Friday, August 31, 2012

Scientific basis of a psychotherapy.

I've been wanting to pass on elements of a nice essay written by Eric Kandel for last year's Edge question, which describes Aaron Beck's development of cognitive behavioral therapy, a systematic psychological treatment for depression that focuses on distorted thinking rather than presumed unconscious conflicts. This is a pragmatic relatively value-neutral approach that avoids considerations of, and lacks the richness of, dealing with object relations, morality, or origins. (A random aside: I remember from my postdoctoral years at Harvard Medical School's Neurobiology Department (1967-68) that Eric Kandel, trained as a psychiatrist, would drop by at our communal lunch time to talk about his new work on a strange sea slug named Aplysia, work which was the basis of his later Nobel prize for uncovering a neuronal basis for memory. He was quizzed by Hubel and Wiesel, also to win the prize for their work in vision.) Kandel describes Beck's basic innovations:

First, he introduced instruments for measuring mental illness..beginning with a Depression Inventory, a Hopelessness Scale, and a Suicide Intent Scale. These scales helped to objectify research in psychopathology and facilitated the establishment of better clinical outcome trials.
Second, Beck introduced a new short-term, evidence-based therapy he called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Third, Beck manualized the treatments. He wrote a cookbook so method could be reliably taught to others. You and I could in principle learn to do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Fourth, he carried out with the help of several colleagues, progressively better controlled studies which documented that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worked more effectively than placebo and as effectively as antidepressants in mild and moderate depression. In severe depression it did not act as effectively as an anti-depressant but acted synergistically with them to enhance recovery.
Fifth and finally, Beck's work was picked up by Helen Mayberg, another one of my heroes in psychiatry. She carried out FMRI studies of depressed patients and discovered that Brodmann area 25 was a focus of abnormal activity in depression. She went on to find that if—and only if—a patient responded to cognitive behavior therapy or to antidepressants SSRI's (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) this abnormality reverted to normal.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Freud, the tea party, and deluded individualism.

A nice piece by DeBrabander in The Stone forum on the NYTimes has an interesting take on how it is that stalwart red state tea party supporters who admit they could not survive with government support nevertheless profess a robust individualism, and anger at sustaining others with their tax dollars. I think the basic point is that they perform the same cognitive illusion that was clearly perceived by Spinoza and Freud, the illusion that I provide an updated description of in my "I-Illusion" web/lecture. We imagine ourselves to be the master of our actions while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Some clips from DeBrabander's article:

By Freud's account, conscious autonomy is a charade. "We are lived," as he puts it, and yet we don't see it as such…I was reminded of Freud's paradox by…a study from Dartmouth political science professor Dean Lacy, which revealed that, though Republicans call for deep cuts to the safety net, their districts rely more on government support than their Democratic counterparts…In Chisago County, Minn., The Times's reporters spoke with residents who supported the Tea Party and its proposed cuts to federal spending, even while they admitted they could not get by without government support. Tea Party aficionados, and many on the extreme right of the Republican party for that matter, are typically characterized as self-sufficient middle class folk, angry about sustaining the idle poor with their tax dollars. Chisago County revealed a different aspect of this anger: economically struggling Americans professing a robust individualism and self-determination, frustrated with their failures to achieve that ideal.
Why the stubborn insistence on self-determination, in spite of the facts? One might say there is something profoundly American in this. It's our fierce individualism shining through. Residents of Chisago County are clinging to notions of past self-reliance before the recession, before the welfare state. It's admirable in a way. Alternately, it evokes the delusional autonomy of Freud's poor ego…These people, like many across the nation, rely on government assistance, but pretend they don't. They even resent the government for their reliance. If they looked closely though, they'd see that we are all thoroughly saturated with government assistance in this country: farm subsidies that lower food prices for us all, mortgage interest deductions that disproportionately favor the rich, federal mortgage guarantees that keep interest rates low, a bloated Department of Defense that sustains entire sectors of the economy and puts hundreds of thousands of people to work. We can hardly fathom the depth of our dependence on government, and pretend we are bold individualists instead.
Thanks to a decades-long safety net, we have forgotten the trials of living without it. This is why, the historian Tony Judt argued, it's easy for some to speak fondly of a world without government: we can't fully imagine or recall what it's like. We can't really appreciate the horrors Upton Sinclair witnessed in the Chicago slaughterhouses before regulation, or the burden of living without Social Security and Medicare to look forward to. Thus, we can entertain nostalgia for a time when everyone pulled his own weight, bore his own risk, and was the master of his destiny. That time was a myth. But the notion of self-reliance is also a fallacy.
Spinoza greatly influenced Freud, and he adds a compelling insight we would do well to reckon with. Spinoza also questioned the human pretense to autonomy…There is no such thing as a discrete individual, Spinoza points out. This is a fiction. The boundaries of 'me' are fluid and blurred. We are all profoundly linked in countless ways we can hardly perceive. My decisions, choices, actions are inspired and motivated by others to no small extent. The passions, Spinoza argued, derive from seeing people as autonomous individuals responsible for all the objectionable actions that issue from them. Understanding the interrelated nature of everyone and everything is the key to diminishing the passions and the havoc they wreak…In this, Spinoza and President Obama seem to concur: we're all in this together.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesday morning music: Faure Barcarolle No. 1

