Friday, February 12, 2016

What makes political leaders influential?

Brinke et al. examine whether politicians who ascend to influence have been driven by Aristotelian or Machiavellian values (i.e., virtue versus vice). Is political influence was to be found in virtuous practices such as temperance, courage, kindness, and humility; or, does it require force, fraud, manipulation, and strategic violence? Hmmmm....where would we place Ted Cruz and Donald Trump with regard to these qualities?
What qualities make a political leader more influential or less influential? Philosophers, political scientists, and psychologists have puzzled over this question, positing two opposing routes to political power—one driven by human virtues, such as courage and wisdom, and the other driven by vices, such as Machiavellianism and psychopathy. By coding nonverbal behaviors displayed in political speeches, we assessed the virtues and vices of 151 U.S. senators. We found that virtuous senators became more influential after they assumed leadership roles, whereas senators who displayed behaviors consistent with vices—particularly psychopathy—became no more influential or even less influential after they assumed leadership roles. Our results inform a long-standing debate about the role of morality and ethics in leadership and have important implications for electing effective government officials. Citizens would be wise to consider a candidate’s virtue in casting their votes, which might increase the likelihood that elected officials will have genuine concern for their constituents and simultaneously promote cooperation and progress in government.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Linking sustained attention to brain connectivity.

Rosenberg et al. find that strengths of a specific set of brain connections - even when estimated from resting state data collected when subjects are not carrying out any explicit task - can be used to predict a subject's attention ability with high accuracy. A large set of connections is involved during successful attention, and a different large set correlates with lack of attention.
Although attention plays a ubiquitous role in perception and cognition, researchers lack a simple way to measure a person's overall attentional abilities. Because behavioral measures are diverse and difficult to standardize, we pursued a neuromarker of an important aspect of attention, sustained attention, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. To this end, we identified functional brain networks whose strength during a sustained attention task predicted individual differences in performance. Models based on these networks generalized to previously unseen individuals, even predicting performance from resting-state connectivity alone. Furthermore, these same models predicted a clinical measure of attention—symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—from resting-state connectivity in an independent sample of children and adolescents. These results demonstrate that whole-brain functional network strength provides a broadly applicable neuromarker of sustained attention.

Functional connections predicting gradCPT performance and ADHD-RS scores. (gradCPT is a test of sustained attention and inhibition that produces a range of behavior across healthy participants, ADHD-RS is a clinical measure of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Everybody's a critic. And that's how it should be.

An article with the title of this post by NYTimes movie critic A.O. Scott is well worth a read. Here are his noble closing sentiments:
...criticism remains an indispensable activity. The making of art — popular or fine, abstruse or accessible, sacred or profane — is one of the glories of our species. We are uniquely endowed with the capacity to fashion representations of the world and our experience in it, to tell stories and draw pictures, to organize sound into music and movement into dance. Just as miraculously, we have the ability, even the obligation, to judge what we have made, to argue about why we are moved, mystified, delighted or bored by any of it. At least potentially, we are all artists. And because we have the ability to recognize and respond to the creativity of others, we are all, at least potentially, critics, too.
...It’s the mission of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means that we are each capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.
The real culture war (the one that never ends) is between the human intellect and its equally human enemies: sloth, cliché, pretension, cant. Between creativity and conformity, between the comforts of the familiar and the shock of the new. To be a critic is to be a soldier in this fight, a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living.
It’s not just a job, in other words.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Fantasies of the Future

Following up on my Jan. 28 post on Schwab's book "The Fourth Industrial Revolution" I thought I would pass on some speculations in the appendix of the book on the technology shifts enabled by digital connectivity and software technologies that might "fundamentally change society by 2025" (Really? Gimme a break...).

Wearable internet
Examples: A baby tech-enabled onesie which tracks babies' breathing, body movements, sleep patterns and quality and transmits that information in real time to a smartphone app. A Ralph Lauren PoloTech shirt with silver fibers woven directly into the fabric that read heart rate and breathing depth and balance, as well as other key metrics, which are streamed to computer or smartphone via a detachable, Bluetooth-enabled black box. A sensor that collects data about multiple chemicals in body sweat. 
Implantable Technologies - Pacemakers and cochlear implants represent a beginning.
Smart tattoos and other unique chips could help with identification and location. Implanted devices will likely also help to communicate thoughts normally expressed verbally through a “built-in” smart phone, and potentially unexpressed thoughts or moods by reading brainwaves and other signals. (See "Top ten wearables soon to be in your body.")
Vision as the New Interface
Glasses are already on the market today (not just produced by Google) that can: – Allow you to freely manipulate a 3D object, enabling it to be moulded like clay – Provide all the extended live information you need when you see something, in the same way the brain functions – Prompt you with an overlay menu of the restaurant you pass by – Project picture or video on any piece of paper. (see 10 Forthcoming Augmented Reality & Smart Glasses You Can Buy.)
The internet of and for Things
It is economically feasible to connect literally anything to the internet. Intelligent sensors are already available at very competitive prices. All things will be smart and connected to the internet, enabling greater communication and new data-driven services based on increased analytics capabilities...The Ford GT has 10 million lines of computer code in it. And, see The connected home.
I am fatiguing,...the list continues with mention of smart cities, driverless cars, big data for decisions, artificial intelligence for decision making (and the decimation of current white-collar jobs), the sharing economy, 3D printing for manufacturing and health,  personalized medicine, designer humans, neurotechnologies, brain technologies.....etc.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Our digital presence.

Here is an interesting tally: Active users of social media sites compared with the populations of the world's largest countries. if social media sites were countries, Facebook would be the world’s largest country with more active accounts than there are people in China. Twitter would rank 4th with twice the “population” of the USA and Instagram would round out the Top 10.

There are ~7.4 billion people in the world,  ~43% are connected to the internet; ~4 billion, mostly in the developing world, lack internet access. Most pundits expect that by 2025, digital access will have spread to 80% of all people.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Consciousness as the product of carefully balanced chaos.

Tagliafuochi and collaborators have provided more evidence that our experience of consciousness and reality might result from a delicate balance or critical level of connectivity between brain networks in which the brain explores the maximum number of unique pathways to generate meaning. Consciousness slips away if there is too much or too little connectivity. Their abstract:
Loss of cortical integration and changes in the dynamics of electrophysiological brain signals characterize the transition from wakefulness towards unconsciousness. In this study, we arrive at a basic model explaining these observations based on the theory of phase transitions in complex systems. We studied the link between spatial and temporal correlations of large-scale brain activity recorded with functional magnetic resonance imaging during wakefulness, propofol-induced sedation and loss of consciousness and during the subsequent recovery. We observed that during unconsciousness activity in frontothalamic regions exhibited a reduction of long-range temporal correlations and a departure of functional connectivity from anatomical constraints. A model of a system exhibiting a phase transition reproduced our findings, as well as the diminished sensitivity of the cortex to external perturbations during unconsciousness. This framework unifies different observations about brain activity during unconsciousness and predicts that the principles we identified are universal and independent from its causes.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Inequality and facing the future.

A recent piece by Arianna Huffington (The fourth industrial revolution meets the sleep revolution) suggests to me one aspect of yet another driver of future inequality beyond the declining share of income going to labor compared with capital. Two clear castes of people are emerging, those who can adapt psychologically to the mind-numbing complexity of the emerging digital environment by optimizing their minds and bodies (meditation, sleep, exercise, diet, etc.) and those of lower socioeconomic status who start off disadvantaged (see yesterday’s post) and find that their only mental refuge is some form of fundamentalism, a closing rather than opening of their minds (cf. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz supporters.) Given the chaos and disruption being visited on traditional political and economic arrangements by the fusion of digital, biological, and physical advances - the internet of things meeting the smart factory meeting synthetic biology - how are all humans going to be able share in an understanding and shaping of these changes in a way that keeps human beings at the center?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The neuroscience of poverty.

