Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Research on consequences of low socioeconomic status becoming a small industry.

It is becoming hard to keep up with research on biological and behavioral consequences of low socioeconomic status - one of MindBlog's subject threads since its beginning in 2006. I pass on abstract of two recent samples of work. Gary Evans on childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being:
Childhood disadvantage has repeatedly been linked to adult physical morbidity and mortality. We show in a prospective, longitudinal design that childhood poverty predicts multimethodological indices of adult (24 y of age) psychological well-being while holding constant similar childhood outcomes assessed at age 9. Adults from low-income families manifest more allostatic load, an index of chronic physiological stress, higher levels of externalizing symptoms (e.g., aggression) but not internalizing symptoms (e.g., depression), and more helplessness behaviors. In addition, childhood poverty predicts deficits in adult short-term spatial memory.
And, Gillian and Nettle in an upcoming target article for Behavioral and Brain Science titled "The Behavioural Constellation of Deprivation: Causes and Consequences":
Socioeconomic differences in behaviour are pervasive and well documented, but their causes are not yet well understood. Here, we make the case that there is a cluster of behaviours associated with lower socioeconomic status, which we call the behavioural constellation of deprivation. We propose that the relatively limited control associated with lower socioeconomic status curtails the extent to which people can expect to realise deferred rewards, leading to more present-oriented behaviour in a range of domains. We illustrate this idea using the specific factor of extrinsic mortality risk, an important factor in evolutionary theoretical models. We emphasise the idea that the present-oriented behaviours of the constellation are a contextually appropriate response to structural and ecological factors, rather than pathology or a failure of willpower. We highlight some principles from evolutionary theoretical models that can deepen our understanding of how socioeconomic inequalities can become amplified and embedded. These principles are that: 1) Small initial disparities can lead to larger eventual inequalities, 2) Feed-back loops can operate to embed early life circumstances, 3) Constraints can breed further constraints, and 4) Feed-back loops can operate over generations. We discuss some of the mechanisms by which socioeconomic status may influence behaviour. We then review how the contextually appropriate response perspective that we have outlined fits with other findings about control and temporal discounting. Finally, we discuss the implications of this interpretation for research and policy.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Positivity in older adults is more related to cognitive decline than to emotion regulation.

It is commonly supposed that the more positive outlook characteristic of older people is due to their ability to regulate their emotions more effectively than younger people. Zebrowitz et al, to the contrary, suggest a decline in cognitive capacity is responsible, arguing that more cognitive resources are required to process negative stimuli, because they are more cognitively elaborated than positive ones:
An older adult positivity effect, i.e., the tendency for older adults to favor positive over negative stimulus information more than do younger adults, has been previously shown in attention, memory, and evaluations. This effect has been attributed to greater emotion regulation in older adults. In the case of attention and memory, this explanation has been supported by some evidence that the older adult positivity effect is most pronounced for negative stimuli, which would motivate emotion regulation, and that it is reduced by cognitive load, which would impede emotion regulation. We investigated whether greater older adult positivity in the case of evaluative responses to faces is also enhanced for negative stimuli and attenuated by cognitive load, as an emotion regulation explanation would predict. In two studies, younger and older adults rated trustworthiness of faces that varied in valence both under low and high cognitive load, with the latter manipulated by a distracting backwards counting task. In Study 1, face valence was manipulated by attractiveness (low /disfigured faces, medium, high/fashion models’ faces). In Study 2, face valence was manipulated by trustworthiness (low, medium, high). Both studies revealed a significant older adult positivity effect. However, contrary to an emotion regulation account, this effect was not stronger for more negative faces, and cognitive load increased rather than decreased the rated trustworthiness of negatively valenced faces. Although inconsistent with emotion regulation, the latter effect is consistent with theory and research arguing that more cognitive resources are required to process negative stimuli, because they are more cognitively elaborated than positive ones. The finding that increased age and increased cognitive load both enhanced the positivity of trustworthy ratings suggests that the older adult positivity effect in evaluative ratings of faces may reflect age-related declines in cognitive capacity rather than increases in the regulation of negative emotions.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Seeing faces of young black boys facilitates identification of threatening stimuli.

