Tag Archives: Brain

Amazing Memories and the Potential Future of Memory Research.


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:

The Psychology Behind Mindfulness


You know those nights when you’re lying in bed (for what feels like forever!) and you just cannot fall asleep? All the thoughts about the day and whatever else might be popping into your head are swimming through your mind and keeping you awake…

It turns out mindfulness has been found to help people quiet those thoughts that keep them awake. The practice of mindfulness has been studied for use in treating all kinds of maladies, such as depression and stress as well as for use with patients suffering from physical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, or HIV. This article asserts that it has also been found beneficial in helping with weight loss and maintaining an exercise program. The article also notes the technique’s usefulness in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. So, the question is, why? And how?

Mindfulness relies on the ability to focus attention on your awareness of the current moment. You allow yourself to be aware of any and all thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may have in order to process them without evaluating them critically. In essence, it relies on the ability to focus attention and maintain enough concentration so that you can seize control of thoughts that enter your awareness (which obviously takes a lot of practice). The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will prime the neural networks required for the process of identifying and acknowledging thoughts without criticizing them. Given all this, it makes sense that the technique might be effective in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. By shifting the focus of your attention and being more aware of the current moment (instead of whatever thoughts are keeping you awake), you may be able to better control your emotional responses to your thoughts.

The trick to mindfulness is the promotion of increased awareness of thoughts in order to promote better control over emotional responses to them. This is why mindfulness has been used as a treatment for anxiety disorders as well. The ruminative thinking that keeps us awake at night is a major cause of insomnia and also present in many anxiety disorders. The idea is that the ability to acknowledge thoughts in a different way, without driving yourself crazy over them, will ease anxiety (which is caused by this type of thinking). In order to do this, mindfulness encourages a sort of selective attention in which you focus your attention on something such as breathing, instead of rumination.

Okay, that explains why mindfulness is effective. But what types of strategies do people use?

Breathing is only one of many techniques you can use in order to focus your attention and be more aware of what is currently happening. (This short video explains how to do a common breathing exercise called the “4-7-8 Breath.”) Meditation is the technique that is perhaps the most talked about. Movement exercises can also be helpful.

In fact, mindfulness has been shown to have an impact on the functioning of the brain in general. For example, This article says that people who meditate show superior performance on tasks associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which deals with tasks related to self-regulation, the ability to direct attention, behavior and suppress immediate responses, and the ability to alternate strategies quickly. These skills are all necessary to exercise mindfulness and you would develop them the more you practice the technique.

In addition, when practiced regularly, mindfulness also leads to a weakening in the “functional connectivity” between the amygdala and the rest of the brain and a strengthening in the “functional connectivity” among areas associated with attention and concentration. So, “mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness, says.

So, next time your thoughts keep you awake, maybe consider being more mindful about what you are thinking. Like every other skill, it may take some practice before you start reaping the rewards from practicing mindfulness, but who knows what will happen once you’re able to focus your attention more effectively.

What do you think? Do you practice mindfulness or think it could be useful?


Art of Ventriloquism

Jeff Dunham, do you know him? Doesn’t sound familiar? He sells out pretty much every arena he’s ever performed in; racked in $38,000,000 dollars on ticket sales alone in one year. No, he’s not a musician…He’s a ventriloquist; a person who is able to “throw his voice” so that it sounds like it’s coming from somewhere else, specifically from a dummy. Sounds simple enough, right? At least, in terms of what he does. But what’s really happening during a ventriloquist act is not just the normal ways of communication in every day life. One could say that, for people like Dunham, there’s a whole different type of speech generation involved with the language of a ventriloquist.

In a broad sense, there are three important components of speech that every human uses, no matter what their profession: respiration, phonation, and articulation. Respiration comes from our lungs by increasing their capacity. This decreases the air pressure, which causes us to breathe in. Phonation is when the energy produced from the air flow becomes audible. This is due to the different forms of cartilage in the larynx that rotate to cause vocal folds. Lastly, articulation occurs when vocal tracts near the larynx change in shape by making movement of the lips, tongue, or jaw.


