POEM: Dissolving Past

I’ve heard it speculated that all times exist at once, and that our consciousness merely shines a light on a sequence of nows. But it sure feels like the past frays; that it’s dissolving from the edges. Worm-eaten in a way that works its way to the heart. The center reads clear for now, but one day… poof, it’ll be lost.

You’ll awake to find whole tracks of life are lost — like slides that were water damaged in the flood.

What happened in 1997? I’d need some sort of prompt to even make a guess.

POEM: Time’s Arrow


I barely have post-cognition —
which is to say, memory.

I have memories of memories of a world that never was.

Cobbled together hopes, dreams, and fears made into a montage of me.

One could chip away at what never was, but I’m not sure reality could support it’s own weight.

What was might end up a toxic rubble, steaming away into nothingness.

POEM: Sepia Seeps In

I see my twenties in sepia tone — grainy

— not to mention flat.

Should it surprise me that my memories are cast in the hue of old photos?

I never remember owning the pants that I see myself wearing.

It seems to me that if I really remembered that time I should remember the pants.

A kid born today will probably have holographic selfies,

and thus a chance to look back on youth in 3-D,

but it’ll never be quite right, will it?

POEM: Olfactory Teleportation

sitting in a Thai food joint,

couched in the atrium of a Bavarian-themed mall

in Bangalore, India

I smelt a scent —

obviously not fish sauce or coconut curry —

rather some kind of plastic, maybe in the menu lamination,

that transported me back to elementary school,

a parochial school in the Midwest in the 1970’s,

it was a plastic I’d have guessed had long ago ceased being made, 

given the lack of such spontaneous dislocation,

I squeezed my eyes shut because travel is expensive,

but olfactory teleportation is free.

BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False MemoryThe Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Julia Shaw is a psychologist who conducted research into whether (and how) false memories could be “planted” in a person’s mind – and not just any memories, but memories of having committed a crime that one actually didn’t. That research is fascinating, and I think it’s tremendously valuable given the disparity between how accurate people believe their memories are and how fallible they are in practice. This disparity has played a major role in many a miscarriage of justice with eye-witnesses historically being considered the gold standard of evidence in criminal trials. Of course, I’m also a bit uneasy about people learning the recipe for an optimal process of generating false memories as it has the taint of being MK Ultra-level nefarious. (Though it should be pointed out that subjects must be active – if unwitting – participants in creating these false memories, so “planting” memories is an oversimplification.) This book discusses Shaw’s research, but it’s more of an overview of science’s understanding of the limits of memory and how those limits conflict with our beliefs – at least about one’s own memory [we often recognize how fallible other people’s memories are.]

The book consists of ten chapters. Chapter one dives into to one of the most common occurrences of false memory, and that’s the claim by some people that they remember events from their infancy – if not their own birth. Shaw presents the evidence for why such memories aren’t possible. This sets up the whole subject nicely because one must ask how so many people can claim to remember events that are physiologically impossible for them to have remembered, and to frequently be right about most key details. No one is suggesting that such people are liars (not all – or even most — of them, anyway.)

Imagine a school-age child hearing a story about his or her life as a baby. Hearing said story triggers a visualization in this child’s mind, and that visualization might well be filed away in memory, but when that memory is recalled the person in question may not realize she is recalling her imagined image of a story and not the actual event itself. Herein lies the crux of false memory: 1.) anything one visualizes in detail might potentially be stored away and become undifferentiated from the experiencing of an event; 2.) when we recall a memory we are recalling the last time we remembered it and not the event directly, and this can lead to a disparity between the memory and the actual event as it gets tied up with what’s going on in one’s mind at the time.

Chapter two explores perception, and how flawed perceptions may become flawed or tarnished memories. Just as memory isn’t the direct recording of events that we often feel it is, perception isn’t a direct replication of the world but rather a model generated in the brain. Therefore, the limitations and inaccuracies of the mental model are the first line of deviation of memory from reality. Chapter three describes how the brain’s physiology and evolutionary biology produce limitations to our ability to remember – limitations in spite of which we could thrive in the world in which we evolved.

