Teach handwriting in schools!

I have begun this blogpost many times. I have erased it many times. That is because the subject of today – handwriting – is very sensitive for me. Most of what I wrote and subsequently erased was a rant: angry at rimes, full of profanity at other times. The rest were paragraphs that can be easily categorized as pleading, bargaining, imploring to teach handwriting in American schools. Or, if they already do, to do it less chaotically, more seriously, more consistently, with a LOT more practice and hopefully before the child hits puberty.

Because, contrary to most educators’ beliefs, handwriting is not the same as typing. Nor is printing / manuscript writing the same as cursive writing, but that’s another kettle.

Somehow, sometime, a huge disjointment happened between scholarly researchers and educators. In medicine, the findings of researchers tend to take 10-15 years until they start to be believed and implemented in medical practice. In education… it seems that even findings cemented by Nobel prizes 100 years ago are alien to the ranks of educators. It didn’t used to be like that. I don’t know when educators became distrustful of data and science. When exactly did they start to substitute evidence with “feels right” and “it’s our school’s philosophy”. When did they start using “research shows… ” every other sentence without being able to produce a single item, name, citation, paper, anything of said research. When did the educators become so… uneducated. I could write (and rant!) a lot about the subject of handwriting or about what exactly a Masters in Education teaches the educators. But I’m so tired of it before I even begun because I’m doing it for a while now and it’s exhausting. It takes an incredible amount of effort, at least for me, to bring the matter of writing so genteelly, tactfully, and non-threateningly to the attention of the fragile ego of the powers that be in charge of the education of the next generation. Yes, yes, there must be rara aves among the educators who actually teach and do listen to or read papers on education from peer-reviewed journals; but I didn’t find them. I wonder who the research in education is for, if neither the educators nor policy makers have any clue about it.

Here is another piece of education research which will probably go unremarked by the ones it is intended for, i.e. educators and policy makers. Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) took a closer look at the note-taking habits of 65 Princeton and 260 UCLA students. The students were instructed to take notes in their usual classroom style from 5 x >15 min long TED talks, which were “interesting but not common knowledge” (p. 1160). Afterwards, the subjects completed a hard working-memory task and answered factual and conceptual questions about the content of the “lectures”.

The students who took notes in writing (I’ll call them longhanders) performed significantly better at conceptual questions about the lecture content that the ones who typed on laptops (typers). The researchers noticed that the typers tend to write verbatim what it’s being said, whereas the longhanders don’t do that, which corresponds directly with their performance. In their words,

“laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” (Abstract).

Because typing is faster than writing, the typers can afford to not think of what they type and be in a full scribe mode with the brain elsewhere and not listening to a single word of the lecture (believe me, I know, both as a student and as a University professor). Contrary to that, the longhanders cannot write verbatim and must process the information to extract what’s relevant. In the words of cognitive psychologists everywhere and present in every cognitive psychology textbook written over the last 70 years: depth of processing facilitates learning. Maybe that could be taught in a Masters of Education…

Pet peeves aside, the next step in the today’s paper was to see if you force the typers to forgo the verbatim note-taking and do some information processing might improve learning. It did not, presumably because “the instruction to not take verbatim notes was completely ineffective at reducing verbatim content (p = .97)” (p. 1163).

The laptop typers did take more notes though, by word count. So in the next study, the researchers asked the question “If allowed to study their notes, will the typers benefit from their more voluminous notes and show better performance?” This time the researchers made 4 x 7-min long lectures on bats, bread, vaccines, and respiration and tested them 1 week alter. The results? The longhanders who studied performed the best. The verbatim typers performed the worst, particularly on conceptual versus factual questions, despite having more notes.

For the sake of truth and in the spirit of the overall objectivity of this blog, I should note that the paper is not very well done. It has many errors, some of which were statistical and corrected in a Corrigendum, some of which are methodological and can be addressed by a bigger study with more carefully parsed out controls and more controlled conditions, or at least using the same stimuli across studies. Nevertheless, at least one finding is robust as it was replicated across all their studies:

“In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand” (Abstract)

Teachers, teach handwriting! No more “Of course we teach writing, just…, just not now, not today, not this year, not so soon, perhaps not until the child is a teenager, not this grade, not my responsibility, not required, not me…”.

