Sunday, May 21, 2017

Forever Now. Living Life Without a Past

Imagine living every day where you don't remember what happened an hour ago, nor anything that happened to you for all the time before that. Imagine that you can't remember your old friends, even relatives. Imagine that you can't remember what you decided to do anytime in the future.
Lonnie Sue Johnson, a former pilot, commercial artist, and musician, knows what that is like. As told in Michael Lemonick's new arresting new book about her life story, The Perpetual Now, Lonnie Sue experienced a catastrophic herpes simplex viral infection that spread into her brain, almost killed her, and left her with crippling memory failures after she survived. Normally, this virus just causes cold sores, but in a few cases the virus inflames and damages the brain. In Lonnie Sue's case, brain scans revealed that the virus destroyed the part of brain, the hippocampus, that forms past experiences (episodic memory) and general world knowledge (facts, ideas, meaning and concepts—semantic memory).
As she recovered from near death, which took many months, Lonnie Sue gradually recovered some old, well-established memories, like the ability to speak and understand English. She regained her ability to read sheet music and play the viola.
Her memory loss was similar to that of an epilepsy patient, Henry Molaison, known in the brain research literature as "H.M." before he recently died of old age.  The seat of his severe epilepsy was the hippocampus, and surgeons removed it to cure the epilepsy before they knew about the devastating memory loss such surgery would cause. H.M. gladly volunteered for research on his memory loss for many years. Much of what we thought we knew about memory was learned from Henry. The standard model is that there are two kinds of memory, declarative (episodic and semantic) and procedural (motor memories like how to ride a bicycle, play a piano, and the like). The hippocampus is crucial for declarative memories but not procedural ones. At least that is what we thought. Lonnie Sue has revealed that the boundaries between declarative and procedural memories are fuzzy and maybe we don't understand memory as well as we thought.
The comparison with H.M. is not completely parallel. His memory limitations came from an otherwise healthy brain that no longer had a hippocampus. Lonnie Sue may well have had other brain damage than just the hippocampus.
Lonnie Sue, for example, lost many of her procedural memories, such as how to draw and fly a plane. But some of this ability gradually returned. All along she recognized herself in the mirror, and she recognized some old friends even though she couldn't recall anything about them.
Author Lemonick worked with Lonnie Sue and family for some three years as she recovered. His story paints a vivid picture of what life was like for Lonnie Sue and those who cared for her, particularly her devoted sister, Aline, who spent part of every day helping Lonnie Sue take care of herself and cope with the memory problems that never went away.
I admire Lemoncik's ability to explain complex issues of neuroscience in ways that are interesting and easy to understand. Readers will learn quite a bit about brain function from his user-friendly explanations. He even tells of recent studies under way of a very small group of apparently healthy people who have extraordinarily good memory. These people can tell you what happened on every day of their life. But they don't remember everything that happened. Their problem seems to be that certain events every day cannot be forgotten, even decades later. But the real message of the book is the power of love from those who care for Lonnie Sue and her own courage and cheerful spirit in the way she copes with her profound disability.
Lonnie Sue's story compels us to reflect thankfully on our own memory ability that we too often take for granted, with no thought of what life would be like without it. Her story reminds us that the memory of who we have been is an inevitable part of who we are now and who we strive to become. Our memories are not all pleasant, but life without memory of the past would surely be empty.

Lemonick, Michael D. (2016). The Perpetual Now. A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love. New York: Doubleday.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Genes Change in Your Brain. Do They Change You?

