Posts Tagged ‘Prefrontal cortex’

Outside In: What You See Is What You Get

August 12, 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. There is impressive research that shows that “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life. In a large study of 941 Dutch subjects over ten years, the most upbeat individuals, who agreed with statements such as “often feel that life is full of promise,” were 45% less likely to die during the long experiment than were the most pessimistic.

Research reveals that the cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus confirmed that what happens to us, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to our well-being than how we respond to it. Psychologist Barbara Fredickson says that if you want to get over a bad feeling, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.” This does not mean that when something upsetting happens, we should not immediately try to force ourselves to “be happy.” First, Fredrickson says you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how we honestly feel about what occurred. Then we direct our attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light.

Unfortunately, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

With the exception of these anhedonic individuals, Fredrickson says, “Very few circumstances are one hundred percent bad.” Even in very difficult situations, she finds, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even our own values thoughts, and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a “nice thing to do,” but a proven way to expand our view of reality and lift our spirits, thus improving our ability to cope.

William James said wisdom is “the art of knowing what to overlook.” And many elders master this way of focusing. Many studies show that younger adults pay as much or more to negative information than to the positive sort. However, by middle age their focus starts to shift until in old age, they’re likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.

Research has shown that older brains attend to and remember emotional stimuli differently from younger ones. In one study, compared to younger people, they remembered twice as many positive images as the negative or neutral sort. Moreover, when the experiment was repeated using fMRI brain scans, the tests showed that in younger adults, the emotional center, the amygdala, reacted to both positive and negative images, but in older adults, only in response to positive cues. The author suggests, “Perhaps because elders use the “smart” prefrontal cortex to dampen activity in the more volatile amygdala, their brains actually encode less negative information, which naturally reduces their recall of it and its impact on their behavior.

The final paragraph to this chapter follows: “WHATEVER YOUR TEMPERAMENT, living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time, which would be both futile and grotesque. Rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grown there. Your ability to function comfortably in a dirty, germy world is just one illustration of your powerful capacity to put mind over matter and control you experience by shifting your focus from counterproductive to adaptive thoughts and feelings. In this regard, one reason why certain cultures venerate the aged for their wisdom is that elders tend to maximize opportunities to attend to the meaningful and serene, and to the possibility that, as E.M. Foster put it in A Room With a View, ”…by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

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The Dark Side

March 9, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman begins, “Psychologists use the phrase the dark triad to refer to narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths.” As for examples, look no further than President Trump. He has hit the trifecta here. Goleman continues, “These types represent the dark side of emotional intelligence: such people can be very good at cognitive empathy, but lack emotional empathy—not to mention empathic concern. For instance, by definition the sociopath does not care at all about human consequences of their manipulation, and has no regrets about inflicting cruelty. Their feelings of any kind are very shallow; brain imaging reveals a thinning of the areas that connect the emotional centers to the prefrontal cortex.”

Goleman outlines deficits in emotional intelligence. Sociopaths have deficits in several areas key to emotional intelligence: the anterior cingulate, the orbitofrontal cortex, the amygdala, and insula, and in the connectivity of these regions to other parts of the brain. It is possible that deficits such as these can account for much of Trump’s behavior.

Self-Mastery

February 27, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Self-awareness and self-management provide the basis for self-mastery. Competencies like managing emotions. focused drive to achieve goals, adaptability, and initiative are based on emotional self-management. These domains of skill are what make someone an outstanding individual performer in any domain of performance—and in business an outstanding individual contributor, or lone star.

Self-regulation of emotion and impulse relies on the interaction between the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the emotional center in the midbrain, particularly circuitry converging on the amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex is the key neural area for self-emulation. This area is guiding us when we are at our best. The dorsolateral zone of the prefrontal area is the seat of cognitive control, regulating attention, decision-making, voluntary action, reasoning, and flexibility in response.

The amygdala is a trigger point for emotional distress, anger, impulse, and fear. When this circuitry takes over, it leads us to take a actions we might regret later.

Dr. Goleman writes, “The interaction between these two neural areas creates a neural highway that, when in balance, is the basis for self-mastery. For the most part, we cannot dictate what emotions we are going to feel, when we’re going to feel them, not how strongly we feel them. They come unbidden from the amygdala and other subcortical areas. Our choice comes once we feel a certain way. What do we do then? How do we express it? If the our prefrontal cortex has its inhibitory circuits going full blast, we’ll be able to have a decision point that will make us more artful in guiding how we respond, and in turn how you drive other people’s emotions, for better or worse, in that situation. At the neural level, this is what ‘self-regulation’ means.

The amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. Our brain was designed as a tool for survival. In the brain’s blueprint the amygdala holds a privileged position. If the amygdala detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, and we have what is called an amygdala hijack.”

The hijack captures our attention and focuses it on the that at hand. If an amygdala hijack occurs at work, we can’t focus on what our job demands. We can only think about what’s troubling us. We remember most readily what’s relevant to the threat, and can’t remember other things well. We can’t learn during a hijack and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. Innovation flexibility are not available during a hijack.

Neural imaging has shown that when someone is really upset the right amygdala is highly active, along with the right prefrontal cortex. The amygdala has captured the prefrontal cortex, hence amygdala hijack, driving it in terms of the imperatives of dealing with the perceived danger at hand. We get the classic fight-flight-or-freeze response when this alarm system triggers. From a brain point of view this means that the amygdala has set off the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) releasing a flood of stress hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenaline.

Unfortunately, the amygdala often makes mistakes. While the amygdala gets its data on what we see and hear in a single neuron from the eye and ear, that’s super-fast in brain time, it only receives a small fraction of the signals those senses receive. The majority goes to other parts of the brain that take longer to analyzedthe inputs and get a more accurate reading. In contrast, the amygdala gets a sloppy picture and has to react instantly. Coleman writes, “It often makes mistakes, particularly in modern life, where the “dangers” are symbolic, not physical threats. So we overreact in ways we often regret later.”

Coleman identifies the five top amygdala triggers in the workplace:

Condescension and lack of respect.
Being treated unfairly.
Being underappreciated.
Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard.
Being held to unrealistic deadlines.

Here are Goleman’s suggestions for minimizing hijacks. Pay attention. If you don’t notice that you’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack and stay carried by it, you have no chance of getting back to emotional equilibrium and left prefrontal dominance until you let the hijack run its course. It is better to realize what is going on and to disengage. The steps to ending or short-circuiting a hijack start with monitoring what’s going on in you own mind and brain, and noticing, “I’m really over-reacting,” or “I’m really upset now,” or “I’m starting to get upset.” It’s much better if you can notice familiar feelings tat a hijack is beginning—such as butterflies in your stomach, or whatever signals that might reveal you are in the cycle of a hijack. It is best to had it off to the bare beginning of a coming hijack.

And here is what Goleman recommends if we are caught in the grip of an amygdala hijack. First, you have to realize that you’re in one. Hijacks can last for seconds or minutes, or hours, or days or weeks. There are are lots of ways to get out of a hijack, if we can realize we’re caught and also have the intention to cool down. A cognitive approach is to talk yourself out of the hijack. Reason with our self, and challenge what you are telling your self in the highjack. For example, “This guy isn’t always an S.O.B. I can remember times when he was actually very thoughtful and even kind, so maybe I should give him another chance. Or you can apply some empathy and imagine yourself in that person’s position. This might work in those very common instances where the hijack trigger was something someone else did or said to us. You might have an empathic thought: Maybe he treated me that the way because he is under such great pressure.
There are also biological interventions. We can use a method like meditation or relaxation to calm down our body. But a relaxation or meditation technique works best during the hijack when you have practiced it regularly, at best daily. Unless these methods have become a strong habit of mind, you can’t just invoke them out of the blue. But a strong habit of calming the body with a well-practiced method can make a huge difference when you’er hijacked and need it most.

As readers should be aware that the healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness, and there are many healthy memory blog posts on meditation and mindfulness.

Self Awareness

February 25, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” There was a corporate lawyer who had a brain tumor. Fortunately, that tumor was diagnosed early and operated on successfully. But during the operation the surgeon had to cut circuits that connects key areas of the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the amygdala in the midbrain’s area for emotions.

After the surgery on every test of IQ memory and attention, the lawyer was as smart as he had been before the surgery. But he couldn’t do his job anymore. He lost his job and found that he couldn’t keep any job. He ended up living in his brother’s spare bedroom and, in desperation, he went to the neuroscientist Damasio to find out what was wrong.

The lawyer was fine on every neurological test. The clue to the problem became clear when Damaisio asked the lawyer, “When shall we have out next appointment?” Although the lawyer could provide rational pros and cons of every hour for the next two weeks, he could not decide which was best. Damaisio concluded that in order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts— and the lesion created during surgery meant he could no longer connect his thought with the emotional pros and cons.

These feelings come from the emotional centers in the midbrain, interacting with a specific area in the prefrontal cortex. When we have a thought its valences either positive or negative are evaluated by these brain centers. This helps us shuffle our thoughts into priorities, like when would be the best time for an appointment. Lacking that input, we don’t know what to feel about our thoughts, so we can’t make good decisions.

Our basal ganglia extracts decision rules as we go through every situation in life. Our accumulated life wisdom is stored in this primitive circuitry. However, when we face a decision, it’s our verbal cortex that generates our thoughts about it. But to more fully access our life experience on the matter at hand, we need to access further inputs from that subcortical circuitry. Although the basal ganglia have some direct connection to the verbal areas, it turns out also to have very rich connections to the gastrointestinal tract—the gut. So when making a decision, a gut sense of it being right or wrong is important information, also. It’s not that you should ignore the data, but if it doesn’t fit what you’re feeling, maybe you should think twice about it.

Coleman writes, “That rule-of-thumb seems to be at play in a study of highly successful California entrepreneurs who were asked how they made crucial business decisions. They all reported more or less, the same strategy. First, they were voracious consumers of any data or information that might bear on their decision, casting a wide net. But second, they all tested their rational decisions against their gut feeling—if a deal didn’t feel right they might not go ahead, even if it looked good on paper.”

The answer to the question,’Is what I’m about to do in keeping with my sense of purpose, meaning, or ethics?’ doesn’t come to us in words; it comes to us via this gut sense. Then we put it into words.”

Readers might remember that Trump says he thinks with his gut. However, unlike the entrepreneurs mentioned above, he is not a voracious consumer of data. In fact, he ignores data and depends on his gut. In this case what he gets from his gut is similar to what we find in our toilets.

A review of cortical and subcortical functions taken from Goleman follows:

The neocortex contains centers for cognition and other complex mental operations. The subcortex is where more basic mental processes occur. Just below the thinking brain, and projecting into the cortex, is the limbic center, the brain’s main areas for emotion. These areas are also found in the brains of other mammals. The more ancient parts of the subcortex extend down to the brainstem, known as the reptilian brain because we share this basic architecture with reptiles.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

February 24, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of another book by Daniel Goleman. The previous book on which many healthy memory blog posts were based was “Emotional Intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is by far our most important intelligence. Dr. Goleman writes, “In this book I want to provide new updates, sharing with you some key findings that further inform our understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply this skill set.”

