Category Archives: brain

Remembering Stuff

Are you able to remember stuff pretty well?  If you learned that stuff quickly, you have a very good chance of retaining it.  Even if you spent less time studying it than you might have.

These conclusions arise from a new study by psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis.   According to its lead author, Christopher L. Zerr, “Quicker learning appears to be more durable learning.”

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, tried a different way to gauge differences in how quickly and well people learn and retain information.  Using word-pairs that paired English with a difficult-to-learn language, Lithuanian, the researchers created a “learning-efficiency score” for each participant.

“In each case, initial learning speed proved to be a strong predictor of long-term retention,” said senior author Kathleen B. McDermott, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

46 of the participants returned for a follow-up study three years later.  The results confirmed the earlier study’s results.

What explains this outcome?  The researchers suggest two possibilities.

First, individuals may differ because those with better attention-control can be more effective while learning material, thus avoiding distraction and forgetting.  Another explanation:  efficient learners use more effective learning strategies, like using a key word to relate two words in a pair.

The researchers don’t think their job is done.  Instead, they’d like to see future research on learning efficiency that would have an impact in educational and clinical settings.

The goal is to be able to teach students how to be efficient learners, and to forestall the effects of disease, aging, and neuropsychological disorders on learning and retention.

Conclusion:  If you’ve always been a quick learner, that’s probably stood you in good stead, enabling you to remember stuff you learned quickly in the first place.

 

[This blog post is not the one I originally intended to write this month, when I planned to focus on how important it is to vote in the midterm elections in November.  Publishing my new novel, RED DIANA, this month has kept me from writing that post, but I hope to publish it at some point.  It would be something of a reprise of a post I published in September 2014, “What Women Need to Do.”]

Who the Heck Knows?

I have a new catch phrase:  “Who the heck knows?”

I started using it last fall, and ever since then I’ve found that it applies to almost everything that might arise in the future.

I don’t claim originality, but here’s how I came up with it:

At a class reunion in October, I was asked to be part of a panel of law school classmates who had veered off the usual lawyer-track and now worked in a totally different area.

Specifically, I was asked to address a simple question:  Why did I leave my work as a lawyer/law professor and decide to focus primarily on writing?

First, I explained that I’d always loved writing, continued to write even while I worked as a lawyer, and left my law-related jobs when they no longer seemed meaningful.  I added that my move to San Francisco led to launching my blog and publishing my first two novels.

I concluded:

“If I stay healthy and my brain keeps functioning, I want to continue to write, with an increasing focus on memoirs….  I’ll keep putting a lot of this kind of stuff on my blog.  And maybe it will turn into a book or books someday.

“Who the heck knows?”

 

After I said all that, I realized that my final sentence was the perfect way to respond to almost any question about the future.

Here’s why it seems to me to apply to almost everything:

None of us knows what the next day will bring.  Still, we think about it.

In “Men Explain Things to Me,” the author Rebecca Solnit notes “that we don’t know what will happen next, and the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”  She finds uncertainty hopeful, while viewing despair as “a form of certainty,” certainty that that “the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it.”

Let’s cast certainty aside and agree, with Solnit, that uncertainty is hopeful.  Let’s go on to question what might happen in the uncertain future.

For example:

We wonder whether the midterm elections will change anything.

We wonder whether our kids will choose to follow our career choices or do something totally different.

We wonder whether our family history of a deadly disease will lead to having it ourselves.

We wonder whether to plan a trip to Peru.

We wonder whether we’re saving enough money for retirement.

We wonder how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in an upcoming case.

We wonder what our hair will look like ten years from now.

We wonder what the weather will be like next week.

And we wonder what the current occupant of the White House will say or do regarding just about anything.

 

You may have an answer in mind, one that’s based on reason or knowledge or probability.   But if you’re uncertain…in almost every case, the best response is:  Who the heck knows?

If you’re stating this response to others, I suggest using “heck” instead of a word that might offend anyone.  It also lends a less serious tone to all of the unknowns out there, some of which are undoubtedly scary.

If you prefer to use a more serious tone, you can of course phrase things differently.

But I think I’ll stick with “Who the heck knows?”

Warning:  If you spend any time with me, you’ll probably hear me say it, again and again.

But then, who the heck knows?

Of Mice and Chocolate (with apologies to John Steinbeck)

Have you ever struggled with your weight?  If you have, here’s another question:  How’s your sense of smell?

Get ready for some startling news.  A study by researchers at UC Berkeley recently found that one’s sense of smell can influence an important decision by the brain:  whether to burn fat or to store it.

In other words, just smelling food could cause you to gain weight.

