Posts Tagged ‘memory’

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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Photo: BBC.
Carer Beth Forster leads music workshops for seniors with dementia in the UK.

At Thanksgiving, we had the pleasure of meeting Meg, a relatively new member of our family who shared a bit about using music therapy with hospitalized patients suffering from mental illness. So I was interested to read today’s story about a similar music program in the UK, one that focuses on people with dementia.

Sarah Gwynne and Woody Morris had this report at the BBC.

“An orchestra is attempting to bring people living with dementia back into the present. The work being done by Manchester Camerata has never been more important, given that there are about 900,000 people with the condition in the UK, a number that is predicted to nearly double by 2040. …

“People with dementia often find listening to music can reignite old memories from long ago. Much more overlooked, though, is the impact that making music can have on the present.

“While some with dementia can often feel trapped in the past, some researchers believe the act of creating music – as well as listening to it – can help to reconnect them to the here and now.

“A new BBC documentary — Dementia, Music and Us — follows the work of Manchester Camerata and its principal flautist Amina Hussain.

“Amina, who is also a professional music therapist, leads classes across the north-west of England that have been described as life-changing.

” ‘Taking part in the ‘Music in Mind’ workshops has been an enormous privilege for me as a musician,’ she said. …

“Classes for the community consist of improvisation, singing, and writing their own music and lyrics.

“Keith Taylor, 62, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia when he was 53. … Like many, he really struggled to come to terms with his new reality.

” ‘The best way I could explain it,’ he said, ‘is if you’re in a pine-wooded area and all of the trees are in grids and blocks and you’re walking through that and it’s dark and you can see the mist coming up behind you and you can feel it catching you.’ …

“Keith’s partner of 14 years, Joan, said they had found the sessions to be genuinely life-changing. ‘I think the thing that saved us was the first ever music group we went to because from that group it opened other groups up for us,’ she said. ‘It’s been fantastic.’

“Keith added: ‘I live life every week. Not every day — every week because I’ve got music sessions.’ He said the workshops ‘make him smile, enjoy life and it just brings the best out of you.’

“Researcher Dr Robyn Dowlen is seeking to better understand the ‘in the moment’ benefits of music-making for people with dementia. … She believes the improvisational music workshop experience allows people to ‘create something that is held now in the moment.’

“Keith described how the sessions and being in what Dr Dowlen calls the ‘musical spotlight’ had helped him ‘stand up taller.’

“Dr Dowlen added: ‘Improvisational music-making is particularly important for people with dementia, especially when it comes to building their confidence and their self-esteem.’

“Beth Forster, from Liverpool, started her career in caring as a volunteer two years ago when she found herself furloughed during the pandemic. When a staff position subsequently became available she applied and has never looked back.

“The 28-year-old decided to get involved in the music workshops after news began to spread about the positive impact they could have on those living in care homes. A musician herself, Beth received training from Manchester Camerata’s professional music therapists so she could lead her own workshops.

“Beth said: ‘I feel like I’ve got more strategies to bring residents into the present to help them if they’re distressed… I can’t really believe this is my job. … it is a real privilege.’ “

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: NeuroscienceNews.
Latinos aged 55 and older who participated in Latin dance classes for eight months showed significant improvement in working memory over their peers who did not partake in Latin dance.

When I expressed worry about signs of aging, my scientist brother chided me for not being more upbeat, saying, “The brain can look like Swiss cheese and one can still have a happy hour, or more maybe, left.”

He was right. Today’s article on the virtues of dance for older people underscores that point and suggests that for some, dance can even reverse decline.

NeuroscienceNews describes a recent study from the University of Illinois.

“Latinos age 55 and over who participated in a culturally relevant Latin dance program for eight months significantly improved their working memory compared with peers in the control group who attended health education workshops, according to the study’s lead author, Susan Aguiñaga, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Working memory – the ability to temporarily keep a small amount of information in mind while performing other cognitive tasks – is integral to planning, organizing and decision-making in everyday life.

“The dance program used in the study, Balance and Activity in Latinos, Addressing Mobility in Older Adults – or BAILAMOS – showed promise at enticing older Latinos to become more physically active and help stave off age-related cognitive decline, Aguiñaga said.