A startling discovery of enormous implication has just been reported in the premier research journal, Science. Despite the accepted dogma that all of a person's cells have the same genetic coding, it turns out that this is not true, especially in neurons. The DNA in each nerve cell (we don't know about sex cells) has hundreds of mutations of the A-T, C-G nucleotides that constitute the genetic code for the neuron. Thus, no two neurons are alike. The study was conducted by 18 research teams at 15 U.S. institutions, formed as a consortium by the National Institute of Mental Health to examine neural genetic coding, using repositories of postmortem brain tissue taken from both healthy people and those with various mental diseases.
The scientists have no explanation at present for what is causing so many mutations and why each neuron has a different genetic profile. The most obvious possibility might seem to be that the mutations occurred as transcription errors during cell division. But there is a major problem with this explanation. We don't know when these mutations occurred. Except for granule cells in the hippocampus and cerebellum, neurons generally do not divide after the first few days after birth. So, if cell division is the cause of mutations, it must be due to what happens during the early post-natal period.
If the mutations occurred sporadically throughout a lifetime, a likely cause for mutation might be DNA damage caused by the free radicals that are generated in ordinary metabolism. Environmental toxins are another possible cause. The point is that the DNA changes are likely to affect how a neuron functions, and that change can last a lifetime.
We know that mutations can cause brain cancer and even certain other brain diseases. The research consortium was commissioned to see if the genetic variants predisposed to neuropsychiatric disease. Obviously, the vast majority of people have these diverse genetic codes in their neurons that do not cause disease. What do they cause? Can the mutations affect which neurons participate in which circuits? Can mutations affect how well you reason, or memorize, or your emotional responsivity? Nobody knows.
A whole new field of research has now been opened. Scientists need to examine different neuronal cell types to see if they are equally affected by mutation. Obvious comparisons needed are between granule cells and all the other neuron types that do not divide.
There is a related aspect that is not considered in this context. That is the likelihood that each neuron differs not only in its genetic code, but also in which genes are expressed. The new field of "epigenetics" has revealed that environmental influences, ranging from drugs, toxins, metabolites, and perhaps even lifestyles can affect the expression of genes, even when there is no mutation. In the case of brain, there is the distinct possibility that one's mental life can affect gene expression. This needs to be studied.
So far, what I have said about gene change and expression refers to single individuals. But what if some of these gene mutations or epigenetic effects that occur in neurons also occur in sex cells? That would mean that traits acquired during one's lifetime could be passed on to future generations. I would hope that the research consortium that has made this monumental discovery about brain cells will extend its charter to also examine sperm and ova.
Recent research on the genetics of the classic animal model of brain function, C. elegans, reveals that epigenetic inheritance of neuronal traits does occur. Gene expression was modified by exposing the animals to high temperatures, and the genetic change was conveyed via both ova and sperm to offspring that had no exposure to high temperature. The epigenetic change was still present some 5-14 generations later.
To the extent that the findings of both of these studies can be extrapolated to humans, we must now consider the possibility that personal lifestyle, environmental, and cultural influences on people may be propagated to successive generations of their children. Bad environments and lifestyle choices may extend well into the future, magnifying the deleterious consequences through multiple generations. We now have to consider that medical and behavioral problems, poverty, and degenerate cultures can arise not only when people make poor choices but that the effects can be genetically propagated to subsequent generations.

These issues may seem to present a challenge to the notion that humans have free will. We are programmed by things that happen to us. But do we not have a choice in deciding much of what we expose ourselves to? The issues are explored in my recent book, Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will (Academic Press).


McConnell, M. J. et al. (2017).Intersection of diverse neuronal genomes and neuropsychiatric diseases: The brain somatic mosaicism network. Science.  356(6336), 395. doi: 10.1126/scienceaa1641.

Klosin, Adam et al. (2017). Transgenerational transmission of environmental information in C. elegans. Science. 356 (6335), 320-323.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Brains Have Owners