From Todd et al. (open source):
Pervasive stereotypes linking Black men with violence and criminality can lead to implicit cognitive biases, including the misidentification of harmless objects as weapons. In four experiments, we investigated whether these biases extend even to young Black boys (5-year-olds). White participants completed sequential priming tasks in which they categorized threatening and nonthreatening objects and words after brief presentations of faces of various races (Black and White) and ages (children and adults). Results consistently revealed that participants had less difficulty (i.e., faster response times, fewer errors) identifying threatening stimuli and more difficulty identifying nonthreatening stimuli after seeing Black faces than after seeing White faces, and this racial bias was equally strong following adult and child faces. Process-dissociation-procedure analyses further revealed that these effects were driven entirely by automatic (i.e., unintentional) racial biases. The collective findings suggest that the perceived threat commonly associated with Black men may generalize even to young Black boys.
Note: There is a correction to the description of experiment 3.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The milliseconds of a choice - Watching your mind when it matters.

I'm finding, with increasing frequency, that an article about health or psychology in the New York Times that I find interesting has an attached note that it was first published several years earlier. While working on yesterday's MindBlog post I came across a 2014 post I wrote that I think makes some important points about our self-regulation that are worth repeating. So, I'm going to copy what the Times is doing and repeat it today. I'm tempted to edit it, but won't, beyond mentioning that I would considerably tone down my positive reference to brain training games (that I no longer indulge in). Here is the 2014 post:

This is actually a post about mindfulness, in reaction to Dan Hurley's article describing how contemporary applications of the ancient tradition of mindfulness meditation are being engaged in many more contexts than the initial emphasis on chilling out in the 1970s, and being employed for very practical purses such as mental resilience in a war zone. It seems like to me that we are approaching a well defined technology of brain control whose brain basis is understood in some detail. I've done numerous posts on behavioral and brain correlates of mindfulness meditation (enter 'meditation' or 'mindfulness' in MindBlog's search box in the left column). For example, only four weeks of a mindfulness meditation regime emphasizing relaxation of different body parts correlates with increases in white matter (nerve tract) efficiency. Improvements in cognitive performance, working memory, etc. have been claimed. A special issue of The journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience discusses issue in the research.

Full time mindfulness might be a bad idea, suppressing the mind wandering that facilitates bursts of creative insight. (During my vision research career, my most original ideas popped up when I was spacing out, once when I was riding a bike along a lakeshore path.) Many physicists and writers reports their best ideas happen when they are disengaged. It also appears that mindfulness may inhibit implicit learning in which habits and skill are acquired without conscious awareness.

Obviously knowing whether we are in an attentional or mind wandering (default, narrative) modes is useful (see here, and here), and this is where the title of this posts comes in. To note and distinguish our mind state is most effectively accomplished with a particular style of alertness or awareness that is functioning very soon (less than 200 milliseconds) after a new thought or sensory perception appears to us. This is a moment of fragility that offers a narrow time window of choice over whether our new brain activity will be either enhanced or diminished in favor of a more desired activity. This is precisely what is happening in mindfulness meditation that instructs a central focus of some sort (breathing, body relaxation, or whatever) to which one returns as soon as one notes that any other thoughts or distractions have popped into awareness. The ability to rapidly notice and attend to thoughts and emotions of these short time scales is enhanced by brain training regimes of the sort offered by BrainHq of positscience.com and others. I have found the exercises on this site, originated by Michael Merznich, to be the most useful.  It offers summaries of changes in brain speed, attention, memory, intelligence, navigation, etc. that result from performing the exercises - changes that can persist for years.

A book title that has been popping into my head for at least the last 15 years is "The 200 Millisecond Manager." (a riff on the title the popular book of the early 1980's by Blanchard and Johnson, "The One Minute Manager.") The gist of the argument would be that given in the "Guide" section of some 2005 writing, and actually in Chapter 12 of my book, Figure 12-7.

It might make the strident assertion that the most important thing that matters in regulating our thoughts, feelings, and actions is their first 100-200 msec in the brain, which is when the levers and pulleys are actually doing their thing. It would be a nuts and bolts approach to altering - or at least inhibiting - self limiting behaviors. It would suggest that a central trick is to avoid taking on on the ‘enormity of it all,’ and instead use a variety of techniques to get our awareness down to the normally invisible 100-200 msec time interval in which our actions are being programmed. Here we are talking mechanics during the time period is when all the limbic and other routines that result from life script, self image, temperament, etc., actually can start-up. The suggestion is that you can short circuit some of this process if you bring awareness to the level of observing the moments during which a reaction or behavior is becoming resident, and can sometimes say “I don’t think so, I think I'll do something else instead.”