Different Structures of the Vocal Tract 

So what’s unique to a ventriloquist? In class we discussed how we (as americans) tend to think that people speaking another language are talking really fast, despite English being one of the fastest languages spoken. This is because we don’t perceive there to be any gaps between their words. Although there aren’t any gaps in English either, we still feel like we hear the gaps due to knowing the speech segmentation of the English language, which allows us to decide where words and sounds begin and end. When watching a ventriloquist perform, a similar thing happens.

Similar to how we feel listening to someone speak in a different language!

Similar to how we feel listening to someone speak in a different language!

Since the ventriloquists’ illusion depends on their audience being fully drawn to the “voice” of the puppet, they must make sure to keep their mouths as still as possible. As we know, though, there are just certain letters that require the use of our lips. The trick is, ventriloquists create substitutions for letters “b”, “f”, “m”, “p”, “q”, “v”, and “w”. For instance, the letter “b” is substituted with the sound “geh”. This sound substitution is done quickly, which causes our brain and ears to automatically fill in the missing letter; the same way our brain and ears create gaps between words and sounds. A better example that was also discussed in class, is when someone coughs while the teacher is lecturing. The cough blocks out the sound of a particular letter in a word, but our brains are able to fill that letter in so that we think we heard it being pronounced.

We find people like Jeff Dunham to have entertaining talents, but now we know there’s a lot more to it than them keeping their mouths still. Knowing this now, it’d be interesting to watch a performance and focus on the ventriloquist to see if the substitutions can be recognized. I wonder if it would be harder to tell they aren’t saying the actual letters if the ventriloquist had a normal conversation where he/she used the substitutions, but allowed their mouths to move? Even if we can establish the substitutions, I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard at all to make our minds switch back to the illusion that continues to entertain us.

How Powerful are Placebo Effects?


Let’s say that you were diagnosed with social anxiety. Your psychiatrist prescribes you some pills that you can take right before or during social situations in order to reduce the negative effects that anxiety brings to you. It’s your go-to magic pill that does wonders in those dreadful situations where you have to be around numerous people. Every single time you have to meet up with extended family, or work in a group project, and god forbid- speak in front of the whole class for a presentation—your pills never fail to make you feel a little bit better.

What if those pills were nothing more than sugar pills? Sugar pills that have no chemical and active ingredients that are supposedly there to decrease your social anxiety symptoms. It’s simply an “empty” pill to get you to believe that by taking it, it would make you feel better. However, in reality, it does absolutely nothing to you physically. You realize it’s all in your head. Would you react positively or be completely furious? No matter your reaction, one thing could not be denied- the fact that placebo effects are powerful.

In an article I came across on the Psychology Today website, it highlights a study done by researchers Baba Shiv, Ziv Carmon, and Dan Ariely to see how placebo effects are manipulated depending on people’s knowledge about it. In their study, which was done in 2005, they used an energy drink that they either told people enhances mental ability largely or enhances it just slightly. The participants were then asked to unscramble a number of words given to them by the researchers. After the task, the participants were then asked to rate the effectiveness of the drink on their completion of the given cognitive task. The results? They found that the more people believed in the effectiveness of the drink, the more likely they were to unscramble more words.

This study supports the idea that placebo effects are extremely influential and affects us more than we think. This article leads me to think of a crazy yet logical theory– What if doctors alongside with pharmaceutical companies are merely prescribing and distributing sugar pills to make more profit? Maybe it’s actually just us, the consumers, who believe that taking those pills will make us feel better when it’s really all in our heads. Mind blowing? I sure believe so.

Although, sure enough, this is not true with every pill that people all over the world take. Majority, if not all, of the pills that are prescribed to the human population really do have a chemical effect on our bodies. But with this phenomenon of the placebo effect- I sure can’t help but wonder- what if?



Can Virtual Realities Help Eliminate Racism?


Has there ever been a time when you looked at someone differently because of their race? It is probably something we are all guilty of. Even though a large portion of us mean no harm, there are people that judge other purely based on race, and are very judgmental and hurtful when doing so. What if all of that could be eliminated? This world may be a much better place to live in.

