Effects of context on memory

As a neuroscientist it has been indoctrinated into me that context can affect how well information is retrieved. It seems like an abstract concept sometimes when we discuss it professionally – remote from what affects us personally day-to-day. Interestingly for me, moving to Paris has really made this very concrete right now.

As a scientist I have been very fortunate to travel as part of my job. This has also fed my interest in photography for many, many years. I have been fortunate to come to Paris a number of times now & never ever tire of the city. So needless to say I have also taken literally thousands of photos here. If I shoot a couple of hundred photos in a day, then I will typically discard about 90% of them – after reviewing them at the end of the day. Of those 10% that are left, only very rarely is there a photo I would consider submitting to a juried show or putting in an exhibition. Interestingly, some of my favorite black & white shots are of Paris and France. I have included some of these in this post.

As I have been walking around Paris, I was struck by the number of times I remembered specific instances when I had taken particular photos. I remembered clearly the weather at the time, what mood I was in, and where the best place to stand was for taking the shot, and of course what the light was like. These very vivid visual memories were triggered by the scene unfolding around me while I was walking.  This happened to me the first day I went to the ICM on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital  – I was thinking about neuroscience and not photography as I was ambling along. Indeed, the 2 pics directly below were taken very close to the main entrance of the Salpêtrière on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital, many years ago now.

That night when I got back to my apartment I thought about this further. Memories from travel to other locations in France also came back, with very concrete details, as I looked back at some of my favorite photos on my laptop. These are things I have not thought about for at least decade or two – indeed, I was surprised to even remember them.

So being in France again, seeing the sights has re-activated memories that I had forgotten that I had. And these triggers are not only visual…

About 10 years ago, I was on a PhD committee for my Parisian colleague’s student. I came to Paris for the thesis defense & unfortunately my luggage took a wayward turn at Heathrow & did not make it to Paris with me. I arrived in the evening & the thesis defense was in the early afternoon. So the next morning there was no alternative but to ‘shop until I dropped’ in the Printemps department store at Place d’Italie, with my colleague in tow as my style consultant. We took no prisoners & were done in 2 hours – literally had to buy everything including shoes. As I was walking with her to the thesis defense [fully dressed & looking spiffing] it was raining cats and dogs. Ever wanting to improve my French I asked her what the equivalent expression was in French. With an evil look in her eye she said there are 2 ways of saying it. You could say: ‘Il pleut des cordes‘, which means that it literally is raining ropes. Or you could say: ‘Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse.’ She was about to translate, but stopped because at that point I was falling about laughing so hard I actually cried. I am not going to translate it for you either! :)))

Funnily enough, this same subject actually came up the other day. We were meeting together with a younger colleague & after the meeting we started discussing French language skills. She was clearly chuffed that I could still recall these expressions after 10 years. Our younger colleague was rather surprised, to put it mildly!

So the existing context [in our multisensory world] clearly affects our ability to retrieve memories. But the presence of strong emotions also helps lay them down effectively in the first place. So what is the moral of the story? If you really want to remember something well after 10 years or so, you need to first laugh until you cry :)))

Puce_Aina025

Some more musings on settling in…

In my last post I enthused about my domestic arrangements & surroundings. This time I thought I would share some ruminations on my professional environment. I think that it is always interesting to change how one does things, and what better way to do that than by moving to a different country where people speak a different language. So what is similar about people across cultures?

I thought about this question one day this week when I had an amusing experience interacting with an IT person at the ICM. He was helping me get my laptop onto the network & making sure that it would not be a security risk for the institution. He speaks English worse than I speak French, so you can imagine the fun we had in communicating with one another about procedures, software installation etc. Add to it the fact that I had gone to work without my glasses. Yes, indeed. I have 2 pairs of them & both were in my apartment. I have never ever done that before. So there I was sitting about 4 feet away from my laptop as he was showing me things on it. He thought it was really funny. Undaunted, we pressed on & were able to solve everything just fine. Neither of us seemed particularly perturbed about looking for words – Plan B was always the other language & Plan C: resorting to franglais. I also ended up learning new technical terms in French & turns out many of them are English words. It is interesting that so many interactions here on the science front involve Plan C – people will switch languages to make something easier to say, even in meetings. It also happens with email and I am doing this also. [Actually, this seems completely normal to me – as a kid I grew up in a household that spoke Latvian & English.]