"The 200 msec Manager" has gone through the ‘this could be a book’ cycle several times, the actual execution  bogging down as I actually got into description of the underlying science and techniques for expanding awareness. Also, I note the enormous number of books out there on meditation, relaxation, etc. that are all really addressing the same core processes in different ways.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

People who move more are happier.

No surprises here, but this study polling people using a smartphone app designed by the experimenters quantifies the effect. The use of smartphones to gather large-scale data is becoming a growth industry. A notable earlier study of this sort was Killingsworth and Gilbert's 2010 "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
Physical activity, both exercise and non-exercise, has far-reaching benefits to physical health. Although exercise has also been linked to psychological health (e.g., happiness), little research has examined physical activity more broadly, taking into account non-exercise activity as well as exercise. We examined the relationship between physical activity (measured broadly) and happiness using a smartphone application. This app has collected self-reports of happiness and physical activity from over ten thousand participants, while passively gathering information about physical activity from the accelerometers on users' phones. The findings reveal that individuals who are more physically active are happier. Further, individuals are happier in the moments when they are more physically active. These results emerged when assessing activity subjectively, via self-report, or objectively, via participants' smartphone accelerometers. Overall, this research suggests that not only exercise but also non-exercise physical activity is related to happiness. This research further demonstrates how smartphones can be used to collect large-scale data to examine psychological, behavioral, and health-related phenomena as they naturally occur in everyday life.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

From Power to Inaction.

An interesting little piece from Durso et al. on a consequence of feeling powerful (The paper appears to be open source, so you can note the details of the two experiments, involving the usual gaggle of undergraduate psychology students used as subjects and given credit for their participation.)
Research has shown that people who feel powerful are more likely to act than those who feel powerless, whereas people who feel ambivalent are less likely to act than those whose reactions are univalent (entirely positive or entirely negative). But what happens when powerful people also are ambivalent? On the basis of the self-validation theory of judgment, we hypothesized that power and ambivalence would interact to predict individuals’ action. Because power can validate individuals’ reactions, we reasoned that feeling powerful strengthens whatever reactions people have during a decision. It can strengthen univalent reactions and increase action orientation, as shown in past research. Among people who hold an ambivalent judgment, however, those who feel powerful would be less action oriented than those who feel powerless. Two experiments provide evidence for this hypothesized interactive effect of power and ambivalence on individuals’ action tendencies during both positive decisions (promoting an employee; Experiment 1) and negative decisions (firing an employee; Experiment 2). In summary, when individuals’ reactions are ambivalent, power increases the likelihood of inaction.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the First Law of Psychology.

I pass along some a clip from Steven Pinker’s contribution to the edge.org annual question “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely know.” He notes a recent paper by Tooby, Cosmides, and Barrett with the title of this post, and continues:
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. (The First Law is that energy is conserved; the Third, that a temperature of absolute zero is unreachable.)
Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.
To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it. More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best. 

Friday, January 06, 2017

Dual streams of speech processing.

A large number of studies have documented how visual information in the brain is processed in dual streams of information: dorsal (where is it?), and ventral (what is it?). Fridriksson et al. have now applied a dual route model to speech processing that distinguishes form to meaning from form to articulation processing, and  I pass on their abstract plus one graphic showing the brain regions they are dealing with:
Several dual route models of human speech processing have been proposed suggesting a large-scale anatomical division between cortical regions that support motor–phonological aspects vs. lexical–semantic aspects of speech processing. However, to date, there is no complete agreement on what areas subserve each route or the nature of interactions across these routes that enables human speech processing. Relying on an extensive behavioral and neuroimaging assessment of a large sample of stroke survivors, we used a data-driven approach using principal components analysis of lesion-symptom mapping to identify brain regions crucial for performance on clusters of behavioral tasks without a priori separation into task types. Distinct anatomical boundaries were revealed between a dorsal frontoparietal stream and a ventral temporal–frontal stream associated with separate components. Collapsing over the tasks primarily supported by these streams, we characterize the dorsal stream as a form-to-articulation pathway and the ventral stream as a form-to-meaning pathway. This characterization of the division in the data reflects both the overlap between tasks supported by the two streams as well as the observation that there is a bias for phonological production tasks supported by the dorsal stream and lexical–semantic comprehension tasks supported by the ventral stream. As such, our findings show a division between two processing routes that underlie human speech processing and provide an empirical foundation for studying potential computational differences that distinguish between the two routes.

