Posts Tagged ‘brain’

Art: John Tenniel.
The Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland tells a story of sisters at the bottom of a well who were learning to draw “all manner of things — everything that begins with an M … such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory.”

When periodicals like the Washington Post block bloggers from linking to their images, we scavenge around for alternative illustrations. Today’s Post article on music and memory made me think of words that begin with an “m,” as the Dormouse did in Alice in Wonderland. The Dormouse even talks about “drawing” memory. Look it up.

Marlene Cimons has a report on music and dementia.

“When Laura Nye Falsone’s first child was born in 1996, the Wallflowers album ‘Bringing Down the Horse’ was a big hit. ‘All I have to hear are the first notes from “One Headlight,” and I am back to dancing … with my brand-new baby boy in my arms,’ she says. …

“When Carol Howard’s early-onset Alzheimer’s worsened, often she couldn’t recognize her husband. She once introduced him as her father. But if she heard a 1960s Simon & Garfunkel song playing, Howard, a marine biologist who died in 2019, could sing every word ‘effortlessly,’ her husband says.

“This ability of music to conjure up vivid memories is a phenomenon well known to brain researchers. It can trigger intense recollections from years past — for many, more strongly than other senses such as taste and smell — and provoke strong emotions from those earlier experiences.

“ ‘Music can open forgotten doors to your memory,’ says Andrew Budson, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology, associate chief of staff for education and director of the Center for Translational Cognitive Neuroscience at Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.

“ ‘Music can take you back in time, as well as act like a jolt of electricity that can fire up your brain and get it going,’ he says. ‘We all have the familiar experience of going back to our hometown, visiting our high school and feeling the memories come flooding back. Music can do same thing. It provides an auditory and emotional setting that allows us to retrieve all those memories.’

“Scientists who study music’s powerful effects on the brain say that growing knowledge could improve therapy for such conditions as dementia and other memory disorders, anxietystress and depression, learning disabilities and many physical illnesses, such as chronic paincancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Evidence also exists that music prompts the secretion of brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays a role in the brain’s reward/pleasure system. Other studies have shown that music reduces the stress-producing hormone cortisol and increases the secretion of oxytocin, which plays a role in labor and childbirth, as well as in infant-parental bonding, trust and romantic attachment.

“ ‘Music activates different parts of the brain,’ making it an especially versatile tool, says Amy Belfi, assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri University of Science and Technology and principal investigator in its Music Cognition and Aesthetics Lab. ‘We can use it to improve mood, to help us learn, to socially bond with other people. It becomes part of our identity.’ …

“Some experts also see a role for music — which can ease agitation in those with dementia — as an alternative to sedating medications, for example, or as a means of enabling patients to keep living at home.

Frank Russo, professor of psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University, says he believes this ultimately will be possible. He is chief scientific officer of a company that is developing a music player that uses artificial intelligence to curate an individualized play list designed to guide a patient from a state of anxiety to one of calm.

“ ‘One of the really challenging things for caregivers is the anxiety and agitation,’ says Russo, whose research focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and music. … ‘Music has a real opportunity here.’

“Melissa Owens, a music therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University Health, already has seen this in her work. ‘I still find myself in awe of music’s ability to positively change behavior, emotion and even the relationship between a caregiver and their loved one, if even only for the duration of the specific song,’ she says. It provides ‘a moment of normalcy which so much of the time seems lost.’ ”

Read how experts look at the different types of memory involved at the Post, here.

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Photo: Harv Greenberg via Etsy.
How to illustrate a story on the brain’s mysterious remembering and forgetting? Do you approve of this shot of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon for the purpose?

As forgetful moments become more common for me, I tend to think of them only as bad news. This article by Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto at BBC Future asks me to look on the bright side.

“On 25 February 1988, at a performance in Worcester, Massachusetts,” they write, “Bruce Springsteen forgot the opening lines to his all-time greatest hit, ‘Born to Run.’

