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This seems to be a time of great fertility for biases. A dictionary will say that a bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another,. These are usually considered to be unfair. Politics and religion generate lots of biases.

But there are other kinds of biases that aren’t necessarily unfair. They largely fall in the domain of psychology.

How about this one:  I bought a silver Subaru Forester, and now I see more Subaru Foresters, even silver ones, than ever before. Or, you come across a word or phrase you never encountered before – such as, fintech or predictive text  – and then you discover it was a new word in the dictionary in 2018 and it starts to appear to you more and more. Or at least it seems to appear more than ever before. Probably, it has been around you all along, you just hadn’t noticed.

Both of these examples describe the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as frequency illusion or recency illusion. It happens whenever something you just noticed, experienced or have been told about, starts popping up with greater frequency.

This and other similar occurrences are known as cognitive biases and there are a lot of them.

Another example of this type of bias is the observer-expectancy effect. That’ occurs when you are prompted to expect something. “Wait and see how many people in this bar are wearing NY Yankees shirts.”  The thing is that you were going to a bar in Florida, and wouldn’t expect that to be true. But it is a known hangout for Yankees fans during baseball season and now you are primed to observe.

Jerry Seinfeld was known in her early years for his “Did you ever notice” observational humor. “Did you ever notice, when you are sitting at a red light, that when the person in front of you pulls up a couple of inches, you are compelled to move up too? Do we really think we are making progress toward our destination? ‘Whew, I thought we would be late, but now that I am nine inches closer, I can stop for coffee and a danish!'”

Another one is the IKEA effect This apparently real bias is that people tend to place a disproportionately higher value on objects that they partially built or assembled themselves (such as furniture from IKEA). The value is not really connected to the quality of the end result.  “This is a picnic bench I made out of scrap lumber. Pretty sweet, right?”

A slight variation on these is the social bias. The cheerleader effect is an example. This is a bias for people to appear more attractive in a group than in isolation. Not to denigrate cheerleaders, but they all look good in the group photo. Some look not-so-great in individual photos. This tends to be true of any of us in a group or even one item a group of things.

There is also memory bias. This cognitive bias is something that either enhances or impairs the recall of a memory. It might help or hurt the chances that the memory will be recalled at all. It might affect the amount of time it takes for it to be recalled. It might do both things and even alter the content of a reported memory.

Lots of research has shown that when we retell a story from our childhood years later, we always slightly change the story. It is affected by the distance in time from when it happened, but also by the emotions surrounding it, the location, others involved etc. We have false memories. We have lost or repressed memories. Traumatic events are recalled differently by different participants. The memory of an airline crash or mass shooting is not remembered in the same ways by all those involved. Some people may seem to have no memory of the event. Others may have very detailed memories involving multiple senses, such as the sounds and smells and not just what they saw.

As I get older, I think more, worry more, and write more about memory.

I wrote a post asking readers if they remember what happened when they were 3 years old or younger. If you say that you do, most scientists would say you probably remember being told about it or you have seen photos or videos from that time. Childhood amnesia is a kind of cognitive bias we have because it seems that we have very few actual memories from before the age of four. Those memories are false in that they are really a memory of being reminded of an event.

Then again, all is not lost. There is the “reminiscence bump” that occurs because we also tend to have a bias to remembering more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than personal events from other lifetime periods.

tower of babel

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Great Tower of Babel, 1563

My memory isn’t as strong as it once had been. For example, when I started this post, I had to search the site to make sure I had not already written about this topic. I have written a lot about memory and it is something I am fascinated by more and more as i grow older. No surprise there. I think all of become more interested as we grow older and as we watch those around us who are even older. Memory starts to fail.

The Mind (AKA Memory) Palace has been used since ancient Rome as a way to enhance memory. It is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises, such as Cicero’s De Oratore. People use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. It is based on the fact that most of us are very good at remembering places we know.

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Memory Palace is a metaphor for any place you know really well and that you’re able to easily visualize.

If it sounds less than serious, you can call this method of loci (Latin for “places”) is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualizations with the use of spatial memory, familiar information about one’s environment, to quickly and efficiently recall information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique.

There is even a poetic connection, such as with William Wordsworth’s The Recluse.

“The idea of the mind as a palace or church, whose individual rooms can be explored with training, is familiar from the memory treatises of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The “memory palace” as a mnemonic device was widely used before the advent of printing to organize and remember vast amounts of information. By memorizing the spatial layout of a building and assigning images or ideas to its various rooms, one could “walk” through the imaginary building and retrieve the ideas relegated to the separate parts.”

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

What do you need to do to try the mind palace approach?