“ ‘Dance can be cognitively challenging,’ Aguiñaga said. ‘When you’re learning new steps, you have to learn how to combine them into sequences. And as the lessons progress over time, you must recall the steps you learned in a previous class to add on additional movements.’

“BAILAMOS was co-created by study co-author David X. Marquez, a professor of kinesiology and nutrition, and the director of the Exercise and Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago; and Miguel Mendez, the creator and owner of the Dance Academy for Salsa.

“BAILAMOS incorporates four types of Latin dance styles: merengue, salsa, bachata and cha cha cha, said Aguiñaga, who has worked with the program since its inception when she was a graduate student at the U. of I. Chicago.

“ ‘It’s an appealing type of physical modality,’ she said. ‘Older Latinos are drawn to Latin dance because most of them grew up with it in some way.’

“Latin dance can evoke positive emotions that prompt listeners to participate, increasing levels of physical activity in a population that tends to be sedentary, according to the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

“More than 330 Spanish-speaking Latino adults who were middle-aged or older were recruited for the study, primarily through community outreach in local churches. Participants were randomly assigned to either the dance group or the control group, which met once a week for two-hour health education classes that covered topics such as nutrition, diabetes and stress reduction.

“Participants in the BAILAMOS groups met twice weekly for the dance sessions, taught by a professional instructor for the first four months and later by a ‘program champion’ – an outstanding participant in each group who displayed enthusiasm and leadership qualities.

“The program’s champions were selected and trained by the instructor to lead the sessions during the four-month maintenance phase.

“Over the different waves of the four-year study, the dance lessons were held at 12 different locations across Chicago, such as neighborhood senior centers and churches that were familiar and easily accessible to participants, Aguiñaga said.

“Participants’ working memory – along with their episodic memory and executive function – was assessed with a set of seven neuropsychological tests before the intervention began, when it concluded after four months and again at the end of the maintenance phase.

“Participants also completed questionnaires that assessed the number of minutes per week they engaged in light, moderate and vigorous physical activity through tasks associated with their employment, leisure activities, household maintenance and other activities. …

“As with a small pilot study of BAILAMOS conducted previously, the current study found no differences in any of the cognitive measures between the dance participants and their counterparts in the health education group at four months. However, after eight months, people in the dance group performed significantly better on tests that assessed their working memory.

“ ‘That’s probably one of the most important findings – we saw cognitive changes after eight months, where participants themselves had been leading the dance classes during the maintenance phase,’ Aguiñaga said. ‘All of our previous studies were three or four months long. The take-home message here is we need longer programs to show effects.

“ ‘But to make these programs sustainable and create a culture of health, we also need to empower participants to conduct these activities themselves and make them their own.’ “

The open-access study, “Latin Dance and Working Memory: The Mediating Effects of Physical Activity Among Middle-Aged and Older Latinos,” by Susan Aguiñaga et al appears in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

This really intrigues me. Even though I have no Latin background, music like salsa makes me want to dance, too. I suppose if I were in a research study, though, I’d probably need doo-wop to trigger a primordial urge to leap out of my chair.

More at NeuroscienceNews, here.

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Even though we’re buying smaller and smaller Christmas trees each year and you’d think I wouldn’t be able to cram on decades’ worth of ornaments, I hate to leave anything out.

There’s a cross-stitched ornament that John made from a kit when he was four. Numerous decorations were created by my husband’s Aunt Mae, who had an active life past age 100 and made knitted, crocheted, and sequined ornaments that she kept secret as she worked on them during the year.

There are many items made in the Crafts for Christmas workshops at church, which encourages children to make, rather than buy, presents to give. Most were the work of John and Suzanne in the 1980s. Others were made by their own children in pre-Covid church workshops. The wide range of workshop items include everything from Christmas doorknob covers to reindeer ornaments constructed of clothespins.

I love looking at the tiny crocheted figures from China that I found in a shop at Niagara on the Lake when Suzanne was two. They remind me of our time at the Shaw Festival in Canada. My husband and I traded off babysitting so he could see a play and I could laugh myself silly at a performance by the concert comedienne Anna Russell.

