Thursday, 21 September 2017

Stop sleeping, you'll feel better?!

Imagine yourself in a depressive state. Most of us can do it because most of us have had that experience at least once. What can you do to feel better?
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggest that not sleeping could help. I know, this is completely counter-intuitive. However, there is some logic behind it.
Here is my two cents on how this could actually work.
The main actor of this story is serotonin. Serotonin is a small molecule inhabiting your brain and making you feel happy. But this isn't the only thing serotonin does. Serotonin permits you to sleep. Indeed, in the late evening, with or without a full moon, some serotonin transform itself into melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Once asleep, other serotonin transform itself in other ways to keep you asleep. As a result, when you are asleep, your serotonin level is lower, while when you are awake, it is higher.
Now what will happen if you decide not to seep anymore? The serotonin inhabiting your brain will not be used up to put you to sleep and to keep you asleep. As a result, the amount of serotonin in your brain will not decrease at night. Also, during your next meal, you will eat proteins, and a small guy in these proteins, a certain L-tryptophan, will enter your brain and transform into ... serotonin! Thereby, more and more serotonin can build up in your brain, until a normal amount is reached and you do not feel depressed anymore.
You will not feel depressed anymore...but you will be sleep deprived. Seriously, I would not recommend that therapy to my worst enemy. Are they other ways to increase your serotonin level? Yes, there is an easy one. Take L-tryptophan supplements on an empty stomach. You can buy it in your pharmacy or your bio-shop.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

My view on "consciousness" on August 2nd, 2015

I woke up with the following thought about what consciousness might be:

In a system with internal model of itself, consciousness is the modeling of memorizing, i.e. the modeling of the actual act of modeling.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

How to learn most effectively

The advice in this article were largely inspired by a series of lectures given by Professor Stanislas Dehaene at the College de France on memory and its optimization.

 1) Focus on your subject of study.

For example, playing during your sleep a recording of what you wish to study has no effect if you never studied that subject matter before. It is important to be awake and to place yourself in conditions where distractions are minimal. For example, studying with television in the background is not very effective.

 2) Strive to understand or make sense of the materials.

For example, if you are asked to learn the phrase

"The boy threw his popcorn because the cage broke."

Your ability to remember this sentence will be much better if you are given the following hint:


In fact, now you understand why the cage is broken and why popcorn has been spilled. It will now be much easier to remember that phrase.

Your memory of this sentence will, however, be even better if you had not been given the indication right away and if you were first left guessing why the cage was broken and why the popcorn was spilled.

 3) Incorporate testing periods in your study program.

The brain learns best when it realizes that it is in error and when it receives the correct answer as feedback to its error. We must therefore test ourselves on a regular basis in order to generates these mistakes as often as possible during study and after each mistake, we must check what the right answer was. Take the example of a vocabulary list that takes 30 minutes to be read carefully. It is better to spend an hour on these words by studying the list once but trying to guess the translation of each word before looking at the translation than to read the list of words twice attentively but without testing.

 4) Sleeping breaks are essential.

a. Before an examination
Memory is consolidated during sleep. The night before an exam, you get better results by studying once a material for 6 hours and then sleeping six hours than by studying the matter twice (in 12 hours) without sleep before going to the exam. Also, if you study the morning for a test taking place in the afternoon, it is recommended to take a nap between the study session and the test.

b. Between two study sessions of the same material
It is more efficient to separate your study sessions of the same material by at least one night. For example, it is better to study two different materials or two chapters on the same day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon) and to repeat that same study pattern the next day than to study a first material or chapter twice on the same day and to study the next material or chapter on the next day. 

c. After a day preferably solely devoted to the study
Sleep consolidates memories while giving priority to the most important events of the day. A study period is a period of concentration, it is an important event in a day. Watch Out! Watching a movie or playing a video game will also be considered an important event, not only because it also focuses your attention but also because it is rich emotionally. This kind of activity is going to compete with your study material during your sleep. So it is better to do nothing too intense or captivating during study days.

d. Using smells
Select a fragrance to perfume the pages of your study material and perfume your room with the same fragrance. While you sleep, the smell will lead your brain to spend more time on the events related to that fragrance (your study material) than on events that are not related to that fragrance (it is counterproductive to wear this perfume on yourself the whole day). Sounds can be used in the same manner. For example, using the same background music for studying and for sleeping. Similarly, a recording of the study material or words reminding the study material can be played at night but beware, there is a risk of disrupting your sleep by causing for instance small awakenings. Also, playing a record of your study material is useless if you never studied it before.