Brains have owners. The question is, "Just who is this owner?" Can the brain be its own owner? Or is it more likely that the brain generates a process that acts like an owner? You might call that process you. The owner is your conscious mind. But how does conscious mind exist? What does the brain do to possess it?
Everything the brain does, as far as we know, involves the deployment and distribution of nerve impulses in defined circuitry to control bodily functions, thought, and behavior. Thus the owner, that is your conscious you, could exist as a special collection of nerve impulses operating in a particular way.
The conscious self is an explicit frame of reference by which the nerve impulse patterns of stimuli from all senses can be evaluated in the context of self-awareness. The smell of sizzling steak is only detected by my olfactory pathways, but it is perceived by my “I.” In both cases, this processing is mediated by nerve impulses.  Likewise, the sight of a beautiful woman, or a touch of kindness, or the sound of great music, or the taste of fine wine, are all represented by nerve impulses in my primary sensory pathways, but perceived by my conscious sense of itself.
One approach to this assertion about nerve impulses and their consequences is to dismiss it as irrelevant to the issue of consciousness. This is the dualist position, which holds that mind is external to brain, but is trapped in there while you are alive. However, almost all scientists hold that mind should not be ripped out of the brain. Why can't conscious mind exist as a materialistic property, existing as unique patterns of nerve impulses flowing in self-organizing neural circuitry? Neural circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) underlie all basic brain functions–that should include the state of consciousness. Religious people might say that this is an atheistic position. Not necessarily. There are multiple other explanations for what we call the soul. Here, let us stick with what science has thus far revealed.
Consciousness is a state of awareness (knowing that you know) that uses a set of circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) to represent the sense of self, just as bodily sensations are represented by impulses flowing in the mapped circuitry of the sensory cortex. Movement commands are represented by impulse patterns in the motor cortex and allied structures. The CIPs of conscious self could be the equivalent of a brain-created avatar that acts in the world on behalf of its brain and body. I suggest that conscious CIPs constitute a being. It is what makes us a human being.
People who play computer games know about avatars that act as proxies for the gamer. The avatar is the game-player’s agent, doing things in the game on behalf of the player. A good example is the increasingly popular Web environment known as Second Life, in which players create their own avatars and live vicariously through the avatar in the virtual world. Unlike computer avatars, the brain avatar can program itself by deciding what it wants to experience, learn, and remember. Moreover, the biological avatar gets to decide or at least influence what the brain thinks is in the best interest and supervise the actions to accomplish it.
This avatar being is the conscious sense of “I.” It detects much of what the brain is thinking, such as beliefs, wishes, decisions, plans, and the like. Moreover, the avatar knows how it is teaching the unconscious brain in terms of specific cognitive capabilities, motor skills, ideas, attitudes, or emotions. The avatar, by definition, processes information in the context of its own self-identity. It is the avatar that is self-aware.
The nervous system’s fundamental design principle is to accomplish awareness—to detect things in the environment and then generate appropriate responses. In higher animals, that capability extends to detecting more and more abstract things, ultimately the most abstract thing of all, the sense of self. Such a CIP-based system is not only able to detect and code events in the “outside” world, but it can do the same for its inner sense of self. Thus, the conscious mind, being automatically and simultaneously aware of the outside world and its inner world has the capacity to know that it knows. This sense also has an autonomy not found with the traditional five senses. It is an entity that has a life of its own.
Any time we are awake, the avatar is active—deployed on line so to speak. By way of computer analogy, when the avatar is “on-line” during wakefulness, it is operating in RAM and able to exert its functions. When the avatar is shut down, as in going to sleep, the avatar goes off-line and saves its CIP files on "hard disk." In biological systems, the hard disk is stored in the neuron terminals and synapses of the preferential segments of the global neural network that hold the memory of self and the capacity for rebooting the self when sleep ends. The self may have undergone some subtle changes with the day’s experiences. By the way, updating the modified self in long-term memory is one of the functions of sleep.
The really hard question is how could such an avatar exist as a conscious being? What is it about the CIPs of the avatar that empowers it to evaluate input in the context of a conscious self-awareness? Nobody knows, but I will speculate that the consciousness exists because the avatar was created as a “second self-aware self,” which because of the intermingling with CIPs of multiple other circuits allows consciousness to tap into unconscious processes and to exert influence on the brain and behavior. Moreover, we should consider the possibility that consciousness arises because of a unique way in which CIPs are engaged. Much current research shows that the degree of synchrony and time-locking of CIPs in various regions and within regions of cortex are associated with conscious processes. One can use the electroencephalogram to monitor the oscillating field potentials that are associated with impulse activity in a given area. These are voltage waves that occur in multiple frequency bands, and their phase relationship should surely be consequential. Depending on the nature of stimulus and mental state, these oscillations may jitter with respect to each other or become time locked. The functional consequence has to be substantial, and I suggest that this is a fundamental aspect of consciousness.
How can this avatar be aware of sensations? The avatar CIP must “read” the CIP messages representing sensations, which it can do because the circuits of the avatar and sensory cortex overlap. The avatar can read memory stores because its CIPs are coupled to storage areas. Since the avatar knows who it is from the CIP representation of its sense of self, it simultaneously knows that it knows what it knows about the target sensory CIPs. This representation can be compared and evaluated with representation of other targets as they are experienced or recalled from memory, all of which can be processed in the same avatar CIP environment.
How could such an avatar do things? Most of us assume that our avatars are not only self-aware but also make choices and decisions to act on behalf of its brain. How could that be accomplished? Because the avatar is actually a set of CIPs interacting with other CIPs, it can modify and be modified by what is happening in the other CIP sets.
When the brain constructs a CIP representation of a sensation like sound or sight, as far as the brain is concerned, the representation is the sensation. It is the representation that the brain is aware of, not the outer world as it really exists. Another way to say this is you have one set of CIPs, of the avatar, sharing CIP information of another set, the otherwise unconscious sensations and processes.
How can avatars exist as the different personalities of different people? This question is wrongly posed. CIPs may help create these things, but it is also the representation of such things. The CIP coding is an essential part of the machinery of mind. The avatar can therefore influence the very circuits from which it is being generated. This is key—read it again if necessary. In that way, the avatar CIPs can change in real time the nature of the CIP codes at some future time, by creating memory storage if there is going to be significant delay. In short, conscious mind can change its mind. If the CIP codes of personality are replayed and rehearsed enough to create long-term memory, the mind change becomes permanent part of the brain's memory of who and what you are.
Maybe my idea of "I" is an illusion, a figment of my brain’s imagination … But wait: I have to be more than a virtual me. My idea of "I" is created and represented in the form of real brain circuitry, in the wetware of nerves, impulses, and aqueous solutions of neurotransmitter chemicals. When “I” am on-line, my sense of self exists as patterns of nerve impulses propagating throughout that circuitry. When I am asleep my "I" goes off-line and exists as preferred junctions among neurons that store "me" on the biological equivalent of a “hard drive” that has the capacity to put "me" back on line. Remember, all these avatar processes operate throughout our brain’s odyssey from womb to tomb. The avatar is what makes us human.

