Improspectives

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Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

Dr. Adam Gazzaley: Gaming and Brain (OHSU Brain Awareness Series)

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Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) is a leading research and teaching institution located in Portland. They run a speaker series every year, with this year’s presentations centered on the brain. I’d forgotten to put the talk in my Outlook calendar, so I was very happy to receive a reminder message earlier Monday.

Our Speaker

The speaker, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is a member of the faculty at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and, as required by California state law, a co-founder of and adviser to a start-up company. That company, Akili Interactive Labs, produces games designed to provide cognitive benefits to players who play the games for 30-minute sessions three times a week over the course of a month or two. Gazzaley is an engaging speaker, though it seems like he’s spent a lot of his recent appearances speaking more about ideas and vision than hard science. As another attendee remarked in the lobby after the talk, “His presentation was more like a performance than a science lecture.” That approach isn’t surprising, given that he co-founded a company and has to compete for investment funds, so I didn’t think it was a problem.

I have to admit that my heart sank a bit when I realized the presentation focused on brain training using games. Lumosity recently agreed to pay a $2 million fine to settle a U.S. Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising action that claimed the company’s brain games could help students and seniors improve mental performance. Gazzaley was quick to point out that Akili’s games are going through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process, with their first game ready to move from a pilot program step to wider public testing. Unlike Lumosity’s claims and those of “nutraceutical” supplements (available in stores throughout the U.S. or your favorite multi-level marketing scheme) which make claims that have not been evaluated by the FDA, Akili is going through the rigorous, some would say onerous, testing required by the FDA before it will back up claims of a product’s efficacy. Gazzaley emphasized that if the games don’t pass FDA trials the first time around, they’ll revise them and try again.

Works in Progress

Gazzaley showed several games that combine motor skills and recognition tasks. The game that’s farthest along in testing is a driving game where the player attempts to keep a vehicle centered on a winding road using a joystick. The player must also press the joystick’s button when the vehicle passes under a sign that displays a designated symbol from a set of possible designs. The game’s adaptive algorithms increase or decrease the difficulty level based on the player’s performance, with the goal of encouraging an upward path. The player must switch between the two tasks — as switching becomes more fluid, their score increases. Gazzaley noted that “humans love to level up” regardless of age, a finding borne out by gamification research, so games are a natural mode for brain training.

He also noted that there is the possibility games can be used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, ADHD, and other conditions. While his work on games as treatment is still in the very early stages, there is the potential for significant advances. This research program will benefit from new devices such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s HoloLens, which generate virtual reality spaces in which a player may act. There are also interesting new neurological measurement devices, such as a whole-head electroencephalogram (EEG) helmet that transmits data to a waiting computer, that can provide researchers additional flexibility in measuring brain activity. I also see great potential for other serious game applications involving teams, such as squad-level military exercises or firefighting, though Dr. Gazzaley said that he’s not aware of any work yet in that area.

Conclusion

I enjoyed Dr. Gazzaley’s presentation. Yes, it was a little flashier and a little less sciencey than other talks I’ve attended, but he provided a lot of useful information and compelling demonstrations that made the hour fly by. I will definitely follow his work in the coming years.

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.

Memory and the Recency Effect

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It’s tempting to think that knowing about a cognitive bias or logical fallacy makes them immune to it. I’m no exception, but I constantly find myself falling prey to the recency effect, or recency bias. The good news is that I catch myself from time to time — the bad news is that I have no idea how many instances slip through.

The recency effect describes a condition where the most recent information you learned has a disproportionate impact on your opinion about a topic. I find myself watching TV programs or reading articles where the author sets out arguments on an issue and I often think, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ll have to revise my opinion.” The rest of the time I think, “Yeah, right” and move on with my day. If the topic’s one I don’t know much about, the information I just learned will affect my view more than it would if I knew a lot about the issue.

As I mentioned in my review of The Gamble, published here and on Technology and Society Book Reviews, the Romney 2012 presidential campaign managers attempted to use the recency effect to their candidate’s advantage. The authors cited a significant body of research showing that political ads sway opinion, but only for a few days at most before viewers’ opinions revert to their personal baselines. The Romney campaign took out a large number of ads in the days before the election in hopes of using the recency effect to their advantage. In fact, the campaign bought the entire available ad inventory in several states. Rather than leave the money in the bank, they bought ads in states they deemed less important.

If you really want to see the recency effect in action, watch the U.S. stock markets whenever major events occur. Every bit of news causes the markets to move as investors try to out-guess each other and make a profit on competitors’ decisions. I’m not sure how much of the action is individual speculators trying to get a jump on the market and others trying to guess the reactors’ reactions (and so on up the chain), but the short-term volatility can be astonishing.

