Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Jazz Can Do for Your Brain and Memory

I just got back from my second trip to the Katy Jazz festival, run by a school district just West of Houston. It was time for a jazz fix. You see, I am a jazz fan, and though not compulsive, I do need to dash occasionally to New Orleans or go to a festival like the one in Katy.

How does one become a jazz fan, particularly somebody like me who doesn't know much about music and who can't stand 200-year-old church music or the new mind-numbing songs in so many "contemporary" services. For Texas students who live in enlightened districts like Katy ISD, jazz appreciation starts as early as middle school in the larger schools that spin off jazz training from their marching and concert bands.

My fanhood began in the summer when I turned 19. After finishing my freshman year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a fraternity brother talked me into spending the summer in Hollywood, where his family had moved. He steered me around all the clubs and concert venues, and I saw in person jazz icons like Stan Kenton, Cab Calloway, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Belson, Chet Baker, Shelley Mann, and Shorty Rogers. My buddy and I would even spend a whole evening listening to Dave Brubeck and Joe Morello for the price of one beer, which we managed to take three hours to milk.

At first, I thought what I was hearing was just unstructured noise. My buddy explained what was going on, usually opening with the tune's melody line, then improvising on that melody line, and then gracefully finding the way back home to the tune's opening statement. And I didn't need to know musical details to appreciate the rhythms that flowed through my body like honey on a warm biscuit.

I am since learning a lot at the Katy festival where some 12 schools showed off their jazz bands and subsumed combos. The festival also featured sets from eight professional combos. But the really important part is that the student groups are given critiques by professional musicians, many of whom are or have been college music professors. The critiques are miked so the audience can hear. From such instruction I am learning that really big things are happening in the brain's mental biology as one listens to or plays jazz.

First the listening: the most obvious effect is stress reduction. Stress, as I have explained in early posts, is the arch-enemy of memory ability. In my case, I put my West Coast jazz experience to good use in mastering the veterinary curriculum at Auburn. While classmates were beating their brains up trying to learn all the stuff involved in veterinary medicine (more than in human medicine), I spent a lot of my time listening to jazz records. And I still beat all but four classmates in grades.

Listening is also fun, probably less so than playing jazz, but still a lot of fun. In San Antonio, Jim Cullum's band used to be called the "Happy Jazz Band." Think about where jazz came from. It is uniquely an American innovation, beginning as emotional relief for slaves who found comfort in the blues, which eventually spawned jazz in its happier forms. Wholesome fun promotes happiness. Happy brains learn better. They can also often live longer (remember my blog on the long life span of so many stand-up comedians). Think about Preservation Hall in New Orleans. There and elsewhere around the country, many jazz artists are still performing sophisticated music in their 80s.

 As for mental biology, a jazz player experiences enormous mental stimulation, Even as a listener, after a concert my untrained brain churns out a continuous stream of improvisation in my mind's ear that can include multiple instruments that I have no idea how to play. A player has to engage the brain in multiple ways that classical musicians do not. First, there are added technical requirements, such as playing blue notes, swinging eighth notes, and unusual time signatures like 12/8 and 5/4 or complex African or Latin rhythms.  Then there is the huge challenge of improvisation, which is basically composing on the fly. When improvising, there is a safety net of knowing the proper chord structure and melody, but players have to have a huge musical vocabulary and realize in milliseconds what new notes will fit. They also have to listen hard so they can interact properly with what others in the band are playing. The "call and response" paradigm in jazz is actually musical conversation. I can't think of anything more mentally demanding, especially for youngsters in early stages of learning music. Early middle school is a particularly time-sensitive period for mental development, and I suspect that middle school jazz bands can have disproportionate beneficial effects on brain development.

Learning jazz may be the ultimate in training young minds to think critically and creatively. An earlier blog post after my fist trip to the Katy festival focused on the exceptional teaching skills of jazz band directors. Many teachers protested, saying in essence that anybody can teach good students. Regular teachers get stuck with so many underachievers. Maybe we should consider the possibility that jazz-band students are such high achievers because their jazz training has trained their brains in invaluable learning capacities for hand-eye coordination, the ability to memorize, discipline, patience, critical and creative thinking, high-speed intellectual engagement with the ideas of others, and self-actualization and confidence.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that mental challenge develops new connections in the brain and with it, new biological capabilities. In jazz, such mental enrichment enhances the ability to memorize, not only directly in terms of having to learn a large musical vocabulary and the rules of jazz, but also in terms of basic mental biology. My new book, Mental Biology, explains some of the basic ideas.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Memory Athlete Gimmicks. Tip 1: Familiar Locations

In my last article, I promised to explain five gimmicks that memory athletes use. These can be accomplished even by memory wimps, though perhaps not at the competition level. Most people don't want to be memory athletes, but they would like to remember things more easily and reliably. These techniques can accomplish that. Besides, they are fun.

