A new spaced repetition app

16 Aug

Benny Lewis at Fluent in Three Months announces a new spaced repetition app for language learning, MosaLingua. I am a big fan of spaced repetition for memory improvement and I use Anki and Memrise everyday.

Unfortunately, MosaLingua is not available yet in my target languages so I am unable to provide a review, but if you are trying to learn English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, or Portuguese you should check it out.

Some thoughts on memory and age

14 Aug

There is a general decline in memory with age that seems to affect all of us, this is called benign senescent forgetting  and is not considered pathological. Naturally, we find this forgetting disconcerting. Fortunately, however, there is evidence that we can reduce the effects of benign senescent forgetting. We know that environmental factors must be important because there are differences between generations in performance on memory tests. Standard scores for psychological tests are set by administering the large representative samples of the general population. When tests are restandardized we can compare changes in test performance across generations. For example, one study found that 61 – 75 years olds tested in 2007, performed better than 61 – 75 year olds tested in 1985. The improvements were substantial and must have some environmental cause since the human genome could not have substantially changed in the intervening decades.
The fact that environmental factors must affect memory is heartening news, because it suggests that memory improvement is possible.
However, benign senescent forgetting remains frightening and we worry that it may be an early sign of dementia. Our fear of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia may not be misplaced. Even if average memory performance of older people has been improving, as life expectancy increases a larger percentage of us may succumb to dementia.
Dementia is a degenerative brain disorder. Memory loss is the major symptom of dementia, but patients also exhibit other forms of intellectual decline.
In the United States 5% of those between the ages of 71 and 79 years suffer from dementia, while 37.4% of those 90 and older suffer from dementia. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 69.9 cases of dementia. Vascular dementia accounts for another 17.4%. The reaming 12.7% includes Parkinson’s dementia, traumatic brain injuries, alcoholic dementia, and other causes.
There is evidence that we can reduce our risks of dementia. Physical exercise, healthy diet, cognitive engagement, and memory training do seem to offer some protection.

A new approach to DUI

11 Aug

Human beings seem to have a hard wired desire to punish others for their transgressions. This drive might have served our ancestors well in small band level societies, but it sometimes prevents us from thinking clearly about effective social policy. In behavioral psychology we define punishment as a consequence that reduces the probability of a behavior recurring. We know a lot now about what makes punishment effective, or, as often is the case, ineffective.

Generally, our impulse to increase the severity of punishment for bad behavior has little effect on the recurrence of the undesirable behavior. This article in the Washington Post describes a much more productive approach to dealing with a very undesirable behavior, drunken driving.

Many judges across the country order abstinence as part of parole or probation, but Long decided to actually enforce it. Offenders’ drinking was monitored every single day, typically by in-person breath tests in the morning and evening. In contrast to the typically slow and unpredictable ways of the criminal justice system, anyone caught drinking faced a 100 percent chance of arrest and an immediate consequence — typically 12 to 36 hours in jail.

Recent research suggests that this approach is effective:

The results were impressive, with 24/7 Sobriety participants showing up and passing more than 99 percent of scheduled breathalyzer tests. With alcohol removed from their lives, 24/7 Sobriety participants were less likely to be re-arrested for any offense one year, two years and three years after their initial arrest. The latter two periods are particularly impressive in that individuals were typically on 24/7 Sobriety for less than a year, indicating that the benefits persisted after the program stopped. This is a favorable contrast to alcohol ignition interlocks, which typically reduce drunken driving only for the limited time they are in place on an offender’s vehicle.

Many offenders in the program had served extensive time in jail and prison, so why were they deterred by the prospect of a single night in jail? Midgette emphasizes the typical time horizon of the population, noting that “because heavy drinkers tend to heavily discount the future, deterrence depends much more on the certainty and swiftness of a sanction than its severity.”

