Thursday, April 30, 2015

Music Effects on Cognitive Function of the Elderly

Whether the music is orchestral, rock, country, or jazz, most seniors like to listen to some kind of music. Music can soothe or energize, make us happy or sad, but the kind we like to hear does something that can be positively reinforcing or otherwise we would not listen to it. As my 80-year-old jazz trumpeter friend, Richard Phelps, recently said at his birthday party, "Where there is life there is music. Where there is music, there is life."
Relatively little research has been done on the effects of music on brain function in older people. But one study recently reported the effects in older adults of background music on brain processing speed and two kinds of memory (episodic and semantic). The subjects were not musicians and had an average age of 69 years.
The music test conditions were: 1) no music control, 2) white noise control, 3) a Mozart recording, and 4) a Mahler recording. All 65 subjects were tested in counter-balanced order in all four categories. The music was played at modest volume as background before and during performance of the cognitive tasks, a mental processing speed task and the two memory tasks. The episodic memory task involved trying to recall a list of 15 words immediately after a two-minute study period. The semantic memory task involved word fluency in which subjects wrote as many words as they could think of beginning with three letters of the alphabet.
Processing speed performance was faster while listening to Mozart than with the Mahler or white noise conditions. No improvement in the Mahler condition was seen over white noise or no music.
Episodic memory performance was better when listening to either type of music thatn while hearing white noise or no music. No difference was noted between the two types of music.
Semantic memory was better for both kinds of music than with white noise and better with Mozart that with no music.
Recognizing that emotions could be a relevant factor, the experimenters analyzed a mood questionnaire comparing the two music conditions with white noise. Mozart generated higher happiness indicators than did Mahler or white noise. Mahler was rated more sad than Mozart and comparable to white noise.
Thus, happy, but not sad, music correlated with increased processing speed. The researchers speculated that happy subjects were more around and alert.
Surprisingly, both happy and sad music enhanced both kinds of memory over the white noise or silence condition. But it is not clear if this observation is generally applicable. The authors did mention without emphasis that the both kinds of music were instrumental and lacked loudness or lyrics that could have been distracting and thus impair memory. I think this point is substantial. When lyrics are present, the brain is dragged into trying to hear the words and thinking about their meaning. These thought processes would surely interfere with trying to memorize new information or recall previous learned material.
A point not considered at all is personal preference for a certain types of music. There are people who don't like classical music, and the data in this study could have been made "noisy" if enough of the 65 people disliked classical music and were actually distracted by it. In other words, the effects noted in this study might have been magnified if the subjects were allowed to hear their preferred music.
My take-home lesson was actually formed over five decades ago when I listed to jazz records while plowing my way through memorizing a veterinary medical curriculum. Then, I thought that the benefit was stress reduction (veterinary school IS stressful and happy jazz certainly reduces stress). Now perhaps I see that frequent listening to music that was pleasurable for me might have actually helped my memory capability. If you still have doubts you might want to check my latest blog post, "Happy thoughts can make you more competent" (
Anyway, now that I am in the elderly category, I see there is still reason to listen to the music I like. Music can be therapy for old age.

“People haven't always been there for me but music always has.”
    —Taylor Swift

"Memory Medic's" latest book is "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine." It is available in inexpensive e-book form at Amazon or in all formats at


Bottiroli, Sara et al. (2014). The cognitive effects of listening to background music on older adults: processing speed improves with upbeat music, while memory seems to benefit from both upbeat and downbeat music. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Oct. 15. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00284.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

What Is the Optimal Spacing for Study?

We have all been told by teachers that learning occurs best when we spread it out over time, rather than trying to cram everything into our memory banks at one time. But what is the optimal spacing? There is no general consensus.
However we do know that immediately after a learning experience the memory of the event is extremely volatile and easily lost. It's like looking up a number in the phone book: if you think about something else at the same time you may have to look the number up again before you can dial it. School settings commonly create this problem. One learning object may be immediately followed by another, and the succession of such new information tends to erase the memory of the preceding ones.
Memory researchers have known for a long time that repeated retrieval enhances long-term retention. This happens because each time we retrieve a memory, it has to be reconsolidated and each such reconsolidation strengthens the memory. Though optimal spacing intervals have not been identified, research confirms the importance of spaced retrieval. No doubt, the nature of the information, the effectiveness of initial encoding, competing experiences, and individual variability affect the optimal interval for spaced learning.
One study revealed that repeated retrieval of learned information (100 Swahili–English word pairs) with long intervals produced a 200% improvement in long-term retention relative to repeated retrieval with no spacing between tests. Investigators compared different-length intervals of 15, 30, or 90 minute spacing that expanded (for example, 15-30-45 min), stayed the same (30-30-30 min) or contracted (45-30-15 min) revealed that no one relative spacing interval pattern was superior to any other.[1]
Another study[2] has revealed that the optimally efficient gap between study sessions depends on when the information will be tested in the future. A very comprehensive study of this matter in 1,350 individuals involved teaching them a set of facts and then testing them for long-term retention after 3.5 months. A final test was given at a further delay of up to one year. At any test delay, increasing the inter-study gap between the first learning and a study of that material at first increased and then gradually reduced final test performance. Expressed as a ratio, the optimal gap equaled 10-20% of the test delay. That is, for example, a one-day gap was best for a test to be given seven days later, while a 21-day gap was best for a test 70 days later. Few of any teachers or students know this, and their study times are rarely scheduled in any systematic way, typically being driven by test schedules for other subjects, convenience, or even the teacher's whim.
The bottom line: the optimal time to review a newly learned experience is just before you are about to forget it. Obviously, we usually don't know when this occurs, but in general the vast bulk of forgetting occurs within the first day after learning. As a rule of thumb, you can suspect that a few repetitions early on should be helpful in fully encoding the information and initiating a robust consolidation process. So, for example, after each class a student should quickly remind herself what was just learned—then that evening do another quick review. Before the next class on that subject, the student should review again. Teachers help this process by linking the next lesson to the preceding one.
Certain practices will reduce the amount of time needed for study and the degree of long-term memory formation. These include:

• Don't procrastinate. Do it now!
• Organize the information in ways that make sense (outlines, concept maps)
• Identify what needs to be memorized and what does not.
• Focus. Do not multi-task. No music, cell phones, TV or radio, or distractions of any kind.
• Association the new with things you already know.
• Associate words with mental images and link images to locations, or in story chains
• Think hard about the information, in different contexts
• Study small chunks of material, in short intervals. Then take a mental break.
• Say out loud what you are trying to remember.
• Practice soon after learning and frequently thereafter at spaced intervals.
• Explain what you are learning to somebody else. Work with study groups later.
• Self-test. Don't just "look over" the material. Truly engage with it.
• Never, never, ever CRAM!

[1] Karpicke, J. d., and Bauernschmidt, a. 2011. Spaced retrieval: absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing. J. Exp. Psychol. 37 (5) 1250-1257.
[2] Cepeda, N. J. et al. 2008. Spacing effects in learning. A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. 19  (11): 1095-1102

Friday, April 03, 2015

What Happened to The Wonder of Learning?

I read a lot about educational theory and research so that I can share "best practices" for better ways to teach and learn with my readers. Shared here are the ideas in a most informed and intelligent article on learning, written by Catherine L'Ecuyer, a Canadian lawyer with an MBA now living in Barcelona, Spain.[1] The article explains the fundamental importance for motivating children to learn: the sense of wonder.
This notion resonated with me, because I know it to be true from personal experience. To this
day, I have vivid memories of the excitement I had as a six-year old in Fort Myers, Florida, as I walked to my first day of school. Yes, in those days it was safe for kids to walk several blocks to school unattended. And yes, there was, at least for me, no kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, or day care.
Sauntering to school, I became entranced with all the new sights and sounds, stopping several times along the way to savor a new experience. A vivid memory was my stop at a beautiful flower I had never seen before. I physically probed the bloom, astonished at the elegant expression of nature. On that day, the prospect of school was a most joyous opportunity. It did not take long for school's pedantic nature, drills, and drudgery to squelch my sense of wonder. It was only in late middle school that my sense of wonder was resurrected, and that only occurred because I had a crush on my teacher and wanted to impress her with my learning. For many children, their inherent sense of wonder that school stamps out never returns.
Clearly, a child's state of mind affects how learning and the school environment are regarded. Among the more relevant states is stimulus seeking. That is why for example I wanted to explore the innards of that beautiful flower. Then too, there is the basic human responsiveness to positive reinforcement. If a learning experience is perceived as wondrous, it is perceived as good and beneficial, serving as incentive to have other such learning experiences. It obviously helps for a child to be aware of such perceptions.
L'Ecuyer adds the sense of wonder to the list of fundamentals of the motivation to learn. She makes the point that wonder is innate in children, especially when they are young. As a child matures, much of this sense of wonder can fade. For some people, the more they learn, the less wondrous the world seems. Among adults, scientists seem to be an exception (to a biologist, pond scum is beautiful and wondrous).
L'Ecuyer argues that modern educational paradigms are behaviorist and conflict with nurturing the sense of wonder in children. By behaviorist, she means that the guiding principle of teaching is that the environment directs learning with its emphasis on teachers, curriculum, and high-stakes testing. The popular mantra is that learning is better when it is provided earlier and in abundance. Curricula are designed to bombard students with information and testing. Do we really think that is motivating?
The problem is that children can be overwhelmed by too much too soon. Yet government policy increasingly advocates pre-kindergarten. Young developing brains do not respond well to too much stimulus, too much curriculum, and too much high-stakes testing. Children become preconditioned to expect high levels of stimulation, leading to attentiveness disorders. Children become passive and bored. The associated loss of the sense of wonder diminishes a child's motivation to cope with all this stimulus and pressure.
L'Ecuyer cites convincing research showing that compared to adults children learn at a slower pace than adults. They need more calm and silence. They are more intrigued by mystery. They need to trust in a human attachment figure, most commonly a caring mother.  Unfortunately, our educational culture assumes that we don't teach enough curriculum and don't demand enough of children. Children learn to pass tests, not love learning. Our multi-tasking culture only adds to sensory and cognitive overload that interferes with learning and mental performance in general. The family breakdown in our culture diminishes a child's trust in primary caregivers and degrades attachment to them. Schools cannot provide such trust and attachment. Nor can pre-kindergarten or day-care.
These are basic reasons why I push for a reform in education that stresses teaching learning skills to young children, as opposed to the domination of traditional curriculum and excessive high-stakes testing. I am writing such a book now. When children have good learning skills, learning stops being an onerous chore. The "Learning Skills Cycle" that I advocate begins with motivation, and motivation begins with a sense of wonder.[2]
Educational policy makers seem confused about why so many students fall behind. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. That’s a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day. About 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.[3] At the college level, only 59% of full-time four-year college students graduate within six years.[4] Most college data use a six-year limit because so many college students can't finish in the usual four years.
Over the last 40 years, all the educational fads we have tried apparently do not work. In this time we have had such high-profile government initiatives as "Goals 2000, New Math, Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, Charter Schools, and Head Start." Where is the evidence that any of this works? SAT scores have not improved, even declining in some years, while funding for educational has increased dramatically, on the order depending on the state of 200%.[5]
Despite much ballyhoo and funding, Head Start's effects wash out within a few years. Nonetheless, many states think Head Start did not start early enough and that what is needed is government funded pre-kindergarten. Nobody considers what this too-soon, too-much, too stressful education does to childhood sense of wonder and motivation to learn.
The key question asked by L'Ecuyer is this: Are today's educational paradigms and policies promoting the sense of wonder and motivation to learn or squelching it? While all our government programs to improve education seem valuable, the results say otherwise. Teaching is now driven by high-stakes testing. While accountability is necessary, when high-stakes testing becomes the focus of education, it poisons the learning atmosphere. The law of unintended consequences applies. Today's educational environment suffocates the wonder and love of learning for its own sake.

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Dr. Klemm is author of two books on learning: Memory Power 101 and Better Grades, Less Effort. Reviews and information can be found at his web site,

[1] L'Ecuyer, Catherine. 2014. The wonder approach to learning. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Volume 8, October 6. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00764.
[2] Klemm, W. R. 2014. Shift Away from Teaching to the Test: A Better Way to Improve Test Scores. The STATellite, 59 (1): 10-13.