Some of this article is excerpted from my recent book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, available at Amazon or the publisher's web site. To read rave reviews, go to the author's web site and scroll down to this book.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Victim of Biology and Circumstance?

An area of controversy in the life sciences relates to the relative roles of genetics and the environment. Confusion commonly afflicts politics. For example, early Communists glommed on to the discredited genetic theory of “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” This theory holds that changing a person’s attitude and behavior would somehow result in changes to his or her genes, which would allow for genetic transmission of the changed attitudes and behavior to his or her children. For this idea to be true, outside influences on the brain would have to change the genes not only in brains but also in the sex cells (sperm and egg cells). The idea was held in ancient times by Hippocrates and Aristotle, but it gained scholarly imprimatur with formal publication in 1809 by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In the 1930s, the Russian president of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Trofim Lysenko, applied the doctrine to Soviet agriculture with disastrous results. At the same time, Soviet political leaders extended the mistaken doctrine to inheritance of educational and social experiences; that is, changing human nature by government policy. They expected that indoctrinating the current generation in collectivism would genetically transfer collectivist attitudes and behavior to all future generations. Cuba, North Korea, and China showed that collectivism can be transferred culturally but not biologically.
In the United States, much political angst arises from disputes over whether more effective educational and social policies will succeed in lifting people out of poverty and dysfunctional behaviors. When I was a child, I often heard the axiom, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Today, the corresponding axiom would seem to be, “You can take the boy out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the boy.” The reality is that you can take the country or ghetto out of the boy, but this won’t transfer to his children by his genes.
What we are now discovering is that environment and experience affect the expression of genes. Whether or not genes are accessible for readout often depends on the environment. People have underestimated their capacity to sculpt their own brains, attitudes, and behavior by controlling experiences that affect gene expression. Though people may control to some extent how their own genes are expressed, there won’t be any biological transfer to their heirs. Environmental and cultural influences do of course transfer, so one’s heirs can be taught how to likewise exert control over how their genes are expressed.
Having the right chemicals in the right environment at the right time is believed by most scientists to be all that is needed for creating life and shaping the mental life of the individual. To them, life seems like a highly improbable occurrence. But it did happen, and even more improbable, there may be a life force that sustains it.
Many scientists also think of the brain’s conscious mind as an emergent property of brain function. Emergent properties follow the rule that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Another way of saying this is that the properties of the whole cannot be predicted from what you know about the properties of the contributing parts. Yet, paradoxically, most scientists believe that as they learn more and more about less and less, they will somehow explain the whole.
Emergent properties apply both to molecules in a primordial soup that generate simple living organisms and to the 87 billion or so neurons of a human brain that generate a conscious mind. A physical world that can generate emergent properties is a mysterious and magical world indeed.
What gets left out in such consideration is the capacity for personal control over one’s biology, which is an important theme. I contend that at the level of the individual person, mind itself—especially conscious mind—is a major force of natural selection that drives creation of mental capacity and character. The implications for daily living could not be more profound. Accepting one’s biology and circumstance breeds helplessness and fatalism. So, it boils down to one’s belief system. Either you are “captain of your own ship, master of your own fate,” or you are shackled by the belief that change is not possible. What you think and do shapes your brain's function.