157 handwriting - Copy

REFERENCE: Mueller, PA & Oppenheimer, DM (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6): 1159–1168. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF | NPR cover

By Neuronicus, 1 Sept. 2019

P. S. Some of my followers pointed me to a new preregistered study that failed to replicate this paper (thanks, followers!). Urry et al. (2019) found that the typers have more words and take notes verbatim, just as Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) found, but this did not benefit the typers, as there wasn’t any difference between conditions when it came to learning without study.

The authors did not address the notion that “depth of processing facilitates learning” though, a notion which is now theory because it has been replicated ad nauseam in hundreds of thousands of papers. Perhaps both papers can be reconciled if a third study were to parse out the attention component of the experiments by, perhaps, introspection questionnaires. What I mean is that the typers can do mindless transcription and there is no depth of processing, resulting in the Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) observation or they can actually pay attention to what they type and then there is depth of processing, in which case we have Urry et al. (2019) findings. But the longhanders have no choice but to pay attention because they cannot write verbatim, so we’re back to square one, in my mind, that longhanders will do better overall. Handwriting your notes is the safer bet for retention then, because your attention component is not voluntary, but required for the task, as it were, at hand.

REFERENCE: Urry, H. L. (2019, February 9). Don’t Ditch the Laptop Just Yet: A Direct Replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study 1 Plus Mini-Meta-Analyses Across Similar Studies. PsyArXiv. doi:10.31234/osf.io/vqyw6. FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 2 Sept. 2019

Earliest memories

I found a rather old-ish paper that attempts to settle a curiosity regarding human memory: how far back can we remember?

MacDonald et al. (2000) got 96 participants to fill a 15-minute questionnaire about their demographics and their earliest memories. The New Zealand subjects were in their early twenties, a third of Maori descent, a third of European descent and the last third of Asian descent.

The Maori had the earliest memories, some of them as early as before they turned 1 year old, though the mean was 2 years and 8 months. Next came the Europeans with the mean of 3 years and a half, followed by the Asians with the mean of 4 and 9 months. Overall, most memories seem to occur between 3 and 4 years. There was no difference in gender except for the Asian group where the females reported much later memories, around 6 years.

The subjects were also required to indicate the source of the memory as being personal recollection, family story or photographs. About 86% reported it as personal recollection. The authors argue that even without the remaining 14% the results looks the same. I personally would have left those 14% out if they really don’t make a difference, it would have made the results much neater.

There are a few caveats that one must keep in mind with this kind of studies, the questionnaire studies. One of them is the inherent veracity problem: you rely on human honesty because there is no way to check the data for truth. The fact that the memory may be true or false would not matter for this study, but whether is a personal recollection or a family story would matter. So take the results at face value. Besides, human memory is extremely easy to manipulate, therefore some participants may actually believe that they ‘remember’ an event when in fact it was learned much later from relatives. I also have very early memories and while one of them I believe was told ad nauseam by family members at every family gathering so many times that I incorporated it as actual recollection, there are a couple that I couldn’t tell you for the life of me whether I remember them truly or they too have been subjected to family re-reminiscing.

Another issue might be the very small sample sizes with sub-groups. The authors divided their participants in many subgroups (whether they spoke English first, whether they were raised mainly by the mother etc.) that some subgroups ended up having 2 or 3 members, which is not enough to make a statistical judgement. Which also leads me to multiple comparisons adjustments, which should be more visible.

So not exactly the best paper ever written. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting paper in that even if it doesn’t really establish (in my opinion) when do most people have their earliest true memories, it does point to cultural differences in individuals’ earliest recollections. The authors speculate that that may be due to the emphasis put on detailed stories about personal experiences told by the mother in the early years in some cultures (here Maori) versus a lack of these stories in other cultures (here Asian).


Reference: MacDonald S, Uesiliana K, & Hayne H. (Nov 2000). Cross-cultural and gender differences in childhood amnesia. Memory. 2000 Nov;8(6):365-76. PMID: 11145068, DOI: 10.1080/09658210050156822. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 28 November 2016


How do you remember?

Memory processes like formation, maintenance and consolidation have been the subjects of extensive research and, as a result, we know quite a bit about them. And just when we thought that we are getting a pretty clear picture of the memory tableau and all that is left is a little bit of dusting around the edges and getting rid of the pink elephant in the middle of the room, here comes a new player that muddies the waters again.