An fMRI study of transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS)

9 Aug

I have been following the research on transcranial electrical stimulation of the brain and I have blogged about both positive and negative findings. Here’s an interesting paper, just published in Personality and Individual Differences, that shows correlations between transcranial alternating current stimulation and functional changes in the brain:

The past decades have witnessed a huge interest in uncovering the neural bases of intelligence (e.g., Stelmack, & Houlihan, 1995; Stelmack, Knott, & Beauchamp, 2003). This study investigated the influence of transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) on fluid intelligence performance and corresponding brain activation. Previous findings showed that left parietal theta tACS leads to a transient increase in fluid reasoning performance. In an attempt to extend and replicate these findings, we combined theta tACS with fMRI. In a double-blind sham-controlled experiment, N = 20 participants worked on two intelligence tasks (matrices and paper folding) after theta tACS was applied to the left parietal cortex. Stimulation-induced brain activation changes were recorded during task processing using fMRI. Results showed that theta tACS significantly increased fluid intelligence performance when working on difficult items in the matrices test; no effect was observed for the visuo-spatial paper folding test. Whole-brain analyses showed that left parietal brain stimulation was accompanied by lower activation in task-irrelevant brain areas. Complemental ROI analyses revealed a tendency towards lower activation in the left inferior parietal cortex. These findings corroborate the functional role of left parietal theta activity in fluid reasoning and are in line with the neural efficiency hypothesis.

Note that this study looks at alternating current stimulation, while most are focused on direct current stimulation.

Is the University of Maine making policy based on an urban legend?

7 Aug

A recent article in the Washington Post about the plans of the medical school at the University of Vermont’s to abolish lectures contains this paragraph:

“Retention after a lecture is maybe 10 percent,” said Charles G. Prober, senior associate dean for medical education at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “If that’s accurate, if it’s even in the ballpark of accurate, that’s a problem.”

There may well be good arguments for the flipped classroom approach the college is moving towards (although I will point out that they haven’t really abolished lectures, just moved them on line). But I object to basing an educational policy on the unsupportable claim that “Retention after a lecture is maybe 10 percent.” I am unaware of any evidence for this claim.

I far as I am able to tell Dean Prober is repeating a version of a popular educational urban legend that runs:

People remember:
10 percent of what they read;
20 percent of what they hear;
30 percent of what they see;
50 percent of what they see and hear;
70 percent of what they say;
and 90 percent of what they do and say

I published a paper exposing this myth in 2010, which you read here. One would hope that educational policy would be based on evidence not mythology.

More evidence against brain training programs

4 Aug

From the Journal of Neuroscience:

Increased preference for immediate over delayed and for risky over certain rewards has been associated with unhealthy behavioral choices. Motivated by evidence that enhanced cognitive control can shift choice behavior away from immediate and risky rewards, we tested whether training executive cognitive function could influence choice behavior and brain responses. In this randomized controlled trial, 128 young adults (71 male, 57 female) participated in 10 weeks of training with either a commercial web-based cognitive training program or web-based video games that do not specifically target executive function or adapt the level of difficulty throughout training. Pre- and post-training, participants completed cognitive assessments and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during performance of validated decision-making tasks: delay discounting (choices between smaller rewards now vs. larger rewards in the future) and risk sensitivity (choices between larger riskier rewards vs. smaller certain rewards). Contrary to our hypothesis, we found no evidence that cognitive training influences neural activity during decision-making, nor did we find effects of cognitive training on measures of delay discounting or risk sensitivity. Participants in the commercial training condition improved with practice on the specific tasks they performed during training, but participants in both conditions showed similar improvement on standardized cognitive measures over time. Moreover, the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever. Commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to have no benefits in healthy young adults above those of standard video games for measures of brain activity, choice behavior, or cognitive performance.


(Hat tip to BoingBoing)

Looking for a good Bill of Rights Mnemonic

2 Aug

Last week, the lectures at Chautauqua focused on the Supreme Court. The roster of speakers included Linda Greenhouse, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jeffrey Rosen, Akhil Reed Amar, and Theodore B. Olson. You can see some of the talks here.

With all the talk of the Bill of Rights, it occurred to me that someone must have come up with a good mnemonic for them. But I have been disappointed by most of what I have found. Here is one of the better ones:

If you know of one that you like, please let me know.

There is a well developed literature of mnemonics for the medical profession. I am surprised that I am unable to find a similar body of work for the law.

%d bloggers like this: