Category Archives: Old Media

Posts about the reporting on cognitive research in newspaper, TV, magazine, and other traditional journalism outlets.

Amazing Memories and the Potential Future of Memory Research.

memory

Imagine being able to remember everything you have ever said or done. If you’re like me, I barely remember what I said two days ago let alone everything I’ve ever said. Though, I’m sure it would get rather annoying to our partners if that were the case. There are those rare individuals who have a gift (or curse) which is called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” or HSAM for short. These individuals have the uncanny ability to remember more personal and emotional memories. Memories referred to as episodic memories.

Episodic memories are just that, memories that have personal meaning that are tied to emotion. The other type of memory is called semantic memory. Semantic memories are not tied to emotions, they’re just facts. So if I ask you, who was the first President of the United States? Or, what is the capital of the United Kingdom? There probably is not much if any emotional ties to these answer, yet you were able to remember them. This is your semantic memory. Don’t worry, there are semantic memory champions as well:

So, it seems as though you can’t have it both ways, but that you can at least practice really hard and become good at your semantic memory. But how does memory really work? There are two ways that we’ll talk about it, the first will be cognitive and the other will be more neuroscience.

Cognitive psychologist use the Modal Model of Memory, which follows a path from sensory input, to sensory memory, to working memory, and then into long-term memory (LTM). Working memory is sometimes referred to as “short-term memory” though that term is not used as much anymore. From working memory, it has three places to go, the memory can decay, it can move into long-term, or the individual has to keep the memory active through rehearsal. Working memory has a capacity though, it can hold 7 items (plus or minus 2) within. It also has a time limit which is roughly 30 seconds, though if you believe old Hollywood movies, it’s more like 5 minutes. Once the memory goes into LTM, cognitive psychology doesn’t go into how it is stored, just mainly into how it is retrieved. For this, we turn to a more neuroscience approach:

According to Neuroscientists, forming a LTM starts this chain of neurons connecting that otherwise don’t normally connect. The example used above is building a bridge between two areas that weren’t previously connected. So, let’s take the example of the rats, when the tone is played, they receive a shock. After the first time, neurons are being connected to tell the rat, this tone equals a shock. After it is done a few more times, the connection between the neurons is stronger (long-term potentiation) and the signal is able to travel quicker when recalled.

This is only at the cellular level and does not fully explain the entire purposes, but it goes far enough for our purposes in this post because there has been a study done recently that challenges this school of thought. Neuroscientists have recently found that memories may actually exists within the neurons themselves. The implications of this, if supported, has not only the potential of changing the way in which we think about memory, but it could mean hope for those suffering from illnesses like PTSD and Alzheimer’s.

For PTSD sufferers, this could potentially mean that we could do a “Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and zap the neurons and get rid of the memories in which the individuals are having the problems with. For Alzheimer’s, this could mean that their memories are truly lost and that they could, with further research, regain some of the previously thought lost memories. The research is really still new and definitely needs further testing to gain any sort of support and I remain skeptical as one critic suggested that the “results were observed in the first 48 hours after treatment, a time when consolidation is still sensitive.” Consolidation refers to the process in which working short-term memory becomes long-term memories.

As this is the last post that I’ll probably be making on this blog, I leave you with this scene of Eternal Sunshine of the spotless Mind:

False Confessions: How you might confess to a crime you never committed.

Remembering a Crime

I’m a computer guy. So when I’ve thought of memory in the past, I’ve always explained it in those terms; working memory is sort of like RAM and Long term memory is like your hard-drive. This isn’t completely accurate of course, but it’s easier for those that do not understand memory to conceptualize. The problem with that analogy is that one cannot fully appreciate the complexity of memory, though I would suggest it is a bit more accurate than the filing cabinet analogy in that with a hard drive all the pieces of information are fragmented into bits and are spread out onto the disk. When you understand the complex nature of memory, you can then understand how it could create a false memory with just a mere suggestion.