“According to the conventional wisdom about the nature of forgetting, set down in the decades straddling the turn of 20th Century, this simply should not have happened. Forgetting seems like the inevitable consequence of entropy: where memory formation represents a sort of order in our brains that inevitably turns to disorder. …

“In such a model, the preservation of information like song lyrics requires constant upkeep – which, in the case of ‘Born to Run,’ no one could accuse Springsteen of neglecting. … According to the entropic model of forgetting, such a slip-up made little sense. … Schools and education systems around the world had been built based on the best psychological theories of the early 20th Century. If these models of learning – and its supposed opposite number, forgetting – were wrong, who could tell how many learners had been done a disservice? …

“Efforts to explain forgetting date back to the late 1800s, when psychological researchers began – slowly, at first – to incorporate mathematical tools into their experiments. The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied his own powers of recall by memorising long series of nonsense syllables, then recording how well he remembered them as time elapsed. His ability to summon up this meaningless information, he discovered, sloped downward over time in a curved distribution: he lost most of his hard-won syllables quickly, but a small percentage of them persisted in his memory long after his initial memorization efforts.

“These results seemed to support the intuitive idea that forgetting was the result of the simple erosion of information. But even in these early efforts, wrinkles appeared in the data suggesting that there might be more to forgetting than met the eye. Importantly, the timing of Ebbinghaus’s rehearsals wielded enormous influence over how well he remembered items, with a spaced-out practice schedule outperforming rehearsal sessions that were bunched together.

“This finding was mysterious, hinting at some unexplained requirements of the memorizing mind, but at the same time it was unsurprising. Indeed, the benefits of spacing out one’s studies were known to most students. …

“In Ebbinghaus’s time [quantitative] methods were the exception in psychological research, but a generation later, they were rapidly gaining adherents. Perhaps no psychologist was more responsible for this change than Columbia University’s number-loving psychologist Edward L. Thorndike. … His research laid the groundwork for the influential mid-century movement in psychology known as Behaviorism, which attempts to explain behaviors purely as a function of environmental conditioning, not any intervening mental processes. …

“From his observations he produced three basic laws of learning for human and non-human animals alike. These concerned how the brain ‘stamps in‘ associations (which he dubbed his Law of Effect); under what conditions learning occurs (his Law of Readiness); and how memories are maintained or forgotten: his Law of Exercise, which breaks down into sub-theories of use and disuse. …

“Thorndike’s theory of forgetting largely aligned with Ebbinghaus’s observations, except it didn’t account for the still-mysterious fact that spaced rehearsal of information seemed to steel-plate information against forgetfulness. It would take decades for cognitive scientists to come up with a model of forgetting that satisfactorily accounted for this issue. …

“In both the standardization of education and the ongoing research into learning, forgetting became something of a sideshow. Its status began to improve, however, thanks to two separate research traditions begun in the 1960s and 1970s. One operates at the level of neurons and is detectable through tiny electrodes implanted in cells, while the other operates at the level of cognitive psychology and is detectable through cleverly designed quizzes.

“At the cellular level, Eric Kandel, in a Nobel-winning series of studies, demonstrated that memories are preserved in the form of strengthened connections between neurons. Training regimes, he showed, whether conducted on intact, living, learning animals, or by electrically prodding neurons in a dish, create such beefed-up connections. And, as Ebbinghaus first observed, training (or rehearsal, or study) with extra time scheduled in between led these connections to be longer-lasting. This is a fact that holds true throughout the animal kingdom, from sea slugs to mammals. …

“At the cellular level, part of the answer may be that some of the mechanisms involved in preserving memories seem to require downtime: recharging periods, in effect, before neurons can get back to the work of strengthening their connections.

“A different, yet perhaps complementary, answer is forthcoming in the research tradition of cognitive psychology. Here, a variety of studies suggest that gaps in one’s rehearsal or study schedule are so helpful because, counterintuitively, they create the opportunity for a salutary bit of forgetting. To understanding how forgetting can be useful, it’s important to first recognize that a memory is never simply strong or weak.

Forgetting, it seemed, was less like a cliff slowly collapsing into the sea, and more like a house deep in the woods that becomes harder and harder to find.