Excerpted from Mental Biology. The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, by W. R. Klemm. New York: Prometheus. See rave reviews at, click on "author."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Getting Education Right — for a Change

"Teaching to the test" is the common format for K-12 education. But is it working? Very little improvement seems to result. SAT scores, the generally accepted metric for college readiness have been flat since 1970. In that same period, inflation adjusted federal funding has increased 375% and state funding increases ranged from 150% to over 200%. In that same period, we have gone through one educational “reform” after another (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). Each new initiative, typically emphasizing new money, standards, curricula, and accountability policy, was needed because the prior programs did not meet expectations.  Where is the evidence that any of this works?
Robust learning only occurs when the learner takes charge of his or her own learning. To take such charge, a learner has to be motivated and has to know how to be an autonomous learner. Who teaches them how to become that?
I just had a book published that explains this remedy to teachers and parents (The Learning Skills Cycle. A Way to Rethink Education Reform). Teachers are one segment of the book's audience, because many teachers were not taught everything that is in the book. I know, because I give workshops on the subject to teacher groups. The book's audience also includes parents, who don't have to be an educational expert to learn the ideas in the book and transmit them to their children.
Another part of the problem is that teachers are usually not given the time and flexibility to work this kind of learning-how-to-learn into their curriculum, which is often driven by government edict and enforcement educrats. Having more "school choice" is not likely to help much either if charter- and private-school teachers aren't teaching learning-how-to-learn skills.
The right kind of reform of U.S. education is obviously important to the children and parents who are directly affected. But it should also be of concern to everyone, because we live in an interconnected and economically competing world. When other countries have more curricular flexibility and the knowledge and will to teach learning-how-to-learn skills, their populations become more competitive, in science, technology, economics, and military strength.
The compelling purpose for writing the book is that student achievement in the U.S. is not improving, despite all the government programs and enormous spending. As a man of medicine, I realize that if the treatment is not working there is a good chance the problem has been misdiagnosed. And the problem, as I see it, is that the learners do not have good learning skills, and that teaching such skills is not emphasized in the curricula. What these skills encompass includes: 1) wanting to learn, 2) ability for intense attention and focus, 3) knowing how to organize information, 4) strategic capabilities for reducing confusion when you don't understand new ideas, 5) using established principles and methods for making memorization easier and more reliable, 6) problem-solving skills, and 7) creativity. When students are taught these skills, they take charge of their own learning. Schools will start achieving their objectives.


Klemm, W. R. (2017). The Learning Skills Cycle.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Aging Well Can Be Simple

Most readers of this blog are familiar with assorted advice on how to age well. But if I asked you to name the two most important lifestyle influences on aging, in two words, could you do it?
The answer is (drum roll please): diet and exercise. Both animal and human research confirm the major role of diet and exercise. Fortunately, we have control over both of these factors, yet sadly neglect to eat and exercise as properly as we should.

