Posts Tagged ‘Neuroplasticity’

Mind Over Matter

March 22, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The title of this post is identical to the heading in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley. The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

Brain-imaging studies show that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by activity in two regions: the orbital frontal cortex, whose main function is to notice when something is amiss; and the striatum, which received input from the orbital frontal cortex as well as the amygdala. Together the orbital frontal cortex and striatum form what is called the worry circuit. In people with OCD it is buzzing with activity.

Rather than just drugging his patients (antidepressants including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft), neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz got the idea of using a technique he employed in his own Buddhist meditation practice. Called mindfulness, or mindful awareness, it involves observing your own thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a nonjudgmental third party. In The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera described it as attending “just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind…without reacting to them by deep, speech or by mental comment.” In the case of his OCD patients, mindfulness meant learning to experience an OCD symptom without reacting emotionally, and learning to realize that the feeling that something is amiss is just the manifestation of overactivity in the OCD circuit. A patient would think, My OCD circuit is producing another obsessive thought. I know it is not real but just static from a faulty circuit. After mainly hours learning this technique, patients were better able to resist OCD messages, reporting that their disease no longer controlled them. Neuroimaging also showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex, the core of the OCD circuit, had fallen dramatically compared with what it had been before mindfulness-based therapy. Thinking about their thoughts in a new way had altered patterns of brain activity.

Prof. Richardson writes, “This finding is crucial to my belief that we can similarly alter the patterns of brain activity underlying Emotional Style, so let me offer one more example of how mental training can accomplish this. Clinical depression is characterized by overactivity in specific regions of the frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, analysis, and higher thought, in particular regions associated with anticipation—perhaps the cause of the endless rumination that grips people suffering from depression. There is, in addition, often under activity in parts of the limbic system (the brain’s emotion center) associated with reward and pleasure. That would seem odd if you thought of depression as being marked primarily by an overwhelming sense of sadness, which presumably would show up as heightened activity in the limbic system. In fact, however, people with depression report that they experience what’s called flat affect—an inability to experience soaring flights of joy, certain, but also the absence of feelings such as curiosity or interest in the world.”

In the 1960s cognitive-behavior therapy use a form of mental training that focuses on teaching patients to respond to their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a healthy way and to reappraise dysfunctional thinking.

Scientists at the University of Toronto found that cognitive-behavior therapy has a powerful effect on the brain activity underlying depression. The therapy reduced activity in the frontal cortex and raised activity in the limbic system. Patients ruminated less and no longer felt emotionally dead inside. Their depression lifted, and in most cases stayed lifted: Rates of relapse with cognitive-behavior therapy are much lower than with medication, which in any case seems to be more effective than a placebo for anything but the most severe depression.

Prof. Davidson concludes this section as follows: “In short, the revolution in neuroplasticity has shown that the brain can change as a result of two distinct inputs. It can change as a result of the experiences we have in the world—how we move and behave and what sensory signals arrive in our cortex. The brain can also change in response to purely mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, with the result that activity in specific circuits can increase or decrease.”

Our Bodies and Brains on Tech

November 7, 2019

This is the sixth post in the book by doreen dodgen-magee titled “DEVICED: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World.” The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in that book. The title is accurate. Technology affects both our bodies and our brains. Unfortunately, many of these effects are bad.

Fortunately, the author offers tips for decreasing these bad effects. Here are some suggestions for taking action to decrease some bad physical effects:
*Take breaks from screens for movement through the day to help you stay not only healthy, but engaged.
*Get into the habit of walking away from your devices at least every hour to ge fresh air and move both your legs and small muscle groups. Just stepping outside for three deep breaths can be helpful.
*Try many different types of physical movement. Doing so will help you stay flexible both in your physiology as well as in your beliefs about your body’s capabilities.
*Associate one of your tech hobbies with a set of basic and easy-to-do-wherever-you-are stretches. Do these stretches every time you engage that tech habit. For example, do a sun salutation or two every time you pick up your game controller or log on to social media.

Negative postural effects are also a problem. The author offers these suggestions:
*Remember to step away from your devices regularly.
*Practice good ergonomics.
*Stretch regularly.
*Engage in flexibility exercises.
*Make sure your screens are level with your eyes when looking straight ahead.
*When using a keyboard, keep your back straight and your arms parallel to the floor and close in at your sides. Also, rotate your wrists occasionally.
*When using small devices, be sure to stand and stretch, shift your weight, and rotate your thumbs and wrists occasionally. Look up and around and intentionally stretch the top of your head toward the sky.
*When using any device, be careful not to round your shoulders or lean your head excessively forward.
*Practice mindful, thoughtful device engagement.

Blue light related to screen use also has negative effects. Here are some tips offered by the author to minimize this negative impact.
*Take breaks from screens throughout the day.
*Make sure screens are not placed in front of windows, forcing your eyes to adjust to both light sources.
*Use lighting at eye level rather than overhead when working with screens indoors.

Technology use also affects the brain. And these effects are large enough such that neuromarketing has emerged as a field of study. Neuromarketers use brain-imaging technology along with biometric measures (heart rate, respiration) to determine why consumers make the decisions they do. By studying fMRI scans and other physiological data while individuals interact with technology, the researchers see how activation of particular areas of the brain due to specific technological content exposure can result in specific behaviors, ideas, or feelings in people. By changing the way content is delivered within the digital framework, the researchers can change the way the brain is activated, hence changing the lived experience of the subject. This effort is predicated on the knowledge that activation of certain brain regions will bring about certain responses. As the brain wires together where it fires together, repetitive exposure and responses to technology must be having some impact on the way our brains are wired.

In a 1969 episode of Sesame Street the images were black and white and each sustained camera shot lasted somewhere between six and fifteen seconds. It is reasonable to assume that individuals who are exposed to this kind of pacing in the presentation of screen imagery will develop circuitry used to waiting for up to fifteen seconds for a new stimulus. Doing this over and over would force the brain to develop the ability to focus attention without becoming bored or distracted.

