of the Insight  section in the June 18 20016 Issue of the New Scientist.  Several previous healthy memory blog posts have questioned  the value of antidepressants (enter “antidepressants” into the search block of the healthy memory blog).  The New Scientist piece begins, “Another week, another study casting doubt on antidepressants.  This one says that for children and for teenagers with major depression, 13 or the 14 drugs analyzed don’t work.”  The article also notes that previous research for adults using the Prozac class of antidepressants , which involve selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors is no better than a placebo, at least for people with mild or moderate depression.  The article does not that some other research finds that these drugs do word for adults with major depression.

Although antidepressants can be life-savers for those with severe depression, they are being dished out too easily for people with everyday sadness.  Although UK guidelines say that talking therapies should be the first option for people with mild depression, it can take over a year to get seen.  So family doctors not being aware of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, take the easy option and prescribe antidepressants.

Many patients do feel that their antidepressants are helpful, but it is likely the result of a strong placebo effect.

The article also mentions the chemical imbalance myth, which is promoted by the manufacturers.  They argue for the feel good effects of serotonin.  Although the drugs do boost serotonin, there is no proof  that low levels cause depression.  Although there are many theories, what triggers depression is unknown.

Unfortunately, antidepressants do have downsides that include withdrawal symptoms, loss of sex drive and weight gain.  What is worse is that they trigger violent or suicidal thoughts in some people.

The article neglects to discuss meditation and mindfulness, techniques that can readily be taught with no side effects.  Moreover, they can be highly effective.

© 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.

A Good Reference on Meditation

June 18, 2016

That reference would be “How to Meditate” by Kathleen McDonald.  Should one be interested in learning more about the meditation techniques employed by the Buddhist Monks that were discussed in the post “Transforming the Emotional Mind,”  then this reference is highly recommended.  Many of the benefits from meditation can be gained just by practicing the relaxation response (see the healthy memory blog post, “An Update of the Relaxation Response Update”).  Moreover, the time demands for this type of meditation are quite reasonable.

Kathleen McDonald was born in California in 1952.  In 1973 she took her first courses in Buddhist meditation in Dharmsala, India.  Dharmsala is where the Dalai Lama resides since his exile from Tibet.  She was ordained  as a Tibetan, Buddhist in 1974.  In 1978 she moved to England to continue her higher Buddhist studies, and in 1982 helped establish the FPMT’s Dorje Pamo Monastery for Buddhist nuns in France.  From 1985 until 1987 she taught in Australia, then for a year in Nepal, followed by eleven years as resident teacher at FPMT’s Amitabh Buddhist Center in Singapore.  Since 2000 she has been teaching around the world, taking a break in mid-2005 for a year’s solitary retreat in Spain.

Ms. McDonald writes concisely and is easily understood.  She does not proselytize.  Instead she shows how other religious beliefs can be incorporated into meditations. The information provided about Buddhism is in the context of how to do the different types of meditation.

Healthy Memory is not a Buddhist, but he finds many of the ideas and practices of Buddhism promote a healthy memory.  Unlike some religions, which are anti-science and preach against evolution of global warming, the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism is pro-science and incorporates scientific findings rather than rejecting them.

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter nine of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”  In the 1970s, Davidson and his colleagues discovered striking differences in the patterns of brain activity that characterize people at opposite ends of the “eudaemonic scale,” which provides the spectrum of baseline happiness.  There are specific brain states that correlate with happiness.

Secondly, brain-activation patterns can change as a result of therapy and mindfulness meditation, in which people learn to think differently about their thoughts.  This has been shown in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with patients suffering from depression.  Mental training practice and effort can bring about changes in the function of the brain.

Given these two facts Davidson built the hypothesis that meditation or other forms of mental training can, by exploiting the brain’s neuroplasticity, produce changes, most likely in patterns of neuronal activation, but perhaps even in the structure of neural circuitry that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.  Then therapists and even individuals by exploiting the brain’s potential to change its wiring can restore the brain and the mind to emotional health.

In 1992 Davidson and his colleagues found that activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as detected by EEG, is a reflection of a person’s emotional state.  Asymmetric activation in this region corresponds to different “affective styles.”  When activity in the left prefrontal cortex is markedly and chronically higher than in the right, people report feeling alert, energized, enthusiastic, and joyous, enjoying life more and having a greater sense of  well-being.  In other words, they tend to be happier.  When there is greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people report feeling negative emotions including worry, anxiety, and sadness.  They express discontent with life and rarely feel elation or joy.  If the asymmetry is so extreme that activity in the right prefrontal cortex swamps that in the left, the person has a high risk of falling into clinical depression.

The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind.  The findings that, in highly experienced  meditators, there is greater activity in the left frontal cortex “imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain.”

Research has shown that every area of the brain that had been implicated in some aspect of emotion had also been linked to some aspect of thought:  circuitry that crackles with electrical activity  when when the mind feels an emotion and circuitry  that comes alive when the mind undergoes cognitive processing, whether it is remembering, or thinking, or planning, or calculating, are intertwined as yarn on a loom.  Neurons principally associated with thinking connect to those mostly associated with emotion, and vice versa.  This neuroanatomy is consistent with two thousand years of Buddhist thought, which holds that emotion and cognition cannot be separated.

Using fMRI Davidson measured activity in the brain’s amygdala, an area that is active during such afflictive emotions as distress, fear, anger,and anxiety.  Davidson said, “Simply by mental rehearsal of the aspiration that a person in a photo be free of suffering, people can change the strength of the signal in the amygdala.  This signal in he fear-generating amygdala can be modulated with mental training.

Eight Buddhist adepts and eight controls  with 256 electrodes glued to their scalps engaged in the form of meditation called pure compassion, in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving-kindness toward all living beings.  This produces a state in which love and compassion permeates the whole mind, with no other considerations, reasoning, or discursive thoughts.  The brain waves that predominated were gamma waves.  Scientists  believe that brain waves of this frequency reflect the activation and recruitment of neural resources and general mental effort.  They are also a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-found brain circuits.  In 2004 the results of this study were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Not surprisingly the results of the monks were quite pronounced.  But it was encouraging to discover that some of the controls who received a crash crash course and only a week’s worth of compassion meditation, showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal.

fMRI images were also taken.  The differences between the adepts and the controls were quite interesting.  There was significantly greater activation in the right ins and caudate, a network that other research has linked to empathy and maternal love.  These differences were most pronounced in monks with more years of meditation.  Connections from the frontal regions to the brain’s emotion regions seemed to become stronger with more years practicing meditation.  It was clear that mental training that engages concentration and thought can alter connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.

A surprising finding was that when the monks engaged in compassion meditation, their brains showed increased activity in regions responsible for planned movement.   It appeared that the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.  Another spot of activation in the brains of the meditating monks jumped out in  an area in the left prefrontal cortex, the site of activity association with happiness.  Activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal  to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.

Davidson concluded, “ I believe that Buddhism has something to teach us as scientists about the possibilities of human transformation and in providing a set of methods and a road map of how to achieve that.  We can have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish.  We’ve gotten the idea in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five intervention, which is completely cockamamy.  Athletes and musicians train many hours every day.  As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways.  To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science.”

Davidson continues, “I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years.  Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states.  That view is shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity will be the counter to the deterministic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash).  The message I take for my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility.”

Consciousness as an Emergent Phenomenon

May 19, 2016

Healthy memory has a great deal of difficulty trying to prove the obvious.  It is obvious to healtymemory that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon.  It is an output that emerges from the complex neuronal activity of the brain.  Moreover, this emergent phenomenon has a function.  And that is to use experience and information stored in the brain to make decisions and to decide on courses of action.  These conscious decisions imply a necessity for free will. Neuroscientists have concluded that all mammals and some invertebrates such as the octopus and many birds are conscious.  And presumably the reason for this is so that these creatures can decide among different courses of action.

As the vast majority of the activity of the brain is below the level of awareness actions can be taken on cognitive automatic pilot and errors can be made.  Consider how many times we need to say we’re sorry for saying or doing something.  This is due to a lack of conscious involvement.  One of the goals of the conscious mind is to monitor and make the best use of the nonconscious mind.  One can use Kahneman’s System One System Two distinction.  System One operates nonconsciously. System Two operates consciously and one of its responsibilities is to monitor outputs from the nonconscious mind.

It appears that many psychologists feel their status as scientists is questionable.  Consequently they see a need to appear to be rigorous.  The first example of this was behaviorism, where cognitive processes could not be included.  When it became quite obvious that this exclusion was severely hampering the progress of psychology, the cognitive revolution occurred.  Nevertheless, the question of whether humans could control their autonomic nervous systems ramained.  At the time there was plenty to data in the affirmative to indicate that humans could control their autonomic nervous systems.  Many Buddhist priests and monks, along with meditators of a variety of ilks.  These rigorous scientists regarded rigorous science as being an activity taken using college studies.  When students were unable to learn to monitor their autonomic nervous systems because they were unable to do so in the several hours that could be devoted to these rigorous experiments, these rigorous scientists concluded that humans could not control their autonomic systems.  As for these successful meditators, they were using some type of trick.  This trick was meditating for many hours.

Using the mind to change both the brain and the body will constitute the next stage of advancement in both psychology and medicine.  Using the mind implies free will.
Many psychologists and physicians are having difficulty accepting this and will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future.  But that is where the future lies.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Passing 70

May 6, 2016

Today I enter my 71st year.  My 70th year was noteworthy in that I retired from formal employment.  I could have continued in my job, but I found my work to be meaningless, as my knowledge and talents were not being used.  So I retired from formal employment.

You might ask about ikigai.  Ikigai is a Japanese word, which roughly translated means “the reason to get up in the morning.”  In other words, have reasons for living.   Formal employment was not ikigai.  Actually it was hindering my ikigai.

My ikigai is to continue to grow cognitively, to build a cognitive reserve, to avoid dementia, and to share what I learn with others.  “Others” is not restricted to the elderly.  “Others” refers to everyone.  The fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive science are rapidly developing.  One of the goals of this blog is to share the excitement of these fields with my readers as well as point to their relevance to a healthy memory.  Other topics related to effective thinking, decision making, and health are also covered.  These topics help us grown cognitively.

Since retiring from formal employment, I have more time to meditate and to think.  I also have the opportunity to read more, to grow cognitively and, I hope, personally.  However, even  though I have more time, I still cannot come close to covering all the exciting research and Ideas that are being produced.  Even in retirement, there are still not enough hours in a day.  Nevertheless, I am enjoying life with my wife immensely.

I received more congratulations on my retirement than I had received for my marriage or for completing my doctorate.  I found that strange, but in some sense accurate.  This is the best time of my life.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 Revisited

April 21, 2016

As the healthy memory blog is coming back from a hiatus, it might be a good time to review its themes.  The first theme is the importance of having a growth mindset.  There are many healthy memory posts on this topic.  Basically it is a matter of wanting to learn and in believing that you can learn.  So a positive attitude is essential along with a desire to learn.  Having a growth mindset is important not only to having a healthy memory,  but also to living a fulfilling life.

Currently there is much concern about the ravages and costs of Alzheimer’s Disease.  An enormous amount of research is going on to develop drugs that will prevent or cure the disease.  These drugs target the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that provide the signatures for an accurate diagnosis of this disease.  To this point, the few drugs that have been approved only slow the progression of the disease.  And some knowledgeable people believe that drugs will never be developed that actually prevent or cure the disease (se the healthy memory blog, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s).

A common assertion is that Alzheimer’s cannot be  prevented.  This statement is true if it is referring to the amyloid plaque or neurofibrillary tangles that are needed for a definitive diagnosis.  What is not usually mentioned is that many autopsies have been done on deceased individuals whose brains are wreaked with these neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques, but who never had any of the behavioral or cognitive manifestations of Alzheimer’s.  Whether these people would have ever exhibited any of the behavioral of cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s if they had lived longer will never be known.  The explanation offered for these people is that they had built up a cognitive reserve that prevented the cognitive and behavioral symptoms.  So even though they had the defining neurological substrates of the disease, there were no behavioral of cognitive manifestations.

The healthy memory blog asserts that having and using a growth mindset is key to developing this cognitive reserve.  Of course, exercise and a healthy lifestyle is important.  I find it ironic that physical exercise is always cited as beneficial, but rarely, if ever, the exercise of the most relevant organ, the brain.  Using a growth mindset exercises the brain.  I believe that certain computer games can be useful, along with playing bridge or doing crossword puzzles.  But a healthy memory mindset involves continuing to learn as long as one lives.  Be aware that new neurons continue to be created throughout one’s lifespan. but these new neurons quickly die unless they are engaged.  Engaging with one’s fellow humans as well as with technology (this is transactive memory ) is also essential.

An important part of a growth mindset is understanding how cognition works.  This is the second theme of the healthy memory blog, Human Memory:  Theory and Data. It is important to understand that we have no direct knowledge of the external world, as naive realists believe.  Rather we develop mental models of the external world.  The role of memory is more that one of storing information.  Memory takes in information and constructs models.  The purpose of memory is actually one of time travel.  It is using information from the past and models constructed from that information to predict the future.  Sometimes mental simulations are run to decide among different courses of action.

Another important concept is that of Noble Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahenman.  He has identified two processing systems.  System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1.  System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. System 2 can be thought of as thinking.Kahneman

When new information is encountered, by default, it is believed.  Without this default, our learning would be dangerously slow.  However, whenever the brain encounters information that contradicts what we know, the brain responds and System 2 is activated.  System 2 requires attention and mental effort.  The easiest route is to discard or ignore discordant information.  This is the route chosen by the cognitive miser, who is not willing to expend the effort.  In the long run, the cognitive miser route leads to hardening of the categories, where we do not challenge and remain constant to our beliefs.  Of course, questioning everything would be maladaptive, so this must be done selectively.  But growth mindsets require heavy System 2 processing and the selective reexamination of prevailing beliefs.

Kahneman has identified biases that develop to help us better deal with processing limitations, but which are biases nevertheless.  Our memories also are highly fallible.  Unfortunately, the confidence we exhibit is usually unreliable.  We are flawed information processors and need to always be aware of these flaws and limitations

The mind is constrained by a limited attentional capacity.  The brain remains active 24 hours a day, even when we sleep.  The vast majority of the brain’s processing is unconscious.  Once we try fail to recall something or fail to solve a problem, our unconscious mind will keep working on it, and the solution can pop into our minds unsummoned at a later time.

We need to learn to focus and control this attentional capacity.  This is where mindfulness and meditation become important and they constitute the third theme of the healthy memory blog.  .  There are many posts on mindfulness and meditation, some of which can be found under the category of mnemonic techniques.  Mindfulness and meditation are essential not only to a healthy memory, but also to a heathy body.  Meditation has even be shown to have beneficial epigenetic effects (see the healthy memory blog, “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection”).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 Healthymemory Blog is Going on a Brief Hiatus

April 12, 2016

Nevertheless, there is plenty to read here.  To find posts of interest to you enter the subject or title into the healthy memory blog search block.  If you do not see the search block, then enter “healthymemory.wordpress.com” into your browser.

