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Only as Smart as Your Weakest Pathway


Brain (3)

Recall more than Recognition has always been an issue for me.  Remembering most things, from general information to small task has always been a huge challenge. Growing up as a child, if someone gave me a few simple tasks to accomplish at once, it was almost always inevitable that I would only accomplish two at most.  Throughout all 12 grades of regular schooling, the simplest lessons taught; which most people still remember today, such as capitals of states, who the first 5 Presidents of the United States was, and perhaps what a neuron and a cell is, seemed to escape me relatively quickly.  Even now as an adult, remembering day to day information, names of regular faces at work, and recalling lessons taught in college courses, seem to be the most challenging task.  The bottom line is if I fail to write down a task or whatever information is provided to me, whoever provided the information in hopes of me utilizing for a purpose, might as well forget it also… after 30 seconds it all decays and becomes lost in translation.

So as I read Goldstein’s Cognitive Psychology book and began to conduct further research, I realized that memory recall and retrieval are complex.  As I researched, I found information which explained that memories are stored in our brains more like a jigsaw puzzle with different elements stored in disparate parts of the brain which are linked together by “neural networks”, as opposed to all information being stored as a collection of organized books or videos (  Since memory retrieval is in essence the act of gathering information from different areas of the brain, retrieval requires the nerve pathways that the brain formed to encode the information to be revisited. “The strength of those pathways determines how quickly the memory can be recalled” (  Without encoded information first being retrieved, it cannot be utilized; therefore, the retrieval process is paramount.  More often than not, the inability to remember is the result of retrieval failures (Goldstein, 2011).

As I continued to read Goldstein’s text, I became certain that I discovered one possible culprit that may cause my inability to remember; which is the infamous “Illusion of Learning” (Goldstein, 2011).  Rereading material over and over; which I now know only increases fluency and the familiarity effect, not increase memory of the material, is a study habit that I’ve used ever since I can remember.  Familiarity Effect causes the tendency to believe that because you recognize material in front of you, you will remember it later; which I’ve always been able to attest to the fact that it’s untrue; however, I too, also thought it was simply MY inability to remember.  Lastly, highlighting material is also an illusion of learning.  Highlighting only creates repetitive motions of your hand, as opposed to deep processing of the material because as the material is highlighted; deep thought about WHAT is being highlighted fails to occur (Goldstein, 2011).  I’ve also been guilty of highlighting until my hand was sore; only to later trigger the “deer in headlight stare” upon attempting to use my notes as study or test taking material.  Certainly, if I would have know then what I know now in regards to study habits and the illusion of learning, I perhaps could have given the illusion of being smarter than a 5th grader.

One observation that I’ve always noticed is that events and information which seems to be connected to emotions and are “heartfelt” in some way, I appear to recall a lot easier than other information or events.  Enhanced memories for emotional events are linked to interactions between the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex (PFC) (Cahill & McGaugh, 1996). “This seems to affect women more so than men. This is due to the fact that women and men process emotional memories differently.”  The encoding and consolidation of memory for emotional events takes place in the amygdala; which is triggered by emotions to influence the memory during emotional situations (Goldstein, E. B., 2011).  As I also read, Memory recall appears to be state-dependent to some extent.  Information is subsequently recalled more accurately when an individual is in the same emotional state at the time of retrieval as similar to the emotional state at the time the information is encoded (

As I now know that as the pathways can be influenced by emotions, events, rehearsals, and test; even the weakest pathway can become the strongest.

Midlands vs Joaquin: Seen it all Before… Wait, Not Like This!

Hurricane Joaquin

Top-down processing is also known as conceptually-driven processing, given that an individual’s perceptions are influenced by expectations, existing beliefs, and cognitions.  In some instances people are aware of these influences, but in other occurrences this process occurs without conscious awareness.  On 2 OCT 2015, I believe that I, along with the majority of the people of Columbia South Carolina were not consciously aware of the top-down processing that we possessed; which influence the perception that we had in regards to believing that Hurricane Joaquin would not have an impact on the Midlands…

The South Carolina Emergency Management Division was paying close attention to Hurricane Joaquin, and as a result of the storm’s projected movement, key agencies in South Carolina government had been notified to be ready to respond if the need arose.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the forecasts from the National Hurricane Center. We are preparing for the possibility that this storm could affect South Carolina, we’re asking residents to do the same.”