There have been numerous studies that look at this. One of the biggest researcher in the area of false memories is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington. She has done a number of different studies but one of her more famous is where she successfully implanted a false memory into participants about getting lost in a mall  in which an elderly person found them and reunited them with their family. Out of the 24 individuals, 7 of them remembered this false event. She is often credited with starting this research. This suggests that when a person is fed a false memory by those whom they trust, in this case stories from their parents, they are susceptible to recalling things that simply never happened. Another experiment that Loftus conducted had participants view a car accident in which they were told to recall certain facts about what happened. Participants were asked one of two questions, either they were asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other or they were asked how fast they were going when they smashed into each other. The “hit” group estimated the speed being 34 miles per hour while the “smashed” group estimated that the cars were going about 41 miles per hour. The participants would even then recall seeing things at the scene that did not exist such as glass all over the road (there wasn’t).This is referred to as the misinformation effect.

This all suggest how inaccurate our memories can be when we try to remember specific events and how easily we can succumb to the mere suggestion of another individual with a bit of authority (e.g. parents). After all, we didn’t evolve to remember every detail of an event. It’s not very important to remember the color of the eyes of the lion that’s chasing after you or how many stripes a zebra has. It’s important to remember that big cats can kill you and zebras are a good source of sustenance.

So then, what happens if we take this understanding and throw it into criminal investigations? I present to you, the case of Michael Crowe:

Let’s be clear, these detectives were not merely suggesting that he had committed the murder of his sister, they went in already having decided that this 14 year old was guilty and they were determined to make him confess. They obviously succeeded. This was a much higher stakes event than what Loftus had done with her participants; one could rightfully argue that this could have an impact on false memories. The article at the top of the page brings into the discussion an experiment  that was conducted where participants were given a false story of them having committed a crime that led to police involvement. They modeled their experiment after Loftus’ work that was described above, in that they asked the parents to write about the participants past and then they threw in the false story. After a time, they were asked to remember events from their childhood and 70% of the participants (yes, 70%) remembered the false crime as if they had actually committed the crime. They didn’t just remember the event, they created elaborate stories about it.

This begs the question of how many innocent individuals have confessed to things that they have never done. In 2003, false confessions were the number one reason for wrongful convictions. Since 2000, there have been about 317 exonerations made by new DNA testing. About 30% of those (roughly 95 people) made false confessions and 18 of those were on death row.

Questioning suspects is a needed part of the criminal justice system. However, with what we have discussed, we can see how much we are susceptible to false memories.  Those doing the questioning must be trained to do so in a way that reduces the risk of false confessions because they have real and severe consequences.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk

The Truth about ECT

Picture if you will: an image of electroconvulsive (electroshock or shock treatment) therapy. For many people this image will involve an unwilling or drugged patient, strapped to a table (likely struggling) while a sadistic nurse administers dangerous shocks that result in dramatic screaming and thrashing. The result of this procedure usually leaves the patient in a worse state then they began in- for electroshock therapy is barbaric and obviously ineffective.

 

At least, that is the image Hollywood would like you to have, and one they have worked very hard on maintaining. Countless movies continue to present electroshock therapy as a treatment that is fundamentally abusive and ultimately useless. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Requiem for a Dream, and many others all present this portrayal. In Bollywood, the same is true- electroshock treatment are used a way to torture and hurt people. Unfortunately, it is one that is extraordinarily harmful and can create negative images and stigma towards a legitimate treatment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHPdtWvL3Mk

 

There are a whole host of inaccuracies in Hollywood’s portrayal of electroshock treatments. The most important one, however, is that ECT actually works. ECT does cause a seizure- electrodes are attached to the head, and a current is passed between them, one which alters brain chemistry and activity. The fact is, between when ECT was first developed (1938) and until the 1950’s the treatment was dangerous. Broken bones and convulsions were not uncommon.