There is a brain basis for emotional intelligence. This comes from neural imaging and lesion studies. Neural imaging allows the identification of where the activity in the brain is occurring. Lesion studies are from injuries or surgeries done on parts of the brain to see what functions are lost.

The right amygdala (there are two, one in each brain hemisphere) is a neural hub for emotion located in the midbrain. Patients with lesions or other injuries to the right amygdala showed a loss of emotional self-awareness—the ability to be aware of an understand our own feelings.

Another area crucial for emotional intelligence is also in the right side of the brain. It’s the right somatosensory cortex; injury here also creates a deficiency in self awareness, as well as empathy, the awareness of emotion in other people. The ability to understand and feel our emotion is critical for understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. Empathy also depends on another structure in the right hemisphere, the insula, that senses our entire bodily state and tells us how we’re feeling. Tuning in to how we’re feeling ourselves plays a central role in how sense and understand what some else is feeling.

Another critical area is the anterior cingulate, which is located at the front of a band of nerve fibers that surround the corpus callosum, which ties together the two halves of the brain. The anterior cingulate is an area that manages impulse control, which is the ability to handle to handle our emotions, particularly distressing emotions and strong feelings.

Finally, there is the ventral medial strip of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is just behind the forehead, and is the last part of the brain to become fully grown. This is the brain’s executive center; the abilities of solve personal and interpersonal problems, to manage our impulses, to express our feelings effectively and to relate well to others resides here.

When writing this HM wondered if deficiencies in these areas might, in part, explain Trump’s bullying, callous, and impulsive behavior. Perhaps such deficiencies might also explain his difficulties in keeping and recruiting staff.

Goleman’s Model of Emotional Intelligence has the following four generic domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Self awareness plays into both social awareness and self management. Social awareness and self management play into relationship management. And it is relationship management that has a positive impact on others.

UNTHINKABLE

January 4, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Helen Thomson. The subtitle is “An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains.” In the opening chapter Ms. Thomson provides an overview of the brain. The most recognizable region of the human brain is the cerebral cortex. It forms the outside shell and is divided into two almost identical hemispheres. Each side of the cortex is divided into four lobes, which together are responsible for all our most impressive mental functions. If you touch your forehead, the lobe closest to your finger is called the frontal cortex and it allows us to make decisions, controls our emotions and helps us understand the actions of others. It gives us all sorts of aspects of our personality; our ambition, our foresight and our moral standards.

If you were to trace your finger around either side of your head toward your ear, you would find the temporal lobe, which helps us understand the meaning of words and speech and gives us the ability to recognize people’s faces.

Run you finger up toward the crown of your ear and you’ll reach the parietal lobe, which is involved in many of our senses, as well as certain aspects of language.

Low down toward the nape of the neck is the occipital lobe, whose primary concern is vision.

Hanging of the back of the brain we have a second “little brain,” a distinctive cauliflower-shaped mass. This is the cerebellum and it is vital for our balance, movement and posture. The vast majority of the cerebellum connects to regions of the cortex that are involved in cognition, perception, language and emotional processing.
A review of maps of the cerebellum built from functional MRI brain scans confirmed that all major cortical regions have loops of connections running to and from the cerebellum. The cerebellum has conversations with different areas of the cortex: taking information from them, transforming it and sending it back to where it came from. One of the more unexpected connections was with the prefrontal cortex, which lies far from the cerebellum at the front of the brain and has long been considered the most advanced part of the brain. This region is in charge of abilities such as planning, impulse control, and emotional intelligence. It is disproportionately large and complex in humans compared with our closest species. To learn more about the cerebellum see the healthy memory blog post “The Brain’s Secret Powerhouse That Makes Us Who We Are.”

If you were to pry open the two hemispheres, you would find the brain stem, the area that controls each breath and every heartbeat, as well as the thalamus, which acts as a grand central station, relaying information back and forth between all the other regions.
The brain is full of cells called neurons which are too small to be see with the naked eye. These cells pass messages from one side of the brain to the other in the form of electrical impulses. Neurons branch out forming connections with its neighbors. If you were to count one of these connections every second, it would take you three million years to finish.

Ms. Thomson writes, “We now know the mind arises from the precise physical state of these neurons at any one moment. It is from this chaotic activity that our emotions appear, our personalities are formed. and our imaginations are stirred. It is arguably one of the most impressive and complex phenomena known to man.

So it’s not surprising that sometimes it al goes wrong.”

The Science Behind Empathy and Morality

December 8, 2018

This is the eighth post in the series “Linguistics and Cognitive Science in the Pursuit of Civil Discourse. Our mirror neuron systems operate in our brains and gives us the capacity to connect with others, to know and even feel what they feel, and to connect with the natural world. It provides the basis of our capacity for empathy.

Certain emotions correlate with certain actions in our own bodies—in facial muscles, in posture, and so forth. When we feel happy our facial muscles are prompted to produce a smile, as opposed to a frown or a baring of the teeth. We also know that the physical cues that broadcast emotion in others will usually trigger in an observer the same brain response that would accompany those physical cues of the same emotion in ourselves. This is why we can usually tell if someone else is happy or sad, or angry or bored—and why a smile is often unconsciously greeted with a smile or a yawn with a yawn.

There is also a brain overlap between imagining and doing. Many of the same neural regions are activated when we form mental images as when we actually see. The same holds true for whether we imagine moving or are actually moving. So we have the capacity to empathize not only with someone present, but also with someone we can imagine, remember, read about, dream about, and so on. Neuroscientists have also found that, when someone is in love and they see their loved one in pain, the pain center in their own brain is activated. So emotional pain is real.

There are some neural complications that affect how we ultimately respond to what we see, hear, and imagine. The regions of the prefrontal cortex are particularly active during the exercise of judgment. These regions contain neurons that are active when we are performing some particular action and less active when we see someone else performing the same action. It is conjectured that this give us the capacity to modulate our empathy—to lessen it or turn it off in certain cases. So the mirror neuron system connects us emotionally to others, but can in certain cases also distance us emotionally for others.

Lakoff writes, “The prefrontal cortex is active in another neural system, too—one that I’ll call the well-being/ill-being system. This is the system that releases certain hormones in your brain when you have experiences that make you feel good, and releases others when experiences make you feel bad. In essence, this system regulates where you have a sense of well-being or ill-being at any given time on the basis of your imagination of what will or won’t bring you well-being.”

Lakoff continues, “The well-being system and the empathy system can interact in different ways. Some people feel satisfaction both when they are personally satisfied and when those they empathize with feel a sense of well-being. Other people do not have the two systems connected in that way. (1) They may have the well-being system overriding the empathy system—with their interests overriding the cares and interests of others. Or (2) they can have a complex interaction in which they maintain their own well-being and balance it with contributing to the well-being of others. Or (3) they may be self-sacrificing, always placing the well-being of others ahead of their own well being. Or (4) they may be part of an in-group, and may place their well-being and that of in-group members first, without empathizing at all with out-group members. This can vary depending on what counts as a given person’s in-group. Since morality is about well-being, your own and that of others, these four alternatives define different moral attitudes.”

Memory Special: How Can Two People Recall an Event So Differently?

November 30, 2018

This post has the same title as a Feature article by Catherine de Lange in 27 Oct ’18 issue of the “New Scientist.” The article begins, “ We each have a personal memory style determined by the brain, so next time you argue with someone about what really happened, remember that you may both be right.”

Signy Sheldon of McGill University notes that memories are only built when we retrieve them. And if they are retrieved a second time, they are built again. So if we’ve had an argument with someone it would be when you called the event to mind that you created a mental representation of what happened. And of all the details you could have picked out, you can bet you didn’t focus on the same ones as your sparring partner.

Sheldon says, “We are now understanding that there are strong individual differences in how people remember. And these differences are etched in our brain. This can be seen in people who have aphantasia, the inability to form mental images in the minds eye. It is not surprising that such people’s memories also lack a visual component, even though they can recall facts.

To study this further Sheldon and her colleagues asked people to complete a questionnaire about how they tend to remember, before having their brain scanned. The researchers found that people’s memory style was reflected in their brain connectivity. Those who were better remembering facts had more physical links between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in reasoning. Those with richly detailed “autobiographical memories”, by contrast, had more connectivity between the hippocampus and areas involved in visual processing. Sheldon says, “People’s brains are wired differently depending on how they naturally approach the act of retrieval.

In addition to individual brain differences, there are other reasons why two people might have conflicting memories of the same event. Their emotional response is one. Sheldon says, “Emotional events can be recalled much more naturally, almost like they are stamped in out minds.” It is as if we shine a spotlight on the things that really matter to us. What we remember will also be affected by whether we consider it useful. This is beneficial as it helps us learn lessons and bond with others. Sheldon notes, “The malleability of memory is often seen as something that’s broken, “but it’s really very adaptive.”

The Brain’s Secret Powerhouse That Makes Us Who We Are

July 7, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Caroline Williams in the Features section of the 7 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist. The cerebellum is tucked beneath the rest of the brain and only a tenth of its size. In the 19th century phrenologists, who examined the shape of the skull to determine a person’s character, declared the cerebellum to be the root of sexual desire. They thought, the larger the cerebellum, the greater the likelihood of sexual desire.

During World War 1, the British neurologist Gordon Holmes noticed that the main problems for men whose cerebellum had been damaged by gunshot wounds had nothing to do with their sex lives and everything to do with the fine control of movements, ranging from a lack of balance to difficulties with walking, speech, and eye movements. From then on, the cerebellum was considered the mastermind of our smooth and effortless motions, with no role in thinking.

In the mid 1980s when brain imaging came along researchers noted activity in the cerebellum while people were lying still in a brain scanner and thinking. Unsure as to why this was occurring it was explained away as the neural signature of eye movements.

It took until the 1990s that it became undeniable that something else was occurring. Reports emerged describing people who had clear damage to their cerebellums but no trouble with movement. They experienced a host of emotional and cognitive issues, from depression to attention problems and an inability to navigate.

By this time, advances in neuroscience made it possible to trace long-range connections to and from the cerebellum. It was found that only a small proportion of the cerebellum was wired to the motor cortex, which is the brain region involved in making deliberate movements, explaining why movement was unaffected for some people with a damaged cerebellum. The vast majority of the cerebellum connects to regions of the cortex that are involved in cognition, perception, language and emotional processing.

A review of maps of the cerebellum built from functional MRI brain scans confirmed that all major cortical regions have loops of connections running to and from the cerebellum. The cerebellum has conversations with different areas of the cortex: taking information from them, transforming it and sending it back to where it came from.

One of the more unexpected connections was with the prefrontal cortex, which lies far from the cerebellum at the front of the brain and has long been considered the most advanced part of the brain. This region is in charge of abilities such as planning, impulse control, and emotional intelligence. It is disproportionately large and complex in humans compared with our closest species.

Robert Barton, an evolutionary neuroscientist at Durham in the UK says that when compared to primate brains, he found there is something special about the ape cerebellum, particularly our own. Throughout most of mammal evolution, the cerebellum increased in size at the same rate as the rest of the brain. But when apes split off from other primates, something strange began to happen. The ape cerebellum had a runaway growth spurt, becoming disproportionately larger than it evolved in the lesser apes. In our own brains the cerebellum is 31% larger than you would expect scaling up the brain of a non-ape primate. And it is jam-packed with brain cells, containing 16 billion more than you would anticipate finding if a monkey brain were enlarged to the size of ours. By strange coincidence, there are 16 billion neurons in the entire cortex. Neurons are particularly energy hungry cells, so this represents a huge investment of resources of the kind the brain wouldn’t both with without good reason.