I keep stopping recordings and starting over if I make a mistake, and I finally decided the hell with it, and just recorded a run through, minor glitches and all.

The quotable Gore Vidal.

I just can't resist passing on these wonderful quotes from Gore Vidal,  from the PBS website:

1. “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
2. “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.”
3. “First coffee, then a bowel movement. Then the Muse joins me.” – from The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, interview by Gerald Clarke, 1974
4. “Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all.” – from The Second American Revolution, 1983
5. “…American society, literary or lay, tends to be humorless. What other culture could have produced someone like [Ernest] Hemingway and not seen the joke?” – from United States – Essays 1952-1992
6. “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.” – from Screening History
7. “The more money an American accumulates the less interesting he himself becomes.” – from Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays
8. “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” – from The Sunday Times Magazine, 1973
9. “Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an I.Q. of 60″
10. “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” – from Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1972
11. “The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”
12. “Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning to anything in life but itself.”
13. “You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: Where are the readers?” – from Esquire, 2008
14. “Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.”
15. “A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.” – from The New York Times, 1981
16. “History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.” – from Butt, 2007
17. “The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.” – from Matters of Fact and Fiction: Essays 1973 – 1976
18. “Celebrities are invariably celebrity-mad, just as liars always believe liars.” – from Palimpsest: A Memoir
19. “I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing.” – from The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, interview by Gerald Clarke, 1974
20. “The usual question everybody asks now is: What are you proudest of, Mr. Vidal, of all your great achievements? To which I answer: ‘Despite intense provocations over the course of what is becoming a rather long life, I have never killed anybody. That is my greatest achievement.’ A little negative maybe, but that’s it.” – from Vanity Fair, 2009

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Effect of early institutionalization on brain development.

Sheridan et al. do further studies on the effects of Rumanian institutionalization of children, finding some reversibility its deleterious effects. From their introduction:

UNICEF estimates that there are at least 8 million children who live in institutional settings. Institutional rearing of young children represents a severe form of early psychological and physical neglect, and as such, serves as a model system for understanding how early experience—or the lack of thereof—impacts brain and behavioral development...In most forms of institutional rearing, the ratio of caregivers-to-children is low (e.g., in our sample ∼1:12), care is highly regimented, and caregiver investment in children is low. Children raised in institutions are more likely than children raised in families to have deficits in cognitive function and in language production and comprehension. Relative to noninstitutionalized children, children reared in institutional settings experience a wide range of developmental problems including markedly elevated rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other forms of psychopathology and difficulties with social functioning.
The abstract:
We used structural MRI and EEG to examine brain structure and function in typically developing children in Romania (n = 20), children exposed to institutional rearing (n = 29), and children previously exposed to institutional rearing but then randomized to a high-quality foster care intervention (n = 25). In so doing, we provide a unique evaluation of whether placement in an improved environment mitigates the effects of institutional rearing on neural structure, using data from the only existing randomized controlled trial of foster care for institutionalized children. Children enrolled in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project underwent a T1-weighted MRI protocol. Children with histories of institutional rearing had significantly smaller cortical gray matter volume than never-institutionalized children. Cortical white matter was no different for children placed in foster care than never-institutionalized children but was significantly smaller for children not randomized to foster care. We were also able to explain previously reported reductions in EEG α-power among institutionally reared children compared with children raised in families using these MRI data. As hypothesized, the association between institutionalization and EEG α-power was partially mediated by cortical white matter volume for children not randomized to foster care. The increase in white matter among children randomized to an improved rearing environment relative to children who remained in institutional care suggests the potential for developmental “catch up” in white matter growth, even following extreme environmental deprivation.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The mis-use of Science: PseudoNeuroscience sways judges' sentencing.