I also have an origami star in shiny green paper from someone in an Esperanto group that used to meet monthly at my house.

A little baseball ornament and a tiny box of fishing tackle remind me of early interests of John, who now coaches baseball and teaches kids in the family to fish.

Really far back in time, I acquired a small Christmas stocking for one of my dolls — that goes on the tree, too.

There’s a horse-saddle ornament, a memento from a vacation that the Clymers took out West. And I still hang up a large glass ball from the Lillian Vernon surprise box. I painted “1980” on it back then.

I also hang up quotations looped with a green ribbon, an idea my husband got on a business trip to Singapore, where they hang sayings outdoors.

The clunky red-paint-and-sparkles thing you see below is something I made from an egg carton years ago. Recently married, I thought it would be fun to take Crafts for Christmas at the local adult ed after work while my husband took a different class. Can’t imagine how I stayed awake in those days!

Please be sure to notice that hanging near a bear ornament is something white that has the same shape. That is what my husband made for a three-year-old John, who asked him to make another bear. Though not usually into crafts, the guy did his best, and I like seeing his white cardboard bear every year.

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Image: James Hilston/Post-Gazette.

Are you ever annoyed by the same tune going ’round and ’round in your head for hours — maybe even days? Drives me crazy. As fast as I can get to a radio, I put on a music station to drive the tune out. Here’s a theory about that repeating phenomenon.

Jeremy Reynolds reports at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “In the dark corners of the internet hides a playlist of some of the most torturous, addictive music known to man. That’s right, Spotify, SoundCloud and Apple Music all have playlists of ‘Baby Shark’ remixes. Do doo, do do, do do, do.

“Would you walk 500 miles to get away from that tune? Will your poker face crack the thousandth time it plays in your head? Does it remind you of somebody that you used to know? Do you value the sound of silence?

“You aren’t alone. These so-called earworms — gross — are annoying but useful, as new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in June helps illuminate the exact function these loops play. …

“Music therapists and shrewd marketers have long taken advantage of music’s ability to trigger memory. As research continues to illuminate how the process works, their techniques and goals are likely to become increasingly refined and targeted.

[Per Janata, a researcher at the University of California, Davis] says earworms help your brain encode and parse through daily memories and sensations that may not have anything to do with the exact moment when you first heard the tune. As it plays over and over in your head, you may come to associate memories or sensations different from those you experienced on first listening.

“These musical fragments became a kind of sorting mechanism that triggers clearer recall at a later date, especially when the tune plays once more, according to the study Spontaneous Mental Replay of Music Improves Memory for Incidentally Associated Event Knowledge. …

“In general, musicians and scientists alike have concluded that faster music with simple, repetitive melodies and harmonies are more likely to loop in the brain. …

“[Pittsburg composer Nancy Galbraith] differentiates between musical ‘hooks,’ a fragment designed to catch the ear, and earworms. Many earworms come from song hooks, but not all hooks become earworms. …

“ ‘Tchaikovsky was a really great hook writer, but we don’t really call them that in classical music,’ she said. ‘Personally I don’t associate them with anything specific. It’s more of an emotion or sensation.’ …

“Music therapists already use music’s ability to trigger a range of emotional states with their patients. According to Brittany Meyer, a neurologic music therapist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, music’s ability to activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously makes it a useful tool for rebuilding and strengthening pathways in the brain.

“ ‘Repetition is really great for creating earworms,’ Ms. Meyer said. ‘And we know that music is great for both encoding and retrieving memories.’

“She explained that music can trigger reaction in both the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory, and the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotions. So listening to the same music at a later date can trigger the same emotions as when the listener last experienced the music.

“Ms. Meyer also said that a patient’s prior associations with a tune are more important than the inherent characteristics of the tune itself. For example, she cited an experience working with a child on the autism spectrum who didn’t want to brush his teeth. Ms. Meyer made up a song about brushing teeth to the tune of a song he liked. Then his mother could sing with him every night, which helped him remember to brush his teeth.

