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Saturday, September 07, 2019

Bad Dreams May Be Bad for Your Mental Health

Mental health professionals have historically thought of bad dreams (e.g., emotional distress, nightmares) as reflecting underlying mental dysfunctions that are buried in the unconscious and only become consciously accessible in dreams. Freud, Jung, and colleagues, popularized this view and assumed that dream analysis could unmask the mental problem and thereby open a door for treatment. There is an alternate way to think about dreams that is still compatible with the classic view, but adds a new dimension for improving mental health.

Freud’s Missed Opportunity

What classical psychiatry seems to have missed is the possibility that dream content has effects of its own that may be aggravating the very psychological problems that therapists were trying to treat. We humans consciously recognize what our brains are thinking about in episodic states of sleep interruption in which the brain becomes activated and the eyes show darting movements, as if the eyes are visually scanning the dream content. These stages of sleep are known as REM, for rapid eye movement. In REM, the dreamer is not only aware of the dream events but is often an active agent within the dreams. In these so-called “lucid dreams,” the dreamer may even be able to willfully alter dream content.

The transient state of consciousness that arises repeatedly throughout a night’s sleep enables unconscious influences to emerge in dreams. If that content is a “bad dream,” it has a reinforcing effect on the thought dysfunction that is causing problems during wakefulness. We all know that repeating negative thoughts during the awake state reinforces the flawed thinking. Conventional therapy aims to help patients redirect negative thoughts and feelings in ways that are more positive.  In dreams we normally just let the negative thoughts run their course, which has the effect of strengthening the undesirable thoughts. In fact, negative dream content during dreams may be more deleterious than the same content during wakefulness, because modern research has shown that a major function of sleep, both dream- and non-dream, is to consolidate recent short-term memories. The dream content of dreams is immediately reinforced during the return to sleep. Unlike memory consolidation during wakefulness, sleep blocks out interfering sensory and cognitive processes during the memory-vulnerable period immediately after learning.

Personal Anecdote

Because to our knowledge there is no research in this area, I can only provide anecdotal reports that this premise that dream content may be a cause as well as a consequence of emotional distress. I have had a lifetime of bad dreams, off and on. Some of my unpleasant dreams recur, such as forgetting where I parked my car, or being lost, or being in a complex, unresolvable situationall of which reinforce a feeling of inadequacy. In such dreams, my brain is teaching me to think of myself as inadequate. That is surely not healthy. No doubt there are others who have similar bad dreams, and assuredly there are other kinds of bad experiences that occur in everybody’s dreams. The point here is not to explore what these dreams mean, but to recognize that such dreams may be aggravating the emotional problems that cause the disturbing content in the first place.

In the example above, my brain is programming itself to reinforce a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. Night after night, year after year, this becomes a psychologically destructive force. Clearly, a solution would be to make yourself stop having such dreams. How might this be done? One possibility is that you could decide to be more aware of the content of each dream, both during the dream itself and afterwards, as during a nighttime bathroom break and upon awakening in the morning. During wakeful periods right after a dream, you need to tell yourself that these dream ideas are wrong and unhelpful. Tell your brain to stop punishing yourself like this.

In wakeful states, we know that it is possible for positive self-talk to program the brain for more constructive thought. We ought to be able to program our subconscious in a similar way during its operation during sleep and in the dream review right after awakening. So in this case, you should chastise your brain for any bad dream, and consciously insist just before going to sleep that your brain only generate dreams that are entertaining, helpful, or at least neutral. The assumption is that your mind can tell its brain what to do. After all, the brain is programmable, and you get to do much of the programming. This simplistic strategy seems to be working, as the incidence of my bad dreams has markedly diminished.

No doubt, there are more robust strategies that could be developed. Learning how to have more lucid dreams could help ,because in that state the dreamer might be able to veto negative content as it starts to emerge. In addition, corrective positive reinforcement self-talk needs to be cemented in long-term memory and that can be strengthened by retrieving positive self-talk immediately after awakening from a bad dream. Also, it is important to hold such self-talk sessions under conditions where memory consolidation is not impaired by distracting activity or thought.
To learn more about how our minds work, see my inexpensive, lay audience books, Mental Biology, and Memory Power 101, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, September 02, 2019

What Am I? What Are You?

I am an agent, one who does things like think, feel, believe, choose, plan, and does things. But what is it about me that makes me an agent? Obviously, my agency arises from my brain, as does yoursbut where and how?

