Sunday, December 25, 2011

Memory Protection

We are talking about memory.  In the last post, I mostly rambled on about some past memories, both first-hand memories as well as second-hand (an interesting thought: how many of your memories are based on vivid events someone else experienced and told to you?).  My original intent, however, was to do some exploring about the neurological aspect of memory.  So I'll continue here with more focus on cognition and memory.

I was watching a TV show the other night called "Into the Wormhole", which talks about the latest research in physics and related topics. This episode was about immortality and geriatric research (I suppose this is physics--immortality.....infinity?) and some promising progress toward extending the life span of yeast and mice.  The researchers confidently state that that it won't be long before human life spans will be increased to 800 years or more.  Really? Aside from the question of where we're going to put all those octocentinarians (didn't these researchers ever learn about "carrying capacity" in school?), there's the worry about caring for them.  Perhaps their bodies can live for 800 years, but what about their minds and memories? 

Most people suffer what is known as Age-Related Memory Impairment (AMi), and the deficits often involve short-term memory. As people age, their ability to refresh recently acquired information declines.  This decline is linked to faults in "episodic memory" processing, which relies on knowing the when and where the information was acquired.  That is, the information content is linked to the source of the information and associated physical or emotional factors, so that remembering is facilitated, for example, by simply imagining where you were when the information was acquired.  As a student, I could often recall my notes on a specific topic by visualizing the page in my textbook or notebook.  That linking apparently does not work as well as we age--with new information.  I think such links remain mostly intact for memories laid down when we were younger (for normal aging; people with diseases such as Alzheimer's apparently suffer more severe injuries to neural pathways). So, a sight or smell or activity (brushing your hair, feeding the dog) automatically stimulates a specific memory or recall of information learned in the distant past. 

As we age, those associations between the information and the surrounding factors are not made or are only poorly made.  That is my observation of my short-term memory changes.  I will perform some routine task such as taking a daily vitamin or brushing my teeth and an hour later I'm wondering if I did or if I'm remembering yesterday's routine. I cannot recall anything specific or different about the surroundings that would tell me, "Yes, you definitely took your vitamin because the phone rang right after or you noticed that a light bulb was burned out in the bathroom."  These lapses happen to everyone at all ages, but now seem to be more frequent. I now consciously note something about my surroundings or do something unusual (reverse my routine) if I want to ensure I recall doing something (and avoid repeating it). I now appreciate why those pill dispensers with compartments corresponding to the days of the week are so popular with the elderly.

In his later years, my father seemed to have suffered from an extreme case of short-term memory loss.  He could not remember what he had for lunch or that he had just taken his medication an hour before (although he could vividly remember events 70 years in the past).  His inability to make that linkage between the act of taking his medicine and the situation surrounding that act (who was present, what time of day it was, whether the TV was playing, etc.) meant that he could not distinguish that particular event from similar events of taking his medicine on previous days.  This memory impairment was incredibly stressful for him because he was aware of it.  If you asked him, he could not tell you whether or not he had taken his medicine that day. He remembered taking medicine in the past, but not specific instances. 

What can one do to protect memory as we age? There are all the usual suggestions: keeping mentally active, following a healthy diet, avoiding medications that impair memory, etc.  Those of us in science have no deficiency in terms of intellectual activities.  We write, do math, create graphics and other visual images, and speak in front of audiences.  We use "both sides" of our brains: the left hemisphere, which supposedly involves linear, logical, analytical thinking and the right, which involves nonlinear, holistic, intuitive thinking. Is this enough to protect us from AMi or more dreaded things such as dementia? I once thought so, but am not so sure anymore. 

I came across an interesting bit of research, which found that auditory training (music training) improved memory abilities as one ages.  In fact, the number of years of musical training was predictive of non-verbal memory performance and time span of cognitive ability.  The suggestion seems to be that there is something unique about the auditory experience.  Perhaps.  Or maybe it's just the fact that musicians have developed secondary linkages in their brains through a novel activity that is unlike daily activities involving, for example, reading or writing or walking.  In other words, your brain has developed backup pathways that can take over when the primary ones are blocked during aging or disease.