Choose a place to use that you know very well and are able to mentally walk around that place remembering everything in detail. Most people use their home, but it could be where you work or even your childhood home. You need to mentally walk around this place and see the specific order of things.

You will need to be able to focus on particular features you remember very well. If I imagine my home, I can start at the front door, entering the porch there is a storage bench on the left. Entering the house itself, there is a mirror on the left, then a window seat, then a large bookcase, and so on.

Visual learners are undoubtedly better at this technique as you need to really imprint the location and specifics. From what I have read, some people find it effective to walk through the place mentally and say the specifics aloud. You could also draw the location. Always use the same perspective for looking at the features.

When you know this place and every feature, you have your mind palace. Now what?

First, build the visual associations between the features and the information you want to memorize. You could use it to memorize a list in a particular order. More challenging would be to use the palace to remember the parts of a presentation.

I tried this for a presentation I was going to do without notes or PowerPoint slides. I created “memory pegs.”  On each peg I would hang an item I associated with it.  The association should be strong, perhaps even a bit ridiculous, but memorable.

This step is similar to other mnemonic systems which often rely on memorized spatial relationships. Similar techniques are known as the “Journey Method” (for lists of related items) or the “Roman Room” (for storing unrelated information).

Maybe you should start with a shopping list, rather than a presentation.

Walk your Mind Palace from beginning to the end of the route. It is said that you can strengthen the memories by walking backward. I have not found that to be true, but then again I have trouble saying the alphabet backwards too, and I know that really well in the normal order.

Using this technique, can improve your memory in general, and it can improve your visualization skills.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” ― Edgar Allan Poe

I think Ed could have used a lesson about the Memory Palace.

Wow, my title sounds like a Trumpian rant will follow, but this is really about recent research on how sites like Facebook, Twitter are spreading “fake news” along with you and your friends who like it and pass it along, and how it is affecting your memories.

This is about research on “collective recall.” If I didn’t know it earlier in life, I certainly know at this point in my life that memory is very fallible. I have posted a lot online about studies about memories – how we create them, how we recall them and how we lose them, but there is a new way that we may be warping our memories.

“Memories are shared among groups in novel ways through sites such as Facebook and Instagram, blurring the line between individual and collective memories,” said psychologist Daniel Schacter in Nature magazine. He studies memory at Harvard University and has found that “The development of Internet-based misinformation, such as recently well-publicized fake news sites, has the potential to distort individual and collective memories in disturbing ways.”

Collective memories are our history. We use the way we understand the past as a way to think about the future.

If our memory recalls fictitious terrorist attacks as real, it is easier to justify a travel ban on people who come from those terrorist nations. Social networks are being taken quite seriously as a kind of collective memory, even if it is a faulty memory.

Courtroom lawyers are known for introducing “evidence” or accusations to a jury that they know will be objected to and not recorded – but they get the information out there and into jurors brains.

It turns out that people don’t need very much prompting to conform to a majority recollection. Whether it is true or false isn’t really an issue.

I’m encouraged that research is also being done on ways of dislodging or even preventing them from forming in the first place. Scientists and social networks are now interacting. It might also be encouraging to know that not all collective memories pass into history. Some cognitive psychologists have proposed that more than cognitive and social processes determines whether an event survives the transition across generations. That additional aspect is the nature of the event itself. Depending on how much change occurs in a person’s daily life is crucial to personal and collective memories.

 

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Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.

Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.

One term used  in these discussions is  “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.

You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.

An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.

When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.

“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.

“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.

And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police,  lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.

And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.

 

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This past week I saw on the local TV news the story of a 29-year-old New Jersey woman, Tirri, who is getting rid of all her high-tech gadgets for a year. She says it is so that she gets to spend more time with her children. Her Aha! moment came when she missed one of her 18-month-old twins’ first steps while she was checking on her phone.

Oddly, she says that she feels that she is part of “the last generation to have a childhood without technology.” I have two sons about her age and they hardly grew up without technology. It is probably more accurate to say that her parents in the mid-1980s did not have as many tech distractions while parenting her.

So, what do you mean by technology when you take a holiday from it?

Tirri is leaving behind her smartphone and computer and the email, Facebook, Instagram, videos and all that comes with the Net. But she will still use a touchtone landline phone, a record player, maybe the television too. Isn’t that technology? What about her microwave and her car, the home heating and cooling systems, her banking and bill paying and… Well, you get the point.

Plus, her husband will still have his smartphone. Did he miss those first steps too? Possibly, but he might have been in another room or at work or talking outside to a neighbor or…  We are distracted by more than just technology.

