Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Building artificial intelligence that can build artificial intelligence

This gets scarier and scarier. Clips from an article by Cade Metz:
...perhaps a nightmare for highly skilled computer programmers: artificially intelligent machines that can build other artificially intelligent machines...the Google project called AutoML...a machine-learning algorithm that learns to build other machine-learning algorithms.
The tech industry is promising everything from smartphone apps that can recognize faces to cars that can drive on their own. But by some estimates, only 10,000 people worldwide have the education, experience and talent needed to build the complex and sometimes mysterious mathematical algorithms that will drive this new breed of artificial intelligence.
Neural networks are rapidly accelerating the development of A.I. Rather than building an image-recognition service or a language translation app by hand, one line of code at a time, engineers can much more quickly build an algorithm that learns tasks on its own.
In building a neural network, researchers run dozens or even hundreds of experiments across a vast network of machines, testing how well an algorithm can learn a task like recognizing an image or translating from one language to another. Then they adjust particular parts of the algorithm over and over again, until they settle on something that works. Some call it a “dark art,” just because researchers find it difficult to explain why they make particular adjustments.
But with AutoML, Google is trying to automate this process. It is building algorithms that analyze the development of other algorithms, learning which methods are successful and which are not. Eventually, they learn to build more effective machine learning. Google said AutoML could now build algorithms that, in some cases, identified objects in photos more accurately than services built solely by human experts.
This is not always an easy thing to wrap your head around. But it is part of a significant trend in A.I. research. Experts call it “learning to learn” or “meta-learning.”...“Computers are going to invent the algorithms for us, essentially,” said a Berkeley professor, Pieter Abbeel. “Algorithms invented by computers can solve many, many problems very quickly — at least that is the hope.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

Buddhism is more Western than you think.

Robert Wright does a review of Adam Gopnik’s review (in the New Yorker) of Wright’s book “Why Buddhism Is True.” The whole piece is very clearly written and worth reading, and I want to pass on a few clips:
In recent decades, important aspects of the Buddhist concept of not-self have gotten support from psychology. In particular, psychology has bolstered Buddhism’s doubts about our intuition of what you might call the “C.E.O. self” — our sense that the conscious “self” is the initiator of thought and action…There is a paradox that can surface if you pursue the logic of not-self through meditation. Namely: recognizing that “you” are not in control, that you are not a C.E.O., can help give “you” more control. Or, at least, you can behave more like a C.E.O. is expected to behave: more rationally, more wisely, more reflectively; less emotionally, less rashly, less reactively.
Here’s how it can work. Suppose that, via mindfulness meditation, you observe a feeling like anxiety or anger and, rather than let it draw you into a whole train of anxious or angry thoughts, you let it pass away. Though you experience the feeling — and in a sense experience it more fully than usual — you experience it with “non-attachment” and so evade its grip. And you now see the thoughts that accompanied it in a new light — they no longer seem like trustworthy emanations from some “I” but rather as transient notions accompanying transient feelings.
There’s a broader and deeper sense in which Buddhist thought is more “Western” than stereotype suggests. What, after all, is more Western than science’s emphasis on causality, on figuring out what causes what, and hoping to thus explain why all things do the things they do? Well, in a sense, the Buddhist idea of “not-self” grows out of the belief undergirding this mission — that the world is pervasively governed by causal laws. The reason there is no “abiding core” within us is that the ever-changing forces that impinge on us — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes — are constantly setting off chain reactions inside of us.
Indeed, this constant causal interaction with our environment raises doubts not only about how firm the core of the “self” is but, in a sense, how firm the bounds of the self are. Buddhism’s doubts about the distinctness and solidity of the “self” — and of other things, for that matter — rests on a recognition of the sense in which pervasive causality means pervasive fluidity.
…psychology has lately started to let go of its once-sharp distinction between “cognitive” and “affective” parts of the mind; it has started to see that feelings are so finely intertwined with thoughts as to be part of their very coloration. This wouldn’t qualify as breaking news in Buddhist circles. A sutra attributed to the Buddha says that a “mind object” — a category that includes thoughts — is just like a taste or a smell: whether a person is “tasting a flavor with the tongue” or “smelling an odor with the nose” or “cognizing a mind object with the mind,” the person “lusts after it if it is pleasing” and “dislikes it if it is unpleasing.”
Brain-scan studies have produced tentative evidence that this lusting and disliking — embracing thoughts that feel good and rejecting thoughts that feel bad — lies near the heart of certain “cognitive biases.” If such evidence continues to accumulate, the Buddhist assertion that a clear view of the world involves letting go of these lusts and dislikes will have drawn a measure of support from modern science.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The emotional intelligence of one- to four-year-olds