In a 1984 Sesame Street episode the sustained camera shots lasted between three to six seconds, with a few lasting only one and a half seconds. The author notes that the brain exposed to this rapid cycling of stimulation and images doesn’t wire with the same tendency toward focus and boredom tolerance that we explored earlier. Instead, it will anticipate a change of scenery every three to five seconds, wiring for efficiency in handling multiple images in fast succession.

The author finds no sustained unmoving camera shots on Sesame Street. She concludes the brain is trained to expect constantly, changing stimulation. If things don’t change on the screen immediately our brain is trained to look away to find something novel to attend to. When the preponderance of visual stimuli presented to us follows this pattern over time, we no longer have the neurologically practiced skills of waiting and focus. It is not every day that one can find such a condemning indictment of Sesame Street.

Dopamine is released during video game use and game developers work to exploit tis. When dopamine levels are high, we feel a sense of pleasure, Once we’ve experienced these feelings, it’s hard not to want to live with less.

Developers are trying to increase users’ screen time. And this can most definitely be harmful. Here are telltales signs that the author offers:
*Moving from incidental use to nearly constant use.
*Needing increasing levels of tech time of stimulation for satisfaction.
*Being jittery or anxious in response to stepping away from technology.
*Lying in order to garner more time/specific content/etc. or to cover up certain forms of use.
*Isolating in order to engage technology.

Here are tips offered by the author for preventing tech addiction and getting help.

Set clear boundaries, communicate them, and enforce them .

Think ahead before adding a technology.

Make sure technology is not your only “sweet spot.”

Introduce high quality, slow moving technologies first, and stick with them as long as possible.

If you feel you’ve moved into use patterns that are hurting you or keeping you from your embodied life, get help.

There is so much information on the dangers of multitasking in the healthy memory blog that anything the author offers on this topic would be repetitive.

She does note the good news of neuroplasticity and doing “deep work.” One of the principle goals of the healthy memory blog is to move past superficial system one processing, which is very fast and avoids deep thinking, and to engage in system 2 processing which is deep thinking. So much learning can be enhanced via technology. There is a virtual infinity of useful knowledge on the web. But people become preoccupied with games, staying in touch, being liked and other superficial activities. In terms of memory health, it is deeper system 2 processing which provides for a more fulfilling and meaningful life. It also decreases the probability of suffering from dementia. Autopsies have found many cases of people who died with the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary ranges, which are the defining features Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited any behavioral or cognitive symptoms. The explanation for this is that these people had developed a cognitive reserve during their lives through continual learning and critical use of their brains.

Nature: Born to Focus

August 13, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.” University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael Posner has developed a three-part model of the brain’s attentional system. He describes alerting, orienting, and executive networks, each with its own neurophysiology and function, as nothing short of “the mechanism through which we have experience and control the sequence of our ideas. Along with University of Oregon psychologist Mary Rothbart, who’s well known for her research on temperament, Posner has been studying how the attentional networks get organized in early life. He finds significant neuropsychological differences among children that share their different ways of focusing and aspects of their identities, from the capacity of learning to the control of thoughts and emotions.

Posner has a computerized Attention Network Test, which is designed to gauge the strength of an individual’s three networks. Biological differences in brains can account for different attentional and temperamental profiles, but nurture as well as nature plays an important role. Rothbart’s research is on cultural differences in executive attention and self-regulation, she finds that the capacity for effortful control is a good thing for both American and Chinese children. In the United States, children who have this ability focus keeping a lid on feelings like anger, fear, and frustration—an important skill in our gregarious society. On the other hand, in China, self-regulating children concentrate on curbing their exuberance and trying not to stand out, which is an equally desirable attribute in their Asian culture. Depending on social or genetic differences, or both, says Posner, “the same behavior of focusing on a dimension of self-control seems to be involved in creating quite different personalities.”

A single individual, biologically based behavioral disposition doesn’t operate in isolation, but in concert with the person’s other qualities and environments. Posner points out that whether the small child’s innate temperament is sunny or stormy, parents will intuitively draw the tot’s attention to smiles, laughter, and hugs, thus reinforcing the desirability of positive emotion.

It is good here to focus how important it is for a child to be loved. Absent this love a child’s emotional and behavioral development is at risk. Other healthy memory posts have elaborated on these risks. Whenever HM reads about some act of violence, his first thought was that this person was an unloved child.

To help children who are not naturally inclined to focus on their schoolwork—or life’s little pleasures—Posner and Rothbart have developed exercises that significantly improve the executive attentional skills of four— and six—year olds. Such training could help the millions of schoolchildren who struggle with attention, mood, and self-control problems.

This chapter concludes: “Nature and nurture have combined forces to find you a characteristic way of focusing that’s part of who you are, but research on the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections through life, proves that your identity isn’t written in stone. Posner is speaking of the children he works with, but his observation increasingly seems to apply to people of any age. “Kids have strong genetic make-ups, but you can also shape them through experience.”

A View of the Reading Brain

October 19, 2018

This post is taken from “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. Please excuse the detail, but it is important to gain an appreciation of what is involved in reading. The brain’s design is with the principle of “plasticity within limits.” The brain is able to go beyond its original biological functions—like vision and language—to develop biologically unknown capacities such as reading and numeracy. To do so, it forms a new set of pathways by connecting and sometimes repurposing its older and more basic structures. Faced with something new to learn, the human brain not only rearranges its original parts, but is also able to refit some of its existing neuronal groups in those same areas to accommodate the particular needs of the new function. The brain recycles and even repurposes neuronal networks for skills that are cognitive or perceptually related to the new one, Wolf writes, “This ability to form newly recycled circuits enables us to learn all manner of genetically unplanned-for activities—from making the first wheel, to learning the alphabet, to surfing the net while listening to Coldplay and sending tweets. None of the activities is hardwired or has genes specifically dedicated to its development; they are cultural inventions that involved cortical takeovers.” As there is no genetic blueprint for reading, there is no one ideal reading circuit. There can be different ones.