A prime example is the popularity of fast-food meals. They are typically loaded with calories, saturated fat, preservatives, and salt. Mice fed on a fast-food diet developed nearly triple their amount of body fat in just four months. Other mice that were given access to an exercise wheel benefitted from the exercise. Those that were on a fast-food diet gained more weight and fat mass than their counterparts that could exercise. The exercise also reduced the development of senescent cells, which are cells that lose their ability divide and replace themselves. As impaired ability to divide happens in organs like the liver, lungs, immune cells, and gut, it promotes development of disease. Normally, the cell turnover time needs to occur:

·      every 10 days for immune cells in the blood and cells in the lungs and gut
·      every month for pancreas cells, skin, and certain bone cells
·      every year for liver cells

You might think that turnover could yield new replacement cells that are more healthy, assuming that a person improved their diet and exercised more. It is certain that precursor cells, once damaged, have been tagged with epigenetic changes that transfer the damage to new replacements.

So what makes a good diet? Eat more foods containing omega-3 fat (a special kind of unsaturated fat found in fish (especially sardines and salmon), shrimp, canola and soybean oil, walnuts, and to a lesser extent, green leafy vegetables. Pill-form supplements are widely available.
Eat a wide variety of foods high in anti-oxidants (most foods have different chemical varieties of anti-oxidants). This includes citrus fruits (vitamin C), brightly colored berries (especially blueberries), dark grapes, red wine (resveratrol), nuts, dark green veggies, beans, coffee, and tea.  Vitamin D supplements in moderate dose are probably a good idea too, because this vitamin confers many health benefits even though it is not a primary anti-oxidant. 

As for exercise, you don't have to be a marathon runner. In fact, some research shows that marathon-level exercise is actually harmful. Various recommendations have been made, but the consensus advice seems to be combined aerobic and strength building exercises at least three times a week, lasting 30 minutes to an hour.

Why exercise improves health is not entirely clear, but the evidence is consistently clear. Exercise certainly reduces emotional stress, which in itself is a major source of poor health. The effects on circulation and heart function are readily demonstrated. In my own case when I was 35, during the first weeks after I stopped smoking and started jogging, it would take a full 15 minutes to get my breath back to normal after a jog. Within a few months, I could recover in less than a minute. I no longer recommend jogging, because for some people it will damage joints. But plenty of aerobic forms of exercise can substitute (biking, rowing, use of ellipticals, swimming, singles tennis or handball, even vigorous walking).  Most commercial gyms have stationary bikes, treadmills, and elliptical and rowing machines.

So you only have to remember two words to know how to age well. The problem is mustering the will power to eat right and exercise.


Documentation and further explanation on aging well is found in Dr. Bill's inexpensive e-book, Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine. The book is available in all formats from

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sleep Needed for Memory

Got kids or grandkids in school? Odds are they are not getting enough sleep, and it is hurting their learning and grades. This is a special problem for older adolescents. At this age, the biological clock shifts and makes them stay up too late if they need to get up at 6-7 A.M. to get ready for school. Kids this age need about 9 hours of sleep a night. So what is the relationship to learning? Two things:

1. When students are drowsy during class, they can't focus attention and will not encode new information effectively. Sometimes they even fall asleep in class, which means they are not encoding anything.
2. Sleep provides an uninterrupted mental environment in which the brain rehearses the events of that day. As documented in dozens of peer-reviewed research reports, this rehearsal promotes consolidation of fragile temporary memory into more permanent form.

Now, two new studies reveal what happens during sleep to accomplish this consolidation task. Just as a computer writes to a hard drive or CD for permanent storage, the brain has to have a storage mechanism. Information in the brain resides, in real time, in the form of nerve impulses flowing around in certain networks. As long as the impulses are present, the memory is present. But if the impulse patterns change, then the information they represented is lost—unless the impulse pattern was played long enough to cause structural change in the corresponding circuitry. Scientists have known for several decades that information is stored in the junctions (synapses) between neurons. We used to think that the synapses involved in learning can grow from repeated use. Impulse patterns representing the day's experiences are replayed during sleep, providing the repetition needed to stimulate growth in the corresponding synapses. But new evidence suggests that learning does not cause the involved synapses to grow, but rather prunes them during sleep to remove irrelevant information.
One of the new studies showed that synapses in mice change structure and chemistry during sleep. In sleep, the synaptic gaps become narrower and the number of neurotransmitter receptors decreases. This may constitute a pruning process. Synapses receive multiple inputs, and a pruning process could help remove irrelevant and interfering information, thus causing a relative magnification of the memory of information being rehearsed during sleep. Another way to think about it is that sleep may provide a mechanism for "smart forgetting."
The second study by another group, also in mice, confirmed this evidence of pruning and further implicated a particular receptor, the one for the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. The investigators even identified the gene that is activated to remove excess glutamate receptors.
The practical application of these findings for school children is that the more they are allowed to sleep, the more time there is for sleep to cause the synaptic changes needed to store the day's learning in the "brain's hard drive." The other, more general, implication of these studies is that the brain's anatomy and physiology are readily changed by experience, a well-established fact that scientists call "neural plasticity."