Here are some suggestion for topics to enter.

myth
mindset
The Relaxation Revolution
Kahneman
Davidson
Stanovich
Dehaene
mindfulness
meditation

Enjoy!  Grow your mindsets!  and be mindful.

The Relevance of Consciousness and the Brain to a Healthy Memory

April 9, 2016

I hope it is already clear why the previous eight posts have been devoted to Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts,” but, nevertheless, I shall briefly elaborate here.  Simply put, using our conscious mind effectively is key to a healthy memory.  One of the primary goals of meditation (for example, the relaxation response), is to gain control of our attention rather than either ignoring our brains’s potential, or letting our brains run wild.

Growth mindsets encourage us to use the global workspace of our brains, to think and to learn new information and skills.  This activates those neurons in the prefrontal cortex with the long axons reaching far into different parts of the brains.  I strongly believe that this activity strongly promotes brain health.  It is likely that it is largely responsible for the cognitive reserve that is cited as the reason that the autopsies of many individuals reveal the neurillary fibers and amyloid plaques that provide a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, yet these individuals never indicated any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

It is clear that there is enormous activity of the brain, but we can gain access to only a small percentage of this activity.  So how can we increase the probability that our unconscious minds are functioning productively?  A good way of thinking about this is that our conscious mind is, or should be, the chief executive of our brain.  Think of the brain as an enormous enterprise that we supervise.  The unconscious mind uses what we think about consciously as a guide to at least some of its unconscious activity.  A good example of this is when we try to remember a name  or a word, but successful retrieval fails (remember the distinction between available and accessible memories).  It is not unusual that many hours, sometimes even a day a more later, the desired item pops into consciousness.  So even though you gave up trying to remember, your unconscious brain kept working on this task.  My favorite problem solving technique is incubation.  This is done when you give your mind a rest and stop working on the problem.  Although your conscious mind has stopped working, your unconscious mind perseveres, and the solution seems to pop into your mind unsummoned.  There are documented cases of important discoveries that have been made in this manner.  Thee are probably many more that have not been discovered or articulated.

So meditate to achieve better control over your consciousness.  Also pursue a growth mindset.  Review previously acquired knowledge and continue to pursue new knowledge.  Also give your unconscious mind something to mull over, such as a problem to solve, or an apparently lost memory to recover.  As was mentioned in a previous healthy memory blog post, with the exception of the most trivial decisions, it is best to allow time for your conscious mind to run simulations and reveal unrecognized problems (see the healthy memory blog post, “Let Me Think it Over).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Theorizing Consciousness

April 6, 2016

“Theorizing Consciousness” is the fifth chapter of “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts” an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.  This is the sixth consecutive post on this outstanding book.   At this point a theory is needed to explain how subjective introspection relates to objective measurements.  Dr. Dehaene does this  by introducing the notion of a global neuronal workspace.  This global workspace theory was developed along with the psychologist Bernard Baars.

The notion is simple.  Consciousness is brain-wide information sharing.  The human brain has developed efficient long-distance networks, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, to select relevant information and disseminate it throughout the brain.  Consciousness has evolved  to allow us to attend to a piece of information and disseminate it throughout the brain.  Once the information is conscious, it can be flexibly be routed  to other areas according to our current goals.  We can name this information, evaluate it, memorize it, and use it to plan for the future.  We can use it to simulate the prospects of different courses of action.  Computer simulations of neural networks have been run and shown that the global neuronal workspace hypothesis generates precisely the signatures we see in experimental brain recordings.

Many neurons  in the brain differ substantially from other cells in the body.  These are the neurons with exceptionally long axons.   These neurons are most abundant in the prefrontal cortex.   Moreover, each human prefrontal neuron  may host fifteen thousand spines or more. This allows these neurons to transmit information to distant parts of the brain, making the global neuronal workspace truly global.   The prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for decision making and executive control.

The global neuronal workspace hypothesis also explains why vast amounts of knowledge remain inaccessible to our consciousness, namely, there is too much of it. Global workspace theory helps bring order to this jungle of information.  It leads us to pigeonhole our unconscious feats in distinct bins whose brain mechanisms differ radically. There is only a limited amount of attentional resources that can be devoted to conscious processing.  One can argue that the judicious selection of what information to attend to and to devote conscious thought is one of the primary determinant of a happy and successful life.  This is a primary reason why meditation is important.  Contemplation and meditative exercises provide practice in training our attention.

Happy New Years 2016! Now What About Those Resolutions?

December 31, 2015

If you are not already growing a growth mindset or meditating (for example, the relaxation response), the recommendation is to start.  Should your already be growing a growth mindset or meditating, then please give consideration to pursuing those activities with greater vigor.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Cognitive Benefits of the Relaxation Response and Mindfulness

December 8, 2015

It is not surprising that Dr. Benson, being a physician, focuses on the medical benefits of the relaxation response.  However, it is important to note that the relaxation response is important for cognition and memory health (See the healthy memory blog post “Keys to a Healthy Memory:  Growth Mindsets and Mindfulness”).

Key to the relaxation response is that it helps us to take control of our attention.  Regular readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that attention is key to getting information into long term memory.  Very often when we cannot remember something, it is because we did not adequately attend to it in the first place.  Concentration and the ability to focus is central to effective thinking. Our attentional resources are both limited and precious, so we cannot afford not to use them efficiently.  Meditation helps us to control our attentional resources.  They are especially important to  controlling the executive functioning of our brains.  When we are stressed, worried or upset, we lose control of our attentional resources.  Before responding in any situation it is important to remember the acronym STOP, which stands for

S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.
T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.
O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.

Effective cognitive functioning also fosters good interpersonal relations.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Cancer and the Genetic Horizons of Mind Body Treatment

December 5, 2015

This title is the same as the title of Chapter 8 in the “Relaxation Revolution” by Benson and Proctor.  This research is in an early stage.  They used the data from the experiment reported in the immediately preceding healthy memory blog post, “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection.”  The data from this study was compared with cancer databases compiled  by the Broad Institute  of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Weitzman Institute of Science in Israel.  These databases identify cancer gene “signatures” or “sets,” which are associated with groups of gene activity of different cancer patients.  Specifically, they assessed whether gene sets in the relaxation response subjects might correlate with cancer-associated gene sets in cancer patients.

The results were presented at the Society for Integrative Oncology, 6th International Conference in 2009.  The findings were highly encouraging for future research and possible medical treatment.  They found that the gene set expression in the long-term relaxation response practitioners in their study was counter to the gene expression in the following cancers:  lymphoma (follicular and B cell lymphoma), neuro tumors (central nervous system and glioma), liver, leukemia), multiple myeloma, B cell chronic lymphoblastic leukemia, and another form of leukemia.  The results from the long-term practitioners showed gene set expression that was in the same direction as, or consistent with, the expression found in certain anticancer therapies.

The results were also encouraging for the short-term trainees who had started with no background in mind body techniques, but who had been instructed in Phase One relaxation response.  Their relaxation response gene set expression signatures countered or opposed the gene signatures for such cancer as neuro tumors, multiple myeloma, and leukemia.

Do not forget that the relaxation response is helpful in dealing with stress in general.  So to the extent cancer or cancer treatments produce stress, the relaxation response is helpful in dealing with that stress.

Unfortunately, I do not know how far research has advanced since the publication of this book.  Anyone who can provide information or sources,  please provide comments.

The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind Body Connection

December 2, 2015

This is the title of the second chapter from the “Relaxation Revolution” by Benson and Proctor.  Lamarkian transmission, the notion that experience could be passed on to offspring because genes would be changed  was long ago debunked.  However, recent research has revealed that although genes cannot be changed, due to epigenetics the read out from genes can be changed.  The following experiment demonstrated how the relaxation response or meditation can modify the read out from genes to the good.

The experiment involved 38 individuals. Nineteen were practitioners of techniques that invoked the relaxation response.  The average amount of experience was 9.8 years of practice.  These nineteen individuals were matched as closely as possible with nineteen individuals who had no experience with the relaxation response.  The latest microarray analysis was used to check the activity of all of the 54,000 genes in each of the research participants.  2,209 genes in the experienced practitioners group were expressed differently than the same genes in the inexperienced participants.  The genes that acted differently have been associated with stress related medical problems, including unhealthful regulation of immune responses; various forms of inflammation;premature aging, including thinning of the cortex of the brain; and other health conditions that may involve oxidative stress.

Next eight weeks were set aside to teach the non-practioners  how to enter the relaxation response state.  They were guided through a 20-minute relaxation response experience using the Olivia audio disk, a 20-minute CD.  After the eight weeks of training, blood was drawn and gene expression was measured again.

There were three sets of measurement
The experienced practitioner group
The non-practitioners before relaxation response training
The non-practitioners after relaxation response training.

They found that 433 gene expression signatures were similar in both groups.  It is remarkable that in only eight weeks of training differences were found in so many gene signatures.

This is a remarkable finding that the mind can not only affect the body, but it can also affect epigenetics, the expression of genes.

This experiment can be found in the following article:

Dusek, J.A., H.H. Otto, A.L. Wohlhueter, M. Bhasin, L.F. Zerbini, M.G. Joseph, H. Benson, aand T.A. Libermann, “Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response.”  PLoS ONE, Jul., 2008, 3(7): e2576.  http://www.plosone.org.

The Olivia CD can be obtained by going to http://www.massgeneral.org/bhi and clicking on meditation CDs.

An Update of the Relaxation Response Update

November 29, 2015

Recently there was a heathymemory blog update of a 2009 post on the “Relaxation Response.”  The occasion of this was a review of a 25th anniversary publication for the original 1975 book.  The current posts are on the publication of the “Relaxation Revolution” by Herbert Benson, MD and William Proctor JD, which was published in 2010.  So please bear with me as I am coming up to date.

Dr.Benson’s finding of the relaxation response, which produced a response exactly opposite to the fight or flight response.  The fight or flight response produces stress, and the relaxation response relieves  this stress as indicated by the physiologic effects of reduced blood pressure, metabolism, heart and respiratory rates.  The most recent research shows that the relaxation response can beneficially effect the expression of genes.  There will be a special post on the research regarding gene expression.  Research on the relaxation response has added a third treatment option to the standard treatments of medication and surgery.

The Benson-Henry Protocol is divided into two phases.  Phase One is the Relaxation Response Trigger.
Step 1:  Pick a focus word, phrase, image, or short prayer.  Or focus only on your breathing during the exercise.
Step 2:  Find a quiet place and sit calmly in a comfortable position.
Step 3:  Close your eyes.
Step 4:  Progressively relax all your muscles.
Step 5:   Breathe slowly and naturally.
Step 6:   Assume a passive attitude.  When other thoughts intrude, simply think, “Oh,             well,” and return to your focus.
Step 7:  Continue with this exercise for an average of12 to 15 minutes.
Step 8:   Practice this technique at least once daily.

Optional relaxation response exercises will be discussed later in this post.  My personal observations can be found in my post, “Personal Observations on Meditation Techniques in General and the Relaxation Response in Particular.”

The following Important Note is included at the end of Phase One.  “To ensure beneficial effects (to be described in the next healthy memory post0 Phase One should be practice daily for at least eight weeks.  For the maximal genetic effect as established by practiced many years.”

Phase Two involves visualization

“Use mental imagery, such as picturing a peaceful scene in which you are free of your medical condition, to engage healing expectation, belief, and memory.  This second phase will usual require an average of 8 to 10 minutes.  So the total time for Phases One and Two will be 20 to 25 minutes per session.”

Other Relaxation Response Exercises are discussed.  To be effective they all need to include the following three components:

A mental focusing device that will help you break the patter of everyday thoughts and concerns.  The device can involve words, images, or physical actions such as breathing or footsteps.
A passive, “oh well”  attitude toward distracting thoughts.  If distracting thoughts, including everyday worries or concerns, take over your mind during the exercise, the physiologic effects of the relaxation response might not occur.
Sufficient time—at least 12 to 15 consecutive minutes per practice session—to allow the requisite physiologic changes to occur.

The following suggestions, which are not claimed to be exhaustive, are regarded as additional ways to generate the relaxation response.

Repetitive aerobic exercise
Eastern meditative exercises
Repetitive prayer
Progressive muscle relaxation
Playing a musical instrument or singing
Listening to music
Engaging in a task that requires “mindless” repetitive movements
“ Natural triggers”

“These alternative techniques are discussed in detail in the book.

Here is how you can measure your success in eliciting the Relaxation Response

If you feel more relaxed after you finish a Phase One Session, the technique is working.

If the symptoms you experience diminish or disappear, even momentarily, during or immediately after a session, the technique is working.

If your symptoms diminish with a week or two, the technique is working.

If you feel that the stressors in your life bother you less now than they did within you started this mind body treatment process. the technique is working.

If you feel that you are more in control of your life now than when you started, the technique is working.

If you are observing the basic guidelines for eliciting the relaxation response, you can rest assured, in light of the extensive scientific studies, that the technique is working—no matter how you might feel on a day-to-day basis”

More detailed guidance is provided for the following conditions:
Angina Pectoris
Anxiety
Depression
Hypertension
Stress-Related Infertility
Insomnia
Menopausal, Perimenopausal, and Breast Cancer Hot Flashes
Nausea
Pain-General
Pain-Variations
Parkinson’s Disease
Phobias
Premature aging
Premature Ventricular Contractions and Palpitations
Premenstrual Syndrome

Dr, Benson writes that these treatments are only the beginning.  Being a physician he advises against self-treatment and for treatments under the guidance of a physician.

Happy Thanksgiving 2015!

November 25, 2015

If you have read the preceding four healthy memory blog posts, you should be well aware of how wondrous the brain is and how even more wonderful are the memories we have due to our access to this wondrous organ.  Thanksgiving is an ideal time to express thankfulness for our memories.

The best way of expressing this thankfulness is by adopting a growth mindset and to maintain this mindset throughout our lives.  To maintain a healthy memory it is important  not only to use our memories, but also to grow our memories.  Remember those individuals who despite having brains wracked with the defining neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Presumably these individuals have built a cognitive reserve as a result of growing their memories.

Mindfulness and meditation also are important for a healthy memory.  They reduce stress and increase our control of our attentional resources.  They also provide the basis for more effective interpersonal relations, which are also important for memory health.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 Two Step Process

November 6, 2015

Dr. Benson has been conducting research with the Dalai Lama since 1979.  The Dalai Lamai  is very much interested in science and engineering.  If it were not for his position as His Holiness for Tibetan  Monks, he says that he would have preferred to become an engineer.

Tibetan monks have taken the potential of meditation to the extreme.  In one study monks dressed in nothing but small loincloths are draped in wet sheets while exposed to near-freezing temperatures.  Because these monks had developed amazing physiological control over years of practicing this type of heat-producing meditation, they experienced no distress in these conditions.  Within minutes the body temperatures they produced steamed and dried the wet, cold sheets.

Of course, these results were not obtained by the monks meditating for 20 minutes twice a day.  Meditation for many hours over many years is needed to obtain these results.  But they do demonstrate the control the mind can have over the body.