She grew up with technology. She even grew up in her teen years with the Internet. My grandfather had technology – a different kind, but technology nonetheless.

People have been fascinated with and frightened by technology since probably Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our ability to think and remember. Movies, radio, comic books, television, video games and plenty of other technologies old and new were seen as dangerous distractions. “Go outside and get some fresh air and just play” has been in the parenting script for centuries.

I could go tech-free, if you put me on a deserted island without any devices.  I’m all for “tech holidays.” Take a night, a day, a weekend, an actual vacation week away from your devices. See if you feel happier, or feel punished.

More importantly, take notice of how all this digital technology changes us.

There are pro and cons to many of the changes that have been documented concerning media and new technology. Devices encourage us to multi-task. Being able to do more than one thing at a time (the classic walk and chew gum joke) is essential. Tech makes it easy to switch between tasks. But research also shows that when we do two things at once, like listen to a podcast and read a book, both suffer in understanding and retention. On a single task, the new information goes into the hippocampus, home of long-term knowledge. When multitasking, the information can go to the striatum. That is the area that stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas. This means a kind of shallow storage that is less likely to be easily found in the future.

You might have read or heard of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.  The book’s title foreshadows Carr’s general feelings about the Net.

“It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”

Can you filter the important from the unimportant?

Carr included a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. Those kinds of deep emotions and thoughts are connected to the attentiveness that also forms deep connections with other people.

We also know that the digital world affects memory in good and bad ways. I am very happy to not memorize phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, shopping lists and other minutiae. But researchers tell me that cognitive offloading, that tendency to rely on digital memory rather than brain cells actually increases each time we use the digital alternative.

Does tech support and extend our memory, or does it decrease it?  We are deep into, and probably beyond, the Information Age, and information overload is a given.

It is still not clear that all this tech “hurts” our brains, even if it changes them.

Like older technologies, the general feeling is that the tech is also changing us in bigger and broader ways, like the way we think and our social and emotional cues.

One study I saw looked at reading on digital platforms and concluded that it seems to make us “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Not a conclusive finding.

The idea that heavy digital media use leads to a loss of cognitive control (our ability to control our mind and what we think about) is much more frightening. Are our brains becoming more attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important?

Do you get a nice rush of reward chemicals in your brain when you empty your inbox?  That is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of your brain feeling pleased, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. So, keep clicking the Like button on Facebook and favoriting tweets and Instagram photos to give your online “friends” some happy juice.

I have read that too much time in front of screens (a nice way to encapsulate net, social and media time) increases depression, anxiety and aggression and a distancing from reality. This past summer, I was amused by the delight people found in people actually going outside to use Pokémon Go.

 

But I could also cite a Pew study that found that Facebook users have more  “close friends, more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved compared to non-social media users” or one that found that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.

 

I wish Tirri luck with her tech-free experiment, and I hope she has lots of good times with her kids. She says she will chronicle her days in a paper journal rather than online, and if she makes it for a year, she’ll write a book. Put me on that deserted island for a few months and I might get a book done too.

brain pixabay

More research shows that learning new things – novelty – helps ward off dementia. All those “brain games” that you hear advertised might have some positive impact.

Yes, doing those crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good, but more important is to have new experiences, as opposed to doing old ones over and over. Novel experiences strengthen the connections between parts of your brain. Most brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, but new and more challenging activities – such as learning a new language – seem to strengthen entire networks in the brain.

Novelty also includes going to new places and meeting new people. Reading a book is a good thing, but even if it is about a new topic, the experience of reading is not new.  Reading about tennis is nowhere near as important to improving the brain as trying to learn how to actually play it.

discusSome other research verifies something people have believed for many years: another way to ward off memory loss is through exercise.

One study on the impact of exercise on the brain, found that 45 minutes of exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. This exercise “improves cognition and helps people perform better on things like planning, scheduling, multitasking and working memory.”

Memory is the part that interests my aging brain. When memories are encoded in the brain, it seems that this process involves neurons and their synapses. When we recall a memory, that reactivates those pathways connecting the memory neurons are reactivated. One analogy used is that encoding is like sculpting. We experience things and that demarks certain neurons and then we chisel specific connections between them.

Firing up old pathways – playing a game or reading a novel again – is a good thing. The pathways of memory reactivates some paths that have been unused. Perhaps, if we don’t use those paths for a very long time, it’s not possible to find them again.

Sculpting, creating new pathways, is even better. Might the new pathways cross with older ones creating complex connections? Might new pathways reconnect us with older ones that have been lost over the years? Despite lots of research, the brain is still holds so many unknowns – but what a wonderful adventure.

 

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