Chapter four begins a series of chapters that take on specific objections that will arise to the ideas about false memory presented in the early chapters. This chapter counters an anticipated objection about people who seem to have perfect memories. In other words, a reader might admit that most people’s memories are crap (and even that his own memory isn’t infallible,) but what about the people with Las Vegas stage shows or the Asperger savant who knows every phone number in the Manhattan White Pages? Surely, these rare cases disprove the general idea of how memory works. Shaw shows that none of these people have perfect memory. Some have spectacular autobiographical memory (memory for their own life events) and others are exceedingly skilled at using mnemonic devices to remember any facts, but they all have limits. There’s also a discussion of how an unusually perfect autobiographical memory is often more of a curse than a blessing. We forget for good reason.

Chapter five examines another common memory fallacy, which is that one can remember best by getting the middleman of the consciousness mind out of the way and feeding data directly into the subconscious. In other words, it takes on subliminal learning. You may be familiar with the idea from ads suggesting that you can learn French in a couple of weeks without cracking a book just by playing audio tracks in one’s sleep and letting oneself learn effortlessly. Like every program that promises growth without effort, this one is debunked. Studies suggest that if one sleeps during such nights, one won’t learn, and if one learns, one isn’t actually sleeping. In other words, learning requires one’s attention.

I will say, the book fell off the rails for me a bit during this chapter. As I wrote in a recent blog post about psychological concepts that even psychologists repeatedly get wrong, Shaw denies the existence of hypnotic trance state as an altered state of consciousness. However, it becomes clear she isn’t arguing against the scientific perspective of what hypnosis is (a physically relaxed but highly mentally attentive state) and is rather denying the misconceived popular notion that seems to involve a person (possibly wearing a glittery cape) taking control of another person’s mind and making them into a zombified drone. She writes in an odd, round-about fashion on this subject as well as the topic of brainwashing – for which she offers her own value-laden definition. I’m not so sure that she didn’t understand hypnosis as much as she wanted to make sure her work was thoroughly distanced from hypnosis and brainwashing. It seems just seems strange and a bit dubious that a scholar studying false memory wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar with the literature on suggestibility and the states of mind most associated with it, i.e. hypnosis. I can only imagine the hoops she had to go through to get her research design through an IRB. (IRB’s are review boards that make determinations about whether a research project is – among other things – ethically defensible. After a series of famous — and ethically questionable — studies by the likes of Stanley Milgram, Ewen Cameron, and Timothy Leary, to name a few, psychology has come under great scrutiny.)

Chapter six asks whywe believe our memories are so awesome despite all evidence to the contrary. This comes down to why most of us unjustifiably judge ourselves superior in most regards. As is true of drivers, almost every person thinks she is better than average in the realm of memory. This is important because it’s not so much that our memory is fallible that leads to problems but that it’s fallible while we think it’s perfect. Chapter seven challenges the belief that there are certain events that are indelibly etched into our brains such as (depending upon age) the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. Such memories were once considered “flash bulb” memories, perfect renderings of societally traumatic events carved into our synapses. However, once these memories started to be put to the test, it was found that the details — vis-à-vis where one was and what one was doing at the time — are often wrong.

Chapter eight discusses how media and social media mold memories. One element of this is group-think. One’s memories may be molded through manipulation of the fact that people will readily believe that which is consistent with their beliefs while denying that which is inconsistent – regardless of facts and evidence. This chapter also takes on how social media influences memory as a distraction and because of so-called digital amnesia in which people remember less because they figure they can look it up at any time in the vastness of the internet.