Interesting work from Wu et al. showing young children connect diverse positive emotional vocalizations to their probable causes, showing more sophisticated emotion understanding than previously realized:
The ability to understand why others feel the way they do is critical to human relationships. Here, we show that emotion understanding in early childhood is more sophisticated than previously believed, extending well beyond the ability to distinguish basic emotions or draw different inferences from positively and negatively valenced emotions. In a forced-choice task, 2- to 4-year-olds successfully identified probable causes of five distinct positive emotional vocalizations elicited by what adults would consider funny, delicious, exciting, sympathetic, and adorable stimuli (Experiment 1). Similar results were obtained in a preferential looking paradigm with 12- to 23-month-olds, a direct replication with 18- to 23-month-olds (Experiment 2), and a simplified design with 12- to 17-month-olds (Experiment 3). Moreover, 12- to 17-month-olds selectively explored, given improbable causes of different positive emotional reactions (Experiments 4 and 5). The results suggest that by the second year of life, children make sophisticated and subtle distinctions among a wide range of positive emotions and reason about the probable causes of others’ emotional reactions. These abilities may play a critical role in developing theory of mind, social cognition, and early relationships.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

America is facing an epistemic crisis

The Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" is certainly taking its toll on all of us who don't hide from the current news. I don't recall ever seeing so many interesting and incisive opinion essays in newspapers and magazines. I’ve taken the tile of this post from an article by David Roberts in Vox, and want to pass on a few clips:

Roberts asks "what if Mueller proves his case and it doesn't matter?":
Say Mueller reveals hard proof that the Trump campaign knowingly colluded with Russia, strategically using leaked emails to hurt Clinton’s campaign. Say the president — backed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News, Breitbart, most of the US Cabinet, half the panelists on CNN, most of the radio talk show hosts in the country, and an enormous network of Russian-paid hackers and volunteer shitposters working through social media — rejects the evidence.
They might say Mueller is compromised. It’s a Hillary/Deep State plot. There’s nothing wrong with colluding with Russia in this particular way. Dems did it first. All of the above. Whatever.
Say the entire right-wing media machine kicks to life and dismisses the whole thing as a scam — and conservatives believe them. The conservative base remains committed to Trump, politicians remain scared to cross the base, and US politics remains stuck in partisan paralysis, unable to act on what Mueller discovers.
In short, what if Mueller proves the case and it’s not enough? What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that could overcome the influence of right-wing media?
The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening. (Epistemology is the branch of philosophy having to do with how we know things and what it means for something to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate.)
As long as the base is convinced that Mueller is an agent of the deep state (or whatever), it will punish any Republican politician that strays from the pack and criticizes Trump. For a GOP officeholder, standing up for democratic integrity could mean sacrificing reelection in 2018 or 2020.
As long as Republican politicians are frightened by the base, the base is frightened by scary conspiracies in right-wing media, and right-wing media makes more money the more frightened everyone is, Trump appears to be safe. As long as the incentives are aligned in that direction, there will be no substantial movement to censure, restrain, or remove him from office.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Improving brain function by shocking it.

This post points to three recent articles on non-invasive electrical brain stimulation of various types that enhance brain brain function.

Krause et al. show that Transcranial Direct Current Stimulates associative learning and alters functional connectivity in the macaque monkey brain:

Highlights
• tDCS improves animals’ behavior on an associative learning task 
• Stimulation has local effects on LFP power and coherence. 
• It also causes frequency-specific changes in connectivity between brain areas 
• Inter-area coherence in gamma frequencies is linked to behavioral improvement 
Summary
There has been growing interest in transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive technique purported to modulate neural activity via weak, externally applied electric fields. Although some promising preliminary data have been reported for applications ranging from stroke rehabilitation to cognitive enhancement, little is known about how tDCS affects the human brain, and some studies have concluded that it may have no effect at all. Here, we describe a macaque model of tDCS that allows us to simultaneously examine the effects of tDCS on brain activity and behavior. We find that applying tDCS to right prefrontal cortex improves monkeys’ performance on an associative learning task. While firing rates do not change within the targeted area, tDCS does induce large low-frequency oscillations in the underlying tissue. These oscillations alter functional connectivity, both locally and between distant brain areas, and these long-range changes correlate with tDCS’s effects on behavior. Together, these results are consistent with the idea that tDCS leads to widespread changes in brain activity and suggest that it may be a valuable method for cheaply and non-invasively altering functional connectivity in humans.