The second thing that amused me about this experience is that I went upstairs afterwards & was telling my collaborator about forgetting my glasses. She smiled knowingly at me. Turns out that she keeps several pairs in her office – just in case she would do something like me. So people are the same the world over – I have friends in the USA and Australia who also keep multiple pairs of glasses around in case they should misplace one pair! And guess what? Her optical prescription is identical to mine! How cool is that? So my vision problem was instantly solved in the lab. So now I have a Plan B should I ever forget to bring my glasses again – we put a spare pair of her glasses on my desk (see red circle) where we can both reach them! Actually reading was not the real problem – it was typing because my arms are not anywhere long enough to reach the keyboard!

ICM_Desk_small

But I digress. Back to the question I asked earlier. In my opinion, IT people are really the same the world over – it matters not what language they speak. My face-to-face interactions with them have always been great. They are incredibly helpful & try to make your life easier & they have a certain geekiness that I can personally relate to…

It seems to me that clinicians are also the same the world over. Always looking rushed. Answering their ringing cell phone during a meeting. Trying to give patients the best care they can with a finite set of resources – such as being involved with researchers trying to gain new knowledge about brain function & underlying connectivity.

And as people age, they are also the same the world over – forgetting where they leave their glasses seems like a universal past time for those of us who are old enough to know better. [One of my pairs of glasses actually has a neck chain… And I confess: I do keep a spare pair in my car back home…]

What is the same or different in Paris now, relative to when I have been here before? The last time I was here was 10 years ago, with other trips spanning back into a second decade. So here are a few quick observations:

Different

1. The croissants & pain au chocolat seem so much bigger than I remember them. I used to buy 2 of them for breakfast with coffee. When I bought croissants on the weekend, I only bought one for breakfast – it was much larger than I remembered & kept me going until lunchtime. See pic below for a 21st century croissant – at least as obtainable in the bakeries around me. Seems like the supersizing craze has also occurred here…

Croissant_small

2. One sees the odd vending machine storefront here & there – a place where food, beverages & condoms are provided 24/7. I wonder how often the items are restocked [if not sold], as much of the produce is perishable. [This reminded me a bit of Japan where an amazing array of food items can be bought – all artistically & wonderfully packaged in the Japanese style.] Last year I heard a news story about a couple of fishmongers who had started a vending machine for oysters at their store in a town in Brittany – so that their customers could have fresh oysters after hours! Would you buy oysters that way?

VendingOutlet

Same

1. The pigeons are definitely the same. Always wandering in front of you, heads bobbing. Or perching on a statue of someone important. I saw one particularly rotund one feasting on the remains of a baguette the other morning as I walked to work. The next morning he was breakfasting with friends.

2. The other thing that has not changed is that people walking their dogs do not pick up after them… always need to watch where you are stepping – luckily I do not need my glasses for that!

3. Lots of people still smoke on the street as they walk to & from work – that is something that you will not see much in the USA or in Australia. Actually someone was vaping in a meeting the other day – first time I had seen that anywhere.

4. Parisians remain very well dressed & stylish, irrespective of whether they are younger people going to work, or if they are older and retired. The latter look fabulous when taking their promenade to go lunch, or when shopping at the farmer’s market.

In future posts, I will return to these same/different questions when there is something more to wax lyrical about.

Perspectives from the other side of the Atlantic

As the title of this post indicates, I have moved to Paris for the semester and am successfully installed in my apartment – am typing this from there – great to be connected to the world again… So good to get away from the Arctic cold of the mid-west of the USA also… So what is the topic de jour? Gratitude. Why gratitude? Because right now we are pretty focused on what is wrong with the world, so much so that sometimes we do not stop to think about what we should be thankful for. So I am going to share my list(s) with you, in the hope that you will also take some time to reflect on what is important to you.

So, what do I have to be thankful for? Lots of things! Here are the big ones:

a. Good health. This is a big thing that we all often take for granted.

b. A significant other who understands me. While he is not with me while I am away, nevertheless the mental & emotional connection is there. He is also looking after the cats. :)))

Cato&Tesla_HeadToHead_small

c. A great work environment with smart & likeable colleagues – both here in Paris, as well as at home at IU. It is always good to try and hang out with people who are smarter than me – excellent intellectual stimulation pushes us to all be better scientists…

Paris_ICM_small

d. A terrific place to live – both here and in the USA. My apartment here is really beautifully decorated & it is in a terrific (non-touristy) residential area. I have 2 excellent landladies – let’s call them Madames X & Y – who do not speak much English, but make up for it in kindness & mindfulness. Turns out they have a Buddhist philosophy to life.