Component 1 (Form-to-meaning processing necessary for single word and sentence comprehension, also reversed (meaning-to-form processing) to support lexical–semantic aspects of speech production) is represented in Left, Component 2 (form-to-articulation processing) is represented in Center (Component 2a), and Component 2 modulated by a lesion component derived from lesion maps is represented in Right (Component 2b).

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The effect of status on stress depends on the stability of the hierarchy.

In most human societies, individuals with higher socioeconomic status live longer, experience increased well-being, and have lower rates of stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular conditions and type 2 diabetes, benefits that may be explained in part by the stress-buffering effects of status. Knight and Mehta provide evidence that this effect depends on how stable the social hierarchy is. They suggest that during times of hierarchical instability, when status could change, that high status might boost, not buffer, stress responses. I want to pass on their description of how social status and hierarchy stability were experimentally manipulated in the undergraduate participants in their study, followed by their abstract.
We tested our predictions by experimentally manipulating social status and hierarchy stability in undergraduate participants (n = 118; 57.3% female; age: M = 19.8) who were recruited for course credit. Participants were told that, on the basis of their responses to prelaboratory questionnaires, they had been assigned to complete an upcoming puzzle-building task as either a “manager” (high status) or “builder” (low status), and that another participant (actually a confederate) would perform the unassigned role. Participants were told specifically that the assignment was based on their “leadership skills and experience” to connect the role assignment to prestige. In reality, roles were randomly assigned. Participants were also told that the manager would be in charge of directing subordinates in the building process and would evaluate the “builder” at the end of the task to determine how to split bonus money.
Next, all participants were asked to complete the The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a 5-min speech about one’s qualification for a job and a 5-min serial subtraction math task in front of a panel of observers. To manipulate hierarchy stability, participants were told that their role (manager/builder) could change based on the speech/math task (unstable hierarchy) or that their performance on the task would not affect their role assignment (stable hierarchy). A 5-min preparation period was completed in the presence of a sex-matched confederate to increase the salience of the manipulations. Panelists and confederates were blind to participants’ assigned conditions. Participants provided informed consent to participate in a group activity and perform a speech task. The University of Oregon’s Institutional Review Board approved all methods.
Hormones were assayed from saliva collected via passive drool ∼10 min after arriving at the laboratory (baseline), as well as 0, 20, and 40 min after the TSST. Participants responded to a prompt asking how “in control” they felt after assignment to status and stability conditions and after the TSST, which was included as a separate item in a broader measure of self-reported affect. Three independent observers rated videos of each participant’s speech for status-relevant behaviors and two items that assessed overall interview performance
High social status reduces stress responses in numerous species, but the stress-buffering effect of status may dissipate or even reverse during times of hierarchical instability. In an experimental test of this hypothesis, 118 participants (57.3% female) were randomly assigned to a high- or low-status position in a stable or unstable hierarchy and were then exposed to a social-evaluative stressor (a mock job interview). High status in a stable hierarchy buffered stress responses and improved interview performance, but high status in an unstable hierarchy boosted stress responses and did not lead to better performance. This general pattern of effects was observed across endocrine (cortisol and testosterone), psychological (feeling in control), and behavioral (competence, dominance, and warmth) responses to the stressor. The joint influence of status and hierarchy stability on interview performance was explained by feelings of control and testosterone reactivity. Greater feelings of control predicted enhanced interview performance, whereas increased testosterone reactivity predicted worse performance. These results provide direct causal evidence that high status confers adaptive benefits for stress reduction and performance only when the social hierarchy is stable. When the hierarchy is unstable, high status actually exacerbates stress responses.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

What is different about the brains of “superagers”?