As hurricane Joaquin approached the East Coast, many “Midlands” residents received all the weather reports and warnings.  The storm’s path was meteorologically mapped, constantly updated, and broadcast just as with all other hurricanes and tropical storms that preceded Joaquin.  The city of Columbia certainly understood the possibilities of what could happen from natural disasters such as hurricanes and flooding; however, for the residents of Columbia, South Carolina, that understanding was based off of previous knowledge of hurricanes such as Katrina; which wreaked havoc and caused major flooding throughout the state of Louisiana in 2005.  Or even other hurricanes which were seemingly destined to make landfall and relentlessly travel across the “Lowcountry”, such as Hurricane Hugo; which severely inflicted damage to Charleston, SC and the neighboring city to Columbia, Sumter, in 1989.  Also, Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 caused major flooding in South Carolina, but ironically, not in Columbia.  So over the years, the people of Columbia’s understanding of these types of natural disaster somehow did not apply to the city of Columbia itself since the perception was that even though natural disasters had threatened the city in the past, some even threatened a direct impact, all the storms previously amounted to no more than dark clouds and heavy rainfall; which quickly passed through without major concern or destruction.

Hugo_track2thumb   allison_2001_thumbnailjeanne_2004_thumbnail

Despite having prior knowledge of hurricanes and flooding, Top-Down Processing hindered the ability of the Columbia, SC residents to perceive such devastation for this particular environment.  Patterns of previous storms in the city, and the faint aftermath of their existence had apparently caused a perceptual set, or bias towards anything of the sort occurring in the capitol city; which limited the expectations and beliefs:

We haven’t seen this level of rain in the Lowcountry in 1,000 years. That’s how big this is,” Gov. Nikki Haley said at a press conference Sunday afternoon. “That’s what South Carolina is dealing with right now. The Congaree River is at its highest level since 1936.”

Though the warnings were given, the dark clouds quickly rolled in, and the rain poured down, what the residents of Columbia (to include myself) visualized and perceived was simply another heavy rainfall that would quickly pass. With that perception of this particular environment, obviously, not many prepared for the devastation that occurred on 3 OCT 2015.  Hours into the day, the rain poured in and major roadways were starting to flood.  Well into the next day the rain was still pouring in, and vehicles, homes, and apartments were flooded.  Residents were being rescued from their flooding vehicles, airlift rescues were being conducted for residents stuck on the rooftops of their homes, several dams were broken within the city, major roadways and bridges were washed out, and businesses were now under water.  Days later after the rain stopped, all potable water systems and electric power to the city were out.  Hurricane Joaquin had taken 9 lives, and had relentlessly inflicted unimaginable havoc and loss in the city of Columbia.  As of today, though power and water has been restored, the city is still in the recovery stage of restoring roadways, businesses, homes, and supplementing the financial needs of those who have lost everything and are still living in “temporary shelters.”

As previously mentioned, a determination was made about the storm unconsciously, just as with unconscious inference.  The theory of unconscious inference includes the likelihood principle, which states that we perceive the object that is most likely to have caused the pattern of stimuli we have received. (Cognitive Psychology, E. Bruce Goldstein, 3rd Ed.)   Thus, it was inferred that the dark clouds and heavy rain was simply a rain storm that would soon pass because of experiences we have had with similar situations in the past.  As stated in the text, Helmholtz describes the process of perception as being similar to the process involved in solving a problem. As explained, for perception, the problem is to determine which object has caused a particular pattern of stimulation, and this problem is solved by a process in which the observer applies his or her knowledge of the environment in order to infer what the object might be. (Cognitive Psychology, E. Bruce Golstein, 3rd Ed.)

As the clouds and rain were identified, this process was unconscious, hence the term unconscious inference.