Usually a precaution is given that motivation should not be involved when meditating.  That is, no goals are to be achieved.  Noting this and noting the performance of these Tibetan Monks Dr. Benson developed the two-step process.  First the Relaxation Response is invoked.  Then, when the mind is quiet, when focusing has opened a door to your mind, visualize an outcome that is meaningful.  If you want to eliminate a pain, envision yourself without the pain.  If you want t improve your performance in a particular venue, imagine yourself performing well in these venues.  According to Dr. Benson, “Whatever your goal, these two steps can be powerful, allowing anyone to reap  the benefits of the Relaxation Response and take advantage of a quiet mind to rewire thoughts and actions in desired directions.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Personal Observations on Meditation Techniques in General and the Relaxation Response in Particular

November 3, 2015

Personally I have difficulty in getting comfortable in a chair, much less sitting on a cushion or in some Yoga positions.  I much prefer reclining, that is lying down.  Although I had thought this might be the case it was only in “The Relaxation Response” that I saw the reason, and that is a tendency to fall asleep.  Mental processes while sleeping differ from mental processes while sleeping.  Clearly this is the case or there would be no need to meditate.

However, I would argue that unless one is very tired, it is unlikely that one would fall asleep before the needed ten to twenty minutes of meditation, and surely that pre-sleep time would be beneficial.

Frankly, if I am having difficulty sleeping or have awakened and am having difficulty getting back to sleep, I find that meditation is very useful in getting back to sleep.  After all, meditation quiets the mind and it is a noisy mind that keeps us awake.

I also find that meditating while walking to be extremely useful.  Particularly when one can walk in nature, one experiences the dual benefits of both nature and meditation.

Then there is ad hoc meditation.  This occurs in social, work, or athletic situations when you are stressed.  Try to take a brief break and engage the Relaxation Response to try to de-stress and recenter yourself.  This might well save you from saying or doing something you’ll regret.

The following is from a preceding healthy memory blog post, “A Simple Technique to Spark Mindfulness:”

S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.
T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.
O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 Relaxation Response Update

October 31, 2015

There was an earlier (2009) healthy memory blog post titled “The Relaxation Response.  The first book on the relaxation response was published in 1975.  A  25th anniversary of the publication of the first book was published with the same title by Herbert Benson, M.D. with Mirian K. Zipper.  Back in 1975 it was revolutionary to believe that the mind played a role in practical medicine.  The book was an instant hit and started inroads into the role of the mind in practical medicine.  By 2015 mindfulness loomed large.

I believe that the relaxation response is the easiest of all meditation techniques.  It is based on Transcendental Meditation, although the secret meditation word provided to TM initiates is not provided.  Everyone can provide their own word or object.

The relaxation response can be invoked with any of a number of techniques:  yoga or qiqong, walking or swimming, even knitting or rowing.  Prayer and religious meditative practices also work.  Although meditation and mindfulness are usually thought of in the context of Buddhism and Hinduism, it has also been central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The book provides many examples of how meditation was used to known practitioners throughout these religions.

According to Dr. Benson, “Here is a list of conditions that, to the extent caused or affected by mind/body connections  (such as stress and the fight-or-flight response), can be significantly improved or even cured when self-care techniques are employed:
angina pectoris
cardiac arryhythmias
allergic skin reactions
anxiety
bronchial asthma
herpes simplex (cold sores)
cough
constipation
diabetes mellitus
duodenal ulcers
dizziness
fatigue
hypertension
infertility
insomnia
nausea and vomiting during pregnancy
nervousness
all forms of pain—backaches, headaches, abdominal pain, muscle pain, joint aches, postoperative pain, neck, arm, and leg pain
postoperative swelling
premenstrual syndrome
rheumatoid arthritis,
side effects of cancer
side effects of aids
Being a physician, Dr. Benson is careful to caution against self-treatment, advising that self-treatment be undertaken under the care of a physician.  Should your physician find these techniques objectionable, I would advise finding another physician who has successfully made way into the 21st Century.

Techniques for inducing the relaxation response were provided in the original healthy memory post.  Here is a set of updated instructions:
Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system.
Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
Close your eyes.
Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.
Breather slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
Assume a passive attitude.  don’t worry about how well you’re doing.  When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
Continue for ten to twenty minutes.
Do not stand immediately.  Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return.  Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
Practice the technique once or twice daily.  Good times to do so are before breakfast and after dinner.
He advises against doing meditation right after eating.  Apparently digestive processes interfere with meditative processes.

This list can be regarded as the ideal.  Dr. Benson notes that the Relaxation Response can also be elicited while exercising.  He writes that if you are jogging or walking to pay attention to the cadence of our feet on the ground—“left, right, left right”—and when other thoughts come into our minds, say “Oh, well,” and return to “left, right, left right.  Swimmers can pay attention to the tempo of their strokes, cyclists to the whir of the wheels,  dancers to the best of the music, others to the rhythm of their breathing.

In a subsequent post I’ll provide my own personal observations on meditating.

There Will Be Another Brief Hiatus in New Posts

February 1, 2015

Nevertheless with more than 550 Healthymemory Blog posts I think there is sufficient reading material.  If I had to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  This can be found by entering this title in the search box of the healthy memory blog.  This search block can be used to identify blog posts on the following topics.

Posts based on whom I regard as the most important cognitive psychologists:  Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, plus Stanovich and Davidson.  There are posts on the important topics of attention and cognitive reserve.  Other topics of potential interest are The Flynn Effect, mindfulness, meditation, memory champs, contemplative computing, behavioral economics, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you are encouraged to enter any of your favorite topics into the healthymemory blog search block

Enjoy.  I shall return.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How the Illusion of the Present is Created

January 20, 2015

This blog post is based in large part on an article in New Scientist (10 January 2015, 28-31) by Laura Spinney. Although we feel like we are living in the present, we need to construct the present from what has happened in the recent past. First of all, we need to work with data processed by our senses. Different senses process information at different rates. For example, the auditory system can distinguish two sounds just 2 milliseconds apart, whereas the visual system requires tens of milliseconds. It takes even longer to detect the order of stimuli. There is evidence that even at the subconscious millisecond level, our brains make predictions. For example, when we watch a badly dubbed movie, our brains predict that the audio and visual streams should occur simultaneously, but if the lag between them does not exceed 200 milliseconds we stop noticing that the lip movements and voices of the actors are out of synch. Our brains need to blend these different sources of information coming in at different rates into a coherent present, so we can deal with what is happening in what appears to be now, but is actually the future.

Marc Wittman of the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiberg, Germany has developed a model of how this process occurs by drawing on a very large mass of psychophysical and neuroscientific data (Frontiers in Integrative Neurosciece, vol. 5, article 66). He believes that there are a hierarchy of nows, each of which forms the building blocks of the next, until the property of flow emerges into an the illusion of the present.

Virginie van Wassenhove and her colleagues at the French Medical Research Agency’s Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Gif-sur-Yvette have been investigating how the brain might bind incoming information into a unified functional moment. They exposed people to sequences of bleeps and flashes. Both occurred once per second, but 200 milliseconds out of synch. Brain imaging was used to reveal the electrical activity produced by these two stimuli. This consisted of two distinct brain waves, one in the auditory cortex and the other in the visual cortex, both oscillating at the rate of once per second. At first the two oscillations were out of phase and the research participants experience the light and sound as being out of synch. But later they reported starting to perceive the beeps and flashes as being simultaneous, the auditory oscillation became aligned with the visual image. So our brain seems to physically adjust signals to synchronize events if it thinks that they belong together (Neuroimage, vol 92, 274). So it appears that even at the subconcious level our brains are choosing what it allows into a moment. But according to Whittman this functional moment is not the now of which we are conscious. This comes at the next level of his hierarchy, the “experienced moment.”

This experienced moment seems to last between 2 and 3 seconds. David Melcher and his colleagues at the University of Trento, Italy provided a good demonstration of this moment. They presented research participants with short movie clips in which segments lasting from milliseconds to several seconds that had been subdivided into small chunks that were shuffled randomly before presentation. If the shuffling occurred within a segment of 2.5 seconds, people could still follow the story as if they hadn’t noticed the switches. But the participants became confused if the shuffled window was longer than 2.5 seconds (Plos ONE, vol 9, pe102248). So our brains seem able to integrate into a cohesive, comprehensible whole within a time frame of up to 2.5 seconds. The researchers suggest that this window is the “subjective present,” and exists to allow us to consciously perceive complex sequences of events. Melcher thinks that this window provides a bridging mechanism to compensate for the fact that ourackf brains are always working on outdated information. Our brains process stimuli that impinged on our senses hundreds of milliseconds ago, but it we were to react with that lag we would not function effectively in the world. Melcher goes on “Our sense of now can be viewed as psychological illusion based on the past and a prediction of the near future, and this illusion is calibrated so that it allows us to do amazing things like run, jump, play sports or drive a car.”

Wittman acknowledges that it is not clear how all this works. The biological of the experienced moment has yet to be found, however neuroscientist Georg Northoff set of the University of Ottawa has proposed one possibility in his 2013 book, Unlocking the Brain. He speculated that implicit timing could be related to slow cortical potentials that provide a kind of background electrical activity measurable across the brain’s cortex. Wittman notes that it’s telling that these waves of electrical activity can last several seconds. He also notes that consciousness itself is kind of filter because it focuses our attention on some things to the exclusion of others. It could be influenced by factors such as emotion or memory, it might tag or label a subset of functional moments as belonging together, to create an experienced moment.

What about meditators who say they are “in the now?” It is clear that it is impossible to be “in the now.” But is it possible that although they appear to be fooling themselves, they are actually accomplish something good? Data indicate that the answer is yes. Wittman did research in which meditators were able to maintain one interpretation of an ambiguous figure longer than non-meditators. Meditators also tend to score higher on tests of attention and working memory capacity. Wittman notes, “If you are more aware of what is happening around you, you not only experience more in the present moment, you also have more memory content.” He also notes, “Meditators perceive time to pass more slowly than non-meditators, both in the present and retrospectively.”

The final paragraph of the New Scientist article merits direct quotation. “This suggests that with a bit of effort we are all capable of manipulating our perception now. If meditation expands your now, then as well as expanding your mind, it could also expand your life. So, grab hold of your consciousness and revel in the moment for longer. There’s no time like the present.”

You Are Not Prisoner of Your DNA

November 8, 2014

Unfortunately, the belief that we are prisoners to our own DNA is used as a cop out from personal responsibility. It is also the first key thing that Dr. Dharma Sing Khaisa, who is the Founding President and Medical Director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, would like every person to understand about his/her own brain, thinks that is commonly misunderstood. The second key thing is, “You can improve your brain function, regardless of your age and stage in life. He is an MD who has been working in this area for more than 20 years, and he says that he is more excited than ever about the possibilities for enhanced mental performance and brain longevity for everyone.

When he started his research he discovered that chronic stress , via release from the adrenal glands, kills brain cells by the thousands in the hippocampus, which is critical to memory performance. He realized that this could lead to Alzheimer’s Disease and other problems. He also knew from his own research and personal experience that lifestyle modifications, especially including yoga and meditation could remedy that. He is continuing his research looking into the integrative approach to the preventon of Alzheimer’s. He is especially interested in continuing to explore the multiple positive benefits of a simple brain-enhancing yoga meditation exercise called Kirtan Kriya, or KK.

He believes that it is important to champion the belief that lifestyle can influence brain fitness and to encourage people to make their brain health their top priority. Personally, he remembers to put his brain health first. He practices yoga and meditation every day, has a serious work out regimen five times a week, and watches his diet. As for mental exercise, he writes songs and plays music, which is also great fun.

This post reiterates the goals of the healthymemory blog, which is important to do periodically.

The following URL is the reference for this blog post.

http://sharpbrains.com/blog/2014/09/30/dr-dharma-singh-khalsa-alzheimers-research-prevention-foundation-youre-not-a-prisoner-of-your-dna/

A Key Component Generating Conscious Experience?

October 29, 2014

The November/December 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind included an article by Christof Koch, who is a former collaborator with Francis Crick, who with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure and the function of DNA. The title of the article is “A Brain Structure Looking for a Function.” The brain structure in question is the claustrum. The claustrum is a thin, irregular sheet of cells, tucked below the neocortex, which is the gray matter that allows us to see, hear, reason, think, and remember. It is surrounded on all sides by white matter, the tracts, or wire bundles, that interconnect cortical regions with one another and with other brain regions. There are two claustra one for each side of the brain. They lie below the general region of the insular cortex, underneath the temples, just above the ears. They have a long, thin wisp of a shape that can be easily overlooked when inspecting the topography of the brain region.

Advanced brain-imaging techniques have revealed white matter fibers coursing to and from the two claustra that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustra. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustra to the originating cortical regions. Although each claustrum receives inputs from both cortical hemispheres, but only project back to the overlying cortex on the same side.

Crick looked at these facts and believed that a reliable guide to understanding function, is to study structure. And he, working with Koch formulated the idea that the claustra are a key component of the networks generating conscious experience. This work turned out to be Crick’s Swan Song to science as he was suffering from end-stage colon cancer. He finished his paper with Koch before passing away,

“What is the Function of the Claustrum?, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360, No.1458, pages 1271-1279.

Additional research supporting this contention of Crick and Koch is cited in the Koch piece in Scientific American Mind. Nevertheless it is always fascinating to speculate about conscious. It is the only product of the brain with which we have direct experience. Yet the brain is raging with activity 24 hours a day. There are many reasons to believe that we can use our conscious experience to improve our focus and ability to attend. We can also use it to control our emotions and it lets us take a third person look at our own interactions with other. Fundamentally, meditation and mindfulness is a matter of learning to control our conscious experience to advantage.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

Mindful Commuters

October 22, 2014

The front page of the October 20 Washington Post had an article “Mindful’ commuters say deep breaths, clear mind keep them calm under stress.” Although it might sound impossible, people who practice mindful commuting swear it brings tranquility to the daily misery of crowded trains, late buses, honking horns, and traffic jams. According to the article almost 2 million people use one meditation-on-the-go-ap, and plenty of others are downloading a recent explosion of guided meditation podcasts and Web recordings, and others take mindfulness classes.

Mindfulness also is used by drivers who commute. One commuter said she pays attention to her breathing and relaxes when her jaw tightens or her fingers clench the steering wheel during her hour-plus commute. She said that practicing mindfulness has expanded her driving field of vision beyond traffic to include trees, architecture and cloud formations. She says that she thinks that mindfulness makes her a much better driver. When you drive you have to be aware of everything around you. I think that the incidents of road rage would decrease in direct proportion to the number of drivers practicing mindfulness. Headspace is a meditation app for guiding commuting meditations used by about 1.7 million people.

Commuters who ride practice formal meditation focusing on their breathing, noticing when their minds wander and repeatedly returning to their breathing as a way to train their attention. People who drive or ride a bike practice a more informal kind of meditation aimed at increasing awareness. They focus on sights, sounds, and physical sensations that root them in the present moment than in their topsy-turvy minds.

Mindful commuters feel less stressed and can dismiss worries about arriving late. They also tend to be compassionate about their fellow commuters.

Six ways to have a more mindful commute follow from the same article.

Turn your attention from when you’ll get to your destination, it’s out of your control anyway, to your surroundings, particularly what you notice via your senses: Sounds, the feel of your feet on the ground or your rear in a seat, places in your body that feel tight or hot from tension.