The starting point for an answer has to be based on how the brain does everything else it does besides create my “I.” The principle is that the currency of brain function is the nerve impulse. More specifically, the brain models my inner and outer worlds by creating representations of sensation, memory, and thought in the form of patterns of nerve impulses flowing in specific neural networks. I call these Circuit Impulse Patterns (CIPs). For detection of a specific visual image, for example, the image is represented by one set of CIPS in the visual cortex. A different image will generate a different set of CIPS in the visual cortex to represent it. Documentary basis for this conclusion was provided in the Nobel Prize work of Hubel and Weisel. The same principle applies to all other mental forms of representation. That is, for example, one set of CIPS carries out the command of my “I” to type this sentence. Another set of CIPs carries out the command of my “I” to get up out of my chair and take a break. In short, everything my “I” chooses to think, feel, and do is implemented by a specific set of CIPs.

The circuit nature of the nervous system is fundamental. I have, for example, a circuit of neurons that begins in my foot, projects into a specific spinal cord segment of neurons, and these in turn project back to leg muscles that make me lift my leg if I step on a tack. Nerve impulses carry the sensory and motor information in this circuit. Additionally, this spinal circuit has reciprocal connections with various circuits in the brain that collectively inform me of pain and may also modulate my behavioral response to the pain. This information is likewise carried by nerve impulses.

So now we must examine my “I.” What is its nature? How does it get created? How is it that I know I have stepped on a tack, have generated a stream of cursing, and am aware of any other associated behaviors? Is it not likely that this “agent” of selfhood inside my brain is itself a set of CIPs? This set may operate unconsciously or consciously. I likely am not aware of what is happening in my spinal cord. I most certainly will be aware that my foot hurts and that “I” am responding to the pain. This “I” serves as an avatar that mediates my interaction with the world my brain is representing via CIPs.

Now, this brings us to the issue of conscious awareness. That too may be implemented as a set of CIPs. The CIPs of consciousness are equivalent to an avatar that the brain has instantiated to act consciously on behalf of its perceived interests. My avatar can reflect on the meaning of various sets of CIPs circulating within the global workspace of brain. The avatar can access and influence these various CIPs sets, because it too is a CIP set that connects physically to the other circuits and communicates in the shared language of nerve impulses.

This means that the conscious avatar can do things via its integral connections with other circuits. This capacity for agency refutes the contention of many scholars who have the unfounded belief that consciousness is just an “observer” that cannot do anything. Because the CIPS of my conscious avatar can do things, it means that it can implement choices and decisions that it makes.

This brings us to the issue of free will. The CIPs of my conscious avatar most certainly are affected in automatic ways by its connections to other CIPs. Thus, much of what my avatar does is not caused by free choice. Such actions result from inherent circuit connectivity and the programming of prior learning. On the other hand, because my avatar CIPs have their own existence, they can create representations for many alternative actions, including creative options that it had not been taught by prior experience. The avatar CIPs can reason about the pros and cons, and make a choice that is neither pre-determined nor inevitable. In short, my “I” avatar has the capacity for some free will.

The CIPs of my avatar allow me to be conscious, to think, feel, and choose with some degree of freedom. To reframe the dictum of Descartes:

I am, therefore I think.


1.       Klemm, W. R. 2016. Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New    
York: Elsevier.
2.       Klemm, W. R. 2014. Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, New York: Prometheus/Random House.
3.       Klemm, W. R. 2011. Atoms of Mind. The “Ghost in the Machine” Materializes. New York: Springer.
4.       Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiology Perspectives on Agency: 10 Axioms and 10 Proposition, Chapter 4. Constraints of Agency. Explorations of Theory in Everyday Life. edited  by Graig W. Gruber et al. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, Vol. 12, p.51-88.
5.     Klemm, W.  R. 2012. Sense of Self and Consciousness: Nature, Origins, Mechanisms, and Implications, p. 111-138, in Consciousness: States, Mechanisms and Disorders. Edited by A. E. Cavanna and A. Nani.  Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers. Open access available at
6.        Klemm, W. R. 2011. Neural representations of the sense of self. Archives Cognitive Psychology. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 7: 16-30. DOI 10.2478/v10053-008-0084-2.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Learn How to Breathe for Better Health

What? I’m not kidding. Sure, you knew how to breathe as soon as you were pushed out of the womb. But you didn’t learn to breathe right. If you were slapped on the butt by the doctor, you probably learned to breathe too shallow and too fast, maybe even hyperventilate. All that screaming and crying you did after leaving the comfort of the womb taught your brain that stress and anxiety go with rapid, shallow breathing. So when faced with adversity as you got older, your automatic reaction is to breathe too fast and too shallow. This is a case of classical conditioned learning. That kind of learning actually helps sustain the stress, because your brain has learned that rapid, shallow, breathing is supposed to go with stress. The brain thinks this is normal.
About a month ago, I was having a large, benign growth on my neck removed by local surgeon, Dr. John Mason. The area was locally anesthetized, but so much tissue was involved that as he had to cut deeper, I felt pain. The nurse said, huffing and puffing with staccato rhythm, “Breathe. Breath in, breath out.” After several such reminders, I blurted, “Is there any other way?” Then, I realized the risk I was taking if my surgeon started to laugh while holding a scalpel to my neck. Dr. Mason did a great job. And I was reminded that there is a right and a wrong way to breathe under stressful conditions.
There are three principles to correct breathing for reducing stress:

1.      Breathe deeply. This means abdominally. As you inhale, the abdomen should protrude, filling the lungs better because the diaphragm contraction expands the chest cavity for more lung inflation.