Grossman et al. (Open Access) describe the use of multiple external high frequency electric fields to generate electric field envelopes inside the brain that can stimulate neurons. This could potentially substitute for current stimulation therapies for Parkinson’s disease, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder that require implanting electrodes in the brain.

And, an opinion article by Diana et al. discusses rehabilitation of the addicted brain with transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How linguistic metaphor scaffolds reasoning

Continuing the line of inquiry pioneered by Lakoff and Johnson's 1980 book, "Metaphors We Live by", Thibodeau et al. provide further examples of how the use of metaphor shapes our thoughts. I'm passing on their summary, and also two figures.

Abstract
Language helps people communicate and think. Precise and accurate language would seem best suited to achieve these goals. But a close look at the way people actually talk reveals an abundance of apparent imprecision in the form of metaphor: ideas are ‘light bulbs’, crime is a ‘virus’, and cancer is an ‘enemy’ in a ‘war’. In this article, we review recent evidence that metaphoric language can facilitate communication and shape thinking even though it is literally false. We first discuss recent experiments showing that linguistic metaphor can guide thought and behavior. Then we explore the conditions under which metaphors are most influential. Throughout, we highlight theoretical and practical implications, as well as key challenges and opportunities for future research.
Trends
Metaphors pervade discussions of abstract concepts and complex issues: ideas are ‘light bulbs’, crime is a ‘virus’, and cancer is an ‘enemy’ in a ‘war’.
At a process level, metaphors, like analogies, involve structure mapping, in which relational structure from the source domain is leveraged for thinking about the target domain.
Metaphors influence how people think about the topics they describe by shaping how people attend to, remember, and process information.
The effects of metaphor on reasoning are not simply the result of lexical priming.
Metaphors can covertly influence how people think. That is, people are not always aware that they have been influenced by a metaphor.
Two figures (click to enlarge):





Monday, November 13, 2017

Arousal versus relaxation in meditative practices.

I am grateful to Robert Ruhloff for his comment on MindBlog's Oct. 25th post on Mindfulness, in which he pointed to a reference whose abstract I would like to pass on here:
Based on evidence of parasympathetic activation, early studies defined meditation as a relaxation response. Later research attempted to categorize meditation as either involving focused or distributed attentional systems. Neither of these hypotheses received strong empirical support, and most of the studies investigated Theravada style meditative practices. In this study, we compared neurophysiological (EEG, EKG) and cognitive correlates of meditative practices that are thought to utilize either focused or distributed attention, from both Theravada and Vajrayana traditions. The results of Study 1 show that both focused (Shamatha) and distributed (Vipassana) attention meditations of the Theravada tradition produced enhanced parasympathetic activation indicative of a relaxation response. In contrast, both focused (Deity) and distributed (Rig-pa) meditations of the Vajrayana tradition produced sympathetic activation, indicative of arousal. Additionally, the results of Study 2 demonstrated an immediate dramatic increase in performance on cognitive tasks following only Vajrayana styles of meditation, indicating enhanced phasic alertness due to arousal. Furthermore, our EEG results showed qualitatively different patterns of activation between Theravada and Vajrayana meditations, albeit highly similar activity between meditations within the same tradition. In conclusion, consistent with Tibetan scriptures that described Shamatha and Vipassana techniques as those that calm and relax the mind, and Vajrayana techniques as those that require ‘an awake quality’ of the mind, we show that Theravada and Vajrayana meditations are based on different neurophysiological mechanisms, which give rise to either a relaxation or arousal response. Hence, it may be more appropriate to categorize meditations in terms of relaxation vs. arousal, whereas classification methods that rely on the focused vs. distributed attention dichotomy may need to be reexamined.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Self as object: Trends in Self Research

The current issue of Trends in Neurosciences has a nice open source article reviewing different aspects of assessing what our 'self' is, considering 'self as object' in neural terms:
Self representation is fundamental to mental functions. While the self has mostly been studied in traditional psychophilosophical terms (‘self as subject’), recent laboratory work suggests that the self can be measured quantitatively by assessing biases towards self-associated stimuli (‘self as object’). Here, we summarize new quantitative paradigms for assessing the self, drawn from psychology, neuroeconomics, embodied cognition, and social neuroscience. We then propose a neural model of the self as an emerging property of interactions between a core ‘self network’ (e.g., medial prefrontal cortex; mPFC), a cognitive control network [e.g., dorsolateral (dl)PFC], and a salience network (e.g., insula). This framework not only represents a step forward in self research, but also has important clinical significance, resonating recent efforts in computational psychiatry.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

For your brain's sake, keep moving.