This open source review article by Alla Katsnelson is sobering, and worth a read. The major foci in the brain that appear to show disparities in poor children are the hippocampus and frontal lobe. I pass on this graphic illustrating the decline in total brain gray matter (nerve cell) volume in young children of middle and low socioeconomic status individuals.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The burden of obesity revisited.

A previous mindblog post has noted the obesity paradox, generated by data suggesting that fat people may live longer. Stokes and Preston,however, note an important distinction that may evaporate the apparent paradox:
Analyses of the relation between obesity and mortality typically evaluate risk with respect to weight recorded at a single point in time. As a consequence, there is generally no distinction made between nonobese individuals who were never obese and nonobese individuals who were formerly obese and lost weight. We introduce additional data on an individual’s maximum attained weight and investigate four models that represent different combinations of weight at survey and maximum weight. We use data from the 1988–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, linked to death records through 2011, to estimate parameters of these models. We find that the most successful models use data on maximum weight, and the worst-performing model uses only data on weight at survey. We show that the disparity in predictive power between these models is related to exceptionally high mortality among those who have lost weight, with the normal-weight category being particularly susceptible to distortions arising from weight loss. These distortions make overweight and obesity appear less harmful by obscuring the benefits of remaining never obese. Because most previous studies are based on body mass index at survey, it is likely that the effects of excess weight on US mortality have been consistently underestimated.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The 8 second attention span.

Wow, Egan notes that our average attention span has fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. (That makes it gratifying that the average amount of time spent by someone on this website is over 4 minutes.)
...a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft... “The true scarce commodity of the near future will be human attention.”...Putting aside Microsoft’s self-interest in promoting quick-flash digital ads with what may be junk science, there seems little doubt that our devices have rewired our brains. We think in McNugget time. The trash flows, unfiltered, along with the relevant stuff, in an eternal stream. And the last hit of dopamine only accelerates the need for another one.
You see it in the press, the obsession with mindless listicles that have all the staying power of a Popsicle. You see it in our politics, with fear-mongering slogans replacing anything that requires sustained thought. And the collapse of a fact-based democracy, where, for example, 60 percent of Trump supporters believe Obama was born in another country, has to be a byproduct of the pick-and-choose news from the buffet line of our screens.
Egan suggests that gardening and deep reading of biographies are useful antidotes.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Fourth Industrial Revolution?? Maybe not.....

