Friday, February 16, 2018

Computers no better than humans at predicting who should go to jail.

I want to point to two pieces that offer a commentary on our trust in using algorithms to predict human behavior rather than old fashioned human judgement. In the U.S., computers help decide who goes to jail, on the basis of predicting recidivism. Matacic discusses studies showing their judgment may be no better than ours. She points, for example, to work of Dressel and Farid. Their abstract:
Algorithms for predicting recidivism are commonly used to assess a criminal defendant’s likelihood of committing a crime. These predictions are used in pretrial, parole, and sentencing decisions. Proponents of these systems argue that big data and advanced machine learning make these analyses more accurate and less biased than humans. We show, however, that the widely used commercial risk assessment software COMPAS is no more accurate or fair than predictions made by people with little or no criminal justice expertise. We further show that a simple linear predictor provided with only two features is nearly equivalent to COMPAS with its 137 features.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Afraid of A.I.? Be very afraid of quantum computing....

Several recent articles point to a quiet revolution that is receiving relatively little notice - the development of quantum computers that may operate 100,000 times faster than today's binary computers that store information as 0's and 1's, by using quantum entanglement and superposition to process information. A description from Wadhwa's article:
Unlike classic computers, in which information is represented in 0’s and 1’s, quantum computers rely on particles called quantum bits, or qubits. These can hold a value of 0 or 1 or both values at the same time — a superposition denoted as “0+1.” They solve problems by laying out all of the possibilities simultaneously and measuring the results. It’s equivalent to opening a combination lock by trying every possible number and sequence simultaneously.
Friedman quotes IBM researcher Talia Gershon, who
...posted a fun video explaining the power of quantum computers to optimize and model problems with an exponential number of variables. She displayed a picture of a table at her wedding set for 10 guests, and posed this question: How many different ways can you seat 10 people? It turns out, she explained, there are “3.6 million ways to arrange 10 people for dinner.”
Classical computers don’t solve “big versions of this problem very well at all,” she said, like trying to crack sophisticated encrypted codes, where you need to try a massive number of variables, or modeling molecules where you need to account for an exponential number of interactions. Quantum computers, with their exponential processing power, will be able to crack most encryption without breaking a sweat.
From Wadhwa:
IBM is already offering early versions of quantum computing as a cloud service to select clients. There is a global race between technology companies, defense contractors, universities and governments to build advanced versions that hold the promise of solving some of the greatest mysteries of the universe — and enable the cracking open of practically every secured database in the world.
Artificial intelligence applications based on conventional computing and already in the pipeline are going to bring about a world-wide decimation of jobs in the next 10-20 years. What will the effect of exponentially more powerful computers be? IBM recently upgraded its publicly available processor to 20 qubits and has the operational prototype of a 50-qubit processor. A 50-qubit computer would exceed the capability of the top supercomputers in the world, and a 100-qubit computer is a possibility.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Valentine's Day musical offering - Respighi's Intermezzo Serenata

A piano transcription by Respighi of the Intermezzo Serenata from his comic opera Re Enzo.  Making a recording of a piano piece I like motivates me to learn it a bit more thoroughly and is necessary if I plan to play it for one of our house social/musical occasions.  I never manage a playing without some minor error,  so from the four takes I did yesterday I pass on with one with the smallest number of glitches. Readers who are Apple groupies might note the Apple watch camera app displaying the scene being recorded by the iPhone X camera and the shutter button on the watch starting and stopping the recording.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mind treats on the web.

This MindBlog is a miniscule drop in a large internet pond of excellent and interesting sites describing new mind research and ideas. I am aware of only a fraction what is out there. This brief post is to pass on a few random mentions. A recent email asks me to pitch a new drop in the pond,, that describes itself as an online magazine covering experiments we’re doing on ourselves, tracking ideas and technologies that enable us to analyze, enhance, and edit ourselves (see, for example “When algorithms are running the asylum").” offers a daily email with occasional articles that I find so interesting that I have sent them a modest contribution. is a very rich site whose annual question has provoked many thoughtful essays, although I think this year’s annual question (‘What is the last question?’) is a loser. And, of course there are the well known TED talks. When I find a talk on mind matters that I think might be interesting I go straight to the text transcript, not being patient enough to watch the video.

My apologies to many other sites I am not mentioning.

Monday, February 12, 2018

“The rich are different from you and me..” - the psychology of inequality

In the mythical exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Hemingway responds “Yes, they have more money.” Who are ‘they’? … presumably those who can be unconcerned about the stock market ‘correction’ over the past week. (Cohen brings some perspective the market drop by noting that 84% of all stocks owned by Americans - including all retirement and savings assets - belong to the wealthiest 10 percent of households, for whom a market drop of 10% would bring only a 1-2% change in their wealth holdings.)

In this vein, I would like to point to Elizabeth Kolbert's fascinating essay on the differences between being on the lower rather than the upper part of the economic ladder. She cites psychological studies showing that much of the damage done by being poor comes from feeling poor (as, for example when people find they are making less than their peers), not from actual material deprivations. "In a world where people measure themselves against their neighbors, it possible to earn good money and still feel deprived...thanks to the growing gap between the one percent and everyone else, the subjective effect is of widespread impoverishment...inequality mimics poverty in our minds.

Studies show that feeling disadvantaged leads people to do more risk taking, amplify perception of racial differences, be more susceptible to conspiracy theories, and be more likely to have medical problems.