DNA methylation. The attaching of a methyl group (CH3) to the DNA’s cytosine by a DNA methyltransferase (Dnmt) was considered until very recently a process reserved for the immature cells in helping them meet their final fate. In other words, DNA methylation plays a role in cell differentiation by suppressing gene expression. It has other roles in X-chromosome inactivation and cancer, but it was not suspected to play a role in memory until this decade.

Oliveira (2016) gives us a nice review of the role(s) of DNA methylation in memory formation and maintenance. First, we encounter the pharmacological studies that found that injecting Dnmt inhibitors in various parts of the brain in various species disrupted memory formation or maintenance. Next, we see the genetic studies, where mice Dnmt knock-downs and knock-outs also show impaired memory formation and maintenance. Finally, knowing which genes’ transcription is essential for memory, the researcher takes us through several papers that examine the DNA de novo methylation and demethylation of these genes in response to learning events and its role in alternative splicing.

Based on these here available data, the author proposes that activity induced DNA methylation serves two roles in memory: to “on the one hand, generate a primed and more permissive epigenome state that could facilitate future transcriptional responses and on the other hand, directly regulate the expression of genes that set the strength of the neuronal network connectivity, this way altering the probability of reactivation of the same network” (p. 590).

Here you go; another morsel of actual science brought to your fingertips by yours truly.


Reference: Oliveira AM (Oct 2016, Epub 15 Sep 2016). DNA methylation: a permissive mark in memory formation and maintenance. Learning & Memory,  23(10): 587-593. PMID: 27634149, DOI: 10.1101/lm.042739.116. ARTICLE

By Neuronicus, 22 September 2016

Will you trust a pigeon pathologist? That’s right, he’s a bird. Stop being such an avesophobe!


From Levenson et al. (2015), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141357. License: CC BY 4.0

Pigeons have amazing visual skills. They can remember facial expressions, recall almost 2000 images, recognizes all the letters of the alphabet (well, even I can do that), and even tell apart a Monet form a Picasso! (ok, birdie, you got me on that one).

Given their visual prowess, Levenson et al. (2015) figured that pigeons might be able to distinguish medically-relevant images (a bit of a big step in reasoning there, but let’s go with it). They got a few dozen pigeons, starved them a bit so the birds show motivation to work for food, and started training them on recognizing malignant versus non-malignant breast tumors histology pictures. These are the same exact pictures your radiologist looks at after a mammogram and your pathologist after a breast biopsy; they were not retouched in any way for the pigeon’s benefit (except to make it more difficult, see below). Every time the pigeon pecked on the correct image, it got a morsel of food (see picture). Training continued for a few weeks on over 100 images.

For biopsies, the birds had an overwhelming performance, reaching 99% accuracy, regardless of the magnification of the picture, and for mammograms, up to 80% accuracy, just like their human counterparts. Modifying the pictures’ attributes, like rotation, compression or color lowered somewhat their accuracy, but they were still able to score only marginally less than humans and considerably better than any computer software. More importantly, the pigeons were able to generalize, after training, to correctly classify previously unseen pictures.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about some fancy breed here, but your common beady-eyed, suspicious-sidling, feral-looking rock pigeon. Yes, the one and only pest that receives stones and bread in equal measures, the former usually accompanied by vicious swearings uttered by those that encountered their slushy “gifts” under the shoes, on the windshield or in the coffee and the latter offered by more kindly disposed and yet utterly naive individuals in the misguided hopes of befriending nature. Columba livia by its scientific name, at the same time an exasperating pest and an excellent pathologist! Who knew?!

The authors even suggest using pigeons instead of training and paying clinicians. Hmmm… But who do I sue if my mother’s breast cancer gets missed by the bird, in one of those 1% chances? Because somehow making a pigeon face the guillotine does not seem like justice to me. Or is this yet another plot to get the clinicians off the hook for misdiagnoses? Leave the medical profession alone, birdies – is morally sensitive as it is -, and search employment in the police or Google; they always need better performance in the ever-challenging task of face-recognition in surveillance videos.

P.S. The reason why you didn’t recognized the word “avesophobe” in the title is because I just invented it, to distinguish the hate for birds from a more serious affliction, ornithophobia, the fear of birds.

