Saturday, November 30, 2013

How Your Working Memory Makes Sense of The World

This post is on Psychologist Peter Doolittle's TED Talk, "How Your "Working Memory" Makes Sense of The World." If you'd like to watch the video yet are unable to view it above, click here.

Knowledge Nuggets:

Image from "Brain Leaders and Learners"

What is working memory?

Working memory is the part of consciousness that we're aware of. We can't turn it off. It's used to store immediate experiences along with a bits of knowledge taken from those moments. Working memory reaches back to grab things we stored earlier in long term memory to reach a current mundane goal.

Working memory allows us to do things like have a logical conversation, problem solve, think critically, or listen to someone speak and ask follow-up questions. When it fails, we forget things or get distracted and stop paying attention to what's important.

People with high memory capacity tend to be good story tellers, writers, and problem solvers. They also do well on tests and can reason at high levels.

To "test" someones working memory:
Say aloud five (non-related) words and ask them to remember them. Doolittle used "tree, highway, mirror, Saturn, electrode". Then ask the person to do three things. He used the following: Solve 23x8. Count to ten on one hand. Recite the last five letters of the alphabet (backwards). Typically, less than half of people remember the five words after this, or are in some range of remembering all, none, or a few of them.

How can we better remember information we're interested in?
Unless we do something with information, we can typically only remember four things for 10-20 seconds. To hold onto it we must process the immediate experience the moment it happens. You then need apply it to your life, process it, write it down, practice it, and/or talk to someone about it. Instead of applying it to old knowledge, wrap everything around the new knowledge, making new connections, making it meaningful. It's very helpful to think of it in images as well, as our brains are built for that.

Doolittle's take-home message: 
"What we process, we learn. If we don't process life, we're not living it. Live life."

My Thoughts:

If you're reading this blog, then you're likely the type that reads a lot of articles and subscribes to all sorts of knowledge bits. You may enjoy flooding your mind with information and learning everything you can. Thanks to the internet, there's an enormous amount of easy knowledge out there. If you're like me, you have fifteen or more tabs open with articles you've come across on social media that you're going to read later, and you honestly do. I thought this post may be a good one for those of you struggling to manage this flood of information. Below, in the "Further Reading section, there are even more tools linked to help (I realize my contribution to the "problem" of information overload here).

In the same light, this video seemed quite relevant as it's partly why I created Boiled Down. A good chunk of the reason was to share knowledge, something I enjoy, but I also know that I can listen to many interesting videos and forget what was said by the end of the day, or at least the end of the week. This bothers me. I've been one to keep a notebook by my side while reading to take down interesting bits of information that I'd like to remember, but I'm typically listening to videos while I get ready for work, when doing chores, or even driving if I have a good signal. These situations obviously aren't the best for jotting down knowledge nuggets. I can tell you with assurance that listening to the chosen videos at least twice, extracting the info given, understanding and writing the information, then boiling it down to a minimum has certainly made it all stick, exactly as Doolittle states. In creating a post for this blog, the info poured over and processed is mine to use for a good long time.

As a side note, my working memory must be fan-freaking-tastic. A week after I watched this video, I remembered three of the words, and two I was very close on. I probably "cheated" though. One of my majors in college was psychology, so I knew to use imagery, creating a single picture in my head that related each object to one another. It really does work, folks. Cheat away. I apparently have ADHD by the way, which should make my working memory kinda stink, but it generally doesn't. I suppose I've picked-up a lot of the strategies Doolittle stated in my college psychology classes so I don't suck so much. Usually. I'm still the absolute golden child for forgetting where I put things though. Stopping to make mental images of where you place items is really helpful, but I don't always remember to do that. In fact, soon I have to find the charger for the iPad I'm typing on. No clue at the moment where that may be. Wish me luck.

Further Reading: 

More Basic Information on Working Memory
How We Can Enhance Working Memory?
Working Memory Treatment for those with ADHD
Does Brain Training Really Work?

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Astronaut Mike Massimino on the film, "Gravity."

Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson,  two-time veteran astronaut Mike Massimino, and comedian Chuck Nice answer listener questions, talk about what it's really like to be in space, and discuss the scientific inaccuracies in the film "Gravity". Gravity, the 3D film by  Alfonso CuarĂ³n, has globally become the highest grossing live action October film of all time. Tyson (quite hilariously) *tweeted about the inaccuracies in the film soon after its release, and caught much more attention for it than he expected. While Both Tyson and Massimino agree that the film got a lot right, Tyson uses his radio show, Star Talk Radio, to address these errors a bit further. Massimino's experiences in space are very instrumental in this discussion, as well as generally interesting.  

To listen to this show,  click here. I paraphrase and provide accurate information given by all parties to allow you to obtain the information faster than listening to the 45 minute show.They also talk fast at times, so reading this allows you to learn at your own speed, especially if not familair with physics.  What I have written is not often an exact transcription of what was stated.

Knowledge Nuggets: 

Tyson stated that there were a dozen or more inaccuracies in the film. Massimino and Tyson agree that the film was well grounded with accuracy; they got a lot of the science right.  Some liberties were taken as expected with a film, but because of how grounded it was, it actually merits being criticized. 

Massimino:  Two thumbs up for capturing the feel of what it's like to be in space. The tools used to repair the Hubble were also accurate.

If in a situation with debris etc, do you save the machine or save yourself?
Massimino: You save the telescope. There are other astronauts up there. Events like a micro-meteor impact are also practiced before you go in space. 

What was the most egregious thing about the movie? 
Massimino : The way they could go from place to place in space so easily with their little jet packs. They had to take some liberties to make the ISS (International Space Station) be right there. Also, for his last trip, there was a shuttle and crew in quarantine ready to rescue them, unlike in the film.   

Tyson: There is gravity in space. Astronauts, satellites, etc. are in orbit between the moon and earth, constantly falling towards earth. He used an example from Isaac Newton, a thought experiment about firing a canon from a mountain top. Fire it slowly and it will soon fall and hit the ground. The faster you fire it, the farther it will go. If you shoot it so fast that it goes all the way around the earth, it will hit you in the back of the head...but if you duck, (it doesn't hit anything), it will continue to orbit. It's going to keep going rather than hitting the ground because curvature of earth. To orbit is to be a continuously falling object, but the planet curves away from it so the object never hits the ground, even though the object tries. To orbit is to be in free fall, and when you're in free fall, you're weightless. 

Massimino: Weightlessness is fun (after the nausea passes). We kinda experience it on earth with some theme park rides or when you're driving and hit a big bump in road where your stomach comes up, or when you're floating in water (not on top) like a scuba diver, that buoyancy. Tyson also added that if you cut the cable on elevator and free fall, you'd be weightless.

Tyson provided a home experiment: puncture two holes in a tall cup, then fill with water. Notice that the hole at the bottom will have more pressure and water will come out farther away from the cup. Now hold the cup high as it spills out and let go of cup. The spigots turn off instantly and the water and cup are weightless. The water is in free fall so it doesn't know to come out.

Are astronauts constantly falling down at 17,500 mph? 
Tyson:  They're falling 17,000 mph sideways, not down, and because they're going so fast sideways, it means they're falling down towards earth at rate that it curves away from them. Also, the shuttle launch doesn't go up into space, most of energy is to give it horizontal speed. This is why the space shuttle rolls. They launch to the East because they pick up speed following earth's orbit.

Is the scene Bullock where uses a fire extinguisher to manuever around, accurate?
Tyson:  If your mass loses mass,  (holding the extinguisher, it becomes part of her mass), the extinguisher pushes mass out, so she must recoil. If she doesn't push the mass out through a line that connects to her her center of mass, she would start to  rotate. You must know how to aim it. He adds that even when you burp, you must recoil. 

Massimino: (on the fire extinguisher scene): She was being smart there. We have a smaller jet pack that shoots gas one way and a hand controller to direct it so you can maneuver and propel yourself.  

Does weightlessness have an affect  on cognitive functions?
Massimino: The brain tries to figure out what's going on. The inner ear/vestibular system tries to figure it out, which takes a couple days. Your brain says your body is still, but your eyes say what position you're in (floating around). As an example,  if you suddenly become weightless right now and you flip upside down, your brain says you're right side up, that the room is upside down, not you. Your orientation is all messed-up. Also, the distribution of your fluids get pooled to the upper extremities, so your head gets big. Your brain then thinks it has more water and you urinate more, giving you a higher risk of dehydration. Drinking lots of water is important, especially while the  body adjusts. None of this messes-up your intelligence.  