If feeling poor goes with feeling bad about it, it would seem reasonable to suppose that rich people feel good about being rich. Work by Rachel Sherman shows that this is not the case. The few rich people who were willing to be interviewed by her didn't want their wealth to be known and preferred not to think of themselves as privileged, citing friends who even more wealthy. "If affluence is in the eye of the beholder, then even the super-rich, when they compare their situation with that of the ultra-rich, can feel sorry for themselves." Also, they also feel moral conflicts about having privilege in general.
Preschoolers, brown capuchin monkeys, California state workers, college students recruited for psychological experiments—everyone, it seems, resents inequity. This is true even though what counts as being disadvantaged varies from place to place and from year to year...Thomas Jefferson, living at Monticello without hot water or overhead lighting, would, by the standards of contemporary America, be considered “poorer than the poor.” No doubt inequity, which, by many accounts, is a precondition for civilization, has been a driving force behind the kinds of innovations that have made indoor plumbing and electricity, not to mention refrigeration, central heating, and Wi-Fi, come, in the intervening centuries, to seem necessities in the U.S.
Still, there are choices to be made. The tax bill recently approved by Congress directs, in ways both big and small, even more gains to the country’s plutocrats. Supporters insist that the measure will generate so much prosperity that the poor and the middle class will also end up benefitting. But even if this proves true—and all evidence suggests that it will not—the measure doesn’t address the real problem. It’s not greater wealth but greater equity that will make us all feel richer. 

Friday, February 09, 2018

Our body tissues crosstalk during exercise.

Gretchen Reynolds points to fascinating work showing that exercise causes cells to release tiny lipid coated hollow spheres (vesicles) containing protein molecules that carry signals between muscle cells, fat cells, and the liver cells that generate energy during exercise - regulating coordination between organs during exercise. 

•Exosomes and small vesicles are released into circulation with exercise 
•Proteins without a signal peptide sequence circulate in vesicles during exercise 
•Exercise-liberated vesicles have a propensity to localize in the liver 
•Femoral arteriovenous difference analysis identifies 35 novel candidate myokines
Exercise stimulates the release of molecules into the circulation, supporting the concept that inter-tissue signaling proteins are important mediators of adaptations to exercise. Recognizing that many circulating proteins are packaged in extracellular vesicles (EVs), we employed quantitative proteomic techniques to characterize the exercise-induced secretion of EV-contained proteins. Following a 1-hr bout of cycling exercise in healthy humans, we observed an increase in the circulation of over 300 proteins, with a notable enrichment of several classes of proteins that compose exosomes and small vesicles. Pulse-chase and intravital imaging experiments suggested EVs liberated by exercise have a propensity to localize in the liver and can transfer their protein cargo. Moreover, by employing arteriovenous balance studies across the contracting human limb, we identified several novel candidate myokines, released into circulation independently of classical secretion. These data identify a new paradigm by which tissue crosstalk during exercise can exert systemic biological effects.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

A Thursday musical offering... Charles Meyer - Valse Melancolique

Under the 'random curious stuff' in MindBlog's subtitle, above, I've decided to resume recording some of the pieces that I enjoy playing, using only my iPhone X with a small condenser microphone plugged in to its USB port.  This lyrical piece is frequently incorrectly attributed to Chopin.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Brain correlates of our ability to think creatively

I am passing on the significance statements (the links take you to the whole abstracts) from two fascinating pieces on the brain correlates of our ability to think creatively. First, from Beaty et al.:
People’s capacity to generate creative ideas is central to technological and cultural progress. Despite advances in the neuroscience of creativity, the field lacks clarity on whether a specific neural architecture distinguishes the highly creative brain. Using methods in network neuroscience, we modeled individual creative thinking ability as a function of variation in whole-brain functional connectivity. We identified a brain network associated with creative ability comprised of regions within default, salience, and executive systems—neural circuits that often work in opposition. Across four independent datasets, we show that a person’s capacity to generate original ideas can be reliably predicted from the strength of functional connectivity within this network, indicating that creative thinking ability is characterized by a distinct brain connectivity profile.
Then, from Kenett et al.:
Creative thinking requires flexibility, which facilitates the creation of novel and innovative ideas. However, so far its role in creativity has been measured via indirect measures. We propose a quantitative measure of flexibility based on the robustness of semantic memory networks to attack, assuming that the higher robustness, the higher the flexibility of the network. We show how the semantic network of high creative individuals is more robust to attack, thus more flexible. This is a direct computational investigation on flexibility of semantic memory and creativity. Our approach can be applied to more general questions such as high-level cognitive capacities and clinical populations suffering from atypical thought processes.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

MindBlog's 12th anniversary. Blogs as relics or rebirths?