If you’re not driving or riding a bike, focus on your breathing. Take five breaths, with deep inhalations and slow exhalations. Then return to normal breathing, but try to notice each breath. You can gaze ahead, or slightly down, at a fixed point or close your eyes. When you notice you’ve become lost in thought spiral of “Oh no, I’m going to be late. My boss is going to be so ticked. I’ll probably get fired. Then I’ll probably starve to death…”), gently return your attention to your breathing and sounds around you. Allow thoughts to come and fgo without attaching any significance to them.

If you’re driving or riding a bike, cut the music and become more aware of the sights and sounds around you: the view of trees or taillights, the sound of birds, the feel of wind on your face. When you notice yourself lost in thought, come back to your senses.

When angry or annoying thoughts are triggered, notice the physical sensations of those thoughts (a tight chest, feeling of heat, tense shoulders) and consciously relax. Try a silent mantra,such as “It’s okay” or “This is out of my control, I’m doing the best I can.”

Use redlights or stops on a train or bus as a reminder to notice whether you’re lost in thought. Then reofocus on your breathing or you senses.

When you walk, focus on the feel of your feet connecting with the ground, your breathing, the sounds around you (even it it’s the steady thrum of traffic) and the feel of the air on your face. When you notice you’ve become distracted or lost in thought, return to your senses.

A Brief Summary of Sessions Attended at the 2014 APA Convention

August 17, 2014

The first session I attended was on training older adults to enhance their memories. Important here are the roles of self-efficacy and self-regulation. Metamemory refers to the knowledge we have and use regarding our own memories. Important here is one’s subjective age. That is, the age one feels. Feelings of being old can led one to self-defeating prophecies that one is old and therefore cannot do things or be successful. Consequently, one one is trying to perform a task, positive feedback is important. In studies where positive feedback, negative feedback, and no feedback was provided, it is not surprising that positive feedback yields positive results. What is interesting is that there was no difference between the no feedback and negative feedback conditions. This result suggest that people provide their own negative feedback when no feedback is given. So it is important when training memory strategies, it is also important to impart positive beliefs.

Previously difficulties have been encountered in demonstrating transfer from the trained memory tasks to other tasks. These researchers reported wide spread transfer effects Although these effects were wide spread, they were not universal. Depending upon the severity of the memory problem and the difficulty of the transfer tasks, sometimes the effects were diminished. But it seemed at most all levels of dementia, some type of transfer was exhibited.

Dunlosky of Kent State presented research on Strategy Adapted Training and a Learner-oriented approach. The notion here is to capitalize on the strengths of the elderly and to develop good metacognition. An important part of this training was self testing. This self-testing not only required information retrieval, which is evaluable itself in strengthening neural connections, but the outcome of these tests provides information for regulating future study.

I also attended the Psy Chi sponsored lecture by Daniel Schacter, one of the most renowned memory researchers (see the healthymemory blog post, “The Seven Sins of Memory”). The benefits of actually ry testing oneself and retrieving information from memory were mentioned. More shall be written about Schachter’s research in future posts.

There was an interesting session on creativity and intelligence using both psychometric and neuroscience approaches. There are standard tests for different types of intelligence and for the types of thinking that lead to creativity. Brain imaging is used to find what parts of the brain are involved in certain tasks as well as what areas of the brain are more highly activated in highly intelligent and creative people. Moreover, there are different types of creativity that foster different types of activity in the brain. For example, there was a presentation on the neural correlates of metaphorical expression. Another question is whether creative people better able to control their imaginations. The current answer is a tentative “Yes.”

Research was presented on the training of working memory. As the name implies, working memory is memory that works. For example, it is the memory used when there is a distance between the phone and the directory and you need to rehearse the number until you can dial it or you will likely forget it. Research suggest that a stronger working memory allows for more persistence trying a task, which will more likely lead to success.

There was a session on Mind Body, Creative, and Cross Cultural Extension. One presenter made the argument that mindfulness is a construct whereas meditation is a technique. I have no argument with this in a theoretical sense, but in a practical sense I would argue that mindfulness is a way of thinking and living. Meditation is used to build and support mindfulness. There are many types of meditation. This point was illustrated in a cross-cultural comparison. Unfortunately, results were presented indicating that one type of meditation was superior to another type of meditation. Let us hope that this competition will not continue. It is better to think that different types of meditation are appropriate for achieving different ends, that different approaches are appropriate for different people, and that they can all be used to increase mindfulness.

There a scale that measures mindfulness, the Langer Mindfulness Scale. It was used in a study of patients suffering from ALS, which is better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This scale predicted physical and psychological changes independently.

I attended an invited address by Bryan Stevenson, JD, from the Equal Justice Initiative on the Psycho-Social Dynamics of Achieving Justice. This man is remarkable. He is one of the best, perhaps the best, speakers I have every heard, and his message is an important one. I would advise everyone never to pass up an opportunity to hear this man speak. His website is www.eji.org.

The Neal Miller lecture was presented by Dr. Stuart M. Zola. In addition to being a psychologist, he is also a magician, so it was not surprising that his talk was titled “Memory, Magic, and the Brain.”He made interesting points and illustrated them with magic. I am unable to show his magic tricks, and as he made several points, I’ll just present one. This has to do with how our memories can fool us. The day after the shuttle disaster a psychologist, Ulric Neisser, had the prescience to have his students write down what they remembered regarding the tragedy. He had the further wisdom to have these same students write down their recollections again. The students also rated the confidence they had in their recollections. Neisser compared the two written accounts. There were some that were consistent. However, there were many more, some of which were wildly discrepant. When shown their original accounts, some swore that they were not theirs, that they had been switched. Most importantly is that the correlations between the confidence they expressed and the accuracy of their recollections were low. The lesson here is to be wary not only in the accuracy of our own memories, but certainly to be wary of the accuracy of others. Moreover, the confidence people express in their recollections should be ignored. What is disturbing is that research has found that in courts of law, jurors are much more prone to believe the confident witness, when in reality the memories of the cautious witness are much more likely to be accurate. It is likely that this tendency to believe confident witnesses has led to the execution of innocent individuals.

On the final day I attended sessions on impact validation, that is on validations of programs and interventions, and on consciousness. The papers on consciousness were interesting, but nothing was resolved, of course.

There will be subsequent posts on a former colleague who received a prestigious and deserved award, and on the work of Philip Zimbardo.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

Gone to the 2014 Meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA)

August 6, 2014

There will be a brief hiatus in new blog posts while I attend, assimilate, and perhaps write some new blog posts. However, with 500 plus posts already posted, I think there is plenty to read and consider in the meantime. The category mnemonic techniques contains not only techniques for directly improving memory, but also posts on mindfulness and meditation. The category transactive memory has posts on how to use technology and interact with our fellow humans to promote memory health and to grow cognitively The category Human Memory Theory and Data has posts on the fascinating and relevant topic of human cognition.

Please use the healthymemory blog’s search block. You might be surprised by the diversity of topics you will see covered.

Mindfulness As Continuous Process Improvement

July 12, 2014

Mindfulness is not just a matter of meditating on a regular schedule. Mindfulness is something we should practice whenever we are conscious. When we awake at night, we should monitor our thoughts. Are they negative? Are we having hostile thoughts about others? Are we ruminating on the mistakes we have made? Reviewing mistakes we have made is good if we can learn from them. But once we have learned from them, they should be discarded. We should not keep thinking thoughts about matters we can do nothing about. Of course during our waking hours our minds can become quite busy. Here it is good to remember the acronym from the healthymemory blog “A Simple Tip to Spark Mindfulness. That acronym is STOP

SStop. Simply pause from what you are doing.

T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.

OObserve and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

P –Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.

Being busy we can find it difficult to find time to meditate. Research is currently underway to see how little meditation might be helpful as well as the benefits of doing frequent short periods of meditation throughout the day. Although I am interested in this research, I think each one of us should decide for ourselves. Remember the healthymemory blog post, “Randomized Control Trials, Mindfulness, and Meditation,”your personal results might be idosyncratic to yourself. So a general failure to find benefits for a general population might not apply to you. You can sense what is working.

Research done in memory and training has found that distributed practice is generally superior to massed practice. That is if you are going to spend four hours practicing something, it is better to have four spaced one hour sessions that to do the practicing in one four hour block. I would no be surprised if a similar result was found for meditation. And there might be different results for different types of medication.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What’s Wrong with the World: A Paucity of Mindfulness?

July 6, 2014

This question came to mind while reading an article by Wilson and his colleagues in the Journal Science (July 2014 p. 75) titled “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.” He notes that we humans “have the ability to sit and mentally detach  ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward, recalling the past, envisioning the future , and imagining worlds that have never existed.” He reports the results of a survey of American adults found that 95% of the respondents that they did at least one leisure activity in the past 24 hours such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported that they spent no time whatsoever relaxing or thinking. I find the latter number astounding, and I am even somewhat skeptical of the percentage value, but I can believe that it is a large percentage. Why is this number so large?  True, we are all busy, but to what end?

Wilson conducted a series of studies addressing this question. There were variants of the study, but the basic protocol was as follows: College level participants spent from 6 to15 minutes in an unadorned room after storing their belonging. They were asked to remain in their seats, stay awake, and entertain themselves with their thoughts. After this thinking period trying to entertain themselves with their thoughts they were asked how enjoyable the experience was, and how hard it was to concentrate. They rated their experience on a nine point scale. More than half, 57.5% being at or above the midpoint of the scale indicating that it was difficult to concentrate. They indicated that their mind wandered (89% being at or above the midpoint of the scale) even though there was nothing competing for their attention. Moreover, on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much (49.3% being at or below the midpoint of the scale.

In another study, participants were asked to conduct the experiment in their home. The home study essentially replicated the college study, with perhaps even somewhat more pronounced effects. To generalize the results beyond college students they recruited additional participants at a farmer’s market and at a church. The results were successfully replicated with these samples. Additionally, no evidence was found that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media.

Sensory deprivation research, in which sensory inputs are largely precluded from research participants, have found that the participants will start hallucinating, that the human nervous system will generate internal activity to compensate from losses in external stimulation. Still it appears that most people do not like ‘just thinking” and like having something to do. The researchers asked the question how badly do they want something else to do. So participants were given the option of being able to administer electric shocks to themselves. Although the shocks were small, they were large enough to be unpleasant. The following results are restricted to those who reported that they would pay not to be shocked again. 67% of the men gave themselves at least one shock, whereas 25% of the women gave themselves electric shocks.

These results point to the need for mindfulness and meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts documenting the benefits of meditation. Absent these practices it appears that the mind does not like to be alone with itself.

West begins the article with a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The mind is its own place, and in it self?

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

So it’s up to us whether we make a Heaven or Hell.

So meditate and be mindful.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 500th Blog Post Has Been Passed

June 25, 2014

It was passed several posts ago. I wanted to continue the sequence of posts based on Greenwood and Parasuraman’s, Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind.before making the announcement.

Just as its title indicates, this blog is dedicated to building and sustaining healthy memories. Post are divided into three main categories. Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on memory and cognition. The Mnemonics Techniques category includes not only traditional memory techniques but also posts on meditation and mindfulness. The Transactive Memory category has posts on how interactions with technology and our fellow human beings can foster a healthy memory.

If I had one post to recommend to read it would be “The Triangle of Well Being” Entering “The Distraction Addiction” into the search box, will lead you to posts on how not only to cope with technology, but also howto use it to your advantage. Entering “Davidson” will lead you to many posts about mindfulness, meditation, and how to develop an effective emotional style. You can find posts on memes by entering, appropriately enough,  “meme”, into the search block. You’ll also find posts on economics. You might be surprised by some of the topics you’ll find covered. Give it a try.

Randomized Control Trials, Mindfulness, and Meditation

May 24, 2014

The gold standard for evaluative research is the randomized control trial (RCT).  In RCTs subjects are assigned randomly to different experimental conditions.   Typically untreated control groups and placebo control groups are included.  Absent this random assignment, biases could be introduced into the study.  Statistical tests are administered on the data after it has been collected to estimate the likelihood that any differences are due to chance.

Conclusions are based on the populations from which the sample groups were drawn.  The conclusions are made to the populations from which these samples were drawn.  So if you are not  a member of this population, you cannot conclude that the conclusions are relevant to you.  You should also realize that the conclusions are not for you personally.   So even if you belong to a population it is possible that your responses to the treatment would have differed due to some genetic or experiential factor unique to you.

You will come across studies that conclude that mindfulness or certain types of meditation do not work or produce certain results.  You need to be skeptical regarding these conclusions.  First of all, it is quite likely that individuals can be found for whom these practices work.  But when reading about experiments you need to consider what was the length of the training period.  It is quite possible that the training period was insufficient.  It is also possible that the training was inadequate or wrong.  Then, there is also a matter of individual commitment.  Unlike a medical trial where some substance is provided, mindfulness practices require the commitment of the participant to the practice of mindfulness.  Half-hearted or skeptical participants are unlikely to participate.

So be skeptical of research on mindfulness or particular types of meditation that address the general question of whether it works.  That is a meaningless question.  However research into the specific benefits, physiological, brain activity or brain changes is informative.  What is especially informative is research into specific regimens of training and practice along with the resulting benefits.  And always be cognizant that you are an individual and that your results might very well differ.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 Wheel of Awareness

May 10, 2014

The Wheel of Awareness can be found in Dr. Dan Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal NeuroBiology.  The purpose of this wheel of awareness is to provide a map to guide meditation.  This map was developed by Dr. Siegel to guide meditation independent of any specific religious practice.    At the center of this hub is the awareness of the meditator.  There are four spokes going out of the hub to the rim of the wheel.  One goes out to exteroception, the awareness of external inputs to our five senses..  The second spoke goes out to interoception, the awareness of feelings internal to our bodies.   The third spoke goes out to mental activity.  The fourth spoke goes out to interpersonal relationships.  The purpose of the wheel is to guide awareness  so that important issues are not bypassed or overlooked.
So the meditator can place awareness on  each of the five senses and try to be consciously aware of everything on each sense to the exclusion of everything else.  There is an exercise that can be done with a raisin.  First the raisin is examined visually.  Then the raisin is felt, perhaps with the eyes closed.  Then the raisin is sniffed.  Next the raisin is placed in the mouth.  In addition to tasting the raisin, the texture of the raisin would be felt.  Finally, when the raisin is swallowed, it’s progress down the alimentary canal would be followed.
Now for interoception the focus is on one’s internal bodily feelings.  That is, how does one feel internally?  Any complaints from vital organs, muscles, or nerves?
Mental activity covers a lot of ground.  What thoughts are coming to mind and why.  Here is where one thinks about one’s own thinking.  One question is whether I am thinking when I say or do certain things, or are these automatic responses from my System 1 processes (Kahneman).  Are there biases  in my thinking of which I am unaware?
The fourth spoke is concerned with interpersonal relationships.  How are they going?   If there are problems, they can be pondered for understanding and possible solutions.
Dr. Siegel says that this is about a twenty minute practice, and if time is a constraint, perhaps it can be divided into five minutes per spoke done on consecutive days.
As the hub becomes stronger with individual practice we can imagine that part of the neural correlate of the hub, the middle prefrontal region, also becomes synaptically enhanced as well.   One when becomes advanced meditating with the wheel the person can focus a spoke back on the hub as well.  “Bending the spoke, in the mind’s eye, back towards the hub enables people to experience first hand what direct awareness of awareness itself feels like1.
Information and exercises on the Wheel of Awareness, along with other resources can be found on Dr. Siegel’s website, http://www.drdsiegel.com.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

Mindful Awareness

March 25, 2014

This post is based on Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology who describe mindful awareness as a form of awareness in which we are alert and open to present experience without being swept up by judgments and prior expectations. This implies discernment or a moral stance that is one of positive regard for others, and a nonjudgmental awareness that is imbued with acceptance at its core, of compassion towards oneself and others.
A direct quote from 6-3 of the Pocket Guide follows: “Studies of those with mindful awareness using a broad application of these features reveal that it is of benefit to the health of the mind, in terms of balanced emotional regulation, flexibility, and approaching rather than withdrawing from challenging events. Being mindful makes you more empathic and improves the health of relationships. And being mindful improves the health of the body in terms of enhanced immune function and increased telomerase—the enzyme that maintains the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes and thus enhances cellular longevity. Mindfulness also helps you have more resilience in the face of chronic pain. Mindful awareness helps minds, relationships, and our embodied lives.”
Mindful awareness practices are available for children and adolescents as well as for adults, so mind-training practices have the potential to promote well-being and resilience throughout the life span. According to the annotated index mindful awareness practice is skill building training that focuses attention on intention and the cultivation of awareness of awareness. Repeated and regular practice has been shown to strengthen to regulate emotion and attention, improve empathy and insight, promote healthy immune functioning, move the electrical activity of the brain toward a “left shift” of approaching challenging situations and increase the activity and growth of regulatory and integrative regions of the brain. Examples of mindful awareness practices include mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, yoga, and tai chi chuan. More examples of mindfulness and meditation can be found by entering “mindfulness” or “meditation” into the healthymemory blog search block.
These practices have affected the integrated areas of the brain that link the cortex, limbic area, brainstem, and social inputs from other brains. These areas influence executive function to include emotional regulation and the focus of attention, as well as emotional and social intelligence. Included here are the anterior and posterior cingulate , the orbitofrontal cortex, and both the medial and the ventral aspects of the preftontal region, including the insula and the limbic hippocampus.