Chapter nine proposes that even one’s most traumatic memories aren’t necessarily accurate, and – in fact – might be more likely to be fallacious. This may be the most important chapter of the book because it shows how a confluence of factors (namely, bad questioning tactics and peer / societal pressure) can result in the inadvertent planting of false memories. The chapter focuses on a series of Satanic ritual sexual abuse cases, a number of which were eventually disproved. So eager to build a case to bring believed wrong-doers to justice, law enforcement officers sometimes inadvertently pressured children into making up stories under the guise of trying to get them to open up, stories that sometimes became false memories.

Chapter ten shifts gears to consider what one can do about the issue of faulty memory – in other words how one can avoid being manipulated through exploitation of the limitations of one’s own memory. This is valuable information and not just for legal purposes but for life in general.

The book has a few graphics as necessary throughout the book and has end-notes to provide sources and elaboration on comments in the text.

I found this book to be immensely valuable as food-for-thought. The author presents many fascinating stories and the results of intriguing research studies, all in a readable package. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of the limits of human memory, how these limits can be manipulated, and how that manipulation can impact the criminal justice process.

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A Conversation of Mutual Disenchantment

“I remember being born.”

“No. You don’t.”

“How would you know?”

“Well, let’s start from the assumption that you’re human…”

“I’d like to think so, but what are my options?”

“I don’t know. Humans don’t have that neural machinery at birth… So nothing from Earth remembers its birth.”

“And yet, I do.”

“Mightn’t you have cobbled together the scene from your mom’s stories, the family photo album, et cetera?”

“Nah! It’s too detailed. Feels too real.”

“I find your ignorance exhausting.”

“I find your certainty perplexing — not to mention irritating and slap-worthy.”

“Let’s agree to be mutually disenchanted.”


BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to be more observant while avoiding the pitfalls of drawing faulty conclusions based on unsound reasoning, tainted memory, or faulty assumptions. Examples from the canon of Sherlock Holmes (i.e. the 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) are prevalent throughout the book, but Konnikova also discusses Doyle’s limited real life investigations as well as those of the men who influenced the writer. Doyle lived at time when science and reason were making great strides in overcoming superstitious and spurious ways of thinking, and so the Sherlock Holmes works were cutting edge for their time.

The book is neatly organized into four parts with two chapters each. The first part is entitled “Understanding Yourself” and it unpacks what we have to work with in the human brain. One learns how one’s brain works and how it sometimes leads one astray. It also introduces how the scientific method can provide a framework to harness the brain’s strengths and avoid the hazards of its weaknesses.

Part II investigates how one can become more skilled at investigation, as well as the role played by creativity and imagination. We learn how our attention is much more limited than we feel it to be.

The third part reflects upon the building one’s powers of reasoning as well as the importance of knowledge-building in the process. Konnikova describes “deductive reasoning” using Holmes’s favorite term. [She doesn’t really get into the whole muddle of—as many have pointed out—the fact that Holmes more often uses induction than deduction, i.e. going from very specific observations to draw broader conclusions.] The second chapter considers the importance of being knowledgeable and broadly educated. Holmes’s conclusions often hinge on fairly arcane knowledge about a range of issues: animal, vegetable, and mineral. However, a large part of the discussion is about the idea of degree of confidence. It’s also pointed out that knowledge can be double-edged sword—an impediment as well as a tool. Extraneous knowledge may lead one down the wrong path.

The final part suitably closes the book with one chapter on practical advice for how to put all of the knowledge discussed in the book to work and another on the recognition that even the best minds can go astray. The first chapter summarizes as it offers pragmatic advice. The second of these chapters discusses a fascinating investigation of a supernatural phenomenon (i.e. the existence of fairies from photographic evidence) upon which even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind led him astray.

The use of the Sherlock Holmes character is beneficial as many readers have consumed the entire Holmsian canon, or will do so, because it’s short and readable even today. Even those who haven’t read it will at least be familiar with the lead character and his proclivities as well as the other essential characters, such as Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler. There are too many television shows, movies, and pop culture references to not be aware of these characters. One needn’t have read all Doyle’s Holmes to benefit, as Konnikova offers the essential background. However, one might find it a bit more intriguing if one has read the canon. At the end of each chapter, Konnikova offers a set of references that point to the sections in the Sherlock Holmes canon relating to that chapter’s discussion. Konnikova uses quotes and stories that aren’t attributable to Doyle to good effect throughout this book as well.