Today marks the 12th anniversary of MindBlog's start.  In yesterday's MindBlog post I passed on Andrew Sullivan's comments on the demise of blogs, noting several, such as the Awl, Hairpin, and Gawker, which have appeared and disappeared since the Feb. 2006 beginning of MindBlog.  They were not economically viable...editors have to eat.  (I haven’t had that problem, living on a retired professor's annuity, and so being able to decline weekly offers to help me better 'monetize' this site.) Here is a clip from the Polentino article mentioned by Sullivan:
Blogging, that much-maligned pastime, is gradually but surely disappearing from the Internet, and so, consequently, is a lot of online freedom and fun.
Blogs are necessarily idiosyncratic, entirely about sensibility: they can only be run by workhorses who are creative enough to amuse themselves and distinct enough to hook an audience, and they tend to publish like-minded writers, who work more on the principle of personal obsession than pay. The result is editorial latitude to be obscure and silly and particular, but the finances are increasingly hard to sustain; media consumption is controlled these days by centralized tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter—whose algorithms favor what is viral, newsy, reactionary, easily decontextualized, and of general appeal. 
I'm a bit incredulous that MindBlog has persisted for 12 years... When I click on "Stats" in the Google Blogger platform that hosts this blog, I see (as I'm writing this post on 1/30/18) :
Pageviews today 4,052 
Pageviews yesterday 1,163 
Pageviews last month 32,880 
Pageviews all time history 4,513,922
Deric's MindBlog is a quirky and idiosyncratic effort, reflecting my particular interests. It passes on selected material that I would be reading about in any case. It makes it easier for me to recall and look up stuff that I have read and found interesting. A reliable readership has evolved that seems to share these interests. Occasional positive comments from readers have reinforced my motivation to continue slugging away, rescuing me from even thinking about starting to watch daytime television! 

Monday, February 05, 2018

The blogging golden age

I want to pass on this piece of writing from a series of commentaries posted by Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine. He suggests that the decline of blogging - as social media like facebook and twitter moved in to draw more clicks and revenue - might be reversing, as "writers and editors are discovering that their actual economic value lies not in countless page views, but in a relationship between readers and writers."
Is social media on the decline? Here’s hoping. A lovely piece in The New Yorker last week by Jia Tolentino lamented the loss of blogging, idiosyncrasy, quirkiness, and intelligence from the web. This set of reflections on the Awl compiled by Max Read in these pages also conveys the essence of the Internet That Nearly Was. Tom Scocca gets the essence of this old era: “What the Awl represented to me was the chance to write exactly what I meant to write, for an audience I trusted to read it.”
I feel entirely the same way about the blogging golden age. What was precious about it was its simple integrity: A writer gets to explore her craft and develop her own audience. We weren’t in it for the money or the clicks or the followers. We were in it for the core experience shared between a writer and a reader — and the enormous freedom that removing the editorial gatekeepers unlocked. It was a brief period, but an alive one, and it was largely lost — or abandoned — because of a major failure of nerve on the part of most print media. (Harper’s was and is a notable exception.) I was there, for example, at The Atlantic, when it felt it had no choice but to abandon its small group of bloggers and their devoted audiences in favor of a business strategy to maximize page views through social media. I witnessed a great American literary institution a century-and-a-half old feel it necessary to suck up to Facebook and Twitter. I saw when the goal across the media shifted from simply writing what you believed, however idiosyncratically, to writing more and more and more, so that the sheer volume of traffic might save the economics of web journalism. The fire-hydrant stream of “content” (“writing” was so passé) was so overwhelming that no single editor could manage it, no group of writers could give it character, and no single reader could even begin to read it all. Maybe the web made this inevitable. But it didn’t make the dissipation of so much heritage any less agonizing to watch.
And after a few years of “social” obsession, online media began to seem all the same: a heaving, pulsating, twitching ocean of hot takes and insta-news in which tribal identity always took precedence over style or elegance or quirkiness or diversity of view. And it didn’t really work as a business model anyway. Instead of consolidating their own readerships and loyalty, magazines became dependent on Zuckerberg and Twitter, vulnerable to shifts in the Facebook News Feed, which is now moving away from news. Increasingly and mercifully, writers and editors are discovering that their actual economic value lies not in countless page views, but in a relationship between readers and writers. Subscriptions increasingly matter more than page views with their diminishing ad revenues, which is why the subscriber buoyancy of the Washington Post and the New York Times is so encouraging. I’m proud that my own blog, the Dish, never bent the knee to social media, and was eventually proof that the best business model was always reader loyalty and engagement — quality, not quantity. Which is why we were able to develop an online subscription model of 30,000 paid and passionate online subscribers — still more than any other purely online website has acquired two years later.
But there’s hope on the horizon again. The sewer of most of Twitter is now so rank that even addicts have begun to realize that they are sinking in oceans of shitholery. Facebook is long overdue for a collapse, and the old institutions are showing signs of developing more character and coherence. Nick Bilton at Vanity Fair cannot wait for FaceTwitterGramChat to peak:
A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.
The evidence that social media has turned journalism into junk, has promoted addictive addlement in our brains, is wrecking our democracy, and slowly replacing life with pseudo-life is beginning to become unavoidable. And the possibility that the media may recover from its loss of nerve is real.
Readers will reward quality. The editors of our day, if we’re lucky, will begin to realize that this is the economic future of journalism, and bank on it again. This tide will turn. Drop your Twitter; abandon Facebook; and buy a subscription to a magazine that is trying to save its own soul.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Mental autonomy - developing a ‘culture of consciousness’.