How do they not tear their suits sliding all over the place?
Massimino: You have to be very careful in space not to tear your space suit. My space glove tore on a space walk fixing Hubble. There was a weak point between the thumb and index finger as it needs to be a flexible area. The suit is seven thin layer in case it's penetrated with some impact. There's thin kevlar then a pressure layer, though no kevlar in the gloves. The final layer is pressure layer (a bladder). Once that's penetrated you have a pressure leak; your oxygen goes out and the pressure goes up.

How did they enter other spacecraft that should've been internally sealed?
Massimino: The doors open to the inside like an airplane and pressure keeps it locked. You can open the door if there's no pressure on the inside.  If it's a pressurized volume, if you can go in and take space suit off and live, like in the film, that won't work. That door wouldn't open. They took liberties with this in the film.

Tyson: Speaking of pressure, suction cups have nothing to do with suction. If you push a suction cup down and expel the air, there's nothing to balance the air pressure around it so the atmosphere sits on it at  15 lbs per square inch. The larger the suction cup size of course, the more pressure. That's why a suction cup will work on the ceiling or walls; atmospheric pressure works in all directions here at the base of the atmosphere. 

In the fire on the ISS there were small floating fireballs. Is this possible? If fire rises how does it work in zero gravity?
Massimino: We don't know exactly how it would happen as we've never had a real fire in space. Gravity helps fire rage, it's the fuel. A raging fire doesn't seem likely with a lack of fuel. It would just go out. Everything they have in space is also fireproof. We have fire extinguishers for a small localized fire and an electrical fire would be what we  would expect if there were one.

Tyson: In space, a candle will extinguish itself. 

Are they allowed to stay outside (on a space walk) until the reach the last 10% of their  oxygen as in the film?
Massimino: They wouldn't be out with less than an hour of reserve.

If we put a fat astronaut into space, how would their gravity affect earth?
It costs $10,000  per lb to put someone in orbit. Tax payers pay would pay much more, plus extra materials for a larger space suit, clothes, and food.

If you're lost in space, is there a suicide pill?
 Massimino: No 

Massimino, would you rather drift into space until you die or take a suicide pill?
Massimino: I would get every second out of it I could. No pill. 

Is it possible to launch a satellite capable of changing orbital altitudes instead of falling around the earth?
Tyson: Yes, you can change angle, height, altitude and re-enter the atmosphere, but only  if you have fuel.

Do astronauts get trained in breathing techniques to prolong oxygen if in trouble?
Massimino: We always take as shallow breaths as possible. If you take a full breath, you use more oxygen and breath out more c02, which uses-up the filter. 

My thoughts:

Having watched the fabulous film that is "Gravity" (widescreen, 3D, HD...only way to do it) and happening to read Tyson's amusing tweets about ten minutes after they came out, I was especially interested in this show. I could listen to Tyson talk about anything though. Really. Let him give a five hour lecture on today's weather around the world; I'll be captivated. Something about his charisma and manner of speaking just do it for me. So, anyhow, between that and wanting more information on how "real" the film was, he had me at hello with this radio show. I'd already spoken with an astrophysicist friend about it, but Tyson, and especially Massimino, discussed topics that we didn't get to...mostly because I wouldn't have even thought to ask the questions. I learned a lot by listening to this show again and again in order to understand and be able to paraphrase the info!

Also, if you haven't seen HUBBLE 3D  (2010) and get a chance, I recommend it highly. It's an absolutely enthralling documentary, especially in 3D.  I've watched it twice recently at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Massimino was one of the astronauts in the film and easily one of my personal favorites.

Further Reading:

Twitter Feeds:
Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson
Mike Massimino @Astro_Mike 
Chuck Nice @chucknicecomic

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*Below are Tyson's Tweets after seeing the film

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Being Wrong

TED Talk from Kathleen Schulz, journalist and author of "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error".

This is just one video in a collection ofTED talks under the course, "Understanding Happiness" on iTunes U. I highly recommend this series if this is an area of interest for you.  

Knowledge Nuggets:

We do anything to avoid thinking that we may be wrong. We understand that human beings make mistakes, but not us. Personally, professionally, and as a culture, this is a major problem.