Gretchen Reynolds points to work by van Praag and collaborators showing that a week of activity rather than inactivity (in adult male rats) increases both the formation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus and the richness of their interactions. The new cells had more and longer dendrites, more of which led to spatial memory areas.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Where our brains perceive social interactions.

From Isik et al.:

Significance
Humans spend a large percentage of their time perceiving the appearance, actions, and intentions of others, and extensive previous research has identified multiple brain regions engaged in these functions. However, social life depends on the ability to understand not just individuals, but also groups and their interactions. Here we show that a specific region of the posterior superior temporal sulcus responds strongly and selectively when viewing social interactions between two other agents. This region also contains information about whether the interaction is positive (helping) or negative (hindering), and may underlie our ability to perceive, understand, and navigate within our social world.
Abstract
Primates are highly attuned not just to social characteristics of individual agents, but also to social interactions between multiple agents. Here we report a neural correlate of the representation of social interactions in the human brain. Specifically, we observe a strong univariate response in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) to stimuli depicting social interactions between two agents, compared with (i) pairs of agents not interacting with each other, (ii) physical interactions between inanimate objects, and (iii) individual animate agents pursuing goals and interacting with inanimate objects. We further show that this region contains information about the nature of the social interaction—specifically, whether one agent is helping or hindering the other. This sensitivity to social interactions is strongest in a specific subregion of the pSTS but extends to a lesser extent into nearby regions previously implicated in theory of mind and dynamic face perception. This sensitivity to the presence and nature of social interactions is not easily explainable in terms of low-level visual features, attention, or the animacy, actions, or goals of individual agents. This region may underlie our ability to understand the structure of our social world and navigate within it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Modern flimflam men? - The Flow Genome Project

Cleaning up my queue of articles on which a MindBlog post might be based, I came across this piece by Casey Schwartz titled “How to Hack your Brain (for $5,000)," which immediately triggered my bullshit detector. It uncritically describes what seems to me a circus act devised by internet age flimflam men, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, whose company (the Flow Genome Project, based in my own new hometown of Austin Texas!) is “dedicated to gathering the latest science behind flow states. It’s board of advisers includes neuroscientists, filmmakers and a kiteboarder.” The result seems to be this kind of gibble-gabble of hand waving about various neurotransmitters. From Schwartz's article:
“Flow,” they write, is associated with six neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide and endorphins. Knowing the neurochemical profile of flow means, in theory, people can devise ways of achieving it more often, more reliably and more quickly.
One tries in vain to find anything of substance on their website, such as a list of the neuroscientists, or references to work on the neurotransmitters mentioned. Their core video presents the two bright-eyed and bushy tailed entrepreneurs engaging you with their personal stories and lots of kewl graphics of spinning brains and neurons. Since I'm being so negative, I felt obliged to buy the Kindle version of "Stealing Fire" by Kolter and Wheal.

The bottom line is that it is an creative, wide ranging, everything but the kitchen sink, whacked out, exuberant, off the wall advertisement for Flow Genome which doesn't offer much substance. It has detailed references and what looks on the surface like a very respectable bibliography. I can't even begin to describe the confusion and chaos that lies below this veneer if one simply begins to follow through on any of the reference threads. Clicking on footnotes that purport to be supportive of the 'science' gets you a mishmash of review articles. There are several references to "The knobs and levers being tweaked in the brain: See www.flowgenomeproject.com/stealingfiretools." This link does not work. Or, "And if you’re interested in helping further this research, visit: www.stealingfirebook.com/research/". This link does not work.

I have great respect for  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original writings on the state of ‘flow,’ which clearly lays out Kolter and Wheal's' "four signature characteristics underneath: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short." However, my 75 year old curmudgeonly brain is not sympathetic to the offered by the Flow Genome Project, whose claimed positive outcome I suspect might best be described as a mass placebo effect induced by a pseudoscientific charismatic religious act...If you believe it works, it works!

Monday, November 06, 2017

Focus on present predicts enhanced life satisfaction but not happiness

Another study by Felsman et al., in the vein of the work described in MindBlog's Oct. 25 post. That study claimed a correlation between present-moment attention and increased positive affect, this study suggests a correlation with life satisfaction but not happiness:
Mindfulness theorists suggest that people spend most of their time focusing on the past or future rather than the present. Despite the prevalence of this assumption, no research that we are aware of has evaluated whether it is true or what the implications of focusing on the present are for subjective well-being. We addressed this issue by using experience sampling to examine how frequently people focus on the present throughout the day over the course of a week and whether focusing on the present predicts improvements in the 2 components of subjective well-being over time—how people feel and how satisfied they are with their lives. Results indicated that participants were present-focused the majority of the time (66%). Moreover, focusing on the present predicted improvements in life satisfaction (but not happiness) over time by reducing negative rumination. These findings advance our understanding of how temporal orientation and well-being relate.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Cognitive reflection in men impaired by single testosterone dose