Reference: Levenson RM, Krupinski EA, Navarro VM, & Wasserman EA (18 Nov 2015). Pigeons (Columba livia) as Trainable Observers of Pathology and Radiology Breast Cancer Images. PLoS One, 10(11):e0141357. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141357.  Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 19 November 2015

The F in memory

"Figure 2. Ephs and ephrins mediate molecular events that may be involved in memory formation. Evidence shows that memory formation involves alterations of presynaptic neurotransmitter release, activation of glutamate receptors, and neuronal morphogenesis. Eph receptors regulate synaptic transmission by regulating synaptic release, glutamate reuptake from the synapse (via astrocytes), and glutamate receptor conductance and trafficking. Ephs and ephrins also regulate neuronal morphogenesis of axons and dendritic spines through controlling the actin cytoskeleton structure and dynamics" (Dines & Lamprecht, 2015, p. 3).
“Figure 2. Ephs and ephrins mediate molecular events that may be involved in memory formation. Evidence shows that memory formation involves alterations of presynaptic neurotransmitter release, activation of glutamate receptors, and neuronal morphogenesis. Eph receptors regulate synaptic transmission by regulating synaptic release, glutamate reuptake from the synapse (via astrocytes), and glutamate receptor conductance and trafficking. Ephs and ephrins also regulate neuronal morphogenesis of axons and dendritic spines through controlling the actin cytoskeleton structure and dynamics” (Dines & Lamprecht, 2015, p. 3).

When thinking about long-term memory formation, most people immediately picture glutamate synapses. Dines & Lamprecht (2015) review the role of a family of little known players, but with big roles in learning and long-term memory consolidation: the ephs and the ephrines.

Ephs (the name comes from erythropoietin-producing human hepatocellular, the cancer line from which the first member was isolated) are transmembranal tyrosine kinase receptors. Ephrines (Eph receptor interacting protein) bind to them. Ephrines are also membrane-bound proteins, which means that in order for the aforementioned binding to happen, cells must touch each other, or at least be in a very very cozy vicinity. They are expressed in many regions of the brain like hippocampus, amygdala, or cortex.

The authors show that “interruption of Ephs/ephrins mediated functions is sufficient for disruption of memory formation” (p. 7) by reviewing a great deal of genetic, pharmacologic, and electrophysiological studies employing a variety of behavioral tasks, from spatial memory to fear conditioning. The final sections of the review focus on the involvement of ephs/ephrins in Alzheimer’s and anxiety disorders, suggesting that drugs that reverse the impairment on eph/ephrin signaling in these brain diseases may lead to an eventual cure.

Reference: Dines M & Lamprecht R (8 Oct 2015, Epub 13 Sept 2015). The Role of Ephs and Ephrins in Memory Formation. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 1-14. doi:10.1093/ijnp/pyv106. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 26 October 2015

I can watch you learning

Human Stereotaxic System. Photo credit: The Mind Project
Human Stereotaxic System. Photo credit: The Mind Project

Recording directly form the healthy living human brain has always been a coveted goal of many neuroscientists, thus bypassing the limitations of non-invasive techniques or animal work. But, understandably, nobody would seek or grant approval for inserting an electrode in the healthy living human brain, on moral and ethical grounds. The next best thing is to insert an electrode into the not so healthy living human brain.

Ison, Quiroga, & Fried (2015) got lucky and gained access to 14 patients with intractable epilepsy that had electrodes implanted in their brain to find where the seizure focus is (for possible surgical resection later on). Using these electrodes, they recorded the activity of single neurons within the medial temporal lobe (MTL, a brain area paramount for learning) while the patients performed some simple association tasks. First, they presented images of places, people, and animals to the patients to see “which (if any) of the recorded neurons responded to a picture” (p. 220). When they got a neuron responding to something, they rushed out, did some data and image processing, and after an hour they started the experiment. Which was showing the patient the picture to which the neuron responded to (e.g. Stimulus 1 = patient’s daughter) overimposed on a background that the neuron did not respond to (e.g. Stimulus 2 = the Eiffel tower). After one single trial (although there was some variability), the patients learned the associations (i.e. Stimulus 3 = daughter in front of Eiffel tower) and this learning was mirrored by how the neuron responded. Namely, the neuron increased its activity by 200% to 400% (counted in spikes per second) when shown the previously un-responded to image alone (i.e. Stimulus 2).