Graphics are used sparsely and only as absolutely necessary. There is a “Further Reading” section at the end of the book in addition to the end of chapter pointers. Besides a list of the Sherlock Holmes books, there are chapter-by-chapter prose suggestions of relevant key readings.

I found this book interesting and informative. While it may be most useful for someone who wants to become more attentive, less prone to biases, and more effective in drawing conclusions, it could also be enjoyed by Sherlock Holmes fans as a way to drill down into stories a bit further.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and RecoveryThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Kean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Once upon a time, our knowledge of what the brain did, how it worked, and the degree to which its parts were specialized came from observing people who had brain injuries or a disease of the brain. Kean’s book examines the evolution of our understanding of the brain by way of investigations of historic cases. Looking at damaged brains is obvious not the ideal way to study the most complex system in the known universe—accidents and brain-eating diseases aren’t discriminating. Still, over time, a few conscientious [and sometimes warped] doctors and scientists pieced together important clues. From the rudimentary observation that people conked on the head often pass out temporarily, doctors began to learn about the degree to which brain parts were specialized and how changes in the brain effected beliefs, memories, and behavior.

Kean’s book is in part a history and in part a work of popular science, and the cases selected are often of interest both as history and as science. We learn about the damaged brains of kings, assassins, soldiers, adventurers, and those with more mundane jobs but no less fascinating brain trauma (e.g. Phineas Gage, one of the most well-known cases in the book, a construction foreman who had a steel tamping rod rocketed through his skull.)

It’s this historical approach that builds a niche for Kean. There have been a massive number of popular science books on the brain in recent years. (You’ll note that I’ve reviewed many of them.) While other books discuss many of the same intriguing neuroscientific phenomena (e.g. synesthesia [mixing of sense and / or mental data, e.g. people who see colors with musical notes or even with numbers], phantom limbs, epilepsy’s effect on beliefs, and the brain’s role in aberrant behavior) most of them are rooted in the mother-lode of discoveries that have come out of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other modern technologies. Even the works of V.S. Ramachandran, which largely deal in discoveries rooted in low-tech but exceedingly clever science, are placed in the context of present-day science. (You should read Ramachandran’s book “The Tell Tale Brain” also.)

Kean’s book is complementary to the body of works on popular neuroscience. While some of those books mention the same (or similar) cases as Kean, they do so to illustrate the Dark Age origins of many of these questions. Kean delves into the intriguing details of such cases. On the other hand, while Kean is dealing in the historic, he brings in modern science on occasion to give the reader insight into what ideas have been confirmed and which overturned. That’s important as Kean is often telling the reader about the opposing theories of the day—as the title suggests.

The book contains an Introduction and twelve chapters that are arranged into five parts. The book’s organization is by brain structure and key (interesting) functions tied to those various parts. It’s logically arranged, starting with a question as crude as the skull’s role in brain injury and ending on a topic so challenging that there remains a great deal of mystery (and controversy among scientists) about it, i.e. consciousness. In between, we learn about neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity, and the brains role in sensory processing / presentation, bodily awareness / movement, emotion, belief, delusion, and memory—as well as the degree to which the two halves of our brain are independent and what severing the connection does.

The book is end-noted and has a works cited section, but it has a couple other noteworthy features. A fun feature of note is that each chapter begins with a rebus, a kind of word puzzle that relates to an anatomical part relevant to that chapter. There are also graphics in the form of both diagrams and black-and-white photos, and they are interspersed throughout the book with the relevant text (as opposed to in special sections.)