One of MindBlog's threads has been presentation and discussion of work on the default mode network of our brains that mediates our mind wandering. One of my heroes, Thomas Metzinger, has done a nice essay on the larger implications of what we have learned. I strongly recommend that you read the whole piece, but will also pass on a rather extensive series of clips that convey the main points:
When traveling long distances, jumping saves dolphins energy, because there’s less friction in the air than in the water below. It also seems to be an efficient way to move rapidly and breathe at the same time…These cetacean acrobatics are a fruitful metaphor for what happens when we think. What most of us still call ‘our conscious thoughts’ are really like dolphins in our mind, jumping briefly out of the ocean of our unconscious for a short period before they submerge themselves once again. This ‘dolphin model of cognition’ helps us to understand the limits of our awareness.
One of the most exciting recent research fields in neuroscience and experimental psychology is mind-wandering – the study of spontaneous or task-unrelated thoughts….Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime. ..As far as our inner life is concerned, the science of mind-wandering implies that we’re only rarely autonomous persons. 
As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination. Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree. 
We ought to probe how our organism turns different sub-personal events into thoughts or states that appear to belong to ‘us’ as a whole, and how we can learn to control them more effectively and efficiently. This capacity creates what I call mental autonomy, and I believe it is the neglected ethical responsibility of government and society to help citizens cultivate it.
The mind wanders more frequently than most of us think – several hundred times a day and up to 50 per cent of our waking life, in fact…The wandering mind is like a monkey, swinging from branch to branch across an inner emotional landscape. It will flee from unpleasant perceptions and feelings, and try to reach a state that feels better. If the present moment is unattractive or boring, then of course it’s more pleasant to be planning the next holiday or drifting away into a romantic fantasy.
A multitude of empirical studies show that areas of our brain responsible for the wandering mind overlap to a large extent with the so-called default-mode network (DMN). This is a large network in our brain that typically becomes active during periods of rest, when attention is directed to the inside.
My view is that the mind-wandering network and the DMN basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time. Like nocturnal dreaming, mind-wandering also appears to be a process by which our brain and body consolidate our long-term memory and stabilise specific parts of what I call the ‘self-model’. 
At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future. (I think that it was exactly the impression of transtemporal identity that turned into one of the central factors in the emergence of large human societies, which rely on the understanding that it is I who will be punished or rewarded in the future. Only as long as we believe in our own continuing identity does it make sense for us to treat our fellow human beings fairly, for the consequences of our actions will, in the end, always concern us.)
But don’t lose sight of the fact that all this modelling is just a convenient trick our organism plays on itself to enhance its chances of survival. We must not forget that the phenomenal realm (how we subjectively experience ourselves) is only a small part of the neurobiological one (the reality of the creatures we actually are). There’s no little person in our head, only a set of dynamical, self-organising processes at play behind the scenes. Yet it seems like these processes often function by creating self-fulfilling prophecies; in other words, we have an identity because we convince ourselves we have one. Humans have evolved to be a bit like method actors, who need to really imagine and believe they are a particular character in order to perform effectively on stage. But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either. 
…one of the main functions of the self-model is how it lets our biological organism predict, and thereby control, the sensory consequences of our actions. That produces what’s called our sense of agency. ..when I close my fingers around the stem of a wineglass or feel the rough surface of a tennis ball in my hand, I infer that I must be an agent who is capable of originating, controlling and owning all these events.
..just like a method actor can’t focus on the fact that she’s acting, our biological organism is usually unable to experience our self-model as a model. Instead, we tend to identify with its content, just as the actor identifies with the character. The more we achieve a high degree of predictability over our behaviour, the more tempting it is to say: this is me, and I did this. We tell ourselves a brilliant and parsimonious causal story, even if it’s false from the third-person perspective of science. Empirically speaking, the self-as-agent is just a useful fiction or hypothesis, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.
On the level of the brain, this process is a truly amazing affair, and a major achievement of evolution. But if we look at the resulting conscious experience from the outside, and on the level of the whole person, the brain’s mini-narrative also appears as a misrepresentation, slightly complacent, a bit grandiose, and ultimately delusional. Agency on the level of thought is really a ‘surface’ phenomenon, produced by the fact that the underwater, unconscious causal precursors are simply unknown to us. Even if we sometimes reach what resembles the rationalist ideal, we probably do so only sporadically, and the notion of controlled, effortful thinking is probably a very bad model of conscious thought in general. Our conscious mental activity is usually an unbidden, unintentional form of behaviour. Yet somehow the tourist on the prow begins to experience herself as an omnipotent magician, making dolphins come into existence out of the blue, and jump at her command.
The self might not be a Cartesian agent that causes thought or action, but perhaps there are other ways for the organism as a whole to shape what happens in its mental life. We can’t get off the ship, let alone summon dolphins from nowhere, but perhaps we can choose where to look. 
We’re familiar with the idea of autonomy over our actions in the outer realm, such as when we control our bodily movements…however, there are not only bodily actions, but also mental ones… actively re-directing attention to your breath in meditation, deliberately paying attention to a person’s face in front of you, trying to retrieve visual images from your memory, logical thinking, or engaging in mental calculation. Note that deliberately not acting is as important here as acting. The defining feature of autonomy in both the inner and outer realms is veto control, the power to inhibit, suspend or terminate ongoing actions.  A specific layer of the self-model is of central importance here. I call it the ‘epistemic agent model’ – the bit that allows us to have the feeling ‘I am a knowing self; I know that I know.’ This is the true origin of our first-person perspective. It’s created by predictions about what the organism can and will know in the future, and helps us to continuously improve our model of reality.
Now we can see mind-wandering for what it really is: a transient loss of mental autonomy, via the loss of the epistemic-agent model. A daydream just happens to you – there is ownership, but no control over the event. It is not something you do, but something in which you ‘lose yourself’. You have forgotten a specific kind of self-knowledge, the ability to terminate a train of thought and to choose what it is you want to know. You might daydream about being a knowing self, but right now you have lost all awareness of your own power to put an end to the process.
Meditation research is poised to make major contributions to mental autonomy. Mindfulness practice can sometimes lead to a crystal-clear and silent mind that is not clouded by thoughts at all, the pure conscious experience of mental autonomy as such that arises without actually exerting control. In long-term practitioners, this can result from the cultivation of a kind of inner non-acting that includes noticing, gently letting go, and resting in an open, effortless state of choiceless awareness. However, in the beginning, meditation clearly involves making decisions, as subjects develop meta-awareness, alongside an awareness of their capacity for attentional control. This can be seen as a systematic form of ‘experience sampling’.
Whether this sort of cognition really requires a robust notion of selfhood, as most Western philosophers would argue, would be disputed in many Eastern traditions. Here the highest level of mental autonomy is often seen as a form of impersonal witnessing or (in the words of the Indian-born philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) ‘observing without an observer’ (though even this pure form of global meta-awareness still contains the implicit knowledge that the organism could act if necessary). There seems to be a middle way: perhaps mental autonomy can actually be experienced as such, in a non-agentive way, as a mere capacity. The notion of ‘mental autonomy’ could therefore be a deep point of contact where Eastern and Western philosophy discover common conceptual ground.
It’s important to remember that neuroscience isn’t the only piece of the puzzle. Culture plays its part, too…Accountability and ethical responsibility might actually be implemented in the human brain from above, via early social interactions between children and adults. If we tell children at an early age that they are fully responsible for their own actions, and if we accordingly punish and reward them, then this assumption will get built into their conscious self-model...The human adult’s conscious model of the ‘self’ might therefore be an enculturated post-hoc confabulation, at least in part – a causal-inference illusion that’s become part of how we model our own sociocultural niche, ultimately based on how we’ve internalised social interactions and ingrained language games.
…the mind-wandering network does not, I believe, actually produce thoughts. It also is not conscious – the person as a whole is. Rather, it creates what I would describe as cognitive affordances, opportunities for inner action. In the theory of psychology developed by J J Gibson, what we perceive in our environment aren’t simply objects, but possible actions: this is something I could sit on, this is something I could put into my mouth, and so on. Cognitive affordances are possible mental actions, and they are not perceived with our sensory organs but they are available for introspection.
Cognitive affordances are actually precursors of thoughts, or proto-thoughts, that call out ‘Think me!’ or ‘Don’t miss me – I am the last of my kind!’ Our inner landscape is full of these possibilities, which we must constantly navigate. What mind-wandering does is create a fluid and highly dynamic task-domain. 
One central function of mind-wandering, then, could be to provide us with an internal environment of competing affordances, accompanied by possible mental actions, which have the potential to become an extended process of controlling the content of your own mind. This inner landscape could even be below our conscious awareness, but it is out of this that the epistemic-agent model emerges, like any other conscious experience, seemingly selecting what she wants to know and what she wants to ignore…true autonomy is about different levels of context-sensitivity and supple self-control.  
What is clear by now is that our societies lack systematic and institutionalised ways of enhancing citizens’ mental autonomy. This is a neglected duty of care on the part of governments. There can be no politically mature citizens without a sufficient degree of mental autonomy, but society as a whole does not act to protect or increase it. Yet, it might be the most precious resource of all. In the end, and in the face of serious existential risks posed by environmental degradation and advanced capitalism, we must understand that citizens’ collective level of mental autonomy will be the decisive factor.
It was William James, the father of American psychology, who said in 1892: ‘And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ We can finally see more clearly what meditation is really about: over the centuries, the main goal has always been a sustained enhancement of one’s mental autonomy.
Mental autonomy brings together the core ideas of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It helps us see the value of both secularised spiritual practice and of rigorous, rational thought. There seem to be two complementary ways to understand the dolphins in our own mind: one, from the point of view of a truly hard-nosed, scientifically minded tourist on the prow of the boat; and two, from the perspective of the wide-open sky, silently looking down from above at the tourist and the dolphins porpoising in the ocean.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

