Posts Tagged ‘Mindfulness’

Mind, Body, & Genome

December 4, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” None of the many forms of meditation studied in this book was originally designed to treat illness. Nevertheless, today the scientific literature is replete with studies assessing whether these ancient practices might be useful for treating illnesses. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; see the healthy memory blog post “Improving Selective Attention” for more information) and similar methods can reduce the emotional component of suffering from disease, but not cure the maladies. But mindfulness training— as short as three days—results in a short-term decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the molecules responsible for inflammation. With extensive practice this seems to become a trait effect, with imaging studies finding in mediators at rest lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, along with an increased connectivity between regulatory circuitry and sectors of the brain’s self system, especially the posterior cingulate cortex.

For experienced meditation practitioners, a daylong period of intensive mindfulness down regulates genes involved in inflammation. The enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular aging, increases after three months of intensive practicing of mindfulness and loving-kindness (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation).

Long-term meditation may lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Current evidence is inconclusive as to whether such effects emerge with relative short-term practice, like MBSR, to only become apparent with longer-term practice. Taken together, the hints of neural rewiring that undergird altered traits seem scientifically credible, although further studies for specifics are needed.

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A Few Words About Buddhism

November 28, 2017

A reasonable response after reading the preceding posts is, if Buddhism is so great, what do they have to show for it. This is a variant of “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” First of all there are many different sects of Buddhism. They range from the highly ascetic Zen Buddhism, to highly commercialized sects that can be readily found in Japan. It should also be realized that, like other religions, there is a wide variance in the practice of the religion. What is particularly disturbing is how the Burmese, who are predominately Buddhist, have been persecuting the Rohingya, who are Moslem. They are killing them. Killing fellow humans is, or should be, anathema to Buddhists. Self-immolation, rather than fighting, was the preferred reaction in Viet Nam.

The Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. But as was said in a previous post, the Dalai Lama is not interested in making converts to Buddhism. However, he is interested in making a better world, and he thinks meditation and mindfulness will help in accomplishing this goal. The data in “Altered Traits” supports his thinking.

© 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.

How to Convert Terrorists

November 16, 2017

This post is based in part on a Feature Article in the19 August 2017 issue of the New Scientist titled, “Anatomy of terror: What makes normal people extremists?” by Peter Byrne. Anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts asks the question, “What makes someone prepared to die for an idea? He suggests that the answer comes in two parts. Jihadists fuse their individual identity with that of the group, and they adhere to “sacred values.” He writes that sacred values are values that cannot be abandoned or exchanged for material gain. They tend to be associated with strong emotions and are often religious in nature, but beliefs held by nationalists and secularists may earn the label too.

Atran argues that individuals in this state are best understood, not as rational actors but as “devoted actors.” “Once they’re locked in as a devoted actor, none of the classic interventions seem to work. However, there can be openings. Although a sacred value cannot be abandoned it can be reinterpreted. Atran relates the case of an imam he interviewed who had worked for ISIS as a recruiter, but had left because he disagreed with their definition of jihad. For him, but not for them, jihadism could accommodate persuasion by non-violent means. As long as alternative interpretations are seen as coming from inside the group, they can be persuasive within it. Atran is now advising the US, UK, and French governments on the dynamics of jihadist networks to help them deal with terrorism.

Atran says that the key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early before anyone becomes a “devoted actor.” Until then there are all sorts of things that can be done. He says that one of the most effective countermeasures is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behavior among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.

Perspectives need to be changed. Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany thinks brain training could achieve similar effects. Neuroscientists have identified two pathways in the brain by which we relate to others. One mobilizes empathy and compassion, allowing us to share another person’s emotions. The second activates theory of mind, enabling us to see a situation from the other’s perspective. Her group recently completed a project called ReSource in which 300 volunteers spent nine months doing training first on mindfulness, and then on compassion and perspective training, and corresponding structural brain change were detectable in MRI scans.

Tania Singer notes that compassion evolved as part of an ancient nurturing instinct that is usually reserved for kin. To extend it to strangers, who may see the world differently from us, we need to add theory of mind. The full results from ReSource aren’t yet published, but Singer expects to see brain changes associated with perspective-taking training. She says that “only if you have both pathways working together in a coordinated fashion can you really move towards global cooperation.” By incorporating that training into school curricula, she suggests, we could build a more cohesive, cooperative society that is more resilient to extremism. To all of this, healthy memory say “Amen.’

Previous healthy memory posts have argued that had the prisoners held at Guantanomo been treated differently, an understanding could have been developed that would provide the basis for a new and more compelling narrative for these supposed terrorists. Once they had been converted, mindfulness training such as that in the ReSource program might have been highly effective.

© 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.

The Benefits of Mindfulness for Uncertain Waiting

June 27, 2017

Most of us don’t like waiting. Waiting is stressful. This is especially true when we don’t know how long we’ll be waiting. Consider law students who have taken the bar exam and don’t know when they’ll receive their results regarding whether they’ll be admitted to the bar. Professor Sweeney delivered a presentation titled “Bracing later and Coping Better: Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation during an Uncertain Waiting Period” at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

The study divided law students awaiting the results of their bar exam into two groups. The experimental group was provided an audio presentation for self-guided mindfulness. The mindfulness was of the loving-kindness variety. The participants were asked to practice this mindfulness three times a week. A control group practiced a control activity.