“Rather, the ease with which you can summon up a memory (its retrieval strength) is different from how fully represented it is in your mind (its storage strength). The name of your parent, for instance, would be one example of a memory with both high storage and retrieval strength. A phone number you held in your head only momentarily a decade ago could be said to have low storage and retrieval strength. The name of someone you met a party mere minutes ago might have high retrieval but low storage strength. …

“Psychologists became aware of the distinction between storage and retrieval as early as the 1930s, when John Alexander McGeoch, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, tasked study subjects with memorizing pairs of unrelated words. For example, every time I say pencil, for instance, you say chessboard. That task became far more difficult, he discovered, when, before asking his subjects to recite what they’d memorized, he confronted them with decoy pairs: pencil and cheese, pencil and table. The decoy pairs, it seemed, competed with the true pair for the memorizer’s attention.

“As this line of research gained traction, the metaphor for forgetting changed. Forgetting, it seemed, was less like a cliff slowly collapsing into the sea, and more like a house deep in the woods that becomes harder and harder to find. The house might be perfectly sound – that is, its storage strength remains high – but if the path leading to it becomes surrounded by equally plausible paths leading the wrong way, one’s formerly clear mental map can transform into a maze.

“In Springsteen’s case, it’s easy to see how his mental wayfinding might have gotten thrown off track. ‘The reason for the muff, apparently was that he was concentrating so much on the spoken introduction, telling the audience how the song has assumed a new meaning to him over the years,’ the Los Angeles Times’ music critic wrote several days after the event. The new introduction meant he was approaching the same old memory from a different set of cues: a different starting point. Suddenly, the once-reliable path to the opening lines of the song was surrounded by false starts. But soon, the lyrics came roaring back.” The idea is that now the memory is more accessible and the heightened accessibility will stick around. 

Pretty cool stuff. More at the BBC, here. No firewall.

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Your Bilingual Dog

Photo: Raúl Hernández.
Kun Kun has been participating in tests to tell if dogs can distinguish one language from another. Here is Kun Kun taking a break from the MRI machine.

Anyone who has ever been attached to a dog, talking to the dog and studying its reactions, must have wondered what dogs understand and how they understand it. Among the studies that have been done on the question is a recent one about being able to understand different languages.

Alejandra Marquez Janse and Christopher Intagliata present the story at National Public Radio.

“Imagine you’re moving to a new country on the other side of the world. Besides the geographical and cultural changes, you will find a key difference will be the language. But will your pets notice the difference?

“It was a question that nagged at Laura Cuaya, a brain researcher at the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

” ‘When I moved from Mexico to Hungary to start my post-doc research, all was new for me. Obviously, here, people in Budapest speak Hungarian. So you’ve had a different language, completely different for me,’ she said.

“The language was also new to her two dogs: Kun Kun and Odín.

” ‘People are super friendly with their dogs [in Budapest]. And my dogs, they are interested in interacting with people,’ Cuaya said. ‘But I wonder, did they also notice people here … spoke a different language?”

“Cuaya set out to find the answer. She and her colleagues designed an experiment with 18 volunteer dogs — including her two border collies — to see if they could differentiate between two languages. Kun Kun and Odín were used to hearing Spanish; the other dogs Hungarian.

The dogs sat still within an MRI machine, while listening to an excerpt from the story The Little Prince. They heard one version in Spanish, and another in Hungarian. Then the scientists analyzed the dogs’ brain activity.

“Attila Andics leads the lab where the study took place and said researchers were looking for brain regions that showed a different activity pattern for one language versus the other.

” ‘And we found a brain region — the secondary auditory cortex, which is a higher level processing region in the auditory hierarchy — which showed a different activity pattern for the familiar language and for the unfamiliar language,’ Andics said.

“This activity pattern difference to the two languages suggests that dogs’ brain can differentiate between these two languages. In terms of brain imaging studies, this study is the very first one which showed that a non-human species brain can discriminate between languages.

“They also found that older dogs brains’ showed bigger differences in brain activity between the two languages, perhaps because older dogs have more experience listening to human language. Their findings were published this week in the journal NeuroImage.

“Amritha Mallikarjun is a researcher at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. She wasn’t involved in this study, but has been working on similar research about dogs and language. … While this work relied on brain imaging, Mallikarjun said it would be worth investigating whether dogs could differentiate between languages in behavioral studies, too…. ‘Because often with neural studies, you can find differences that don’t play out in the behavior.’ ” More at NPR, here.