How to goose your memory.

The abstract from Inman et al., "Direct electrical stimulation of the amygdala enhances declarative memory in humans." They show that stimulation of the amygdala that does not elicit an emotional response during a neutral event enhances memory of that event. :

Memories for emotional events tend to persist, raising a fundamental question about how the brain prioritizes significant memories. Past studies have pointed to a central role for the amygdala in mediating this endogenous memory enhancement. However, the premise that the amygdala can causally enhance declarative memory has not been directly tested in humans. Here we show that brief electrical stimulation to the human amygdala can enhance declarative memory for specific images of neutral objects without eliciting a subjective emotional response, likely by engaging other memory-related brain regions. The results show the human amygdala has a general capacity to initiate enhancement of specific declarative memories rather than a narrower role limited to indirectly mediating emotional effects on memory.
Emotional events are often remembered better than neutral events, a benefit that many studies have hypothesized to depend on the amygdala’s interactions with memory systems. These studies have indicated that the amygdala can modulate memory-consolidation processes in other brain regions such as the hippocampus and perirhinal cortex. Indeed, rodent studies have demonstrated that direct activation of the amygdala can enhance memory consolidation even during nonemotional events. However, the premise that the amygdala causally enhances declarative memory has not been directly tested in humans. Here we tested whether brief electrical stimulation to the amygdala could enhance declarative memory for specific images of neutral objects without eliciting a subjective emotional response. Fourteen epilepsy patients undergoing monitoring of seizures via intracranial depth electrodes viewed a series of neutral object images, half of which were immediately followed by brief, low-amplitude electrical stimulation to the amygdala. Amygdala stimulation elicited no subjective emotional response but led to reliably improved memory compared with control images when patients were given a recognition-memory test the next day. Neuronal oscillations in the amygdala, hippocampus, and perirhinal cortex during this next-day memory test indicated that a neural correlate of the memory enhancement was increased theta and gamma oscillatory interactions between these regions, consistent with the idea that the amygdala prioritizes consolidation by engaging other memory regions. These results show that the amygdala can initiate endogenous memory prioritization processes in the absence of emotional input, addressing a fundamental question and opening a path to future therapies.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Commentary on devolution of advanced societies towards tribalism.