2.      Breathe slowly. Common breathing rates are around 16-20 breaths per minute. This is fine when you are very active physically, but remember that the brain has spent decades of conditioned learning to associate rapid breathing with distress. When you are trying to relax, you can shut down stress by slowing down to three to five breaths per minute.

3.      Exhale through the mouth. A good way to automate this method is to slightly open the mouth and move the tip of the tongue behind the front upper teeth during inhalation, then relax the tongue during exhalation.

You can use these principles in two well-known breathing techniques:

1. The Navy Seal box technique. When they are not raiding a terrorist cell or on another similar stressful mission, Navy Seals train themselves to stay calm by taking a four-step breath cycle of inhale, hold breath, exhale, hold breath, and then repeat the cycle. Each step lasts 4 seconds. This would yield a total breathing rate of about four per minute. With practice, you can make each step last 5 or more seconds. Now you would be breathing like a Yogi.

2. The hum technique. Here, the idea is to make a soft, guttural humming sound throughout each exhalation. You can even do this during the exhale stages in the Navy technique. This may have a similar effect as using a mantra during meditation. Sometimes, people tell me I am humming when I had not been aware of it. I guess I have learned to associate humming with calming down and feeling good. Perhaps it is similar to why cats purr. Cats purr for two seemingly conflicting purposes. One is that the purring sound has a conditioned association with a calm state. When the cat is calm, it purrs. The other cause of purring is anxiety. In an anxious cat, the anxiety acts as a cue that retrieves the memory of associated purring, which then helps to calm the cat.

If you are trying to train yourself to be calm, I recommend that you employ and combine the three principles and the two techniques during mindfulness meditation. All of the principles (deep and slow breathing, and exhaling via the mouth) and the two techniques (4-step and humming) can be synergistically combined during mindfulness meditation. In such meditation, the idea is the block out all thoughts in order to focus on breathing. You can achieve further synergism by mediating in certain yoga postures, which have their own mental relaxing effects. If you are like me, you are stiff and sore when you awaken in the morning. I deal with this by combining yoga stretches with mindfulness meditation and stress-relieving breathing. It is a great way to start each day.
There is a biological explanation for why all these ideas work, but few scholars explain it. The whole constellation of beneficial effects is attributable to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a huge nerve that supplies most of the visceral organs: lungs, heart, and the entire gastrointestinal tract. Usually, when biology or physiology teachers explain the vagus nerve, they focus on its “motor” effects, that is initiating secretions, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and promoting peristaltic movements in the GI tract. What usually gets left out of teaching is that the vagus is a mixed nerve; it contains sensory fibers. These sensory fibers are activated by all the breathing functions mentioned above. These impulses signal the part of the anterior hypothalamus that contains the neuronal cell bodies of the so-called parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS suppresses the “fight or flight” system of the “sympathetic nervous system,” which is triggered by certain neurons in the posterior hypothalamus. Thus, feedback signals from proper breathing serve to keep the PNS active and in control of a relaxed physical and mental state. So, CALM DOWN. TAKE A DEEP BREATH.

These ideas are part of the issues raised in my new book on mental health, neuroscience, and religion, Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview, by Brighton Publishing, available in paperback or e-book form at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Five Ways to Make Yourself Smarter

As a "Memory Medic" committed to helping people improve their learning and memory capabilities, I am often asked in the on-line forum questions like: "How can I make myself smarter?" I am stunned to see so many people struggling in school or the workplace who perceive a need to become smarter. Nobody seems to know how to become smarter. In fact, it is commonly believed that you cannot change your IQ, that you are stuck with whatever level you happen to have. This belief is wrong. Experimental evidence demonstrates that IQ often improves with age as infants progress through elementary school. However, by middle school and later in life IQ seems to become fixed in
most people. As far as I know, there has been little research to test this assumption. Even so, in my own experience, and others have similarly reported, going through a rigorous Ph.D. program does make you smarter. I think other things can work too.