My guess is that other novel activities requiring mental concentration or memorization (and stimulate new neural linkages) would work similarly.  I've mentioned this idea before, but it's worth repeating.  In his book, "A Whole New Mind" Daniel Pink talks about how to expand your mind or to keep it sharp.  One activity he explored was drawing.  He signed up for drawing lessons and discovered that drawing is all about relationships or "perspective".  Drawing is all about seeing, in other words.  Learning to draw or paint will develop and strengthen aspects of your brain that you may not use often.

I think the novel aspect of the activity is what is relevant, not the specific activity.

I think the take-home message here is: have some hobbies that are mentally challenging and different from your primary work activities.  If drawing or playing a musical instrument do not appeal to you, I think physical activities requiring substantial skill or concentration will do the same thing: golf, skiing, surfing, Tai Chi, or learning a second language.  It's not clear if taking up these things later in life has the same effect as adopting them in one's twenties.  I imagine that forming redundant pathways and linkages early on when your brain is still developing is more effective than trying to do it with an older brain.  I played a musical instrument for many years and also developed drawing and painting skills.  In my thirties and early forties, I learned karate and became fairly skilled at it.  I no longer play an instrument or train in karate, but I think those brain pathways are still there; I remember how to read music, for example, or perform a karate move (although my body may no longer be able to carry out the physical action).  Now I wish I had done more activities like these.

But, it's never too late. 

There are programs involving brain games designed to improve cognitive function such as Lumosity and CogniFit.  You usually have to pay a subscription to get access to all the programs designed to get your brain in shape.  Some will do an assessment of your cognitive abilities for free and let you do some initial training.  I've tried these and they definitely teach you some things about your mental abilities and where you need improvement.  I was shocked to discover that my "working memory" was way, way above average, more than twice that of the world average (either I am that good or the people taking the assessment are really bad at this).  This score did not agree with my impression that my memory was on the decline.  My reaction time was also above average--again not my perception.  On the other hand, my divided attention and spatial perception abilities, which I always thought were very good, were below average.  In any case, wherever your weakness, the program designs training to improve those cognitive skills.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Memories

It's that time of year when families reunite for the holidays. These get-togethers can be fun or stressful depending on the health status of the older family members or the employment status of the less successful family members. They are always the settings for indelible memories. 

If you only see your parents or grandparents once or twice a year and they are over sixty, it's usually a shock to see how much they've aged since your last visit. At least that was my experience during the latter years of my parent's lives.  Although it was disturbing to see their physical decline, it was more stressful to see the mental decline. When I was a student and visited during the holidays, the first question always was, "When are you going to be finished?" Later, they couldn't seem to remember that I had finished school and had been working at a university for twenty years. Their first question to me when I arrived for a visit was, "How was school this semester? Did you do well?" I suppose their persistent belief in my student status was due partly to the fact that I was in school for a very long time and partly to the fact that both my husband and I were at a university and talked about being in class or doing research, which were also places and activities we talked about when we were students.  It makes sense, in a way....

My husband's parents were in better physical shape than mine, but were mentally worse off in some ways, if you can imagine that.  His parents (and their friends) seemed to get obsessed with certain drugs and whether my husband and I were hooked on them.  We were never sure where they got this idea, except from TV soap operas. They grilled my husband on each visit about our finances (we were fine, no debt), about our friends (no heroin addicts), about our jobs (we had not been fired), etc.  This inquisition continued well into our 40s.  They also were convinced that drug-sniffing dogs were deliberately addicted to the drugs they were trained to find (this explained why they were so eager to find the drugs).

"What about bomb-sniffing dogs?" I would ask.