In addition to neuroplasticity, there is the concept of cell assemblies formulated by the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb. The concept is that cells that fire together wire together. These specialist groups build the networks that allow us to see the smallest features of a letter or hear the tiniest elements in the sounds of language, literally in milliseconds. Cell specialization enables each working group of neurons to become automatic in its specific region and to become virtually automatic in its connections to the other groups or networks in the reading circuit. For reading to occur, there must be sonic-speed automaticity for neuronal networks at a local level, which, in turn, allows for equally rapid connections across entire structural expanses of the brain. So, whenever we name even a single letter, we are activating entire networks of specific neuronal groups in the visual cortex, which correspond to entire networks of equally specific language-based cell groups, which correspond to networks of specific articulatory-motor cell groups—all with millisecond precision. Multiply this scenario a hundredfold when the task is to depict what you are doing when reading with complete (or even incomplete) attention and comprehension of the meanings involved.

“In essence, the combination of these principles forms the basis of what few of us would ever suspect: a reading circuit that incorporates input from the two hemispheres, four lobes in each hemisphere (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital) and all five layers of the brain (from the uppermost telencephalon and adjacent diencephalon below it; to the middle layers of the mesencephalon; to the lower levels of the mesencephalon and myelencephalon).” So anyone who still believes that we use only a tiny portion of our brains hasn’t yet become aware of what we do when we read.

The Loss of a Neuroscientist Who Should Have Been Awarded a Nobel Prize

September 6, 2017

And that neuroscientist is Marian Diamond who passed away on July 25, 2017 at the age of ninety. Her painstaking research showed that the body’s three-pound seat of consciousness was a dynamic structure of beautiful complexity, capable of development even in old age.

Prior to her research it was strongly believed the nervous system was fixed. We were stuck with the brain we were born with. And any damage to the brain was irreparable. The brain was a static and unchangeable entity that simply degenerated as we age.

Inspired by the research of psychologist Donald Hebb, she began studying the brains of lab rats. Rats that were raised alone, in small and desolate cages, had more trouble navigating a maze than did rats were raised in “enriched” cages, with toys and rat playmates. Through painstaking analyses of these rat brains she found that the cerebral cortices of rats in “enriched” cages were about 6% thicker than the rats in the “impoverished” cages.

Her findings, published in a 1964 paper with three colleagues, were a pivotal contribution to the long-running debate between nature and nurture, which seeks to determine the extent to which a person is shaped by their genes or by their life experiences.. UC-Berkely professor Robert Knight said “The idea that the brain could change based on environmental input and stimulation was felt to be silly, and that’s the boat she completely sank.

Further research generalized these conclusions to humans. Neuroplasticity was found to be ubiquitous. We continue to generate neurons until we die.

Dr. Diamond went on to develop a rich theory of brain plasticity summarized in the phrase use it or lose it. She outlined the following five factors crucial to brain development at any age: diet, exercise, challenge, newness, and love.

Later in her career she was given several sections of Albert Einstein’s brain. She found an unusually high amount of glial cells, which were thought to be a relatively unimportant part of the tissue that held the brain together. This discovery launched renewed interest in the role of glial cells, which are now believed to play a crucial role in cognitive processes.

This post is based in part on an obituary by Harrison Smith in the 31July 2017 Washington Post.


Dr. Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired

August 1, 2016

Dr. Michael Merzenich is one of the key players in research into neuroplasticity.  “Soft-Wired” is the title of his book, with the sub-title “How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.  Dr. Merzenich has appeared in previous healtymemory blog posts.  Soft-wired implies that the brain can change for the better, but he also notes that it can change of the worse.

Dr. Merzenich writes well and presents good explanations of how the brain works, how it creates “you,”  and how the brain changes throughout one’s lifetime.   Included there are not only descriptions of normal aging, but also of injuries and diseases that cause problems.  However, the section on normal aging is quite depressing.  One is likely to give up and quit reading without the promise that this can be mitigated or corrected via neuroplasticity.

He does offer a description of daily activities that contribute to the Maintenance of a Healthy Brain.  He has a chapter devoted to how he has organized his life  so he can continue to thrive and grow.  He discusses navigating the modern world and taking a holistic approach to improving our lives.  The final chapter is titled, “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life—Begin the Transformation to a New, Better Life Right Now.”

What I found to most most disappointing was his failure to discuss what was discussed in the healthymemoy blog post “Alzheimer’s and a Cognitive Reserve.”  Even if he was not aware of the research of Dr. David A. Bennet, and there is little excuse for his lack of awareness, he makes no mention of the fact frequently mentioned in the healthy memory blog that there have been many people whose brains were wreaked with the defining neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque of Alzheimers, yet who never evidenced any behavioral or cognitive symptoms.

He does have a chapter titled, “Programs for Brain Rejuvenation and Brain Recovery—Features of Effective, Internet-Delivered, Neuroscience-Based Programs Designed to Grow, Rejuvenate, and Recover—Then Sustain—Brain Health.  Dr. Merzenich does have a company, Posit Science that develops and administers these programs.  HM believes in the claims he makes for these programs, and Dr. Merzenich does note that these programs are not mandatory for brain health.  There are many, centenarians included, who have died without exhibiting any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s (even though they could have had the defining clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s).

Dr Merzenich does neglect the wisdom coming from the East.  Even though he offers perfuse complements about the Dalai Lama and has participated in the conferences at Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India that have demonstrated the pronounced effects of meditation, he makes no mention of meditation.  Although he does not explicitly invoke mindfulness, some of his exercises are of the “being in the moment” type.  He does have a complementary single sentence on Tai Chi, but that’s it (Healthymemory readers should be expecting some health memory blog posts on Tai Chi later this year).

HM reiterates the importance of meditation and the fostering of growth mindsets for a healthy memory.  The extra ingredients of  GRIT including passion can be added. But it needs to be understood that these are a matter of lifestyle rather than taking specific training.  Even if one avails oneself of this online training, one must continue the training.  There are no short-term fixes for memory health.  Memory health is dependent on brain health and brain health is like body health, sometime that needs to be maintained throughout ones’ lifetime.

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

Now What?

June 16, 2016

“Now What” is the title of the final chapter in Sharon Begley’s outstanding book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.”   The answer to this question is that the future has arrived and that we are the beneficiaries of a revolution in the understanding of the brain and human potential.