Emotionally Unreasonable











The subjects of reasoning and emotions in chapter 13 of Goldstein’s Cognitive Psychology book caused me to reflect on the lives of close friends and comrades that have been senselessly lost without clear rhyme or reason over the last 8 years.  On each occurrence, I have wrestled with wonderment as to what goes through the mind of a person who chooses to commit suicide.  This subject has always baffled me, and it continues to hit home for me.

As recently as 4 months ago, a fellow comrade chose to end it all; although he was living a rewarding military career, sharing his life with a woman who was not only his wife, but seemed to also be his best friend, and he was proudly raising the exact replica of himself; the son that he always wanted.  His character unfortunately became flawed in an instance by one single act of his own; however, in my own reasoning, no mistake or blotched image seems to be reason enough to no longer want to live.  Emotionally fueled, and obviously unreasonable, SGT Lance’s (name change) death was tragic; yet, I want to say with certainty, that it was unnecessary and preventable.  Lance had several friends whom he had spoken to and hung out with the day prior to his death, but no one suspected the fact that he was too emotional to obviously think reasonably about the situation that he was now facing.  Of course there were rumors about the situation that he had caused for himself and his image had become slightly tarnished; however, how could a smudge be enough to take such a drastic (permanent) measure?  I often ponder what his reasoning was for feeling as though he no longer desired to live.  “According to Leighton and Kurtz, reasoning is ‘the process of drawing conclusions (Leighton, 2004) and as the cognitive processes by which people start with information and come to conclusions that go beyond that information’ (Kurtz et al., 1999).  Goldstein concludes that, “we can appreciate the process of reasoning by realizing that decisions are often the outcome of reasoning.” (Goldstein, 2011)  Still, I wonder how reasoning is appreciated, when the decided outcome is suicide.

Just as with Lance, I wonder if the nature of Toney’s reasoning: which killed him in 2007, CSM Stellar’s reasoning; which killed him in 2009, SSG Drill’s reasoning, which killed him in 2012, and SSG Scout’s reasoning; which also killed him a month prior to Lance, inductive in any way?  Knowing that each of them had challenging concerns in which they had previously witnessed the outcome of the same challenge through the lives of others, did they all make a prediction about what was going to happen to them, their careers, and perhaps their families based off of evidence and events from the past or other people? (Goldstein, 2011)  Were they met with a roadblock of confirmation bias, which disallowed them to reason accurately? (Goldstein, 2011)  Where they all convinced that they possessed legitimate information that was far from truth?  Only each of those individuals will ever truly know how their emotions affected their ability to reason.

“Toney, who killed himself in Iraq, managed to seclude himself long enough to place the muzzle of his rifle under his chin and pull the trigger.”  Lance walked to a park alone and tragically shot himself in the head, only to be found hours later by his best friend and wife lying in the middle of the field face down in his own pool of blood.  CSM Stellar shot himself in the head in Iraq while his wife (who was battling cancer) was at home awaiting his return with their three young children.  SSG Drill shot himself at home and failed to show for work the next day, SSG Scout hung himself, also at home and was found by his wife.

As I honor my brothers in arms, even today, I wonder what each of their immediate emotions was prior to pulling the trigger and releasing the slack on the rope that took their lives.  “According to Goldstein, ‘integral immediate emotions are associated with the act of making a decision.’ Anxiety is the integral emotion associated with making the decision and is probably the emotion that affects the decision.” (Goldstein, 2011)  “Even after draping the United States flag over Toney’s casket and watching him (his body) get placed inside an aircraft to take his final journey back to the United States, I possessed so many emotions of my own.”  After escorting CSM Stellar’s sick wife to his memorial to say her final farewell while she wondered who would raise their children if she eventually succumbed to her own illness, and after attending the memorials of my other brothers and comrades, there are no words that could possibly reason the outcome of each tragedy.  Lance, Toney, Stellar, Drill and Scott “all surrendered to events in their lives that left them in a state of what seemed to be too emotional to reason…still searching for a way to appreciate it all.”

Rest In Peace, Men!