Barton suspects that what started this unlikely growth spurt was the challenge of moving a much larger body through the trees. While small primates can run along the branches even gibbon-sized apes are too heavy to do the same, at least without holding on to branches above. This led apes to switch to swinging through the branches, known as brachiation, which in turn made the ability to plan ahead a distinct advantage. Barton says, “Brachiation is a relatively complex locomotor strategy. It involves fine sensory motor control, but it also involved a need to plan your route so that you can avoid accidents.”

To be able to plan a route, it helps to be be able to predict what is likely to happen next. To do that, you need to make unconscious adjustments to the speed, strength and direction of your movements on the fly.

Neuroscientists believe that the cerebellum achieves this by computing the most likely outcome based on previous experience using so-called forward models. Once it has these models in place through learning, it can then update and amend them depending on what is happening now. Narebder Ramnani, a neuroscientist at Royal Holloway University in London says, “Forward models respond very quickly because they allow the brain to generate what are likely to be the correct movements without waiting around for feedback.”

The leap in motor skills that came with brachiation and forward planning doesn’t completely explain the vast increased in the size of the cerebellum. Vineyard-like rows of bushy neurons called purkinje cells are linked by parallel fibers coming from the senses and vertical climbing fibers, which are thought to carry error messenger with which to update the internal model.

This structure is copied and pasted across the entire cerebellum with processing units set up like banks of computers, spitting out predictions all day long. Unlike the cortex, the structure of the cerebellum looks exactly the same regardless of where you look or which part of the cortex it is connected to. The only distinction is that different “modules” connect to different parts of the cortex.

Ramona says, “This suggests that whatever kind of computation that the cerebellum is carrying out for the motor regions of the brain, it is likely to be doing much the same for the cognitive and emotional regions too. And if the cerebellum is learning to automate rules for movements, it is probably doing likewise for social and emotional interactions, which it can call up, adapt and use at lightning speed.

Barton believes that having the ability to learn, plan, predict and updates was a key movement in our evolution, opening up a whole new world of complex behaviors. At first, these behaviors revolved around planning sequential movements to reach a goal, such as adapting twigs as a tool for termite fishing. But eventually thinking unhooked from movement, allowing us to plan our behaviors without moving a muscle. Barton thinks that being able to understand sequences could have allowed our ancestors to decode the gestures of others, setting the stage for the development of language.

The idea that the cerebellum makes and updates forward models contribute to the understanding of how the brain builds a picture of the word around us. The brain makes sense of the cacophony of sensory information with which it is bombarded by using past experience to make predictions that it updates as it goes along. With its forward planning capabilities, the cerebellum plays a more important role in the general working of the brain than we thought.

This new thinking strongly suggests that the cerebellum is involved in everything from planning to social interactions, and has a role in a range of conditions. For example, differences in how the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex are connected are thought to affects the ability of people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to focus.

Schizophrenia is commonly linked with cerebellum changes, which could result in an inability to balance internally generated models of reality with sensory information entering the brain.

There is some hope that giving the cerebellum a boost using a type of brain stimulation called transcranial magnetic stimulation could help. A clinical trial is under way for schizophrenia.

This stimulation could even do us all some good; a recent study found that applying it to the cerebellum of healthy volunteers improved their ability to sustain attention.

Harmonizing Emotions and Thought

March 10, 2018

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” The hub of the battles or cooperative treaties struck between head and heart, thought and feeling are the connections between the amygdala (and related limbic structures) and the neocortex. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought, both with respect to thinking clearly and in making wise decisions.

Working memory is the memory we hold in conscious thought. The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. However, circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion—anxiety, anger, and the like—can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. This is why we say we “can’t think straight” when we are emotionally upset. Continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child’s intellectual abilities, and cripple the capacity to learn.

If subtle, these deficits are not always tapped by IQ testing. However, they do show up through more targeted neuropsychological measures, as well as in the child’s continual agitation and impulsivity. In one study, primary school boys with above-average IQ scores we still doing poorly in school. Neuropsychological tests found that they had impaired frontal cortex functioning. They were impulsive and anxious, often disruptive and in trouble. This suggested faulty prefrontal control over their limbic urges. In spite of their intellectual potential, they were at highest risk for problems like academic failure, alcoholism, and criminality—not because their intellect is deficient, but because their control over their emotional life is impaired. The emotional brain controls rage and compassion alike. These emotional circuits are sculpted by experience throughout childhood. We leave those experience utterly to chance at our peril.

Dr. Antonia Damaiso, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal-amygdala circuit. Their decision-making ability is terribly flawed. Still they show no deterioration at all in IQ or in cognitive ability. In spite of their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives. They can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment.

Dr. Damaiso argues that their decisions are bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning. The prefrontal-amygdala circuit is a crucial doorway to the repository of the likes and dislikes we acquire over the course of a lifetime. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past. Be it a favorite pet or a detested acquaintance, the stimulus no longer triggers either attraction or aversion. These patients have “forgotten” all such emotional lessons because they no longer have access to where they are stored in the amygdala.

This research has lead Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.

So it is a mistake to do away with emotion and put reason in its place, as Erasmus recommended. We need to find the intelligent balance between the two. The old paradigm held an ideal of reason freed from the pull of emotion. The new paradigm urges us to harmonize head and heart. And to do that well in our lives means we must first understand what it means to use emotion intelligently.

Effortless Thinking: It Pays to Resist Revenge’s Sweet Taste

January 16, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

According to popular wisdom, revenge is a dish best served cold. When we get a hunger for it, we feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill.

We could see why if we take a good look at what’s going on in our brain. According to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge, brain scanning reveals the neural pathways of the revenge process. An initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centers, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether we have been treated unfairly. If it has, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory.

Revenge appears to be a universal human trait and the list of wrongs that need to be avenged are common across societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and repetitional damage to oneself, loved ones, or members of one’s tribe.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get revenge wrong. Too little and you reveal that you are worth exploiting. Too much and you risk starting a tit-for-tat cycle of revenge. Since we often make such misjudgments, it is likely why we have evolved an instinct for forgiveness too. Evolutionary psychologists see this as part of the same cognitive tool, to minimize any fallout from revenge. Once it is enacted mutual forgiveness follows, and the relationship is reset, for the time being at least.

See the healthy memory blog post, “Revenge, Sweet, but Not Heathy” for some helpful ideas on patching up relationships.

Brain Changes After Socio-affective and Cognitive Training

November 13, 2017

This post is based on an article titled “Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training” by Sofie l Valk et al. in Science Advances 04 Oct 2017, Vol 3. no.10, e1700489., dos.org/cdw7.

The objective of this study was to investigate whether targeted mental training of different cognitive and social skills can induce specific changes in the brain. They employed a 9-month mental training intervention from a large sample of adults between 20 and 55 years of age. Training protocols specifically addressed three functional domains: mindfulness-based attention and interoception, socio-affective skills (compassion dealing with difficult emotions and prosocial intervention), and socio- cognitive skills (cognitive perspective-taking on self and others and metacognition).

MRI-based cortical thickness analyses were done to see if the different training modules indicated different changes in the brain.

Training of present-moment focused attention mostly led to increases in cortical thickness in prefrontal regions. Socio-affective training induced plasticity in frontoinsular regions. Socio-cognitive training included change in inferior frontal and lateral temporal cortices.

So module-specific structural brain changes correlated with training-induced behavioral improvements in the same individuals in domain-specific measures of attention, compassion, and cognitive perspective, respectively, and overlapped with task-relevant functional networks.

The longitudinal findings indicated structural plasticity in well-known socio-affective and socio-cognitive brain networks in healthy adults based on targeted daily mental practices.

The authors rightly concluded, “These findings could promote the development of evidence-based mental training interventions in clinical, educational, and corporate settings aimed at cultivating social intelligence, prosocial motivation, and cooperation.

These findings should be replicated with school age populations. If similar results are obtained, such training should be part of the appropriate public school curricula.

© 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.

We Dream Much More Than we Know

April 21, 2017

This is the conclusion from a News Piece written  by Chelsea Whyte in the 15 April 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  A new way to detect dreaming has confirmed that it doesn’t only occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and has shown why we don’t often remember our dreams.

Tore Nielsen at the University of Montreal says, “There is  much more dreaming going on than we remember.  It’s hour and hours of mental experience, and we remember a few minutes.  Low-frequency  brainwaves are detectable across the brain.  Francesca Siclari and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have discovered that a decrease in these waves in an area at the back of the brain is a sign that  someone is dreaming.  She says, “This zone was a little bit more awake, showing high frequency  brainwaves more common during wakefulness.  This one region seems to be all that’s necessary for dreaming.”

Siclari and her team used EEG caps to map the brain activity of 32 people while they slept.  They woke the sleeper when they showed various patterns of brainwave activity, and asked them if they had been dreaming.  Some participants reported having dreams with a narrative structure, while others were more impressionistic.  One had a dream about reporting a dream

There was such a strong correlation between dreaming and fewer low-frequency  waves in the “Hot zone” that they could successfully predict whether a person was dreaming 91% of the time.

The team found that dreams during REM sleep were linked to a rise in high-frequency brainwaves in areas the are active in waking hours.  The activity matched the brain areas that would have been active if the dreamers had been living our their dreams in real life.  The team found that the participants dreamed during 71% of their non-REM sleep in addition to 95% of their REM sleep.

Many dreams are forgotten.  Sometimes participants had a foggy idea that they had been dreaming, but couldn’t remember  what about.  In a further experiment the team found that being able to later remember a dream was linked to higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with memory, while dreaming.  Siclari says, “The region for remembering the dream was different from the region having a dream.

So dreaming is very important for our brains.  The previous posts on willpower have shown the importance of having adequate sleep for effective mental functioning.  It seems like both education and employment typically employ schedules that hinder sufficient sleep.  This issue needs serious public attention.

Journal reference:  Nature Neuroscience, DOI:  10.1038/nn.4545

© 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.

Run Your Life on Autopilot

January 11, 2017

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

An enormous part of our day-to-day lives, driving, making coffee, or touch typing, happens without conscious thoughts.  Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious habits, these skills had to be learned before the brain can automate them.  How it does this could potentially provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits.

Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues  have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the striatum is key to habit formation.  When we undertake an action, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex tasks, communicates with the striatum, which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement,  Over time, input from the prefrontal cortex fades, to be replaced by loops linking the striatum to the sensorimotor cortex.  The loops, together with the memory circuits, allow us to carry out the behavior without having to think about it.  Practice makes perfect and no thinking is required.  The obvious upside is that we no longer  need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things.  Unfortunately, similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behavior into habits, including thought patterns, and once any kind of behavior becomes a habit, it become less flexible and harder to interrupt.  This is fine for good habits, but when bad habits are ingrained, its equally hard to get rid of it.  You lose the moment of choice when we can decide not to do something.