There are three key discoveries.  One is that neurons are created until we die.
The second is neuroplasticity that the brain can rewire itself.
The third is that we can effect these changes with how with think, that is, with our minds.  Hence the title, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Sometimes there are problems in the brain, and these can be corrected  by the way we think and exercises that can effectively make corrections to our neuroplastici brains.  But we can also build upon and improve our minds.  The future is virtually limitless.
Begley reviews some of the exciting research of Merzenich, which shall not be reviewed here as there shall be many future posts about the work of Merzenich.

A critical topic is that of secular ethics, a term Healthymemor believes was coined by the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai lama does not proselytize for Buddhism.  Rather he argues for a new basis for a modern ethics, one that appeals to the billions of people who adhere to different religions or to no religion, one that supports basic values such as personal responsibility, altruism, and compassion.

The problem is that a scientific literate person or anyone who gives a cursory glance at newspaper science stories may well react to that a message with some skepticism.  Modern science seems to be offering a radically different view of human responsibility.  Critics call this view neurogenetic determinism, the belief, ascendant from the early 1990s and propelled by the mystique of modern genetics, that ascribes causal power to the genres one inherent from one’s parents.  Should a reader still adhere to this view they are urged to read or reread all the posts devoted to Begleys book.  Genes are affected by the environment and, what is important, are epigenetic, which refers to what is read out from genes.  The environment has strong effects as do meditative practices.  There is a related wrong view and that is strict determinism.  We are victims to neither our genes nor to our environments.  Our minds, how we think about the world along with meditative practices, can and do effect changes.

Healthy memory shall conclude this post with the Begley’s final paragraph.  “The conscious act of thinking about one’s thoughts in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking, as studies show how psychotherapy changes the minds of people with depression show.  Such willfully induced brain changes require focus, training, and effort, but a growing number of studies show how real those changes are.  They come from within.  As discoveries of neuroplasticity, and this self-directed neuroplasticity, trickle down to clinics and schools and plain old living rooms, the ability to willfully change the brain will become a central part of our lives—and our understanding what it means to be human.”

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Brain and Brain Health Myths

May 22, 2016

These myths are copied directly from the SharpBrains website because these are common myths that need to be corrected.  This is an extremely good website with much information on brain and brain health

Top 10 brain and brain health myths, debunked:

Myth 1. Genes deter­mine the fate of our brains.
Fact: Life­long brain plas­tic­ity means that our lifestyles and behaviors play a significant role in how our brains (and therefore our minds) evolve physically and functionally as we get older.

Myth 2. We are what we eat.
Fact: We are what we do, think, and feel, much more than what we eat. (Even if, yes, nutrition plays a role)

Myth 3. Med­ica­tion is the main hope for brain health and enhance­ment.
Fact: Non-invasive inter­ven­tions such as aerobic exercise and meditation can have com­pa­ra­ble and more durable benefits, and free of side effects.

Myth 4. There’s nothing we can do to beat Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.
Fact: While nothing has been proven to prevent the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, there is abundant research showing we can delay the onset of symptoms for years.

Myth 5. There is only one “it” in “Use it or Lose it”.
Fact: The brain presents many neural circuits supporting a variety of important cognitive, emotional, and executive functions. Not just one. (Which is one of the reasons we should stop thinking about magic pills and silver bullets)

Myth 6. Intervention XYZ can help reverse your brain age 10, 20, or 30 years.
Fact: The concept of “brain age” is a fic­tion. Some brain functions tend to improve, and some to decline, as we get older. Nothing can be said to “reverse brain age” in a general sense.

Myth 7. There is a scientific consensus that brain training doesn’t work.
Fact: A group of scientists did issue such a statement, which was promptly contradicted by a larger group of scientists. Consensus…that is certainly not. Brain training, when it meets certain conditions, has been shown to transfer into real-world outcomes.

Myth 8. Brain training is primarily about videogames.
Fact: Evidence-based brain training includes some forms of med­i­ta­tion, cog­ni­tive ther­apy, cog­ni­tive training, and bio/neurofeedback. Interactive media such as videogames can make those interventions more engaging and scalable, but it is important to distinguish the means from the end, as obviously not all videogames are the same.

Myth 9. Heart health equals brain health.
Fact: While heart health contributes significantly to brain health, and vice versa, the heart and the brain are separate organs, with their respective functions and relevant interventions. What we need is to pay much more systematic attention to brain health, so it can advance as much as cardiovascular health already has.

Myth 10. As long as my brain is working fine, why should I even pay attention to it?
Fact: For the same reasons you add gas to your car, and change the oil regularly– so that it works well, and for a long period of time.

The only response Healthymemory would quibble with concerns Myth 4.
Myth 4. There’s nothing we can do to beat Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.
Fact: While nothing has been proven to prevent the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, there is abundant research showing we can delay the onset of symptoms for years.
Although it is true that nothing has been proven that the pathology of Alzheimer’s Disease can be prevented, proof is a very high standard.  And it would be very difficult if not impossible to present an iron clad proof.  Nevertheless, Alzheimer’s is by no means inevitable and there have been many people whose brains were wracked with the amyloid plaque and neurofibril tangles that constitute the definitive diagnosis who never exhibited any of the cognitive or behavioral symptoms.  It is said that these people had built up a cognitive reserve.  So the advice of the healthy memory blog is to strive to build this cognitive reserve.  Moreover, it is quite possible that although the physical indicators of Alzheimer’s cannot be prevented, the neuroplasticity off the brain might preclude any cognitive or behavioral symptoms.  It is these symptoms that are of primarily importance.  Neuroplasticity is likely the result of maintaining a healthy and active mind along with physical health and mindfulness.

There is also a myth that there are drugs that slow Alzheimer’s.  This myth was debunked by Thomas E. Finucane, a professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in a note in the April 30, 2016 Washington Post titled “Drugs don’t (yet) slow Alzheimer’s.”  To quote from this note, “The Food and Drug Administration required package insert for cholinesterase inhibitors comes to a different conclusion: “There is no evidence that donepezil (Aricept) alters the course of the underlying dementing process.”

The National Institutes of Health conference on Minimal Cognitive Impairment came to the same conclusion.

Belief that drugs can slow the progression of dementia is carefully cultivated by Big Pharma, but scientists do not believe that currently available drugs have any effect on the underlying brain disease.”