Although the participants who practiced mindfulness worried the same as the participants in the control group, they managed their expectations better and reported coping better. The participants who were at risk for poor coping benefitted most.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Designed to Addict

September 8, 2016

Designed to Addict is the title of the second chapter in “The Cyber Effect” by Dr. Mary Aiken.  Although the internet was not designed to addict users, it appears that it is addicting many.  Of course, humans are not passive victims, they are allowing themselves to be addicted.  Dr. Aiken begins with the story of a twenty-two year old mother Alexandra Tobias.  She called 911 to report that her three-month old son had stopped breathing and needed to be resuscitated.  She fabricated a story to make it sound as if an accident had happened, but later confessed that she was playing “Farmville” on her computer and had lost her temper when her baby’s crying distracted her from the Facebook game.  She picked up the baby and shook him violently and his head hit the computer.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital dead from head injuries and a broken leg.

At the time of the incident “Farmville” had 60 million active users and was described by its users in glowing terms as being highly addictive.  It was indeed addictive so that “Farmville” Addicts Anonymous support groups were formed and a FAA page was created on Facebook.    Dr. Aiken found this case interesting as a forensic cyberpsychologist for the following reason:  the role of technology in the escalation of an explosive act of violence.  She described it as extreme impulsivity, an unplanned spontaneous act.

Impulsivity is defined as “a personality trait characterized by the urge to act spontaneously without reflecting on an action and its consequences.”  Dr. Aiken notes “that the trait of impulsiveness influences several important psychological processes and behaviors, including self-regulation, risk-taking and decision making.  It has been found to be a significant component of several clinical conditions, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, borderline personality disorder, and the manic phase of bipolar disorder, as well as alcohol and drug abuse and pathological gambling.”  Dr. Aiken takes care to make the distinction between impulsive and compulsive.  Impulsive behavior is a rash, unplanned act, whereas compulsive behavior is planned repetitive behavior, like obsessive hand washing.  She elaborates in cyber terms.  “When you constantly pick up your mobile phone to check your Twitter feed, that’s compulsive.  Then  you read a nasty tweet and can’t restrain yourself from responding with an equally  nasty retort (or an even nastier one), that’s impulsive.”

Joining an online community or playing in a multiplier online game can give you a sense of belonging.  Getting “likes” meets a need for esteem.  According to psychiatrist Dr. Eva Ritvo in her article “Facebook and Your Brain” social networking “stimulates release of loads of dopamine as well as offering an effective cure to loneliness.  These “feel good” chemicals are also triggered by novelty.  Posting information about yourself can also deliver pleasure.  “About 40 percent of daily speech is normally taken up with self-disclosure—telling others how we feel or what we think about something—but when we go online the amount of self-disclosure doubles.   According to Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, this produces a brain respond similar to the release of dopamine.”

Jack Panksepp is a Washington State University Neuroscientist who coined the term affective neuroscience, or the biology of arousing feelings or emotions.  He argues that a number of instincts such as seeking, play, anger, lust, panic, grief, and fear are embedded in ancient regions of the human brain built into the nervous system as a fundamental level.  Panskepp explains addiction as an excessive form of seeking.  “Whether the addict is seeking a hit from cocaine, alcohol, or a Google search, dopamine is firing, keeping the human being in a constant state of alert expectation.”

Addiction can be worsened by the stimuli on digital devices that come with each new email or text to Facebook “like,” so keep them turned off unless there is a good justification for keeping them on, and then only for a designated amount of time.

There is technology to help control addictive behavior.  One of these is Breakfree, an app that monitors  the number of times you pick up your phone, check your email, and search the web.  It offers nonintrusive  notifications and provides you with an “addiction score” every day, eery week, and every month to track your progress.  There are many more such apps such as Checky and Calm, but ultimately it is you who needs to control your addictions.

Mindfulness is a prevalent theme in the healthy memory blog.  It is a Buddhist term “to describe the state of mind in which our attention is directed to the here and now, to what is happening in the moment before us, a way of being kind to ourselves and validating our own experience.”    As a way of staying mindful and keeping track of time online, Dr. Aiken has set her laptop computer to call out the time, every hour on the hour, so that even as she is working in cyberspace, where time flies, she is reminded very hour of the temporal real world.”

Internet addictive behavior expert Kimberly Young recommends three strategies:
1.  Check your checking.  Stop checking your device constantly.
2.  Set time limits.  Control your online behavior—and remember , kids will model
their behavior on adults.
3.  Disconnect to reconnect.  Turn off devices at mealtimes—and reconnect with                  the family.
Some people find what are called internet sabbaths helpful and disconnect for a day or a weekend.  Personally HM believes in having a daily disciplined schedule to prevent a beneficial activity from becoming a maladaptive behavior.

Much more is covered in the chapter, to include compulsive shopping, but the same rule applies.  To be aware of potential addiction monitor your behavior, and make the appropriate modifications.

© 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.

Mindfulness Needs to Be Taught in the Public Schools

August 28, 2016

And at least by the fourth grade according an article in the Washington Post that was reviewed in the healthy memory blog post, “A New School of Thoughtfulness.”  The article notes that the idea of getting squirmy kids to sit still or angst-ridden teens to meditate might seem far fetched, but it works.  It finds that kids often to take to it, readily turning the practice as a way to self-soothe, and they take these techniques home with them.

One fourth grade student said, “When I’m mad and get into a fight with my brother or anyone in the family, I go up to my room, and I start breathing and doing mindfulness. It calms me down a little so things get back to normal.”