The Brain

March 11, 2014

Within the triangle of well-being (see the immediately preceding post) it is important to have some understanding of the brain, as that is the organ that the mind needs to control and grow. All of the following are estimates:1

  • There are 1 million neuronal connections formed every second.

  • There are 100 billion nerve cells in the brain.

  • It computes 100 trillion instructions per second compared to the 25 billion instruction per second done by a typical desktop computer.

  • There are 500 trillion synaptic connections in an adult human brain.

Moreover, there are trillions of glial cells providing support.

It is also important to know that neurogenesis occurs throughout the entire life span and involves the differentiation of neuro stem cells into fully mature neurons in the brain.

This brain is one tremendous device we have. Unfortunately, the brain frequently seems to have a mind of its own. And it requires dedicated focused attention for the brain to grow and fulfill its potential.

Transactive memory is a resource consisting of the memories of our fellow humans. These memories can be accessed through direct personal relationships or through technology. Technology brings us the wisdom of the ancients. It also allows us to profit from the mistakes of our predecessors.

Mindfulness and meditation help our minds control our brains including our emotions. They also develop our attentional powers so we are able to grow and achieve in desired directions.

Our brains are a terrible thing to waste. But our minds can prevent our brains from being wasted.

1Huang, G.T. (2008). Essence of thought. New Scientist, 31 May, 30-33.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Mindfulness Meditation Helps Us Regulate Our Emotions

March 1, 2014

Recent research1 has helped us understand how mindfulness resulting from meditation helps regulate our emotions. First of all, mindfulness increases awareness of our internal states. So if something starts to anger us, such as an insult or an aggressive driver, the mindfulness person will recognize these feeling faster than less mindful counterparts.

The mindful person will also have greater emotional awareness. So should a mindful person encounter an aggressive driver, the mind sends a warning that this anger needs to be regulated. Similarly, when a mindful person starts to feel depressed, there is an awareness that this emotion needs to be controlled and that it can be controlled.

The following2 is a classroom exercise that is used to show the benefits of mindfulness. Students are each given a few raisins. Half of the class is asked to look at their feet and remain quiet for 4 minutes. These students serve as the control group. The other half of the class is the mindfulness group. The following phrases are shown on PowerPoint slides for 30 seconds each.

Holding: Take one raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand between your finger and you thumb. Focusing on it, imagine that you’ve just dropped in from Mars and have never seen an object like this before in your life.

Seeing: Take time to really see it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention. Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights were the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges, and any asymmetries or unique figures.

Touching: Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture, maybe with your eyes closed if that enhances your sense of touch.

Smelling: Hold the raisin beneath your nose, and with each inhalation, drink in any smell, aroma, or fragrance than may arise, noticing anything interesting that may be happening in your mouth or stomach.

Placing: Now slowly bring the raisin up to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. Gently place the raisin in the mouth, without chewing, noticing how it gets into the mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.

Tasting: When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noticing how and where it needs to be for chewing . Then, very consciously, take one or two bits into it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you continue chewing. Without swallowing yet, notice the bare sensations of taste and texture in the mouth and how these may change over time, moment by moment, as well as any changes in the raisin itself.

Swallowing: When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow it.

Following: Finally, see if you can feel what is left of the raisin moving down into the stomach, and sense how the body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise in mindful eating.

Next all students write a paragraph about their biggest life stressors. Then the students are asked to identify the emotions that these stressors cause. The mindfulness group should list more emotion words than the control group because the mindfulness group should be more aware of their internal states. Finally the students are asked the following question: “How upset are you right now, that is AT THE PRESENT MOMENT, about the stressful things you listed” using a rating scale from 1= not at all upset to 10=extremely upset. The mindful students are expected to be less upset than the students in the control group because they are better able to regulate their emotions.

Bear in mind that this is one of many types of meditation. Entering either “mindfulness,” or “meditation” into the healthymemory blog search box will yield many healthymemory posts on these topics.

1Reper, R. Segal, Z.V., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Inside the mindful mind: How mindfulness enhances emotion regulation through improvements in executive control.

2DeWakk, C.N., & Meyers, D. G. (2014). Mindful Students: The Pain and Pleasure of Awareness and Acceptance. Observer, 27, 2, 30-31.

There Will Be A Brief Hiatus in New Posts on the Healthymemory Blog

February 6, 2014

Not that you should notice. There are well over 450 posts here. That should be plenty to read, ponder, and practice. As its title, suggests this blog is devoted to the development and growth of healthy memories. You can find techniques for improving memory and controlling attention. In addition to specific memory techniques, there are posts on meditation and mindfulness. Posts in the category of transactive memory discuss how technology and interactions with our fellow humans contribute to memory health and help us grow our memories. There are also many posts on human memory and information processing. Mental growth and development should be a goal we work towards our entire lives. The earlier this is started, the better, but it is never too late. The development of a cognitive reserve is one of the best measures one can take to avoid Alzheimer’s and dementia. Use the blog’s search box to search for topics of personal interest. You will likely be pleasantly surprised by what you can find.

Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance

January 25, 2014

An important experiment demonstrated that mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) performance while reducing mind wandering.1 Forty-eight undergraduates were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness class or a nutrition task. The mindfulness class emphasized physical posture and mental strategies of focused-attention meditation. It required participants to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities and to complete 10 minutes of daily meditation outside of class. Classes met four times a week for 45 minutes for two weeks. During class, participants sat on cushions in a circle. Each class included 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness exercises requiring focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience (sensations of breathing, tastes of a piece of fruit, or sounds of an audio recording. Participants shared their experiences with the class and received personalized feedback from the instructor. Class content was designed to provide a clear set of strategies for and a conceptual understanding of how to practice mindfulness, Classes focused on sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, distinguishing between naturally arising thoughts and elaborated thinking, minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present, using the breath as an anchor for attention during meditation, repeatedly counting up to 21 consecutive exhalations, and allowing the mind to rest naturally rather than trying to suppress the occurrence of thoughts.

The nutrition class served as a control group so that an equal amount of time would be spent training, but on an unrelated topic. Participants in the nutrition class were required to log their daily food intake.

The working memory capacity (WMC) task was the operation scan test mentioned in the immediately preceding post. A 20 minute verbal reasoning section was excerpted from the GRE that assessed reading comprehension. Mind wandering was measured during the performance of these tasks using the same scale for task unrelated thoughts (TUT) that was described in the immediately preceding post. These tests were administered both before the classes started, and after the classes were completed.

Mindfulness training improved both the GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory. Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind-wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting.

The authors concluded that their results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences. I certainly agree, and I am impressed that these effects were achieved with so little training.

The descriptions of the mindfulness training are limited by the description provided in the research paper. More information on mindfulness and mindfulness techniques can be found by entering “mindfulness” or “meditation” in the healthymemory blog search box.

1Mrazek, M.D., Franklin M.S., Phillips, D.T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J.W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and Graduate Record Examination performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24, 776.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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.

Happy New Year 2014: Now What About Those Resolutions?

December 29, 2013

Let me begin by making a strong recommendation. If you text while driving, or even if you just use the cell phone while driving, please make it your most important resolution to stop. These activities can lead not only to your own death or disability, but also to the death of others. Although texting is by far the worse of the two, just using your cell phone increases the chance of an accident by a factor of four. Moreover, whether your hands are free or not is irrelevant. Hands are not the problem. These activities produce attentional blindness that can result in accidents. Many of you should have seen the video clip where you are asked to count the number of times a ball is passed among a group of men. During the clip a man in a gorilla suit works across the floor. Many do not even notice his presence. This is a good example of what is meant by attentional blindness.

Although making New Year’s Resolutions is a splendid idea, the problem is that we fail to keep most of these resolutions. One way of improving your success is to cast willpower as a choice. This can be done by carefully choosing the words you use to talk to yourself. Research1 has shown that when participants framed a refusal as “I don’t” instead of “I can’t connotes deprivation, while saying ). So, for example, one could say “I don’t eat fatty foods,” rather than “I can’t eat fatty foods.” Vanessa Patrick, the author of the study said, “I believe that an effective route to self regulation is by managing one’s desire for temptation, instead of relying solely on willpower… Saying,“I can’t” denotes deprivation while saying “I don’t” makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”1

So it is a good idea to rely on willpower as little as possible. A book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, explains why. Keeping New Year’s Resolutions results in ego depletion. You can think of ego depletion as being a loss in will or mental energy and it can be measured by glucose metabolism. Whenever you are trying to resist temptation, make a decision, or need to concentrate on certain tasks, there is this loss in willpower or mental energy, such that it is difficult to resist additional temptations, to make more decisions, or to concentrate on additional tasks. So it is unwise to try to give up two vices at the same time. The probability of success if much greater if you address one vice and then later address the other vice.

So the more resolutions you make, the less likely you are to keep them. And the more difficult a given resolution is, the more difficult it will be to keep it. So here is a strategy for you consideration. Decide upon only two resolutions. One should be fairly easy, and the other more difficult. You are more likely to keep the easy resolution, so you will likely have one in the win column. Should you also keep the second more difficult resolution, then you are entitled to a YA HAH moment. This strategy should produce at least a .500 win percentage.

As for what other resolutions one might make, the Healthymemory Blog has some additional suggestions.

Taking at least a forty minute walk at least three times a week.

Learn at least three new words a day (or 21 words a week) in the language of your choice.

Contribute to a Wikipedia page on a topic of interest and continue to build you knowledge in that topic or a new topic.

Find several new friends with a similar interest and pursue that interest with a passion.

Engage in deliberate practice in a skill of interest (See the Healthymemory Blog Post Deliberate Practice”)

Develop and practice mnemonic techniques on a regular basis (Click on the Category “Mnemonic Techniques” and you find a comprehensive listing of mnemonic techniques along with descriptions of the techniques and exercises. Try starting at the bottom of the category and proceeding up. There is a specific Healthymemory Blog post, “Memory Course”, which suggests an order in which the mnemonic techniques should be approached. There are also some websites for learning and developing proficiency in mnemonic techniques. One is www.NeuroMod.org. Click on the Human Memory Site. Then click on the “read more” link under your preferred language. You can open up an account and record and track your progress. Another site is www.Thememorypage.net. Both of these websites are free.)

Begin meditating and start practicing mindfulness. You can find many healthymemory blog posts on meditation and mindfulness, simply enter these terms in the blog’s search block.

Good luck.

1Rodriguez, T. (2013). :I Don’t” Beats “I Can’t” for Self Control. Scientific American Mind, January/February p.14.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Be Calm

September 29, 2013

The second of eight steps to contemplative computing1 is to be calm. Contemplation involves a special kind of calm. It’s active rather than passive. It’s disciplined and self-aware. It’s like the placidity of the samurai. Or the coolness under pressure exhibited by an experienced pilot. It’s the product of masterful engagement that fills one’s attention and leaves no room for distraction.

Training and discipline are required for this type of calm. It involves a deep understanding of both devices and the self. This calm does not require getting away from the world. Rather it allows for fluid quick action in the world. The goal is not to escape, but rather to engage. We need to set the stage on which we can bring our entanglement with devices and media under our control so that we can more effectively engage with the world and extend ourselves.

Remember that technology affords the opportunity to be calm, if only we make use of it. There is voice mail, so phone messages can be answered, or not answered, when we decide to answer them. Similarly, email awaits our attention. Always remember that it is our attention. We can decide if and when to devote our attention to it.

Also remember, that meditation is a practice that can help us be calm. You will find many posts on meditation in the healthymemory blog.

Zenware, which assists us in being calm, is discussed in The Distraction Addiction. Writeroom and Ommwriter are two examples of Zenware. Try going to http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/.

The remaining six principles of contemplative computing will be discussed in subsequent healthymemory blog posts. The first principle, Be Human, was discussed in the preceding blog post.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Relieving Stress

September 7, 2013

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. It connects our brains to our lungs, digestive tracts, heart, and the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember that our sympathetic nervous system alerts us to new things and danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for helping us relax and calm down. The stronger the activity of our vagus nerve, the more readily we can assume a feed and enjoy state rather than being stressed out. The strength of this vagal activity is known as vagal tone.

The vagus nerve’s interplay with the heart rate as we breathe can be used to infer vagal tone. Inhaling temporarily suppresses vagal nerve activity. This increases heart rate that helps oxygenated blood circulate. When we breathe out, our heart rate slows. The larger the difference between our heart rate when breathing in compared with breathing out, the higher our vagal tone.

An article in the New Scientist1 explains why we should care about vagal tone, and what we can do to improve it. There are physical health benefits. The vagus nerve plays a role in stimulating insulin production. Consequently, people with low tone are not as good as those with high tone at regulating their blood glucose levels. They also have difficulty suppressing inflammation. These factors are association with heart failure, stroke, and diabetes, so it is not surprising that thee is a strong link between low vagal tone and dying from cardiovascular disease. There are also mental benefits. People with higher vagal tone tend to be intellectually sparkier. They are better able to focus their attention and have better working memories.