 

However, many advances have been made in the past decades. A muscle relaxant and general anesthetic is administered prior to the electroshock treatment to minimize muscle response during the seizure. Patient’s vitals are closely and carefully monitored. ECT has shown to be effective at easing symptoms of severe depression, bipolar disorder, and catatonia.

 

This is not to say that the treatment is perfect. In some countries (including 14 Asian countries) ECT is administered without appropriate muscles relaxants or anesthesia. In some cases, ECT has been known to cause retrograde amnesia, with some patients experiencing memory loss of events prior to the treatment. Partially because of these valid concerns ECT is usually only administered when other methods have failed. And even then patients are not unwilling, informed consent is always given before the procedure, another fact Hollywood prefers to gloss over.

 

Unfortunately the incorrect version of ECT Hollywood has propagated has a real and dangerous effect…and not just on the general populace. One third of medical students shown Hollywood’s version of ECT held less favorable opinions of the treatment and stated they were less likely to advise it to potential patients. In a 2012 survey 74% of undergraduate psychology students believed ECT to be physically harmful, with as few as 1.2% supporting its use.

 

Hollywood seems to have a fascination with science via electricity beginning with Frankenstein (1931) where Victor Frankenstein breathes life into his monster with electrical devices. Hollywood favors easy drama over scientific facts. The secret long ignored by films is that ECT can be performed safely and humanely and can be effective at alleviating depression and many other disorders that have been unresponsive to other treatments.

Inattentional Blindness

As evidenced by my previous post, I have always been fascinated with the concept of blindness – all types, in fact. Since I discovered my love and interest in psychology, I have found myself to be more aware of examples of anything I learn in class or from the textbooks in everyday life, particularly examples of any kind of blindness. A couple of weeks back my friends and I got together for out weekly Tuesday dinners at Seacobeck. While one of my friends – Timmy – got up from the table to get more food, my prankster friend decided to steal his phone and stash it in my coat pocket. As a side note, my coat is black. When he came back, it took him about twenty minutes to realize his phone was gone. Once he reached that realization, he began quizzing us on where it was. I gave him three clues:

1) It’s in a deep, dark place where hidden objects often go.
2) It’s in a place of pitch blackness.
3) You’re looking right at it.
(He sat across the table from me.)

Regardless of these clues, Timmy simply could not figure out where his phone was, looking under the table, in the flag, in my black purse, and in my shoes. I was surprised that he missed the most obvious of places – my coat. I then began to wonder: “Is it simply because it’s so obvious, that he missed it?” This brought me back to our discussion of inattentional blindness, something I think Timmy perfectly demonstrated that night in Seacobeck.

An article in the Psychological Review refers to many incidents where people fail to notice stimuli appearing in front of their eyes when they are preoccupied with an attention-demanding task; the task Timmy in particular was preoccupied with was finding his missing cell phone. In this article, each study refers to incidents when people were so focused on one task, they missed another stimulus that may seem blatantly obvious to others. For example, there was an American naval submarine that slammed into a Japanese fishing vessel, killing nine crew members and students on board. When questioned, the crew in the sub all insisted that while quickly scanning the waters for enemies and other submarines, they had simply missed the fishing trawler. While this is a catastrophic example, one that certainly does not have a very clear correlation to Timmy’s search, it makes me think of how exactly he was searching for his cell phone. Instead of looking carefully and really thinking about the clues I gave him, he was scanning the area around where we were sitting very quickly, not lingering on any object. When thinking about this case of the submarine and traffic accidents where drivers missed seemingly obvious obstacles in their way, I am able to see how Timmy may have missed the obvious choice of my black coat.