But hold on.  The researchers didn’t study humans.  They studied mice.

The researchers, Andrew Dillin and Celine Riera, studied three groups of mice.  They categorized the mice as “normal” mice, “super-smellers,” and those without any sense of smell.  Dillin and Riera found a direct correlation between the ability to smell and how much weight the mice gained from a high-fat diet.

Each mouse ate the same amount of food, but the super-smellers gained the most weight.

The normal mice gained some weight, too.  But the mice who couldn’t smell anything gained very little.

The study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism in July 2017 was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.  It concluded that outside influences, like smell, can affect the brain’s functions that relate to appetite and metabolism.

According to the researchers, extrapolating their results to humans is possible.  People who are obese could have their sense of smell wiped out or temporarily reduced to help them control cravings and burn calories and fat faster.  But Dillin and Riera warned about risks.

People who lose their sense of smell “can get depressed” because they lose the pleasure of eating, Riera said.  Even the mice who lost their sense of smell had a stress response that could lead to a heart attack.  So eliminating a human’s sense of smell would be a radical step, said Dillin.  But for those who are considering surgery to deal with obesity, it might be an option.

Here comes another mighty mouse study to save the day.  Maybe it offers an even better way to deal with being overweight.

This study, published in the journal Cell Reports in September 2017, also focused on creating more effective treatments for obesity and diabetes.  A team of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found a way to convert bad white fact into good brown fat—in mice.

Researcher Irfan J. Lodhi noted that by targeting a protein in white fat, we can convert bad fat into a type of fat (beige fat) that fights obesity.  Beige fat (yes, beige fat) was discovered in adult humans in 2015.  It functions more like brown fat, which burns calories, and can therefore protect against obesity.

When Lodhi’s team blocked a protein called PexRAP, the mice were able to convert white fat into beige fat.  If this protein could be blocked safely in white fat cells in humans, people might have an easier time losing weight.

Just when we learned about these new efforts to fight obesity, the high-fat world came out with some news of its own.  A Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, unveiled a new kind of chocolate it calls “ruby chocolate.”  The company said its new product offers “a totally new taste experience…a tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness.”

The “ruby bean,” grown in countries like Ecuador, Brazil, and Ivory Coast, apparently comes from the same species of cacao plant found in other chocolates.  But the Swiss company claims that ruby chocolate has a special mix of compounds that lend it a distinctive pink hue and fruity taste.

A company officer told The New York Times that “hedonistic indulgence” is a consumer need and that ruby chocolate addresses that need, more than any other kind of chocolate, because it’s so flavorful and exciting.

So let’s sum up:  Medical researchers are exploring whether the scent of chocolate or any other high-fat food might cause weight-gain (at least for those of us who are “super-smellers”), and whether high-fat food like chocolate could possibly lead to white fat cells “going beige.”

In light of these efforts by medical researchers, shouldn’t we ask ourselves this question:  Do we really need another kind of chocolate?

Random Thoughts

On truthfulness

Does it bother you when someone lies to you?  It bothers me.  And I just learned astonishing new information about people who repeatedly tell lies.

According to British neuroscientists, brain scans of the amygdala—the area in the brain that responds to unpleasant emotional experiences—show that the brain becomes desensitized with each successive lie.

In other words, the more someone lies, the less that person’s brain reacts to it.  And the easier it is for him or her to lie the next time.

These researchers concluded that “little white lies,” usually considered harmless, really aren’t harmless at all because they can lead to big fat falsehoods.  “What begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

This study seems terribly relevant right now.  Our political leaders (one in particular, along with some of his cohorts) have often been caught telling lies.   When these leaders set out on a course of telling lies, watch out.  They’re likely to keep doing it.  And it doesn’t bother them a bit.

Let’s hope our free press remains truly free, ferrets out the lies that impact our lives, and points them out to the rest of us whenever they can.

[This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and noted in the January-February 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.]

 

On language

When did “waiting for” become “waiting on”?

Am I the only English-speaking person who still says “waiting for”?

I’ve been speaking English my entire life, and the phrase “waiting on” has always meant what waiters or waitresses did.  Likewise, salesclerks in a store.  They “waited on” you.

“Waiting for” was an entirely different act.   In a restaurant, you—the patron—decide to order something from the menu.  Then you begin “waiting for” it to arrive.

Similarly:  Even though you’re ready to go somewhere, don’t you sometimes have to “wait for” someone before you can leave?

Here are three titles you may have come across.  First, did you ever hear of the 1935 Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty”?  (Although it isn’t performed a lot these days, it recently appeared on stage in the Bay Area.)  In Odets’s play, a group of cabdrivers “wait for” someone named Lefty to arrive.  While they wait for him, they debate whether they should go on strike.