One sees frequent discussions in neuroscience journals (like this one in Trends in Cognitive Sciences) over whether, and to what extent, neuroscience should influence public policy. Does the willingness on of some behavioral scientists to translate the legal and policy implications of their work really help, or does this represent growing misuse of neuroscience to attach scientific authority to policy, plus a clutch of neuroscientists trying to overstate their findings for a taste of power? Such debate makes studies like this one of of Aspinwall et al. very relvant:

We tested whether expert testimony concerning a biomechanism of psychopathy increases or decreases punishment. In a nationwide experiment, U.S. state trial judges (N = 181) read a hypothetical case (based on an actual case) where the convict was diagnosed with psychopathy. Evidence presented at sentencing in support of a biomechanical cause of the convict's psychopathy significantly reduced the extent to which psychopathy was rated as aggravating and significantly reduced sentencing (from 13.93 years to 12.83 years). Content analysis of judges' reasoning indicated that even though the majority of judges listed aggravating factors (86.7%), the biomechanical evidence increased the proportion of judges listing mitigating factors (from 29.7 to 47.8%). Our results contribute to the literature on how biological explanations of behavior figure into theories of culpability and punishment.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reconstructing intolerance.

Luguri et al. in the Yale psychology department relate the tolerance of conservatives to whether their construal level is more abstract versus concrete. They either measured the existing construal level of study participants and tested tolerance, or after measuring construal level, manipulated it to see the consequences. Construal level was manipulated by asking people why (abstract) versus how (concrete) they would think about certain issues such as maintaining good health or moral fairness. Here is their abstract:

Gunnar Myrdal described the “American dilemma” as the conflict between abstract national values (“liberty and justice for all”) and more concrete, everyday prejudices. We leveraged construal-level theory to empirically test Myrdal’s proposition that construal level (abstract vs. concrete) can influence prejudice. We measured individual differences in construal level (Study 1) and manipulated construal level (Studies 2 and 3); across these three studies, we found that adopting an abstract mind-set heightened conservatives’ tolerance for groups that are perceived as deviating from Judeo-Christian values (gay men, lesbians, Muslims, and atheists). Among participants who adopted a concrete mind-set, conservatives were less tolerant of these nonnormative groups than liberals were, but political orientation did not have a reliable effect on tolerance among participants who adopted an abstract mind-set. Attitudes toward racial out-groups and dominant groups (e.g., Whites, Christians) were unaffected by construal level. In Study 3, we found that the effect of abstract thinking on prejudice was mediated by an increase in concerns about fairness.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A musical offering - Debussy L'Isle Joyeuse

I have finally done a recording of the Debussy L'Isle Joyeuse that I did at a house concert several months ago, deciding to post this run through on my Steinway B even with awkward page turn paste together. In a recording session with all my equipment setup, I always seem more likely to have the occasional minor glitch than when I play by myself or in performance before an audience. (Most of these are much more noticeable to me than to the average listener.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nocebo effect - the harm expectations can do.

A piece by Enck and Häuser in the NYTimes summarizes (and links to) their paper in Deutsche Ärzteblatt Internationa reviewing 31 studies on how fearful expectations can become self-fulfilling prophesies. (A nocebo effect is the induction of a symptom perceived as negative by sham treatment and/or by the suggestion of negative expectations. A nocebo response is a negative symptom induced by the patient’s own negative expectations and/or by negative suggestions from clinical staff in the absence of any treatment.) A few of the cases cited:

-a team of Italian gastroenterologists asked people with and without diagnosed lactose intolerance to take lactose for an experiment on its effects on bowel symptoms. But in reality the participants received glucose, which does not harm the gut. Nonetheless, 44 percent of people with known lactose intolerance and 26 percent of those without lactose intolerance complained of gastrointestinal symptoms.
-In one trial, the drug finasteride was administered to men to relieve symptoms of prostate enlargement. Half of the patients were told that the drug could cause erectile dysfunction, while the other half were not informed of this possible side effect. In the informed group, 44 percent of the participants reported that they experienced erectile dysfunction; in the uninformed group, that figure was only 15 percent.
-a group of German psychologists took patients with chronic lower back pain and divided them into two groups for a leg flexion test. One group was told that the test could lead to a slight increase in pain, while the other group was told that the test had no effect on pain level. The first group reported stronger pain and performed fewer leg flexions than the second group did.
-A doctor’s choice of words matters. A team of American anesthesiologists studied women about to give birth who were given an injection of local anesthetic before being administered an epidural. For some women, the injection was prefaced by the statement, “We are going to give you a local anesthetic that will numb the area so that you will be comfortable during the procedure.” For others, the statement was, “You are going to feel a big bee sting; this is the worst part of the procedure.” The perceived pain was significantly greater after the latter statement, which emphasized the downside of the injection.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Simple mechanisms can generate wealth inequality.

The Chaos Seminar lunch group at the University of Wisconsin, organized by physicist Clint Sprott and poet Robin Chapman, has been doing a discussion of power laws. The unequal distribution of monetary wealth within a population, the subject of last Thursday's post, provides an example. Here I pass on some of the background material circulated for the seminar. In particular I encourage you to do Sprott's short tutorial on why monetary wealth tends to follow a power law relationship (sometimes referred to as a Pareto distribution or the "80/20" law):
A non-mathematical discussion of power laws (no equations).
For more mathematics, Wikipedia is pretty good.
A contrary view is provided by Charles Franklin.
Sprott's web tutorial showing why monetary wealth tends to follow a power law:
From the tutorial:
In the simulations, we take a model society with one million individuals and give them all $100,000 which they are free to invest or spend in such a way that their wealth changes by an amount in the range of -10% to +10% each year. We then look at the distribution of wealth within the society after twenty years. The code was written in PowerBASIC and is available for download. (horizontal x-axis is log of wealth - from 10,0000 to 1,000,000 dollars) vertical y-axis is log of probability).
In the first simulation, the rate is chosen uniform random over the allowed range with no memory of the past. Thus each individual executes a random walk, some years gaining money and other years losing it. The distribution of wealth after twenty years is shown on a double logarithmic scale of two decades in the graph at the right. The result is approximately Gaussian as expected.
In the second simulation, the rate is chosen uniform random over the allowed range but with the same rate for each person throughout the twenty year period. As one would expect, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer so that after twenty years the distribution of wealth is as shown in the graph at the right. The result is quite accurately a power law with a slope close to -1.

In the third simulation, the rate each year is half determined by the past and half chosen randomly, with a result as shown in the graph at the right. Interestingly, over a good portion of the range, the distribution of wealth is still quite accurately a power law with the same slope close to -1.
 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Anxious Idiot

Following in the vein of last Friday's self-helpy post I thought I would note Daniel Smith's quirky Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes about his chronic anxiety, his frequent states of agitation, self-hatred and incipient despair. I cook down and edit his remedy:

I should define "idiot" for our purposes… a person who tends to forget all the important lessons, essentially a fool, one who willfully ignores all that he has learned about how to come to his own aid. A person who is so fixated on the fact that he is in a hole that he fails to climb out of the hole. An idiot, in short, is someone who is self-defeatingly lazy…the anxious are rarely slothful in any typical sense. It's more that they tend to be undisciplined, or somehow otherwise unwilling to see our anxiety for what it is - a habit of mind.
The promising thing about a habit is that it is not the same thing as a fate… an anxious person has to build new patterns of thought, so that his mind doesn't fall into the old set of grooves. He has to dig new tracks and keep digging…Two reliable methods to keep anxiety at bay can be Zen meditation and cognitive-behavior therapy. Both teach that one's thoughts are not to be taken as the gospel truth; both foster mindfulness and mental discipline (as can yoga, exercise, therapeutic breathing, or prayer). It matters less what a person chooses than that he chooses, keeps choosing, and remains dogged. Anything else is idiocy.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A friday homily - "Symptoms of Inner Peace"

During a random walk of the web, which I do rather infrequently, I came across this piece by Saskia Davis, which, at the risk of being maudlin, I pass on. It softened my normal curmudgeonly self at least for a few moments....