An interesting bit from Nave et al.:
In nonhumans, the sex steroid testosterone regulates reproductive behaviors such as fighting between males and mating. In humans, correlational studies have linked testosterone with aggression and disorders associated with poor impulse control, but the neuropsychological processes at work are poorly understood. Building on a dual-process framework, we propose a mechanism underlying testosterone’s behavioral effects in humans: reduction in cognitive reflection. In the largest study of behavioral effects of testosterone administration to date, 243 men received either testosterone or placebo and took the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), which estimates the capacity to override incorrect intuitive judgments with deliberate correct responses. Testosterone administration reduced CRT scores. The effect remained after we controlled for age, mood, math skills, whether participants believed they had received the placebo or testosterone, and the effects of 14 additional hormones, and it held for each of the CRT questions in isolation. Our findings suggest a mechanism underlying testosterone’s diverse effects on humans’ judgments and decision making and provide novel, clear, and testable predictions.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The split brain revisited - a new perspective

I pass on the suggestion by Pinto et al. that classical experiments on subjects whose corpus callosum communicating between the two hemispheres has been severed, on detailed analysis, do not imply that those subjects now have split consciousness, or two different 'selves':

Summary
The split-brain phenomenon is caused by the surgical severing of the corpus callosum, the main route of communication between the cerebral hemispheres. The classical view of this syndrome asserts that conscious unity is abolished. The left hemisphere consciously experiences and functions independently of the right hemisphere. This view is a cornerstone of current consciousness research. In this review, we first discuss the evidence for the classical view. We then propose an alternative, the ‘conscious unity, split perception’ model. This model asserts that a split brain produces one conscious agent who experiences two parallel, unintegrated streams of information. In addition to changing our view of the split-brain phenomenon, this new model also poses a serious challenge for current dominant theories of consciousness.
Trends
Five hallmarks characterize the split-brain syndrome: a response × visual field interaction, strong hemispheric specialization, confabulations after left-hand actions, split attention, and the inability to compare stimuli across the midline.
These hallmarks underlie the classical notion that split brain implies split consciousness. This notion suggests that massive interhemispheric communication is necessary for conscious unity.
Closer examination challenges the classical notion. Either the hallmark also occurs in healthy adults or the hallmark does not hold up for all split-brain patients.
A re-evaluation of the split-brain data suggests a new model that might better account for the data. This model asserts that a split-brain patient is one conscious agent with unintegrated visual perception.
This new model challenges prominent theories of consciousness, since it implies that massive communication is not needed for conscious unity.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Gut reasons to brush your teeth.

Cao does a summary and discussion of work by Atarashi et al. :
Numerous microorganisms, including bacteria, colonize the intestine where they play important roles in maintaining homeostasis. However, commensal bacteria with pathogenic potential, such as Helicobacter hepaticus, can also induce intestinal inflammation. Cross-talk between gut microbiota and the host immune system can prevent or mediate chronic intestinal inflammation, the outcome of which depends on gut microbiota composition, immune response, host genetic factors, and how these factors interact. Physiologically, the intestine has developed several strategies to resist colonization by non-native bacteria and control the expansion of pathobionts that have the potential to cause pathology. Intestinal colonization by bacteria from the oral cavity has been suggested to be extensively involved in inflammatory diseases. However, it remains unclear what subset of oral microbiota may ectopically colonize the intestine and whether they induce inflammatory immune responses... Atarashi et al. show that strains of Klebsiella spp. from the salivary microbiota colonize in the gut and can potently induce chronic intestinal inflammation.
Here is the Atarashi abstract:
Intestinal colonization by bacteria of oral origin has been correlated with several negative health outcomes, including inflammatory bowel disease. However, a causal role of oral bacteria ectopically colonizing the intestine remains unclear. Using gnotobiotic techniques, we show that strains of Klebsiella spp. isolated from the salivary microbiota are strong inducers of T helper 1 (TH1) cells when they colonize in the gut. These Klebsiella strains are resistant to multiple antibiotics, tend to colonize when the intestinal microbiota is dysbiotic, and elicit a severe gut inflammation in the context of a genetically susceptible host. Our findings suggest that the oral cavity may serve as a reservoir for potential intestinal pathobionts that can exacerbate intestinal disease.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Smiles of reward, affiliation, and dominance.