Being curious about the choice of The Little Prince for the text, I went to the original study: “Our linguistic material consisted of a recording of the XXI chapter of The Little Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry read by two different native, female speakers, with similar timbre, and vocal characteristics [one] in each language. … The text, as well as the speakers were unknown to all dogs and the text was recorded with a lively, engaging intonation.”

So then I looked up the passage, finding it described at a website call Shmoop: “The little prince tells the fox that he is unhappy and asks him to come play with him; but the fox says he cannot because he is not ‘tamed’ (21.8). He explains that ‘to tame’ means ‘to establish ties’ (21.16). Through the process of taming, they will come to need each other, and will become special to one another. The fox requests the little prince to tame him.”

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Photo: Alan Berner/The Seattle Times
Neurologist and musician Thomas Deuel, wearing a wired-up electrode cap, is researching brain activity in musicians and developing the encephalophone for people with limited motor ability so they can play by thinking.

Imagine being able to play music just by thinking about it! That day is coming, according to Brendan Kiley at the Seattle Times.

He writes, “In April of 2016, Seattle choir director and fifth-grade teacher Margaret Haney checked into the emergency room with an unusual problem — suddenly, she couldn’t sing.

“Haney had been in the classroom, trying to lead her students through George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ when, as she put it, ‘I failed miserably, like I never have.’ …

“The physicians ordered some brain scans and discovered she was suffering from ‘amusia’ — the inability to make music — due to a viral encephalitis infection in one section of her brain.

“After the tests, she was referred to Dr. Thomas Deuel, a Swedish neurologist who plays trumpet and guitar, studied musical composition and molecular biology at Princeton University, and then jazz at New England Conservatory in Boston. …

“Deuel had been working with DXARTS, a University of Washington program that incubates collaborations between scientists and artists. DXARTS was launched in 2001, with an emphasis on projects that boldly crisscross borders: video, performance, music, virtual reality, robotics and all-around tech-art hacking.

“Lately, Deuel had advised DXARTS on building a lab, with state-of-the-art technology to study the relationship between neurology and art (particularly music), and explore deep connections between the body and the brain. Deuel had also teamed up with UW-based physicist Felix Darvas on a neuro-musical invention: the encephalophone (pronounced ‘en-sef-ah-lo-fone’), an instrument you can play simply by thinking. …

“To play the encephalophone, a musician wears an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap fitted with electrodes that read brain waves and transmit them to a synthesizer. The EEG caps looks like a beanie without the propeller but protrudes a cluster of wires hooked up to amplifiers and computers. The instrument is a kind of ‘brain-computer interface,’ and sounds like an electric piano, electric strings, or whatever other kind of music the connected synthesizer can produce. …

“[DXARTS co-founder Juan] Pampin hopes the encephalophone will be developed enough to host a public concert of ‘brain performers’ by late 2018. …

“And Margaret Haney? Doctors … treated her with antiviral medication to halt the spread of the infection — and the instrument helped relieve her amusia.

“[Deuel says] learning to play the encephalophone ‘helped her make pitch. We weren’t able to completely cure her, but she was able to get back to singing again. We can’t prove that we’ve done a lot with just one patient, but it was a promising start.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Milwaukee Public Schools
Sarah Wenzel and her class at Forest Home Elementary demonstrate a series of poses from the YogaKids cards, http://www.yogakids.com.

When I was in kindergarten, someone would come to play the piano and we children would walk in a circle pretending to be giraffes (re-e-eaching!) and elephants (swinging gently while bent over).

Just the other day, I realized that those kindergarten stretches were the same as stretches I’ve been doing for my back.

Decades ago, schools like mine were helping kids exercise for health. Now an increasing number of studies suggest that moving while in class helps children’s brains learn better, too.

Donna de la Cruz writes at the NY Times, “Sit still. It’s the mantra of every classroom. But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools. …

“A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that children who are more active ‘show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.’ And a study released in January by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school.

“ ‘Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,’ said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo, who was the study’s lead author. …

“ ‘Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,’ said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. ‘Adults aren’t wired that way either.’

“Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called ‘BrainErgizers‘ that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge. …

“ ‘At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,’ Mr. Boyle said. ‘We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.’ ”

To read more at the NY Times, click here.