In an article from Pacific Standard researchers decided to use virtual realities to try and reduce racial bias in people. This was all done by a research team led by Mel Slater and Tabitha Peck. They recruited 60 female college students, all light-skinned. The participants were asked to take the Implicit Association Test. This was done to bring to light any unconscious racial prejudice. The participants were then asked to leave the lab. Upon their return to the lab they entered their virtual realities. They did this by wearing a suit with sensors. In the virtual realities the participants would look into a mirror, and the reflection would show the participant as dark skinned, light skinned, or purple skinned. The research found that only participants made dark-skinned had a significant decrease in implicit racial bias. This particular study was also published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

A similar study was done, and the findings were very similar as well. This study was titled Experiencing ownership over a dark-skinned body reduces implicit racial bias. It can be found in Science Direct. This study argues that a certain areas of the brain activate when we see someone else’s bodily state, like their skin color. When we have the same body state as someone else the regions in the brain tend not to activate. The study calls these multiple reacting regions in the brain “mirror neuron systems”. The study also explains a recent EEG study on the subject. The EEG study found that participants observing action of someone not in their racial group would have low activation in the motor cortex. When the participant observed someone in their racial group performing some sort of action the same participants have activation in the motor cortex. These variations are also true not only when a participants just sees a person of a different race, but there are also differences if they see the other person in pain. Another study has been done showing that when a person sees someone of the same race in pain they have brain reactions as if they were experiencing pain themselves. If the person sees someone of a different race they tend to have no brain reaction.

These studies believe they can give us a very uncommon first-person account of others experiences, and how we truly see others that have different outside appearances. This is something that is not usually done. If we can somehow see what others see and why they react a certain way, we can maybe change that person negative reaction or make them aware they are even reacting in such a way.



Yoga and the Brain

I have always been a huge fan of yoga ever since I can remember. However, I fell more in love with it when I came to college and was immediately bombarded by stress and endless nights with no sleep. After three years of constant deadlines, never-ending readings, papers, back to back exams, and extracurricular activities- yoga became my comfort.

Every time I step into the yoga studio I practice at, I found that I was able to leave all the stress and worry at the door (something that is extremely difficult to do) and just allowed myself to be filled with silence, calmness, and peace that I was not able to find anywhere else. There has not been one day that I have left that studio without feeling at least a little bit better and recharged.

There has been numerous research done that supports yoga in decreasing stress. You’ve probably heard and read about it before. Yes, it helps lowers blood pressure. Yes, it helps increase flexibility. Yes, it helps improve muscle tone. However, does it do any good for the brain?

A research study done in Harvard which was published in the Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging claims that meditation actually changes the structure of our brains.

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar mentioned that this study demonstrates the idea that people who practice meditation are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing but because changes in brain structure are actually occurring.

In this study, the brains of 16 participants who took part in an 8-week “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program” at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness were measured by taking magnetic resonance images of their brains two weeks before they took part in the meditation program and again two weeks after they have completed the program.

After analyzing the images of the brains, Lazar and her research team found that there was actually an increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus of the brain, which is known to be correlated to learning and memory. Along with this, they found a decrease in grey matter density in the amygdala of the brain, which is known to be correlated to stress and anxiety, or the “fight or flight” part of the brain.

This TED talk by Sara Lazar herself highlights her experiences with yoga and meditation and talks about the study she did at Harvard:

After reading about and researching more about yoga and meditation, I have come to one conclusion: “I am not about to stop practicing yoga for a very long time.”

The practice of yoga and meditation has numerous benefits and now, with further research, we have found that it actually changes the structure of our brains for the better.

So the next time you have that huge test/paper coming up, take just 20 minutes, turn the lights off, and meditate. Guaranteed, you will feel better rested and more likely to be productive with your work.


False Memory

The criminal justice system relies on eyewitness testimonies and that is something that is considered to be a concrete piece of evidence during a trial and has been known to help put people in jail, but what if what the witnesses are remembering is not actually what happened.

According to Roediger, a false memory is when you “remember events that never actually happened, or remembering them quite different than the way they actually happened.” This subject has caught the attention of many psychologists because these things have a large effect on our everyday lives and can even effect the lives of others. 

In Roediger’s study, Creating False Memories: Remembering Words Not Presented In Lists (1995), he looked at this topic of false memory and he tested it by using a word recognition task. He compiled lists of a lot of words and after the subject had a chance to look at them then he would ask them to see if any of the next set of words were in the previous list. The first list he produced would have a bunch of words related around a similar concept, such as sofa or sweet, then he would place words similar to that concept in the second set of lists. The participants were very confident with the words they picked and that they were in the first list.