Excerpt from Fig. 5 from Ison, Quiroga, & Fried (2015).
Excerpt from Fig. 5 from Ison, Quiroga, & Fried (2015). “Average normalized neural activity (black squares) and behavioral responses (green circles) to the non-preferred stimulus as a function of trial number. Data were aligned to the learning time (relative trial number 0)”, i.e. when they showed the composite image between Stimulus 1 and Stimulus 2. “Note that the neural activity follows the sudden increase in behavioral learning”.

The authors recorded from over 600 neurons from various MTL regions, out of which 51 responded to a Stimulus 1. From these, only half learned, that is, they increased their activity when Stimulus 2 was shown. For the picky specialist, the cells were both Type 1 and Type 2 neurons, located 6 in the hippocampus, 4 in the entorhinal cortex, 11 in the parahippocampal cortex, and 1 in the amygdala. And the authors controlled for familiarity, attentional demands, and other extraneous variables (with some very fancy and hard to follow stats, I might add).

The paper settles an old psychology dispute. Do we learn an association gradually or at once? In other words, do we learn gradually that A and B occur together, or do we learn that the first time we are shown A and B together and the next trials serve just to refine and consolidate the new knowledge? Ison, Quiroga, & Fried (2015) data show that learning happens at once, in an all-or-none fashion.

Reference: Ison, M. J., Quian Quiroga, R., & Fried, I. (1 July 2015). Rapid Encoding of New Memories by Individual Neurons in the Human Brain. Neuron, 87(1): 220-30. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.06.016. Article | FREE PDF

By Neuronicus, 4 October 2015

Obscure protein restores memory decline

In the not-too-distant-future, your grandma may give you a run for your money on your video games. Photo credit: http://www.funtoosh.com/pictures/
In the not-too-distant-future, your grandma may give you a run for your money on your video games. Photo credit: Funtoosh

Aging comes with all sorts of maladies, but one of the most frustrating is the feeling that you are not as sharp as you used to be. Cognitive decline has been previously linked, at least in part, to a dysregulation in the neuronal calcium homeostasis in the hippocampus, which is a brain region essential for learning and memory. One player that keeps in check the proper balance of calcium use is the protein FKBP1b, and, not surprisingly, its amounts are reduced in aging rats and Alzheimer’s suffering patients.

FKBP1b overexpression in hippocampal neurons reversed spatial memory deficits in aged rats. Fig. 3 (partial) from Gant, J. C., Chen, K. C., Kadish, I., Blalock, E. M., Thibault, O., Porter, N. M., Landfield, P. W. (29 July 2015). Reversal of Aging-Related Neuronal Ca2+ Dysregulation and Cognitive Impairment by Delivery of a Transgene Encoding FK506-Binding Protein 12.6/1b to the Hippocampus. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(30):10878 –10887. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1248-15.2015.
FKBP1b overexpression in hippocampal neurons reversed spatial memory deficits in aged rats. Fig. 3 (partial) from Gant et al. (2015): doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1248-15.2015.

Gant et al. (2015) sought to increase the expression of the FKBP1b protein in the hippocampus, in the hopes that its increase would result in better calcium homeostasis and, as a result, better memory performance in aging rats. They built a virus that carried the gene for making the FKBP1b protein and they injected this directly in the hippocampus. After they waited 5-6 weeks for the gene to be expressed, they tested the rats in the Morris water maze, a test for spatial memory. The old rats that received the injection performed as well as the young rats, and far better than the old rats who didn’t get the injection. Then the researchers made sure that the injection is the one responsible for the results, by checking the levels of the FKBP1b protein in the hippocampus (increased, as per specs), by recording from those neurons (they were awesome), and by imaging the calcium to make sure the balance was restored (ditto).

Reference: Gant, J. C., Chen, K. C., Kadish, I., Blalock, E. M., Thibault, O., Porter, N. M., Landfield, P. W. (29 July 2015). Reversal of Aging-Related Neuronal Ca2+ Dysregulation and Cognitive Impairment by Delivery of a Transgene Encoding FK506-Binding Protein 12.6/1b to the Hippocampus. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(30):10878 –10887. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1248-15.2015. Article + FREE PDF + Journal of Neuroscience cover