A classmate says that when she has trouble sleeping, she’ll count her breaths and listen to the ticking of her watch to relax.

It appears that mindfulness is being learned by the parents from their children, which they are finding is improving them as parents.

Another student said, “I thought it was totally weird at first., then I realized that it totally helped…with everything in my life.”  The “everything in my life” quote is especially important.  Mindfulness will not only benefit their behavior, but should also benefit their schoolwork.  Usually the failure to learn is due to a failure to attend.  These students are learning how to focus their attention on what hey need to learn.

Yet another student was playing volleyball and getting angry at her losing team.  She said that she was about to yell at them them for not doing the right thing, but then she recalibrated, did not yell, and made positive suggestions.  Mindfulness is teaching them to consider the situation from perspectives different from their own.  This will increase the effectiveness of group and team work.  It should also significantly decrease the incidence or arguments and fights.  Many of the problems stem from a lack of discipline and mindfulness is a positive strategy that increase discipline.

HM does not know how widely spread mindfulness is in the public schools.  But it needs to be spread universally in all schools.  Mindfulness provides the key to successful learning and living.

© 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.

Labels Do Not Imply Understanding

July 2, 2016

For too many people labels do imply understanding.   As HM tried to argue in the immediately preceding post, MBTI indicators do not imply understanding, but unfortunately they do imply understanding to too many people.  A much older example are the signs of the Zodiac.   Both they and astrology have thrived.  Nancy Reagan is said to have brought an astrologer into the White House.  At best, a label provides an entry to understanding.  Consider the shooter in the Orlando case.  Many would probably be satisfied with the label that he was crazy.  However, today there is a meaningful distinction between being a gunman who is crazy, and being a gunman who is a militant Islamist.  Usually being a militant Islamist implies that the individual belongs to and was directed by a militant organization.  However, the Orlando gunman was apparently a lone wolf, in that he was not attached with any particular group.  Indeed, some of the groups to which he pledged allegiance were diametrically opposed to each other, so his pledges of allegiance were contradictory.  He was also upset and conflicted by his sexual orientations.  Had he accepted them, this would not have been a problem, but as he regarded them as being in conflict with his religious beliefs, it became a very large problem. Plus, he had been bullied as a child.   At the bottom of all this, he was an extremely angry individual who acted out with violence.   Out of this hodgepodge of problems lay and enormous reservoir of anger and a propensity to act violently.  One can conclude that he was crazy, but that would not imply any understanding of all of the dimensions of his craziness.

As was alluded to above, even saying that someone is a militant Islamist does not imply much understanding.  One needs to know what kind of violent Islamist and is the individual acting under orders from any particular group.  Even then, one wants to know why the individual belongs to this group.  There are several narratives, which provide further understanding.as to why the individual is doing what he is doing.  But one seeks a deeper understanding.  It seems reasonable to believe that if our understanding was thorough enough, defenses could be developed that would reduce or eliminate recruitments, and perhaps even convert radicals away from their radicalism.

HM has become convinced of the need to incorporate mindfulness in all K through 12 curricula, along with psychology courses reflecting the current state of psychological knowledge.  Mindfulness training would provide a basis for students to have a more accurate understanding of themselves.  They would also learn how to understand others and how to interact with them effectively.  Basically what is needed is what the Dalai Lama calls secular ethics.  The current educational system is largely medieval, and unfortunately many adults remain stuck in medieval beliefs.

© 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.

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.

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.

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.

A New School of Thoughtfulness

October 29, 2015

The title of this blog post is the title of an article in the Local Living section of the October 8, 2015 Washington Post.  It was an article about teaching thoughtfulness in the public schools. The subtitle to this article is “These educators teach kids to take their breath and practice mindfulness,” and the article is by Rachel Pomerance.  I so wish that this had been taught in the public schools when I attended them.  I would have been a better student and  better human being.  I have only been working on thoughtfulness these past several years after I started the healthy memory blog.

Research has convincingly linked mindfulness to improved focus, mood, and behavior.  The movement has ballooned and has spread from health-care institutions to Fortune 500 companies, the military and athletics.  Now it is increasingly being used at schools and with children.  It is here that mindfulness has its major impact.  Students are learning skills that will benefit them their entire lives provided they keep working at them.  And these skill will have strong benefits on learning.

Mindfulness provides a mental reset button, freeing one from a crush of distraction, swell of anger, or parade of fears and regrets that can dominate thoughts and derail behavior.  Thoughtfulness exercises  include counting breaths, focus on one of the five senses, anchors to turn to when one’s thoughts wander.

The article notes that the idea of getting squirmy kids to sit still or angst-ridden teens to meditate might seem far fetched.   But it finds that kids often do take to it, readily turning  to the practice as a way to self-soothe, and they take these techniques home with them.

One fourth grade student said, “When I’m made and get into a fight with my brother or anyone in the family, I go up to my room, and I start breathing and doing mindfulness. It calms me down a little so things get back to normal.”

A classmate says that when she has trouble sleeping, she’ll count her breaths and listen to the ticking of her watch to relax.

Another student said, “I thought it was totally weird at first., then I realized that it totally helped…with everything in my life.”

Yet another student was playing volleyball and getting angry at her losing team.  She said that she was about to yell at them them for not doing the right thing, but then she recalibrated, did not yell, and made positive suggestions.

It appears that mindfulness is being learned by the parents from their children, which they are finding is improving them as parents.