I have been wanting to point to a number of Op-Ed articles that try to make a story to explain the apparent devolution of many advanced societies towards tribalism. Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of trends that have been growing for the past 30 years.

 Cohen notes:
Looking back, it’s now easy enough to see that the high point of democracy — the victory of open systems over the Soviet imperium that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989 and set free more than 100 million Central Europeans — was quickly followed by the unleashing of economic forces that would undermine democracies. Far from ending history, liberalism triumphant engendered a reaction.
Increasingly, companies have been displacing nations as the units of international competition:
They optimize globally, rather than nationally. Their aim is to maximize profits across the world — allocating cash where it is most beneficial, finding labor where it is cheapest — not to pursue some national interest.
The shift was fast-forwarded by advances in communications that rendered distance irrelevant, and by the willingness in most emerging markets to open borders to foreign investment and new technologies.
Hundreds of millions of people in these developing countries were lifted from poverty into the middle class. Conversely, in Western societies, a hollowing out of the middle class began as manufacturing migrated, technological advances eliminated jobs and wages stagnated.
The global view did not suit everyone. In what the French call the “periphery” — areas far from the wired metropolis — it began to look like a not-so-subtle sabotaging of the nation. The moneyed got to run a rigged system, in a different universe from those whose lives remained local.
As inequality grew nationally (while narrowing globally), and impunity for financial disaster accompanied it, anger mounted. Frustration translated into an increasingly xenophobic search for scapegoats.
Three decades on, nationalism, nativism and illiberalism are ascendant, from Donald Trump’s United States, to Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland, to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. It’s an astonishing turnabout, but it has its logic.
If we live today at an inflection point, it is because it’s impossible to say how much further rightist and illiberal authoritarianism may go.
Trump is a symptom, not a cause. That is why he may be hard to dislodge. He intuited the extent of American anger better than anyone. He also intuited a kind of cultural despair that made millions of Americans impervious to his lewd vulgarity — in fact, inclined to cheer him on in sticking it in the eye of the “establishment.”
An Op-Ed piece by David Brooks quotes Jonathan Haidt, who:
…listed some of the reasons centrifugal forces may now exceed centripetal: the loss of the common enemies we had in World War II and the Cold War, an increasingly fragmented media, the radicalization of the Republican Party, and a new form of identity politics, especially on campus... Haidt made the interesting point that identity politics per se is not the problem. Identity politics is just political mobilization around group characteristics. The problem is that identity politics has dropped its centripetal elements and become entirely centrifugal.
From an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity, we’ve gone to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy. On campus these days, current events are often depicted as pure power struggles — oppressors acting to preserve their privilege over the virtuous oppressed.
“A funny thing happens,” Haidt said, “when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side in each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.”
The problem is that tribal common-enemy thinking tears a diverse nation apart. This pattern is not just on campus. Look at the negative polarization that marks our politics. Parties, too, are no longer bound together by creeds but by enemies.
Brooks also cites Bruckner, who argues:
…that excessive individualism paradoxically leads to in-group/out-group tribalism. Modern individualism releases each person from social obligation, but “being guided only by the lantern of his own understanding, the individual loses all assurance of a place, an order, a definition. He may have gained freedom, but he has lost security.”..We each have to write our own gospel that defines our own virtue…The easiest way to do that is to tell a tribal oppressor/oppressed story and build your own innocence on your status as victim. Just about everybody can find a personal victim story. Once you’ve identified your herd’s oppressor — the neoliberal order, the media elite, white males, whatever — your goodness is secure. You have virtue without obligation. Nothing is your fault.
Finally Brooks notes that both Haidt and Bruckner:
...point to the fact that we’ve regressed from a sophisticated moral ethos to a primitive one. The crooked timber school of humanity says the line between good and evil runs through each person and we fight injustice on the basis of our common humanity. The oppressor/oppressed morality says the line runs between tribes. That makes it easy to feel good about yourself. But it makes you very hard to live with.
An essay by Thomas Edsall quotes thoughts emailed to him by Steven Pinker:
The answer lies in raw tribalism: when someone is perceived as a champion of one’s coalition, all is forgiven. The same is true for opinions: a particular issue can become a sacred value, shibboleth, or affirmation of allegiance to one’s team, and its content no longer matters. This is part of a growing realization in political psychology that tribalism has been underestimated in our understanding of politics, and ideological coherence and political and scientific literacy overestimated.
…the full ingenuity of human cognition is recruited to valorize the champion and shore up the sacred beliefs. You can always dismiss criticism as being motivated by the bias of one’s enemies. Our cognitive and linguistic faculties are endlessly creative — that’s what makes our species so smart — and that creativity can be always deployed to reframe issues in congenial or invidious terms.
Another quote from Pinker on tribalism is found in Galanes’ article on a conversation between Bill Gates and Pinker:
One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism. When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them. Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, it is not at all correlated with scientific literacy. People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it. It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation. And a move toward greater rationality would unbundle them and let evidence inform what the optimal policies ought to be.
And, a quote from Don Symons:
Our species is profoundly coalitional, and in most times and places moral prescriptions apply only to one’s in-group, not to humanity in general. I don’t see any evidence that we evolved innate, universal moral rules about how to treat all humans. That’s why history, as James Joyce said, is a nightmare. Prehistory is worse. I assume that coalitional-thinking is what Trump was getting at when he claimed that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his base would still love him. It’s not that they feel that killing a random stranger for no reason is morally ok; it’s that loyalty to their coalition leader is primary.
Now.... This post is too long to start on ideas for correcting the trend towards tribalism. In a future MindBlog post I hope to summarize some articles suggesting ways to transcend tribalism.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Corporate social responsibility to counter the sociopathy of capitalism?