Paris_37Bobillot_2_small

e. Communicating in the local tongue. Understanding people is relatively easy and speaking, of course, is more difficult. I am grateful that I spent the last year pretty much trying to do something in French every day – such as reading or listening to French news programs and also documentaries. What do I recommend for those struggling with French? Here are a couple of suggestions: First, check out the phone app called ‘News in Slow French‘ (see https://www.newsinslowfrench.com/). These are weekly news programs – you can choose which level of expertise – beginner, intermediate or advanced. Second, there is a monthly bilingual magazine (at least in the USA) called ‘France-Amerique‘ (see https://france-amerique.com) that features good reading on culture, food, politics & many other interesting topics. Third, our cable TV service in the USA gives us access to television channel ‘TV5 Monde‘ – a French TV channel that broadcasts around the world. It has terrific documentaries as well as movies and TV series. Four, the French TV channel TF1 has online streaming of their programs – there is a good nightly evening news/commentary program called ‘Le20H‘ (or ‘Le Vingt Heure‘). Of course, now I can see it on TV here locally.

So then there are the little things in life – things that nevertheless make a huge difference:

  1. I have worked out the appliances in my apartment – most importantly, the espresso machine works well.
  2. Turns out my apartment building is next to a fromagerie (cheese shop) that also sells wine. Now how cool is that? Bakery and patisserie are also a stone’s throw away, as is a seafood/fishmonger & supermarket. This is great since I will be a pedestrian/public transport user while I am here.

Paris_37Bobillot_1_small

 

  1. I have a 20 minute walk to work (or 2-stops on the metro). Walking is definitely nicer & also better for keeping up the step count.
  2. I can actually see the Eiffel Tower from my living room, bedroom & kitchen windows! – it is quite in the distance (see red circle below), but it looks really terrific lit up at night.

Paris_37Bobillot_3_small

So, these are my lists of things to be thankful for. What’s on your list?

 

 

Let’s make it a happy & healthy 2018 for all!

Record cold here in the American mid-west this winter, made pleasurable by the blinding sunshine, blue skies and a blanket of snow. Looking out onto the winter wonderland as I sit & type now, thinking that I will be leaving for Paris in a week’s time – where it will certainly be much warmer. Looking forward to that! The next time I will see the PBS brain at IU it will be much, much warmer.

IMG_1160

When it is so cold here my mind always turns to the animals in the forest and how they manage to survive another winter. The deer are the most amazing – there is so little for them to eat right now & they are relying on our evergreens to sustain them.

Winter

We have the bird-feeders all topped up so that everyone can have their fill – suet, sunflower kernels & mixed seeds – different birds have their preferred tastes & needs.

Finches_001

PileatedWoodpecker_Mr&Mrs_small

I will miss seeing the continual march of creatures through the yard each day, but am also relishing the prospect of life in a very urban environment again for a semester.

So as I contemplate what my life will be like over the next semester or so, I ask this question: What should our main priorities be for 2018? Here is my list:

  1. The welfare of our planet – its flora & fauna depend on us. Climate change is real. Let’s stop the denial and be proactive to help stop the increasing warming of the oceans & melting of icecaps. If we look after the world, it will in turn look after us – this is something that people most often tend to forget.
  2. The welfare of our conspecifics. So much strife & misery & human suffering in the world is currently due to asinine political decisions at the national level, as well as at state and local government levels. Let’s try to make a difference & improve the wellbeing of our fellow Homo sapiens – irrespective of race, gender or religious beliefs. If everyone does something little, it will turn into something much bigger!
  3. Our own welfare. You cannot achieve any good in the world if you do not take care of yourself. So make 2018 a year where you are kind to yourself – both body and mind – that way you can be of maximum benefit to others you care about! As for me, I am off to the ‘Y’ now to use the indoor track – much too cold for me to be ambulating outside right now… brrrrrr!!!

On the subject of visas & other paperwork

If you hold a passport from a developed country that does not start wars with others, chances are you will rarely need entry visas to visit other countries on short stays such as conferences and/or vacations. However, for longer stays to live and work – say for a semester – you will need a visa to legally enter and stay in the country of your choosing.

What does one need to do to get a visa when heading to a country like France? Your local French Consulate has an excellent online set of instructions and application forms, that includes a category “Long stay visa for scientists, researchers or university teachers“. With the correct documents you will probably be given a “Passeport Talent” type of long stay visa. There are three steps to the process. Step 1 involves getting an invitation letter/hosting agreement [Protocole/Convention d’accueil] from your host in France. This is an official letter from the institution which has been officially stamped by the local Prefecture. To obtain a hosting agreement you will need to provide your personal details: passport, foreign residence permit [if appropriate] and an official letter from your university stating precisely : (1) when you will arrive in, and depart from, France; (2) what the title of your work project is to be; (3) what and how much your income will be while you are in France. In short, they are looking to make sure that you will be financially secure and are there for a legitimate reason. Your host has to also provide details on their local team and on you as well. Once this document is processed [this can take 2-3 weeks], you will be sent the original, stamped letter to your home address. The helpful folks in the host institution’s Foreign Scholars Office will be able to assist you with this process.