Mindfulness is not some magic switch that can be turned on.  It needs to be practiced and worked at.  Sometimes we fail, but it is important that we also forgive ourselves and work to improve in the future.

Keys to a Healthy Memory: Growth Mindsets and Mindfulness

October 22, 2015

The advice from the beginning of this blog has been to continually grow your mind 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.

MIndfulness provide 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.  There have been many healthy memory posts on Mindfulness and you can anticipate many more in the future.

Similarly, you can anticipate many more posts on growth mindsets, but bear in mind that many previous posts have provided techniques and information for effective growth mindsets.

© 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.

Psychology is a STEM Discipline

August 22, 2015

STEM is an acronym referring to the academic discipline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  It  is significant in that it recognizes the importance of these disciplines to economic competitiveness and, accordingly, stresses their importance to educational  policy,  Psychology is recognized as a STEM discipline by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  These STEM disciplines affect immigration policy.

Unfortunately, there are people who confuse psychology with psychiatry, a medical specialty.  Although clinical psychology does deal with mental illness, and clinical psychologists do work with psychiatrists, it is but one branch of psychology, as is counseling psychology.  Psychology is concerned with how humans and animals behave.  This interest extends beyond just behavior and is heavily involved with cognitive processes and neuroscience.  This includes the behavior and interactions of groups of people.  There is a branch known as industrial and organizational psychology that deals with businesses and organizations.  One of the divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA) is the Division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology.  I have had the honor of serving as president of this division.

Although psychology is an important discipline and deserves recognition as a STEM discipline, I had long thought that it was best to postpone psychology courses until college.  However, my thinking has changed.  I have long advocated that statistics and experimental design be taught in high school.  The reason for this is that it is difficult to be a responsible citizen, or to make informed decisions about medical care, without a fundamental understanding of statistics.   However, I think all adults should have some understanding about how human cognition works, and the information processing shortcomings and biases we are all prey to.  People need to learn how we understand and come into contact with our environment and our fellow human beings.   People need to understand that we are conscious of only a small percentage of our cognitive processes.  And we all need to learn about mindfulness so we can deal better not only with our own cognitive processes, but also with our interactions with our fellow human beings.

I have also found that psychology, that is scientifically based psychology, provides an expert platform for learning about science.  Psychology involves more than neuroimaging.  There are psychologists who use biological assays in their research.  Cognitive psychology is concerned with how cognition works to include memory, perception, concept formation, problem solving, language, and creativity.  Educational psychology studies the best ways to learn including teaching and computer assisted instruction.  Social psychology is concerned with how groups of humans act, how opinions are formed, and the best ways to persuade.  Industrial organizational psychology is concerned with how organizations work, and how their functioning can be performed.  This includes the performance of teams.  Different areas of research require different techniques, so a wide variety of experimental methods and statistical approaches are used.

It has been my experience that many, certainly not all, but many, from the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering, know well the methods and techniques needed for their disciplines.  But they still lack a general ability to apply the scientific method.  The function more as technicians in their disciplines, rather than as broadly trained scientists.

© 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.

Free Will

July 13, 2015

On the last day of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention I attended a session on the general topic of free will.  One of the papers analyzed choices people make as a source of data, which is very close to the approach advocated in a book I had recently read.  I recommended this book to the presenter.  He thanked me as was unaware of this volume.  I decided that a review of this book would be more informative than a discussion of the papers at this session.

Free Will is an important philosophical topic and is also the title of the book by Mark Ballagher in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles.  He is the most remarkable philosophical author I have ever read.  In my experience philosophical writing involves making the same point with the most subtle nuisances over and over again to what is, in my view, beating a dead horse.  I think in many cases Cliff Notes will suffice and one need not suffer the abuse of philosophical writing.  Mark Ballagher is  an exception.   He is writing is highly readable and to the point.  He allows the horse to live.  He neatly dissects the topic and makes his points concisely.

In the case of free will he dismisses arguments that justify free will on external basis not relevant to the philosophical argument per se.  For example, arguing that free will is necessary or there would not basis for law and punishment.  Ballagher states up front that he has no religious beliefs and does not believe in God.  So those issues are out of the way.

He argues that the big problem with the classical argument against free will is that it just assumes determinism is true.  That makes it easy.  But what makes determinism true? Determinism is still an open philosophical and scientific question.  Quantum physics undermines determinism because it entails uncertainty, but there are still clever arguments that attempt to deal with this uncertainty in undermining free will.  But these are arguments, not compelling arguments, and do not disprove free will.  Philosophical arguments against free will do not hold up  to Ballagher’s analysis.

Then he addresses the scientific argument that there is empirical evidence against free will.  Psychologists might argue that subliminal perception and the fact that the vast amount of mental activity is unconscious (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  But to argue that we are unaware of some, even most of our mental activity, does not mean that we never control or make decisions on the basis of mental activity.

Evidence from neuroscience appears to be stronger.  There is LIbet’s experiment that there was neural activity indicating the action before we decided to perform the action.   Ballagher does not mention this, but I believe that LIbet himself did not believe this, although many have used his data to make the argument.  Haynes’ studies appear to be a more successful attempt to debunk free will, but Ballagher digs into the scientific data to reveal its flaws.