 5) Carefully plan your study sessions

Watch Out! Maximizing memory in the moment of the study session is not necessarily maximizing long-term retention! So you will sometimes develop radically wrong opinions on the best way to study.

It is important to space your study sessions of the same material. As we have seen in point 4b, it is better to space two study sessions of the same material by an interval of at least one night. However, spacing your study sessions is also beneficial within one day of study. For example, it is more effective to space two study sessions of the same material with an hour interval than with a 5 minutes interval.

Let us now see some very concrete cases:

a) If you only want to pass the exam without worrying about retaining the material for the long term and if you have not taken the course:

1. If you have the time to study only once: you must study the day before,

2. If you have the time to study twice, you must study the day before and the day before that day,

...and so on.

This type of study is effective for an exam. However, beware that this strategy is the worse possible if you wish long term retention of what you studied, study sessions being too close together. The time commitment is large for a poor outcome in the long term.

b) If you want to get the most value for your time and / or study for the long term:

The optimal strategy will depend on what you mean by long term.
If you have studied the material for the first time today (e.g. you had your course today), you'll have an exam in x days and you have the time to make a single revision, the revision should be done the day before.


However, if you have the time to do two revisions, make a first revision in (x / 7) days and the second revision the day before the exam. For example, if you have an exam in 30 days make your first revision in 4 days and a second revision on the day before the exam.


It will be noted that once the first revision is scheduled and the last revision is scheduled for the day before the exam, the perfect time to do an additional revision will be (30d-4d) / 7, that is to say again 4 days after the first revision


And the perfect time to add one more revision will be (26j-4d) / 7, that is to say, three days after the previous one.


Note that as we get closer to the exam, revisions get closer to one another. These will therefore become less and less effective for long-term retention. This type of method is a good compromise between exam success and retention of the material over the long term. Even for the unambitious student, this type of strategy is interesting because it allows quite some retention of the study material if it is re-tested or useful for another exam along the line.

By cons, if you have studied the material for the first time today, and you do not know when you will need to know this material (for example, you study for fun and no examination is expected), make revisions increasingly spaced. For example, the next day, then a week later, then a month later, then three months later, etc. This will maximize the long-term retention.

Comment apprendre le plus efficacement possible ?

Les conseils prodigués dans cet article ont été largement inspiré d’une série de cours donnés par le Professeur Stanislas Dehaene au Collège de France sur la mémoire et son optimalisation.

 1)      Il faut être concentré sur ce que l’on étudie.

Par exemple, faire passer pendant son sommeil un enregistrement de ce que l’on désire étudier n’a aucun effet si cette matière n’a jamais été étudiée auparavant. Il est important de se mettre dans des conditions où les distractions sont minimales. Par exemple, étudier avec la télévision en fond sonore est peu efficace.

 2)      Il faut faire l’effort d’essayer de comprendre ou de donner du sens à ce que l’on étudie.

Par exemple, si l’on vous demande de retenir la phrase

« le garçon renversa son pop-corn parce que la cage se brisa ».

Votre mémoire de cette phrase sera bien meilleure si l’on vous donne l’indication suivante :

« lion »

En effet, maintenant vous avez compris pourquoi la cage s’est brisée et pourquoi le pop-corn s’est renversé. Vous avez maintenant beaucoup plus facile à retenir la phrase.

Votre mémoire de cette phrase sera cependant encore meilleure si l’on ne vous avait pas donné l’indication tout de suite et si l’on vous avait d’abord laissé essayer de deviner pourquoi la cage s’est brisée et pourquoi le pop-corn s’est renversé.

 3)      Il faut incorporer des périodes de tests dans son étude.