Sorkin describes a striking letter sent out to business leaders by BlackRock, the largest investment firm in the world. The article and letter are worth a read. In the absence of significant government action, is this the only hope for countering the automatic inequities that result from exercisings only the profit motive of capitalism? The letter informs.. leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock.
Mr. Fink has the clout to make this kind of demand: His firm manages more than $6 trillion in investments through 401(k) plans, exchange-traded funds and mutual funds, making it the largest investor in the world, and he has an outsize influence on whether directors are voted on and off boards.
From his letter:
“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,...To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
“many governments are failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining...As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges.”
We can only hope.....

Monday, January 29, 2018

How our bones regulate our weight.

Jansson et al. report that bones have a gravity sensor that initiates metabolic changes that compensate for a sudden change in body weight to return the body to its desired homeostatic weight set point:

The only known homeostatic regulator of fat mass is the leptin system. We hypothesized that there is a second homeostat regulating body weight with an impact on fat mass. In this study we have added and removed weight loads from experimental animals and measured the effects on the biological body weight. The results demonstrate that there is a body weight homeostat that regulates fat mass independently of leptin. As the body weight-reducing effect of increased loading was dependent on osteocytes, we propose that there is a sensor for body weight in the long bones of the lower extremities acting as “body scales.” This is part of a body weight homeostat, “gravitostat,” that keeps body weight and body fat mass constant.
Subjects spending much time sitting have increased risk of obesity but the mechanism for the antiobesity effect of standing is unknown. We hypothesized that there is a homeostatic regulation of body weight. We demonstrate that increased loading of rodents, achieved using capsules with different weights implanted in the abdomen or s.c. on the back, reversibly decreases the biological body weight via reduced food intake. Importantly, loading relieves diet-induced obesity and improves glucose tolerance. The identified homeostat for body weight regulates body fat mass independently of fat-derived leptin, revealing two independent negative feedback systems for fat mass regulation. It is known that osteocytes can sense changes in bone strain. In this study, the body weight-reducing effect of increased loading was lost in mice depleted of osteocytes. We propose that increased body weight activates a sensor dependent on osteocytes of the weight-bearing bones. This induces an afferent signal, which reduces body weight. These findings demonstrate a leptin-independent body weight homeostat (“gravitostat”) that regulates fat mass.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Taming modern Frankensteins

The Jan. 12 issue of Science Magazine has an interesting section of articles on the long shadow cast by Mary Shelley’s 200 year old Frankenstein tale. Shultz offers a toolbox for creating a modern monster, Kupferschmidt describes the writing of Bostrom and others concerned that artificial intelligence may lead to the extinction of Homo Sapiens,and Jon Cohen offers a glossary of Frankenwords that I paste in here:

Supercoated broomheads used in curling, a winter sport played on ice.
J. Craig Venter's attempt to create an artificial cell containing the smallest possible number of essential genes.
Exaggerated concerns about transgenic food (Frankenfood) and other products of genetic engineering.
Engineered trees that grow more quickly, absorbing more carbon dioxide and providing more wood and pulp without the need for toxic chemicals.
The catechol-O-methyltransferase gene. In 2008, researchers linked variants in the gene to the strong, frightful reaction some people have to horror movies.
A male diamondback moth engineered to spread a lethal gene to females, creating nonviable offspring that reduce the moth's toll on crops. Cousins include Frankenflies and Frankenmosquitoes.
A genetically or surgically altered mouse. Variations have included the “oncomouse” that's prone to cancer and the “earmouse” that had a human-shaped ear.
Mothers who freeze eggs for their infertile daughters to use.
Transgenic dogs that would repel fleas; cats that would not cause allergies.
Cellphone towers that resemble pine trees.
A robot, created at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, that had a “brain” made of rat neurons placed on a multielectrode array.
Platform shoes with wedge heels or sneakers with heels.
University websites that have conflicting material posted by professors and their departments.
Genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to blight. Also known as Frankenfries.
A combination of storms that creates a monster event. Superstorm Sandy famously merged with another storm in 2012 to wallop the U.S. East Coast.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Preferences for moral vs. immoral traits in others are conditional

Wow, talk about work relevant to our current political situation...where some people (like myself) can not understand how anyone could support a president who is a sexual predator who has lied over 2,000 times since taking office and admitted zero of those lies. Menikoff and Bailey do straightforward experiments showing our preference for morality vs. immorality is conditional on the demands of our current goals, and not due solely to innate, “hardwired” links or personal learning experiences. Thus my intelligent Trump supporting friend says "I ignore Trump's behavior, and just note that things I want (more aggressive foreign poligy and tax cuts for the rich) are happening."

