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A 96 year old man remembers Lincoln’s assassination.

25 Aug

The video is fascinating for a number of reasons. We have a tendency to remember unexpected emotionally charged events, a phenomenon called flashbulb memory, and a number of studies have been made of people’s memory of the JFK’s assassination and 9-11.  However, these memories are not always trustworthy. 

The video is also a look into the world of 1950s games shows, where it was thought appropriate to give a gift of tobacco to a 96 year old man.

Hat tip to BoingBoing.

Education Secretary increases investment in questionable neurofeedback company

31 Jul

According to Politico:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has increased her financial stake in a “neurofeedback” company that says its technology treats attention deficit disorder and the symptoms of autism. DeVos reported a new investment of between $250,001 and $500,000 in the Michigan-based Neurocore, according to a financial disclosure form that was certified by government ethics officials on Wednesday.

The whole story is here (scroll down to find the story). For background on Neurcore read this.

The importance of committing facts to memory

19 May

In an article in last week’s New York Times, we find this:

The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

Regular readers know that I think this fundamentally misguided. Knowledge remains and will remain essential to negotiating the world. To see why let’s turn to another article in the Times: “If Americans Can Find North Korea on a Map, They’re More Likely to Prefer Diplomacy.”

Here’s the map of where the surveyed individuals placed North Korea.

nkorea map

According to the Times:

Geographic knowledge itself may contribute to an increased appreciation of the complexity of geopolitical events.

By the way the quadratic equation is not that hard to learn.

People who never forget

5 Apr

Read about them in this Guardian article.

Ben Carson on memory

10 Mar

By all accounts Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is a talented neurosurgeon. But he seems to be surprisingly ill informed about modern memory science:

…on Monday, he told a factually wrong parable about the brain. Specifically, Carson said, the brain was incapable of forgetting and could be electrically stimulated into perfect recall — a statement that, even though made by one of the most famous former neurosurgeons alive, was far more fiction than science.

It came in an anecdote meant to motivate the federal employees, a bit Carson developed on the public speaking circuit. He described the brain’s surprising power as a way to show the audience that they were more capable than they believed.

Except his description did not hit the mark. “It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a little hole right here on the side of the head,” Carson said, circling his left temple with a finger, “and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate. And they would be able to recite back to you, verbatim, a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there. It doesn’t go away. You just have to learn how to recall it.”

Here’s the story in the Washington Post.

The insinuation that Carson could zap a patient into reciting, from cover to cover, a book read in 1957 was not true, experts said.

“Using electrodes placed in the human brain to implant memories or to recall forgotten memories is simply not possible at this time,” Darin Dougherty, a psychiatrist and the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s neurotherapeutics division, told Gizmodo.

Dan Simons, a University of Illinois psychologist who studies attention and memory, told Wired that Carson’s claim was “utter nonsense.” Simons said it failed on nearly all counts: Humans cannot recall large swaths of text unless memorized for that purpose. Doctors cannot force patients to remember anything in crystal detail, even with deep brain stimulation. No human brain holds within it “a perfect and permanent record of our experiences,” the psychologist said.

Can plants learn?

9 Dec

In his famous book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes mentions his experiments on learning in mimosa plants. I found this fascinating and always wish he had provided more detail. Now a paper published in Nature points to evidence that plants are capable of associative learning. From the abstract:

Here we show that this type of learning occurs in the garden pea, Pisum sativum. By using a Y-maze task, we show that the position of a neutral cue, predicting the location of a light source, affected the direction of plant growth. This learned behaviour prevailed over innate phototropism. Notably, learning was successful only when it occurred during the subjective day, suggesting that behavioural performance is regulated by metabolic demands. Our results show that associative learning is an essential component of plant behaviour. We conclude that associative learning represents a universal adaptive mechanism shared by both animals and plants.

Can methylene blue improve memory?

1 Jul

Methylene blue is a chemical that has been used an antidote for cyanide poisoning. There have been suggestions over the years that it may have an effect on  memory. A paper titled “Multimodal Randomized Functional MR Imaging of the Effects of Methylene Blue in the Human Brain,” was recently published in the journal Radiology. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate a copy of the original paper, so I am forced to rely on this account in ScienceDaily:

“A single oral dose of methylene blue results in an increased MRI-based response in brain areas that control short-term memory and attention, according to a new study. Methylene blue was associated with a 7 percent increase in correct responses during memory retrieval.”

Several media outlets report that methylene blue was shown to improve short term memory. This is one of the reasons I need to see the original paper. The phrase “short term memory” is used differently by psychologists than the general public. Indeed, many psychologists have abandoned the phrase altogether and, instead, talk about working-memory. When non-academics talk about short term memory they mean things like forgetting a phone number or someone’s name. In fact, most of these are failures of attention or long term memory, not problems with short term memory. Thus, I worry that reporting on this research may be very misleading.

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