Thursday, December 19, 2013

Memory and Location, Location, Location

When you remember first meeting the love of your life, do you also have a strong memory of where you both were and also where you were in relation to objects in the scene? When I first met my wife, Doris, it was at a party and she was at a piano surround by “bird dog” males, who I saw from an adjacent room. In my mind’s eye, I still see both rooms and where everybody was.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? I was in the waiting room of a hospital, looking over a series of lounge chairs at a large-screen TV program that was reporting the news.

It seems that many people remember not only events but where they were at the time of the event. But how does this happen? We do know that a new experience may be “consolidated” into a lasting memory, especially if it stirs emotion and you replay it in your mind. That is certainly the case when you meet the love of your life or see a terrible event.

If you were there, you would surely remember what you were doing.

Back in the 1970s I was studying the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, and it was known at the time that this structure is crucial for consolidating memories. I and others were focused on an EEG rhythm (theta rhythm of 4-7 waves per second) that was especially prominent when an animal moves around in an enclosure EEG signals are summed over dozens of neurons, and therefore to get more precise data some investigators put microelectrodes into the hippocampus so they could monitor the nerve impulse activity of single neurons as the animal moved around.

It was quickly discovered that some hippocampal neurons fired impulses selectively when an animal was in a special location within the enclosure. Collectively, these “place” neurons were actually mapping the enclosure space and tracking the animal’s position as it moved around in this space.

New insight on an additional role for place neurons has come from a new research report on human epileptics with electrodes implanted in their hippocampus to locate the diseased tissue. These patients played a virtual-reality game in which their avatar drove through a virtual town and delivered items to stores. Their task was to memorize the layout and what was delivered at each store. Meanwhile, place cells in the hippocampus were monitored and their place coding was noted. Then when participants were asked to recall the memory of what went where, the place-responsive activity was reinstated even though the subjects were not actually playing the game but recalling it from memory. And the activity of place cells was similar to that during the learning stage.

In other words, neural representations of the content of the experience had become linked with the spatial and temporal context. Such evidence provides strong evidence for the theory that memory formation and recall involve association of event with context, especially spatial and temporal context. This linkage creates a mutually reinforcing interaction of event and location. We tend to remember both or neither.

Can we apply these findings to improving everyday learning and memory situations? Of course, we can. The key elements for making it easier to learn something new are to:

1.  Identify a context that stirs emotions, preferably positive emotions like meeting someone you are attracted to.

2.  Be especially aware of where you are at the time and where you are in relation to the location of various objects.

The hippocampus uses these emotional and spatial cues to facilitate the consolidation of memory. We know that memory is promoted by making associations. Emotions and spatial cues are probably the most effective kinds of cues.

Sources: Miller, J. F. et al. (2013) Neural activity in human hippocampal formation reveals the spatial context of retrieved memories. Science. 342, 1111-1114

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Friday, December 06, 2013

The Role of Research Funding in Education Practice

If we learn anything about educational policy, we should learn that what we have tried over the last couple of decades to improve student achievement doesn’t work very well. I won’t bore you with all the statistics showing that academic ability of U.S. students lags that of most other developed countries and our ranking is not improving. I would like to explore one reason for lack of progress besides faulty federal policy. And that reason is research funding. We don’t know enough about how brains learn and remember, nor how to apply what we do know to educational policy.

The recently announced winners of the Nobel Prize included nine from the U.S. In a recent joint interview by leaders of the American Association of Science, the winners spent little time discussing their research achievements, preferring to expound on some serious concerns about how research is now funded in the U.S.

Of course, some of these concerns could be considered whining. Like much of the general public, the scientific community has become dependent on government. When federal funds don’t grow at high rates, scientists can be cry-babies too. Nobody seems to care much about the growing federal debt and a very real threat of looming financial disaster in this country. Interest groups, including those in science, think if we have to cut funding, it should come out of somebody else’s piece of the pie. As a result, nothing much gets cut anywhere.

But there are legitimate issues about science policy and how federal money is allocated for research. The U.S. leads the world in Nobel Prizes by about 3 to 1. Actually, this understates our prowess. Young scientists from all over the world come here to learn world-class science, but we make most of them go back home to become science superstars in their own country. At the same time, we have little stomach for deporting uneducated illegal aliens. It’s hard to think of a more stupid immigration policy.

Randy Schekman, physiology winner, said that many of our best young foreign scientists are "returning to their countries because those countries, unlike ours, see the promise of investment in basic science. It's actual damage that's occurring right now." Several of the other laureates concurred.

The future of U.S. science may well be in jeopardy. The new Nobelists point out that the buying power of National Institute of Health funding has shrunk by 28% over the last seven or eight years. Moreover, government needs to re-think how that money is distributed. For example:

·         Michael Levitt, who won the award for chemistry, said "A huge change in the last 30 years has been that people under 40 get almost no money, and people over 65 get lots of money. Everyone here would agree that we made our discoveries when we were under 40."