If you read the healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Alzheimer’s” you will find that Peter J. Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D. does not believe that either a medical cure or a medical vaccination will be developed.  Dr. Whitehouse worked for many years  to find such a drug.  Moreover, research in this field is quite lucrative.  Nevertheless, Dr. Whitehouse believes that this is a dead end.  His currently research involves working with people who have Alzheimers’s.  Given neuroplasticity and some remarkable treatments for some severely debilitating conditions.  See the healthy memory blog post, “The Latest Discoveries in Neuroplasticity.”  For more details see the books by Dr. Norman Doidge, “The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.  This is the sequel to his earlier book, The Brain That Changes Itself.  In the view of Healthymemory, this approach is more likely to yield results that looking for the silver bullet.  Of course, the best means of maintaining a healthy memory  is to have a growth mindset and meditation.

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

What Are the Consequences of Having Only Half a Brain?

December 28, 2015

We actually have the answer to this question as the result of the unfortunate circumstance in which a young girl found herself (this can be found in Eagleman’s “The Brain”).  As a result of the damaging consequences from a disease she was suffering, it was necessary to remove an entire half of her brain.   And what were the consequences from this surgery,  She is weak on one side of her body, but otherwise she’s essentially indistinguishable from other children.  She has no problems understanding language, music, math, and stories.  She’s good in school and participates in sports.

When I was a graduate student I remember reading a study about a man who has a result of hydrocephalus had only 10% of the volume of a normal cortex.  Nevertheless, he not only was able to lead a normal life, but earned an bachelor’s degree in mathematics.  Should anyone no a reference for this study, please comment.  It was in the early 1970s and in the journal Science, I believe.

Then there is the research described in the books by Doidge (enter Doidge in this blog’s search block).  Neuroplasticity as reflected in the brain’s ability to heal itself is truly phenomenal.  There are frequent mentions of individuals whose autopsies indicated that they had the defining neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaque that defines Alzheimer’s, yet never exhibited any symptoms or cognitive deficits of the disease.  This finding has been accounted for by saying that these individuals had a cognitive reserve that overcame these potential debilitating characteristics.  So the recommendation of the healthy memory blog is to undertake a lifestyle that not only prevents Alzheimer’s, but also leads to a more satisfying life.

It seems that most of the research on Alzheimer’s is aimed at detecting the plaque or tangles early, identify relevant genes, sor in slowing the growth of these features.  I would appreciate some work that attempts to capitalize on the brain’s neuroplasticity.

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

How Do People Circumvent Amyloid Plaque and Neurofibrillary Tangles

July 28, 2015

As has been mentioned in previous healthy memory blog posts, autopsies have found corpses whose brains have been wreaked with amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, yet who never exhibited any symptoms or behaviors indicating Alzheimer’s.  Yet it is these very substances that provide for a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  So at best they are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for Alzheimer’s.  See the healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s” to learn whether this is actually a disease and whether a drug solution to this problem is possible.  Unfortunately, the money is in the drugs, so that’s where the effort is concentrated.

The explanation offered is that these people with the substances defining the disease, but without the symptoms of the disease, have build up a cognitive reserve.  In other words their brains have a reserve to draw upon that allow them to circumvent the symptoms of the disease.  This is very likely true and this provides strong evidence that we should start early and continue to build this cognitive reserve throughout our lives.

However, I believe that something else is at work, and I believe that is neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity refers the ability for the nervous to rebuild and repair itself.  The existence of neuroplasticity is a fairly new finding.  When I was a graduate student the dogma was that neural damage could not be repaired, and this dogma remained in effect until fairly recently.

To learn more about neuroplasticity enter “neuroplasticity” into the healthy memory blog search box.  I wish more research would be put into the preventive and curative effects of neuoplasticity.  As you’ll see if you read or reread “The Myth of Alzheimer’s,” some knowledgeable people do not believe that a drug cure is possible, but that there are other effective avenues to pursue regarding Alzheimer’s or dementia.

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

The Latest Discoveries in Neuroplasticity

April 26, 2015

These can be found in the book, The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Dodge, M.D.  This is the sequel to his earlier book, The Brain That Changes Itself. I am especially impressed as when I was a graduate student, there was no such thing as neuroplasticity.  Once damage was done to the nervous system, it could neither be treated nor repaired.  The nervous system was fixed and not amenable to change.  So The Brain That Changes Itself was eye opening and overwhelming.  The Brain’s Way of Healing does not disappoint.

Doidge is a Canadian psychiatrist who has received research funding from both the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States and the National Health Research and Development Program of Health Canada.  And obviously he is an accomplished writer who knows this topic intimately.  You can visit his webpage

He relates case histories, explains the underlying  science, and documents this research with references and notes in the back of the book.

The first chapter discusses a physician who specialized in the treating pain discovering how Chronic Pain can be unlearned.   He discovered this in learning how to cope with his personal chronic pain and then formulated a course of treatment using this method.

The next chapter presented the case history of a Parkinson’s sufferer who learned how to walk off his Parkinsonian symptoms.  This showed how physical exercise helps fend off degenerative disorders and can defer dementia.

The third chapter discusses the stages of neuroplastic healing explaining how and why it works.

Chapter four explains how the brain can be rewired with light by using light to reawaken dormant neural circuits.

Chapter 5 introduces us to Moshe FeldenKrais, a physicist who had a Black Belt in Judo and who developed a means of healing serious brain problems through mental awareness of movement.

Chapter 6 explains how a blind mind learned to see using the method of Feldenkraus, Buddhist and other Neuroplastic Methods.

The seventh Chapter discusses a strange device called the PoNS that stands for Portable Neuromodulation Simulator because when it stimulates the brain, it modifies and corrects how the neurons are firing.  It stimulates modulation to reverse symptoms.  It has been successful in treating traumatic Brain Injury, Parkinson’s, Stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis.

The eighth chapter discusses how sound can be used and the special connection between music and the brain.  It has been successful in treating dyslexia, autism, attention deficit, and sensory process disorder.s

There are three appendices.  The first presents a general approach to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and brain problems.  The second appendix discusses matrix repatterning for  TBI that has been developed by Canadian clinical Dr. George Bush.  Appendix 3 discusses neurofeedback for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, and TBI.