Step 2 involves a visit to your closest French Consulate [in my case Chicago] after making an appointment on-line. You will need to bring your passport (& residence permit, if applicable) and copies of these documents, evidence of a return airline ticket, a passport size photo and your payment [$US115 or 99 Euros]. In addition to your application form you also need to partially complete a “Demande d’attestation OFII” form. Once your documents are processed you will have a visa in your passport, and stamps on your hosting letter and the demande d’attestation form. The staff at the French Consulate in Chicago were very helpful.

You cannot apply for the long term visa earlier than 3 months before departure. Although the processing of my long stay visa took only 2 weeks, the processing can take up to 1 month, so allow adequate time to complete this process. They will send you your passport with new visa/stamped papers to your home address if you provide a self-addressed envelope. I prefer to go and pick up the documents myself since I am not living in my home country. [I am a great believer in Murphy’s Law…] I was fortunate that I was able to drive to Chicago before the weather becomes really awful in late Fall/Winter. In fact yesterday when I went to pick up my passport and newly minted visa it was actually sleeting!

Step 3 is completed after you arrive in France. It involves additional paperwork [completing the rest of the “Demande d’attestation OFII” that was started during Step 2]. The completed form is sent via registered mail to the OFII or the Office Francais de l’integration et de l’immigration. As I understand it, the French authorities also affix a sticker/stamp to the visa in your passport, which apparently validates your visa.

So now the hard paperwork/footwork is done – I have my visa & a place to live! Now I just need to get all my other work finished for the end of the year…

Can you bank on it? Maybe not…

Let’s talk about banking & paying bills while living in a foreign country for a short period of time. When you move overseas this may be a challenge, as banks may not want to issue accounts to foreigners for short periods of time. So what are your options? How will you pay your monthly rent for your apartment? What about credit card bills? How will you have a supply of local currency? What about other bills and expenses? e.g. buying petrol/gas on French autoroutes can be tricky, as vendors often do not accept non-French credit cards. After doing some digging, I think I have some potential solutions to most of these problems –  at least for my situation – in going from the USA to France.

What have I learned about cross-continental and foreign banking so far? The bottom line: it’s complicated and depends partly on the country where you are currently living as a citizen/permanent resident. Since I currently live in the USA, I investigated my banking options there e.g. Can I open an account with a bank based in France while living in the USA? Yes I can, but with a couple of big qualifications. For example, HSBC [in 37 countries] has this plan: you can open an account in the USA – with various options, but if you do not want to pay for international wire transfers and have secure web banking, you must maintain a minimum balance of at least $10K in that account at all times. Then with the same bank you can open an account in France, in which you must maintain a minimum balance of at least 30K Euros. So you now have $10K and 30K Euros tied up in two bank accounts that are untouchable. This is not small potatoes and is out of reach for most people. Additionally, you must present yourself with your papers in a US city where the HSBC has a branch. [Understandable – otherwise people could easily engage in money laundering.] However, if you are in a university town far away from any city in which HSBC has a US branch [i.e. New England & Florida only] then you are looking at a jaunt to one of these East Coast cities before you leave. And the latter account can take about 3 weeks to set up.

The alternative is to wait until getting to France to open up a local bank account. This should, in theory, work. As I understand it, you need a fixed address during your stay, and must provide details of your passport, long-term stay visa and a utility bill/rental contract in your name for that address. They could also ask to see your employment details. The local bank account will give you access to a debit card, cheques, and paper slips called RIBS (Relevé d’Indentité Bancaire) that apparently are used to open utilities accounts in your name etc. Whether or not you will be permitted to open a bank account will depend, in part, on your country of permanent residence. For those coming from the USA this can be tricky: the US Federal Govt (via the IRS) places extra demands on all foreign banks to report information about accounts of all US citizens/permanent residents. Some foreign banks simply refuse to open accounts to those coming from the USA because they do not wish to deal with the extra reporting requirements.