Fortunately, even with the most ingrained habits, a small area of the prefrontal is kept online, in case we need to take alternative action.  This offers hope to any of us looking to break a bad habit and to those suffering from habit-related problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome  — both of which are associated with abnormal activity in the striatum and its connections to other parts of the brain.  These circuits are potential targets for future drug treatments.  However, for now the best way to get a handle on bad habits is to become aware of them.  Then, focus all your attention on them and hope that it’s enough  to help the frontal regions resist the call of the autopilot.  An alternative approach is to teach ourselves a new habit that counters the bad one.

Super-you: Use Your Better Instincts to Crush Your Inner Bigot

December 14, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This instincts piece is written by Caroline Williams.  HM does not like this use of the word “instincts.”  “Predisposing biases” would have been a more fortunate choice.  However, this article accounts for much of the ugliness prevalent throughout the world.  The quick explanation is that these people are in their default mode of feeling and thinking.  But this is a very low level of thinking.  It is System 1 processing using Kahmeman’s terms.

The unpalatable truth is that we are biased, prejudiced and racist.   We put people into mental boxes marked “us” and them”.  Implicitly we like, respect and trust people who are similar to us and feel uncomfortable around everyone else.  This tendency towards in-group favoritism is so ingrained that we often don’t realize we are doing it.  “It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different.

A study from 2000 found that just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala (Neuroreport 11(11):2351-5, September 2000 can be found at researchgate.net).  HM readers should know that the amygdala is a key component of the brain’s fear circuitry.  But the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things and calls on other brain areas to pay attention.   Although we’re not automatically scared of people who are not like us, we are hardwired to flag them.  As Williams notes, “evolutionarily, that makes sense:  It paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by.”

When Susan Fiske of Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed quiet.  Apparently these volunteers seemed to process these homeless people as subhuman (Social cognitive ad affective neuroscience, 2007 Mar. 2(1) 45-51.)

Fiske says “The good news is that his hard-wired response can be overcome depending on context.”  In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy,   Fiske continues, “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there.”

What we put in “them” and “us” boxes is flexible.  Jay Van Bavel of New York University created in-groups including people from various races, participants still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race.  It seems that all you have to do to head off prejudice is to convince people that they are on the same team (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2012, 38, 12, 2012  1566-1578. pop.sagepub.com).

It appears that we are instinctively cooperative when we don’t have time to think about it.  Psychologist David Rand of Yale University asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or corporate with other players or a slightly lower, but shared, payoff.  When pressed to make a decision people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over.

Williams concludes her article thusly:  “So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all—If you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world.”

© 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.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Violent Jihadists

March 21, 2015

We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

As the prefrontal cortex does not reach maturity in most of us until our mid-twenties (although it continues to develop into our forties), there is ample time to ruin our lives. During this period we must decide what we want to pursue in life and to start devoting resources to achieve our goals. Skipping or providing short shrift to education, unwanted pregnancies, premature marriages, or committing criminal or immoral acts can result. This is not to suggest that we are victims of our prefrontal cortex and are not responsible for these problems. But we do need to bear in mind that although individuals might be legally mature, they are not necessarily biologically mature with respect to important brain maturation.

Reading about young Muslims leaving their families to join ISIS or other terrorists to commit atrocities, and against fellow Muslims no less, is quite puzzling. Some Muslim parents live in fear that their children might leave them to commit atrocities. How can children from good families do such things? Immature prefrontal cortices might be a contributing factor.

I am curious as to whether any research has been done on the corpses of terrorists. Might autopsies reveal pathological or immature prefrontal cortices?

© 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 Potential Hiding in Plain Sight

March 1, 2015

This phrase is taken from the cover article of the New Scientist, 21 Feb 2015, “Meet Your Other Brain”, 30-33 by Ted Burrell.  Grey matter in the brain is grey due to myelin.  At one time it was thought that the main purpose of myelin  was to speed up reflexes to so we could react faster.  However, William Richardson who studies neural plasticity at University College, London said  that “Ultimately it allows us to have clever brains.”  A small amount of myelin is made while we are still in the womb, but after birth it takes off .  It surges as infants learn to crawl, walk, and talk.  At  around age 4, the rate of myelination slows and teenagers still have the prefrontal cortex left to myelinate.  The prefrontal cortex is crucial for planning and consideration of consequences.  Consequently, processing in the prefrontal cortex is slow and inefficient and teens remain impulsive.  By the time we reach our forties, during which there have been many opportunities to ruin our lives, the final circuitry is completed.  But from our 60s onwards the coverings start to fray and degenerate, which fits the common experience of cognitive decline as we age.  As myelin degenerates, the signals get fuzzier.

Neural plasticity is at the neurons and the synapses between them.  The number of neurotransmitter  receptors increase in a synapse the more the pathway is used, which enables the brain to adapt according to learning or experience.  Consequently, our quest to understand cognitive decline, and the potential for activities that boost brain power has focused on grey matter, the part of the brain and spinal cord packed with the neurons cell bodies and synapses.

It wasn’t until  2009 that the new neuroimaging  method called diffusion MRI was available that allows measures of human white matter in the living brain.  Heidi Johansen-Berg of the University of Oxford examined a 2004 study, which found that learning a new skill such as juggling changed the density of grey matter, which is an example  of classic synaptic plasticity.  She replicated this juggling study  and found that after six weeks brain scans showed  that myelin had increased more than that of a control group who had no training (Nature Neuroscience, 12, p. 1370).  She found the change not only in the grey matter but also in the underlying white matter pathways, which suggested that these pathways strengthen in some way as the result of experience.  These changes in white and grey matter took place over different timescales, which suggested two different processes.  Johansen-Berg thinks that the increase in white matter would have enabled faster conduction along the circuits coordinating juggling.  This effect was seen in everyone who learned to juggle, regardless of how well they learned to juggle, implying that it is the learning process itself that is responsible.

Myelin is formed by oligodendrocytes, which are octopus-shaped cells with long arms that  wrap thin layers of fat 50 to 100  times around an axon, preventing  electrical signals from slipping out and expediting the conversation between brain regions.  These cells are made throughout life by oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), that tile the brain, ready to morph at moment;s notice.

Myelin plasticity is a second type of plasticity distinct from the well-known synaptic plasticity.  More studies are needed with human subjects, but the animal studies have important implications for learning and memory.  Well-used pathways get more myelin, speeding up  the signals and making the brain more efficient.  Gabriel Gorfas of the University of Michigan says, “it’s not only that the information is stored in the plasticity of the synapses but actually in the myelin as well.  For instance, if you are learning Mandarin, myelination  would help you remember the right character faster and more intuitively.  This gives a new dimension to the amount of information and the toes of information the nervous system can store.  The importance of these and other non-neuronal cells has led to the term our “other brain.””

Myelin information can also be lost.  The brain is a use it or lose it organ.  “If electricity  isn’t flowing, the myelin can degrade, and this can lead to psychological and social problems.  If the brain were a city, and myelin the insulation, some parts would end up in the dark.  A lack of myelin is implicated in conditions like autism, and in mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, and in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.”

So the bottom line is, “Keep learning, keep your mind active,”  Learning new things is recommended, like a new piano piece (assuming that you do play the piano), keep up with ordinary activities like talking a walk.  If it’s an unfamiliar route, with changing scenery, and the requirement t learn the way home, all the better.  Take a new hobby, another.  The goal is to keep the electricity flowing a little better, a little longer.

The Benefits of Physical Exercise & Cognitive Training on the Executive Function of Older Adults

February 22, 2015

As the name implies, executive function is important.  It involves the prefrontal cortex, which has a high level of neural plasticity (Miller, E.K., & Cohen, D.J. (2001),  “An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 167-201. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.167), meaning that it is amenable to training.  This current blog post provides a very brief summary of an article by Justin E. Karr, Corson N. Areshenkoff, Phillipe Rast, and Mauricio A. Garcia-Barrera titled “An Empirical Comparison of the Therapeutic Benefits of Physical Exercise and Cognitive Training on the Executive Functions of Older Adults:  A Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials” in Neuropsychology (2014), 829.845.

A meta-analysis is an analysis of a large body of research.  This one involved 46 studies, 23 involving physical exercise (PE), 21 cognitive training (CT), and 2 involving both.  Cognitive training did not work for individuals who were already cognitively impaired.  Otherwise, both types of training improved executive functions, but CT presented potential advantages for specific types of cognitive functions.  The immediately previous post discussed these executive functions:  working memory, inhibition, executive attention, problem solving, and fluency.  The review found that cognitive training on problem solving had the largest beneficial effect on the measure of Independent Activities of Daily Living (IADL).

Although the study found that the effects of cognitive training were larger than physical exercise, they qualified this conclusion.  I would contend that it is foolish to argue which is better.  They both provide benefit.  Presumably the major benefit from physical exercise is due to aerobic activity increasing oxygen flow to the brain.  I am curious as to whether any activity that increases respiration might be beneficial,  laughing for example.  Feel free to add whatever techniques you can think of for increasing respiration.  I think it would be worthwhile for researchers to explore possible benefits of these types of activities.  One of the primary advantages of cognitive training is that they can be targeted at specific cognitive functions.  Further research could be explored at designing training to improve specific functions where training is most needed.  The types of training might vary among individuals.  This meta-view has found that, general speaking, problem solving skills had the largest effect.

© 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.

Organizing the Business World

January 7, 2015

“Organizing the Business World” is another chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. It provides a nice historical overview of how organizations have developed driving down to technologies of organizations such as filing systems. There is a large amount of material, and I am going to attempt to focus on portions that I think will be of special interest to readers of the healthymemory blog.

One of these topics of interest I think will involve Area 47 in the lateral prefrontal cortex. It is an area no larger than a pinky finger that contains prediction circuits that it uses in conjunction with memory to form projections about future states of events. If we can provide some, but not all aspects of how the job will go, we find it rewarding. However, if we can predict all aspects of the job, down to the tiniest minituae, it tends to be boring because there is nothing new and no opportunity to apply discretion and judgment. Opportunities to apply discretion and judgment have been identified by management consultants and the U.S. Army as components to finding one’s work meaningful and satisfying. If some, but not too many, aspects of the job are surprising in interesting ways, this can lead to a sense of discovery and self-growth. Levitin writes that finding the right balance to keep Area 47 happy is tricky, but that most job satisfaction comes from a combination of these two. We function best when we are under some constraints and are allowed to exercise individual creativity within those constraints.

Levitin discusses the toxic consequences of negative leadership that can result in the collapse of companies or the loss of reputation and resources. He notes that this is often the result of self-centered attitudes, a lack of empathy for others within the organization, and a lack of concern with the organization’s long-term health. The U.S.Army has recognized this in both military and civic organizations: Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce or unfairly punish to get what they want for themselves.” The latest version of the U.S. Army’s Mission Command manual outlines five principles that are shared by commanders and top executives in the most successful multinational businesses:

  • Build cohesive teams through mutual trust

  • Create shared understanding

  • Provide a clear and concise set of expectations and goals.

