Month: December 2016

brain fitnessCurious DavidForgettingMemory

Brain Fitness Training (Revisited): Part 2

dscn4331First cup of coffee at 5:00 this morning. My mind drifts to yesterday when standing in line to pick up a Walgreen’s prescription I observed the woman ahead of me challenged at the task of recalling the last four digits of her phone number and by the request that she use a key pad to enter the four digits.  Will that be me in a few years? Is that me now? What was that password again?

I no sooner write a blog piece about memory failure and about brain fitness training and I am inundated with emails about the topic. Am I paranoid? Or is Big Brother, Google,Siri or some Cookie Monster watching me?:)  I’ve explored that topic before in another blog piece. This deluge of emails reminds me of the time I was investigating subliminal perception claims and my beloved canine companion dog, Robin the Newf, started receiving snail mail about cassette tapes that promised subliminal messages which could improve her self-esteem, memory and libido.

Robin the Newf

A glance at my email suggests a number of “brain fitness training” opportunities. A Brain U Online gives me a friendly reminder of the availability of a brain training session invitation.  I receive an invitation from Blinkist suggesting that I read a synopsis (hmm–Wordpress originally wrote the word “synapse” for me—-spooky) of the book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect your Brain for Life.  I am alerted in another email that Episode #4 (of 10) “Six ‘Brain Hacks’ to Enrich Your Brain” from a course awaits.  An interesting NPR story invites me to explore the brain enhancing benefits of bilingual education. I receive an invitation to take an AARP approved “Life Reimagined”  (and United Health Care supported) free online course on “Brain Power: How to Improve Your Brain Health” taught by Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. There is ad from Posit Science to  become a “Smart Cookie” ( there is that Cookie Monster again!) by joining their “…unique braining program … which unlike others… is backed by more than 100 published scientific papers”… I think that I’ll send them as a holiday gift a copy of the most recent review in Psychological Science in the Public Interest whose link I included in my earlier post.

How does one separate the wheat from the chaff of these claims? Which avenues are promising and which are merely advertising promises. Will I really get smarter with five-minute lessons delivered to my inbox every morning? Do i want to? Would I be well-served by following my heart and attempting to (re) learn long forgotten Spanish? Should I become involved in creating Elder hostel educational experiences? Maybe I should learn to play the piano like my great grand nephew Cole! So many questions. What fun to try answering them with students, seniors, data, and critical thinking over the next few years. Stay tuned.


Curious DavidMemory

The Zeigarnik Effect Revisited—and Preliminary Questions about Brain Fitness Training Programs

dscn4331So much unfinished business. I see that I have 83 drafts of unfinished blog posts. Some of that writing looks like the ideas are still worth developing. Other drafts I have no recall of having written! Clearly it is time either to delete them or to bring the ideas to fruition as I wind up and wind down my teaching career.

Unfinished tasks (and miles to grow (sic.)  before I sleep) : In November 2009 I wrote this draft about the Zeigarnik effect:

“I was first introduced to the Zeigarnik effect (people typically recalling interrupted tasks better than their recalling completed ones) by my first Oberlin College Introductory Psychology professor, Celeste McCollough. My participation in her visual perception studies of the “McCollough effect” formally introduced me to the science of psychology. I remember being both amused and fascinated by Professor McCollough’s sharing an anecdote where she intentionally used the Zeigarnik phenomenon as a motivator for her to resume working on manuscripts that she was writing for publication. I find it curious how a phenomenon such as the Zeigarnik effect can be discovered, experimentally investigated, popularized, misrepresented, forgotten, and rediscovered.”

I was able to use that anecdote in a review I completed yesterday of Bob Cialdini’s newest book Pre-suasion. Equally important, I was able to use that Zeigarnik tension to motivate me to complete the revisions suggested by my editor and to successfully have the review accepted for publication. Thanks to my research assistant Lizzie H. for her able last minute editorial assistance.

One common theme among my unfinished work is the tensions I feel between rigorous, experimental psychological science and well-intentioned attempts to popularize psychological findings. How can one avoid avoiding overstatement and misrepresentation?  Why is there such a disconnect between what is popularized (or advertised) and what empirical evidence actually shows? Across the past fifty years I’ve seen oversimplification and misrepresentation of research investigating learning styles, mindfulness, subliminal perception, and most recently brain fitness training.

I’ve taken an increased interest lately in memory research—in part because a number of Carroll alumni have been actively involved in that area (e.g. Michelle Braun, John DenBoer and Mark Klinger). I’ve always been fascinated by the too much neglected research of Ellen Langer’s exploring concepts of mindfulness and mindlessness—as she uses the terms. I found fascinating her book Counterclockwise, though I am still struggling with believing its implications of age-reversal. Still, there IS empirical evidence (needful of replication and extension) that subjective perceptions of age can be affected by the mere process of measuring variables related to aging. This merits further study. Perhaps because I just recently read that the CEO of Evernote wants me to be able to remember everything, I’ve been thinking a lot about elephants lately (maybe that is because of the recent election) and about Jorge Luis Borges‘ Funes Memorius and about those Seven Sins of Memory outlined by Psychologist Daniel Schacter. One of the down-sides  joys of being liberally educated is that one sees interconnections among seemingly disparate things.

Based upon my thinking about the links above, I’m convinced that I don’t want a perfect memory—nor do I want technological tools for remembering everything. Still, as I grow older I am increasingly sensitive to issues of memory loss. I am haunted by the descriptions of  dementia so graphically and accurately described in Walter Mosely’s novel The Last Days of Ptolemy GreyHere is an interview with that author.

There is so much hype interest today in using technology to improve one’s brain power,  health and well-being. Try, for example, doing an online search on “brain fitness.”

You’ll  be overwhelmed with the results though (hopefully) be underwhelmed by the validity of the claims. The challenge is to know how to decide which claims are “snake oil,” which represent vaporware, and which are truly science-based.  Consider these  Internet “tools” (none of which I am endorsing but each of which I am considering investigating with my students)  … and their promises and claims of success at improving one’s life


Which (if any) is based upon valid psychological science? Which is merely entertainment? Which make false or unverifiable claims? Which is patently wrong?

Do brain training programs really work?  A very thoughtful and thorough  scholarly review was recently completed which provides some useful caveats and preliminary answers. A shortened summary of that report can be found here and the complete article is here. A relatively recent citizen science project, the game “Stall Catchers” (found here) provides an interesting crowdsourcing avenue for conducting Alzheimer’s research (See EyesonALZ). I hope to share my answers to these questions. Hopefully these thoughts won’t merely end up in my draft pile!