Barrett and colleagues have performed fMRI studies on “superagers” age 60-80, and find that superagers not only perform similarly to young adults on memory testing, they also do not show the patterns of brain atrophy typical of aging in “emotional” (midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula) regions that are major hubs for general communication throughout the brain, serving language, stress, internal organ regulation, and sensory coordination. These are the default mode network well known to be involved in episodic memory function, and the salience network implicated in attention, executive control, and motivational and inhibitory processes integral to memory encoding and retrieval. The authors suggest that the key to maintaining these areas and their function is strenuous physical and mental athleticism, working hard at difficult tasks, whether physical or mental.

Here is a graphic from the article followed by the abstract:

Superaging signature. The figure shows key nodes of the salience network (blue) and default mode network (yellow) where superagers and young adults are indistinguishable in cortical thickness. Preserved thickness in these regions is what distinguishes superagers from typical older adults.
Decline in cognitive skills, especially in memory, is often viewed as part of “normal” aging. Yet some individuals “age better” than others. Building on prior research showing that cortical thickness in one brain region, the anterior midcingulate cortex, is preserved in older adults with memory performance abilities equal to or better than those of people 20–30 years younger (i.e., “superagers”), we examined the structural integrity of two large-scale intrinsic brain networks in superaging: the default mode network, typically engaged during memory encoding and retrieval tasks, and the salience network, typically engaged during attention, motivation, and executive function tasks. We predicted that superagers would have preserved cortical thickness in critical nodes in these networks. We defined superagers (60–80 years old) based on their performance compared to young adults (18–32 years old) on the California Verbal Learning Test Long Delay Free Recall test. We found regions within the networks of interest where the cerebral cortex of superagers was thicker than that of typical older adults, and where superagers were anatomically indistinguishable from young adults; hippocampal volume was also preserved in superagers. Within the full group of older adults, thickness of a number of regions, including the anterior temporal cortex, rostral medial prefrontal cortex, and anterior midcingulate cortex, correlated with memory performance, as did the volume of the hippocampus. These results indicate older adults with youthful memory abilities have youthful brain regions in key paralimbic and limbic nodes of the default mode and salience networks that support attentional, executive, and mnemonic processes subserving memory function.
In the NYTimes piece describing this work Barrett suggests:
The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” That is, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

How to market the reality of climate change more effectively.

Baldwin and Lammers perform several studies to show that conservative are positively affected by past but not by future-focused environmental comparisons. In one of the studies, for example, subjects were shown a set of satellite images of a river basin either full of water or dried up. The authors manipulated temporal comparisons by describing the photographs as reflecting changes in the environment from the past to the present (past-focused condition) or reflecting expected changes in the environment from the present to the future (future-focused condition). Participants then reported their proenvironmental attitudes. Conservatives were more proenvironmental after the past to present description than the present to future description. Here are their summaries:

Political polarization on important issues can have dire consequences for society, and divisions regarding the issue of climate change could be particularly catastrophic. Building on research in social cognition and psychology, we show that temporal comparison processes largely explain the political gap in respondents’ attitudes towards and behaviors regarding climate change. We found that conservatives’ proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors improved consistently and drastically when we presented messages that compared the environment today with that of the past. This research shows how ideological differences can arise from basic psychological processes, demonstrates how such differences can be overcome by framing a message consistent with these basic processes, and provides a way to market the science behind climate change more effectively.
Conservatives appear more skeptical about climate change and global warming and less willing to act against it than liberals. We propose that this unwillingness could result from fundamental differences in conservatives’ and liberals’ temporal focus. Conservatives tend to focus more on the past than do liberals. Across six studies, we rely on this notion to demonstrate that conservatives are positively affected by past- but not by future-focused environmental comparisons. Past comparisons largely eliminated the political divide that separated liberal and conservative respondents’ attitudes toward and behavior regarding climate change, so that across these studies conservatives and liberals were nearly equally likely to fight climate change. This research demonstrates how psychological processes, such as temporal comparison, underlie the prevalent ideological gap in addressing climate change. It opens up a promising avenue to convince conservatives effectively of the need to address climate change and global warming.

Monday, January 02, 2017

I used to be a human being - how technology almost killed me.