Ballagher even criticizes philosophical arguments for free will, for example Hume’s compatabilism.  Ballagher gets to his point by asking what is meant by Free  Will actually.   It is true that most of our information processing  occurs below our level of consciousness.  Ballagher introduces the notion of torn decisions to explain what he means by free will.  Examples of  torn decisions are which restaurant to go do, which movie to see, which college to go to, and so forth.  One can still argue that these decisions are made subconsciously, but this is an assertion, not proof.  Ballagher would not claim that he has proved the existence of free will.  Rather he has defended it from those who attempt to debunk free will.

It is impossible to do justice to Ballagher’s dissection of this topic.  For those interested in this topic, I strongly recommend reading the book.  I would also recommend reading this book to see how informative philosophy can be when incisively analyzed and concisely written.

I would close by providing my reasons for believing in free will.  I am sure that Ballagher would disagree with what I am about to write on philosophical grounds.  Also it is important to realize the Ballagher makes no attempt to prove the existence of free will.  Rather, he is debunking arguments that attempt to disprove free will.  I would argue for believing in free will on pragmatic grounds.  The basic concept of mindfulness is that we have enough control of our conscious minds to modify our behavior and emotions.  And there is much evidence that mindfulness works for those who believe in and practice mindfulness.  If one does not believe in free will, then there is little basis for trying.  If we are without free will, then we are stuck sitting in front of a television set with no ability to change channels.

© 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.

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.

Happy New Year for 2015! Now What About Those Resolutions?

December 30, 2014

If you are serious about achieving your resolutions, be realistic. If you have read previous healthymemory blog posts on this topic, you should be aware that achieving resolutions requires resources of attention and will power that are consumed in your efforts to achieve them. As has been mentioned in previous posts, picking just two resolutions is a good idea. One resolution should be fairly easy to accomplish. You want to have at least one victory in the win column. The second resolution should be a stretch, but not too much of a stretch. This is one that you can truly congratulate yourself for accomplishing.

You want to bring mindfulness into your resolutions. If you are not currently practicing mindfulness, then that resolution should be on the top of your list. Practicing mindfulness will enhance the probability of you achieving your resolutions. Entering “mindfulness” into the healthymemory blog search block will yield many, many blog posts on this topic.

Memory, Attention, Consciousness

November 30, 2014

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.

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.

Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPS)

April 19, 2014

This post is based largely on entry point 25 (Time-In and Mindful Awareness Practices) of the Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology by Daniel J. Siegel. William James, who is regarded by many as the father of modern psychology, proposed more than one hundred years ago that the exercise of returning a wandering attention again and again would be the “education par excellence” for the mind. I remember reading his words when I was a student many years ago thinking “right on.” My mind wandering during my studies was a constant source of frustration. Later in my life I read James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. If memory serves me correctly, eastern religions were not among the varieties of religious experience discussed. Unfortunately there is an anti-eastern/pro-western bias in western education. Had James reviewed these eastern religions, he would have discovered practices in meditation and mindfulness that addressed this very problem.
The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) uses the term mindful awareness practices (MAPS) to the many approaches for developing the skill of being mindfully aware. These strategies focus attention on the present moment. They focus attention on intention and also create awareness of awareness. When the breath is supposed to be the object of attention, the focus of the mind usually wanders and becomes distracted, the intended goal is to redirect attention back to the breath again and again. If the intention of the practice, to focus on the breath, is forgotten, then the exercise will not be performed well. Stabilizing attention requires being aware of awareness, and paying attention to intention. These are the keys to mindful awareness that strengthens the mind itself.
Time-in is a term used to refer to the ways in which we can take time to focus inward, to pay attention to our sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts (SIFT). That is, we SIFT the mind’s inner experience. Doing this each day can promote improvements in emotion regulation, attention, and empathy. Increasing the capacity to be aware of awareness and pay attention to intention strengthens the brain’s circuits for executive functions. These executive functions include the ability to sustain attention, to avoid distractions, to selectively change attention and then focus on the designated target, and to allocate the resources necessary to complete a task successfully. Research done at MARC found as much executive function improvement as is found using stimulant medication in adolescents and adults with attention deficit challenges. Other research at the University of California has found that sustaining mindful awareness can increase telomerase, the enzyme needed to maintain the telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes that sustain the life of the cell.
There is some debate regarding whether being mindful is primarily a way of focusing attention on the present-moment experience or whether it also entails a state of positive regard for self and for others. COAL is an acronym for the notion of being aware that is imbued with kindness. COAL stands for curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. One kind regard it as either ironic or justified, but being concerned for others also benefits one’s personal health.

© 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.

Our Future Brains: Forbidden Planet?

March 29, 2014

My favorite science fiction movie is Forbidden Planet. In the movie human space explorers traveled to a planet in a distant solar system 16 light years from earth. They were looking for what had happened to another expedition that had not been heard from for many years. Before they land they are warned by Dr. Morbius, a member of this previous expedition, to stay away. Nevertheless, they do land and discover Dr. Morbius, his daughter, and Robbie the Robot. Dr. Morbius tells them that this planet had previously been occupied by a highly intelligent species, the Krell. The Krell had become extinct due to some mysterious force. Shortly after the human space explorers arrive they experience attacks from an invisible force that kills them. Apparently they are defenseless. One member of the crew undergoes a brain boost using a device developed by the Krell. He comes to understand the source of this deadly force, explains what it is, and then dies from the brain boost. In turns out that this force is the same force that resulted in the extinction of the Krell.
Understanding the nature of this force requires some understanding of Freudian psychology. According to Freud, there are three mental entities, the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the source of all our primal desires and emotions. The ego is the means for dealing with reality on a rational basis. The superego works as a moral force overlooking both the id and the ego. Unfortunately for the Krell, they learned how to use their mental powers to kill and destroy. So their ids overrode their egos and superegoes resulting in their own destruction. Dr. Morbius was using this same mental force to destroy the visiting humans. Eliminating Dr. Morbius stopped the death and destruction.
So allow me a to take a new science fiction journey. This one with a species that masters the Triangle of Well-Being through mindfulness. The mind develops the brain using neuroplasticity for beneficial synaptogenesis, myleinogenesis, neurogenesis, and epigenesis to an extraordinary degree. The mind uses these enhanced capabilities of the brain to develop and grow beneficial interrelationships. Moreover, mindfulness practices have influenced 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. People become empowered to work for the benefit of all. Crime becomes extremely rare, and wars are no longer possible. This fantasy is Forbidden Planet with a happy ending. Let us not go the way of the Krell.

