May 26 2005

Feedback Loops

Ok, a couple months ago I queried thusly:

I remember being told as a child that most people could keep track of up to seven different ‘things’ at once. Now, recent research suggests four, at least if they’re trying to integrate the four into a relationship. I’d be interested to see some research as to if the previous notion of ‘seven’ is at all accurate, and if so, if some of that mental storage in the ‘seven’ case is being repurposed for relationship processing in the ‘four’ case.

Can we really can we make time/space tradeoffs in our brain? Does keeping track of seven independent (or minimally dependent) items exhaust our on-core registers, and if we want to establish a non-trivial relationship between the up to four of the items that was not known before, do we ‘trade’ three of the registers for processing cycles, or do we just lose the ability to address three of the registers? Most of the research I’ve read suggest our short term ‘working set’ of memory a nd analysis is extremely fluid in it’s addressing of functions and storage, but that the array of functions/storage is quite large (hence activation of different areas of the brain for different exercises.) This naturally leads me to two questions:

  1. How do we increase our mental addressing space? (So we can address more analytical and and memory functions at once)
  2. How can we apply this concept to microprocessor design? (To create more flexible , lower-power microprocessors)

Now, I read this:

Working memory is the brain’s short-term information storage system. It’s a workbench for solving mental problems. For example if you calculate 73 – 6 + 7, your working memory will store the intermediate steps necessary to work out the answer. And the amount of information that the working memory can hold is strongly related to general intelligence.

A team led by Torkel Klingberg at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has found signs that the neural systems that underlie working memory may grow in response to training. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, they measured the brain activity of adults before and after a working-memory training programme, which involved tasks such as memorising the positions of a series of dots on a grid. After five weeks of training, their brain activity had increased in the regions associated with this type of memory (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 75).

Sweet, maybe I was on the right track.

Then the article followed up later with this:

Actors attach emotional meaning to what they say. We always remember highly emotional moments better than less emotionally loaded ones. Professional actors also seem to link words with movement, remembering action-accompanied lines significantly better than those delivered while static, even months after a show has closed.

Which is interesting because I just sent a link (to a different article) to my Sensei, and article that suggested that gestures served to help trigger memory and vocabulary, as opposed to just expressing emotion or expository direction. Where’s the connection to martial arts? Well, you know all those little finger-movements you see ninjas do in the movies? These are kuji-in, adapted from Buddhism, otherwise known as mudra. I believe such physical movements can serve to trigger not just conscious memory of words/names/text/etc, but can trigger baser emotion, attitudes, or personality shifts, if you encode them as such. It’s a feedback loop.

Now, on to the next – everyone who knows me, including former bosses who wanted me to stay up all night to get some project done – knows that I’ve always said things are hard when you’re tired (common knowledge). But let’s get a neuro-scientist to throw down $0.02:

“If you have been awake for 21 hours straight, your abilities are equivalent to someone who is legally drunk,” says Sean Drummond from the University of California, San Diego. And you don’t need to pull an all-nighter to suffer the effects: two or three late nights and early mornings on the trot have the same effect. [
] Sleep is when your brain processes new memories, practises and hones new skills – and even solves problems. Say you’re trying to master a new video game. Instead of grinding away into the small hours, you would be better off playing for a couple of hours, then going to bed. While you are asleep your brain will reactivate the circuits it was using as you learned the game, rehearse them, and then shunt the new memories into long-term storage. When you wake up, hey presto! You will be a better player.

So, let’s go back to this mind-body feedback loop again, to those who think that 24/7 immersion in one thing is the best way to get things done:

There’s another reason why your brain loves physical exercise: it promotes the growth of new brain cells. Until recently, received wisdom had it that we are born with a full complement of neurons and produce no new ones during our lifetime. Fred Gage from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, busted that myth in 2000 when he showed that even adults can grow new brain cells. He also found that exercise is one of the best ways to achieve this. And the effect works both ways. Just as physical exercise can boost the brain, mental exercise can boost the body. In 2001, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio asked volunteers to spend just 15 minutes a day thinking about exercising their biceps. After 12 weeks, their arms were 13 per cent stronger.

Jumping again, let’s hit up Ninpo (and Taoist internal arts) again:

Neurofeedback grew out of biofeedback therapy, popular in the 1960s. It works by showing people a real-time measure of some seemingly uncontrollable aspect of their physiology – heart rate, say – and encouraging them to try and change it. Astonishingly, many patients found that they could, though only rarely could they describe how they did it.

More recently, this technique has been applied to the brain – specifically to brain wave activity measured by an electroencephalogram, or EEG. The first attempts were aimed at boosting the size of the alpha wave, which crescendos when we are calm and focused. In one experiment, researchers linked the speed of a car in a computer game to the size of the alpha wave. They then asked subjects to make the car go faster using only their minds. Many managed to do so, and seemed to become more alert and focused as a result.

This is Ninpo. Control yourself body and mind to acheive your goals. This is Taoism. Control yourself, until control is no longer required, to adapt and exists without conflict. As Uncle David said to me in a dream a few weeks ago, “It’s easy if you focus.”

May 20 2005

Life Update

This, too, shall pass.

And it is. Two good days in a row, definitely feeling better. Only three people (myself, Mike, and Chris) showed up to class last night, so it was basically “self-directed study” night in the dojo.

Afterward, I went to the Prado to meet up with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. While I would have liked to see the Retratos exhibit, (the museum usually closes before I can get down there, at least on weekdays) it was good seeing Amber again and just getting out to a new place. (Actually, I’ve been to the restaurant part of the Prado before, good food, great culture-date place to go, but this was the first time I’d hung out in the bar.) I may also be able to cajole Amber’s boyfriend into editing the novel, as apparently he’s a phenomenally good editor.

Ah, while I’m thinking about it: let me pimp out these custom cards made by a friend of mine, they are really quite wonderful.