Andrew Sullivan does a striking piece, describing a process that began with his daily immersion in The Daily Dish, an early blog that was a precursor of everything to come. Here are some clips...you should read the whole article.
I was…a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
…the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day…a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego.
I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it…Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades..I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.
…my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time...And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.
Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves...When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.
Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety...You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away...Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.
...our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.
The Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination...This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.
I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Resetting the clock of aging - at least in mice.

I pass on a few clips from Nicholas Wade's recent discussion of work done by researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA.
In the first attempt to reverse aging by reprogramming the genome, they have rejuvenated the organs of mice and lengthened their life spans by 30 percent. The technique, which requires genetic engineering, cannot be applied directly to people, but the achievement points toward better understanding of human aging and the possibility of rejuvenating human tissues by other means.
The aging process is clocklike in the sense that a steady accumulation of changes eventually degrades the efficiency of the body’s cells. In one of the deepest mysteries of biology, the clock’s hands are always set back to zero at conception...Ten years ago, the Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka amazed researchers by identifying four critical genes that reset the clock of the fertilized egg. The four genes are so powerful that they will reprogram even the genome of skin or intestinal cells back to the embryonic state.
The Salk Inst. researchers, using whole animals, tested the idea:
...that reprogramming is a stepwise process, and that a small dose of the Yamanaka factors might rejuvenate cells without the total reprogramming that converts cells to the embryonic state...The solution his team developed was to genetically engineer mice with extra copies of the four Yamanaka genes, and to have the genes activated only when the mice received a certain drug in their drinking water, applied just two days a week...“What we saw is that the animal has fewer signs of aging, healthier organs, and at the end of the experiment we could see they had lived 30 percent longer than control mice,” Dr. Izpisua Belmonte said.
Dr. Izpisua Belmonte believes these beneficial effects have been obtained by resetting the clock of the aging process. The clock is created by the epigenome, the system of proteins that clads the cell’s DNA and controls which genes are active and which are suppressed...He sees the epigenome as being like a manuscript that is continually edited. “At the end of life there are many marks and it is difficult for the cell to read them,” he said...What the Yamanaka genes are doing in his mice, he believes, is eliminating the extra marks, thus reverting the cell to a more youthful state.
Dr. Izpisua Belmonte said he was testing drugs to see if he could achieve the same rejuvenation as with the Yamanaka factors. The use of chemicals “will be more translatable to human therapies and clinical applications.”

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Killing old cells to stay young.

I want to pass on one of Science Magazine's choices for the top ten scientific breakthroughs of the year.
Pricey plastic surgery won't stop you from getting old. Nor will dietary supplements, testosterone injections, or those wrinkle creams that imply they'll make you look 21 again. But this year, researchers demonstrated one way to postpone some ravages of time—at least in mice. When they selectively weeded out rundown cells, the animals lived longer and remained healthier as they aged.
The infirm cells the scientists targeted had undergone a partial shutdown known as senescence, in which they lose the ability to divide. Researchers think senescence may prevent worn-out, cancer-prone cells from initiating tumors, but it may also promote aging. As we grow older, more and more cells stop reproducing, potentially robbing our tissues of the ability to replace dead or injured cells. Senescent cells also discharge molecules that can cause problems such as abnormal cell growth and inflammation.
The first study showing that eliminating senescent cells can produce health and longevity benefits, at least in middle-aged mice, came out in February. Deterioration of the animals' hearts and kidneys slowed, and they didn't sprout tumors until later in their lives. Some age-related declines, such as in memory and muscle coordination, didn't abate. Nonetheless, the rodents outlived their contemporaries by more than 20%.
In October, the same research team took aim at senescent cells from the immune system that amass in artery-clogging plaques and may drive their formation. Removing these cells from mice that are prone to atherosclerosis reduced the amount of fatty buildup in the animals' arteries by 60%, even though the rodents gorged on fat-laden food.
The multibillion-dollar question: Will taking out senescent cells help humans stay young longer? Both studies used genetically modified mice that clear away their senescent cells in response to a particular compound—a technique that isn't feasible in humans. But researchers have created several so-called senolytic drugs that slay senescent cells without genetic tinkering. Next year, scientists will launch the first clinical trial of one of those drugs in people who have arthritis.
D. J. Baker et al., “Clearance of p16Ink4a-positive senescent cells delays ageing-associated disorders,” Nature 479, 232 (2 November 2016)
D. J. Baker et al., “Naturally occurring p16Ink4a-positive cells shorten healthy lifespan,,” Nature 530, 184 (11 February 2016)
B. G. Childs et al., “Senescent intimal foam cells are deleterious at all stages of atherosclerosis,” News from Science 354, 472 (28 October 2016)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Creative versus destructive chaos in Trump-land. Is there a ray of hope?