© 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.

The Triangle of Well-Being

March 8, 2014

The Triangle of Well-Being is a chapter in Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. This triangle of well-being is a three pointed figure that is a metaphor for the idea that mind, brain, and relationships are each part of a whole. The notion is that this triangle is a metaphoric map that signifies one reality with three interdependent facets. The triangle represents the process by which energy and information flow. This process changes over time. Relationships are the sharing of this flow. The brain refers to the extended nervous system distributed throughout the body that serves as the embodied mechanism of that flow. The mind is an emergent process that arises from the system of energy information flow within and among people. A critical aspect of the mind is the emergent process of self-regulation that regulates that from which it arises.

So the mind can regulate and change the brain, which is the process of neuroplasticity. The energy information flow within us, our thinking and behavioral process, along with our communication with our fellow human beings can produce resultant changes in the brain for better or worse. The worse part is when maladaptive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors occur. The better part is when we acquire new knowledge, modulate our emotions, and foster beneficial and enjoyable relationships.

Siegel is a psychiatrist who is the Co-Director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. He uses this conceptual treatment both in his treatment of psychiatric patients and in the development of healthy mindfulness. His pocket guide goes into great detail regarding the parts of the brain and how they are modified in the process.

Permit me to elaborate on this triangle using the lingo of the healthymemory blog. Interpersonal relationships are part of transactive memory, but transactive memory includes technology as well as live interactions among individuals. Books and other technical media allow us to establish relationships with humans who have long departed. Admittedly, these relationships are uni-directional, but they are nevertheless valuable. We can also establish relationships through technology with living individuals throughout the world, and these relationships are definitely bi-directional.  Relationships among groups are omnidirectional. Such relationships can be valuable, but they need to be distinguished from relationships in social media, such as Facbook, where “friending” can be largely superficial.

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.

Mindsight

December 14, 2013

When I was in high school I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I read Freud and learned about the id, the ego, and the superego. I read Carl Gustav Jung and learned about individuation, extroversion, introversion, and archetypes as well as the collective unconscious. I read Alfred Adler and learned about individual psychology and the inferiority complex. The patients in case histories were identified with mysterious initials. But when I attended psychology and started taking psychology courses I became obsessed with learning how memory works, how we perceive, and how we form concepts and make decisions. So I studied in the area of human experimental psychology and earned a Ph.D. In the working world, I addressed applications and worked in the area of applied experimental and engineering psychology. I became a cognitive psychologist studying cognitive science. Psychology had been divided into half. One half, consisting of what most people think of as psychology, clinical and counseling psychology. And the other half, consisting of people with more of a scientific bent interested in basic and applied psychology. Historically, there has been little interaction between these two halves of the field of psychology.

So when I read Mindsight by Daniel Siegel, M.D, and saw him addressing clinical problems using the language of cognitive science and relating clinical problems to brain structures, I was overwhelmed. Moreover, in his case histories he uses first names, rather than cryptic initials. Daniel Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. Mindsight refers to gaining insights not only in to how our own minds work, but also in the ways the minds of our fellow human beings work. I believe that mindsight is central not only to a healthy memory and our own mental functioning, but also is key to effective relationships. I could go on and further argue that this is important to government policies, but I shall not belabor that here.

I strongly recommend Mindsight to everyone, especially healthymemory blog post readers. I think it would make a great and valuable Christmas Gift.

Obviously mindsight involves mindfulness. Many healthymemory blog posts on mindfulness can be found by entering mindfulness into the healthymemory search block.

© 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.

A Simple Tip to Spark Mindfulness

August 7, 2013

This tip is from the Afterword, Mindfulness and Kindness Practice, by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu, which is from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan. The healthymemory blog highly recommends A Mindful Nation.

An easy way to remember how to be mindful in the course of a busy day, or when you are overwhelmed, preoccupied, worried, angry, or uncomfortable, is to STOP”

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.

Mindfulness Practice: Body Awareness (or Body) Scan

August 4, 2013

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

“ Here is a wonderful practice, that helps to ground you and tune you into your body, experiencing as it is right now. You may do this practice sitting in a chair or on the floor, lying down, or standing.

  • Allow yourself to settle into a comfortable position in which you feel supported and relaxed, yet will not lead you to fall asleep.

  • You may close your eyes or keep them slightly open with a soft gaze, not focusing on anything in particular.

  • Rest for a few moments in awareness of the natural rhythm of your breathing.

  • Once your body and mind are settled, bring awareness to your body as a whole. Be aware of your body resting and being supported by the chair, mattress, or floor.