Several thousand years ago, ancient Greek orators were noted for their ability to give hours-long speeches from memory. How did they pull off such astonishing feats? They invented a visual imaging technique where thoughts were mentally captured as images in the mind’s eye and they would recall what was to be said by recalling the images. Images are much easier to remember than words.

One common imaging technique is known as a method of location (MoL). This technique is also called "Memory Palace." That is, mental images are attached to certain locations in the three-dimensional space imagined in the mind’s eye. The idea is to use objects in a familiar area as anchor points or pegs for hanging the mental images of what you are trying to remember. Surveys of competitive memory “athletes” reveal that 9 out of 10 use some kind of imagined location device.

Use a memory palace to improve memory capability
 Here is a simple example. Consider the living room of your apartment or house. You are very familiar with each object and its location in the room. You use these as mental pegs, which is easy to do, because you already know what they are. You just mentally walk about the room and mentally see each familiar object. In turn, one at a time, you attach a mental image of what you are trying to remember on the object peg in the room. For example, suppose you identify the front door as a starting point. The first object encountered might be a recliner chair, then a lamp, then a sofa, then a coffee table, then the TV set, and so on. Now suppose you want to remember a daily "to do" list. You might remember the trip to the post office by imagining the mailman at your door, the doctor's appointment by seeing a stethoscope lying in the recliner, the grocery store by seeing the lamp making a stalk of celery sprout, the bookstore trip by seeing books stacked on your sofa, the kids' soccer practice by seeing them kick the ball into the sofa, the evening PTA meeting by seeing a TV film crew filming you there, and so on.

You can use other locations, such as body parts, specific places in your car, or highly familiar routes in the yard or at work. To recall these stored items, simply retrace your steps. Like fishing lines, each memory is hooked to a location and you just reel them in.

These techniques work, even in older people with no formal memory training. A recent survey that tested the usefulness of image location in older people found that it was effective in improving their memory capability. A study of people with superior memory revealed that nine of 10 employed the method spontaneously.[1]

Although generally used to remember objects, numbers or names, the MoL has also been used in people with depression to successfully store bits and pieces of happy autobiographical memories that they can easily retrieve in times of stress.[2]

Modernizing the Mnemonic

In early 2012, a team of Canadian researchers gave the ancient MoL mnemonic a 21st century facelift. [3] The team constructed several detailed virtual reality environments to serve as loci, rather than letting MoL learners generate their own. Researchers allowed 142 undergraduate volunteers only five minutes to familiarize themselves with the virtual environment before giving two thirds of them instructions in using the MoL to memorize 110 unrelated words. Some were told to pick a familiar environment, while others were allowed to use the virtual environment they just navigated. The other third didn’t receive any specific instructions on memory techniques.

Both MoL groups outperformed the controls. They were 10 to 16 percent more accurate in their recall, and students who used the virtual environment performed just as well as those told to generate their own landmarks, even though in both groups the students admitted they weren't diligent in using MoL. It does take practice to be good at it.

In a recent TED talk, Kasper Bormans described using a virtual reality replica of their home to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease “store” the memory of their loved one’s faces using the MoL.[4]

The main point is that people can improve their memory ability by learning to use MoL. However, with age the brain gradually loses the flexibility to change in response to training. Nonetheless, many studies show that MoL successfully slows memory decline in the normal aging population, but why this happens is a complete mystery. That is, until recently.

Thickening of the Brain

Any time the brain learns something, physical and chemical changes occur in the brain, even in the elderly. Thus MoL should be able to change the brain for the better. In 2010 a Norwegian team set out to look for the most obvious signs of MoL-induced structural changes in the brain.

Expert instructors led 23 volunteers with an average age of 61 through an intensive eight-week long program. These volunteers managed to use MoL to remember three lists of 30 words in sequential order in no more than 10 minutes, a remarkable feat of memory! The control group – matched in age, sex and education- were instructed to “live as usual” for the eight weeks.

MRI brain maps identified a surprisingly large morphological change in the cerebral cortex of the MoL-trained volunteers.[5] The amount of improvement in memory performance correlated with the amount of increased cortical thickening. Similarly, a later study by this group showed that learning MoL increased the integrity of elderly participant’s white matter compared to controls.