I became sensitized to this point when I was in Graduate school at Notre Dame. I barely gained admission, because my test scores did not match their usual acceptance criteria. My major professor chastised me on multiple occasions for not being smart enough, with the comment, "Strive for insight."  If I was short on insight capability, it meant that I am not smart enough to be at Notre Dame as his student. I believed that at first. After all, my IQ score, determined in middle school, was 113, only a little above average and certainly not up to the level of Notre Dame Ph.D. graduate students. Yet my professor was also telling me that I could make myself smarter. Otherwise, what’s the point of “striving?” He couldn’t explain how to become smarter, but no doubt he had discovered this was possible from his own experience as he progressed through the rigorous education of becoming a Notre Dame priest and a earning a science Ph.D. in a prestigious University of Chicago program.
Eventually, I learned he was right on both counts: I was not smart enough, but by striving for insightfulness, I could make myself smarter. Eventually, I think I figured out how to become smarter. I know my IQ is higher now, even in old age, than it was when I was 13.  I don't know how high, and don't care to know. What matters is that I found what works for me to become smarter. I think I can explain some of that to students.

School lessons can be intimidating and sometimes “over the head” of many students. Students get discouraged when they don't understand things. When they don't understand, they struggle, and their grades suffer. They come to believe they are not smart. They may quit trying, because they wrongly conclude they don't have the ability. They become underachievers. Their belief in their incompetence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I recently took on a task of writing a curricular item for science teaching of eighth graders. The curricular item I was writing involved a "Simulated Peer Review" learning activity in which middle-school groups work together to role play being peer reviewers of a scientific research report. I give them scaffolding questions to show them what to check for, and I also totally reconstruct the report so it could be understood by middle schoolers. The published research paper I needed to re-write posed a major problem: it was so complex that even I didn’t understand it.

Figure 1. Diagram in the original research report used to explain the purpose of the study and how it was done. Original legend presented the full chemical names. From Guedes et al. 2018.

This paper was a report on drug development for pain relief. The paper was ideal for a variety of reasons, but it was unbelievably complex, with lots of chemistry and arcane acronyms, as illustrated in Figure 1. In figuring this out, I reminded myself how I was going about this task, which crystallized as five steps or principles that anyone can use to figure out most anything, and in the process develop the mental algorithms that will make you smarter.

How am I supposed to explain the ideas in this figure to 8th graders? The legend explaining all these abbreviations and relationships only made things still harder to comprehend. Here maybe was a chance to track my strategy for figuring things out, and I could formulate and explain simple steps that would be generally applicable. I kept track of the sequence of the steps I used, and now I can specify a specific sequence of tactics for developing understanding.

Step 1. Believe You Can Become Smarter. When I formulated the "Learning Skills Cycle" in a book I recently wrote for teachers and parents, the very first step in that cycle was "Motivation." A learner who is not motivated to learn will not make the effort needed to learn much. They become under-achievers. If you don't believe you can become smarter, you won't be motivated to “strive for insight.”

Step 2. Look for the Big Picture. Look first for over-all patterns. The original legend of Fig. 1 explained in an overly complicated way that damage to cell membranes triggers three chains of chemical reactions that stem from breakdown of the phospholipids that form cell membranes. Think about the purpose of the diagram: the three pathways may reveal points in the pathways where a drug might alter the response to pain. The pathway on the right is not very relevant, so you don’t have to think about it. Focus on the meaning of the other two paths.
he breakdown products of these membrane phospholipids, as explained in the original legend, included three relevant enzymes (COX, Cyp450, and sEH), and a host of chemicals, some of which cause inflammation and pain. The figure also indicates that enzymes are targets: anything that inhibits them would stop their action. Note the diagram shows inhibition with lines that end in a line segment instead of an arrow. We see that inhibition of only one target enzyme, COX, can help to alleviate pain (such inhibitors are already in medical use). In the other pathway, the so-called epoxy fatty acids (EpFAs) could, in theory, block the COX enzyme or have a direct inhibitory effect on inflammation and pain. However, the EpFAs are destroyed by the enzyme soluble epoxy hydrolase (sHE), so they are not available for pain relief. Note, however, that a second enzyme (sEH), if it could be inhibited by the drug t-TUCB, it would stop the destruction of EpFAs, enabling them to accumulate and exert their anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects. This is the purpose of the study, that is, to test to see if t-TUCB can actually reduce pain, as a previous study had suggested.