Readers may be interested in "Memory Medic's" book, Memory Power 101 (Skyhorse) and his more recent book, Mental Biology (Prometheus).


de Vivo, Luisa, et al. (2017). Ultrastructural evidence for synaptic scaling across the wake/sleep cycle. Science.  355, 507-510.

Diering, Graham H. et al. (2017). Homerla drives homeostatic scaling-down of excitatory synapses during sleep. Science. 355, 511-515.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Managing Information to be Remembered

Do you feel embarrassed because you use such memory aids as sticky notes, calendars, shopping lists, designated places for personal items, or other shortcuts to help you remember? If so, don’t feel bad. Some recent research suggests that saving key information in specific ways can be a good idea. Not only do reminder notes, computer files, and other means of information storage make information available for later access, they also can apparently lighten cognitive load and make it easier to remember new information.

Recent experiments tested the hypothesis that saving information is a form of off-loading cognitive workload that frees the brain to be more effective at attending and remembering new information. These experiments by a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were inspired by prior work of others revealing that information was not remembered as well if it were saved as a computer file, presumably because participants knew they could look it up later. This finding was subsequently confirmed in other ways. This is the effect of "Memory in the Age of Google," the title of a keynote address I gave to 1,300 teachers at a conference.

But one question not addressed in the prior work was the possibility of an effect on future learning. Now a principle of proactive inhibition of memory formation has been identified in which new learning can be impaired by immediately prior conditions. Could off-loading of previously acquired information affect proactive inhibition? Saving a copy of information might reduce such inhibition by lowering the brain’s workload as it encounters new information to be remembered. Indeed, several groups had established that telling participants they don’t have to remember a list of items enhanced the memory for a second list of items. Thus, it seemed plausible to suggest that saving a list of items, as for example in a computer file, might make it easier to memorize a second list because the learner knows the saved original information can be accessed later.

The test of this idea involved 20 college students who took six trials, each involving study and testing of the contents of two PDF computer files, labeled A and B. For example, they first studied file A, but before being tested on it, they would study and be tested on file B. On half of the trials, participants saved file A after studying it, and the other half were no-save trials in which file A was exited without saving before study and testing on file B. The amount of recall on testing of file B was significantly greater on trials when file A had been saved. This was confirmed in a subsequent trial in which half of the save trials were conducted when participants were told the save procedure was not reliable and that the information in file A could be lost. As long as they trusted that file A was reliably saved, they remembered more from file B.

It seems likely that this principle could apply to other contexts, and thus there might be practical applications. By using a variety of memory saving aids (sticky notes, calendars, etc.), people gain some protection from proactive interference for new learning. And, of course, the earlier saved information is still accessible to be memorized as needed. This may well be the major advantage of taking good lecture notes, for as the learner is off-loading information as it is being saved in the notes, some of the new learning (which is also being saved in the notes) might actually become memory during the note-taking process.

Another obvious benefit is the reduction of anxiety over a concern that you might forget. You know the information is safely stored, so the brain is free to take on new learning without a degree of proactive interference that anxiety always produces. You probably can think better too, as the mind has very limited capacity to hold information in conscious working memory, which holds the information that you think with.

Dr. Klemm is author of Memory Power 101 (Skyhorse), Better Grades, Less Effort (Benecton), and Mental Biology (Prometheus).


Sparrow, B. Liu, J., and Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory. Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 333, 776-778.