Just after starting my second slog through Schwab's 'the fourth industrial revolution' noted in yesterday's post, I see Paul Krugman's review of 'The Rise and Fall of American Growth' by Robert Gordon. Gordon's magnum opus suggests that Schwab's futurism is overblown. (see also Thomas Edsall's excellent piece on the divide and debate between optimistic and pessimistic economists. Also, see this Slate article that chronicles how many times over the past 75 years the term "fourth industrial revolution" has been fetched up to describe a recent or coming advance.) Some clips from Klugman's review:
...[Gordon] has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.
What happened between 1870 and 1940, he argues, and I would agree, is what real transformation looks like. Any claims about current progress need to be compared with that baseline to see how they measure up.
And it’s hard not to agree with him that nothing that has happened since is remotely comparable. Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.
By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since.
One of Gordon's arguments against the techno-optimists is that:
...genuinely major innovations normally bring about big changes in business practices, in what workplaces look like and how they function. And there were some changes along those lines between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s — but not much since, which is evidence for Gordon’s claim that the main impact of the I.T. revolution has already happened.
Techno-futurists would argue strongly against this, citing the rise of the sharing economy, entities like Airbnb and Uber, and changes in the workplace from hierarchical to distributed organization.
Gordon suggests that the future is all too likely to be marked by stagnant living standards for most Americans, because the effects of slowing technological progress will be reinforced by a set of “headwinds”: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.
It’s a shocking prediction for a society whose self-image, arguably its very identity, is bound up with the expectation of constant progress. And you have to wonder about the social and political consequences of another generation of stagnation or decline in working-class incomes.
Of course, Gordon could be wrong: Maybe we’re on the cusp of truly transformative change, say from artificial intelligence or radical progress in biology (which would bring their own risks). But he makes a powerful case. Perhaps the future isn’t what it used to be.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Predicting the Future: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Klaus Schwab, the guy who runs the annual Davos Switzerland World Economic Forum of “very important people” in the world, has generated a book with the title of this year's meeting, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” about a future that is both terrifying and optimistic.  Despite its gobbledegook, committee-speak, and bullet points, it provides a lot of fascinating information and is well worth a look. After doing a quick read-through, I’m starting a second more careful read and clicking through to many of the references (the kindle version is handy for this.)
The first industrial revolution spanned from about 1760 to around 1840. Triggered by the construction of railroads and the invention of the steam engine, it ushered in mechanical production. The second industrial revolution, which started in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, made mass production possible, fostered by the advent of electricity and the assembly line. The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s. It is usually called the computer or digital revolution because it was catalysed by the development of semiconductors, mainframe computing (1960s), personal computing (1970s and 80s) and the internet (1990s). Mindful of the various definitions and academic arguments used to describe the first three industrial revolutions, I believe that today we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution. It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
I am well aware that some academics and professionals consider the developments that I am looking at as simply a part of the third industrial revolution. Three reasons, however, underpin my conviction that a fourth and distinct revolution is underway:
Velocity: Contrary to the previous industrial revolutions, this one is evolving at an exponential rather than linear pace. This is the result of the multifaceted, deeply interconnected world we live in and the fact that new technology begets newer and ever more capable technology.
Breadth and depth: It builds on the digital revolution and combines multiple technologies that are leading to unprecedented paradigm shifts in the economy, business, society, and individually. It is not only changing the “what” and the “how” of doing things but also “who” we are.
Systems Impact: It involves the transformation of entire systems, across (and within) countries, companies, industries and society as a whole.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The ascendant candidacy of Donald J. Trump

You should check Steven Rattner's interesting commentary asking what we owe to those on the losing end of globalization:

Percent change in number of US employees in each industry, 2000 to 2015

Percent change in wages for each industry, 2009 to 2015:

Not surprisingly, the shifts shown in these graphs are ending badly politically. The 'losers' form a core of support for both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Axelrod notes:

Mr. Trump has found an audience with Americans disgruntled by the rapid, disorderly change they associate with national decline and their own uncertain prospects. Policies be damned, who better to set things right than the defiant strong man who promises by sheer force of will to make America great again?

Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive...who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Social relationships and biomarkers of longevity across our life span.

Yang et al. aggregate a massive amount of data from four large longitudinal surveys to show associations between social relationships physiological markers of health:
Two decades of research indicate causal associations between social relationships and mortality, but important questions remain as to how social relationships affect health, when effects emerge, and how long they last. Drawing on data from four nationally representative longitudinal samples of the US population, we implemented an innovative life course design to assess the prospective association of both structural and functional dimensions of social relationships (social integration, social support, and social strain) with objectively measured biomarkers of physical health (C-reactive protein, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass index) within each life stage, including adolescence and young, middle, and late adulthood, and compare such associations across life stages. We found that a higher degree of social integration was associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation in a dose–response manner in both early and later life. Conversely, lack of social connections was associated with vastly elevated risk in specific life stages. For example, social isolation increased the risk of inflammation by the same magnitude as physical inactivity in adolescence, and the effect of social isolation on hypertension exceeded that of clinical risk factors such as diabetes in old age. Analyses of multiple dimensions of social relationships within multiple samples across the life course produced consistent and robust associations with health. Physiological impacts of structural and functional dimensions of social relationships emerge uniquely in adolescence and midlife and persist into old age.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The evolution of dance