Naturally, the question is how can vagal tone be improved. Loving kindness meditation was highlighted in the New Scientist article. Buddhist monks will spend hours in this type of meditation. Given the state of the world, one might conclude that their efforts are ineffective. However, regardless of the state of the world, these monks should be in superb physical and mental health. Fortunately, it does not appear that lengthy meditations are needed . Here is the protocol described in the article:

Find a position that makes you feel relaxed, yet alert. With your eyes closed, try to envisage your heartbeat, and then consciously concentrate on your breathing. Now visualize someone—it can be yourself, a loved one, or someone you barely know—and think of their good qualities. Once you are feeling positive towards them, repeat these traditional phrases of loving kindness meditation: May X feel safe: May X feel happy: May X feel healthy: May X live at ease. After a few minutes, let go of X’s image and start thinking nice thoughts about someone else.

The article mentions people mentally wishing happy thoughts to strangers they are passing. Research into this area is fairly new. It does not seem that loving kindness meditation, although certainly worthwhile, is necessary to increase vagal tone. However, it is quite likely that positive thoughts and some type of meditation are important. Some unpublished research has shown that just reflecting on positive social experiences during the day boosts vagal tone. Physical exercise is also likely to be beneficial

1Young, E. (2013.Wishful Thinking, July, 46-49.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Mindfulness Practice: Awareness of Breathing

July 31, 2013

The following guidance is taken from the Afterword written by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan, which is a book that the healthymemory blog highly recommends.

“ Do this practice at a time of the day and location when you’re less likely to have interruptions or feel sleepy. It may mean that you close your office door and turn off your phone and computer in the middle of the work day, or you get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning, or in the evening you go into a separate room in your home and ask your family to not disturb you for a little while.

There is no need to have a particular goal in mind. You’re not trying to feel a certain way, do anything special, or get anything specific out of it. You’re simply being present in yourself by stilling the body, tuning in, and quieting the mind for a few minutes. The breathing practice below presents a practice you can do over and over again whenever you choose, You can find more details in the books mentioned at the beginning of the resource section (In the book by Tim Ryan).

  • Settle into a steady and comfortable sitting posture—in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. The back is relatively straight, but not rigid, allowing the breathing to be open and easy. Hands can be placed on the thighs or resting loosely on the lap. The head and neck are balanced. You may either close your eyes or just lower them in a soft gaze.

  • Bring your awareness to the sensation of your body touching the chair or cushion, your feet touching the floor, the feeling of the air in the room.

  • Gently bring awareness to the breath as it moves in and out.

  • Notice where the breath is most vivid for you. This may be at the nostrils or at the chest as it rises and falls, or maybe right at the belly as you notice the expanding and releasing.

  • You may be aware of the brief pause between the in=breath and the out-breath.

  • Notice the rhythm of your breathing, and be aware of the sensations of the air coming into and filling your body, and then releasing itself and leaving your body.

  • Stay present with the experience of breathing. Just allow yourself to breathe in a natural and comfortable way, riding the waves of in-breath and out-breath.

  • If your attention has wandered off the breath (and it will), gently escort it back to awareness of breathing. Allow thoughts or emotions to arise without pushing them away or holding on to them. Simply observe them with a very light and gentle curiosity. No need to get carried away by them, or to judge or interpret them.

  • That’s it.”

Putting Mindfulness to Work

July 24, 2013

Putting Mindfulness to Work is the title of an article by Tara Healey of Harvard University in the August 2013 edition of Mindful (pp. 70-74). Although the article is specifically about putting mindfulness to work in the workplace, it generalizes to the application of applying mindfulness to life. People need to think of mindfulness not just with respect to meditation but to the an activity that can be applied to thinking and life. The following is taken directly from the article:

The mind contains untold resources and possibilities—for creativity , kindness, compassion, insight, and wisdom. It’s a storehouse of tremendous energy and drive. And yet it can also be a matter of annoyance, an untamed animal, or a millstone that drags us down. Sometimes we would just like to shut it off so we can get some work done or have a moment’s peace.

Yet the mind is one thing we can’t shut off. So why not make the most of it instead? Why not put it to good use? Through mindfulness we can train our minds to work better.”

Healey provides four general guidelines:

“Check Your Lenses.” Here she is referring to the deeply held views, ideas, and opinions that serve as lenses through which we perceive. In Kahneman‘s Two system View, these would be System 1 processes that run off automatically. “Check Your Lenses,” reminds us to engage our System 2 processes and try to think from a different perspective. This might enable us to understand or be more receptive to the way others do or think about things. It might even allow us to think of a more encompassing view that allows us to merge or develop new ideas.

“Put Some Space Between You and Your Reactions.” Again, this is a matter of engaging System 2 processes, thinking. One way of doing this is regarding ourselves from a third person perspective. So if it is a matter of a perceived slight or wrong done by another person, we examine the situation as a yet a third person looking at both of us and develop a narrative or storyline of the situation. This has the potential of thinking of a way of, at least, accepting or coming to grips with the situation, or, at best, of coming up with a resolution to the problem.

“Pay Attention to the Small Stuff.” Here is another quote to the article, “No action, reaction, or relationship ever feels uninteresting or unworkable if a curious mind is brought to bear on it.” If all else fails, the default activity is to focus on our breathing. That is, to disengage our System 1 processes and think about our breathing. Or we can focus on how different parts of our body feel, or on simple activities such as the way we place a phone to our ears when we hear it ring.

“Make a Habit of It.” We need to have a formal practice of mindfulness and to extend mindfulness into our everyday life. A formal practice of mindfulness means meditative practice done on a regular schedule. Many posts on meditation can be found in the healthymemory blog. Placing yourself in an uncomfortable position is not required, it could even be counterproductive. Simple practices such as simply focusing on one’s breath can be beneficial. It is hope that this current blog post has provided some ideas as to how to integrate mindfulness into everyday life.

Mindfulness is a means of training our brains, so that they function more effectively and so that we lead more satisfying lives. Mindfulness actually changes our brains and develops new synaptic connections.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

APS Session on Cognitive Reserve

June 5, 2013

The title of the session was “Cognitive Reserve in Aging: Can Leisure Activities Increase Neuroplasticity?” and was chaired by Brenda-Hanna-Piaddy of the Emory School of Medicine. The first presentation was by Sara Lazar of the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, and was titled, “Can Meditation and Yoga Slow Aging”. She was speaking of mindfulness meditation (on which you can find many healthymemory blog posts) and practitioners of Yoga that is strong on meditation and weak on strenuous positions. Practitioners excelled at a wide variety of cognitive tests, and performance on these cognitive tasks as they aged declined much more slowly than non-practitioners. Measures of the brain, such as cortical thickness, increases in white and gray matter, and the hippocampi, which are critical for memory, were larger than non-practitioners and decline less with aging. Now these people had been practicing for 30 or more years for at least five times per week. Be reassured that you don’t need to practice for this long for meditation to be beneficial. Every little bit helps, but the sooner one starts and the more one practices, the more benefits will be reaped. But it is never too late to begin.

Something I have never seen regards the question of how may victims of dementia or Alzheimer’s can be found among Buddhists Monks and other practitioners of meditation. Are there any? If so, is there data on the rate of incidence. If anyone knows the answer, or where to find the answer, please leave a comment. It will be much appreciated.

Chandramalika Bask, of the University of Texas at Dallas, gave a presentation on the benefits of video games. Apparently the beneficial video games are strategy games, not shooter games. These are real time strategy games that involve a number of tasks and the need to switch between and prioritize tasks. The benefits of playing these games were manifest in both cognitive tasks and in measures of the brain. They clearly slowed cognitive decline. One of the pluses of video games is that they are fun and people continue to play them. People are less likely to stick to regimes of meditation or physical exercise.

Brenda-Hanna-Piaddy made a presentation on the Neural Networks Subserving Enhanced Condition in Older Musicians. Her study involved 140 amateur musicians and non musicians with ages ranging from 59-83. The amateur musicians were divided into two groups, those with from 1 to 9 years of experience, and those with 10 or more years experience. A subset of 24 in these groups underwent fMRIs. The bottom line was that as assessed by cognitive tests and brain imaging, there were clear advantages for the musicians, and the more musical experience, the better. The bottom line was that music is a viable model for cognitive stimulation. Again, I would like to know the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s among retired musicians and aging amateurs. The current goal seems to be is reducing the onset of dementia. It should be realized that conscientious researchers tend to be conservative and do not want to over promise. But I am certain that there are individuals who live to be very old with limited or no cognitive decline. Articles about people who live to be quite old are frequently seen. My question is what is their cognitive status?

The final presentation was by Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas. Her presentation was on the relative benefits of active versus passive social interactions. Although social interactions are generally regarded as beneficial to memory health, the question here was whether the nature of the group would be more beneficial. So there were three groups with productive goals that involved learning something novel. One involved quilting, one involved photography, and one involved both with the time split 50/50 between the two groups. There were three receptive groups made to be as comparable as possible to the three active groups except that their activities involved nothing novel. The fMRI images indicated brain benefits fot the three productive groups. With respect to cognitive performance, the photo group showed improved verbal memory, the Quilting group showed improved cognitive control, and the group that involved both, showed improvements in both verbal memory and executive control.

All these studies are interesting and worthwhile, but I would like to see some retrospective studies in which people of advanced age who were still mentally sharp were studied. Retrospective studies are not very popular because their results are ambiguous. Even if the individuals accounts of his life are accurate, it is still possible that there is some unknown gene or combination of genes responsible for his mental alacrity. I feel that such research would still be informative and such life stories would also be inspirational and could provide good models for people to follow. Web searches on retrospective studies of dementia have not been successful. Again, if you know of any such studies, please comment.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Back from APS

May 28, 2013

That is, I’m back from the convention of the Association for Psychological Science. It was an outstanding meeting. This blog post will present a brief synopsis and will promise some blog posts for the future. As I mentioned in my previous post, there were so many interesting topics that some overlapped and I could not attend both. I actually needed to miss a program with Daniel Kahneman, whom I regard as the leading psychologist today. I am not going to review every presentation I attended. Some were primarily for psychologists and of little interest to the general public, some were too technical, and, frankly, some didn’t warrant further discussion.

The Keynote Address was delivered the split-brain researcher, Michael S. Gazzaniga. It was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” I going to discuss his presentation along with the presentation by Edwin A. Locke, “Whatever Happened to the Conscious Mind” in a later healthymemory blog post.

Diane Halpern gave what was perhaps the most timely and relevant presentation, “The Psychological Science Behind Hyperpartisanship and What to do About It.” This certainly deserves its own healthymemory blog post, which will be appearing later.

Helen J. Neville gave an APS William James Fellow Address titled, Experiential, Genetic, and Epigenetic Effecs in Human Neurocognitive Development.” Here talk was highly technical, and I shall not go into a detailed presentation. However, it’s importance is easy to assess. She found that there was a much higher incidence of difficulties in focusing attention in pre-schoolers from low socioeconomic status families than from higher socioeconomic status children. She was able to develop a training program that was able to correct this problem. As the ability to focus attention is important to learning and success in school, this program is highly relevant. Moreover, it is fairly short term and can be administered cheaply. More can be found about this program at chaingingbrains.org.

David Strayer gave a presentation on multi-tasking and using a cell phone while driving. In short, the risk is becoming greater. Much more will be written in a later healthymemory post. This is a message that people do want to hear, but it needs to be told.

At the Presidential Symposium,r Ted Abel gave a presentation on “Epigenetics and Memory Storage.” Remember the Healthymemory blog, “How the Brain and Mind Work.” That might have sounded complicated, but Abel is studying the epigenetics of the translation from DNA to RNA to protein, which underlies the formation of our memories. This work is most remarkable, as is the complexity of our brains and their emergent phenomena.

At the same symposium, Elizabeth Loftus updated her work on False Memories. This work will also be addressed in a later healthymemory blog post.

Stanovich presented his latest work on a Rational Intelligence Quotient. He has persuasively argued that the standard IQ misses an important component of cognitive activity, rational thinking. I will be following up on his work after I finish his latest book.

Ralph Hertwig gave an invited talk, “The Psychology of Decisions from Experience. People behave differently when they make decisions based on written descriptions than when they make their decisions based on experience. Vulcanologists are convinced that Mount Vesuvius will erupt in the near future. However, most of the residents of Naples, who are at risk from Vesuvius, do not want to move, because an eruption has not occurred in their lifetimes.

Mortan Ann Gernsbacher gave an address on Diversity and the Brain. This, too, will receive a later blog post.

Finally, there was a session on the cognitive reserve. Most certainly, this will receive its own blog post.

Do not expect all these posts to follow directly. First of all, they take time to write. Secondly, some posts will better fit in the context of other healthymemory blog posts.

Now for some general comments. I am continually impressed by the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and other personal devices at these conventions. This observation will get its own blog post. And I was disappointed about cognitive psychologists who were unfamiliar with meditation. It reminded me how parochial our discipline can be. It also reminded me of when I was a graduate student and there was a lively argument about whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled by individuals. Well proficient meditators were already doing this, so the answer was already known. So if you read the healthymemory blog posts on meditation (enter meditation, Davidson, and Mindfulness in the healthymemory blog search post), you can consider yourself more knowledgeable about the topic than some cognitive psychologists.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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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Healthy Memory’s 400th Post

May 21, 2013

It is difficult to believe that this is the 400th post on the healthymemory blog. These posts have covered a lot of territory. The primary focus of the healthymemory blog is memory. Memory is central to all human processes, both personal and collective. Consequently, an understanding of memory is useful, if not essential, to us as human beings. The healthymemory blog is devoted to cognitive growth. This is important both as a means to human fulfillment and for the building of a cognitive reserve. A cognitive reserve provides the best means of warding off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Consequently, the healthymemory blog should be of primary interest to Baby Boomers, but, in fact, it should be of interest to everyone. The study of human memory is fascinating and cognitive growth should be a goal of everyone, regardless of age.

Blog posts are divided into three categories. The largest is Human Memory Theory and Data. This category includes posts on human memory and everything that human memory touches. The category mnemonic techniques includes specific techniques for improving memory. These techniques can also provide cognitive exercise to foster memory health. The topics of meditation and mindfulness are also included as both meditation and mindfulness foster healthy memories. The subtitle for the healthymemory blog is Memory Health and Technology. This includes transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to extensions of one’s own memory in technology and fellow human beings. It includes posts on how technology can be used to foster cognitive growth and how interactions with our fellow human beings are essential to memory health.

In short, there is much to read here. Older posts are not out of date. Just enter topics of interest to you in the healthymemory blog search block to find posts of interest to you. You just might be surprised.

An Antidote for Worry

April 21, 2013

First of all, worry is important. Worry is important so that you pay your taxes, save money, eat a proper diet, exercise, both physically and cognitively, and build a cognitive reserve. But uncontrolled worry leads to unhealthy rumination and unhappiness. What is the point of worrying about something that is out of your control? You are likely to suffer more anticipating the event than the event itself. Control what you can control, and try not to worry about the rest.

Of course, that is easier said that done. Here meditation can help. 1 There are two extremes of meditation. At one end of the meditation continuum you focus your attention on one thing, for example, your breath or a word or phrase. At the other end of the continuum there is open monitoring to a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Thoughts are allowed to freely pass through the mind without evaluation. The absence of evaluation is what is important. If what is worrying you passes through your consciousness without causing worry or discomfort, that is okay. But if you evaluate these thoughts so that they cause you to worry, then this is counterproductive.