Even better known, Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is still alive and well and being performed almost everywhere.  [You can read a little bit about this play—and the two pronunciations of “Godot”—in my blog post, “Crawling through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland,” published in April 2016.]  The lead characters in the play are forever waiting for “Godot,” usually acknowledged as a substitute for “God,” who never shows up.

A more recent example is the 1997 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”  The cast of a small-town theater group anxiously waits for a Broadway producer named Guffman to appear, hoping that he’ll like their show.  Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the film, were pretty clearly referring to “Waiting for Godot” when they wrote it.

Can anyone imagine replacing Waiting for” in these titles with “Waiting on”?

C’mon!

Yet everywhere I go, I constantly hear people say that they’re “waiting on” a friend to show up or “waiting on” something to happen.

This usage has even pervaded Harvard Magazine.  In a recent issue, an article penned by an undergraduate included this language:  “[T]hey aren’t waiting on the dean…to make the changes they want to see.”

Hey, undergrad, I’m not breathlessly waiting for your next piece of writing!  Why?  Because you should have said “waiting for”!

Like many of the changes in English usage I’ve witnessed in recent years, this one sounds very wrong to me.

 

Have you heard this one?

Thanks to scholars at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School, I’ve just learned that workers who tell jokes—even bad ones—can boost their chances of being viewed by their co-workers as more confident and more competent.

Joking is a form of humor, and humor is often seen as a sign of intelligence and a good way to get ideas across to others.  But delivering a joke well also demands sensitivity and some regard for the listeners’ emotions.

The researchers, who ran experiments involving 2,300 participants, were trying to gauge responses to joke-tellers. They specifically wanted to assess the impact of joking on an individual’s status at work.

In one example, participants had to rate individuals who explained a service that removed pet waste from customers’ yards.  This example seems ripe for joke-telling, and sure enough, someone made a joke about it.

Result?  The person who told the joke was rated as more competent and higher in status than those who didn’t.

In another example, job-seekers were asked to suggest a creative use for an old tire.  One of them joked, “Someone doing CrossFit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.”  This participant was rated higher in status than two others, who either made an inappropriate joke about a condom or made a serious suggestion (“Make a tire swing out of it.”).

So jokes work—but only if they’re appropriate.

Even jokes that fell flat led participants to rate a joke-teller as highly confident.  But inappropriate or insensitive jokes don’t do a joke-teller any favors because they can have a negative impact.

Common sense tells me that the results of this study also apply in a social setting.  Telling jokes to your friends is almost always a good way to enhance your relationship—as long as you avoid offensive and insensitive jokes.

The take-away:  If you can tell an appropriate joke to your colleagues and friends, they’re likely to see you as confident and competent.

So next time you need to explain something to others, in your workplace or in any another setting, try getting out one of those dusty old joke books and start searching for just the right joke.

[This study, reported in The Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2017, and revisited in the same publication a week later, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]

Curl Up With a Good Book

If you have a penchant for reading fiction, guess what. You may have better social skills as a result.

A recent Harvard study asked 26 young people to undergo MRI brain scans while reading brief excerpts from novels, magazines, and other sources. The study found that reading fictional excerpts about people heightened activity in a brain system called the default network.

The study suggested that those who read a lot of fiction turn out to have stronger social skills than non-readers or people who read nonfiction. Why? Well, according to the researchers, reading fiction can improve social skills (also called social cognition) because a reader’s attention is drawn into other people’s mental states.

When the study’s participants read passages about people, there was significantly greater activity in the default network. (Reading about physical places didn’t evoke the same response.) The researchers noted that the enhanced activity stemming from reading about people linked to higher scores on social-cognition assessments.

In other words, stories with compelling emotional, social, and psychological content seem to trigger neural changes in the brain. And this apparently translates into enhanced social skills in real life.

The take-away? Reading fiction, especially stories that take readers inside other people’s lives and minds, may improve social skills by exercising the part of the brain related to empathy and imagination.

As someone who occasionally writes fiction, I’m delighted to learn the results of this study. They validate the feedback from those of my readers who’ve praised the characters I’ve created and the harrowing situations they’ve found themselves in.

As a reader, I love plunging into an absorbing story that’s focused on people with fascinating lives. Now I can envision my brain lighting up as I read an exciting passage.

I’ll bet you can, too.

So curl up with a good book—especially a story about other people’s lives. Then take a break and spend some time with your family or friends. As someone with enhanced social skills, you’re sure to have a great time.

The study, published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, was reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2016.