His parents lived in Florida during the winter, so that's where we would go during the Christmas holidays. One year, I decided that I would visit my parents and my husband would go alone to Florida. That was the year of his infamous encounter with "Aunt Becky", one of those stories that becomes family legend.

Aunt Becky was actually my husband's great aunt by marriage. She lived in an up-scale condo in Miami Beach. That Christmas, his parents decided to visit Aunt Becky one afternoon. She was in her 70s, so my husband was expecting a frail, elderly woman, perhaps needing a walker to get around. When they arrived at her condo, my husband was shocked when the door opened. He described her to me as very healthy, very blond, very tanned, and dressed in a skimpy jogging outfit that showed off her very well-proportioned body.

And that was apparently the least of the surprises in store for him. 

Aunt Becky proceeded to give her visitors a tour of her condo, during which she made suggestive remarks about recent male visitors (she was unmarried, having outlived several husbands).  Everyone, including my husband, was laughing along with her about her raucous remarks. Then, while his parents were taking in the view of Miami from the balcony, Aunt Becky suggested that my husband might be interested in seeing her bedroom. He reluctantly went along with her, not wanting to offend her by saying no.  She pointed out her bed, which was a waterbed (this was the 80s), and suggested he try it.  When he declined, she pushed him down on the bed and jumped on top of him. He said she was incredibly strong, and between her strength and the sloshing waterbed, he could not extricate himself.

It was then that his parents walked in.

His mother yelled, "Aunt Becky, get off [my husband's name]!" They thought it was pretty funny, but my husband was mortified.  His parents told that story for years, much to his chagrin.  Unfortunately, I never got to meet Aunt Becky. I often wondered what would have happened had I been along on that visit.

My husband's parents and my parents are now deceased (as is Aunt Becky). So we are long past the stage of having to make the annual trek to our respective childhood homes (and deciding which set of parents to visit during the holidays). We've also moved past the period of watching our parents' decline from being physically active and mentally sharp to being frail and faltering in body and mind.

We've instead transitioned to watching each other age, both of us being at the point where our parents began showing the first symptoms of decrepitude.  We watch each other for impending signs of dementia and worry over every little lapse in memory or inability to dredge up the name of some obscure (or not so obscure) actor or political figure.  He forgets to turn the oven off, and I make a mental note that it's the third time in the past few months.  I can't remember something he told me the day before (he claims), and I can see he's taking note of my forgetfulness as well.  It gets to be a contest.  I only forgot once this week to set the security alarm. He only misplaced his keys two times. We joke that between us, we have a whole brain.

Neither of us looks our age....yet.  My doctor always exclaims when I go in for my annual visit, "You look fantastic! I can't believe you are only [my age]." (I get the impression he doesn't have too many patients like Aunt Becky).  The nurse, taking my blood pressure, says, "You're going to live forrreeevver." A slight exaggeration.  However, my grandmother did make it to 97 and she had most of her marbles at the end (I'm counting on those genes).

Well, I had planned to talk more about the neurological aspects of memory, but I think I'll postpone that until the next post.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Movie Heroine

I recently received a comment about the series I did a while back on how women are portrayed in Hollywood movies.  In one post (Feminism and the Movies), I used several examples of movies by James Cameron, including the Terminator series, and applied a couple of tests designed to gauge how central female characters are portrayed (as true heroines or as stereotypes designed to support a male protagonist).

One of these is called the Bechdel Test and the other is one I made up called (tongue in cheek) the Feminist Film Test.

It's been a while, so I'll repeat them here:

To pass the Bechdel Test, the movie must have:
1. Two women (who have names),
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.
The Feminist Film Test requires that the movie:
1. Have a female lead,
2. Who survives or succeeds,
3. Without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, etc.). 

The commenter focused on the fact that I said Terminator II failed the two tests and argued that technically this movie passes both tests, pointing out how the lead female character (Sarah Connor) had matured from the helpless victim in Terminator I into an aggressive, militaristic woman with a violent plan (to save the world) in Terminator II.