After reading all this, it is understandable that you might conclude that this is bunk, it is simply too outlandish.  Please accept my assurances that this is not the case, and that this is genuine research at the forefront of knowledge.  I hope the Veterans Hospitals are applying this research to veterans suffering from trauma.  And I would like to encourage sufferers of these maladies to read about these treatments.  However, I am reluctant to do so, because there is little information on where information can be found to pursue these treatments.  Perhaps if it were, the limited resources available would be overwhelmed.  It will take time for this research to trickle down with resultant treatment centers employing and furthering the research.

REST, Epigenesis, Neuroplasticity, Cognitive Reserve, & Alzheimer’s

April 8, 2014

The March 19 Washington Post published an article written by Angela Zimm, “Fetal brain protein reactivates in old age, may fight dementia.” The research was conducted by scientists at Harvard University and published in the journal Nature. It reported that a protein called REST is depleted in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. It was found at a level three times as high in people who did not experience dementia even when their brains had indications of the disease. According to Yanker, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, “There’s a long-standing puzzle in neurology why a large percentage of the aging population when they die have enough abnormalities in the brain to classify as Alzheimer’s, though they don’t develop the dementia.”
This is a rarely publicized fact about Alzheimer’s, that there are many people who do not exhibit the symptoms of dementia even though their brains at autopsy are found to have the so-called tell tale neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques. These are the only signs that allow a conclusive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s . So it appears that these tangles and plaques might be a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Alzheimer’s disease. Most research on Alzheimer’s has been on attacking the tangles and plaques.
The only explanation that has been offered is that the people with the tangles and plaques, but not Alzheimer’s have built up a cognitive reserve to fend off this disease. Indeed, this is one of the exhortations of the healthymemory blog, to build up a cognitive reserve/. However, what has been lacking to this point is an explanation as to how this cognitive reserve is built up. The process of epigenesis is one possible mechanism for the release and maintenance of the REST protein. Possible mechanisms for building a cognitive reserve can be found in the healthymemory blog, “What is Neuroplasticity and How Does it Work”, and include, in addition to epigenesis, synaptogenesis, myleinogenesis, and neurogenesis. The healthymemory blog post, “Supporting Neuroplasticity” lists some specific practices that could aid in building a cognitive reserve.

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

Supporting Neuroplasticity

March 18, 2014

Neuroplasticity is our capacity to change, regardless of how old we are. Daniel J. Siegel’s superb book, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind offers the following aspects of our life that can support neuroplasticity.

“. Aerobic exercise – when medically possible, voluntary exercise can support continued brain growth.

Good sleep – we consolidate our learning from the day when we get a good period of sleep with plenty of REM states for dreaming.

Good nutrition – the “soil” of the brain’s structure requires good food and water, including safe sources of omega-3’s in order to function properly and allow the “seed” of good attentional focus to work well.

Relationships – our connections with others support a vibrant and plastic brain.

Novelty – when we get out of a rut and expose the brain to new stimuli, when we are playful and spontaneous, we keep the brain growing and young.

The close paying of attention—when we avoid multitasking and distractions and care about what we are focusing on, we can actually stimulate the release of chemicals locally and widely support neuroplasticity.

Time-in. When we focus on our inner sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts, reflecting inwardly, we encourage the growth of regulatory, integrative neural circuits.

And, possibly, humor—some preliminary studies suggest that when we laugh we promote health growth of the brain.”1

My personal endorsement of the benefits of humor is less tentative and much stronger. Laughing entails breathing in healthy amounts of air along with what is frequently a healthy social interaction. Humor also involves the switch of contexts that implies the use of unanticipated circuits in the brain. See the healthymemory blog post, “Paraprosdokians and a Healthy Memory.”

1Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: WW. Norton & Company, pp. 8-8 to 8-9.

What is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work?

March 15, 2014

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experience.”1

What follows is a brief synopsis as to how this change is accomplished. We have an average of ten thousand connections linking an average neuron to other neurons. Given that there a hundred billion neurons, there are hundreds of trillions of synaptic linkages. Moreover there are trillions of glial cells supporting the effort. One type of glial cell is the oligodendrocyte. When we develop skills after many hours of practice the oligodendrocytes produce myelin. Mylein is a fatty sheath that coils around the neuron’s axon that sends signals to other neurons. When myelin is present, the speed of the action potential down the axon is 100 times faster. Myelin also decreases the time for recovery before the next firing, the refractory period. This refractory period is 30 times shorter. So the enhanced functoning of a myleinated circuit is 3,000 (30 times 100) faster than a non-myleinated circuit. This provides the basis for the phenomena performances we sometimes see.

Synaptogenesis is the process by which synapses are created or strengthened. Myleinogenesis the process by which these circuits become much faster. In addition to these two ways in which the brain changes as the result of experience there is neurogenesis. Neurogenesis occurs throughout the entire life span and involves the differentiation of neuro stem cells into fully mature neurons in the brain. This process may take from two to three months in contrast to the more rapid synaptogenesis that occurs within minutes to hours and becomes consolidated over days or weeks. Studies have identified this more slowly occurring neurogenesis in the hippocampal region, but it is expected that this will be found in other areas in the future. Of course, the hippocampus is important for its central role in memory. Research has also shown that physical exercise benefits hippocampal growth (see the healthymemory blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocakmpus.”)

Epigenesis is the process by which experience alters the regulation of gene expression by way of changing the various molecules (histones and methyl) on the chromosome. Understand that genes themselves are not changed. Rather the way that information is read out from the genes is changed. This is how experience and genetics interact.

SNAG is the acronym to explain how these processes result in neuroplasticity. SNAG stands for stimulating neural activation and growth. Add to this the expression that neurons that fire together , wire together. That’s how we learn, but this is also the basis for remembering. Neurons that have not fired together for a long time, can result in that memory circuit being difficult to find. The memory is likely still available, but not currently accessible. That’s why healthy memory recommends revisiting old memory circuits. When you can’t remember something, sometimes it is good not to look it up, but to keep trying to remember. Even if this attempt fails, your nonconscious mind is apt to keep looking for it, and it might suddently pop into memory hours or even days later.