Storm, B. C., and Stone, S. M. (2014). Saving-enhanced memory: The benefits of saving on the learning and remembering of new information. Psychological Science. Doi: 10.1177/0956797614559285.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why Music Matters

Every generation has its preferred music. In the 1920s, it was classic jazz. In the 40s it was big-band swing. In the 50s it was modern jazz, Elvis, and rock. In the 90s rap and hip-hop became popular. However, some music, such as country and classical music does not seem to be bound to a particular generation.

Whatever your generation is, you likely prefer that generation's musical genre. As we age, we can find great comfort in listening to the music of our generation, often accompanied with irritation at "that terrible noise" of the current musical fad.

Most of us know from personal experience that certain music is profoundly linked to personal memories. When we hear music from our past we not only remember the music, we often remember associated places, events, and people. This was an underlying theme of the highly acclaimed new movie, LA LA Land. If it is music we loved then, we love it now, and it feels good to hear it again. Listening to your favorite music combats the body's response to stress.

You don't even have to wait years for the benefit. I remember in college, I got exposed to modern jazz as a freshman, and years later as a graduate student got much relief from my academic stress from listening to jazz records. Now 50 years later, jazz still has the same effect on me. By the way, there is a formal scientific study showing that listening to jazz raises body levels of the feel-good endorphins and of immunoglobulin, which protects against infections.

Music has therapeutic value. The "right kind" of music soothes our frazzled nerves. Some of that effect comes from the music's rhythm. Biologically we are rhythmic creatures with all sorts of rhythms: heart and breathing rates, hormone cycles, sleep cycles, mental alertness cycles, and so on. Other musical benefits are emotional, for reasons that are sometimes hard to explain.
For seniors with dementia, music is now becoming considered as part of the therapy. A formal therapy program has been instituted by I have no vested interest in this program, but it seems to have the right idea and practical approach to helping demented patients. In Alzheimer's Disease patients, for example, music can improve mood and thinking ability and memory and reduce the need for psychotropic drugs.

A movie documentary, Alive Inside, is a story of music and memory that illustrates that musical memory lasts longer than other kinds of memory. Even in Alzheimer's and other dementias, favorite music resurrects memories that help to reawaken patients, making them feel like themselves again and socialize. Life is especially confusing to a demented person, and musical favorites provide something interpretable and pleasurable. A podcast is available at There are over 3,000 Music & Memory Care organizations in U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe. The program provides iPods and trains volunteers to help seniors listen to their favorite music by creating a personalized iTunes play lists for iPods. The Canadian affiliates report that the program helps people who have been silent or less communicative, sad and depressed. and less mobile.

The organization surveyed its care facilities staff in 2012 who said that personalized music:
·         brought more pleasure to patients (100% of the staff respondents).
·         made their job of care easier (68% of the staff).
·         was effective for patients with depression (58% of staff) and for patients with anxiety (71% of staff).
·         reduced the use of anti-psychotic medication (53% of staff).

A review of the program by Monica Jacquez, of television KXTV, quotes Casey Simon, one of the senior care staff, as saying that "Music really makes everybody happy. It really does, and especially if you hear a song from your past, it brings back those happy memories and puts you in a place of happiness." Simon said the staff got inspired to host dance parties.

The need is great for helping seniors to enjoy life. Loss of happiness is widely experienced by seniors. Friends and spouse may have died. Children may not need you anymore. Food no longer tastes as good. Aches and pains seem to be everywhere in the body. Successful careers are over. The problems may be compounded by having to live alone. Getting old is not for wimps.
You haven't outgrown the music of your teenage years. You just need reminding. So when you are down, bring out the CDS and tapes of your favorite music. It's what I do―and it works!

Readers of this column will be interested in "Memory Medic's" e-book, "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine" (available in all formats from The book is devoted exclusively to memory issues in seniors.


Fancourt, Daisy, Ockelford, Adam, and Belai, Abi (2014). The psychoneuroimmunological effects of music: A systematic review and a new model. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 36, 15-26.

Jacquez, Monica (2016). Music program helps seniors with memory loss. ABC10 Connect. November 21.

Thoma, Myriam V. et al. (2013). The effect of music on the human stress response. PLoS One.  8(8): e70156. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0070156