I’d recommend this book for individuals not only interested in neuroscience, but in the history of science generally. Even history buffs who don’t think much about science will likely learn a thing or two from Kean’s presentation of the cases—e.g. there is much discussion of Civil War wounds.

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BOOK REVIEW: Remember When by Scientific American

Remember When?Remember When? by Scientific American
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book is part of a series put out by Scientific American magazine that collects articles on a specific topic of interest, in this case memory.

I’ll get straight to the point:

Pros: The style is readable and concise, and the book is well-organized and full of fascinating tidbits [Note: when I say “well-organized,” it’s clearly a collection of past articles of various types, and so there are a mix of short pieces, long-ish pieces, and an interview or two. However, these inconsistent “chapters” are placed in sections in a logical fashion. Furthermore, I expected much more repetitiveness from this type of collection than there was.]

Cons: First, the Kindle version that I read had lots of typos, and they were systematic typos. [Fun fact, considering this is a book on memory. My memory was that this book had typos throughout, but when I looked back through to review it, I noticed it was only some chapters, but—influentially—including the last.] By “systematic typos” I mean the same characters were replaced throughout with the wrong character(s.) While this isn’t the kind of typo that leads to confusion, it’s the kind that makes one say, “Did you really not have anyone look this over after it was machine-converted, you lazy …?” Second, because it’s a collection of magazine articles, one might see a piece from recent years right next to one from the 1990’s. This wouldn’t necessarily be anything to concern one, and might even be a positive. However, once one has seen the aforementioned laziness, it makes one wonder whether half the information isn’t outdated.

The 30 pieces that make up this collection are divided among seven sections to provide a logical organization and progression of the material.

Section 1 explains what memory is and why it seems to work so well in some cases but so poorly in others.

The second section explores the neuroscience of memory and how the brain turns experiences into memories.

Section 3 offers insight into the connection between learning and memory. This describes some fascinating discoveries on the importance of white matter (not the cells that store the memories, but the ones that connect those that do) and the role of sleep.

Section 4 is where it really gets interesting. This section investigates amnesia, hypnosis, and déjà vu.

The fifth section considers a few of the many ways that memory can fail. Besides discussing how false memories are created and attempts to erase traumatic memories, the section also explores the connection between emotion and memory.

Section 6 answers why memory gets worse with age, with discussion of a few of the methods for reducing this tendency.

The last section describes some of the methods used to improve memory. Here, I will offer the same warning as I did for the last review I did on a book of this topic (i.e. “Memory: A Very Short Introduction”), which is to say that if this is your primary purpose for buying the book, you probably want to look for a more specialized book. (Where the AVSI book was a cursory summation of proven techniques, this one focuses on the science of the moment [e.g. experimental medicines and blueberries] and not well-established techniques.)

The graphics are those from the magazine, and, therefore, tend to be detailed and “slick.” This can be a disadvantage when reading on a base model Kindle, such as mine. Even with the graphics expanded, the font is tiny and hard to read. Also, the color graphics on a black-and-white device would likely be clearer as simple line diagrams rather than complex computer renderings. However, most of the articles have little to no graphics, and so it’s not a problem that comes up with great frequency.

I’ll compare this book with the Oxford University Press “A Very Short Introduction” on the same topic that I just reviewed because they are clear competitors. This book covers a broader range of topics, including some intriguing ones such as: hypnosis and memory, déjà vu, the role of fitness on memory, and more detailed information about the connection between sleep and memory. In other words, this book is full of the latest (at the time) research of a nature intended to attract popular science magazine readers. However, the AVSI book is more concisely arranged to get a neophyte up to speed on memory without offering extraneous information. I suspect the AVSI book will age better. The Scientific American book has a fair amount of current events reporting that may be overturned (if some of it hasn’t already been) by subsequent research. The AVSI book was much more easily readable on my Kindle.

I found this book to be interesting and informative—though not without significant flaws. Overall, I’d recommend it for those wanting to learn about the research of recent decades on memory.

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