So can you use your existing foreign bank accounts to pay bills? I still have accounts in my home country and performed my own electronic international bank transfer from my account for an apartment security deposit to my future Paris landlord’s account. [Note that this can take 3-4 business days.] Although I had paid the international transfer fee to my bank for the transaction, the sum of money arriving at the other end was 14.50 Euros less than arranged! Why the shortfall? Additional fees were charged – not by my bank – but by other bank(s) for the transaction. Either the destination bank or intermediary bank, or both, can charge additional fees – and you will not know about these until the transaction is completed. Even if I had put a trace on the transaction these additional fees would only have been seen after the fact. [Me thinks that this is a bit of skullduggery in this digital age…] So, how best to deal with this problem? Apparently the fees are likely to be constant – so if you were to engage in repeated transactions to the same foreign account you would just increase the balance that you are transferring to include the additional fees.

One unanswered question will be how I will deal with utilities bills if opening a local bank account is not possible. My guess: they should take credit card payments, however, there is a possibility that they might not take payment by foreign credit card.

What about using foreign ATM/credit cards etc. while you are living overseas? Thankfully, these days this is relatively easy – bank/credit card company apps on smartphones and computers have reasonable security and make electronic banking easy for the consumer. Foreign credit card bills can be easily paid from your foreign bank account(s) – if you do decide to use your ATM/credit cards from your home country. (However, you will be charged fees on foreign currency transactions, and these will add up over time). If you are using USA-based cards, beware that they are what I call faux chip & pin – they can sometimes cause problems when used overseas. Secure chip & pin cards are used today in most developed countries [with the exception of banks in the USA and Germany, as I understand it].

There can be some interesting idiosyncrasies for banking in France: if you are a married woman, you may be asked to provide proof that your husband has approved of you opening the account. For this and other idiosyncrasies see this excellent website about banking in France: https://www.expatica.com/fr/finance/Banking-in-France-Opening-a-bank-account-in-France_101158.html  See also: http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/essential/banking.html This website is specifically targeted to people living in the UK, and who need to access banking services in France.

What is the take home message here? Do your homework. Do it early. It will take longer to sort things out than you might expect. If possible, test out funds transfers etc. ahead of time, or at least make sure that your electronic banking is set-up and is working without glitches at home before you leave. The solution to your particular problem and situation will likely be unique – your circumstances will probably be very different to mine, and to those of others embarking on a similar odyssey.

P.S. After uploading this post, friends & colleagues with links to France kindly advised me to check out: 1. on-line only French banking options: https://www.banques-en-ligne.fr/      2. borderless banking: https://transferwise.com/borderless?utm_expid=32817948-178.7YOAzw2WSiSrEMGAAxgUVQ.0&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.fr%2F#borderless-account So it looks like there is quite a bit more homework to do!

AfterTheStormTriptych_small

First neurowandering steps…

A career in neuroscience opens many doors – both professional and personal. This includes travel to beautiful places, and making new friends & keeping in touch with old friends across the world. Come to think of it, science actually has no doors or walls! And as scientists we must truly be grateful for that.

For me, an exciting new adventure in science is about to unfold. I have the good fortune to be able to spend some time in another country for a semester – on sabbatical. As I make my preparations to move [again] to another country, I thought it would be good to share some of my experiences. Many scientists, at all career stages, are probably having to go through a similar experience. Perhaps my reflections on my own neurowanderings might make it a bit easier for others who are considering doing the same.

Today I was able to secure a furnished apartment – navigating through the various stages of completing the contract, and taking out renter’s insurance. What a relief it is to know that I will have a place to live – one huge detail taken care of.

What advice would I give to someone who is looking for accommodation in a new city in another country?

  1. Get to know the city overall. If already not familiar with the city, ask friends who are [and who may already live there] for suggestions.
  2. Familiarize yourself with individual city neighborhoods and locales. Where will your work be based relative to where you will live? Will you be close to public transport, shops and other services? What other interesting things are in the locale where you will live? Is the neighborhood a safe one – can you come and go to your dwelling at night safely? Googlemaps can actually be a great tool for investigating a neighborhood’s characteristics.
  3. Find a reputable organization that deals with advertising/and renting apartments/houses. Search the internet for bad reviews on these services, or ask friends who know which ones are reliable. Your new work place will probably also be very useful for suggestions. My travels will take me to Paris. For this city I can recommend http://www.lodgis.com – their website makes searching easy and their staff are very responsive and professional.
  4. After finding a house/apartment obtain renter’s insurance. Make sure your belongings (and the contents of the dwelling, if furnished) will be covered against losses. Again for a place in Paris, check out: http://www.french-furnished-insurance.com/fr/ This website gives all details in French and English.
  5. Pay your security deposit and agency fees. You should be able to do this via credit card, and once you have got to this stage the process should be pretty much complete.