Remember to use your mind to control, exercise, and grow neural circuits. This is the fundamental means of keeping a memory healthy.

1Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York: Norton & Company. This blog post is based primarily on this reference.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 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.

The Complexity of the Brain and Neuroimaging

January 14, 2014

This blog post is based on the book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lillenfeld. Please bear with me as this is the second post that I’ve written based on a source viewed on my Kindle.

The notion that a specific area in the brain is solely responsible for a given mental function is intuitively appealing, and it would definitely simplify matters. Unfortunately that is rarely the case. Mental activities do not map neatly onto discrete brain regions. At one time a specific area of the brain, Broca’s area was believed to be the brain’s one and only language-production center. Subsequent research has found it to be one of the key nodes, or convergence centers, for the pathways that process language. Similarly, there is no one designated site in charge of speech comprehension as it also relies on patterns of connectivity across multiple brain regions. “Although neuroscientists regard a few cortical regions as being highly specialized for particular operations—such as the perception of faces, places, body parts, ascribing mental states to others (“theory of mind”) and processing visually presented words—most neural real estate is zoned for mixed-use development.”1 This is most fortunate as the brain can rewire itself and allows the newly discovered remarkable plasticity of the brain. So when the brain is damaged it can rewire itself to regain its lost functionality. This rewiring might partially account for those individuals whose autopsies revealed the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited the symptoms. People who are born blind are able to use their visual cortex to perceive touch and learn to read braille letters.

This complexity of the brain should be kept in mind both when viewing images and when reading reports that draw conclusions from neuroimages. As will be seen many reports are overstated, incorrect, or only partially correct.

1Satel, S. & Lillenfold, S.L. (2013) Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

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

You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

August 11, 2013

This post was motivated by an article in the New Scientist (25 May 2013, 32-35) by David Robson, “Old Schooled: Learning Like a Child is a Cinch Once You Know How.” The article begins with a story about a 36 year old who has learned more than 30 languages in addition to learning the guitar. At one time psychologists thought that some skills needed to be learned at a critical age, and that other skills became more difficult to learn as we age. That attitude has changed as new research has revealed the remarkable neuroplasticity of the human brain.

Actually, the “know how” is more of an attitude, a willingness to try new things rather than fearing failure, and the application of effort to learn. Being physically, in addition to mentally, active is also important. An earlier healthymemory blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus,” reviewed the research of Arthur Kramer. He has worked with senior citizens in his lab at the University of Illinois. He used a mild exercise regime, walking for 40 minutes three days a week for a year. Kramer imaged the brains of his senior citizens both before and after training. He found that the hippocampi, subcortical structures vital to new learning, had expanded. Presumably this was due to the birth of new brain cells and/or an increase in synaptic connectivity among neurons. He reported that much of the long-distance communication across the brain was restored to its former glory. Kramer said, “The senior citizen’s connectivity was equivalent to a 30-year-old’s.” There was a general cognitive boost, which included improved attention. Attention is the key to learning any new skill.

Learning new tricks is one of the best ways to build a cognitive reserve to ward off, mitigate, perhaps preclude dementia. There are resources all around you, to help you do this. Just look. And conduct searches on the internet. Check out the website, and see what it has to offer.

One of the best examples of how you are never to old to learn can be found in the book Life is So Good by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman. George Dawson, a 103-year-old grandson of a slave learned to read at age 98. Dawson reflects on his life and offers valuable lessons in living, as well as a fresh, firsthand view of America during the twentieth century. This is a truly inspirational and informative read.

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

The Value of Openness

November 7, 2012

The prevailing opinion in personality theory is that there are five majority personality traits: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness. Openness measures cognitive flexibility and the willingness to entertain novel ideas. According to a brief article1 summarizing recent research in this area, the linchpin for Openness being associated to a longer, healthier life is creativity. Creative thinking reduces stress. Creative people likely see stresses more as challenges that they can overcome rather than as obstacles that they can’t overcome. Another, and perhaps the most central reason, is that creativity draws on a variety of neural networks within the brain. A study conducted at Yale University correlated openness with the robustness of white matter, which supports connections between neurons in different parts of the brain. Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center says “Individuals high in creativity maintain the integrity of their neural networks even into old age.” He further states, “Keeping the brain healthy may be one of the most important aspects of aging successfully—a fact shown by creative persons living longer…”

I would extrapolate from these results and also conclude that creative individuals are also less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some people might still hold to the old theory that personality traits are fixed and cannot be changed. I challenge that view. Current ideas regarding neuroplasticity inform us that we can change our brains and our behaviors. So we can work to be more open and creative. I would refer you to the healthymemory blog post “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Down, Then Up” to learn more about creativity and how you can foster your own creativity.

1Rodriguez, T. (2012). Open Mind, Longer Life, Scientific American Mind, September/October, 18.

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

An Amazing Example of the Neuroplasticity of Memory

June 26, 2011

The Washington Post published an article1 about a woman, Su Meck, who lost her memory when she was 22. A ceiling fan fell on her head, erasing her memory. After a week in a coma she awoke with the mental capacity of a young child. She did not recognize her husband or her two baby sons. She could no longer read or write, walk, eat, dress, drive, and she could barely speak. An MRI scan revealed that her brain was suffused with cracks. It was said that it looked like shaken Jell-O. She had complete retrograde amnesia, the inability to remember the past. Initially she could not learn new information, so her hippocampi apparently had also been damaged. She had lost her personality.

Fortunately she had a very supportive family. They patiently worked with her. Her mother assembled a photo album filled with images of the childhood she had completely forgotten. She actively tried to regain her lost capacities. She relearned her muliplication tables from her children. She volunteered in her children’s school library so she could hide in the stacks and read. During the first few years talking on the telephone was disorienting, so she communicated with her family using letters. She had the spelling and penmanship of a small child.

When she left the hospital she completed a checklist of tasks that she wanted to accomplish such as riding a bicycle, preparing a meal and reading a children’s book. The first book she read was Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop.” Her functionality gradually returned. When she drove home, she had difficulty remembering where home was so she would click her garage door opener looking for a hint as to which address was hers.