I am a member of the professional intelligentsia bubble still feeling post-traumatic stress from the presidential election. I grasp at any small reassurances that the sky may not in fact be falling, and so point to this piece by David Ignatius noting the current influence of Robert Gates, who has worked in senior national security positions for the past five presidents. Some clips:
At the top of Gates’s to-do list is striking the right balance between improving relations with Russia and appearing too cooperative with a belligerent President Vladimir Putin...“I think the challenge for any new administration would have been how to thread the needle — between stopping the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations, which had real dangers, and pushing back on Putin’s aggressiveness and general thuggery,” Gates said.
Gates has shared the role of informal counselor to the Trump transition team with two other veterans of the Bush administration, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who talks regularly with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley. The three have a consulting firm, RiceHadleyGates, which has proposed candidates for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet jobs, including Rex Tillerson and retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, the choices for State and Defense, respectively.
Gates, Hadley and Rice have also talked with foreign governments that are puzzled about how to approach Trump. In an interview this week, Hadley summarized his basic advice:..“We’ve never had a populist movement or political insurgency quite like this — that actually captured the White House. That means there will be more discontinuities in our foreign policy. I’m telling people: ‘Give us some space here and have some strategic patience. And don’t overreact — even to Trump’s tweets.’ ”
One issue that worries Gates is the multiplicity of people surrounding Trump in the White House, seeking to influence an undisciplined chief executive. “What happens when someone tries to get in to see the president with a proposal or initiative and is rebuffed by one gatekeeper — and simply goes through another door? It’s a formula for a disjointed process.”
“There will be a rough break-in period,” Gates predicted. Part of the challenge is that Trump believes his success stems from his freewheeling, undisciplined style, and personal messaging through Twitter — which makes him resist limits.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Artificial intelligence ups its game

I pass on this description by John Bohannon in Science Magazine of a recent triumph of A.I.:
This year, artificial intelligence (AI) passed a significant milestone when a computer program called AlphaGo beat the world's No. 2 Go player in a five-game match. It's not the first time that AI has surpassed human mastery of a game. After all, it was 20 years ago that IBM's Deep Blue first beat Garry Kasparov in a game of chess, toppling the world champion the following year in a six-game match. But that is where the similarity ends.
The rules of Go are more straightforward than those of chess: You simply place identical stones on a grid, capturing territory by surrounding your opponent's positions. But that simplicity and openness result in an explosion in the number of possible moves for a player to consider—far more than there are atoms in the known universe. That makes it impossible for AI to beat Go masters with an approach like that used by Deep Blue, which relies on handcoded strategies from chess experts to evaluate each possible move.
Instead, AlphaGo, designed by the London-based Google subsidiary DeepMind, studied hundreds of thousands of online Go games played between humans, using those sequences of moves as data for a machine-learning algorithm. Then AlphaGo played against itself—or, rather, slightly different versions of itself—over and over, finetuning its strategies with a technique called deep reinforcement learning. The final result is AI that wins not just with brute-force calculation, but with something that looks strikingly like human intuition.
Most of the things we want AI to master involve a seemingly unmanageable number of possible decisions—walking a robot safely through a crowded room, routing driverless cars, making small talk with passengers. Because hard-coded rules fail for such tasks, AlphaGo's triumph shows just how powerful deep reinforcement learning can be.
D. Mackenzie, “Update: Why this week’s man-versus-Go match doesn’t matter (and what does,” News from Science (15 March 2016)
D. Silver, “Mastering the game of Go with deep neural networks and tree search,” Nature 589, 224 (28 January 2016)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Making the world nicer is a tough slog - two organizations trying.

The end of 2016 approaches, I am thinking about charitable donations I have made or might make in this angry and uncertain time of huge political changes. Angry voters in Europe and America are turning back the clock, and the paradigm of America may be irreversibly changing. A collective trauma is being generated by the severing of ties that previously have bound Americans together. How might we try to be more kind, gentle, and understanding with each other?