From Martin et al.:

Abstract
The human smile is highly variable in both its form and the social contexts in which it is displayed. A social-functional account identifies three distinct smile expressions defined in terms of their effects on the perceiver: reward smiles reinforce desired behavior; affiliation smiles invite and maintain social bonds; and dominance smiles manage hierarchical relationships. Mathematical modeling uncovers the appearance of the smiles, and both human and Bayesian classifiers validate these distinctions. New findings link laughter to reward, affiliation, and dominance, and research suggests that these functions of smiles are recognized across cultures. Taken together, this evidence suggests that the smile can be productively investigated according to how it assists the smiler in meeting the challenges and opportunities inherent in human social living.
From the text:
Extant research on smiles, as well as the descriptions of play, threat, and submissive expressions in primates, provide some hints about the possible stereotypical appearances of reward, affiliation, and dominance smiles. In humans, a data-driven approach was recently used to investigate the dynamic patterns that convey each of the three social-functional smile meanings to receivers. The researchers combined computer graphics and psychophysics to model the facial movements – or, action units (AUs) – that, in combination with the zygomaticus major, are perceived to communicate reward, affiliation, and dominance. Specifically, on each of 2400 trials, bilateral or unilateral zygomaticus major plus a random sample of between one and four other facial AUs were selected from a set of 36. The dynamic movement of each AU was determined by randomly specifying values of each of six temporal parameters. The facial animation was then presented on one of eight face identities. Participants rated the extent to which each animation matched their personal understanding of a display signaling reward, affiliation, or dominance.
Methods of reverse correlation were used to quantify facial movements that predicted the ratings. Results showed that eyebrow flashes – involving the inner and outer brow raiser – and symmetry of contraction of the zygomaticus major were rated as rewarding by participants. In addition to the facial actions that signaled reward, ratings of affiliation were predicted by activation of the lip pressor; one of the smile control movements. Finally, faces that displayed unilateral, asymmetrical activation of zygomaticus major and AUs known to be related to disgust including the nose wrinkler and upper lip raiser were perceived as more dominant.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Rethinking our conceptions of mental life.

Interesting ideas from Weisman et al.:

Significance
How do ordinary people make sense of mental life? Pioneering work on the dimensions of mind perception has been widely interpreted as evidence that lay people perceive two fundamental components of mental life: experience and agency. However, using a method better suited to addressing this question, we discovered a very different conceptual structure. Our four studies consistently revealed three components of mental life—suites of capacities related to the body, the heart, and the mind—with each component encompassing related aspects of both experience and agency. This body–heart–mind framework distinguishes itself from the experience–agency framework by its clear and importantly different implications for dehumanization, moral reasoning, and other important social phenomena.
Abstract
How do people make sense of the emotions, sensations, and cognitive abilities that make up mental life? Pioneering work on the dimensions of mind perception has been interpreted as evidence that people consider mental life to have two core components—experience (e.g., hunger, joy) and agency (e.g., planning, self-control) [Gray HM, et al. (2007) Science 315:619]. We argue that this conclusion is premature: The experience–agency framework may capture people’s understanding of the differences among different beings (e.g., dogs, humans, robots, God) but not how people parse mental life itself. Inspired by Gray et al.’s bottom-up approach, we conducted four large-scale studies designed to assess people’s conceptions of mental life more directly. This led to the discovery of an organization that differs strikingly from the experience–agency framework: Instead of a broad distinction between experience and agency, our studies consistently revealed three fundamental components of mental life—suites of capacities related to the body, the heart, and the mind—with each component encompassing related aspects of both experience and agency. This body–heart–mind framework distinguishes itself from Gray et al.’s experience–agency framework by its clear and importantly different implications for dehumanization, moral reasoning, and other important social phenomena.

Friday, October 27, 2017

“Let’s Get Togetherism.”

I have to pass on the ending paragraphs of Brooks NYTimes OpEd piece today, titled "The week Trump won." He compares our situation today with the 1927 chaos, which pitted democrats who lacked a clear vision, led by Alexander Kerensky, against Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks who knew exactly what they believed.
The people who oppose Trump make a big error: “Let’s Get Togetherism.” This is the belief that if we can only have a civil conversation between red and blue, then everything will be better. But you can’t destroy a moral vision with a process. You need a counter-moral vision.
The people who reluctantly collaborate with Trump make a different error: economism. This is the belief that Trump’s behavior is tolerable because at least Republicans can pass a tax cut. People who believe that value money more than morals. Trumpism is not just economic, and it can’t be thwarted by passing a bit of economic policy.
This is like 1917, a clash of political, moral, economic and social ideologies all rolled into one.
Frankly, I think America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA. But there has to be a leader who can restore it to life.

How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media.