Nineteen years after the accident Su started Montgomery Junior College. Her children gave her tips on what to bring to class, how to take notes, how to ask questions, and how to write papers. Learning was difficult and slow. But she persevered and struggled along until she learned. And she learned well. She earned her associates degree with a 3.9 average and became chapter president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Su and her husband are planning to move to Massachusetts where she will enroll in Smith college as a transfer student and start working on her bachelor’s degree.

This is the most remarkable example of neuroplasticity of which I am aware. How could she possibly do this? I think there are two essential elements. She had a very supportive family who perservered under adverse circumstances and stuck with her all the way. Su also deserves most of the credit herself. She believed in herself under the most adverse circumstances and persevered to where she was able to return to her own self and continue her life. Lesser individuals likely would remain in a vegetative state or only achieve modest degrees of recovery.

1de Vise, D. (2011) Gaithersburg Woman Earns a College Degree Two Decades After Complete Memory Loss. Washington Post, 21 May.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Review of Brain Exercises and Training Induced Learning

December 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Most Remarkable Example of Neuroplasticity

August 29, 2010

The topic of neuroplasticity has been discussed on a number of Healthymemory Blog Posts including one specifically titled “Neuroplasticity.” A recent issue of New Scientist contained a report1 of one of the most remarkable examples of neuroplasticity. People who have lost their sight are learning to see with their ears.

This is not the first time that people have reported a kind of seeing through another modality. In 1969 the neuroscientist Bach-y-Rita rigged up a television camera to a dentist’s chair. A 20-by20 array of stimulators that translated images into tactile signals by vibrating against the participant’s back was positioned on the chair. This allowed blind participants to detect the presence of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. Skilled users could even associated the vibrations with faces and common objects. Bach-y-Rita continued to develop even more sophisticated devices that translated a camera’s images into electrical pulses delivered by a postage-stamp-sized array sitting on the tongue. After some practice users found that these pulses gave them a sense of depth and openness. They had a feeling that something was out there.

The latest device, named vOICe, uses sound rather than tactile stimulation. Peter Meijer thought of the idea in 1982, but it took until 1991 to build a desktop prototype. The user wears a pair of sunglasses mounted on a webcam that captures the scene in front of her. The image is sent to a computer that converts the picture into a series of sounds called a soundscape. The vOICe software scans across the scene from left to right converting each pixel into a beep. The frequency represents the vertical position of the pixel and the volume represents the brightness of the pixel. The soundscape is played into the user’s ears. Initially the brain’s auditory cortex tries to make sense of the soundscape. However, after ten to fifteen hours of training regions of the visual cortex begin to light up. So the data is being redirected to the part of the brain that interprets visual images. At about the same time that the visual cortex becomes active the users become more adept at understanding the soundscapes and recognizing objects. Of course, this is being done no where near as quickly at normal vision. However, users are able to see the environment and the experience is qualitatively similar to seeing. One user provided this description. “It’s like looking at a black-and-white movie from the 40’s. I can see the tree from top to bottom, and the cracked sidewalk.”

To this point the users have been individuals who once did see, but then lost their vision. So when they make statements that it is like seeing, it is related to past experience. The device is currently being tried by congenitally blind individuals. A key question is whether they can learn to use the device. If they can, this “seeing” will be a new experience for them.

This type of substitution should allow people to adjust to sensory losses. The capacity to recover lost functions is much greater than was formerly believed. This research shows that the ability to learn does not disappear as we grow older.

1Trivedi, B. (2010). Ear today, eye tomorrow. New Scientist, 14 August, 42-45.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


August 1, 2010

This blog post was inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 When I was a graduate student I learned that the brain was hardwired like a machine or a computer (which were much less common in those days). This was dogma that was not challenged. It was widely accepted and affected the way that people who suffered strokes or other brain traumas were treated. The belief was that once the damage was done, little more could be done than to teach the victim how to deal with the remaining functionality that was left. Recent research has refuted this dogma and the term neuroplasticity has become the norm. The brain is remarkably plastic or flexible. And if one part of the brain is damaged, another part of the brain can frequently take over that function. An earlier Healthymemory blog post, “Transactive Memory: An Aid to Short and Long Term Memory and to Stroke Recovery” addressed some issues regarding stroke, and subsequent posts will address it further.

Brave New Brain states that the current consensus is that “your brain is changing every second in response to the environment and mind.” The Healthymemory Blog strongly concurs. Brave New Brain also states that tomorrow you change and mold your brain as you want and need. Now here the Healthymemory Blog would argue that already today you can change and mold your brain as you want and need. Indeed, if the brain is changing every second in response to the environment and your mind, you can change and mold your brain by selecting the environment in which it operates and the manner in which your mind wakes. Presumably Brave New Brain is implying that the future will bring technology, for example chemicals or electronic means of stimulating the brain, that will facilitate your changing and molding your brain as you want and need. The prospects of this happening will be discussed in future posts, but you need to realize that today you can change and mold your brain as you want and need. True there are limitations. You might want to change your brain so that you can invent means of travel that exceed the speed of light. Nevertheless, your brain holds enormous potential that you should not overlook.

This admonition certainly applies to young people. However, it also applies to older people, including we Baby Boomers. We are not done learning. Our goal should be not only to ward off cognitive decline and dementia, but to continue to learn, create, and grow cognitively. We can change and mold our brains by choosing how we apply them. There are vast resources available in what the Healthymemory Blog terms transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to all the information that is external to your own biological brain. Included here is the information stored in the biological brains of other humans, and all the information stored in the libraries of the world, and, of course, the internet. There are three types of transactive memory. Accessible transactive memory is information that you know exists and can readily access. Available transactive memory is information that you know exists but that you cannot readily access. This is information that needs to be searched for and sought. Then there is potential transactive memory, which is all the information you have not yet discovered. You should note that the Healthymemory has a whole category of posts on transactive memory.

You should also note that there is another category of Healthymemory Blog posts on Mnemonic Techniques. Mnemonic techniques are specific strategies for learning difficult material, especially information that lacks or is deficient in inherent meaning. It is also believe that these techniques can serve as healthy mental exercises. The “Human Memory: Theory and Data” category includes posts such as this current one. As the title suggests it addresses human memory and also includes posts on common cognitive errors and how they can be avoided.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.