“Mr. Janata wonders how long it will be before this research is used in a more targeted way. Many Americans above a certain age can recall a few jingles from their childhoods and the products they advertised, and some educators use songs or tunes to help memorize information.

“But the possibilities don’t stop there. Mr. Janata’s recent study found that music can function as a targeted memory aid. That means learning names or new faces or places could one day be paired with an individual tune, almost like a personalized musical tag. 

“Mr. Janata is exploring that idea in his research and attempting to observe how the brain responds to musical stimuli and earworms using neural imaging technology. …

“ ‘That’s what our current experiments are trying to show and see whether that’s possible.’ ”

More at the Post-Gazette, here.

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Photo: Newshub
Sans Forgetica is a typeface meant to aid memory. It was invented by researchers at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

There’s a new memory-boosting font that you can download for free and use for short texts. The inventors say you wouldn’t want to use it for long texts like a novel because it would give you a headache. But I say, what good is a typeface if you can’t read novels with it?

Lisa Martin writes at the Guardian, “Australian researchers say they have developed a new tool that could help students cramming for exams – a font that helps the reader remember information.

“Melbourne-based RMIT University’s behavioural business lab and design school teamed up to create ‘Sans Forgetica,’ which they say uses psychological and design theories to aid memory retention.

“About 400 university students have been involved in a study that found a small increase in the amount participants remembered – 57% of text written in Sans Forgetica compared with 50% in a plain Arial.

“Typography lecturer Stephen Banham said the font had an unusual seven-degree back slant to the left and gaps in each letter.

“ ‘The mind will naturally seek to complete those shapes and so by doing that it slows the reading and triggers memory,’ Banham told the Guardian.

“Senior marketing lecturer Janneke Blijlevens said the concept of ‘desirable difficulty’ underpinned the font’s design. …

“The font was designed with year 12 students cramming for exams in mind but could also be used to help people studying foreign languages and elderly people grappling with memory loss.” More at the Guardian, here.

I can see that having to work harder to read something may cause memory to fire on more burners, but when I was a kid, a friend who purported to analyze handwriting told me that broken letters like this indicated a criminal mind!

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Credit: Tjflex2/Flickr
Inside the pupa (or chrysalis), the caterpillar actually turns to liquid during metamorphosis. Despite such an extreme transformation, the butterfly or moth can retain learning from its caterpillar days.

Do you remember being a newborn? I don’t think our species is capable of that kind of remembering. What about other species? Recent research suggests that butterflies have a kind of muscle memory from the good old days of their caterpillar-hood.

An article from Curious Kids — a series that gets experts to answer questions that kids send in — has the scoop. Evan, age 5, asked the question.

“We have caterpillars at home. I would like to know whether they will remember being caterpillars when they are butterflies.”

“Dear Evan,

“I think it is highly unlikely that a butterfly or moth remembers being a caterpillar. However, it may well remember some experiences it learned as a caterpillar.

“That fact in itself is especially amazing because inside the pupa (or chrysalis), the caterpillar actually turns to liquid as it transforms into a butterfly or moth (the adult stage).

“The transformation from the pupa to the adult is the most dramatic change in the life cycle of a butterfly, and scientists refer to this change as metamorphosis. During metamorphosis, the body tissues of the caterpillar are completely reorganised to produce the beautiful adult butterfly that emerges from the pupa.

“Scientists have known for a long time that caterpillars can learn and remember things when they are caterpillars, and adult butterflies can do the same when they are butterflies. However, because of metamorphosis, we were not sure if an adult butterfly could remember things it learned as a caterpillar.

“This ability to remember caterpillar experiences as an adult was tested in a study by a team of scientists at Georgetown University in the US.

“The researchers trained the caterpillars to dislike the smell of ethyl acetate, a chemical often found in nail polish remover. They did this by giving the caterpillars little electric shocks every time they smelled the chemical. Soon, these caterpillars were trained to avoid that smell because it reminded them of the electric shock.

“They let the caterpillars transform into adult moths, and then tested the moths again to see if they still remembered to stay away from the ethyl acetate smell.