"Symptoms of Inner Peace"
* A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than on fears based on past experiences.
* An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.
* A loss of interest in judging other people.
* A loss of interest in judging self.
* A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.
* A loss of interest in conflict.
* A loss of the ability to worry. (This is a very serious symptom.)
* Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.
* Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature.
* Frequent attacks of smiling.
* An increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen.
* An increased susceptibility to the love extended by others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A choice mind-set perpetuates acceptance of wealth inequality.

The practice of choice and the discourse of choice are widely prevalent in the United States. They derive from sentiments of the founding fathers (Thomas Jefferson: “Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice”). Savani1 and Rattan design a set of six experiments to examine several consequences of this:

Wealth inequality has significant psychological, physiological, societal, and economic costs. In six experiments, we investigated how seemingly innocuous, culturally pervasive ideas can help maintain and further wealth inequality. Specifically, we tested whether the concept of choice, which is deeply valued in American society, leads Americans to act in ways that perpetuate wealth inequality. Thinking in terms of choice, we argue, activates the belief that life outcomes stem from personal agency, not societal factors, and thereby leads people to justify wealth inequality. The results showed that highlighting the concept of choice makes people less disturbed by facts about existing wealth inequality in the United States, more likely to underestimate the role of societal factors in individuals’ successes, less likely to support the redistribution of educational resources, and less likely to support raising taxes on the rich—even if doing so would help resolve a budget deficit crisis. These findings indicate that the culturally valued concept of choice contributes to the maintenance of wealth inequality.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

We are meant to become cyborg.

I pass on some clips from a brief essay by Sherry Turkle:

Winnicott believes that during all stages of life we continue to search for objects we experience as both within and outside the self. We give up the baby blanket, but we continue to search for the feeling of oneness it provided. We find them in moments of feeling "at one" with the world, what Freud called the "oceanic feeling." We find these moments when we are at one with a piece of art, a vista in nature, a sexual experience.
As a scientific proposition, the theory of the transitional object has its limitations. But as a way of thinking about connection, it provides a powerful tool for thought...it offered me a way to begin to understand the new relationships that people were beginning to form with computers...I could see that computers were not "just tools." They were intimate machines. People experienced them as part of the self, separate but connected to the self.
A novelist using a word processing program referred to "my ESP with the machine. The words float out. I share the screen with my words." An architect who used the computer to design goes went even further: "I don't see the building in my mind until I start to play with shapes and forms on the machine. It comes to life in the space between my eyes and the screen."...After studying programming, a thirteen year old girl said, that when working with the computer, "there's a little piece of your mind and now it's a little piece of the computer's mind and you come to see yourself differently." A programmer talked about his "Vulcan mind meld" with the computer.
This way of thinking about the computer as an evocative objects puts us on the inside of a new inside joke. For when psychoanalysts talked about object relations, they had always been talking about people. From the beginning, people saw computers as "almost-alive" or "sort of alive." With the computer, object relations psychoanalysis can be applied to, well, objects. People feel at one with video games, with lines of computer code, with the avatars they play in virtual worlds, with their smartphones. Classical transitional objects are meant to be abandoned, their power recovered in moments of heightened experience. When our current digital devices—our smartphones and cellphones—take on the power of transitional objects, a new psychology comes into play. These digital objects are never meant to be abandoned. We are meant to become cyborg.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

If you are not in the group, you will not be in consciousness.