Rewiring the Brain

Two groups of researchers decided to determine whether learning MoL alters brain activity patterns. Scientists in Sweden recruited young volunteers in their twenties and elderly participants in their sixties and used PET scans to follow changes in their brain activity as they adopted MoL to remember a list of random words. All of the younger volunteers – but only half of the elderly – remembered roughly four more words than they had in their initial test.[6]

What about the half of elderly participants who didn't improve? One important clue was their complete lack of activation of MoL-associated brain regions during testing, prompting researchers to wonder whether these volunteer actually used the MoL.  A subsequent informal chat revealed that many older participants found it difficult to associate the loci with the words under the experiment’s tight time constraints, felt frustrated and gave up.

So although a promising technique for many, MoL training is difficult, particularly for the elderly who are less able to generate and rely on a mental map of distinctive landmarks. But I know from experience that practicing MoL improves one's imagination, and that in turn, improves the ability to get more benefit from MoL. Besides, this is a more fun way to memorize.

[1] Maguire E. A., et al. (2003).  Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature  Neurosci. 6(1):90-5.
[2] Dalgleish, Tim, et al. (2014). Method-of-Loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate access to self-affirming personal memories for Individuals with depression. Clinical Psychological Science, 1 (2): 156-162

[3] Legge E. L. et al. (2012) Building a memory palace in minutes: equivalent memory performance using virtual versus conventional environments with the Method of Loci .Acta Psychol (Amst). 141(3):380-90

[5] Engvig A et al. (2010) Effects of memory training on cortical thickness in the elderly. NeuroImage. 52: 1667–1676.

[6] Nyberg L et al. (2003).Neural correlates of training-related memory improvement in adulthood and aging. PNAS 100 (23), 13728-33 PMID: 14597711

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What Does Memorization Say about Free Will?

Scientific and philosophical fashion these days is to claim that humans have no free will. That is, we are basically biological robots, driven to our thoughts, beliefs, and actions by unconscious forces in our brain. Our genes and our experiential programming control everything we do. Free will is an illusion.

So goes the assertions of a clutch of activist scientists, such as Richard, Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Wegner, who have probably gotten rich off their best-seller books arguing the case against free will.

Religion is also nailed to the cross, so to speak. Ideas of moral responsibility originate in views of right and wrong, and every religion expects that followers have the capacity to make the correct choices. Their free-will capacity makes them morally responsible. I think it is no accident that most of the illusory free-will activists I have read are also activists for atheism. Otherwise, their position would be cognitively dissonant.

Legal issues arise, as stated by the legal analyst Jeffrey Rosen, who wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “Since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused? … The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility.”

There are serious social consequences attached to accepting the premise of illusory free will. One is the obvious conclusion one should draw that consciously willed effort to improve oneself or lot in life is futile.

Another consequence of such thinking is the need to proclaim, as many scientists now do, that consciousness cannot do anything. Freely chosen actions would have to come from a conscious brain. Therefore, the conscious brain must not be the source of actions that occur during consciousness. Consciousness is thus seen as audience watching a movie of what is happening.

Of course, the futility argument is not evidence for free will. It is however, a practical reason to believe in it, for otherwise people would not make much effort to change and improve themselves. They would otherwise become intellectually and emotionally paralyzed by such nihilism.

This is not the place to elaborate the research that neuroscientists claim provides the basis for asserting illusory free will. I do that in my just-released book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. I point out the uncontrolled variables in the experiments conducted in the 1980s that purported to show there is no free will. Subsequent reports that confirmed those findings had the same poorly controlled variables. Moreover, there are some new studies using better designs that show that the original findings do not withstand scrutiny.

So, is there a reasoned counter-argument? Eddy Nahmias points out that "the sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter. But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick. It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff."

In my new book, I have a large section defending the position that consciousness IS able to do things, among them exerting at least a significant modicum of freely chosen thoughts and actions. One line of argument, which is in line with the learning and memory theme of this blog site, is memorization. It is true that the brain is forming memories of a day's events while you sleep and obviously unconscious. But the initial encoding and working memory are performed while you are conscious. Moreover, conscious use of mnemonic devices profoundly enhances the formation of memory, as I will demonstrate in future posts about how "memory athletes" do such astonishing working-memory feats as learning the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards in a minute and a half or memorizing 80-digit number strings. Conscious use of mnemonics is required. Using these mnemonics is challenging, requiring intense selective attention and strongly will executive functions. You obviously cannot do such things when you are unconscious.

Skeptics will say that such feats are all driven and performed by the unconscious mind and that consciousness is just around to realize it has happened. But consciousness is also around to recite what was memorized. Try that in your sleep.


Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology. The New Science of How Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

Nahmias, Eddy (2011). Is neuroscience the death of free will? New York Times.