“And guess what? Most of them did! The scientists had shown that the memories of avoiding the bad smell experienced as a caterpillar had been carried over into the moth stage. …

“Thank you for sending in this very interesting question.

“Yours sincerely,

“A/Prof Michael F. Braby”

More at the Conversation, here.

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Photo: Richard Saker for the Guardian
“Oh, this is fun. I feel as if I’m at the party.” Seniors fighting off dementia benefit from Wayback Virtual Reality.

I often think I overdid it in early 2000 repeating myself over and over to encourage an impaired relative to remember her childhood, but an article by Giulia Rhodes in the Guardian suggests that stirring up old memories can indeed be helpful to seniors with dementia.

“In a comfortable armchair, glass of sherry at her side,” writes Rhodes, “Elspeth Ford is getting to grips with her 3D goggles. …

“Elspeth, 79, is a resident at Langham Court, a dementia care home in Surrey, and today she is trialling a virtual reality project, Wayback, that has been designed especially for those living with dementia. Peering into her headset, Elspeth is temporarily transported to 2 June 1953, and a street party for the Queen’s coronation. She is enjoying a children’s fancy-dress competition. ‘I love that boy dressed as an Oxo cube,’ she laughs.

“This is the first in what will become a series of virtual reality films set at historic moments, and available free for those with dementia, their families and carers to enjoy together through a mobile phone and a pair of inexpensive 3D goggles. The idea was developed by three advertising creatives with family experience of dementia.

“For Camilla Ford, Elspeth’s daughter, it is an exciting concept. ‘It gave Mum a huge amount of pleasure and really engaged her,’ she says. … ‘She was immersed in this and it took her back to a time of happy memories, when she was productive and emotionally fulfilled.’

“Elspeth has had vascular dementia for seven years, and finding a point of contact increasingly involves moving to where she is, rather than trying to bring her into the present, says Camilla. ‘If she is in a place she can identify with, and we can see it too, we are somehow equalised. We are at a stage where we aren’t trying to create memories but to relish positive emotions, dropping the expectation of who Mum was and just being with the person in front of us.’

“Elspeth sets off for lunch with her son Dominic, still smiling. It is unlikely, says Camilla, that her mother will remember what has made her feel happy. ‘The point is that she feels uplifted, not necessarily that she knows why.’

“Dan Cole, one of Wayback’s creators, agrees. ‘If the film can open some memories, start a conversation or bring a smile, that’s a success,’ he says. The idea began to form after a drive around Camden, north London, with his father, then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. ‘It was his old stomping ground and he kept recognising places and telling me little tales; the pub his dad drank in, where he hung about with his mates, even an alley where he once got into a scrap,’ says Dan. ‘In that fleeting moment it was so clear in his mind. I could ask questions. He could tell me things.’ …

“The resulting film was made over two days in a north-London street (satellite dishes and other modern trappings digitally removed) with a volunteer cast and crew of 187 and painstakingly sourced period props, costumes and menu (fish-paste sandwiches, notes one Langham Court resident approvingly). …

“Langham Court’s philosophy is based on the Butterfly Household model, devised by Dr David Sheard, a dementia specialist and CEO of Dementia Care Matters, who is supporting Wayback. ‘People living with dementia become more feeling beings than thinking beings,’ he says. ‘Feelings endure and are more to be trusted when facts diminish.’ ”


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Here is Suzanne the one year we cut our own tree. I think she had the most fun of the four of us. The thermos had hot chocolate.

We set our sights on smaller trees nowadays, and my husband just put this year’s in the stand. I’ve been gearing up to decorate, first looking through the ornaments. It’s like greeting old friends after a year. Some of them are very familiar and beloved, but I can’t remember their stories. Here are a few whose stories I do remember.

The big red one on the lower step: from the Crafts for Christmas class I took the year we were married. Amazing what you can do cutting up egg cartons!

The sparkly tear-drop shape and the doorknob cover: from the church’s craft workshop when John and Suzanne were young. The angel with sequins: made by Aunt Mae in her 90s. She also made the smiling snowman backed by a green star and many other items — in secret, to surprise everyone. The round milk-bottle-cap ornament: don’t get me started now on highly educated women with no occupation spending their time on that. But I like to think of the woman who made it, with sympathy.

