Posts Tagged ‘Prefrontal cortex’

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.

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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.