Though Timmy admittingly does not have the best common sense in the world, I still don’t want to think that he simply did not even consider the fact that the phone in my pocket – in fact, the reason my friend hid the phone in my pocket was because she thought it would be the first place he would think of. As this article points out, there is a phenomenon within inattentional blindness, called implicit perception, that suggests that when people don’t consciously notice a stimuli, it still is encoded outside of their awareness, also determining their future behaviors. As Timmy did finally decide that I had it hidden somewhere in my coat (nearly half-an-hour later), this suggests that he had registered the existence of my coat in his consciousness, but didn’t access it until we practically gave away the location.

This experience of inattentional blindness in my everyday life was not only hilarious and slightly annoying, it further instilled in me an understanding of this concept, as well as a deeper understanding of the mind of my friend Timmy. I look forward to more times I can experience the concepts of cognitive psychology in real life!

Deep thinking about Artificial Intelligence in the movie “Her”

Recently, I’ve been recommending one of my friends to watch the movie “Her“. The movie “Her” is one of my favorite movies. This is due to two things: it can be interpreted in many different ways and also because the Artificial Intelligence (AI) fell in love with the main character, Theodore Twombly, which was very new and impactive idea to me. While thinking something interesting to post on the blog, I thought of some key words, such as brain, computer, memory, and intelligence.

There are a lot of AI movies; robot movies, which talk about the future world. At first, it started as pointing out people’s alienation as technology began to become increasingly highly-skilled. The imagination in these sub-genre of movies made the audience consider the possibilities of a world riddled with new technology and also the problems that followed as a result. However, our current world is already high-tech. Researchers and inventors are already making a lot of devices that were influenced from movies.

An article written by Vlad Sejnoha mentioned Deep Neural Networks (DNN) and the high accuracy of Samantha ( the invisible woman played AI role in the movie). A deep neural network (DNN) is an artificial neural network with multiple hidden layers of units between the input and output layers.  DNNs depend on ‘learning from examples’, the networks are classified with the labeled training exemplars and learn relationships between the input datas and the desired classification. Like most of you, I have not heard of DNNs as well. However, this concept is already into our thinking naturally. According to the article, DNN’s topology mimics brain structures and it is easy to understand AI by interpreting its DNN. In the movie, the AI Samantha seemed different than most computer in terms of her processing. While a computer is processed by a serial processing system, AI is processed by a parallel processing system just like our brain. AI combines symbolic processing and a machine learning system to help it adapt to unexpected situations. AI can multi-task, tasks like speech recognition, natural language understanding, speech generation, dialog, reasoning, planning, and can even learn new things. The following is an example of a neural network pattern shown in Samantha’s speech in the movie. “Sorry, nothing’s available until 9pm. Would you like another Italian restaurant in the area at about 6:30pm?” How can an AI suggest a restaurant and take into account the time, location, availability of the attendees and the type of restaurant? This is what neural network matching does; it learns the connections of each possible chance and the desired next step from trial and error. I am not going to talk about DNN deeply, but anyone who wants to learn more about it than speech recognition, can watch this easy youtube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2IebCN9Ht4

AI interactions with humans is not a new concept, but this movie is new in that it’s based on emotional intelligence. In the movie “The Island”, the main characters are clones but have emotions and have the self-actualization that their existences are not real. “The Island” was released in 2005, and the movie “Her” was released in 2013. It’s been 8 years and a lot of things have changed. This movie is based on the emotion Samantha feels. She also gets confused about her feelings of love, worry, happiness, sadness, just like a human. This journal provides a good debatable issue, “Is it necessary for Artificial Intelligence to have emotions like a human?” I think it is unnecessary for AI to have emotions but they can be systemized to speak a right sentence in right situation in order to make a human to feel an emotion to them. To bring it in the real world, a current AI could be without emotions but if it could make its human user experience a plethora of emotions could be a more sophisticated machine. If you have a similar or different opinion, I want you to share with me and other readers.

  To close the post, in the future, I hope nowadays’ technique could deal with unstructured information such as pre-structuring of information sources, reasoning for not only superficial, but also introspection. In addition, as the author of this journal said, we should consider AI as not just an Artificial Intelligence, but also an Amplification Intelligence.