What is recommended is to find a midpoint between these two extremes. Let your mind run free until it hits a worrying thought, in which case you redirect your thoughts to something pleasant. Perhaps it sounds too simple to say that you can be happy just by thinking happy thoughts, but it is true. Just smiling can improve your mode. But remember not to lose contact with reality completely.

Let me just add that my Ph.D. is in cognitive psychology. I am neither a clinical nor counseling psychologist.

1To find more blog posts about mediation enter “meditation,” “mindfulness,” or “Davidson” into the healthymemory search box

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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 Mindfulness

April 7, 2013

This blog post has been derived primarily from the Scientific American Mind article1 “Being in the Now.” A preceding healthymemory blog post, “Being in the Now is Really Being in the Then,” made a technical correction, but the term as used in the Scientific American Mind article is generally accepted. Moreover, the healthymemory blog heartily endorses the claims made in this article. The immediately preceding healthymemory blog post describes a technique to help in achieving the benefits of mindfulness.

According to the Scientific American Mind article, mindfulness is a mental mode of being engaged in the present moment without evaluating or emotionally reacting to it. Currently, there are more than 250 medical centers worldwide that offer mindfulness-based therapies for mood and other disorders. Mindfulness training works by strengthening the brain’s ability to pay attention. The healthymemory blog strongly believes that this is the key benefit from mindfulness training. Memory is the center for human information processing including its maladies and disorders. Attention is the key process that determines what gets into memory and what is retrieved from memory. Accordingly, the ability to control one’s attention is a most important skill.

Another item from the Scientific American Mind article, “After receiving mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, patients report noticing that negative thoughts lose their power over time.” Also from the article, “Mindfulness training can relieve symptoms of ailments that stress can exacerbate such as psoriasis and fibromyalgia.” And, “By improving the ability to direct and monitor attention, mindfulness meditation could enhance people’s performance in pursuits as diverse as sports and surgery.” Mindfulness also provides an antidote to rumination, worry, and fear, and their adverse effects on mental health.

To find more healthymemory blog posts on mindfulness, enter “mindfulness” into the blog’s search block. Entering “meditation” will reveal even more relevant articles. Entering “Davidson,” will retrieve articles on Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style, as well as meditation techniques to enhance and refine these respective dimensions.

1Jha., A.P. (2013) March/April, 26-33.

Achieving Mindfulness

April 3, 2013

Mindfulness has become a hot topic. There is a new monthly magazine, Mindful, www.mindful.org, the the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind features articles on mindfulness. Most approaches to mindfulness involve meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. The psychologist Richard Davidson has identified six dimensions of emotional style (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style): resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attention. He has techniques, which can be found in the healthymemory blog (use the blogs search box), for cultivating each of these dimensions.

Meditation techniques range from exercises designed to train concentrative focus, a narrowing of attention, to exercises designed to train open monitoring, a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Both skills are necessary. There are times when we need to focus on a particular problem or idea and there are types where we need to allow new thoughts into our consciousness without rejecting them out of hand as a result of selection biases. In the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind there is a piece on Capturing Attention on page 33. This is an exercise by Scott Rogers, the Director of Programs and Training, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, that incorporates both types of training into a single meditation session. Here is the technique:

“Sit in an upright, stable position, hands resting on your thighs or cradled together.

Lower or close your eyes, whichever is more comfortable.

Attend to your breath, following its movement throughout your body.

Notice the sensations around your belly as air flows into and out of your nose and mouth. You have been breathing all day—all of your life—and in this moment, you are simply noticing your breath.

Select one area of your body affected by your breathing and focus your attention there. Control your focus, not the breathing itself.

When you notice your mind wandering – and it will – bring your attention back to your breath.

After five to ten minutes, switch from focusing to monitoring. Think of your mind as a vast open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.

Feel you whole body move with your breath. Be receptive to your sensations, noticing what arises in the moment. Be attentive to the changing quality of experience – sounds, aromas, the caress of a breeze…thoughts.

After about five more minutes, lift your gaze and open your eyes.

Hunger, Caffeine, Cognition

March 11, 2013

How are these three words related? All three are related to the word adenosine. Adenosine is a molecule that is produced by the brain’s metabolism, during cognitive activity, and when we are hungry. The drug caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine. When I am hungry, I find thinking difficult. This would explain why. In both cases, I am feeling the effects of adenosine. Caffeine assists me in putting off eating. When I have been doing a great deal of cognitive effort, I am feeling the effects of adenosine. Caffeine is a drug that restores mental energy by blocking the effects of adenosine.

There are other ways of refreshing our brains. Exercise, even brief amounts of exercise, can be restorative. Meditation is another route to refreshing our brains as is taking a nap. When going the drug route, however, caffeine is quite effective.

© 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.

The Need for Consciousness

August 1, 2012

The preceding blog post, “VENs: The Key to Consciousness” ended with a promise to provide evidence that consciousness is not epiphenomenal, that it serves a real purpose. Unfortunately, reductionists like to conclude that whenever a neural basis is found the phenomenon is understood. This post is timely as the Olympics provide a good justification for the reality of consciousness. The theme of the importance of the mind will emerge as being essential to success. Athletes need to remain cool, calm, collected, and focused. Focus is very important. Getting into the right state of mind, “the zone,” is regarded to be of utmost importance.

Neurofeedback is employed by some athletes.1 This involves placing electrodes on a person’s head to measure their brain’s electrical activity. The information is displayed on a computer screen while the individual watches it in real time and learns through practice how to control it. The objective is to get the brain into a state associated with improved attention, focus and aim. Surgeons who have used neurofeedback had improved control over their movement and performed more efficiently in the operating theater.

Meditation is another technique where consciousness is used to improve behavior. There are many healthymemory blog posts on meditation (simply use the search box to find them). You will find different meditation techniques to achieve different aims. Improving focus is the objective of many techniques. Through meditation, the autonomic nervous system can be controlled. At one time this was thought to be impossible by some psychologists and neuroscientists.

Even dreaming can be done to achieve desirable benefits. Victor Spoormaker of the Max Plank Instutute of Psychiatry has developed techniques to eliminate nightmares through lucid dreaming (See the healthymemory blog post, “Lucid Dreams). Lucid dreaming refers to a state between wake and sleep where becomes aware that they are dreaming while they are still in the dreaming. Spoormaker says that you can become lucid in a nightmare and and change it any way you wish. He cured himself of recurring nightmares using this technique.

In a study conducted in the 1970s, 12 American gymnasts who hoped to make the Olympic team were asked how frequently they dreamed about gymnastics and about the nature of their dreams. The six who qualified said that they had had more dreams about success beforehand.

Another study found that lucid dreamers who were able to dream about tossing a coin into a cup had better aim the following day compared against those who don’t train in their dreams.
800 German athletes were asked about their dreaming habits. Twenty percent said that they were frequent lucid dreamers, and those who used it to practice said it helped their performance.

So consciousness is not epiphenomenal. It is very real. Use it and make it work for you.

1Hamzelou, J. (2012). Olympic Extremes. New Scientist, 21 July, 44-49.

© 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.

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

July 7, 2012

The preceding Healthymemory Blog Post criticized the Gross National Product as a measure of well-being. There are alternatives, for example Gross National Happiness (GNH)1. The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by the Kind of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. And he did more that coin a term; he opened a center and formulated a program for developing the concept and measuring it. He engaged scholars throughout the world and began having international conferences. He was committed to build an economy that would serve Bhutana’s culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be familiar with how Buddhist meditation techniques have found to be important for emotional and memory health (try entering “Buddhism” in the search box. Also try entering “Meditation”).

The proposal is to treat happiness as a socioeconomic development metric. A GNH value would be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:

  1. Economic Wellness: This would involve direct surveys of people and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution.

  2. Environmental Wellness: This would involve direct surveys of people and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise, and traffic.

  3. Physical Wellness: The proposal would employ statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illness. I think this index should also include direct surveys of people.

  4. Mental Wellness: This would involve direct surveys of people and statistical measurements of mental health metrics such as the usage of antidepressants and the rise of decline of psychotherapy patients.

  5. Workplace Wellness: This involves direct surveys of individuals and the statistical measurement of labor services such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints, and lawsuits.

  6. Social Wellness: This involves direct surveys of individuals and statistical of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, and crime rates.

  7. Political Wellness: This involves the direct survey of individuals and the statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

    Understand that this would be a measure of the GNH of a country. How the metric is defined might well vary from country to country as different factors might be included or weighted differently. One’s country GNH might not reflect a single individual’s happiness very well. You might live on a block with very wealthy home. You might live, zoning restriction permitting, in a mobile home on the same block. Your respective incomes might vary by more than an order of magnitude, yet your family might be much happier than the residents in the wealthy home. That home might be experiencing conflicts and be on the verge of a divorce.

    It should be generally understood, but apparently it isn’t, that the value of money is not linear. In other words, the value of a dollar to someone earning $10,000 is much more than to a person earning $100,000. So a graduated income tax makes sense psychologically as well as economically. There is only so much that an individual, or that individual’s family (even an extended one) can enjoy or use. Unfortunately, there are many who view success by the money and physical goods they possess. So they will fight to avoid taxes and to keep their taxes low even though it is not feasible that this additional income will benefit them. I applaud the two leading capitalists in the United States, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who realize this and are behaving accordingly. I’m reminded of the saying by a Texan that money is like manure; it’s no good unless it’s spread around.

    Another measure for either replacing or accommodating the shortcomings of the GDP is the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI)2. The IWI includes three kinds of assets: manufactured or physical capital (machinery, buildings, infrastructure, and so forth; human capital (the populations’ education and skills): and natural capital (including land, fossils, fossil fuels, and minerals). The IWI contains important information not in the GDP. A county can appear to be doing quite well in terms of its GDP, but exhausting its natural resources at an alarming rate. A country like South Korea with its impressive human capital can do quite well without physical resources.

    So the shortcomings of the GDP are realized. Unfortunately it is still relied upon too heavily. We must move, and move quickly, to more relevant measures.

1Go to the Wikipedia for an informative alternative and many useful links.

2The Economist, June 30th 2012, p.78. And the “Inclusive Wealth Report 2012”, www.ihdp.unu.edu/article/iwr

© 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.

Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness

May 20, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with nonjudgmental awareness.

Dr. Davidson recommends open-monitoring meditation, in which your attention is not focused on any particular object. Instead you cultivate an awareness of awareness itself. Before beginning this type of meditation, Dr. Davidson recommends beginning with focused-attention meditation such as breath meditation to to give you a level of basic attentional stability. This should make open-monitoring meditation.

He provides the following basics of open-minded meditation:

“1. Sit in a quiet room with a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep your eyes open or closed whichever is more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.

      1. Maintain a clear awareness and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid and transparent.

      2. Lightly attend to whatever object rises to the top of your consciousness, but do not latch on to it. You want to observe the thinking process itself, perhaps saying to yourself, Oh, I notice that the first thing I think about as I sit down to meditate is…

      3. Give your full attention to the most current salient object of consciousness, focusing on it to the exclusion of anything else, but without thinking about it. That is, you are simply aware of it, observing it as disinterestedly as possible, but do not explore it intellectually.

      4. Generate a state of total openness, in which the mind is as vast as the sky, able to welcome and absorb any stray thought, feeling, or sensation like a new star that begins shining. When thoughts arise, simply let them pass through your mind without leaving any trace of it. When you perceive noises, images, tastes, or other sensations, let them be as they are without engaging with them or rejecting them. Tell yourself that they can’t affect the serene equanimity of your mind.

      5. If you notice your mind moving toward thought or feeling, let it do so, letting the newcomer slip into consciousness. Unlike in attention-strengthening forms of meditation, you do not try to shoo away the “intruding” thought, but allow your mind to turn to it. The key difference between breath-focused attention discussed previously is that in open-monitoring meditation there is no single focus to which the attention is redirected if it wanders. Rather, you simply become aware of whatever is in the center of attention at the moment.

      6. Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.

      7. Do this for five to ten minutes.2

Dr. Davidson lists the following meditation centers that offer courses, books, and CDs on open-monitoring meditation: Insight meditation Society in Barre, MA; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodcare, CA; and Tergar Meditation Group in Minneapolis, MN.

Dr. Davidson did a study in 2009 in which it was found that practitioner of open-monitoring meditation showed phase locking in their EEGs. That is, their brain waves were modulated to make them more receptive to outside stimuli. It is somewhat ironic to note that this phase locking is also an indication of selective attention as we noted in the “Attentional Style” Healthymemory Blog Post. But as it was noted in that blog post, these two types of attention complement each other.

You can also alter your environment to expand your attentional awareness. Put books and magazines around to tempt yourself to read something new. Keep your room or office open to the outside world. Place photos of loved ones on your desk so you can glance at them as you work. Set the alarm on your cell phone or computer to chirp every twenty to thirty minutes to cue you to think of something else.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. pp. 240-241.

Improving Self Awareness

May 13, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Self-Awareness”, it would be good to do so before reading this post on improving self-awareness. Self-Awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable in that there can be too much or too little of it. People with high levels of Self-Awareness have greater activation of their insula, whereas people with low levels of Self-Awareness have low activation of their insula. However, more than the insula is involved. How outputs from the insula are interpreted are also critical. For this reason mindfulness meditation provides a good method of achieving an optimal level of self-awareness. The following advice is taken from Dr. Davidson’s book.1 This advice can also be found in the “Improving Resilience” post.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

Dr. Davidson also recommends what he calls the “body scan”.

        1. Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

        2. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

        3. Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

A 2008 study found that people who had practice mindfulness meditation every day for about eight years had larger insula that people of the same age and sex who did not meditate.2 This apparent paradox of a practice that increases the size of the insula but does not produce pathological levels of self-awareness is resolved when it is realized that these meditative practices also improve and modulate the messages from the insula.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Holzel, B.K., Ott, U. Gard, T. Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K., Vaitl, D. (2008). Investigation of Mindfulness Meditatin Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affeciive Neuroscience. 3, 55-61.

Improving Resilience

May 2, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Resilience,” it is suggested that you do this now. Before it can be improved you must understand what resilience is and roughly where you stand on the resilience dimension. Resilience is one of Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1. Dr. Davidson stresses that you can adjust your emotional style and provides suggestions as to how you can do so.

If you are slow to recover from emotional setbacks, Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness produces emotional balance and helps you recover, but not too quickly, from emotional setbacks. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and wallowing in a setback. Mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala promoting equanimity and braking the obsessive associations.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

  1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.
        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Goldman writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

If mindfulness training does not work for you, Dr. Goldman suggests cognitive reappraisal therapy.

On the other hand, if you are too close to the fast to recover end of the resilience dimension try a type of meditation from Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen,which means “taking and receiving.” This meditation is designed to foster compassion and involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in that suffering and transforming it into compassion. This is very effective at fostering empathy. Dr. Goldman recommends doing the following exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

      1. Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. The closer this person is to you , the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. You can also visualize a generic sufferer, such as someone starving in Africa, or a cancer patient in a hospice.