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Play is important for all kinds of reasons in childhood, including testing out skills and experiencing the satisfaction of creativity.

John Poole at National Public Radio focused on the socialization aspects of play in a recent report.

He began, “Why do we humans like to play so much? Play sports, play tag, play the stock market, play duck, duck, goose? We love it all. And we’re not the only ones. Dogs, cats, bears, even birds seem to like to play. …

“The scientist who has perhaps done more research on brains at play than any other is a man named Jaak Panksepp. And he has developed a pretty good hypothesis.

“In a nutshell, he, and many others, think play is how we social animals learn the rules of being social.  …

“Play seems so deeply wired by evolution into the brains of highly social animals that it might not be a stretch to say that play is crucial to how we and they learn much of what we know that isn’t instinct. …

“Not surprisingly, Panksepp and others think the lack of play is a serious problem. Especially at younger ages. And particularly in school settings. …

” ‘It’s not just superfluous,’ says Panksepp. ‘It’s a very valuable thing for childhood development. And we as a culture have to learn to use it properly and have to make sure our kids get plenty of it.’ ” More here.

More still from Jon Hamilton, another reporter in the NPR series on play, here.

Photo: David Gilkey/NPR
Deion Jefferson, 10, and Samuel Jefferson, 7, take turns climbing and jumping off a stack of old tires at the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California. The playground is a half-acre park with a junkyard feel where kids are encouraged to “play wild.” 

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The NY Times contains a Science section on Tuesdays, and it always has delightful tidbits. Today Sindya N. Bhanoo writes that if you had music lessons at a young age, the experience may benefit you in old age.

“A new study reports that older adults who took lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not.

“ ‘It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played,’ said Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and an author of the study, which appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.

“She and her collaborators looked at 44 healthy adults ages 55 to 76, measuring electrical activity in a region of the brain that processes sound.

“They found that participants who had four to 14 years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training — even though no one in the first group had played an instrument for about 40 years.” More here.

Now, of course, I am looking back and trying to count how many years of piano lessons I had as a kid. I’m sure it was at least the four Kraus deems necessary. But I hardly ever practiced, so probably the effect was small.

The serious pianist below was sitting on my lap when the picture was taken in 2011.


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If you need more hours in the day, be sure to read “How to trick your brain into thinking your day is longer,” an article John found. (But if time is dragging and you want fewer hours waiting in line or being stalled on the subway, I suggest you try reciting poetry.)

Belle Beth Cooper writes at LifeHacker that intense concentration can make you feel like you have added on all the time you need to do whatever you are doing.

“Can you remember a period in your life when, if you look back on it now, time seemed to stretch on forever? … Chances are, you were probably doing something—or a whole bunch of somethings—that was brand new to you and demanded your attention.

“The funny thing is, by focusing on what you were doing, you actually slowed down time (or how your brain perceived that time, anyway). Neuroscientist David Eagleman” explains how it works here. …

“As we age, this process comes into play even more, making time seem to fly by much faster. This is because the more we age, the more often we come into contact with information our brains have already processed. This familiar information takes a shortcut through our brains, giving us the feeling that time is speeding up and passing us by.

“For young children, it’s easy to see how this would work in reverse, since the majority of information their brains are processing would be brand new, and require more time to process. …

“According to the research, if we feed our brains more new information, the extra processing time required will make us feel like time is moving more slowly.” Try it out. More of the science at LifeHacker.

Photo: Andrada Misca, lovingphotography.wordpress.com
The very image of concentration.

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I love stories like this in any field, even a field as foreign to me as mathematics.

A mathematical puzzle that most experts didn’t expect to see solved in their lifetime has been quietly mastered by a professor in New Hampshire. He just got an idea and worked it out.

Carolyn Y. Johnson covers the story for the Boston Globe:

“A soft-spoken, virtually unknown mathematician from the University of New Hampshire has found himself overnight a minor celebrity, flooded with requests to give talks at top universities.

“On May 9, mathematician Yitang Zhang, who goes by Tom, received word that the editors of a prestigious journal, Annals of Mathematics, had accepted a paper in which he took an important step toward proving a very old problem in mathematics.”