From Laland et al.:
Evidence from multiple sources reveals a surprising link between imitation and dance. As in the classical correspondence problem central to imitation research, dance requires mapping across sensory modalities and the integration of visual and auditory inputs with motor outputs. Recent research in comparative psychology supports this association, in that entrainment to a musical beat is almost exclusively observed in animals capable of vocal or motor imitation. Dance has representational properties that rely on the dancers’ ability to imitate particular people, animals or events, as well as the audience’s ability to recognize these correspondences. Imitation also plays a central role in learning to dance and the acquisition of the long sequences of choreographed movements are dependent on social learning. These and other lines of evidence suggest that dancing may only be possible for humans because its performance exploits existing neural circuitry employed in imitation.
This painting by Edgar Degas not only depicts a ballet rehearsal but also illustrates the roles of imitation and synchrony
Clips from the body of the article, with another figure:
...there can be no doubt that, compared to other animals, humans are exceptional imitators. It may be no coincidence that a recent PET scan analysis of the neural basis of dance found that foot movement to music excited regions of neural circuitry (e.g. the right frontal operculum) previously associated with imitation. Dancing may only be possible because its performance exploits the neural circuitry employed in imitation. Such reasoning applies equally where individuals dance alone; unlike much human behavior, dancing inherently seems to require a brain capable of solving the correspondence problem.

Dance often tells a story, and this representational quality provides another link with imitation. For instance, in the astronomical dances of ancient Egypt, priests and priestesses, accompanied by harps and pipes, mimed significant events in the story of a god or imitated cosmic patterns, such as the rhythm of night and day. Africa, Asia, Australasia and Europe all possess long-standing traditions for masked dances, in which the performers portray the character associated with the mask and enact religious stories. Native Americans have many animal dances, such as the Buffalo dance, which was thought to lure buffalo herds close to the village, and the eagle dance, which is a tribute to these revered birds. This tradition continues to the present. In 2009, Rambert (formerly the Rambert Dance Company), a world leader in contemporary dance, marked the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of his seminal work On the Origin of Species by collaborating with one of us (N.C.) to produce Comedy of Change (Figure above), which evoked animal behaviour on stage with spellbinding accuracy. In all such instances, the creation and performance of the dance requires an ability on the part of the dancer to imitate the movements and sounds of particular people, animals, or events. Such dances re-introduce the correspondence problem, as the dancer, choreographer and audience must be able to connect the dancers’ movements to the target phenomenon they represent.

Friday, January 22, 2016

On teaching old dogs new tricks.

Metcalfe et al. find that older healthy adults not only are better than young adults at answering general-information questions in the first place, but also, when they do make a mistake, they are more likely than young adults to correct those errors. Correcting errors is, of course, the quintessential new-learning task: To correct mistakes, one needs to supplant entrenched responses with new ones. The fact that older adults display greater facility at error correction than young adults contravenes the view that aging necessarily produces cognitive rigidity and an inability to learn. Here is their abstract:
Although older adults rarely outperform young adults on learning tasks, in the study reported here they surpassed their younger counterparts not only by answering more semantic-memory general-information questions correctly, but also by better correcting their mistakes. While both young and older adults exhibited a hypercorrection effect, correcting their high-confidence errors more than their low-confidence errors, the effect was larger for young adults. Whereas older adults corrected high-confidence errors to the same extent as did young adults, they outdid the young in also correcting their low-confidence errors. Their event-related potentials point to an attentional explanation: Both groups showed a strong attention-related P3a in conjunction with high-confidence-error feedback, but the older adults also showed strong P3as to low-confidence-error feedback. Indeed, the older adults were able to rally their attentional resources to learn the true answers regardless of their original confidence in the errors and regardless of their familiarity with the answers.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Several perspectives on the valuation of outgroups.

A recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has two relevant articles:

Keelah et al. show that Americans’ stereotypes about racial groups may actually reflect their stereotypes about these groups’ presumed home ecologies. Harsh and unpredictable (“desperate”) ecologies induce fast strategy behaviors such as impulsivity, whereas resource-sufficient and predictable (“hopeful”) ecologies induce slow strategy behaviors such as future focus.
...when provided with information about a person’s race (but not ecology), individuals’ inferences about blacks track stereotypes of people from desperate ecologies, and individuals’ inferences about whites track stereotypes of people from hopeful ecologies. However, when provided with information about both the race and ecology of others, individuals’ inferences reflect the targets’ ecology rather than their race: black and white targets from desperate ecologies are stereotyped as equally fast life history strategists, whereas black and white targets from hopeful ecologies are stereotyped as equally slow life history strategists. These findings suggest that the content of several predominant race stereotypes may not reflect race, per se, but rather inferences about how one’s ecology influences behavior.
And, Ginges et al. show that thinking from God's perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever.
Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide. We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives). Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah. We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.
Also, in the journal Psychological Science, Roets et al. consider the case of Singapore, which contradicts:
...numerous empirical studies that have consistently demonstrated the seemingly inextricable link between authoritarianism and negative attitudes about out-groups. Indeed, in the authoritarian mind, minorities are readily perceived as “bad, disruptive, immoral, and deviant” people who do not fit into society... However, what if authoritarians live in a society in which a very strong and established authority most explicitly endorses diversity and multiculturalism, thereby enforcing a social norm that is in direct opposition to authoritarians’ “natural” negative attitudes toward minorities? Over the past 50 years, the Singaporean government (run by the People’s Action Party) has been highly committed to regulating its ethnically diverse society and promoting multiculturalism through a variety of ingenious yet most consequential measures. A prime example is the imposition of strict ethnic quotas in public residential estates
They analyzed data from a questionnaire measuring authoritarianism that was completed by 249 Singaporean students (the target sample; and 245 Belgian students (the comparison group)...the Belgian control group showed the usual negative relationships between authoritarianism and multiculturalism and between authoritarianism and positive attitudes about out-groups, as found in all previous research. In the Singaporean sample, however, there were significant, positive relationships between authoritarianism and multiculturalism and between authoritarianism and positive attitudes about out-groups... [The] results demonstrate that when a strong authority explicitly and relentlessly endorses diversity and multiculturalism, such a perspective can be adopted even (and especially) by people who are intuitively most opposed to diversity.
You might also note the comments of Aaron Wendland on the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, after World War II, on deep-seated and often irrational fear of the “other.”
Levinas’s antihistamine for our allergic reactions involves three things: an appeal to the “infinity” in human beings, a detailed description of face-to-face encounters and an account of a basic hospitality that constitutes humanity.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Paying attention to your body can increase resilience to stress

Resilience is the ability to rapidly return to normal, both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event. Reynolds points to work by Haase et al., who provide fMRI evidence that in high resilience individuals brain areas receiving signals from the body become more active during stress and supress signals to brain areas that intensify body arousal. Individuals with lower resilience show reduced attention to bodily signals but greater neural processing to aversive bodily perturbations. Here's the Haase et al. abstract:

• Low resilience individuals are less sensitive to body-relevant information. • Low resilience individuals show an exaggerated brain response to an aversive interoceptive stimulus. • This mismatch between attention to and processing of interoceptive afferents may result in poor adaptation in stressful situations.
This study examined neural processes of resilience during aversive interoceptive processing. Forty-six individuals were divided into three groups of resilience Low (LowRes), high (HighRes), and normal (NormRes), based on the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (2003). Participants then completed a task involving anticipation and experience of loaded breathing during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) recording. Compared to HighRes and NormRes groups, LowRes self-reported lower levels of interoceptive awareness and demonstrated higher insular and thalamic activation across anticipation and breathing load conditions. Thus, individuals with lower resilience show reduced attention to bodily signals but greater neural processing to aversive bodily perturbations. In low resilient individuals, this mismatch between attention to and processing of interoceptive afferents may result in poor adaptation in stressful situations.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Biochemical individuality obsoletes many dietary recommendations and the glycemic index.