Here is a fascinating piece of work from Yar Pinto and collaborators at the University of Amsterdam, reported at the recent annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness:

What is the influence of social cognitions on consciousness? There is ample data that our response to visual stimuli depends on our social biases. However, perhaps visual perception per se is not altered, but only our responses to these percepts. In the current research we directly assessed the impact of social cognitions on consciousness. Specifically, we tested Dutch participants, and compared the perception of either black (experiment 1) or Moroccan (experiment 2) faces to the perception of Dutch faces.We employed a binocular rivalry task. One eye viewed a low contrast face, while the other eye viewed constantly changing Mondrian patterns. Initially the changing patterns dominate, so the picture of the face is invisible. By gradually increasing the contrast of the face, and decreasing the contrast of the Mondrian patterns, the face breaks through to conscious perception.Both experiments showed that Dutch faces enter consciousness quicker than non-dutch faces. Moreover, this effect is reduced/eliminated when the faces are inverted, and this effect correlates with how biased the participant is (measured with an implicit association task).We concludes that social cognition can directly change conscious perception. Specifically, stereotypes seem to slow down the entry of unwanted information into consciousness. Our findings suggest that entry into consciousness is not purely a matter of low-level factors, but may come about in the interplay between high-level pre-settings, and low-level input. Importantly, although previous research suggests that faces of outgroup members draw attention, this increased attention does not speed entry into awareness.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Culture of Empathy

I have finally taken time to look more thoroughly at a site noted in a comment to my July 25 post on compassion research. The "Culture of Empathy" site is an aggregator of resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It makes interesting, if a bit overwhelming, browsing. I feel like a complete trogdolyte as only now do I notice sites like CAUSES that hosts seven different empathy related causes that one can sign on to, listing the very same gentleman who commented on my post (Edwin Rutsch) as leader; or Scoop.it!, that hosts four different empathy related web based magazine hosted by, guess who?, Mr. Rutsch. Mr. Rutsch would also like you to join the Empathy Center Page on Facebook, and join him on Facebook Causes. This guy really gets around! The Culture of Empathy website lists summaries of a large number of interviews, book reviews, and conferences involving Mr. Rutsch, noting the neuroscience of empathy (things like mirror neurons, etc.), different cultural aspects of empathy, linguistics.... I guess its gotta be a good thing, but while fully thinking that my own behavior could certainly be leavened by a more empathetic bias, I'm overwhelmed by this web input to the point of inaction regarding social venues to support.

Friday, August 10, 2012

More on Haidt and Moral Psychology

I have finally finished a complete reading of Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind" that I have mentioned in several previous posts (enter 'Haidt' in the search box in the left column). This complete reading is unusual for me; my normal behavior is to just read a review of a new book, or skip, hop, and skim through the Kindle version. Here I pass on some clips from Jost's recent review.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt attempts to explain the psychological foundations of morality and how they lead to political conflicts. The book's three parts are not as compatible or settled as Haidt's ingenious prose makes them seem. The first revisits the intriguing arguments of an earlier, influential paper in which he argued that moral reasoning is nothing but post hoc rationalizing of gut-level intuitions. The second introduces an evolutionarily inspired framework that specifies five or six “moral foundations” and applies this framework to an analysis of liberal-conservative differences in moral judgments. In the third part, Haidt speculates that patriotism, religiosity, and “hive psychology” in humans evolved rapidly through group-level selection.
After arguing that “moral reasoning” is nothing more than a post hoc rationalization of intuitive, emotional reactions, Haidt risks contradiction when claiming that liberals should embrace conservative moral intuitions about the importance of obeying authority, being loyal to the ingroup, and enforcing purity standards. If one were to accept Haidt's post hoc rationalization premise and his findings about differences in the moral judgments of liberals and conservatives, a more parsimonious (and empirically supportable) conjunction would be: For a variety of psychological reasons, conservatives do more rationalizing of gut-level reactions, and this makes them more moralistic (i.e., judgmental) than liberals. It does not, however, make them more moral in any meaningful sense of the word, nor does it provide a legitimate basis for criticizing liberal moral judgment the way Haidt does.
Haidt argues that the liberal moral code is deficient, because it is not based on all of his “moral foundations.” The liberal, he maintains, is like the idiot restaurateur who thought he could make a complete cuisine out of just one taste, however sweet. This illustrates the biggest flaw in Haidt's book: he swings back and forth between an allegedly value-neutral sense of “moral” (anything that an individual or a group believes is moral and serves to suppress selfishness) and a more prescriptive sense that he uses mainly to jab liberals. Ultimately, Haidt's own rhetorical choices render his claim to being unbiased unconvincing. If descriptive morality is based on whatever people believe, then both liberals and conservatives would seem to have equal claim to it. Does it really make sense, philosophically or psychologically or politically, to try to keep score, let alone to assert that “more is better” when it comes to moral judgment?
Before drawing sweeping, profound conclusions about the politics of morality, Haidt needs to address a more basic question: What are the specific, empirically falsifiable criteria for designating something as an evolutionarily grounded moral foundation? Haidt sets the bar pretty low—anything that suppresses individual selfishness in favor of group interests. By this definition, the decision to plunder (and perhaps even murder) members of another tribe would count as a moral adaptation. Recent research suggests that Machiavellianism, authoritarianism, social dominance, and prejudice are positively associated with the moral valuation of ingroup, authority, and purity themes. If these are to be ushered into the ever-broadening tent of group morality, one wonders what it would take to be refused admission.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Men with wider faces are more generous.