Well, maybe Terminator II squeaks by on minor technical points (Sarah speaks briefly to another woman and does take charge of her destiny), but this comment misses the point of the litmus tests and my series on feminism and the movies. My purpose was not to identify "anti-feminist" films or to nitpick movie details, but to question the presumption that these are films that align with feminist ideals and/or provide useful role models of "strong female characters" simply because they have women who can shoot, cuss, and fight as well as a man.

The two litmus tests I described are meant to make people think about stereotypes and how women are portrayed in film.  One blogger, talking about the Bechdel test, emphasizes that "passing the test does not necessarily make it more feminist, or otherwise, positive-for-women." Nor does failing the test make it a bad movie.  This blogger goes on to explain that the test is a crude tool to begin examining sexism in movies.  If you look at the site that lists movies and whether they pass the Bechdel Test, you'll see lots of nitpicking about minor details; but it's not very productive to focus too closely on these tests (or try to find technical loopholes). 

Both tests are designed to uncover the glaring pattern of sexism in Hollywood movies.  When you have to really search and search for movies that portray true heroines, you have to conclude that there is something wrong somewhere.  Can you think of, say, just ten movies (out of the thousands made) in which there are two female characters who have meaningful conversations (about something other than a man) that advance the storyline (see end of this post for a few)?  Hollywood writers, directors, and producers seem to have difficulty in creating strong female characters without making them violent, gun-toting, and physically threatening (with a few exceptions, see below). In the past, women were routinely portrayed as weak victims (to be saved by a man).  Now it seems their only option to be "strong" is to adopt violent, masculine behavior.

Let's be realistic.  These are male fantasies:  the helpless woman (needing to be saved by a man) and the "I can be as tough as a guy" woman (a titillating sex object). Movies with such characters are not sincere efforts to portray strong women. They are in these films solely to sustain the male (mostly adolescent) viewpoint.  One can speculate as to the reasons: screenwriters/directors/producers are mostly male and, therefore, emphasize a male point of view; the target demographic is the young adolescent male, and action movies are geared toward their perspective. There's nothing wrong with this; the objective is to make money on these movies, after all. However, one wonders why Hollywood is ignoring half the population of movie-goers.

But back to the point.  What constitutes a strong female character who is the heroine of a film? She might be mentally and intellectually powerful, emotionally resilient, highly competent and skilled (in something other than gun play), of great moral character, and courageous...all without resorting to violence.  A heroine is defined as "a woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for her brave deeds and noble qualities".  Is Sarah Connor a true heroine?  Do we admire her or feel repulsed by her adoption of violent methods to solve problems? Is her plan to kill the creator of Starnet (the computer network that will take over the future world and destroy humanity) courageous, noble, or admirable?  Was she a good mother (to John Connor)?  Is she a role model you would want your children to emulate? 

I'd say Sarah Connor is the anti-heroine.  Not that there's anything wrong with an anti-heroine character....just don't confuse it with a heroine. 

Can we think of other movies, even violent movies, in which a true heroine appears?

Yes.  There are very violent films that manage to depict strong female characters who are the antithesis of the Sarah Connor character (in T2). One example that comes to mind is Police Chief Marge Gunderson in "Fargo", played to perfection by Frances McDormand. She manages to solve an extortion/kidnapping/murder case and captures a killer (carefully shooting him in the leg, instead of blowing his head off)...all while pregnant and suffering morning sickness.

This film passes the Feminist Film Test (Marge succeeds without any male assistance), but fails the Bechdel Test (technically, Marge interviews a couple of female prostitutes, but the focus is on men [the killers]); she also talks briefly on the phone with a high school friend, but about a man who is stalking Marge).  Does that mean the movie is flawed from a feminist standpoint? Of course not.