  Lastly, this youtube video shows ten high-tech movies so if you are interested in other good hi-tech movies, watch this.

Source: http://www.wired.com/2014/02/can-build-samantha-tells-us-future-ai/, wikipedia, youtube, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798709/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Blindness

When reading the chapters in the textbook about vision and all the different ways we rely on vision to perform the simplest of tasks, one question struck me – What happens to all these functions when someone is blind? How does this affect the way the brain operates? When searching for articles or even mentions in social media concerning blindness, I was dismayed to find a lack of articles concerning congenital blindness or even any kind of physical blindness – every article I came across in most psychology websites had topics ranging from inattentional blindness, color blindness (both physical and theoretical), and so on. I am disappointed to see the apparent lack of interest in how individuals, born blind, operate in their daily lives as opposed to how sighted individuals do so. I would have thought there would be a greater interest. That being said, I was able to find a few articles that addressed the topic of the effect of blindness on the brain.

This article in Science Daily examines how blindness causes the brain to make basic structural changes, suggesting that blindness not stemming from brain damage can cause the brain to rearrange itself, much as it does for the deaf. Since vision proves to be what supplies the brain with the majority of its input in a normal sighted person, one must assume that this huge lack in sensory input leaves the brain wanting. Scientists from the UCLA Department of Neurology suggest that the lack of this one vital sense enhances others in its stead. When these researchers looked at the brains of the blind, they noticed that the regions in the brain used for visual input were physically smaller in volume than those of sighted individuals. In those areas of the brain that didn’t use visual input, the same researchers noticed a vast increase in volume. The brain itself didn’t reduce in size – rather, the lack of the expected volume in the visual areas prompted the other areas to compensate. This particular study exemplifies and further proves the amazing plasticity of the brain; for people blind since birth or since infancy, this plasticity is further evidenced, as it’s the period in which the brain is much more modifiable than in adulthood. One of the areas in the brain these particular researchers at UCLA’s Department of Neuro Imaging found to be enlarged in the brains of the blind proved to be the frontal lobes, which are involved with, among other things, working memory. This, as well as other areas in the brain they found to be abnormally enlarged, suggested a possible explanation for the perceived enhancements in the sensory abilities of the blind.

Previous studies have found that when walking down a corridor with windows, the blind are adept at detecting the windows’ presence because they can feel subtle changes in temperature and distinguish between the auditory echoes caused by walls and windows. This may call into mind for some the sensation of echolocation, a sensory tool used by bats to sense their prey. James Roberts, a man that went completely blind at age 25 and subsequently became one the greatest travelers the world has ever seen, championed the use of echolocation to teach blind children how to independently live their lives. He cited “seeing with sound” as what helped him develop a sense of his surroundings; many researchers have used the story of Roberts as a baseline to further examine the link blindness and heightened awareness in other senses. While an intriguing thought, a flaw was immediately found – one can use echolocation for sensing larger objects and for moving around in the environment, but when reaching for a fork or a pen, echolocation as a tool falls flat. Blind people are not bats.

I would remind you about the finding in the first article by the researchers at UCLA, regarding the plasticity of the brain at a young age. Neuroscientists at McGill University conducted this study, testing blind and sighted participants in their abilities to sense changes in pitch and their ability to locate sounds. What they found was unprecedented. While the blind participants generally scored higher in the tests than their sighted counterparts, as the neuroscientists expected, an unseen variable was revealed. They discovered that the ages of the participants affected their performance. Participants “born blind did best, those who became blind as small children were slightly behind, and those who lost their vision after age 10 did no better than the sighted subjects.” Using this data, it was assumed that young brains, when in the developmental stage, can be rewired as to use their visual-processing areas for other purposes. Additionally, blind subjects that scored well in the study “were engaging both the auditory and the visual areas of the cortex. Those who scored low, as well as sighted subjects, “had little or no activity in the visual lobe.” Similar results were produced in studies on odor discrimination and tactile sensation.