3. Simplify. For thinking purposes, temporarily strip out the information that is non essential. Be discerning in what you temporarily omit from your thinking. Sometimes, small items of information (as the three lines that end in line segments) are crucial for understanding. The other key elements here are the two over-all pathways, the three enzymes they contain, and the steps in the path they i

For the moment, I can ignore most of the names of the compounds. They just clutter my mind with more information than I can hold in working memory to think with. I can also ignore for now the genetic mechanisms, which though important, are not central to the purpose of this present report. Likewise, I can also ignore the glucocorticoid inhibition of enzymes that break down membrane phospholipids, because these enzymes are blocked by drugs like cortisone.
The reason we need to simplify is that we think with the information that we can hold in conscious working memory (as when you try to remember a phone number you just looked up). The capacity of working memory is very limited (4-7 items at any one time). Thus, to think clearly about any confusing matter, you must not clutter your mind with more information at any one time than your working memory can handle.
Figure 2. Simplification of Fig. 1

Step 4. Reframe the Issue. Einstein was famous for reframing his problems in the form of thought experiments, such was watching movement of trains relative to each other or riding on a moonbeam. We don’t have to be as imaginative as Einstein. In this example, all we have to do is re-draw the diagram in a form that captures the essence of the key information.  So, to help my understanding, I sketched a simpler diagram that captures the big picture" in the simplest possible way (Fig. 2). Note that I gave blue color to emphasize the enzymes and red lines to indicate their inhibition. Two inhibitory influences were shown with dashes to emphasize that this was only theoretical, because the anti-inflammatory chemicals in the right-hand path are usually destroyed and thus not available or inhibition. The test drug had been shown earlier to inhibit the enzyme in the right-hand pathway. What we don’t know is if this drug actually reduces pain. Now I have the ideas framed in the most meaningful and distinct ways. At this point, I could see the crucial points, unobscured by all the detail.

Step 5. Identify the Crucial Details. The first objective is to understand the principles, and then add in whatever level of detail that is necessary. No more, no less. One of my cardinal principles of learning is flagged with the question: What is the point of learning if you don't remember it? In this particular case, learners need to put back into those details that are crucial and may have practical relevance. As I show in Figure 3, students can now see that a drug that inhibits COX could alleviate pain, as could any new drug that could inhibit sHE (soluble epoxy hydrolase) by preventing destruction of the anti-inflammatory epoxy fatty acids. Counteracting the inflammatory chemicals (prostaglandins) would also alleviate pain, and this is what many known pain relievers do. At this point, I understand the principles of pain biochemistry, and I bet 8th graders can do so too, even if they haven’t yet learned chemistry.
Figure 3. Essential detail reinserted into Fig. 2

This reminds me to tell you that in my Learning Skills Cycle, I always put the "Understand" step before the "Memorize" step. Two reasons explain why: 1) understanding allows you to simplify and reduce the amount of detail that will burden your memory, and 2) the very act of striving for the insight about the issues is helping to encode the relevant information and is rehearsal practice that will help consolidate the memory into long-lasting memory. Thinking, rather than rote repetition, is the most powerful way to memorize.

We have now arrived at the final and most practical stage in the Learning Skills Cycle, namely, Problem Solving and Creativity. Now we can get to the practical matter of using this new understanding to plan the exploration to find drugs that can alleviate inflammation and pain. Drugs that block the path on the left should reduce pain, and this is the mechanism of action of aspirin, Tylenol, and other non-steroidal drugs. In theory, we could alleviate pain by preventing the destruction of anti-inflammatory epoxy fatty acids by blocking the enzyme (sEH) that destroys them. Epoxy hydrolase is a new target for drug development, which the research paper I was rewriting aimed to test with an inhibitor of this enzyme.

I invite you to join my LinkedIn group on 
"Neuroeducation: Promoting Cognitive Development" 

Guedes, A. G. P. et al. (2018). Pharmacokinetics and antinociceptive effects of the soluble epoxide hydrolase inhibitor t -TUCB in horses with experimentally induced radiocarpal synovitis. J.  Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2018, 41 (2) , 230-238. DOI: 10.1111/jvp.12463.

Klemm, W. R. 2017. The Learning Skills Cycle. A way to Rethink Education Reform. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman& Littlefield. Lanham, Md., Rowman & Littlefield.

Klemm, W. R. 2013. Teaching beginning college students with adapted published research reports. J. Effective Teaching. 13 (2), 6-20.           

Friday, August 09, 2019

Belief about Memory Ability Can Become Self-fulfilling Prophecy

If you think you don’t have a good memory, you probably don’t. It is not just a matter of self-awareness. People often think they are stuck with whatever memory capability they have, for better a worse. Not true! The fact is that anybody can improve memory ability, if they learn how (I have four books that explain how; see reviews at
On the other hand, if you believe you have a poor memory, you may not do what is necessary to improve your memory capability. Thus, believing you have a poor memory contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy.