Le cerveau apprend au mieux lorsqu’il se rend compte qu’il est dans l’erreur et lorsque la correction de son erreur lui est ensuite présentée. Il faut donc faire des erreurs le plus souvent possible pendant l’étude et après chaque erreur, regarder qu’elle était la bonne réponse. Prenons l’exemple d’une liste de mots de vocabulaire qui met 30 minutes à être lue avec attention. Il vaut mieux passer une heure sur ces mots en étudiant la liste une seule fois mais en essayant de deviner la traduction de chaque mot avant d’en regarder la traduction, que de lire la liste de mots deux fois avec attention mais sans se tester.

 4)       Il faut dormir.

a.       Avant un examen
La mémoire se consolide pendant le sommeil. La veille d’un examen, on obtient de meilleurs résultats en étudiant une seule fois une matière pendant 6 heures, puis en dormant 6 heures qu’en étudiant la matière deux fois (en 12 heures), sans dormir avant de se rendre à l’examen. Aussi, si l’on étudie le matin pour un examen ayant lieu l’après-midi, il est conseillé de faire une sieste entre la session d’étude et l’examen.

b.      Entre les sessions d’études d’une même matière
Il est plus efficace de de séparer ses sessions d’étude d’une même matière par au moins une nuit. Par exemple, il vaut mieux étudier deux matières différentes ou deux chapitres différents sur une même journée (un le matin, un l’après-midi) et recommencer l’étude de ces deux matières ou chapitres le lendemain, que d’étudier la première matière ou le premier chapitre deux fois la première journée et la seconde matière ou le second chapitre deux fois le jour suivant.

c.       Après une journée de préférence uniquement consacrée à l’étude
Le sommeil consolide en priorité le souvenir des évènements les plus marquants de la journée. Une période d’étude étant une période de concentration, c’est un évènement marquant. Attention ! Regarder un film ou jouer à un jeu vidéo sont aussi des évènements marquant non seulement car ils requièrent de l’attention mais aussi car ils sont riches émotionnellement. Ce genre d’activité va donc rentrer en compétition avec l’étude pendant la nuit. Il est donc préférable de ne rien faire de plus marquant que l’étude pendant une journée d’étude.

d.      En utilisant les odeurs
Réservez un parfum pour parfumer vos feuilles de cours et parfumez votre chambre de ce même parfum. Pendant votre sommeil, l’odeur mènera votre cerveau à passer plus de temps sur les évènements liés à ce parfum (votre étude) qu’aux évènements qui n’y sont pas lié (il est donc contreproductif de porter ce parfum sur soi toute la journée). Les sons peuvent être utilisés de la même manière. Par exemple en utilisant la même musique d’ambiance pour l’étude que pour la nuit. De même, un enregistrement du cours ou de mots rappelant le cours peut être joué pendant la nuit mais attention, il y a un risque de perturber le sommeil en provoquant par exemples de petits réveils. Aussi, la méthode auditive ne sert à rien si l’on a jamais étudier cette matière auparavant.

 5)      Il faut programmer judicieusement ses sessions d’étude

Attention ! Ce qui maximise la mémoire dans l’instant de la session d’étude n’est pas nécessairement ce qui maximise la rétention à long-terme !  On se trompe donc parfois radicalement sur les conditions d’étude qui optimise la mémoire.

Il est important d’espacer ses sessions d’étude d’une même matière. Comme nous l’avons vu au point 4b, il vaut mieux espacer deux séances d’étude d’une même matière par un intervalle d’au moins une nuit. Néanmoins, espacer ses sessions d’étude est également bénéfique au sein d’un même jour d’étude. Par exemple, il est plus efficace d’espacer deux séances d’étude d’une même matière d’un intervalle d’une heure que d’un intervalle de 5 minutes.

Voyons maintenant quelques cas de figures bien concret :

a)      Si vous ne voulez que réussir l’examen sans vous souciez d’avoir retenu la matière sur le long terme et que vous n’avez pas suivi le cours:

a.       Si vous n’avez le temps que d’étudier une seule fois : il faut étudier la veille,
b.      Si vous avez le temps d’étudier deux fois : il faut étudier l’avant-veille et la veille,
Et ainsi de suite.
Ce type d’étude est efficace pour passer un examen. Par contre, cette stratégie est la moins efficace possible pour retenir l’information sur le long terme, les sessions d’études étant trop rapprochées. L’investissement en temps est important pour un résultat sur le long terme médiocre.

b)      Si vous voulez rentabiliser votre temps passé en cours et/ou étudier pour le long terme:

La stratégie optimale va dépendre de ce que vous entendez par long terme.
Si vous avez étudié la matière pour la première fois aujourd’hui (ex : vous avez eu votre cours aujourd’hui), que vous aurez besoin de connaitre l’information dans x jours et que vous n’avez le temps que de faire une seule révision, faite la révision la veille.