He showed that there are “an infinite number of primes separated by less than 70 million. [It] excites mathematicians because it is the first time anyone has proved there are an infinite number of primes separated by an actual number. … News of the feat rippled across the math world.

“ ‘This is certainly one of the most spectacular results of the last decade,’ Alex Kontorovich, a mathematician at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. ‘Many people expected not to see this result proved in their lifetime.’

“Zhang said that he began to think seriously about solving the problem four years ago. … The epiphany did not come to him until July 3 of last year, when he realized he could modify existing techniques, building on what others had tried.

“ ‘It is hard to answer “how,” ‘ Zhang wrote in an e-mail. ‘I can only say that it came to my mind very suddenly.’

“The mathematician lives a simple life that he says gives him the ability to concentrate on his work. … Zhang’s achievement shows what can be accomplished by the elegant instrument of the human mind, working alone.

“ ‘Keep thinking, think of it everyday,’ Zhang said he would tell himself. ..

“ ‘The old adage is that mathematics is a young person’s game, and moreover most of the top results come from people or groups of people known to produce them,’ Kontorovich wrote. “Professor Zhang has demonstrated not only that one can continue to be creative and inventive well into middle-age [he’s in his 50s], but that someone working hard enough, even (or especially) in isolation, can make astounding breakthroughs.’ ”

I love the reminder about the importance of time to think. Everyone needs time to think. Even people who are not solving math puzzles for the ages.

Photo: Boston Globe

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Science Daily reports on new research that reaffirms the value of daydreaming.

It’s all about letting our conscious mind take a rest while our unconscious mind puts random but important pieces together for us. Getting enough sleep matters for the same reason.

“In recent years, researchers have explored the idea of rest by looking at the so-called ‘default mode’ network of the brain, a network that is noticeably active when we are resting and focused inward. Findings from these studies suggest that individual differences in brain activity during rest are correlated with components of socioemotional functioning, such as self-awareness and moral judgment, as well as different aspects of learning and memory.”

That’s a mouthful, but you know what they are getting at, right?

I can’t imagine life without daydreaming. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem almost afraid of the empty spaces. I think they miss out on a certain amount of insight and creativity.

Read more on the research here.

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Like many Swedes, Erik is fluent in several languages and understands others. It’s a riot to hear him “conversing” with Svein. Svein says something in Norwegian. Erik answers in Swedish.

Language skill has come in handy for both Erik and Suzanne recently, as they are able to converse with the Honduran worker who is painting their new residence. Not only will the paint job be better, but Erik thinks he may have found a new group with whom to play pick-up soccer.

Beyond such practical matters, speaking other languages can improve brain capability and even keep Alzheimer’s patients functioning longer, as Jessica Marshall writes at Discovery News. The longer you speak two languages, the better.

“Being able to use two languages and never knowing which one you’re going to use right now rewires your brain. The attentional executive system which is crucial for all higher thought — it’s the most important cognitive piece in how we think — that system seems to be enhanced.” Read more.

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This week I heard Mahzarin Rustum Banaji, a Harvard psychology professor, speak about unconscious bias, or blind spots. She conducted experiments with the audience to show (a) that there are things we see but simply don’t register consciously and (b) that we have unconscious biases that we may not want to have.

She showed a video of a basketball game, with two blurry films superimposed. Audience members were supposed to concentrate hard on how many times the ball got passed. After showing it, Banaji asked if anyone had seen anything unusual, and only one person mentioned seeing a woman walk through the basketball game carrying an umbrella. Most of us had no memory of that.

Banaji said a colleague at Yale has observed some brain activity in people who are “not seeing” that woman, but registering her presence doesn’t rise into the conscious zones. (Apparently only 1 to 10 percent of our brain function is conscious.) If Banaji hadn’t pointed out the woman by showing the video a second time and if I was still unaware of her walking through the game, I wonder if the next time I saw a woman with an umbrella I would think of a basketball game and wonder why.



Banajee said that our eyes have not evolved past 500,000 years ago, when people did not deal with 2-D representations, so some 2-dimensional info cannot be processed even today. None of the audience could believe, for example, that in a slide showing two perspectives of a table, the table was the same size in each drawing. We could not see it even when she proved it was true.