An important paper by a Weizmann Institute group has been languishing in my list of potential posts, and Murphy's summary of their work now prods me to pass on their bottom line: the glycemic index, used to rank foods according to their effects on blood sugar, is not really useful, because people differ strikingly in their indivual biochemistries, the way in which they extract energy from different foods. The Weizmann group devised "a machine-learning algorithm that integrates blood parameters, dietary habits, anthropometrics, physical activity, and gut microbiota measured...and showed that it accurately predicts personalized postprandial glycemic response to real-life meals." Companies like Nutrigenomix have begun to offer personalized nutrition assessment based on individual genomics. Here is the Weizmann Inst. info:

•High interpersonal variability in post-meal glucose observed in an 800-person cohort 
•Using personal and microbiome features enables accurate glucose response prediction 
•Prediction is accurate and superior to common practice in an independent cohort 
•Short-term personalized dietary interventions successfully lower post-meal glucose
Elevated postprandial blood glucose levels constitute a global epidemic and a major risk factor for prediabetes and type II diabetes, but existing dietary methods for controlling them have limited efficacy. Here, we continuously monitored week-long glucose levels in an 800-person cohort, measured responses to 46,898 meals, and found high variability in the response to identical meals, suggesting that universal dietary recommendations may have limited utility. We devised a machine-learning algorithm that integrates blood parameters, dietary habits, anthropometrics, physical activity, and gut microbiota measured in this cohort and showed that it accurately predicts personalized postprandial glycemic response to real-life meals. We validated these predictions in an independent 100-person cohort. Finally, a blinded randomized controlled dietary intervention based on this algorithm resulted in significantly lower postprandial responses and consistent alterations to gut microbiota configuration. Together, our results suggest that personalized diets may successfully modify elevated postprandial blood glucose and its metabolic consequences.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Posthumanism - the quantification craze and the death of beauty

An eloquent recent essay, “Among the Disrupted” by Leon Wieseltier (pointed to by a Brooks Op-Ed piece), is worth your attention. It opens with a screed on the how journalism has degenerated into a “twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements” with its force of expression diminishing as its frequency grows, and how culture is being degraded by “the idolatry of metrics and quantification applied to things that cannot be captured by numbers.“ Below are a few clips... Here is a core sentiment:
The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.
Actually, I think the sentiments in the above paragraph are misguided (is Wieseltier really a classical vitalist?), but that's possible grist for another post. Continuing....
...the worldview that is ascendant may be described as posthumanism.
…what is humanism?…The most common understanding of humanism is that it denotes a pedagogy and a worldview. ..The worldview takes many forms: a philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe, and about the irreducibility of the human difference to any aspect of our animality; a methodological claim about the most illuminating way to explain history and human affairs, and about the essential inability of the natural sciences to offer a satisfactory explanation; a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion.
Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.
…machines may be more neutral about their uses than the propagandists and the advertisers want us to believe. We can leave aside the ideology of digitality and its aggressions, and regard the devices as simply new means for old ends. Tradition “travels” in many ways. It has already flourished in many technologies — but only when its flourishing has been the objective. I will give an example from the humanities. The day is approaching when the dream of the democratization of knowledge — Borges’s fantasy of “the total library” — will be realized. Soon all the collections in all the libraries and all the archives in the world will be available to everyone with a screen. Who would not welcome such a vast enfranchisement? But universal accessibility is not the end of the story, it is the beginning. The humanistic methods that were practiced before digitalization will be even more urgent after digitalization, because we will need help in navigating the unprecedented welter. Searches for keywords will not provide contexts for keywords. Patterns that are revealed by searches will not identify their own causes and reasons. The new order will not relieve us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, of erudition and interpretation.
The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence…In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.