What creates a false memory then. How do we think that something happened to us but it really didn’t, or it didn’t happen they way we thought it did. Another researcher that has been studying this field of psychology is Elizabeth Loftus, and she has been studying the creation of false memory through the power of suggestion and that after time passes, the memory that they created gets stronger and more vivid. Our memories naturally begin to change as time goes on as well as we incorporate new information about the words and have new experiences.

In the case of the criminal justice system, people are sent to jail based on eyewitness testimony, and annually too many people are found out to have been misidentified as the culprit after physical evidence turns up, however, the eyewitnesses are convinced that they have identified the right people.

Texas was the first state to pass legislation to try and stop this problem of faulty convictions. They are having the police department use techniques that have been proven to have better results and that researchers have developed to be a better way.

False memory happens to everybody and most of the time it is harmless and doesn’t effect anybody, however, it can also have serious consequences and can change somebody’s life. If you hear a story over and over again, it can eventually make its way into your brain and you can think that it happened to you. Of if you see faces in a photo array in a police station and all of the faces have similar features then you have a higher probability of picking the wrong one. More scientists have been focusing on this are of psychology and hopefully there will be ways in which we are able to limit the amount of wrongful convictions by using better techniques.

Fantasizing About Success? Good luck…

Recent studies show that fantasizing about success, while it is widely suggested by parents around the world to set your goals high, is not always as heart warming as you may expect… It turns out, dreaming of your own success can actually be extremely detrimental to success.

While having a positive outlook as well as positive goals is a good thing, the over fantasizing of your hopes and dreams can impact you negatively in several ways.  Having these fantasies can prevent us from reaching our goals by causing us to fail to realize the potential problems that may arise, as well as keeping us in a state where we are already expecting to reach our goals, and thus reducing our overall drive, being that we don’t believe we will have to put forth as much effort as we do in reality.  We instinctively want our success to be recognized in the here and now, but this hurts the chances of actually being successful by causing us to neglect what is needed to work up to the expectations of our fantasies.

Girl dreaming about successful investment (euro's banknotes)

According to studies based on rates success in the categories of finding a partner, withstanding surgery, and finding jobs, those who spend more time dreaming of their success tend to do much worse.  In finding jobs, results have indicated that those who dream often of impending success had applied to fewer jobs, had fewer job offers, and had lower salaries if they did find a job.

In losing weight, the study by Gabriele Oettingen (http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/your-positive-thinking-could-be-holding-you-back.html) has found that women who hold a high likelihood or expectations of loosing weight found that they did in fact lose a considerable amount of weight.  On the other hand, the women that pictured themselves passing up food and held strong fantasies of losing weight actually tended to lose much less weight than women that saw themselves in a more negative light.  This shows that when the dreams are vivid and longed for, people may become less motivated to actually put forth the effort to successfully strive for their goals.  Oettingen went on to perform many more studies including how grades, degrees from vocational schools, and recovering from cancer, are all related to dreams and fantasies, showing many of the same results.

This research is not to say that positive thinking and goal setting is always negatively impacting your success.  However, despite some popular belief, it can be detrimental to the goal setter, when the intensifying of the thoughts of your future success becomes typical, it has been seen to lead to negative results in many aspects such as discomfort after surgery, an inability to find a job after college, or the long-lived search for a soul mate.

To prevent the over fantasizing that can so easily occur, researchers suggest that we must enjoy the daily progress and focus on the reality of the here and now, and begin to set realistic checkpoints, or day-by-day goals to keep your future in check.dream-big

This topic brings up a very interesting point, being that most of us have been told “be whatever you want to be” and that “the sky is the limit.”  The twist of reality is that goals along the way must be set to reach these limitless opportunities, but the goals don’t include picturing yourself in a stress-free, idealistic light that is the fantasization of your future.  The american dream of being whatever you want to be, and living the life you want to live may be rubbing off on the new generation in a negatively impacted way, making for a over exaggerated essence goal setting and sending your expectations for the future potentially skyrocketing, leading to a tint of blissful ignorance that can sometimes be unintentionally, but nonetheless,  creating as a lens, blinding us from the reality of the hard work and dedication needed to reach the goals, causing us to ignore all negatives and focus primarily on the positive possible outcomes.


Technology and Cognition: Helpful or Harmful?