1. Memory “athletes” who participate in memory tournaments train to improve their memory. Joshua Foer, author of the memory book, Moonwalking with Einstein, was a journalist with an ordinary memory. In his reporting on memory athletes, he became enamored with how they achieved amazing feats of memory. So he learned how they did it, trained, and in  2006 won the U. S. Memory Championship. 
2. Another line of evidence comes from the elderly in China. There, old age is venerated and researchers have noticed that older Chinese do NOT have diminished memory ability, as is the usual case in other countries. Picking up on this theme, Harvard University researchers studied 90 people, age 60 or older, and found they could change memory task performance by manipulating the beliefs about their memory skills.The manipulation involved creating a biasabout memory ability. Subjects viewed a list of about 50 words that either represented senile behaviors (“absent-minded,” “senile,” etc.) or represented “wise” behaviors (“sees all sides of issues,” “smart,” etc.). The lists were presented on a computer screen, and the subjects were asked to notice whether a flash occurred above or below a bulls eye that they were to focus on. Subjects were to signal the location of the flash as soon as they could with a computer key press. The rate of stimulus presentation was slow enough to allow the subliminal messages to be encoded but fast enough to keep them from being registered consciously. This was a way for the experimenter to make the conditioning subliminal and implicit. Messages were presented in five sets, each containing 20 words. Before and after the intervention, subjects were given three different kinds of memory tests that are known to assess the kinds of memory decline that occur in old age.
Test results revealed a correspondence between memory performance and the conditioned bias. Compared with their pre-test memory scores, post-test scores increased in the group that was primed with words signifying wisdom and were lower in the group that was primed with words suggesting senility.


Belief changes attitude, and attitude changes performance. Psychologist Martin Seligman wrote a magnificent book, Learned Optimism, Beliefs about poor memory ability can cause poor memory. which points out that both optimism and pessimism are learned explanatory styles that people use to evaluate the causes of their successes and failures.
Seligman even has a test that measures one’s explanatory style, on a scale ranging  from an optimist style (where people consider negative events as temporary, specific, and external) to the pessimist style  (where people regard negative events  as permanent, pervasive, and personalized). Optimists believe they can fix what is wrong. Pessimists don't try to fix things, because they have concluded that their shortcomings are permanent, pervasive, and characteristic of themselves. The effects of these contrasting styles clearly affect one’s view of the capacity for self-improvement. The good news is one can learn a more beneficial explanatory style, in effect, changing one’s attitude.
It doesn’t take long to learn a limiting explanatory style that says you are as good as you can get. I see this all the time in students, many of whom don’t really believe they can improve their memory capability, even when I show them how. Instead of using the new approaches I teach, they fall back on their old ways of learning, which usually involves no particular strategy and the use of rote memory.


The point is this: if you are motivated to develop a better memory and believe you can, you are much more likely to do what it takes to have a better memory. The implications for real-world memory performance seem clear. Believing can change our attitude and motivate us to do the things that will make it so.


Klemm, W. R. 2012. Memory Power 101.

Klemm, W. R. 2011. Better Grades. Less Effort. Benecton.
Levy B. R, and  Langer,  E. (1994) Aging free from negative stereotypes: Successful memory among the American deaf and in China. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66:935–943

Dr. Bill Klemm. a.k.a. “Memory Medic,” is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. He has spent a career in brain research. His 50 years of experience with students and his own aging have given him additional insights into how memory can be improved. 
                   If your memory is ill, Dr. Bill is your pill

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grit: The Key to School Success

What do you think is the major determinant of whether our children excel in school? IQ? Good teachers? Good schools? Good standards and curricula? No, I say it is the students' motivation, or just plain grit. Other teachers think so too.

Education reporter, Libby Nelson, calls attention to the issue of grit in student learning achievement. Her findings are that teachers and parents sometimes put too much emphasis on intelligence, when the more typical problem in education is that students don't try hard enough and are not sufficiently persistent in trying to achieve excellence. I know from personal experience: I excelled in school because I was an "overachiever."

Indeed, excellence is not even a goal for most students. Many students just want to do the minimum required to pass tests. This limiting attitude is reinforced by teachers who yield to the pressure of "teaching to the test." A few students don't care at all. They just drop out. One student told a teacher friend of mine, "I don't need to learn this stuff. Somebody will always take care of me."

Nelson points to evidence of grit's importance with these examples:
  • West Point cadets who scored highest on a scale of grit were more likely to complete the grueling first summer of training.
  • National spelling bee contestants with more grit ranked higher than other contestants of the same age who had less grit.
  • College admissions officers know how important grit is (more important than SAT tests) but they don't know how to measure it other than grades, which of course may be inflated and inaccurate indicators of grit. 
Clearly motivation is essential. I regard motivation as the cornerstone of what I call the "learning skills cycle," which led me to publish a book with that title with Rowman and Littlefield.  Learning begins with being motivated to learn, and successful completion of every step in the cycle strengthens motivation. However, every step in this cycle (organization, attentiveness, understanding/synthesis, memory, and problem solving/creativity) requires a degree of grit—the more, the better.