It is commonly argued that humans have a dominant preference for morality traits vs. immorality traits in others—that is, irrespective of the surrounding context, morality fosters liking, and immorality fosters disliking. The results of four experiments oppose this view by showing that situational goals can eliminate and even reverse the preference for morality vs. immorality in others. These findings suggest that our preference for morality vs. immorality is conditional on the demands of our current goals and cannot be attributed solely to innate, “hardwired” links or personal learning experiences. They also suggest that immoral people sometimes win public adoration, and the power that comes with it, not in spite of but precisely because of their immorality.
The preference for morality in others is regarded as a dominant factor in person perception. Moral traits are thought to foster liking, and immoral traits are thought to foster disliking, irrespective of the context in which they are embedded. We report the results of four studies that oppose this view. Using both explicit and implicit measures, we found that the preference for morality vs. immorality in others is conditional on the evaluator’s current goals. Specifically, when immorality was conducive to participants’ current goals, the preference for moral vs. immoral traits in others was eliminated or reversed. The preferences for mercifulness vs. mercilessness (experiment 1), honesty vs. dishonesty (experiment 2), sexual fidelity vs. infidelity (experiment 3), and altruism vs. selfishness (experiment 4) were all found to be conditional. These findings oppose the consensus view that people have a dominant preference for moral vs. immoral traits in others. Our findings also speak to nativist and empiricist theories of social preferences and the stability of the “social contract” underlying productive human societies.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Self protection from social media feedback.

Rodman et al. show that adults and adolescents deal with peer feedback in very different ways:

The growing popularity of social media, especially among youth, has resulted in peer feedback (including rejection) pervading everyday life. Given that peer ostracism has been linked to depression and suicide, it is critical to understand the psychological impact of peer feedback from a developmental perspective. We demonstrate that adolescents and adults use peer feedback to inform views of themselves and of others in very different ways. Of particular interest, early adolescents internalized rejection from peers and felt worse about themselves, whereas adults exhibited evidence of self-protective biases that preserved positive self-views. This work advances theoretical insights into how development shapes social-evaluative experiences and informs sources of vulnerability that could put adolescents at unique risk for negative mental health outcomes.
Adolescence is a developmental period marked by heightened attunement to social evaluation. While adults have been shown to enact self-protective processes to buffer their self-views from evaluative threats like peer rejection, it is unclear whether adolescents avail themselves of the same defenses. The present study examines how social evaluation shapes views of the self and others differently across development. N = 107 participants ages 10–23 completed a reciprocal social evaluation task that involved predicting and receiving peer acceptance and rejection feedback, along with assessments of self-views and likability ratings of peers. Here, we show that, despite equivalent experiences of social evaluation, adolescents internalized peer rejection, experiencing a feedback-induced drop in self-views, whereas adults externalized peer rejection, reporting a task-induced boost in self-views and deprecating the peers who rejected them. The results identify codeveloping processes underlying why peer rejection may lead to more dramatic alterations in self-views during adolescence than other phases of the lifespan.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The ‘social genomes’ of friends are correlated.

Here is an interesting study from Domingue et al.:

Our study reported significant findings of a “social genome” that can be quantified and studied to understand human health and behavior. In a national sample of more than 5,000 American adolescents, we found evidence of social forces that act to make friends and schoolmates more genetically similar to one another compared with random pairs of unrelated individuals. This subtle genetic similarity was observed across the entire genome and at sets of genomic locations linked with specific traits—educational attainment and body mass index—a phenomenon we term “social–genetic correlation.” We also find evidence of a “social–genetic effect” such that the genetics of a person’s friends and schoolmates influenced their own education, even after accounting for the person’s own genetics.
Humans tend to form social relationships with others who resemble them. Whether this sorting of like with like arises from historical patterns of migration, meso-level social structures in modern society, or individual-level selection of similar peers remains unsettled. Recent research has evaluated the possibility that unobserved genotypes may play an important role in the creation of homophilous relationships. We extend this work by using data from 5,500 adolescents from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) to examine genetic similarities among pairs of friends. Although there is some evidence that friends have correlated genotypes, both at the whole-genome level as well as at trait-associated loci (via polygenic scores), further analysis suggests that meso-level forces, such as school assignment, are a principal source of genetic similarity between friends. We also observe apparent social–genetic effects in which polygenic scores of an individual’s friends and schoolmates predict the individual’s own educational attainment. In contrast, an individual’s height is unassociated with the height genetics of peers.

Monday, January 22, 2018

How much can we change our aging?

I'm using this post to point to the notes for a lecture on aging that I recently gave to a senior group in Austin Texas. It begins with a list of things over which we have little influence:
First would be our genetics. 50% of the odds of your dying in a given year is determined by your genetics, how long people in your family lineage have lived.
Second is disease. 50% of the chance that you will get a debilitating or terminal disease, especially cancer, is a throw of the dice, good or bad luck on whether particular genes randomly mutate to a bad place when cells divide, we get to influence only 30% of the risk of our getting cancer by changing lifestyle, diet, supplements, whatever.
Third would be our early life situation. 50% of what determines your cognitive vitality and intelligence in later life depends on how you started out - your intelligence when you were 11 years old. Your general cognitive ability with respect to your peers remains constant over your life course.
The bottom line is that ~2/3 of the odds of whether we are going go bonkers or croak at a given age is random chance, genetics, or early life experience over which we had no control.
The balance of the talk deals with the 30% or so of the odds we can influence: what we eat and drink, how we move, how we think, how we socialize.