In our culture think that people who get stuff wrong (mistakes at work, the C+ kid) are lazy and stupid. If we realize (and admit) we're wrong, we tend to feel embarrassed and dumb. If we're wrong, we believe there's something wrong with us. If we decide to stick with our blind feeling of rightness, even when we're not, we can still feel safe and "smart". This view of success and intelligence equalling not being wrong or making mistakes turns us into perfectionists and over-achievers  (not so great for your health*). 

It's dangerous to cling and trust too much in the feelings of being right. Our feeling of rightness doesn't ever perfectly match what's really going on in the external world. Our thoughts and convictions don't perfectly reflect reality. Instead of stopping to examine ourselves and fix our mistakes, these convictions can lead to major personal, professional, global disasters. 

When people disagree with us, we assume they're ignorant, that they're just not smart enough to do the math and figure it out. If they actually are smart and have researched the same way we have, then they're just evil and have their own malevolent plans. We can't entertain another point of view or way of thinking if we're so afraid of being wrong. The thing is, we all see the world through different lenses. How can one person (you) always be "right"? 

To rediscover wonder (and hopefully avoid tragic errors), come out of that scared little bubble of rightness, of holding so close to your convictions, look around everyone around you, at the mystery of the Universe and say "I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong". Schulz says that "stepping outside of that feeling [of rightness] It's the single greatest moral, intellectual, creative leap you can make". St. Augestine also stated "Fallor ergo sum", which means "I err therefor I am". Life is rarely a sure thing. We're going to be wrong a lot. "We think this one thing will happen, then something else happens instead" [Schulz]. Accept it; admit your fallibility.

My Thoughts: 

First of all, if you have eighteen minutes, while you're cooking, folding laundry, driving, whatever, listen to this video. The powerful manner in which Schulz delivers this talk isn't reproducible in mere summary. 

As a perfectionist who's working to reform, I needed this message, and I guarantee many of you smarties reading this do too. I was certainly the college student who died inside with less than an A at the end of a semester, the mother who had to be perfect and never raise my voice or have an untidy house, and the one who had to win the argument because gosh darn it I'd done research knew what I was talking about! I've been proven wrong enough times for me to step back and re-evaluate the way I think. I'm not going to say it's been easy. 

For example, due to this weird almost sixth sense I have, I'm often right when it comes to people and judging character, even from a just a brief meeting or a photo. Saying no way to men on dating sites for example, is as easy as looking at their pictures. I can see insecurity, a cheater,  lack of intelligence, a heartbreaker, laziness, etc, often in just a person's face, no profile read needed. My uncanny senses have been proven right so many times that I'm completely certain of my judgements. But what about when I'm wrong? How do I even realize I'm wrong? And come on, I'm often so right! It's been proven again and again when I give in and stop being so picky and sit in my car waiting out all the wine I had to drink on a first date just to get through when my first instinct that the dude had terrible self-esteem or just a player, was dead on. Despite this, my friends think I'm kinda nuts for my seemingly very judgmental approach. Yet what if I ignore my warning bells about the guy whom I perceive as having evil in his eyes (yet seems so nice and fitting for me otherwise), we go on a date, and someone finds parts of me floating down the river the next morning? Clinging to rightness in politics or current events isn't as much of an issue. I tend to try to learn about each side before I make a decision, but, as for my personal life, I think I'm going to keep my stubborn rightness and chance growing old alone because my spidey-senses are so touchy about 95% of the men out there. I'll work on the other first-born child  perfectionisty stuff, but sometimes I'm okay with maybe being wrong.

In another vein, the important thing about mistakes, I believe, is really learning from them. This, to me, is the biggest reason to 'fess-up to the fact that you've messed-up, even if just to yourself. I tend to take everything that happens to me, good, bad, embarrassing, what have you,  and tweeze-out what I can in the form of lesson. If you're not thinking about your errors and simply brush them aside in an attempt to save your ego, you may likely continue in your "wrongness" over and over, and that, my friends, just sucks. In fact, it will probably make you want to cover it all up even more. Maybe then you really do become a fool. 

Further Reading: 

"Being Wrong" the book and website by Kathleen Schulz

Stuff that most of us believe that's actually quite wrong: Ten False Facts and Everyday Myths

These people are never, ever, ever wrong. Have someone like that in your life? Here's a fact sheet on Narcissists .

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