Though evidently not much research has been done on the subject of the effect of blindness on the construction and use of the brain, these studies show that in most cases, blindness can heighten other senses. The variable of when the subjects became blind seems to be the biggest stimuli to keep in mind while conducting these studies. The only consensus scientists seem to have come to is that blindness does indeed amplify certain senses, though the degree to which this occurs in certain control groups appears to still be heavily debated today. One can only hope that the blind can find comfort in the apparent discovery that they are bats. If it’s any consolation, echolocation can be used to do pretty cool stuff, as evidenced by the blind Earthbender Toph Beifong:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukr5c07gaUI

I hope that there are more studies done on this topic, as I would like to see a more comprehensive theory behind the changes in the brains of the blind.

The Mozart Effect

It is likely safe to assume that at one point or another, you have heard someone say something along the lines of “having your child listen to classical music will make them smarter.” Dubbed the “Mozart Effect,” the theory goes that children who are exposed to classical music at an early age will perform better than their peers on tests of cognition and intelligence. So prevalent is popular culture’s belief in this phenomenon that several states, including Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee set aside funding to ensure that all newborns and families with young children have access to classical music. Entire product lines toting CD’s and books that expose young children to the music of Mozart and other popular classical musicians have even been created and successfully sold across the country, and although the myth has now been debunked, article after article has been written praising the supposed cognitive benefits for children and many still accept the claims as absolute truth.

While the idea that listening to classical music increases intelligence may seem believable at first glance, there is no scientific evidence to support it. The acceptance of the myth in popular culture can be traced back to a study conducted at the University of California in 1993 that concluded students who were exposed to ten minutes of classical music prior to completing a spatial task performed better than students who listened to nothing before completing the same task. One look at the original article makes it obvious that the reported findings do not in any way support the claims that millions have made regarding this phenomenon and is an interesting example of how scientific findings are often misrepresented in media in order to make for a more interesting article.

To start, the original study recruited 36 college aged participants, not young children, to participate in their study. The students were asked to complete mental tasks on three separate occasions. Each time, they were either primed with ten minutes of silence, ten minutes of a relaxation tape, or ten minutes of Mozart. Of the tasks completed, those students who were primed with Mozart performed better overall on a task of spatial manipulation. The effect, however, was only found to last about 15 minutes. The paper did not once reference the term “The Mozart Effect” nor did it claim that classical music increased overall intelligence. Follow up research done exclusively on children also failed to yield any results that would suggest a lasting and significant impact of classical music on intelligence.

I found this topic really interesting primarily because such a widespread and popular belief was spread on such a shaky foundation. Anyone who bothered to look at the original research could have seen that the claims were unfounded, yet people chose to report the version of the findings they felt were most interesting and profitable. It’s obvious that a large group of people went on, and likely still are, to make enormous profits selling the public on an unsupported “quick fix” to making their children smarter, in turn perpetuating and spreading unsubstantiated myths regarding the nature of cognition and intelligence.

Sample Post

Pacific Standard

Here is a very interesting article by Tom Jacobs in Pacific Standard magazine about how we make logical arguments about real life ideas based on facts.  He quotes research from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showing that contradictory evidence causes us to change evidence sources, not our minds.

This reminds me of work I read long ago by Nisbett and Ross about belief perseverance in the face of contradictory evidence.  What I remember from that research is that contradictory evidence wasn’t as helpful as we would hope in changing opinions.  In fact, the stronger an opinion, the more likely that evidence would be used to make it even stronger.

In the end, this gives me little hope for our ability to improve our society through reasoned discourse.  I think we’re in big trouble unless we, as a society, can find common ground despite our differing beliefs since it’s very hard to change encrusted beliefs.

note that this is a much shorter version of what is expected, but it gives an idea of what we’re doing