·         James Rothman, winner in physiology, blamed big-science mentality where too much money as being “allocated into pre-determined projects is heading toward bureaucrat-driven science."

I fought the grant wars for years and finally gave up. I got too few grants for all the time I wasted writing proposals. Several of the Nobelists commented on how much time scientists waste writing proposals that don’t get funded.

Another part of the problem, apparently not mentioned in the interview, is that too much money is soaked up by too few grants. Universities have negotiated enormous overhead fees, sometimes exceeding 100% of the grant, and that is money that mostly goes into the institutions’ general fund, not the funded project. Also, too much grant money goes to salary support for the scientists. It used to be that universities were committed to supporting their scientists. Now, universities expect their scientists to hustle money for the university. As a result, too much grant money gets consumed by projects that are scientifically sexy and will sell, not necessarily for the most promising science. An associated problem is that government spends way too much grant money pursuing scientific fads. Far too many areas in science have no chance of getting competitive funding simply because they are currently unfashionable.


Sunday, December 01, 2013

Does Music Help Memory?

When I was in veterinary medical school, I could often be found lounging in the fraternity living room listening to jazz records. My classmates were stunned that I was wasting so much time, when most of them had to study while I seemingly had nothing to do. O.K., so maybe I graduated fifth in my class rather than first, but I was not nearly as stressed as my classmates.

My reason for sacrificing study time was that it bolstered my spirits. Veterinary medicine is a lot harder than most people think. Veterinarians learn the same anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, and so on as physicians do. In some schools, human and veterinary medical students take many of the same basic science classes. Moreover, veterinary students have to learn about multiple species, learn more public health, and take a year’s worth of surgery.

But back to the music issue: some people, especially students, think that listening to music helps the memory. Historically, supporters of this practice have referred to this as the “Mozart effect.” Most students, of course, listen to pop music rather than Mozart. Students are notorious for listening to music while studying. Why isn’t music a distraction? I have written before about how extraneous stimuli can prevent memory consolidation, which in the case of studying, consumes cognitive resources and prevents the formation of memory that lasts long enough for the next examination.

Because so many students listen to music while studying, formal experiments were recently reported on whether or not that is a good thing. These experiments, conducted in Finland, had a scientific rationale. Prior research had shown that listening to music that people considered pleasurable increased the release of dopamine in the brain, and dopamine is well known as a “feel good” neurotransmitter. Other research had also shown that dopamine promotes learning to approach rewards, while a deficiency of dopamine promotes learning of punishments.

Seventy three subjects, mean age of 27.1 years, listened to a battery of 14 songs and identified three that they really liked and three that were emotionally neutral. One of each was selected for use in the study, in which subjects were grouped in four different listening patterns involving a positive (P) or neutral (N) song during study and the opposite kind of song during testing. Thus, there were four groups, NN, NP, PP, PN. Each group was formed to have an approximately equal number of musicians and non-musicians.

The learning involved memorizing 54 pairs of Japanese characters, in which one character was arbitrarily given a high reward value (a simple smiley face feedback display during training) and the other character a low reward value (frowning face feedback). In the test phase, pairs were shuffled and thus served as a measure of how well the original learning was generalized.

Results indicated that people with more musical experience 
learned better with neutral music but tested better
with pleasurable music. The opposite was true for people without music training. My explanation is that pleasurable music is a distraction for a musically trained person who could be expected to pay more attention and devote more cognitive resources to pleasurable music’s inherent structure in the process of analyzing and realizing its pleasing quality. Neutral music is more easily ignored. A central tenet of learning is that any kind of distraction impairs formation of memory. The musically untrained people learned better with positive music, presumably because of the positive emotions it generated without the complication of analyzing it and thus interfering with memory formation. Clearly, the role of music listening in learning differs among individuals.

I looked at their song list and found no jazz–all of it was either concert-type music or pop songs.  That is a serious oversight, in my view. What the researchers may have missed is the possible positive effect of the unique rhythms and syncopation of jazz. I am reminded of a study I reported in my book, Memory Power 101, showing that chewing gum helps learning.

I am musically untrained, and maybe my listening to jazz improved my learning in vet school by creating positive emotions. A great deal of research has shown that positive emotions have an indirect enhancing effect on forming memories. Negative emotions impair memory. No solid neuroscience explanation exists, but it is no doubt highly relevant that the same brain structure, the hippocampus, mediates both emotions and memory formation.


Gold, B. P. et al. (2013) Pleasurable music affects reinforcement learning according to the listener. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 4 Article 541.  Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00541