  • Allow workers at all levels to exercise disciplined initiative

  • Accept prudent risks

Levitin returns to multi-tasking in this chapter. He notes that we do not multi-task. Rather what we do is rapidly switch our attention from task to task. Consequently two bad things happen:we don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any one task. Doing one task results in beneficial changes in the brain’s daydreaming network and increased connectivity. He notes that, “Among other things, this is believed to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease. Older adults who engaged in five one-hour training sessions on attentional control began to show brain activity patterns that more closely resembled those of younger adults.”

So people should not be forced to multi-task. But why, then, do we multi-task ourselves? Levitin attributes this to a cognitive illusion that sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multi-taskers think they are doing great. Levitin writes that we are Balkanizing the vast resources of our prefrontal cortices, which has been honed over tens of thousands of years of evolution to stay on task. He further writes, “This stay-on-task mode is what gave us the pyramids, mathematics, great cities, literature, art, music, penicillin, and rockets to the moon. Those kinds of discoveries cannot be made in fragmented two-minute increments.

He notes that companies that are winning the productivity battle are those that allow their employees productivity hours, naps, a chance for exercise, and a calm, tranquil orderly environment in which to do theit work. Research has found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down.

© 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.

Creative Time

December 27, 2014

Creative Time is another section in the chapter Organizing Our Time in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. The section begins with a discussion of creativity and insight. We’ll skip this as many posts were written about insight fairly recently. Then he moves on to the topic of flow. Although flow has been discussed previously in this blog, it is an important enough topic and Levitin does provide some new information. Flow refers to the experience of getting wonderfully, blissfully lost in an activity losing all track of time, of ourselves, our problems. Flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing as formulated by Dr.Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book The Distraction Addiction (you can use the search box to find these posts). The phenomena of flow were identified and discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-high, CHEECH-sent-mee-high). It feels like a completely different state of being, a state of heightened awareness coupled with feelings of well-being and contentment. Flow states appear to activate the same regions of the brain, including the left prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia. Two key regions deactivate during flow: the portion of the prefrontal cortex responsible for self-criticism, and the brain’s fear center, the amygdala.

Flow can occur during either the planning or he execution phase of an activity, but it is most often associated with the execution of a complex task, such as playing a solo on a musical instrument, writing an essay or shooting baskets. A lack of distractability characterizes flow. A second characteristic of flow is that we monitor our performance without the kinds of self-defeating negative judgments that often accompany creative work. When we’re not in flow, a nagging voice inside our head often says, “It’s not good enough.” In flow, a reassuring voice says, “we can fix that.”

Flow is a Goldilocks experience. The task cannot be too easy or too difficult, it has to be at just the right level. It takes less energy to be in flow than to be distracted. This is why flow states are characterized by great productivity and efficiency.

As mentioned earlier, flow is also in a chemically different state, although the particular neurochemical soup has yet to be identified. There needs to be a balance of dopamine and noradrenaline, particularly as they are modulated in a brain region known as the striatum, the locus of the attentional switch, serotonin, for freedom to access stream-of-consciousness associations, and adrenaline, to stay focused and energized. GABA neurons that normally function to inhibit actions and help us exercise self-control need to reduce their activity so that we are not overly critical of ourselves, and so that we can be less inhibited in the generation of ideas.

Flow is not always good. If it becomes an addiction, it can be disruptive. And it can be socially disruptive if flow-ers withdraw from others.

Levitin goes on to describe how creative individuals and groups structure their environments and lives to enhance flow.

© 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.

Procrastination

December 23, 2014

Procrastination is a section of the chapter Organizing Our Time in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. He begins this section by discussing the film producer Jake Eberts whose films have received sixty-six Oscar nominations, and seventeen Oscar wins. H said that he had a short attention span, very little patience, and was easily bored. He might well have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder . Here is how he conquered his problem. He adopted a strict policy of “do it now.” If he had a number of calls to make or things to attend to piling up, he’d dive right in, even if it cut into leisure or socializing time. Moreover, he’d do the most unpleasant task early in the morning to get it out of the way. He called this, following Mark Twain, eating the frog: Do the most unpleasant thing first thing in the morning when gumption is highest, because willpower depletes as the day goes on.

At this point, nothing more needs to be written on procrastination. The preceding is the formula for dealing with it. Moreover, at bottom, procrastination is due to a lack of willpower, so it should be attacked when willpower has not yet been depleted, because exercising our willpower has the effect of depleting out willpower. We have finite amounts to spend that need to be replenished once they are depleted. So, if you have tasks you need to attend to, stop reading and attend to them now!

However, if you have nothing on your to-do list, or if your willpower has already been depleted, keep reading.

The brain region implicated in procrastination is the prefrontal cortex. People who suffer damage to the prefrontal cortex have problems with procrastination.

There are two types of procrastination. Some of us procrastinate in order to pursue restful activities. Some of us procrastinate certain difficult or unpleasant tasks in favor of those that are more fun or that have an immediate reward. Of course, many of us engage in both types of procrastination.

The organizational psychologist Piers Steel says that there are two underlying factors that lead us to procrastinate. One of those factors is our low tolerance for frustration. When choosing what tasks to undertake or activities to pursue, we tend to choose not the most rewarding activity, but the easiest. Consequently unpleasant or difficult matters get put off. The second factor is an ego protective mechanism. We tend to evaluate our self-worth in terms of our achievements. If we lack self-confidence in general or confidence that a particular project will not turn out well, we procrastinate because that allow us to delay putting our reputation on the line until later. In this context it is important to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Most successful people have had a long track record or failure, yet they persevered and succeeded. And even if you’re successful, part of the reason is likely a matter of luck, the cards happened to play your way this time.

There are also some people who have no problem starting tasks, but do not seem to be able to complete them. This situation is not necessarily bad, and technically this is not procrastination. If you find that starting a task was a mistake, there is no requirement to finish it. Indeed, it might be some type of compulsive neurosis to complete everything you have started. Of course, too many abandoned tasks might indicate that more consideration should have been given before starting it. However, some people do not finish tasks because they are perfectionists. Now striving for perfection is not necessarily bad, but striving to achieve the unattainable is. And the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Organizing Our Time When Multi-Tasking Is Required

December 17, 2014

Previous healthymemory blog posts have discussed the costs of multi-tasking. Overall task performance suffers, and there are additional costs entailed in switching between tasks. Nevertheless, there are times when some type of multitasking is unavoidable, and they are discussed in the Organizing Out Time Chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. For example, creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of alterations between dedicated focus and daydreaming. Moreover, the brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias such that its attention can be easily highjacked by something new. Levitin maintains that humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we do to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty we have when trying to focus among competing activities is that the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by new stimuli to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex that wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Remember that the awareness of an unread email sitting in your inbox can effectively lower your IQ by as much as 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain.

Both our experience and research tells us that if we have chores to do, to put similar chores together. So if you have bills to pay, just pay the bills, don’t do anything else. Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set until the task is completed. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period.

Performing most tasks requires flexible thinking and adaptiveness. The prefrontal cortex gives us the flexibility to change behavior based on context. The prefrontal cortex is necessary for adaptive strategies for daily life be it foraging for food on the savanna or living in skyscrapers in the city.

To reach our goals efficiently requires us to selectively focus on the features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, ignoring other features in the environment that our competing for our attention. What distinguishes experts from novices is that experts no which features are important and require attention.

We encode information in meaningful chunks, To manage our time efficiently we must organize and segment what we see and do into chunks of activity. Levitin uses Superman to illustrate this point. He might tell Lois Lane, “I’m off to save the world, honey,” but what he tells himself is the laundry list of chunked tasks that need to be done t accomplish that goal, each with a well-defined beginning and ending. (1. Capture Lex Luther. 2. Dispose of Kryptonite safely. 3. Hurl ticking time bomb into outer space. 4. Pick up clean cape from the dry cleaner). Chunking performs two important functions. It renders large-scale projects doable by providing well-differentiated tasks, and renders the experiences of our lives memorable by segmenting them into well-defined beginnings and endings. This allows memories to be stored and retrieved in manageable chunks.

The dedicated portion of our brains that partitions long events into chunks is in the prefrontal cortex. Hierarchies are created of this event segmentation without our thinking about them, and without instructing our brains to make them. We can review these representation in our mind’s eye from either direction—from the top down, from large time scales to small, or from bottom up, from small time scales to large. So, we should use our prefrontal cortex to best advantage, avoid multi-tasking unless it is necessary, and then multi-task in a strategic manner.

Organizing Our Time

December 14, 2014

Organizing our time is another chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. This chapter is so rich and has so much information that I want to share with you that it will take multiple draft posts, which still will not fully do justice to this chapter.

The first thing to realize about time is that it is an illusion, a creation of our minds, as is color. There is no color in the physical world, just light of different wavelengths reflecting off objects. Newton said the light waves themselves are colorless. Our sense of color is the result of the visual cortex processing these wavelengths and interpreting them as color. Similarly, time can be thought as an interpretation that our brains impose on our experience of the world. We experience the sun rising and setting. We feel hungry at different times and sleep at other times. The moon goes through a series of phases approximately monthly. Seasons are experienced at even larger intervals, then recycle again.

I have long been puzzled as to why there are 24 hours in a day. As the world makes a complete circle of 360 degrees, I would have thought that there would be 36 hours in a day. Apparently this division of 24 hours is due to the ancient Egyptians who divided daytime into 10 parts, then added an hour for each of the ambiguous periods of twilight to achieve 12 parts. There were also 12 corresponding parts for nighttime yielding a 24 hour day. Then it was the Greeks, following the lead of the mathematician Eratosthenes who divided the circle into sixty parts for an early cartographic system representing latitudes. They then divided the hour into sixty minutes, and the minutes into sixty seconds. Still time was kept at local levels until the advent of the railroad that needed accurate timekeeping to avoid collisions. The U.S. Railroads did this in 1883, but the United States Congress didn’t make it into law until 35 years later.

As for organizing our time it is the function of the prefrontal cortex. We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, exercising good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

When the prefrontal cortex becomes damaged, it leads to a medical condition called dysexecutive syndrome. Under this condition there is no control of time. Even the ability to perform the correct sequence of actions in the preparation of a meal is impaired It is also frequently accompanied by an utter lack of inhibition for a range of behaviors, especially in social settings. Sufferers might blurt out inappropriate remarks, or go on binges of gambling drinking, and sexual activity with inappropriate partners. They tend to act on what is in front of them. If they see someone moving, they are likely to imitate them. If they see an object, they tend to pick it up and use it. Obviously this disorder wreaks havoc with organizing time. If your inhibitions are reduced and you have difficulty seeing the future consequences of your actions, you might do things now that you regret later, or make it difficult to complete projects you’re working on. As for organizing your time, engage your prefrontal cortex, and take care of and protect your prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is also important for creativity. It is important for making connections and associations between disparate thoughts and concepts. This is the region of the brain that is most active when creative artists are performing at their peak.

Levitin offers the following suggestion for seeing what it’s like to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. This damage is reversible provided it is not done too often. His suggestion is to get drunk. Alcohol interferes with the ability of prefrontal cortex neurons to communicate with one another, by disrupting dopamine receptors and blocking a neuron called an NMDA receptor, mimicking the damage seen in frontal lobe patients. Heavy drinkers experience a double whammy. Although they may lose certain control or motor coordination or the ability to drive safely, but they aren’t aware that they’ve lost them or simply don’t care. So they forge ahead anyway.