Memories Change Over Time

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Memories of dramatic events seem to be burned into our minds. It seems easy to recall where we were when we learned JFK was assassinated (before my time), Ronald Reagan was shot (middle school gym at the end of the day), Elvis died (in a car near the top of Massanutten Mountain on our way to my grandparents’ place), or on September 11, 2001 (checking email after sleeping late).

It all seems so clear, but how reliable are our memories of the events and the circumstances surrounding them? Not very, especially as time passes and discussions of the events contain information not available at first. For example, a Smithsonian magazine article notes that Karim Nader, a neuroscientist, examined his own memories of September 11 and found he had made some mistakes.

Nader, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of  the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing  television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of  the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired  for the first time the following day. Apparently he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study  of 569 college students found that 73 percent shared this misperception.

These changes are normal and expected. You store long-term memories by associating new information with things you already know. As you continue to receive information about an event, it becomes difficult to distinguish what occurred when. That’s why legal experts view eyewitness testimony as unreliable – humans are fallible, our memories especially so.

When you’re an improviser, this fallibility works to your advantage. Long-form shows can run for 45 minutes or more and, given the huge number of choices performers make, inconsistencies crop up all the time. The good news is that your audience wants you to succeed and, unless the error is too big to ignore, they’re almost always willing to go along with the new reality. Not doing so would undermine their enjoyment of the show, so they have an incentive to play along.

This forgiving atmosphere isn’t present in politics and business, at least not for your competitors. They want you to fail and will bring up every instance of you ignoring or, in their opinion, attempting to mischaracterize the past. It doesn’t help when a campaign adviser admits that’s what you plan to do. As reported in a CNN.com article on March 21, 2012:

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s senior campaign adviser, was asked in a CNN interview Wednesday morning whether the former Massachusetts governor had been forced to adopt conservative positions in the rugged race that could hurt his standing with moderates in November’s general election.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom responded. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

Ouch. I anticipate the Etch A Sketch will be a theme in the 2014 and 2016 election cycle. Regardless, the lesson to draw from this incident is the same for both improv and business: Don’t abuse your audience’s goodwill.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/How-Our-Brains-Make-Memories.html#ixzz2BfHlkdVx

http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/21/politics/campaign-wrap/index.html

Semantic Memory: It (Can Be) a Trap!

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In my previous post, I talked about the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory, as the name implies, refers to memories of episodes in your life. These memories don’t always come back quickly, or at all in some cases, and they can change over time. Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to items you can recall instantaneously. Knowledge of simple arithmetic is a terrific example what’s contained in your semantic memory.

Episodic memory provides a nearly endless source of inspiration for improvisers and business people alike. Not only can you drawn your personal experiences to create scenes are presentations, you can use your knowledge to understand another person’s point of view. And, of course, if you don’t share another individual’s experiences, you can use your interactions as a tremendous learning opportunity.

Semantic memory can be a bit of a trap in both improv and business. The things that you know and feel that become ingrained enough to become part of your semantic memory can trap you into always reacting the same way to a particular stimulus. For example, you might give a presentation to a prospective client in an industry you’re not familiar with. If they ask a question you’ve answered many times before, you might give an answer that’s appropriate to your previous clients but not to the new client’s circumstances.

In improv, relying on semantic memory results and repetitive scenes and quick burnout. Audiences can be creative, but many times you’ll find that they tend to give the same suggestions. You have to find new ways to ask for input to avoid that repetition or, alternatively, constantly find new ways to build scenes around the suggestions of monkey, banana, and Jell-O. You and your audiences will be happier if you do, especially if you tend to have a lot of repeat audience members.

Episodic and Semantic Memory

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If I ask you to tell me what 3+2 equals, you would probably do so instantly. On the other hand, if I ask you to name in the last movie you saw the theater, you might have to think about it for a second or two. Those two different types of recall illustrate the differences between semantic memory and episodic memory.

I’ll start with episodic memory first. As the name implies, episodic memory is a form of long-term memory that records events from your life. Such episodes might include your wedding, the birth of a child, or something as mundane as getting out of a cab and stepping directly into a puddle. These episodes make up your internal autobiography, which is your personal record of your experiences.

Semantic memory, by contrast, refers to a subconscious knowledge that forms the basis for how we speak our native language, perform tasks we’ve done thousands of times, or interact in social settings. Semantic knowledge is often tacit, meaning that it is hard to quantify or describe. In many cases there is no need to write down the rules of behavior because everyone in the situation knows precisely what they are supposed to do. You’ll find this is true of families around the dinner table or groups of friends who go out for drinks after work.

Episodes from your life provide terrific fodder for scenes if you’re an improviser or for presentations in business. The trick is to find episodes that are directly relevant to your audience’s needs and to resist the temptation to stray too much from the truth. It’s one thing to tell your significant other a slightly exaggerated version of your exploits, but it’s quite another to tell an obviously untrue story in a business presentation. Conference goers have seen lots of presentations and they can smell a fake a mile away. Play it straight—don’t give in to the temptation to exaggerate too much.