As applied to specific learning tasks, grit is central to all the ideas in the learning skills cycle. In the case of memory, for example, the well-known strategy of deliberate practice requires disciplined grit. Students diligently need to use established memory principles in a systematic way. This includes constructing a systematic learning strategy that includes organizing the learning materials in an effective way, intense study focus in short periods, elimination of interferences, use of mnemonic devices, and frequent rehearsals repeated in spaced intervals. Learning success depends on mental discipline and persistence.

Students differ enormously in their level of grit. It would be nice if we knew how to teach grit. Surely, parental influence is central. Parents lacking in grit are unlikely to model or teach it to their children. Some schools, especially private schools, teach grit by having high expectations and programs that help students discover the positive benefits that come from having more grit. One of those benefits is confidence, because grit promotes achievement and achievement develops confidence.

Confidence in the ability to learn is necessary for a student to try hard to learn. Here is the area where teaching skills count most: showing students they can learn difficult material and thereby building the confidence to take on greater learning challenges.

Students who have passionate goals are much more likely to invest effort and persistence in doing what is needed to achieve those goals. It is unrealistic to expect grade-school children to have well-formulated career goals. But certainly by early high-school, students should be forming specific lifetime goals. What a career goal is probably does matter as much as having one in the first place. Achieving a goal, regardless of whether it is later abandoned or not, teaches a youngster that grit is necessary for the achievement. The student learns that grit pays off.

Grit may not always lead to excellence in students with innate limited abilities. But grit allows such students to "become all they can be," as the Army recruitment slogan claims. Moreover, the benefits of grit perpetuate beyond success at any one learning challenge. Learning anything requires physical and chemical changes in the brain needed to store the positive attitudes that come from learning success and the learning content itself. In other words, the more you know, the more you can know.


"Memory Medic's newest book has just been released: Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. See descriptions and reviews of all his books at

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Ability to Learn More Important Than Ever

Expertise is out and ability to learn is in. I recently learned this from the Atlantic magazine. I subscribe in spite of the fact that I disagree with much of its hyper-political content. The reason is that they do have a few informative articles without snarky politics. One such article in the July 2019 issue is about the training philosophy for a new class of ships they call “Littoral Combat Ships.” The
Source: U.S. Navy
USS Gabrielle Giffords is the first of a series of such vessels under construction. Several compelling factors drive the training protocols for developing crews for these ships. One factor is that these are high-tech ships that demand an intelligent and flexible crew that can respond to unexpected contingencies. Another factor is that these ships have a hollow belly which can be readily retrofitted for different kinds of missions. Another is the need to reduce crew size to hold down costs. The effect on training is that expertise is out and ability to learn is in. The Navy wants “hybrid” sailors who can readily learn and perform multiple kinds of tasks. Careers in such a navy depend not so much on what one knows but what one is able to learn.

The same trend appears to be happening in the civilian world of work. Employers are always looking to do more with fewer workers. Where workers cannot be replaced by technology, the hiring priority goes to workers who are good learners. This not only reduces labor costs but also creates an adaptable workforce that can respond to rapid shifts in technology and market opportunities and demands.

The education community should be adapting to these real-world dynamical shifts in worker capabilities. I fear that we are still stuck in 19th Century education models that focus on knowledge acquisition. State and Federal education standards have a near-exclusive emphasis on transferring knowledge and skills.

Schools tell students what they need to know, based on what we think is important in today’s world. Tomorrow will not be like today. What we need to know in tomorrow’s world is likely to be vastly different from today.

After school years have ended, who will hold a worker’s hand to teach them what they did not learn in school? How prepared are students to learn on their own? Where are the educational programs for developing ability to learn? Testing rests on assessing knowledge with multiple-choice tests. Students are drilled to levels of conformity where “no child is left behind” (which is equivalent to “no child pushed forward”).

Where do schools teach children how to memorize, so they can remember acquired knowledge for future use? Where do schools teach creativity? Where do schools teach insightfulness? Do we even know of ways to increase intelligence? Do students have many opportunities to learn to love learning for its own sake? Do they have many opportunities to experience the joy of real discovery? Are they taught how to collaborate with others to learn and solve problems? Are they taught how to integrate knowledge across academic disciplines?