Benedict Carey does a fascinating article on how misinformation is spread on social media. Here are a few clips with his major points:
For all the suspicions about social media companies’ motives and ethics, it is the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that make so many of us vulnerable to misinformation, and this has largely escaped notice.
Skepticism of online “news” serves as a decent filter much of the time, but our innate biases allow it to be bypassed, researchers have found — especially when presented with the right kind of algorithmically selected “meme.”
Facebook… does have a motive of its own. What it’s actually doing is keeping your eyes on the site. It’s curating news and information that will keep you watching…That kind of curating acts as a fertile host for falsehoods by simultaneously engaging two predigital social-science standbys: the urban myth as “meme,” or viral idea; and individual biases, the automatic, subconscious presumptions that color belief.
Social media algorithms function at one level like evolutionary selection: Most lies and false rumors go nowhere, but the rare ones with appealing urban-myth “mutations” find psychological traction, then go viral...There is no precise formula for such digital catnip. The point, experts said, is that the very absurdity of the Pizzagate lie could have boosted its early prominence, no matter the politics of those who shared it.
[A]…dynamic that works in favor of proliferating misinformation is not embedded in the software but in the biological hardware: the cognitive biases of the human brain. Purely from a psychological point of view, subtle individual biases are at least as important as rankings and choice when it comes to spreading bogus news or Russian hoaxes — like a false report of Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives.
For starters, merely understanding what a news report or commentary is saying requires a temporary suspension of disbelief. Mentally, the reader must temporarily accept the stated “facts” as possibly true. A cognitive connection is made automatically: Clinton-sex offender, Trump-Nazi, Muslim men-welfare...And refuting those false claims requires a person to first mentally articulate them, reinforcing a subconscious connection that lingers far longer than people presume.
Over time, for many people, it is that false initial connection that stays the strongest, not the retractions or corrections: “Was Obama a Muslim? I seem to remember that....”
…repetition: Merely seeing a news headline multiple times in a newsfeed makes it seem more credible before it is ever read carefully, even if it’s a fake item being whipped around by friends as a joke.
…people tend to value the information and judgments offered by good friends over all other sources. It’s a psychological tendency with significant consequences now that nearly two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.
Stopping to drill down and determine the true source of a foul-smelling story can be tricky, even for the motivated skeptic, and mentally it’s hard work. Ideological leanings and viewing choices are conscious, downstream factors that come into play only after automatic cognitive biases have already had their way, abetted by the algorithms and social nature of digital interactions.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Do intelligent robots need emotion?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the parts of our brains processing emotions are not tidily separated from those dealing with reason, cognition, perception, motivation, and action. This leads Pessoa to suggest that efforts to construct intelligent robots that act like humans should not just have emotion-related components in their information-processing architecture, but rather that cognitive-emotional integration should be a key design principle. Here are a few clips from his essay in Trends in Cognitive Sciences:
In the past two decades a steady stream of researchers have advocated the inclusion of emotion-related components in the general information-processing architecture of autonomous agents. One type of argument is that emotion components are necessary to instill urgency to action and decisions. Others have advocated emotion components to aid understanding emotion in humans, or to generate human-like expressions. In this literature, including affect is frequently associated with the addition of an emotion module that can influence some of the components of the architecture.
The framework advanced here goes beyond these approaches and proposes that emotion (and motivation) need to be integrated with all aspects of the architecture. In particular, emotion-related mechanisms influence processing beyond the modulatory aspects of ‘moods’ linked to internal states (hunger, sex-drive, etc.). Emotion can be thought of as a set of valuating mechanisms that help to organize behavior, for instance by helping take into account both the costs and benefits linked to percepts and actions. At a general level, it can be viewed as a biasing mechanism, much like the ‘cognitive’ function of attention. However, such conceptualization is still overly simplistic because emotion does not amount to merely providing an extra boost to a specific sensory input, potential plan, or action. When the brain is conceptualized as a complex system of highly interacting networks of regions, we see that emotion is interlocked with perception, cognition, motivation, and action. Whereas we can refer to particular behaviors as ‘emotional’ or ‘cognitive’, this is only a language short-cut. Thus, the idea of a biasing mechanism is too limited. From the perspective of designing intelligent agents, all components of the architecture should be influenced by emotional and motivational variables (and vice versa). Thus, the architecture should be strongly non-modular.
...the central argument described here is not that emotion is needed – the answer is ‘yes’ – but that emotion and motivation need to be integrated with all information-processing components. This implies that cognitive–emotional integration needs to be a principle of the architecture. In particular, emotion is not an ‘add on’ that endows a robot with ‘feelings’, allowing it, for instance, to report or express its internal state. It allows the significance of percepts, plans, and actions to be an integral part of all its computations. Future research needs to integrate emotion and cognition if intelligent, autonomous robots are to be built.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Different kinds of mindfulness correlate with different benefits.

