Thursday, December 31, 2009


I hope everyone is able to enjoy the new year, and remain happy and healthy so you can pursue all your goals and dreams!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Importance of Imagery for Memory & Learning

Thanks to the Drs. Eide for a post on imagery studies and how they play a role in memory and learning. If you reflect on instances when there is some physical activity or complex calculation or cognitive exercise you need to do, can you remember a time when you tried to 'see' yourself doing it ahead of time? It may seem to be an instinctive process or action, but I certainly have imagined doing a tough calculation prior to a math test, or have caught myself imagining myself playing a tough trumpet lick on a bus as we drove to a music contest. Professional musicians and athletes often refer to this mental practice since they are on the road so often, without the ability to physically practice like they are used to doing. Read a good article on this topic here.

Mental imagery is something that can help build memory for particular actions or cognitive activities, largely because neuroimaging experiments show as much as 90% of the neurons that are used in the actual, physical activity are firing in mental imagery exercises. To the brain, imagery is not so different from the real thing. Imagery can help us with the following:

- not only visualizing what the activity is, but also gaining spatial, auditory and kinesthetic information and practice and memory for that activity;
- helps with activities with high levels of organization, multi-steps, and decision making;
- positive imagery has a positive effect on real performance results: for example, golfers do 30% better on putting when positively imagining sinking putts, and 20% worse when imagining missing putts;

For readers, 60% of 5th graders report naturally using some imagery during 'think aloud' breaks in reading stories. It appears to be a natural reaction, even for children, to try and 'see' the scenes that words are trying to convey in order to develop memories of a story that we, ourselves, are not part of in reality. Humans are more visual creatures, as I like to tell my own students, and it is important to remind and also teach students how to visualize physical events and experiences. In fact, in problem solving in physics, I try and teach as an essential part of every single problem to draw a picture and mentally 'see' what is happening in the problem. We use a technique that requires making pictures and labeling all forces on the picture, and then use the picture to actually set up the math (for F = ma problems). So science and imagery are naturally connected, just as reading, writing and imagery are connected. Memory improves when visualization and imagery are used for stories or for how physical events play out in reality. The experimental finding that a good majority of the brain used for the physical activity is used in imagery, too, begins to explain why this process works.

Imagery is used extensively in elementary grades, and the combination of mental imagery with drawing pictures and other hands-on, physical activities makes for a powerful way of building memory and learning. We tend to actually decrease the use of imagery techniques as students progress into higher grades. Perhaps imagery is used most extensively in science classes by the time students get to high school, but it seems as if the use of imagery and hands on activities decreases significantly in literature and history/social studies classes, at least via anecdotal evidence and through conversations with students. Perhaps this is something educators need to consider more in practice.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hypocrisy in Government? Perhaps a bit....

At least there is some media coverage bubbling up about the hypocrisy of Republicans who are fighting the Obama/Democrat attempt at health care reform. A good number of the Republican Senators who are leading this fight, who argue that they worry about a huge increase in the federal deficit with a 'government takeover' of health care, were the same ones who sponsored and supported and voted in the Medicare prescription drug program that passed a few years ago under Pres. Bush, when Republicans also had control of the Congress. That plan was truly a giveaway to the drug industry, as it was entirely deficit funded. It has added over a half trillion dollars to the deficit since its inception, and also provided the infamous 'doughnut hole' in funding for drugs for seniors.

Check out the article at But now, the resistance to health care reform is based on a lack of evidence as far as how it is funded. There are savings built in and, yes, some tax increases on the wealthy, that help pay for the reforms. In fact, not only does the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score it as cost neutral, but actually will reduce the deficit by some $130 billion over the next decade. Projections may or may not be accurate depending a whole series of assumptions that are made, but this is generally the official budgetary analysis that is provided to the Congress for bills that are being considered.