Worse yet, schools tend to eliminate certain kinds of teaching that do develop learning-to-learn skills. For example, cursive writing is eliminated as a national curricular requirement, despite the fact that it promotes learning of goal direction, focus, attention to detail, and the value of practice (see my several posts on this subject). As schools strive for cost-effectiveness by increasing enrollments to mega school size, students are deprived of opportunities to develop autonomy, individual nurturing becomes impractical, and testing devolves to guessing and weak recognition memory on multiple-choice tests.

The bottom line is this: the world is changing its workforce needs. Schools, particularly American schools, do not seem to be producing the kind of workforce the world increasingly seems to need.

"Memory Medic" has four books on improving learning and memory:

For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain.
                    Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site:

Friday, July 05, 2019

Happiness Can Make You Great, Can Make Your Country Great

Yesterday's 4th of July celebration in Washington reminded us of America's greatness. We saved the world from tyranny at least twice and our inventions have propelled prosperity around the world. America is great because it is free. It may also be great for another reason: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Some people might argue that the U.S. Constitution endorses hedonism, and indeed many politicians want to ignore or get rid of the Constitution. We should not be dismissive about encouraging people to pursue happiness. Happiness can be good for your brain. Depression is surely bad for your brain. Happiness helps people be more competent and productive, and that helps make their country great.

Text Box: Source: Christian Buehner. Upnsplash

Positive mood states promote more effective thinking and problem solving. A scholarly review of the literature demonstrates that positive mood broadens the scope of attentiveness, enhances semantic associations over a wider range, improves task shifting, and improves problem-solving capability. The review also documents the changes in brain activation patterns induced by positive mood in subjects while solving problems. Especially important is the dopamine signaling in the prefrontal cortex. 

Published studies reveal that a variety of techniques are used to momentarily manipulate mood. These have included making subjects temporarily happy or sad by asking subjects to recall emotionally corresponding past experiences or to view film clips or hear words that trigger happy or sad feelings,

The effect of happiness on broadened attentiveness arises because the brain has better cognitive flexibility and executive control, which in turn makes it easier to be more flexible and creative. Happy problem solvers are better able to select and act upon useful solutions that otherwise never surface into consciousness. Happiness reduces perseverative tendencies for errant problem-solving strategies. The broadened attentiveness, for example, allows people to attend to more stimuli, both in external visual space and in internal semantic space, which in turn enables more holistic processing. For example, in one cited study, experimenters manipulated subjects’ momentary mood and then measured performance on a task involving matching of visual objects based on their global versus local shapes. Happy moods yielded better global matching.

Other experiments report broader word association performance when subjects are manipulated to be happier. For example, subjects in a neutral mood would typically associate the word “pen” as a writing tool and would associate it with words like pencil or paper. But positive mood subjects would think also of pen as an enclosure and associate it with words like barn or pigs. This effect has been demonstrated with practical effect in physicians, who, when in a happy mood, thought of more disease possibilities in making a differential diagnosis.

The review authors reported their own experiment on beneficial happy mood effects on insightfulness, using a task in which subjects were given three words and asked to think of a fourth word that could be combined into a compound word or phrase. For example, an insightful response to “tooth, potato, and heart” might be “sweet tooth, sweet potato, and sweetheart.” Generating such insight typically requires one to suppress dominant “knee jerk” responses such as associating tooth with pain and recognize that pain does not fit potato while at the same time becoming capable of switching to non-dominant alternatives.
Other cited experiments showed that happy mood improved performance on “Duncker’s candle task.”  Here, subjects are given a box of tacks, a candle, and a book of matches, and are asked to attach a candle to the wall in a way that will burn without dripping wax on the floor. Subjects in a happy mood were more able to realize that the box could be a platform for the candle when the box is tacked to the wall.  

Such effects of happy moods seem to arise from increased neural activity in the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, areas that numerous prior studies have demonstrated as crucial parts of the brain’s executive control network. Similar effects have been observed in EEG studies. Other research suggests that the happiness effect is mediated by increased release of dopamine in the cortex that serves to up-regulate executive control

The review authors described a meta-analysis of 49 positive-psychology manipulation studies showing that momentary happiness is readily manipulated by such strategies as deliberate optimistic thinking, increased attention to and memory of happy experiences, practicing mindfulness and acceptance, and increasing socialization. The effect occurs in most normal people and even in people with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Biofeedback training, where subjects monitor their own fMRI scans or EEGs, might be an even more effective way for people to train themselves to be happier.

The main point is that in America people can be as happy as they choose to be. For more on how positive mood influences mental ability, see my book, Memory Power 101 (

Subramaniam, K. and Vinogradov, S. (2013). Improving the neural mechanisms of cognition through the pursuit of happiness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 7 August. Doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00452