  • Bring awareness to different parts of your body. You may choose to focus on one particular area of the body or scan your body in a sequence like this one: toes, feet (sole, heel, top of foot), through the legs, pelvis, abdomen, lower back, upper back, chest, shoulders, arms down to fingers, shoulders, neck, different parts of the face and head.

  • For each part of the body, linger for a few moments and notice the different sensations, their quality, intensity, and constancy.

  • The moment you notice that your mind has wandered, return your attention to the part of the body you last remember.

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.

Is Our Evolutionary Heritage Placing Us at Risk?

July 21, 2013

I believe it is common knowledge that one of the reasons those of us living in the developed countries tend to be overweight, or obese, is that in the earliest stages of the development of our species it was beneficial to survival to store up bodily fat when food was available. This enabled our species to survive when food was not readily available. It was also beneficial to consume foods high in calories. As food is readily available in developed countries today, and there is a tendency to favor foods high in calories. So behaviors that once were beneficial, are now no longer beneficial, and are even potentially harmful.

There is an analogous situation with respect to how we respond to stimuli and how we process information. In earlier times, there were many sources of danger both from other species and within our own species. Consequently, it was beneficial to respond quickly to potential dangers. It is our sympathetic nervous system that responds to potential danger and produces stress. Our parasympathetic nervous system has the role of counteracting our sympathetic system to reduce stress and calm ourselves. An argument can be made that our evolutionary heritage has left many of us with a predisposition in favor of the sympathetic nervous system even though, for most people and in most places, this predisposition is no longer beneficial. There are other factors in addition to a likely evolutionary predisposition that increase the problem. Given the preponderance of crime shows and violence on television and in the movies, people develop a sense of danger that is not proportionate to their actual individual risk. News reports of violent crimes, mass shootings, and terrorist acts increase the sense of danger, when the actual probability of their occurring to most individuals is extremely low. Few people are aware that about 50% of law enforcement officers retire without ever having fired their weapons in the course of their duties. Even with the vast news coverage that has been given to the Trayvon Martin case, there has been virtually no mention of the fact that if there had been no gun, no one would have been killed, and there would have been no trial. The belief that the solution to the problem of gun violence is the arming of more people is clearly false. More guns increase, not decrease, the likelihood of violence.

As has been mentioned in previous healthymemory blog posts, System 1 processes (if you don’t know what System 1 processes are, enter System 1 into the blog search box) were especially beneficial to the early survival of our species. And while System 1 processes are beneficial most of the time, they can have erroneous outputs and System 2 processes must be engaged. A very simple way of thinking about this is that System 1 is reacting, whereas System 2 is thinking. Mindfulness involves shutting down System 1 processes and allowing the flow of System 2 processing.

More information can increase the resort to System 1 processing in an effort to try to keep up with the information overload. Nate Silver notes in his book, The Signal and the Noise, a surprising result of an earlier technological innovation that greatly increased the dissemination of information, the printing press. It produced the Protestant Reformation that plunged Europe into war. “From 1524 to 1648, there was the German’s Peasant War, the Schmalkaldic War, the Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Irish Confederate Wars, the Scottish Civil War, and the English Civil War…The Thirty Years War alone killed one-third of Germany’s population, and the seventeenth century was possibly the bloodiest ever, with the early twentieth staking the main rival claim.”1

One can argue that the advent of the internet has increased the dissemination of information, produced information overload, and has resulted in similar problems: terrorism, religious wars (in the 21st century if you can believe it), and political polarization, which has impeded, if not prevented, effective government.

The solution to this problem is clear, it is mindfulness. We need to try to establish contact with reality, with our bodies, and our minds. (Enter “Mindfulness” into the healthymemory blog search block to learn more about mindfulness).

1Silver, N. (2012). The Signal and the Noise. New York: The Penguin Press., p. 4.

© 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.

A Mindful Politician

June 12, 2013

This blog post is inspired by an article in the June 1913 issue of Mindful magazine. The title of the article is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mindfulness.” The article is about Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio. He is not to be confused with Congressman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. The two are polar opposites. More will be written about Paul Ryan later in this post. Congressman Tim Ryan has recently published a book, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Increase Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, published by Hay House.
A Mindful Politician practices meditation. The mindful politician is open to new ideas. New ideas will not be rejected out of hand due to pre-existing ideology. This does not imply that the politician does not have pre-existing ideas, but when new information indicates that certain ideas need to be modified or rejected, he will change his mind. The politician is willing to consider the ideas of others and to try to arrive at a compromise, one that benefits from different modes of thought.

A useful way to view political gridlock is to view it as an absence of mindfulness. The enemy of mindfulness is political ideology. Worse yet, is a political ideology that is unbending. Even when provided strong empirical evidence to the contrary, the ideologue will not change his mind.

It is somewhat ironic that the perhaps the best politician exhibiting this ideological trait is Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan has indicated that what motivated him to get into politics was the author Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was a novelist who formulated the philosophy of Objectivism. It is disturbing that there has been a resurgence of interest in this philosophy as recent events have clearly shown that it is both wrong and outdated. In short, Paul Ryan is an ideologue, and an ideologue is antithetical to an effective democracy.

Ideologies can be seductive. They provide a solution to practically all problems neatly wrapped up by the ideology. I know a colleague who is always happy. He is an ideologue who will offer a solution to practically any problem you might give him, never mind that there is ample empirical evidence to show that his solution is wrong.