The Tri-Process Model of Cognition and Cognitive Miserliness

November 13, 2013

The Tri-Process Model of Cognition (Stanovich, 2011) offers a more complete model of cognition and a better prescriptive model of how to think. All System Two processes, including both the Algorithmic Mind and the Rational Mind require attention. In other words, they require thinking and mental effort. It’s a model of how to think thoroughly. Try to recall all relevant information. Run mental simulations regarding how different courses of action might result. The failure to use adequate mental resources (the failure to think) is what is termed cognitive miserliness. We are cognitive misers when we don’t use the cognitive resources we have. And most of the time this is due to an unwillingness to exert adequate mental effort.

Now for our minds to work effectively we need to have stored relevant information. Our Rational Mind should inform us when we need to look for more information. Mindware is also needed. Mindware needs to include methods for critical thinking. All of this should be part of our formal education, but the majority of what we need to do is a matter of self-education. We need to be auto-didacts throughout the entire course of our lives. It is true that our thinking is often time constrained. In those situations all we can do is to expend as much mental effort as time affords.

So especially for the important decisions we need to make in our lives, we cannot afford to be cognitive misers. It is unfortunate that the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until our mid-twenties. By this time we have had the opportunity to make serious erroneous decisions. But this is all the more reason to think for as long and as much as possible so that we are making maximum use of whatever prefrontal cortex we have.

We also need to avoid being cognitive misers as citizens. Considering the problems the U.S. Government is having, it appears that the country is filled with cognitive misers. People blame the government, but it is the people who elect the government.

The idea that people do not vote in their own interests is not new. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to support this view. Income equality has grown for the past thirty years. How can this be possible if voters are voting in their own interests? How can 1% of the population garner so much of the wealth? Mitt Romney called 47% of the U.S. Population deadbeats, or something of the sort. He also was against in supporting funds for college educations, in spite of the fact that the G.I. Bill was largely responsible the subsequent economic growth of the country. Romney’s argument was that if parents had the funds to send their children to college, that was their privilege, otherwise students needed to fund for themselves. Now how does this square with the ideal of equality? Yet 48% of the vote went to this man. How can this be?

This answer is that there is an epidemic of cognitive misers. Ideologies provide a handy vehicle for avoiding thinking. The ideologies, beliefs, hold the answer. There is no need to think. Contrary evidence is disregarded as being biased, being from a liberal press, for example. Now ideologies are even more pernicious when they are held by those in legislative bodies. Effective legislative bodies require negotiation and compromise, something that ideologues are not wont to do.

Beliefs need to be justified with logic and evidence. It is not a matter of believing in big government or small government, whatever those terms might mean. Regardless if someone tells me they are against, or for, big government, I regard them to be cognitive misers of the highest magnitude. Rather it is a matter of the honest examination of data and reflection that should be the means of determining what government should and should not do.

If this epidemic of cognitive miserliness continues, too many voters will be manipulated by skilled politicians and their advisors into voting against their own interests.

But by far, the worst and most dangerous ideologues are those who on the grounds of their religious beliefs, perform acts of terrorism. Religious ideologues can pervert religious beliefs into acts that are contrary to their religions. This is certainly the worst consequence of cognitive miserliness.

Reference

Stanovich, K.E. (2011). Rationality & the Reflective Mind. New York: The Oxford University Press..

© 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.

Why Are Our Brains So Large?

September 16, 2012

A recent article1 provides a possible answer. The article’s title is Social Network Size Linked to Brain Size. Perhaps the most prominent hypothesis is that our enlarged brains allow us to be smarter than our competitors. We are better at abstract thinking, better with tools (I am a personal exception here), and better at adapting our behavior than our prey and predators.

In 1992 anthropologist Robin Dunbar (Remember Dunbar’s Number? See healthymemory blog posts, “Why Is Facebook So Popular?”, and “How Many Friends are Too Many?”) published research showing that in primates the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increases in the size of the social group. So the Tamarin monkey has a brain size ratio of around 2.3 and an average social group size of around 5 members, whereas a Macaque monkey has a brain size ratio of about 3.8 but a large average group size of around 40 members. Consequently, Dunbar advanced his “social brain hypothesis,” which states that the relative size of the neo-cortex rose as social groups became larger in order to maintain the complex set of relationships necessary for stable co-existence. Moreover, he suggested that given the human brain ratio we have an expected social group size of about 150, the size of what Dunbar called a clan.

Dunbar’s previous worked was focused on differences among species. His more recent work focuses on differences within species. He has found that the size of each individual’s social network is linearly related to the neural volume in the orbital prefrontal cortex. His research has shown that more than just more neural material in the prefrontal cortex is needed. Psychological skills are also needed, especially an ability to understand the other person’s state of mind. This cognitive skill is called a “theory of mind.”

So we have two explanations of why are brain’s are so large. One is that we are better at abstract thinking and adapting our behavior. The other is that the larger brain is needed to accommodate larger social networks that are beneficial to our survival. The astute healthymemory blog reader will likely quickly realize that these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Most likely they are both at work.

1http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=social-network-size-linked-brain-size

© 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.

Using tDCS to Help Children with Developmental Disabilities and to Foster Creativity in Adults

August 19, 2012

An earlier Healthy Memory Blog Post, “Brain Boosts”, described means of boosting the brain’s performance. One of these was transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The current is very small, from 1 to 2 milliamps. This method is much safer than other types of brain simulation as tDCS does not cause neurons to fire directly. It must make the neurons more excitable. When tDCS is applied over the right parietal lobe of the brain, mathematical ability is boosted. When it is applied to the right anterior temporal lobe, visual perception and memory is boosted.

An experiment examining enhancing mathematical ability was summarized in Scientific American Mind1 . Children with developmental dyscalia, a learning disability that affects math skill, served in the experiment. These children were to associate numbers with arbitrary symbols, such as triangles or cylinders. After practicing this task, they were rapidly presented with pairs of symbols of different visual sizes and they had to choose the physically larger one as quickly as they could. On some trials there was a mismatch between the size of the symbol and the magnitude it represented (for example a huge symbol meaning two was paired with a tiny symbol representing 5. Such mismatches could cause a delay in reaction because the impulse to choose the larger number needed to be overridden. The experimental group received tDCS over the right parietal cortex for 20 minutes at the beginning of each of the six training sessions. The control group did not receive the stimulation. By the fourth session the children in the experimental group became slower for mismatched pairs as compared with the matched pairs. This is the performance that adults show when they respond to real digits. The control group showed no difference between these trials suggesting that they had not internalized the symbols meaning. These superior performance lasted for six months, which suggests that this method might someday benefit those with developmental dyscalia.

In a special box2 inside her article on creativity in Scientific American Mind, Prof. Chrysikou of the University of Kansas reports on how tDCS, transcranial direct simulation can foster creativity. She reports a study published in 2011 by neuroscientist Allan Snyder of the Center for the Mind in Sydney in which Snyder and his colleagues used this technique to affect the ability of individuals to solve arithmetic puzzles involving matchsticks. The initial problems could all be solved with a similar strategy, but the approach would not work with the last two problems. These problems required a novel approach. For half the subjects tDCS was used to depress activity in the left frontal cortex, while exciting the right frontal cortex, whereas for the other half tDCS was used to excite activity in the left frontal cortex and depress activity in the right frontal cortex. The former group solved the last two problems at higher rates than the latter group. So it appears that the right hemisphere enhances creativity, whereas the left hemisphere impedes it.

Prof. Chrysikou also provided data that tDCS could also support the generation of novel ideas. She again used the method of suppressing one groups’ left prefrontal cortex while suppressing a second groups’ right prefrontal cortex. Yet a third group received sham simulation. The task was to think of novel uses of objects presented in pictures. The group receiving left prefrontal suppression thought of significantly more novel uses and did so significantly faster than the other two groups. These results support the notion that blocking the cognitive filter by inhibiting the left prefrontal cortex during idea generation can promote creative thought.

To the best of my knowledge tDCS is a research tool and not yet ready for prime time. If and when tDCS moves to practical applications remains an open question.

1Weaver, J. (2011). A Stimulating Solution for Math Problems. Scientific American Mind, March/April p.12

2Chrysikou, E.G. (2012). Tickling the Brain. Scientific American Mind, July/August, p. 29.

Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up

August 15, 2012

For many years creativity was thought to be something for a gifted few. Research in cognitive psychology has indicated that we all have creative potential. It is simply a matter of fostering it. It appears that your prefrontal cortex plays a key role in creativity. Hypoactivity (low) activity in your prefrontal cortex is characteristic of people coming up with new ideas. Indeed, novelty is a necessary condition for creativity. However, novelty is not enough. The idea must be useful or have some artistic value for it to be creative. Here is where critical thinking is involved, and this involves increased activity (hyperactivity) in your prefrontal cortex. If your prefrontal cortex remains in a state of hypoactivity, no worthwhile goal will be achieved unless you want to end up in a psychotic state. Typically the way this will be described is that creativity involves two states. The first state involves the hypoactivity of your prefrontal cortex for the generation of novel ideas. The second state involves the hyperactivity of the prefrontal cortex in which you critically assess these new ideas. In reality, this is not an orderly process. In real life effective creative thought involves the switching between these two stages. First to generate ideas, and second to evaluate them. This becomes an iterative process. The Healthymemory Blog Post “Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness” provides a meditation technique inducing hypoactivity of your prefrontal cortes. The Healthymemory Blog Post “Improving Selective Attention” provides a meditation technique to induce hyperactivty in your prefrontal cortex.

An article in Scientific American Mind1 provides the following tips to maximize your creativity (with some enhancements by your blogger).

Become an expert. If your going to be creative you need something in which to be creative. You need to develop a solid knowledge base to connect remote ideas and to see their relevance to a problem.

Observe. When trying to come up with a new product or service, study how people use what is currently available and what problems they face. If this is an artistic endeavor, try to understand why people like what they like.

Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. How would child use a remote controller? How would an elderly person access a voting booth. How can I make this for a vegan? How can I produce a piece of art appealing to this audience?

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. Take a class; read a book; travel to a foreign country. The hope is that new experiences will foster novel thoughts.

Be willing to work alone. Although group brainstorming can help you synthesize your ideas, it is more effective if you have started the creative process on your own.

Talk to outsiders about your work. A different perspective help you see alternative solutions or possible faults with your original idea.

Have fun. Good moods forge remote associations. Up beat music might help, but also makes tasks that demand focus more difficult. To concentrate, dampen your demeanor with sad songs.

Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can make yo work your unconscious mind work on a problem that is stumping you. (This is my favorite technique!)

Take a break. Occupying your mind with a different task can unleash novel solutions. (another personal favorite!)

Challenge yourself. Disrupt you daily routine. Abandon your initial idea (even if it works) and look for a new one. Borrow from other people’s answers and try to improve them.

This last item reminds me of a statement that is attributable to Picasso, I believe (again if I err, please comment and correct me). “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

1Chrysikou, E, G. (2012). Your Creative Brain at Work. July/August, pp. 24-31

© 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.