The soldier with John’s name on it: that was a gift from Aunt Peggy.

The Esperanto green star: from a friend in my Esperanto group. The two crocheted Chinese dolls: from a trip to the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake when Suzanne was about 1. My husband went to see a Shaw play while I babysat. I went to see hilarious concert comedienne Anna Russell while he babysat.

The bear: John was 3, and I was spending considerable time in graduate classes. John insisted my husband make a bear ornament just like that one out of cardboard. We have that too, somewhere. It doesn’t look just like that one, but we love it.

The Clymers brought the saddle from a trip to South America. John stitched the cross-stitch tree at a ridiculously young age (3? 4?).

The see-through snowball: a gift at DeAnna’s December wedding to Mairtin at the Peabody-Essex Museum.



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Sometimes it’s hard to remember the details of what I did last week, or even today. If it’s a question of work, I can review my calendar, the e-mails I sent, or see what I checked off my checklist.

But the things that seem important and keep popping up in my head are shreds of conversations the details of which I can’t always remember. Who said that to me? And where? Was it in the hallway, the ladies room, the cafeteria, walking into the building, waiting to go through the security line? Was it someone I see a lot? A stranger at a food truck?

My new project is to do a better job of holding on to these brief but significant interactions.

One day, as I approached the cafeteria with a colleague, I asked if he went to his vacation home at this time of year. He said, “No. I rented it for the summer, and a new tenant is coming in for the winter. I had to remortgage it to pay for my mother’s care. She had Alzheimer’s.”

The woman in the office across the hall mentioned the supermoon and eclipse: “At first I thought it would be something huge and orange. We were going to make an event, take a blanket and a thermos to the beach and watch it from there. But after reading about it online, we scaled back our expectations about huge and orange and were happy watching from the front yard.”

Coming into the building with my lunch, I met another woman coming out. We hadn’t seen each other for weeks and stopped to chat. I admired her earrings. She said they were from the Rhode Island School of Design and told me her son just started grad school there. We talked about the wonderful craft sales RISD has, and I said I especially like the one where they block off several streets sometime around Mother’s Day.

Going home on the train, I sat next to a co-worker who had been strung out with anxiety about her only child, six months old, who had a fierce case of croup that got her hospitalized for a whole weekend. My colleague thought the baby was starting to pull out of it. As she talked about how cheerful the little girl is and how much she loves to carry her in the baby carrier next to her chest, the subway car seemed to fill with love and lift toward the heavens.


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In case you missed it, there’s a new movie about using elderly people’s favorite music to call them back from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

The website for Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory says the movie is an “exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett chronicles the astonishing experiences of individuals around the country who have been revitalized through the simple experience of listening to music.”

The documentary follows “social worker Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it. Rossato-Bennett visits family members who have witnessed the miraculous effects of personalized music on their loved ones, and offers illuminating interviews with experts including renowned neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks (Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain) and musician Bobby McFerrin (‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’).”

At the Washington Post, Michael Sullivan writes, “The benefits of music to enliven and awaken the senses are not limited to those with dementia. ‘Alive Inside’ also focuses on a woman who suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and on a man with multiple sclerosis. The scenes in which they and others are shown listening to music that has personal meaning are absolutely joyous, but they also might move you to tears.

“As the movie makes clear, none of these conditions are reversible. Music isn’t a cure for anything. But it does seem to be a key to unlocking long-closed doors and establishing connections with people who have become, through age or infirmity, imprisoned inside themselves.” More.

Hmmm. It seems that in addition to making wills, we should all be writing lists of the music that we have enjoyed in our lives so that people know what to play. Should I go with “Swan Lake” and “The New World Symphony” or “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Mary’s Boychild”? Or how about the Platters and Elvis and Nina Simone and Edif Piaf or musicals like Nine and Chess. Anything in a minor key.

I haven’t even scratched the surface.

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Even when I take my walk in the house on a bad day in winter, I find that walking helps me think. My pace indoors or out is not very energetic, but I like that all sorts of ideas and memories pop into my head as I walk.