Personal Technology in Class

The availability and practicality of technology has increased drastically in the last few decades alone. As the development of personal devices has progressed, and social media has increased in popularity, young people are increasingly sucked into a virtual world. This begs the question, is technology hampering or helping us? Especially in a class setting, is it problematic that students are continually “plugged into” their devices and networks? Is it distracting them or providing new and unique ways for them to connect with information?

An article in the student newspaper of Texas Tech connected with students and professors to assess their opinions regarding technology and learning. There are two basic positions. First, the article discusses the negative aspects of technology in class. Several students say that having their phones available to them in study time is detrimental to their attention and efficiency. Not only do students misjudge their own ability to multitask, but they also find themselves going to their phones for distraction when they’re bored in class, or between ideas in an essay. Secondarily, the article discusses the way that personal technology can be helpful to learning. It can provide helpful study tools, such as providing music (although studies looking at music and studying have mixed results, music can often increase positive mood while studying). More significantly, it connects students with a vast pool of information. With just a few taps, students have a world of data and research at their fingertips. Overall, the article doesn’t pass judgement on technology in the classroom, but simply interviews and presents various opinions.

The cognitive ideas behind this article include the idea of parallel processing vs. serial processing. We know that the human mind is capable of doing multiple things at once on a neural level. However, this does not mean that we are good at multitasking. Research has shown that it is very difficult for us to focus consciously on multiple things at once. A specific study cites how those individuals who were heavy media multitaskers (those who use more than one type of media at once were not actually able to multitask on cognitive tasks. Another issue with technology in the classroom addressed in this article is it’s effect on how we relate to others. This study discusses the social distancing that occurs when individuals make excessive use of the internet. Could this have something to do with the lack of involvement that occurs with technology-addicted students? Students who are already prone to social anxiety or shyness seem more likely to be addicted to the Internet. Perhaps these students are the ones that “hide” in their technology instead of participating in class discussions.

Adaptive Communication Technology in the Classroom

Adaptive Communication Technology in the Classroom

While I think that this article prompts interesting discussions, I was concerned that the article didn’t bring up several important aspects of technology in the classroom. First, it did not discuss the use of technology for adaptation and accessibility in communication. How we communicate is certainly an important aspect of cognitive psychology. My younger brother has autism and Down syndrome, and he has made progress in his communication since he began using iPads, Smartboards, and other adaptive technology. The use of images and switches and recorded voice to assist him in communicating in class has been incredibly helpful. Second, the article doesn’t mention the use of technology as a memory aide. I have known many students who use flashcard apps to practice memorization. These apps quiz you on information and cycle through the ones you struggle with. It would be interesting to look into the effectiveness of technology such as this, and how students feel about it.

What do you you all think? Does having access to technology help or harm your cognitive functions in class?

Left Brain / Right Brain

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 9.50.55 AM

For my January blog post, I took to Twitter to see what the “Twitterverse” had to say about Cognitive Psychology. From there I found an article called “Left Brain vs. Right Brain: The Surprising Truth” (http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/a/left-brain-right-brain.htm). I picked this article because I remember being in high school psychology and taking little tests and questionnaires to see if I was either Left Brained or Right Brained. Later on in college psychology classes Left Brain/Right Brain was mentioned again. Not until this semester in Dr. Rettinger’s Cognitive Psychology class, I was told the whole theory of Left Brain/Right Brain was completely inaccurate.

From the article I found, it states that the Right Brain-Left Brain theory is only just a myth. It is now believed that brain function is not just in one hemisphere or the other, it is the whole brain functioning and working together. Prior theory of Left Brain or Right Brain dominance said, if you were Left Brained you were more logical, analytical and objective or if you were Right Brained were more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. It is true that certain areas of the brain control certain functions for example language occurs on the left, and attention on the right side. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that people have a stronger left-side or right-side brain network.

During my research, I googled left brain/right brain tests and it directed me to this website, http://testyourself.psychtests.com/bin/transfer. After taking the test I received got a score of 50. According to the website “Both your right and left hemisphere seem to have reached a level of perfect harmony – rather than trying to dominant each other, they work together to create a unique and well-balanced “you”. I had the previous theory in my mind of receiving a Left or Right brain result but in reality my results were correct in that the whole brain works and functions together.