Personally, I think the purpose of life is to learn, to adapt, to interact with others, and to solve problems both personally and socially. Apart from a general set of ethical guidelines, we need to continue learning, interacting, and solving problems. It is not unusual for the solution to a problem to be non-intuitive. Nevertheless, we should go where the empirical evidence leads us, not to some ideological solution.

In short, the answer to political gridlock is mindful politicians; politicians who not only say they are mindful, but who actually practice mindfulness.

© 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.

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.

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.

The “Now” is Really the “Then”

March 31, 2013

The “Now” is a key concept in mindfulness with the objective of staying present in the “now.” As will be mentioned later in this post, the objective is good, but it is misnamed. Our information processing limitations are such that we can never be present in the “now.” It takes about 0.1 seconds to read data out of our sensory stores. Further processing is then required before the data becomes information that we can understand. So all we know is history, although an extremely small portion of it is very recent history. We use our memories to predict and cope with the future. One of the most remarkable athletic feats is hitting a ball with a bat. The ball is arriving quickly, sometimes extremely fast. The projection of where that ball will be and how we are going to meet it with a bat requires literally a split second decision based on past information that has just recently arrived. Very few people seem to be aware of these delays that preclude us from being precisely in the “now.” This is of particular concern to me as there does not seem to be an awareness among many of the drivers how long it will take them to react should they need to take action. Even if one is devoting full attention to responding to a signal, that decision cannot be immediate. When one is scanning the highway and thinking the car will have traveled considerable distance before one can react. This time is further increased when one is on a cell phone.

We use this historical information stored in our memories to cope with the external world. We build models of the world to project ourselves into the future and try to predict it. I once knew a physicist who was disturbed that light could be both a wave (having frequencies) and a particle (photons). As a psychologist this never bothered me. There are models in our minds. Different models can be better suited for understanding different phenomena. This is the case with light. I don’t believe that we, as corporal beings, can ever experience the external world directly, but only via the models we develop in our minds,

In mindfulness what is really meant by being in the “now” is being in control of our attention. Our brains remain active 24 hours a day, and I doubt absent any pathology that there is any time that our minds our not filled with something. The exercises one performs to be “mindful” involve controlling one’s attention. There are a wide variety of meditation techniques to do this. At one extreme is the focusing and maintaining attention on a single action, breath, word, or phrase. It is very important to be able to focus attention processing at certain times. At the other extreme, meditation involves letting thoughts flow through our minds unedited. The goal here is to bypass filters or information processing biases that cause us to reject certain thoughts or ideas. Insight and creativity are critically dependent on both these types of attention (See the healthymemory blog post, “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up”).

Although I am a strong proponent of mindfulness and many of its practices, I am a bit put off by some of the terms that are used.

© 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.

Mind vs. Brain

March 27, 2013

The first issue of the new publication, Mindfulness, features a column by Sharon Begley having the same title as this blog post. Her article motivated this current post. Scientists seem to be reluctant to talk about mind in a scientific context. Cartesian dualism is no longer in vogue. Neuroscience is the new kid on the block capturing fascinating images of the brain in action. The brain constitutes solid science; the mind remains somewhat questionable. There is a consensus that the mind is an emergent phenomenon emerging from the brain. However, the status of the mind remains questionable.

What is overlooked is that the neuroscience would be meaningless absent the mind. Images could be collected of the brain in action, but there would be no way of knowing what they mean. The typical brain imaging paradigm involves instructing people to do something and see what images emerge. That something is resident in the minds of both the experimental participants and the scientists doing the experiment. Otherwise the entire exercise would be meaningless.

The law of parsimony plays an important role in science. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best. So the simplest explanation is that the brain engenders activity which we interpret as the mind. This explanation assumes that the mind is epiphenomenal. In other words, it serves as a movie we passively observe and experience as mind. It is important to realize that parsimony can be overdone. The notion is that the explanation that should be chosen is the one that is simplest that still explains the most.

The first question to ask about the mind, is why is it there? Even if it is an epiphenomenon, why does it exist? Evolutionary explanations like to include reasons why things involved. So one should think that if the mind exists, there should be a reason for it. In my view the reason is for it to act on the brain. The entire notion of mindfulness is that the mind can act upon the brain, and there is ample evidence to accept this notion. Moreover, there is a pragmatic argument. Consider two individuals. One is a practitioner of mindfulness and engages in practices to control her emotions and to improve her cognitive function. The other believes that her mind is an epiphenomenon and that her brain will determine what happens. Which one do you think will be happier and more successful?

© 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 Selective Attention

May 16, 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 improving selective attention. Selective attention involves the enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.

Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation for improving selective attention. The following section, copied for your convenience from the immediately preceding Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Self-Awareness”, is how Dr. Davidson recommends that you begin mindfulness meditation.

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 recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

He also recommends the Body Scan, which is also copied from the preceding Healthymemory Blog post for your convenience.

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

      1. 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.

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

Dr. Davidson also recommends the following focused attention meditation, also known as one-pointed meditation.

“1. In a quiet room free of distractions, sit with you eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that your focus of attention be visual, rather than on your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.

      1. Focus all your attention on this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.

      2. If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.”2

        He recommends that you do this daily for about ten minutes. Once you are able to maintain your focus of attention for most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month until you reach one hour.

You can also modify your environment to improve your selective attention. Minimize distractions, clear out your environment eliminating as many distractions as you can. Close your door. AND DO NOT MULTITASK!

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

2 Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. p.239.

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.