Archive for April, 2009

Keep Forgetting? Remember to Sleep!

April 26, 2009

Dimitri Mendeleev Came Up With Periodical Table During a Dream

Dimitri Mendeleev Came Up With Periodical Table During a Dream

The joke goes, writes Robert Stickgold, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, that everyone knew memory and sleep were related except for the people who studied memory and the people who studied sleep.

Writing in the April 27, 2009 issue of Newsweek,  Stickgold says that the relationship is now very clear, even if we don’t know which way all the causation arrows are pointing. Consider this:

  • In tests of the different kinds of memory… procedural, declarative, episodic… ‘sleeping on it’ after first learning the task almost always improves performance.
  • Sleep deprivation experiments makes memory acquisition harder. And, the tired brain has a harder time still capturing positive memories than negative ones. That could be why sleep deprivation is so often associated with depression.
  • The two memory systems, the hippocampus and the neocortex, seem to interact during sleep. Increasingly it looks like that memory between the two systems is consolidated during sleep.
  • Not only memory, but connections between stored memories seem to take place during sleep. Dimitri Mendeleev (see above) fell asleep at his desk and dreamed up the Periodic Table of Elements during his slumber, for instance.

The Mendeleev anecdote has been underscored by modern research. German scientists gave game players a puzzle to solve involving seven calculations. Those that slept between game sessions were three times as likely to discover that the second calculation and the seventh gave the same answer.

Why does all this matter? Stickgold writes that some sleep researchers posit that for every two waking hours we need one hour of sleep to sort through what we’ve learned and experienced. For some people who get less than that it seems to lead to conditions like depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

The third of our life we spend  sleeping is rest for the body, but the brain remains active. “And much of that activity helps the brain to learn, to remember and to make connections,” Stickgold writes.

Not so sure? Then sleep on it and comment below.

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5th Annual Games for Health Conference

April 23, 2009

An 11-session track at the 5th Annual Games for Health Conference coming up June 11-12 in Boston will feature cognitive and brain fitness topics.

The conference takes place at the Hyatt Harborside Hotel in Boston.

The conference costs $379. Register online here.  Include the code ‘sharp09’ and get a 15 percent discount.

A Free ‘College Education’ on Your Computer Screen

April 21, 2009

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14 plowboy

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14-year-old plowboy

I twice had the pleasure of meeting the widow of Philo Farnsworth, the man who had envisioned electronic television while plowing an Idaho potato field as a boy of 14. No kidding!

His widow’s name was Elma, but she went by ‘Pem.’ When I met her, circa 1990, Pem had completed the first book-length biography of Philo called Distant Vision.

It’s an interesting read, especially the part about Philo programming his first TV station, W3XPF in Philadelphia. Farnsworth… who received precious little formal education after high school… was racing against the ruthless General David Sarnoff, head of RCA, to prove the concept of television by actually programming a station. Farnsworth had conceived of television as a kind of ultimate educator, a technology custom fit to bless the lives of humanity.

The word ‘television’ was invented well before there were any channels to change and Farnsworth’s philosophical determinism on the topic was common among the television pioneers. Several years before he’d founded RCA and decades before the advent of TV, Sarnoff himself circulated a memo to friends in which he wrote: “I believe that television… is the ultimate and greatest step in mass communications.”

Farnsworth began broadcasting on W3XPF in January 1937 in Philadelphia, about six months after RCA started experimental broadcasting in New York City. RCA’s first TV broadcast had singing acts, a dramatic reading from a Broadway actor, and a performance from three ballet dancers. Farnsworth made an abortive attempt at televising educational lectures before following RCA’s lead into entertainment.

Farnsworth’s electronic television, he found to his dismay, seemed to demand something not only livelier but shallower than education for the masses.

In short order W3XPF was producing a mix of orchestral music and singers, variety and novelty acts like ‘Baby Dolores,’ a 4-year-old singer/dancer. RCA demonstrated electronic television at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. Then WWII broke out and everyone who was once a television specialist was now a radar specialist, Farnsworth included. Television as the great educator of the people fell through the cracks for decades.

In retrospect it’s easy to understand why television as an educator didn’t fly in the earliest days of the medium. Really gifted lecturers are rare. Compelling educational TV can be made today, but producing it can be expensive and requires technology and pedagogical approaches that were decades away in 1937. And then there’s the issue of exactly what to program. Videotape wasn’t invented until the 1950s. Until then all TV aired live. Even in 1937 a university might offer hundreds of different courses. But which one to televise?

You might also blame anti-intellectualism among the American populace, but I reject that argument. Beginning in the 1830s a broad swath of Americans embraced a rising tide of informal adult education. Lecturers would tour the cities and the backcountry talking about the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, philosophy, religion, languages, the evils of liquor and tobacco, and more.

Mark Twain made a good living as a lecturer before enjoying fame as a writer. And in the century before movies and television, people in smaller burgs especially had few of the outside diversions we enjoy today. Back then, education was entertainment.

Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates. People would watch the debates for several hours, break for lunch then come back, break for dinner, and then come back again for a third session. If there really ever was such a thing as ‘American Exceptionalism,’ some part of the explanation must be owed to our historical propensity for self-improvement.

Now benefiting from the long tail made possible by digital content and inexpensive storage, Farnsworth’s dream has come true. Only the TV is on your computer or even your phone.

Since March 26, 2009 YouTube has offered a broad aggregation of videos from the nation’s accredited 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities, all free. The project was undertaken by a tribe of volunteer YouTubies.

Philo Farsnworth, self-taught  genius, would have loved it.

[Check this sample clip featuring Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, MD from the University of California San Diego. She lectures on the topic of the apparent relationship between obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. As she takes pains to point out, no causation has yet been proven.]

Start a Job Journal, Get a Job

April 4, 2009
To Get a Job These Days You Gotta Hustle, A Job Journal Could Help

To Get a Job These Days You Gotta Hustle, A Job Journal Could Help

The April 13, 2009 issue of Fortune magazine highlights successful job seekers in what everyone acknowledges is a tough job market.

Although the reporter, Jia Lynn Yang, never uses these words, the job seekers in Fortune got jobs not because they were the most or best qualified, but because they were, to a person, hustlers.

And in a long list of these job hustlers the first profiled is Rob Sparno, a high-level salesman formerly at Oracle.

When the ax fell, Yang writes, Sparno who is “methodical by nature… made a trip to Staples, where be bought a black hard-cover lined notebook. He vowed to record every day what he did, whom he talked to, how he felt, how many miles he ran. He even wrote down what he ate.”

Ten weeks after leaving Oracle Sparno was employed again, by Salesforce.com. To be fair, Sparno was well-connected, competant and hard working. His job journal, by itself, hardly got him his job.

But who can doubt but that Sparno’s job journal kept his feet to the fire? The daily review of activities and progress almost certainly kept him motivated and helped him measure himself.

Likewise, I’m certain that by the time Salesforce.com hired him, Sparno knew more about himself than he did before.

Journals not only help informal learners, but job seekers.

Doodle Your Memory

April 1, 2009

In the April 6, 2009 issue of Business Week, there’s a small item from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth played a rambling voice mail to 40 people. Half were given shapes to fill in as they listened.

Result: The doodlers recalled 29 percent more of the message than those who just listened.

Money quote from Bob Lutz, retiring GM-vice chair:  “I can look at old sketches done in meetings 40 years ago and experience sudden recall of the room, the table, the voices.”