Here is an interesting piece from Stirrat and Perrett:

Male facial width-to-height ratio appears to correlate with antisocial tendencies, such as aggression, exploitation, cheating, and deception. We present evidence that male facial width-to-height ratio is also associated with a stereotypically male prosocial tendency: to increase cooperation with other in-group members during intergroup competition. We found that men who had wider faces, compared with men who had narrower faces, showed more self-sacrificing cooperation to help their group members when there was competition with another group. We propose that this finding makes sense given the evolutionary functions of social helpfulness and aggression.
Here are some rambling clips from their discussion:
Human cooperation and altruism have very likely evolved within a long history of conflict between group. Therefore, one would expect people to have evolved either innate responses or innate learning abilities regarding aggression between groups. There are good evolutionary reasons for men to be especially intergroup oriented, because membership in groups (like social status within those groups) correlates positively with the number of mating opportunities for men. As men with wider faces are rated as physically less attractive and display more antisocial behavior that is likely to be unattractive as well, males with wider faces may adopt this stereotypically male strategy of intergroup orientation and within-group helping behavior (including aggressive defense) as a compensatory strategy for affirming their group membership and gaining prestige with both men and women in their group.
Understanding this contingent inter- and intragroup male behavior is crucial to interpreting the relation between appearance and behavior. For example, in a fascinating recent article, Wong, Ormiston, and Haselhuhn indicated that the facial width-to-height ratio of chief executive officers (CEOs) predicted their firms’ financial performance. For Wong et al., the possible salient personal characteristics of the CEO that improve a firm’s performance are power and aggressive and exploitative behavior. Clearly, given the data in our study, it is possible that the correlation between CEOs’ facial width-to-height ratio and their firms’ financial performance is due not to CEOs’ aggressive tendencies, but to their tendencies toward self-sacrifice on behalf of their firms.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A MindBlog Retrospective

Random musings...While doing some abstracting for a personal history, I’ve been looking back over writing and lectures I’ve done since my “Biology of Mind” book was published in 1999. (~15,000-20,000 copies apparently have been sold. I am amazed that several hundred copies of the book are still purchased every year.) The beginning of this MindBlog in Feburary 2006 effectively terminated work on draft versions of a next book, as well as some more popular and creative writing I was playing with. In particular, looking back at MindStuff: Bon-bons for the curious user, I like the lyricism and flow of the prose.... quite different from the chunky style of the writing I do on this MindBlog. Here is a sample:

BEGINNINGS
We are forever barred from recalling the buzzing cacophony that greeted our entry into this world. Our remembering brains had not formed, they had not begun to construct a world for themselves outside the womb. And yet, they had a very ancient kind of knowledge formed over millions of years. They knew to look for a face, they knew to direct muscles of the mouth to draw milk from a mother's breast. From a very rudimentary beginning repertoire they began fashioning a network of sensing and acting to finally generate the extraordinary machines that can read a page like this one.
In both the womb and with the growing baby, the story is a record of sensuality, of kinesthetic, visual, auditory, tasting and smelling histories that form themselves into a predictable order. A sense of past and of anticipation of the predictable future form a base non verbal imaged story line on which the layers of human language begin to build themselves. A smooth continuity informs the transformation of communication from gestures and simple sounds to strings of words with subjects, objects and verbs that form into stories about why, what, how, where. This transformation does not occur in feral children raised by surrogate animal parents, they appear to remain locked in the more present centered mental space of animals - a space that gives no flicker of reflectivity. The requirement is for not only our distinctively human genes but also a cultural context of human communication through gesture and language kept alive, altered, and transmitted by successive generations. We are tools of our our tools.
The programming of our brain regions central to social interactions is just as biological as the workings of a liver or kidney. It involves involuntary linkages of our primitive mammalian or limbic brain and its neuroendocrinology to status, sex, affiliation, power - mechanisms whose fundamental aspects we share with prairie voles and cichlid fish. Unique to humans is the self conscious confabulator or self-constructor that provides a new level of nudging, specification, control over these processes. It is this confabulator that generates what we take to be the world, what we take to be social sources of validation. All are in fact internal self creations that are assayed by their utility.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The MindBlog queue: moral responsibility; evolution of music; booze and hypnosis

During this period of relative inactivity for MindBlog, while I am pursuing other projects, I still accumulate references to work that looks interesting. Rather than letting them disappear into the list of potential posts that has accumulated by now to 50 pages of links, I’m going to post some of the links, with minimal descriptions, to make it possible for readers who find a favorite topic to click their way to the source.

Did your brain make you do it? Neuroscience and moral responsibility.

“Naïve dualism” is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes — psychological and biological — are categorically distinct. People are responsible for actions resulting from one but not the other. (In citing neuroscience, the Supreme Court may have been guilty of naïve dualism: did it really need brain evidence to conclude that adolescents are immature?)...Naïve dualism is misguided. “Was the cause psychological or biological?” is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.
A better question is “how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?” If, hypothetically, only 1 percent of people with a brain malfunction (or a history of being abused) commit violence, ordinary considerations about blame would still seem relevant. But if 99 percent of them do, you might start to wonder how responsible they really are.

Evolution of music by public choice
Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms. Later, however, evolution slowed. Applying the Price equation, a general description of evolutionary processes, we found that this stasis was mostly attributable to a decrease in the fidelity of transmission. Our experiment shows how cultural dynamics can be explained in terms of competing evolutionary forces.
Also check out:
Adaptive walks on the fitness landscape of music
and
Darwin Tunes on SoundCloud
Finally, this unrelated quirky fragment:
Booze enhances hypnotic susceptability

Friday, August 03, 2012

How the mighty have fallen...

I am slack-jawed with amazement on reading that Jonah Lehrer, who I have had great respect for, a brilliant popularizer of psychology and brain neuroscience (“Proust was a Neuroscientist”and "How we Decide") resigned as a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine on Monday after a report that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in the book “Imagine,” published in March. This reminds me of Harvard animal psychologist Marc Hauser’s fall from grace after the discovery that he had falsified data. How could such intelligent and original people, who write with such clarity and lucidity, be so stupid? I guess ambition trumps all.

Added note: Today's New York Times has an interesting piece on the Lehrer/Dylan affair.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Brain correlates of out of body and depersonalization experiences

The NewScientist points to a workshop by Nick Medford at the recent ASSC meeting in Brighton that dealt with a focus on the anterior cingulate and right anterior insular cortex as central in producing subjective feelings about bodies, their continuity and individuality. Abnormal activity is observed in these areas during depersonalization (feelings of detachment or disconnection from one's own mental processes, emotions and/or body) and derealization (feeling like being outside of your own body observing it). Medford's ideas are summarized in his review article with Critchley.

There is now a wealth of evidence that anterior insular and anterior cingulate cortices have a close functional relationship, such that they may be considered together as input and output regions of a functional system. This system is typically engaged across cognitive, affective, and behavioural contexts, suggesting that it is of fundamental importance for mental life. Here, we review the literature and reinforce the case that these brain regions are crucial, firstly, for the production of subjective feelings and, secondly, for co-ordinating appropriate responses to internal and external events. This model seeks to integrate higher-order cortical functions with sensory representation and autonomic control: it is argued that feeling states emerge from the raw data of sensory (including interoceptive) inputs and are integrated through representations in conscious awareness. Correspondingly, autonomic nervous system reactivity is particularly important amongst the responses that accompany conscious experiences. Potential clinical implications are also discussed.