      2. Imagine the suffering leaving this person as you inhale. Conjure an image of the suffering leaving this person’s body like fog dissipating as the sun burns it off.

      3. On each exhalation imagine that the suffering is turned into compassion. Direct this compassion towards this person. As you exhale imaging your breath flowing towards this person with a gift of empathy and love that will assuage the pain.

You can also arrange your environment to accommodate variations in resilience style. To speed up recovery from adversity leave the situation where the adversity occurred and go to a place les emotionally charged. To slow down your recovery, do the opposite.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.

The Benefits of Meditation

October 26, 2011

The benefits of meditation are many.1 There is evidence that meditation boosts the immune system in vaccine recipients and people with cancer. Meditation protects against relapses in major depression and soothes skin conditions. It has even been shown to slow the progression of HIV.

There is even some evidence that meditation might slow the aging process. A proposed theoretical process by which this might happen is interesting. It is believed that telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes play a role in aging. These telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides. It is thought that this process fosters aging. Research conducted by Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, found that the levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a comparable control group who did not meditate.2 The increase in this enzyme and the build up of telomeres, could play a role in slowing aging.

It is also likely that meditation works by influencing stress response pathways. Meditators tend to have lower cortisol levels. A study sowed that meditators also have changes in their amygdalae.3 Amygdalae are brain areas involved in fear and the response to threat.

The good news is that you do not need to be a monk meditating in a monastery or a participant in a three-month study to benefit from meditating. Imaging studies have shown that meditating can cause structural changes in the brain in as little as 11 hours of training. A psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, Elissa Epel, suggests that fitting in short “mini-meditations” during the course of a day, such as taking a few minutes at your desk to focus on your breathing can be effective. “Little moments here and there all matter.”

Previous Healthymemory Blog posts on this topic can be found by entering “The Benefits of Meditation” in the search block.

1Much of this post is based on an article, Meditate, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, pp. 34-35.

2Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36., p.664

3Social and Affective Neuroscience, 5, p.11.

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.

Thought Suppression

August 17, 2011

The title of Daniel Wegner‘s Invited Address for receiving the 2011 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award at the APA meeting was “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression.” The title of the address comes from a challenge by the novelist Dostoevsky to try not to think of three bears. This is very difficult to do except for a very short period of time. Although this is a challenging mind game, it relates to the more serious psychological problem of trying not to think unwanted thoughts. Wegner’s Ironic Process Theory provides an explanation of why this is so difficult to do. According to Ironic Process Theory there are two opposing mechanisms at work. The first process unconsciously and automatically monitors for occurrences of the unwanted thought. The second is the conscious operating process. When there is an increase in the cognitive load with which your mind is dealing, your unconscious monitoring process supplants your conscious operating process and the unwanted thought becomes conscious.

Most regard the Ironic Process Theory as providing a good theoretical explanation of the phenemonon. But the obvious question is, what can be done about it. Wegner presented a detailed and thorough discussion of possible remedies for thought suppression. But the remedy that he personally found most effective, and the one that I think is most effective, I shall call meditative breathing. This involves trying to focus on one’s breathing to the exclusion of all extraneous, intruding thoughts. Doing this for five to ten minutes can be effective although proficient meditators can do this for many hours.

The general benefits of this type of meditation go far beyond thought suppression. More information can be found in the following Healthymemory Blog Posts: “The Relaxation Response,” “Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?” “Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving,” and “Costly Gadgets or Software Not Required for a Healthy Memory.”

© 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.

Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind

June 12, 2011

“Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind” was the title of a presentation given by Richard J. Davidson at this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychological Society (APS). This was part of a Theme Program titled “Consciousness: From Neural Systems to Phenomenological Experience.” Davidson’s presentation is in the new arena of contemplative neuroscience or contemplative practice (see the Blog Post “Buddha’s Brain”). The goal here is to use contemplative practices to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the brain and produce enduring changes in the habits of the mind. They are looking for neurally inspired behavioral interventions that put the brain back into biomedicine, a pathway back to the mind.

He described a study that assessed the effects of meditative expertise on the regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion.1 Both fMRI and subjective reports were collected. The specific neural structures and circuits involved in the circuitry of emotion were identified. The data indicated that the mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion alters the activation of circuits previously linked to empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be well aware of the importance of attention and the ability to selectively attend to desired information. The famous psychologist, William James, noted that the facility of voluntarily bringing back wandering attention over and over is extremely important. Research indicates that meditation develops this facility. Meditation in Sanskrit means familiarization. So meditation is a matter of becoming familiar with our own minds. There is a positive correlation between gamma activity in our brains and clarity ratings.

There are a variety of Healthymemory Blog Posts on meditation such as “Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory,” “Is Daydreaming Bad for You,” “Costly Gadgets or Software are Not Required for a Healthy Memory,” “Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving,” “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability of to Sustain Attention,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources, “The Relaxation Response,”, and “How to Avoid Temptation.”

1Lutz, A. Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R.J. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation> Effects of Meditative Experience., PloS one, www.plosone.org, March, Volume 3, Issue 3, e1897.

© 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.

Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?

April 20, 2011

An interesting article1 in AARP online describes the benefits of meditating. It cites a study done by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2005. It found that a group practicing meditation for about 40 minutes a day had measurably thicker tissue in the left prefrontal cortex. This is an area of the brain important to cognitive emotional processing and well-being.

At the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging the brains of experienced mediators were compared with a control group of nonmediators. The mediators’s brains contained more gray matter than those of the nonmediators. This gray tissue is responsible for high-level information processing especially in the areas associated with attention, body awareness and the modulation of emotional responses.

In a study published in 2010, neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received eight weeks of training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). They found growth in the hippocampus and shrinkage in the amygdala. As readers of the Healthymemory Blog probably know, the hippocampus is an important part of the brain that is critical to memory and learning. The amygdala is a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress.

An MRI study at Emory University showed that experienced meditators were much better than a nonmeditating control group at ignoring extraneous thoughts and focusing on the matter at hand when bombarded by stimuli. This capability to focus at will is especially important in today’s multitasking world when we are constantly bombarded by information, often noise, from a variety of sources. This capability grows more important as we age, because research has indicated that the elderly have more difficulty focusing their attention that those who are younger.

Meditation along with positive emotion might even result in a healthier immune system.

This quote from Dr. Richardson is worth remembering. “We know that the brain is the one organ in our body build to change in response to experience and training. It’s a learning machine.”

It should be understood that meditating does not require going to an ashram or sitting in the lotus permission. Here are some guidelines for meditating that were provided in the AARP article.

  1. Sit in any position that’s comfortable for you; a chair is fine. Or, and this is my personal favorite, you can lie down.

  2. Start with a 5-minute session and then gradually increase to longer times.

  3. Start by just feeling your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. You don’t need to adjust the breath to make it deeper or finer; simply notice it as it is and as it changes.

  4. Sometimes thoughts or emotions come up and sweep us away, or we fall asleep. Know that your mind will wander, just notice where it went and then gently bring it back to the breath—every time, over and over.

  5. Above all, have patience with yourself. The more you practice meditation, the easier it gets to stay focused. So don’t get discouraged by your wandering mind. Eventually, it will get easier to return to concentrating on your breathing.

I would add that whenever you feel stressed or upset, it is a good idea, if possible, to go someplace where you will no be noticed and try to meditate. Even five minutes can be helpful in such situations.

1Salzberg, S. www.aarp.org/personal-growth/life-long-learning/info-0202011/meditation_grows_t…, February 25, 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.

 

Costly Gadgets or Software Not Required for a Healthy Memory

January 26, 2011

The Healthymemory “Blog has consistently maintained that costly equipment or software is not required for a healthy memory. Indeed, that is one reason why memory techniques are recommended. Even transactive memory does not require a computer. Conventional storage media like books, journals, and magazines will suffice as well as your fellow human beings. Meditation can also provides a less costly beneficial activity in terms of monetary expense, but the time demands can be substantial. Research1 by Posner and his colleagues indicates that beneficial meditation need not consume excessive amounts of time.

The training technique is called integrative body-mind training (IBMT; or integrative meditation). This technique integrates body relaxation, breathing adjustment, mental imagery and mindfulness training, There was also a coach who could help each participant increase the amount of mindfulness experienced to maximize the benefit of each practice session. Comfortable background music was also employed. Forty Chinese undergraduates took this training for five days. Each session lasted twenty minutes. An additional forty Chinese undergraduates were assigned to a control group that was given a form of relaxation training.

Both groups were given a battery of tests one week before the training and immediately after the final training session. The Attention Network Test (ANT) measures the ability to resolve conflicting demands upon attention, in other words, selective attention. Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrix provides a measure of fluid attention. Measures of mood were also taken. A mental arithmetic task was used to present a stress challenge followed by measures of cortisol and secretory IgA, which provide indications of the body physiological response to stress. The two groups did not differ on any of these tests before undergoing training.

After training, the IBMT group showed superior performance with respect to conflict resolution. The IBMT group also showed better regulation of emotion. The IBMT group also performed better on the Raven’s Test indicating improvement in fluid attention. Five days of IBMT training reduced the stress response to the mental challenge especially after an additional 20 minutes of practice.

All-in-all, these are most impressive results given the limited total amount of IBMT training.

1Tang, Y.Y., Yinghua, M., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Sui, S., Rothbart, M.K., Fan, M., & Posner, M.I.. (2007). Short-term Meditation Training Improves Attention and Self-Regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. October 23, 104(43): 17152:17156. Published online 2007 October 11. doi: 10.1073/pnas.07067678104. 

© 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.

 

Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving

November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving is the holiday devoted to being thankful for all the good things we have and all the good people we know (more commonly called blessings). It is a positive holiday when we should focus on the positive features of our lives. Continuing to focus on the positive contributes to a healthy memory. Consequently, it is good to carry the positive frame of mind fostered by Thanksgiving throughout the entire year.

Positive thinking fosters more positive thinking. The expression is “neurons that fire together wire together.” So thinking positive thoughts activates circuits that will be more likely to fire together in the future. How you feel is affected by how you interpret your environment. You see a glass with water at the halfway mark. Do you interpret that as half empty or half full? The interpretation is up to you, and this interpretation will affect the way you think and feel. In other words you have the capacity to change your brain if you choose to exercise it.

Paying attention to the internal sensations of your body can also have effects. The insular cortex is a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body. When a person meditates, her insular cortex becomes thicker as a result of neurons making more and more connections with each other. (See the Healthymemory Blog posts “The Relaxation Response,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention”). The insular cortex plays a role in emotion, homeostasis, perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. A malfunctioning insular cortex can lead to psychopathology. In addition to meditation activities such as paying attention to your breathing, yoga, Tai Chi, and dancing can put you in touch with the internal sensations of your body.

Remember the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” If you think negatively, you are reinforcing negative circuits and the further promotion of harmful negative thoughts. So foster positive circuits by thinking positively. I hope you had a happy thanksgiving and I hope you continue this happiness throughout the entire year.

© 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.

Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention

November 11, 2010

Vigilance tasks require an observer to note when a target occurs. Much research has been done in this area due to important military and security applications. For example, an observer might need to detect enemy planes approaching on the radar scope. Or it might be security personnel monitoring baggage at an airport. Moreover, there is need to distinguish dangerous from benign targets on the scope. Although this is obviously a very important task, it would also appear to be a very simple task. The problem is that over prolonged periods of time performance drops off. In spite of all the research that has been done, techniques for sustaining attention have been found lacking. A recent article1 presented research that found that intensive meditation training can aid sustained attention. Other research2 has found that vigilance requires hard mental work and is stressful. Research using questionnaires and measurements of cerebral blood flow velocity have documented that vigilance is stressful and hard mental work. Attentional resource theory has been used to account for the vigilance decrement. The notion is that attentional resources are rapidly depleted by the demands of the vigilance task.

The meditation training used in the first article was quite intensive. It involved going to a retreat. Shamantha3 meditation training was used in at least five three day retreats. The meditation training was found to sustain vigilance for a longer time, presumably by increasing attentional resources.

You might ask, so what? My job does not involve vigilance tasks. The relevance to you is that meditation apparently does increase attentional resources. Meditation training has been found to be beneficial to temporal attention, attentional alerting, and visual discrimination. Moreover, readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be well aware of the critical role of attention in cognitive performance, and that many failures and breakdowns in cognitive processing are due to limited attentional resources.

See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Relaxation Response,” “Attention Its Different Roles,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “More on Restoring Attentional Resources.”

1MacLean, K. A., and many others (2010).  Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention.  Psychological Science, 21, 829-839.

2Warm, J.s., Parasururaman, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). Vigilance Requires Hard Mental Work and is Stressful. Human Factors, 50, 433-441.

3Wallace, B.A, (2006). The Attention Revolution. Boston: Wisdom 

© 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 Relaxation Response[1]

November 17, 2009

  Key to maintaining a healthy memory is to remain free, or as free as possible, from stress. Stress has adverse effects on both attention and memory. The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes a person’s physical and emotional response to stress. Herbert Benson, a physician affiliated with the Harvard School of Medicine and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital [2] since the 1960s found that the approach is really no different than that achieved through prayer, chanting, meditation, and repetitive motion. They lower heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. They can alleviate symptoms associated with conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, and anxiety. Aging can also be added to this list. Recent research[3] examined how the relaxation response affected cach of the body’s 40,000 genes and found that those who regularly used the relaxation response induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteracted the effects of stress on the body.

Eliciting the relaxation response is easy. One sits in a relaxed position with the eyes closed and repeats a word or sound as one breathes. When thoughts stray, just refocus on the breathing and the word repetition.  This should be done for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day.

Usually anything that breaks the train of everyday thought can evoke this physiological state. So participating in repetitive sports such as running, as well as progressive muscular relaxation, yoga, knitting, and crocheting. Playing musical instruments also work, assuming that you can play well such that you can become one with the instrument also works. Effective techniques can vary from individual to individual, and it is important to find the technique that works best with oneself.

 Here are some suggestions as to how to start. This is from the website of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.[4]

Elicitation of the relaxation response is actually quite easy.  There are two essential steps:

1. Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity.

2. Passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and the return to your repetition.

The following is the generic technique taught at the Benson-Henry Institute.

1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as “one,” “peace,” “The Lord is my shepherd, “Hail Mary full of grace,” or “shalom.”

2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

3. Close your eyes.

4. Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thights, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.

5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.

6. Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh, well,” and gently return to your repetition.

7. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.

8. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.

9. Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.

Other techniques for evoking the relaxation response are:

·         Imagery

·         Progressive muscle relaxation

·         Repetitive prayer

·         Mindfulness meditation

·         Repetitive physical exercises

·         Breath focus.

You may want to try more than one technique to find the one that suits you best.

The relevance of the relaxation response to improving memory and warding off cognitive decline due to aging should be obvious. Attention is critical to effective memory, but mental fatigue depletes the amount of attention that can be effectively allocated to memory. The relaxation response allows for the refreshment of attention. Attention needs also to be used selectively as there is simply too much information to attend to effectively. The relaxation response facilitates the ability to attend selectively to the information of interest and to ward off distracting stimuli and thoughts.


[3] Benson, H., (2008).  Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response.,  2 July  edition of PLoS One at http://www.plosone.org.