In my view, this film provides a compelling portrait of a real heroine.  Marge is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of woman who is successful in a very male-dominated profession.  She's a heroine, not because she catches a killer, but because of the courage, integrity, and humility she displays in her professional and personal life. 

Some other movies with well-developed female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man and whose interactions advance the storyline: 
Gone With the Wind (1939)
All About Eve (1950)
The Bad Seed (1956)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Julia (1977)
Nine to Five (1980)
Silkwood (1983)
Working Girl (1988)
Mermaids (1990)
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Enchanted April (1992)
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Black Swan (2010)
The Help (2011)

Image Credits:
Still image from Terminator 2, TriStar Pictures
Still image from Fargo, Gramercy Pictures

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Art PrintsWe all want it, but do we always give it to others? I was reminded recently of the importance of respect in dealing with other people, especially those we may not know well.  Impressions based on how someone looks, what others may have told us, or an unconscious (or conscious) bias are more the norm.  It’s human nature.  When we meet someone for the first time, we immediately begin forming a mental image, looking for clues about their morals, intelligence, and other inherent traits, and filling in the gaps based on our past experiences with other people bearing similar superficial features.  This approach is, of course, a dangerous one.

One of the things I admired the most about my father was that he was unfailingly respectful of other people, even when they were treating him with contempt.  He was an uneducated man, a dirt-poor farmer who grew up in the rural Mississippi countryside.  It was presumed (incorrectly) that he was unintelligent, unmannered, and bigoted, based solely on his situation (I also experienced similar presumptions when I first ventured to other parts of the country and the world).  As a child, I watched more educated or wealthier people treat my father with disrespect.  Yet, I never saw him get angry or raise his voice to anyone (not even his children when they let snakes loose in the house [a pest control experiment]).  He listened respectfully and responded politely to others who clearly thought themselves to be his superior and made a point of emphasizing the difference.  

As a teenager I was embarrassed by my parents (who wasn’t?), but the lesson of his respectful nature did sink in, and I’ve later come to appreciate just how important it is.   I’ve tried hard to follow my father’s model, but it’s difficult, especially when other people are disrespectful of me.  Some would argue that such people are not deserving of respect. However, it’s not really about them; what’s important is your behavior and whether you choose to take the high road or get down in the mud with your attacker.  And I use the term, “attacker”, because disrespectful acts are definitely attacks. I’ve talked a bit in past posts about “verbal attacks” and ways to handle them (here and here).  But often we don’t recognize when we are being attacked, especially when it involves subtle disrespect. 

In any case, I know my father would say that to maintain one’s own self-respect, it’s essential to preserve your respectful treatment of others.  I’m not advocating here that you should not defend yourself against unfair treatment. Just that you do so without showing disrespect for the other person.

Image Credit: The Farmer by Fred Neveu. I really like this painting, which perfectly captures the affable, hardworking character of a dying breed of family farmers.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recurring Dreams

Someone recently mentioned to me the often common occurrence of recurring nightmares that plague those of us who have spent a lot of time in school. You know the ones: you are taking a final exam and realize that you've somehow forgotten to attend this particular class...or you are trying to find the room where your dissertation defense exam is being held and you are lost....or you can't find your class notes and have an exam in a few minutes.  There are many variations on this theme, but they all have the same underlying fear of failure. 

I had such nightmares periodically all through school and even long after I had obtained a Ph.D. and had a job.  Mine always involved high school and an inability to find my locker (where my books and class notes were) or the appropriate classroom (always a math class) or both.  In the dream, I would be forced to go back to high school (regardless of age or the fact that I already had a Ph.D.) to take a math class that I had somehow neglected to take.  So there was also an element of not fitting in with the other students due to my age and other factors.  There I would be, back in high school...sort of like in the movie, Peggy Sue Got Married, in which a woman has an accident at her high school reunion and wakes up back in the 1950s.  In that case, Peggy Sue gets to relive a lot of events during her high school years, but with the mind of an adult. 

