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Friday, November 27, 2009

Kids Can Be Damaged by Excessive Cell-phone Use

As I have explained in my book, almost any activity that is interspersed between learning events, is an interference that can reduce learning efficiency. When children constantly interrupt study (even classroom work) by talking on their cell phones or text messaging, they reduce the efficacy of registering and remembering what they are supposed to learn. This often occurs in an environment of multi-tasking (listening to IPod or MP3 players, playing videogames, blogging, posting on MySpace or Facebook, etc.). These activities create a brain that has a short attention span and difficulty in focusing.

Now comes new scientific evidence that cell phone use may actually change brain chemistry. Some scientists say that cellphone use does have a biological effect on the brain. A recent study at Örebro University in Sweden reported that physical changes occur in brain from the radiation emitted by cell phones. Cellphone use increases the amount of a protein called transthyretin, which is a carrier of thyroid hormones in serum and is part of the ceberospinal fluid that cushions and protects the brain. But the researchers did not comment if the change is good or bad for the brain. But in any case, this should give us pause.

Children are more likely to be affected by cell-phone radiation than adults. Children have much thinner skull bones and their brains have a lot more fluid, so their brain tissues would likely absorb much more radiation compared to an adult’s brain.

The Swedish study found that children and teenagers who were heavy cell phone users were indeed more likely to report health problems. These included headaches and impaired concentration. This impaired concentration may have a biological cause in addition to the poor habits of mind that develop from excessive multi-tasking.

Source: Adapted from materials provided by The Swedish Research Council, via AlphaGalileo.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Music Stirs the Emotions. Emotions Stir the Memories

Numerous anecdotal reports are suggesting that stroke or dementia patients benefit from listening to music. For example, Everett Dixon, a 28-yearold stroke victim, apparently learned to walk and use his hands again from daily listening to the kind of music he liked. Ann Povodator, an 85 year-old Alzheimer's patient, perks up when she listens to her beloved opera and Yiddish songs; her daughter says "It seems to touch something deep within her."

Caregivers commonly report that stroke or dementia patients can recall and sing songs from long ago, even when most other memories are lost. Moreover, the music can help retrieve memories that were associated with the music, not just the music itself.

Formal music therapy programs are sprouting up. Best known is the non-profit Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, directed by Concetta M. Tomaino, who lives in Garrison, New York. The Institute claims that music can help premature infants gain weight, autistic children communicate, stroke patients re-gain speech and mobility, surgical patients alleviate pain, and psychiatric patients relieve anxiety and depression. The most effective music seems to be that which the patient experienced and liked in their youth. Few of these observations come from controlled studies that rule out the possibility that the improvement was going to occur anyway without the music. Nonetheless, there are apparently 5,000 certified music therapists in the U.S. (I have no idea how one gets certified as a "music therapist.")

I do believe that there is some scientific basis for some of the claims. I have discussed elsewhere how emotions help to consolidate experiences into long-term memories as well as to retrieve such memories. Some of the same brain areas that generate emotions are also the ones involved in forming memories. Moreover, when a person initially hears a song, there may be powerful associations of other events and situations. We all know that associations help create robust memories.

Many students like to listen to music while they study. I think my frenquent listening to jazz helped me memorize all the required stuff in veterinary school. Others claim that classical music aids study. I would point out that both jazz and classical music are instrumental. I am convinced that songs with lyrics would be counterproductive, for the linguistic content serves as a distraction and could easily distrupt memory consolidation processes.

As for recall of already formed memories, music, if it is music you have learned to love, will at a minimum improve your emotional state, particularly in relieving stress. This alone can facilitate memory retrieval. Depression, anxiety, and stress are well known inhibitors of both memory formation and memory retrieval. Being happy not only feels good, it is also good for memory.

Beck, Melinda. 2009. A key for unlocking memories. Wall St. Journal, Tuesday, Nov. 17, p. D1.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Daytime Naps Promote Skilled-movement Learning

Whether you are learning to play the piano or learning to throw a football to a fast-breaking receiver, the necessary muscle movements have to be memorized. Converting the memory of movements into long-lasting form takes several hours or more for the brain to "consolidate" the learned movements. This process can be disrupted by trying to learn a different movement during this vulnerable period. For example, consolidation of the memory for a few chords on the piano can be disrupted by trying to learn finger movements on a computer keyboard during this consolidation period.

Another feature of motor learning is that delayed gains in skill performance can occur after a latent period of several hours after an effective learning experience. This delayed performance gain depends on the first post-training night's sleep (I have explained the role of sleep on other kinds of memory in my book on improving memory.

Now comes a study that shows that daytime naps condense the time course of motor- memory consolidation. In the experiment, subjects learned a five-element finger-to-thumb opposition sequence with their non-dominant hand. Then the experimenters tested the effect of a post-training nap. Compared to no-nap controls, a 90-minute daytime nap immediately after training markedly reduced the susceptibility to post-training interference effects and produced a much earlier expression of delayed gains within 8 hours post training. Thus, both memory-enhancing effects were produced by the nap.

Would a shorter nap produce the same effect? We don't know. It wasn't tested. Another untested possibility is that the daytime nap might enhance the memory consolidation that is normally produced by a night's sleep after a motor learning experience, especially if the task is rehearsed that same day after the nap.


Korman, M. et al. 2009. Daytime sleep condenses the time course of motor memory consolidation. Nature Neuroscience. 10 (9): 1206-1213.