At the NY Times blog called “Well,” Gretchen Reynolds describes new research that ties walking to creativity.

“A brief stroll, even around your office, can significantly increase creativity, according to a handy new study. Most of us have heard by now that exercise, including walking, generally improves thinking skills, both immediately and in the longer term. …

“Similarly, exercise has long been linked anecdotally to creativity. For millenniums, writers and artists have said that they develop their best ideas during a walk …

“Researchers at Stanford University recently decided to test that possibility, inspired, in part, by their own strolls. ‘My adviser and I would go for walks’ to discuss thesis topics, said Marily Oppezzo, at the time a graduate student at Stanford. ‘And one day I thought: “Well, what about this? What about walking and whether it really has an effect on creativity?” ‘

“With the enthusiastic support of her adviser, Daniel Schwartz, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Dr. Oppezzo [gathered] her volunteers in a deliberately dull, unadorned room equipped with only a desk and (somewhat unusually) a treadmill, Dr. Oppezzo asked the students to sit and complete tests of creativity … Then the participants walked on the treadmill, at an easy, self-selected pace that felt comfortable. The treadmill faced a blank wall. While walking, each student repeated the creativity tests, which required about eight minutes.

“For almost every student, creativity increased substantially when they walked.”

The study was published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

 More here, where Reynolds notes that there was no difference when the volunteers walked outdoors instead of on a treadmill.

Embed from Getty Images

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou never know what you’ll find at Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

Today he notes research on the memory of toddlers. A new study has demonstrated that three-year-olds have memories of  seeing someone once, back when they were one.

Danish researcher Osman “Kingo and his team first renewed contact with parents and their children who’d taken part in an earlier study when the children were age one. That earlier research involved the infant children interacting with one of two researchers for 45 minutes – either a Scandinavian-Caucasian man or a Scandinavian-African man.

“Now two years on, 50 of these parents and children – the latter now aged three – were invited back to the exact same lab (hopefully cueing their earlier memories). Here the children were shown two simultaneous 45-second videos side by side. One video was a recording of the researcher – either the Scandinavian-Caucasian or Scandinavian-African man – interacting with them two years earlier; the other video showed the other researcher (the one they hadn’t met) interacting with a different child in the exact same way. …

“The children spent significantly more time looking at the video that featured the researcher they’d never met. … This result provides strong evidence that the children had some recognition of the researcher they’d met, and were drawn more strongly to look at the unfamiliar researcher.”

More at Andrew Sullivan, here, and at Research Digest at the British Psychological Society, here.

I am especially delighted that there’s a bit of proof for what I have long insisted was true. (No one ever believes that I remember taking my first steps.)

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I grew up with stories about elephant memories and how elephants held grudges. “If you give an elephant a stone instead of a peanut when you are little, he’ll get even next time he sees you, even years later.”

Now Megan Garber at The Atlantic says dolphins’ memories top all other animals’.

“Dolphins, it turns out, have the longest social memories of any species besides humans. And we’re learning more and more about how lengthy those memories can actually be.

“The researcher Jason Bruck, a biologist at the University of Chicago, wanted to test whether bottlenose dolphins in particular can, indeed, remember each other after a long stretch of separation. So he took advantage of something else about dolphins: the fact that they seem to have something like names. Sometime between their first 4 months and their first year of life, dolphins will develop a distinct whistle — one that will remain the same for the rest of its life. According to research published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, dolphins use these whistles in pretty much the same way we humans use names: as ways both to identify themselves and to call each other. …

“While it’s unclear what his findings might mean about dolphins’ memories overall — he was testing name recognition, not circumstantial or emotional memories — there’s some reason to think that dolphins’ memories stretch beyond rote recognition itself.

“In tests that broadcast the signature whistles of ‘extremely dominant males,’ for example, Bruck found that females responded with ‘exceptional interest.’

” ‘There was also a lot of posturing from the males,’ Bruck noted. And ‘some young ones would just go ballistic.’

“In other words, dolphins may well have the capacity for relatively complex memories — memories that associate individuals with actions.”

Read all about it here.

Photo: eZeePics Studio/Shutterstock

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