Other tests showed that we associate women more with household tasks, and men more with the office, even though we think we have left those views behind. In one slide the same AP editor had described a black Katrina victim swimming with a loaf of bread as “a looter” and a white couple doing the same as having “found” supplies in a a store.

You probably also know that until people auditioned for orchestras behind a screen, without the judges knowing anything about the candidates, there were few women selected. The judges had no idea that they had been deciding on the basis of unconscious bias. They believed they’d been really trying to find qualified women musicians. I asked if in a workplace it would help to point out to people in a nice way when something they said might unintentionally have sounded biased. She said people don’t like to hear that about themselves, but she recommends people from one minority group advocating for people from another group. For example, a gay person might advocate for a woman’s right or a white woman might advocate for an Asian immigrant.

I have always loved puzzling out subliminal messages and asking myself why I react in a mysterious way to certain innocuous things. Even when I was a child, I sensed something about hidden messages. I once pointed out a model in a magazine to my mother and said I thought the woman was beautiful. My mother said it was more important for the woman to have a “beautiful character.” For a couple years afterward, if I could get my mother sitting down, I’d point out women in magazines and ask if she thought they were “beautiful by character.” (She got tired of this game pretty fast.)

Even today, when I see an ad for Calvin Klein, say, or Tanqueray gin, I study the models and ask myself what daily life we are supposed to intuit from the photo. Drug addict who is very creative but depressed? Ad company CEO? Saxophonist?

Someone is sending nonverbal messages to my unconscious mind. What are they?

Mahzarin Rustum Banaji does experiments online, and you may participate at Project Implicit.

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Ever since the kids were little, we used the term “collapsing fit” to mean an emotional meltdown. It doesn’t need much explanation.

Then around 1990, I read about fainting goats and was fascinated by the idea that some animals collapse when frightened. Needless to say, goats that collapse when frightened by an enemy are fairly rare. Makes it hard to get away.



But one time I saw the ability to collapse benefit the human animal. Or maybe not.

It happened that a bunch of us teachers back in my first career, were concerned about an angry, out-of-control sixth-grader, so we called a meeting with his mother. After we laid out the problems as gently as possible, she fainted. After she came to, no one ever said anything to her about her son again. His classmates and teachers went for decades thinking they would read a headline about about some guy going postal and it would turn out to be this kid. I’m happy to say we were wrong. I never did learn the medical reason for his mother’s collapse.

This train of thought is the result of my reading in the science section of yesterday’s NY Times about a rare illness associated with the death of certain brain cells. It’s called cataplexy. And cataplexy is — get this — “a tendency to collapse when swept by strong emotions.”

I should write a poem. “A tendency to collapse when swept by strong emotions.” How great is that?

Or maybe one of you poets reading this blog would follow your personal train of thought, and write a poem related to cataplexy or collapsing. I would love to print one here.

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I think I have always cut articles out of the paper to give people or to post on my fridge. (At the office, I post work-related clippings on the wall of my cubicle.) Suzanne and her brother, John, often teased me about how often the stories were dire warnings in the news. Around this time every year, they would be deluged with clippings about sun screen and melanoma or deer ticks and Lyme disease.

Now that they have grown up and have their own homes, the fridge is rather empty of news articles. But since they are reading this blog, I’ll post a typical dire warning from today’s Boston Globe, something I’ve been harping on since the mid-1990s. (Oh, well. They laughed at Columbus.)

Hiawatha Bray’s column for June 2 is about protecting oneself from possible cancer-causing effects of mobile phones. He has several pieces of advice any mother would love: “make like a teenager, and text instead of talking. Sending SMS or e-mail messages keeps the phone well away from your skull. The farther your brain is from the phone, the lower the risk of brain tumors. If you must talk, most handsets have a speakerphone feature to let you converse at a distance. I often use it because I’m too lazy to hold the phone. Now I’ve got a better reason.”

And a study done in Sweden a few years ago suggests that it isn’t just brains we need to worry about. Cellphones left on in a pocket can affect reproductive function.

Bray says, “I carry the phone on my hip, in a holster which keeps it the required distance from my body. I’ve mocked my wife for losing her Android smartphone in her purse, but carrying it well away from the body is the safest way to go.”

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