My dreams were similar to Peggy Sue's in that I would have the mind of an adult and all my memories and skills acquired up to that point.  You would think, then, that I would be more adept at finding my classroom and keeping track of my class notes.  But nooooo....I would be totally at a loss to figure out my class schedule, the locations of my classrooms, and how to find and open my assigned locker.  In some cases, I would find my classroom, but I would be so hopelessly behind, due to prior absences, that I would just sit there in complete bewilderment at what was being discussed.  Or I would find myself taking an exam for which I had not studied. Excruciating for someone who was always prepared for exams and always made high grades.

You would also think that someone who had managed to acquire a Ph.D. in a science field would be immune to such dreams.  Quite the contrary.  For me, they actually got worse after I completed my schooling and was working as a professor at a university.  I found these dreams to be unsettling because I realized that they indicated a lack of confidence.  I suspected also that they were related to my tendency toward perfectionism. 

Ultimately, however, I discovered how to stop these recurring dreams.

I had been reading about lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer realizes that they are dreaming and is then able to direct the dream.  The advantage of lucid dreaming is that you are only restricted by your imagination, not by the laws of physics or rules of society.  I've only managed to have a handful of lucid dreams over the years, but they were all quite amazing and realistic...bordering on out-of-body experiences.  The trick is to realize that you are dreaming, which is not as easy as it sounds.  For me, when I think I am dreaming, I apply a test, which is to see if I can fly.  If I am able to fly, then I know I am dreaming and can proceed to direct the dream.  It's a tricky balance, however.  I think what is happening is that you are in between a state of dreaming and consciousness.  Once you recognize you are dreaming, it often happens that you wake up because you slipped too far toward consciousness. 

My lucid dreams always seemed to have a very practical storyline.  The first lucid dream I ever had involved an ability to shoot a laser beam from my fingertips.  So what did I do with this amazing gift?  I proceeded to use it to trim the trees in my yard of dead branches!  Other dreams involved flying and traveling great distances to see different ecosystems of the Earth.  A bit more adventurous, but still practical from a professional standpoint.  These are quite vivid dreams, which upon waking, are difficult to distinguish from a real memory. 

I had other recurring nightmares about elevators, for example (don't ask me why, because I don't have a phobia about elevators in real life).  I began thinking that perhaps lucid dreams could be used to rid myself of these annoying recurring dreams. Unfortunately, I couldn't just turn lucid dreaming on and off at will.  I had to wait for one to occur spontaneously.

That's what finally happened with the school nightmares.  I found myself in the middle of a typical dream in which I was running around my high school, desperately looking for my math class, when I suddenly realized that this was a dream.  I then stopped and said to myself, "I have already graduated from high school and college and also completed graduate school. I have a Ph.D. and a job at a university. I don't need to go back to high school and take some silly math class."  Then I just turned and walked out the front door of the high school.  I never had these dreams again, and my sense of confidence increased dramatically.

My experience exemplifies one advantage to learning how to dream lucidly: overcoming fears and other psychological barriers to success.  You can accomplish the same thing with psychotherapy, of course, but going the dream route may work faster.  It certainly worked for me.  From what I understand about it (which isn't a lot), the best predictor of lucid dream ability is whether you have good dream recall.  I've always been able to recall my dreams in great detail; in contrast, my husband reports that he has great difficulty recalling any dreams at all.  In any event, dreams provide powerful insights into your psyche, and the ability to modify or control them might provide a means of treatment for certain disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, for example).  It is definitely a way to minimize or eliminate nightmares.

I've been quite pleased to be rid of these recurring dreams about school.  However, I wonder if students these days have such nightmares?  Considering that skipping class and not having to take notes (the professor provides these on a website) are more common now than when I was a student, perhaps these fears of missing classes or losing notes are not as great? On the other hand, maybe it's worse?

Photo Credit: Promotional image for Peggy Sue Got Married, Tristar Pictures.