Par contre, si vous avez le temps de faire deux révisions, faite une révision dans x/7 jours et la seconde révision la veille de l’examen. Par exemple, si  vous aurez un examen dans 30 jours, faite votre première révision dans 4 jours et votre seconde révision la veille de l’examen.


On remarquera qu’une fois la première révision faite et la dernière révision programmée pour la veille de l’examen, le moment idéal de faire une révision additionnelle sera (30j-4j)/7, c'est-à-dire encore une fois 4 jours après la première révision


Et le moment idéal pour ajouter encore une révision sera (26j-4j)/7, c'est-à-dire 3 jours après la précédente.


On remarque qu’au fur et à mesure que l’on se rapproche de la date d’examen, les révisions se rapprochent. Ces révisions deviennent donc de moins en moins intéressantes pour la rétention à long terme. Ce type de méthode est le bon compromis entre réussite aux examens et rétention de la matière sur le long terme. Même pour l’étudiant peu ambitieux, ce type de stratégie est intéressante car elle permet de ne pas avoir trop oublié la matière si elle est re-testée ou utile pour passer un examen ultérieur.  

Par contre, si vous avez étudié la matière pour la première fois aujourd’hui et que vous ne savez pas quand vous aurez besoin de cette matière (par exemple, vous étudier pour le plaisir et aucun examen n’est prévu), faite des révisions de plus en plus espacées. Par exemple, le lendemain, ensuite dans une semaine, ensuite dans un mois, ensuite dans trois mois, etc. Cela maximisera la rétention à long terme.

Monday, 24 November 2014

About Susan Blackmore's memes and t(r)emes...

I attended this Sunday a lecture given by Susan Blackmore on genes, memes, and tremes. 

Here are in a nutshell my thoughts about it:

The lecture was very entertaining and interesting. Susan appeared as a jovial, youthful and clever woman. Furthermore, she shares many of my interests (consciousness, free will, genes, memes, meditation, out of body experiences, near death experiences, ..).

Here is what I understand about genes, memes, and tremes after having reflected on Susan's lecture:

1/The earth is the environment that enabled the first replicator (gene) to arise. It happened because the earth had what it takes a) to create replicating entities, b) to allow modifications of these replicators, and c) to select amongst these various replicators.  These replicators first simply freely floated around, then they started having phenotypes that helped them catalyzing their own reproduction (e.g. serving as template to the formation of enzymes,...) and ultimately they created gene survival machines (living organisms). In this process, the replicators maybe migrated from RNA to DNA. These organisms are sub-environments that carry out all three processes of copying, varying and selecting (via e.g sexual selection) genes while part of the selection is still performed by its environment, the earth.

2/One of these organisms (humans) became the environment that enabled the second replicator (meme) to arise. It happened because the human mind can a) create and replicate ideas, b) modify them, and c) select them. Memes first simply floated around from one mind to another, then they started having phenotypes that helped them catalyzing their own reproduction (e.g. writing, paper, ...) and ultimately they created meme survival machines (e.g. computers, internet,...). In this process, the meme migrated from neural patterns to binary codes. Computers are sub-environments that carry out all three processes of copying, varying and selecting memes while part of the selection is still performed by its environment, the human mind. 

Susan appeared to have a slightly different opinion, she argues that humans are meme machines. I first arrived at another conclusion. I considered that we are the meme's environment, just like the earth is the original replicator's environment. I considered that we are not meme machines because memes did not create us, let alone create us to propagate themselves. Not like genes, that indeed created organisms to propagate themselves. If the earth was a conscious Gaia, before the appearance of living organisms, she could mistakenly have thought that she was a gene machine since she creates, modify, and select replicators. However, after having further thought about it, I can see how we can indeed be considered meme machines since we perform the tasks of copying, varying, storing and selecting memes.  
3/ Well, yet another replicator (treme) might arise within these new meme machines that are the computers, internet, ... but I do not think it arose yet. I think we are still at the level of the meme. However, I share Susan's view that a major change occurred: (Technological) Meme Survival Machines recently appeared and they will evolve to better serve their masters (the technological memes). The memes might indeed ultimately not need us anymore. 