While I am singling out the GOP on this one, as I and most people I know are so completely frustrated by the circus that is called the Congress, let me make it clear that both sides show this type of hypocrisy in the name of partisanship battles. It just depends who happens to have majority power during a particular political cycle. It is part of the game called politics, and it is at least beneficial to be aware of the game. We will see what happens.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Health Care Reform on the Way?

Despite unanimous disapproval from the GOP, the Senate has passed its version of Health Care reform. Now, the House and Senate begin the task of taking those two bills to conference committee to try and strike a final deal on a final bill, to be ultimately signed into law by the President.

It is a long, messy process to say the least, with obvious bitter feelings on many sides of the issues facing our health care system. And although whatever happens in conference committee, you can be sure there will still be universal votes against it from Republicans. There were numerous attempts to try and get portions of the bill to hook in some small number of those on the right, ranging from abortion language to dropping the public option to better language and policy favoring small business, but it really doesn't matter in the end because it had become and is clear nothing would gain any support on the right. I like to think this is not true, but there is something to the first set of comments from Rush Limbaugh immediately after Pres. Obama was sworn into office, where many on the right simply want to see the Obama agenda fail at all costs, period.

I try to listen to the arguments and complaints by the Republican leadership, who are out there every day stating why health care reform will destroy the economy and our childrens' futures, but evidence does not support their claims. Just the fact that some 30 million presently uninsured Americans will be able to obtain some level of health insurance, so one severe injury or illness does not bankrupt them, is a good thing. Can we agree on that? We haven't heard the right bring out CBO numbers lately because the 10-year projection is that it does pay for itself and trims $130 billion from the national debt. There are benefits and incentives for small businesses, which will drive the eventual job creation in the country, which is why some allies of small business have endorsed the plan. We'll keep hearing complaints about how seniors are going to start dying off early from non-existent 'death panels' that some on the right still throw out there for fear-raising purposes, or that Medicare is being raped - this despite the fact that the AARP endorses the plans. If there was any significant detrimental effect on seniors, this endorsement never happens...the language cannot be all that bad, apparently. And most importantly, if there were serious threats to the quality and extent of health care in the country, the AMA never endorses the plans - but they have, so this suggests it can't be all that bad. In fact, many doctors I know still think the best thing that could happen to control costs is some sort of public option, or at least what many other nations do, which is make insurance companies be not-for-profit organizations.

It is only a good thing that insurance companies will no longer be able to have entire divisions devoted to searching for needles in the haystack for their customers pasts so they can have an excuse to deny coverage when the customer needs it the most. It is only a good thing when insurance companies can no longer drop coverage without warning when a necessary procedure is too expensive. And it is only a good thing when it becomes illegal for someone with a 'pre-existing condition' to finally be able to get coverage that will not bankrupt them. If these were the only changes in the end, it would be worth the effort.

Change is not easy. Hell, small change at the local level is never easy, let alone big change at the national level. There is no such thing as a perfect bill in any policy area at any level. There are too many interests and too many emotions that arise to make much more that 50% of the country happy in anything nowadays. So I hope the Democrats push on and pass this, since it is now pointless to hope for any support from Republicans. There are some good things in the bill that will help millions of Americans. If the projections are at all accurate, not only is this going to be cost neutral, but actually lead to some savings. Does more need to be done in the near future to further reduce health care costs and the rates at which those costs are going up? Absolutely. Could the process have been handled better on both sides of the aisle? Absolutely. Are there still going to be critics and those on the far right demanding the Democrats be burned at the stake? Absolutely. But this could be an enormous first step in a multi-step process. Nearly a century after Pres. Teddy Roosevelt called for health care reform, we might get some necessary, very much overdue changes within the next month or two, depending how long the bills are debated in committee. It is time to get it done.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Scientific American Top 10 Science Stories for 2009

Check out the Scientific American Top 10 scientific stories of 2009. Always a good time debating top 10 lists. Perhaps the lead next year will be the discovery of the Higgs boson, either at Fermilab or CERN.