I've decided to make year end contributions to two university associated organizations trying to promote the greater good through research, teaching, and understanding - trying to find ways to spread and promote the virtues of altruism, compassion, gratitude, empathy, forgiveness, and mindfulness. One is the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, founded by Dacher Keltner. The other is the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led by my former colleague Richard Davidson. I would encourage MindBlog readers to check out their websites, and consider donations to both.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Our automated jobless future.

Elizabeth Kolbert offers an interesting review of ideas in several recent books dealing with our automated future. How long will it be before you lose your job to a robot? Here are a few clips:
Imagine a matrix with two axes, manual versus cognitive and routine versus nonroutine. Jobs can then be arranged into four boxes: manual routine, manual nonroutine, and so on…Jobs on an assembly line fall into the manual-routine box, jobs in home health care into the manual-nonroutine box. Keeping track of inventory is in the cognitive-routine box; dreaming up an ad campaign is cognitive nonroutine.
The highest-paid jobs are clustered in the last box; managing a hedge fund, litigating a bankruptcy, and producing a TV show are all cognitive and nonroutine. Manual, nonroutine jobs, meanwhile, tend to be among the lowest paid—emptying bedpans, bussing tables, cleaning hotel rooms (and folding towels). Routine jobs on the factory floor or in payroll or accounting departments tend to fall in between. And it’s these middle-class jobs that robots have the easiest time laying their grippers on.
How much technology has contributed to the widening income gap in the U.S. is a matter of debate; some economists treat it as just one factor, others treat it as the determining factor. In either case, the trend line is ominous. Facebook is worth two hundred and seventy billion dollars and employs just thirteen thousand people. In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp for twenty-two billion dollars. At that point, the messaging firm had a grand total of fifty-five employees. When a twenty-two-billion-dollar company can fit its entire workforce into a Greyhound bus, the concept of surplus labor would seem to have run its course.
Martin Ford (author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”) worries that we are headed toward an era of “techno-feudalism,” He imagines a plutocracy shut away “in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.” Under the old feudalism, the peasants were exploited; under the new arrangement, they’ll merely be superfluous. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is a collective form of semi-retirement. He recommends a guaranteed basic income for all, to be paid for with new taxes, levelled, at least in part, on the new gazillionaires.
To one degree or another, just about everyone writing on the topic shares this view. Jerry Kaplan proposes that the federal government create a 401(k)-like account for every ten-year-old in the U.S. Those who ultimately do find jobs could contribute some of their earnings to the accounts; those who don’t could perform volunteer work in return for government contributions.
...if it’s unrealistic to suppose that smart machines can be stopped, it’s probably just as unrealistic to imagine that smart policies will follow. Which brings us ... to Trump. The other day, during his “victory lap” through the Midwest, the President-elect vowed to “usher in a new Industrial Revolution,” apparently unaware that such a revolution is already under way, and that this is precisely the problem. The pain of dislocation he spoke to during the campaign is genuine; the solutions he offers are not.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A stark graphic - the income gap continues to widen.

The NYTimes piece by Patricia Cohen and graphic summaries by Ashkenas are worth reading. The top 1% and the bottom 50% have swapped their relative shares of the national income. Forty years ago, the top 1 percent of earners took home 10.5 percent of the total national income, and the bottom half earned 20 percent of it. By 2014, those percentages effectively flipped, with the top 1 percent earning a 20 percent share and the bottom half dropping to 12.5 percent.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Our Arthropod housemates.

Now I know more about what is in the haze of particles I see illuminated by the horizontal rays of the rising sun flowing through my Fort Lauderdale condo in early morning.  I pass on, under the "random curious stuff" MindBlog category,  an accounting by Madden et al. that shows the ubiquity of insects detected in settled dust samples collected from inside homes. They used a DNA-based method for investigating the arthropod diversity in homes via high-throughput marker gene sequencing of home dust. Settled dust samples were collected by citizen scientists from both inside and outside more than 700 homes across the United States, yielding the first continental-scale estimates of arthropod diversity associated with our residences. Here is a graphic (click to enlarge), in which (A) shows the Genera detected, (B) shows orders detected in at least 5% of homes. The Y-axes indicate the percentage of homes (of 651 homes with arthropods detected) where those arthropods were detected.