Attentional Style

April 25, 2012

Attentional Style is the last of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 to be discussed. But it is certainly not the least important dimension. It is the most important dimension as regular readers of this blog should have anticipated. With respect to a healthy memory, it is the most important dimensions as memory failures are typically due to a failure to pay attention. It is also a key building block for other dimensions as it is difficult to be self-aware or to be tuned in to social cues or sensitive to social context if one is not paying attention.

Davidson notes that there are two types of attention. One is the ability to selectively attend to stimuli that are of interest and to tune out extraneous stimulus. The other type of attention is nonjudgmental awareness. These two types of attention complement each other. Without the ability to selectively attend, the amount of stimulation and information is overwhelming. However, excessive selective attention can cause you to miss important cues or information.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in selective attention. Davidson describes an experiment in which the participants were to push a button when a sound of a certain pitch (high or low) was presented to a particular ear (left or right). EEGs were taken while the participants performed this task. Analyses of the recorded brain waves indicated that participants who performed this task better (where better able to selectively attend) had electrical signals from the prefrontal cortext that exhibited “Phase locking.” That is, the signals from the prefrontal lobes became synchronized precisely with the arrival of the tones.

Specific patterns of brain activation were also found during a study of open, nonjudgmental awareness that Davidson conducted. In this study strings of digits and letter were presented and the task was to to respond whenever a digit occurred. There is a phenomenon termed the attentional blink (or psychological refractory period) in which the response to the second occurrence of a digit is either missed or delayed. EEG recordings were taken of the participants while they performed this task. The EEG data recorded an event related potential known as the P300. It refers to a positive electrical response that occurs about 300 milliseconds after the presentation of a stimulus. Too strong a P300 response indicated that too much attention was expended on the first occurrence of the target stimulus, so that second presentation was missed. Too weak a P300 response typically indicated that both target stimuli were missed. So balanced, nonjudgmental awareness is characterized by a “Goldilocks” P300, not too much and not too little, but just right.

Here is where the emotional brain and the rational, thinking overlap. Clearly the emotional brain affects rational thinking, and is important to a healthy memory.

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

Resilience

April 15, 2012

Resilience is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 It refers to how quickly you bounce back from adversity. Do you bounce back quickly or do you let something bad keep you down for a prolonged length of time? Resilience is another “Goldilocks” variable in that you can have either too much or too little of it. Moreover, what is “just right” regarding resilience depends on the situation. If you just failed an examination, it might be worthwhile ruminating about it for a reasonable amount of time, not too excessive, trying to understand why you failed and how you might avoid similar failures in the future. However, you often see athletes compound an initial error by stewing over it, rather than quickly getting over it and attending to the immediate needs of the game or performance.

Davidson and his colleagues have performed some interesting research regarding the brain structures underlying resilience2. They did a study in which EEGs were recorded from the research participants scalps. Recordings of brain activity were done while 51 pictures were presented on a video monitor. However, before the pictures were presented the baseline level of brain activity was assessed for eight minutes. One-third of the pictures depicted upsetting images, another third pleasant images, and the other third neutral images. Sometime during or after a picture a short burst of white noise sounding like a click was presented. This was a startle probe that tends to make people blink involuntarily. Sensors were placed under one eye to determine when the eye blinked. When people are in a negative emotional state these startle-induced blinks are stronger than in a neutral state. When in a positive emotional state these startle-induced blinks become weaker still. This allowed the researchers to gauge how quickly a research participant recovered from a negative emotional state.

People who had greater activation in the left side of the prefrontal cortex recovered more quickly than the others. The amygdala is a subcortical structure (you have one in each hemisphere of your brain) that responds to negative or unpleasant stimuli. There is communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the period of amygdala activation allowing the brain to bounce back from an upsetting situation.

MRI brain imaging research has shown that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient you are. The less white matter lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the less resilient you are.

Do not conclude from this that you are stuck with a fixed level of reslience due to the amoung of white matter you have between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala. Research has indicated that this can be changed. In a later post, I will present techniques offered by Dr. Davidson as to how to change your level of resilience.

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

2Ibid.

Outlook

April 11, 2012

Outlook is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 Outlook refers to how one characteristically views life, typically along an optimism/pessimism dimension. There have already been a host of healthymemory blog posts on optimism (enter “optimism” into the search box). One can be too optimistic, or one can be too pessimistic. However, it is interesting to note that mental health tends toward the optimistic end. People who are clinically depressed tend to be more accurate making predictions where norms exist (for example, life expectation, or the likelihood of suffering from different diseases). This condition is known as depressive realism. Being more optimistic increases the likelihood of persevering and eventually achieving success. Optimism is a “Goldilocks” variable. You can have either too much or too little optimism. Somewhere in the middle is “just right.”

Davidson and his colleagues did a study2 in which the compared the brain activity of two groups: Healthy vs. Clinically Depressed. fMRI was used while they viewed pictures of people doing something joyous or, at least mildly pleasurable (children playing and enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that they were clearly enjoying. When the picture went off, they were asked to try to prolong the emotion (think of themselves in the same situation, imagine that the joy they felt would last and last). Seventy-two such images were projected to each participant over a forty-five minute session.

The brain imaging revealed activity in the reward circuit of the brain. This circuit involves the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum. Both groups showed activation in this reward circuit while the pictures were presented. However, it was only the Healthy participants who were able to maintain this activity once the pictures were turned off. The clinically depressed participants exhibited low activity in the ventral striatum due to decreased input from the prefrontal cortex.

I find these results to be both interesting and useful. It provides added context for interpreting my feelings. When my mood turns pessimistic, I can appreciate that my outlook, even though it might be more accurate, is less adaptive and less likely to lead to future success and happiness. I am also aware that my mood is likely due to decreased input from my prefrontal cortex to my ventral striatum, and if I can increase that input, via either internal or external means, I should become more optimistic.

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

2Ibid.

© 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.

Forgetting Is Important to a Healthy Memory

March 14, 2012

The common complaint is forgetting. Consequently the importance of forgetting is overlooked. A recent article1 provides a strong reminder of the importance of forgetting. The famous study of someone who remembered everything he experienced or tried to remember is recounted in a book by the Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist. Although this person made a good living giving demonstrations of his phenomenal memory, he regarded his exceptional talent as a curse. He wanted to forget, but he could not. His was truly a pathological case.

Traumas, in particular, and unpleasant thoughts, are things we want to forget. There unwelcome recall makes our lives unpleasant and can lead to depression and serious mental problems. We should all be aware of the benefits of optimism, and these memories make it difficult to be optimistic.

Fortunately, we can learn to forget and Michael Anderson and his colleagues have developed an experimental paradigm that not only shows that we can, but shows how to forget more effectively.2 Here’s how the experiment works. The first stage is simple paired associate learning. Words are paired and the research participants learn to recall the second word when the first word is presented.

In the second stage some of these same word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked to think about the second word when the first is presented. However some of the word pairs are presented and the research participants are asked not to think about the second word when the first word is presented. And some of the word pairs are not presented and serve as controls for the third stage of the procedure.

In the third stage the research participants are given the first word of all the three sets of the word pairs that have been presented. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked to think about both words in the second stage recalled the most words. The word pairs in which the research participants were asked not to think about the second word remembered the fewest words (showed the most forgetting) and the word pairs that were not presented during the second stage were recalled second best. So even those words that were seen less than the words with the forget instructions were better remembered. It is also interesting to note that forgetting increases as a function of the number of “not think” trials. So we can control our forgetting.

According to the theoretical account of these results that have been substantiated by brain imaging studies, the prefrontal cortex is the executive control area that inhibits the activity of the hippocampus, which is a primary subcortical structure for learning and apparently also for forgetting.

You might still be curious as to how to make yourself forget things you don’t want to remember. Well, technically you are not forgetting them. Rather you are instructing yourself not to think about them, so they will not pop up unwanted in your consciousness. In the experiment the research participants were implicitly recalling the words but instructing themselves not to think about them. This led to the nonintuitive finding that the more times they did this, the less likely they were to recall them.

Anderson and his colleagues have also presented research indicating that our ability to exercise this voluntary forgetting declines as we age.3 However, other research has failed to find this result and concluded that there was no difference in the ability to forget between old and young research participants4. The only difference I could find between the two studies, besides the second study using German research participants, and the first study using U.S. research participants, was that the elderly research group was slightly older in the U.S. than in the German study.

Regardless, I am not impressed by research showing that older research participants perform more poorly than younger research participants without providing any suggestions as to how the deficit might be remediated. Given the importance of the prefrontal cortex for deliberate forgetting I would suggest the possible benefit of exercising the prefrontal cortex (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Working Memory”).

1Wickelgren, I. (2012). Trying to Forget. Scientific American Mind, January/February, 33-39.

2Anderson, M.C. (2009). Suppressing Unwanted Memories, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 189-194.

3Anderson, M.C., Reinholz, J., Kuhl, B., & Mayr, U. (2011). Psychology and Aging, 26, 397- 405.

4Alp, A., Bauml, K-H, & Pastotter, B. (2007). No Inhibitory Deficit in Older Adults’ Episodic Memory, Psychological Science, 18, 72-78.

© 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.

Supertaskers

March 11, 2012

What is this? After a couple of blog posts on the dangers of multitasking comes a post on supertaskers? Well, the extensive research by Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah (my alma mater) has identified certain people as supertaskers.1 In their database of research participants, they found individuals who had virtually identical scores for doing either just one or both activities. Out of a database of 700 participants, only 19 (2.7%) met this criterion.

They did a follow up study with 16 of these supertaskers and a group of control participants matched with respect to single-task scores, working-memory capacity, gender, and age. Then they had these participants concurrently maintain and manipulate separate visual and auditory streams of information while they imaged their brains. Significant differences were found between the two groups in their patterns of neural activation. Supertaskers showed less activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. The control participants showed more activity during the more difficult levels of the multitasking test. Supertaskers seemed to be able to keep their brains cool under a heavy load. Supertaskers differed most from controls in three frontal brain areas that had been identified in earlier neuropsychological research: the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers found that the frontopolar cortex to be the most intriguing brain region that separated the supertaskers from the controls. They said that comparative studies with humans and great apes indicate that this area is relatively larger and more richly interconnected in humans, whereas other frontal cortical areas are more equivalent in size and connectivity. They speculate that “The emergence of human’s multitasking ability, however flawed, might be a relatively recent evolutionary change in hominid brains, helping to distinguish humans from other animals. In addition, neuropsychological patients with more extensive frontopolar damage have been shown to be more impaired in multitasking”2

The authors go on to speculate about the possible role of a particular gene. They note that whether multitaskers are just an extreme on a continuum or are qualitatively different remains an open question. It should be remembered that these are supertaskers in a relative sense, that is they are supertaskers with respect to other humans. I am curious to know what happens when the total information load is increased. Does the performance of both tasks suffer equally or does the supertasker become similar to the rest of us humans, sacrificing one task for the other. I am also curious as to whether appropriate training and deliberate practice (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice”), more of us might become supertaskers.

As I cautionary note, I would advise against self assessments as to your supertasking abilities. Remember that those who think they are good multitaskers, tend to be the poorest multitaskers.

1Strayer, D.L., & Watson, J.M., (2012).Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 22-29.

2Ibid.p.29

© 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.