If Susan Blackmore give a lecture in your neighborhood, I can safely recommend it to you.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Misadventures of a novice meditator

I received a book about meditation and decided to give it a try. As an exercise, I was asked to sit straight for 3 minutes and to … (I just spilled my alcohol-free beer on my desk, sorry for the interruption) … just observe what is going in my mind, without interfering. So I decided to do just that. Since the weather was nice and the entrance door was ajar I thought I would give it a try on the front porch. I left the house, closed the entrance door, sit on the stairs, straighten my spin, closed my eyes, heard the wind whistling, the birds singing, footsteps approaching, the door opening wide and my wife saying “Please don’t close the door, I opened it for fresh air!”. I opened my eye and replied “ok”. I then re-started from scratch. I closed my eyes, heard the wind singing, the birds whistling, a feminine attenuated voice saying “kids, go to have a look at what your father is doing!”. l opened my eyes, opened my book and pretended I was reading. My son opened the door, then closed it and shouted “he’s reading!”. Right, the front porch was maybe not the best place to meditate. Maybe I should go in the forest and sit against a tree like the Buddha did? I stood up and while I ruminated about how hard it was to find even one minute of calm around that house, I headed to the fields and the closest wood. On my way, I briefly considered doing my exercise while walking but then realized that walking three minutes without opening my eyes would be way too dangerous with all these silent bicycles around. Arrived at the wood, I was welcomed by two dogs, barking aggressively from behind a fence facing the wood. The wood being tiny, there was no way I could find a spot out of sights from these two monsters. Next time, I’ll try in the toilets.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Some thoughts about morality

We are machines programmed by our genes to reproduce them. Our ability to feel good or bad is equally programmed by our genes. We will feel good when we behave in the way that would have promoted our genes reproduction in our evolutionary history. I can’t conceive of a more logical choice for such a machine than to try to feel good as much as possible for the longer part possible of its lifespan.

That’s certainly what all animals do, including us. We know however that humans can come up with a large variety of strategies to achieve this goal and that these strategies are not all equally valid. The best guide I can come with for a human is: what course of actions would make the highest contribution to your happiness integrated over your lifespan.

This technically selfish morality does not necessarily translate into asocial behaviors.

Since we are social animals, our happiness directly depends on the quality of our relationship with others.

Which “others” will have the highest influence on your happiness? 1) your kin and 2) your peers. Our natural empathy for our kin, naturally extends to our peers (because in our evolutionary past, your peers were usually exactly the same as your kin). So your happiness will at least depend on your relationships with your kin and your peers.

Now, in our multimedia society, our empathy also gets triggered by other stimuli. For instance, we see suffering people on TV and we feel off course bad (in our evolutionary past, this would have been adaptive). A problem with that, is that your power to do good is not great enough to erase these sad pictures of suffering people from your TV. Hence, whatever you do to help them, you will not increase your happiness a bit. Indeed, there will still always be sad pictures on your screens and the people you helped not being your peers (you have no interaction with them), the quality of your relationship with them will not improve (since there is no relationship to speak of).

Our empathy also extends to anthropomorphic animals. Examples of such animals are those we artificially selected to increase their compatibility with us (dogs, cats, horses,…) as well as baby animals which look similar to baby human (big eyes…). This is a side effect of our natural ability to feel empathy for kin and peers. This side effect is not necessarily contra-productive with respect to happiness. The way you treat your dog/horse will have an impact on your actually existing relationship with him. This side effect might however also be contra-productive with respect to happiness once it extends to all animals, despite the fact that you have no relationship with them. This for the same reasons as discussed above for humans on TV.

The question “which others” requires another answer as above if you become a public person. Since you are known from everybody you better not do things that would have a negative impact on your relationship with everybody. By the way, this includes rat lovers, so you better not do things that would harm rats either. If you are a politician, it is even worse because your impact on others is much larger. In that case, you must be even more careful with the “others” at large (at least within the circle where you are known/active).