Review of The Washington Post’s The Aging Brain

December 7, 2011

This piece1 is informative and offers some good advice, but is woefully deficient in some areas that should have been included. The article is basically an annotated diagram that begins with the first step of the eye seeing something. The second step is the information arriving at the visual cortex that identifies what the eyes see. The third step is the information flowing through the associative cortex to develop further understanding. The fourth step is the information arriving at the hippocampus (actually it should be hippocampi as there is one hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain. Information must be processed by these hippocampi if it is to be recalled later. People who have lost their hippocampi via surgery, accidents, or dementia, are unable to learn/remember new information. But it is the prefrontal cortext decides whether this new information warrants processing by the hippocampi for later use. The prefrontal cortex is an important part of the brain as it not only decides what is worth remembering, but it is involved in all the decisions we make and is responsible for regulating our behavior. Unfortunately, it is late maturing (not until our twenties) and early to decline (sometime after age 50). So far this description is accurate and it is understood that there would be similar, but not identical stages of processing for other modalities of information.

There is another section of the article on how to slow the effects of aging that provides the following advice:

Calm Down – this is good advice as the piece correctly states that stress can destroy synapses , it fouls up the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. It does not mention that the various types of meditation are beneficial in helping us to calm down.

Exercise – this is good advice as the increased blood flow and oxygen uptake it engenders is beneficial to the brain.

Make friends – more good advice. There have been a number of Healthymemory Blog Post extolling the benefits of socialization.

Sleep well – more good advice. Getting adequate sleep is important not only to general health, but is also critical to important brain and memory processes.

Ask about estrogen – Ladies, you can judge this one for yourselves. This recommendation is based on one study. Given the somewhat uneven results from estrogen therapies, some skepticism might be in order.

Do what you do best – Although it is true that expertise is maintained well into old age and that you are less likely to lose what you know well, it is a somewhat misleading strategy for slowing the effects of aging. Although it is fine to continuing growing in your area of expertise, it would be a mistake not to expand into some new areas. Research has indicated that maintaining brain and cognitive health should not be a reactive, defensive matter, but rather a proactive effort to continue growing cognitive competence.

An interesting question to ask, is why does the prefrontal cortex start to decline after age 50? Is it solely a matter of aging? There is the Dumbledore Hypothesis regarding the effects of aging on the brain (See the Healthymemory Blog posts, “More on Attention and Cognitive Control,”, “Passing 65,” and “Memory and Aging.). This hypothesis fits well with the Two System View of Cognition (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Two System View of Cognition.”). According to this view, there are two primary means of processing information. System One is fast and automatic. It is the result of prior learning. This is the system that is doing the majority of the processing when we converse, drive a car, etc. System Two is slow, effortful, and demands attention. This is what is at work when we are trying to learning something new, to solve a math problem, or recognize something that is illogical or contradictory in what the person we are conversing with has said (or in our own conversation if we recognize something illogical or contradictory in what we have said. According to the Dumbledore Hypothesis as we age we increasingly rely on System One processing because we have learned much and don’t need to do as much processing as a younger person who does not have such a wealth of experience to draw upon. The problem is that since we do less System Two processing we use our prefrontal cortex less. The use it or lose it advice that we know from physical exercise also applies to cognitive exercise. When we use our prefrontal cortex more glucose is sent there. So the loss in the functioning in the prefrontal cortex might not be solely do to aging. It might be in part, perhaps in large part, to a loss in the frequency of its use.

So the new idea is to challenge our minds and to continue to learn new things as we age. (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “A Quote Worth Pondering.”) It is not too late to learn a new language, or new subject matter. These activities will engage the prefrontal cortex. Mnemonic techniques have the benefit of not only being a technique that enhances memory, but are also means of providing cognitive exercise that exercises the prefrontal cortex and activates both cortices of the brain. So aging should not cause us to be reactive and defensive, but we should go on offense, be proactive, and continue to grow cognitively.

1Berkowitz, B. & Cuadra, C. (2011). The Aging Brain in The Washington Post Health & Science Section, E1, 6 December.

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

The PFC: Vulnerable for Both Young and Old

July 13, 2011

The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is an executive center housing pathways for the selection of information and higher order thinking. The PFC remains vulnerable throughout life, but particularly during the critical early life development window, the PFC does not mature until the early 20’s, and then starts to decline in old age. The Experience Corps1 provides a paradigm for addressing both these groups. At all ages, PFC-navigated social connections along with physical activity are essential components to maintaining brain health. The Experience Corps2 is a community based social engagement program. It partners seniors with local schools to promote purpose-drive involvement. Both the young, who benefit from the experience of the participating seniors, and the participating seniors benefit. Participating seniors have shown immediate short term gains in brain regions vulnerable to aging such as the PFC. Consequently, the people with the most to lose also have the most to gain from environmental enrichment.

The PFC is the newest and the largest region of the brain to evolve. The increasing importance of social behavior to human survival has been manifested in the continued growth of the PFC over the millenia. The PFC takes so long to develop because the ability to integrate multiple streams of information requires the maturation of physical, linguistic, and emotional sensory networks. Its extended development window involves maturation of networks that control attention steadily from childhood to adulthood allowing the efficient filtering of multiple streams of information.

As we age, difficulties in executive control become increasingly common. Longitudinal research has found that components of executive function decline earlier than memory in older community dwelling adults and that interventions targeting these components may delay and mitigate memory decline that leads to dementia. Studies of the aging human brain show that loss of brain volume is greater in the PFC than in the posterior areas of the cortex.

Healthy aging involves healthy behaviors that include physical activity, social supports and engagement, and cognitive activity. These activities remain important to both overall health and the prevention of cognitive decline and disability well into old age. Moreover, the effects of cumulative environmental risks can be reversed in later life (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”).

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says that the third act of life represents an opportunity to use a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is not necessarily memorized from books, classroom lectures, or online searches, to find purpose. The Experience Corps find this purpose by working with young school children. Volunteers engage in mentoring activities including supporting children’s literacy and math skill development, assisting in school libraries and promoting positive conflict resolution. Volunteers exercise functions via collective problem solving with team members and teachers.

This research is still in progress. But the results already indicate gains for both the old and the young.

1Carlson, M.C. (2011). Promoting Healthy Meaningful Aging Through Social Involvement. Cerebrum, June. Available online at http://dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=33556

2http://www.experiencecorps.org/index.cfm

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

Is Daydreaming Bad for You?

February 23, 2011

Your answer to this might be “yes” should you have heard some estimates that we use only 10% of our brains (See Healthymemory Blog Post, “How Much of Our Brain Do We Really Use”). If you have read that post  you should know that our brains our chugging away 24 hours a day, even when we are sleeping. Daydreaming has connotations of wasting time. A recent article1 puts the benefits and risks of daydreaming in perspective. Estimates are that, on average, we spend about 30% of our waking day daydreaming. Moreover, a neural network for daydreaming has been identified. It consists of three main regions: the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the parietal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex helps us imagine both ourselves and the thoughts and feelings of others. The posterior cingulate cortex brings up our personal memories. The parietal cortex has connections to the hippocampus, that key memory structure that is responsible for our personal episodic memories (our personal histories). This network is key to our sense of self.

Daydreaming can be bad. Indeed uncontrolled daydreaming can become pathological and require clinical interventions. On the other hand, daydreaming can be quite beneficial. Letting our minds run freely can be enjoyable and enlightening. When you can’t solve a problem, letting your mind run freely can sometimes stumble upon a solution. Even if it doesn’t lead to a solution, it can relax and refresh your mind. Daydreaming can also foster creativity. Creative people are sometimes characterized as dreamers. It has been noted that people who regularly catch themselves daydreaming and who notice when they’re doing it, seem to be most creative. Daydreaming can also be beneficial when you are bored or are in an uncomfortable situation, as it provides a means of escape.

Daydreaming can also be harmful when you dwell on unpleasant thoughts. Although it is good to learn from negative experiences, leave it at that (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Buddha’s Brain”). Like most activities, daydreaming is best done in moderation. Meditation is the exact opposite of daydreaming. In most types of meditation you focus your attention on a concept or process (see the Healthymemory Blog Posts “Costly Gadgets or Software Are Not Required for Healthy Memory,” “Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving,” “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention,” and “The Relaxation Response.”

Just as with your body, your mind needs a healthy balance of activities.

1Glausiusz, J. (2011). Living in a Dream World. Scientific American Mind, March/April, 24-31. 

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

Hope for an Aging Population: STAC

November 21, 2010

By 2050 in wealthy, developed countries it is estimated that there will be many more older adults (26%) than children under 15 (about 16%). Today adults aged 85 and older have a dementia rate of nearly 50%. Projecting this into the future yields a frightening prospect. It portends a large percentage of underproductive older people. Beyond that, there would be a large percentage of older people living unfulfilling lives.

Looking at both the neurological and behavioral changes that occur in the aging brain can also be discouraging. There are decreases of volume in the caudate nucleus, the lateral prefrontal cortex, both cerebral hemispheres, and the hippocampus. There are also decreases in processing speed and in the ability to focus and screen out extraneous information. Fortunately, not everything declines. The primary visual cortex and the entorhinal cortex suffer minimal or no loss in volume. Similarly our vocabularies and expertise typically do not decline. Although sometimes it might be difficult finding a word, it usually comes to mind eventually.

Fortunately there is evidence that there are compensatory mechanisms to counter or ward off this decline (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “HAROLD”). And it is clear that these mechanisms work. Many people function quite well even in to advanced old age. What is even more remarkable that some people show little or no evidence for cognitive decline in spite of a great deal of pathology discovered during autopsies.

What is needed is a theory to understand the mechanisms that ward off this decline. The Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition (STAC)1 provides such a theory. Some of the basis of this theory comes from brain imaging, fMRI especially. This imaging has revealed differences in the pattern of neural activation between young and older adults. Whereas young adults show focal left prefrontal activity when engaged in certain cognitive tasks, older adults show activity in both the left and right prefrontal areas.

It should be understood that scaffolding is a process that occurs across the lifespan. It is not just the brain’s response to normal aging; it is the brain’s response to challenge. For anyone acquiring a new skill an initial set of neural circuits must be engaged and developed to provide the structure for task performance in the early stages of skill acquisition. With practice, performance becomes less effortful and the neural circuitry becomes more specific to the task.

The basic idea underlying STAC is that this same mechanism can compensate for losses in brain structure and function as we age. So what can be done to activate this mechanism? The answer is to challenge the brain and then address this challenge. As we age it becomes easier to rely upon old habits and ways of thinking and to avoid new challenging activities. But it is these challenging activities that activate the STAC process that can ward off cognitive decline.

One can regard the Healthymemory Blog as a means of providing this cognitive challenge. First of all, it provides information and data about human cognition. This can be new learning that can provide challenge in itself if not insight into the working and malfunctions of human cognition. It also presents mnemonic techniques that not only can improve cognitive performance, but offer cognitive exercise and challenge in trying to implement them. Finally, there is transactive memory, where there is knowledge from fellow humans and from the internet (and more traditional sources of knowledge) to challenge the mind.

1Park, D.C. & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The Adaptive Brain: Aging and Neurocognitive Scaffolding. Annual Review of Psychology,60, 173-196.

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