Jazaieri points to work by Blanke et al. that probed how different aspects of mindfulness influence our emotional well-being. Three kinds of mindfulness were considered: present-moment attention, nonjudgmental acceptance, and acting with awareness. From Jazaieri's summary:
Seventy students ages 20-30 received pings via smartphone six times a day over the course of nine days. The pings included questions about the positive and negative emotions they had experienced recently, any unpleasant hassles that had occurred, and how mindful they had been, along the three specific dimensions of mindfulness.....Present-moment attention was the strongest predictor for increased positive emotions—the more attentive people said they were, the better they felt overall. ... Nonjudgmental acceptance was the strongest predictor for decreased negative emotions—the more people reported nonjudgmental acceptance in their lives, the less negative emotion they reported experiencing.
Here is the Blanke et al. abstract:
Mindfulness is commonly defined as a multidimensional mode of being attentive to, and aware of, momentary experiences while taking a nonjudgmental and accepting stance. These qualities have been linked to 2 different facets of affective well-being: being attentive is proposed to lead to an appreciation of experiences as they are, and thus to positive affect (PA). Accepting unpleasant experiences in a nonjudgmental fashion has been hypothesized to reduce negative affect (NA). Alternatively, however, attention may increase both positive and negative affectivity, whereas nonjudgmental acceptance may modify how people relate to their experiences. Previous research has considered such differential associations at the trait level, although a mindful mode may be understood as a state of being. Using an experience-sampling methodology (ESM) with smartphones, the present research therefore links different state mindfulness facets to positive and NA in daily life. Seventy students (50% female, 20–30 years old) of different disciplines participated in the study. Based on multidimensional assessments of self-reported state mindfulness and state affect, the findings corroborate the hypotheses on the differential predictive value of 2 mindfulness facets: Participants experienced more PA when they were attentive to the present moment and less NA when they nonjudgmentally accepted momentary experiences. Furthermore, only nonjudgmental acceptance buffered the impact of daily hassles on affective well-being. The study contributes to a more fine-grained understanding of the within-person mechanisms relating mindfulness to affective well-being in daily life. Future interventions may be able to enhance different aspects of affective well-being by addressing specific facets of mindfulness.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The “sense of self” in Biblical times.

Sigal Samuel does an article on the ideas of James Kugel in his final book “The Great Shift - Encountering Good in the Biblical Era” Here are a few clips from the piece, which inexplicably does not mention similar and antecedent work and ideas of Julian Jaynes:
Kugel uses biblical research to show that ancient people had a “sense of self” that was fundamentally different from the one modern Westerners have—and that this enabled them to experience and interpret prophecy differently than we do… If anything, our modern Western notion of the bounded, individual self is the anomaly; most human beings throughout history conceived of the self as a porous entity open to intrusions. In fact, much of the rest of the world today still does.
Kugel cites several studies showing that even now, many healthy people hear voices—as much as 15 percent of the general population. He also cites a recent cross-cultural study in which researchers interviewed voice hearers in the United States, Ghana, and India. The researchers recorded “striking differences” in how the different groups of people felt about the voices they hear: In Ghana and India, many participants “insisted that their predominant or even only experience of the voice was positive. … Not one American did so.”…cultural conditioning impacts whether a phenomenon like prophecy will be celebrated or pathologized. 
Even today, people hear voices. Some of them are homicidal maniacs, but others lead perfectly normal lives, they just hear people who aren’t there. They even have an organization, the Hearing Voices Movement, with an annual convention of hundreds of voice hearers. 
Samuel’s interview of Kugel is worth a read.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The coming dark age…or a new integration?

I would like to offer Mindblog’s rambling thoughts on possible futures, if, as in some estimates , the relentless march of the machines of artificial intelligence makes roughly half of all jobs disappear in the next decade, concentrating power and financial assets in the hands of a small number of world-spanning corporations. The numbers of the threatened or former middle class citizens that elected Donald Trump will be greatly magnified by the job decimation that is yet to come. As Trump continues to proceed with what is by now a clear sense of his purpose - being an engine of chaos that attempts to break down virtually all of rituals, allegiances, and governing rules of a fading establishment - what are we to expect? Will Democracy devolve? Will the mass of the disaffected coalesce around more primitive nativistic emotion (rather than reason) driven collectives, repealing the enlightenment to generate a modern form of the middle ages or more ancient times, with their more collective tribal identities and more authoritarian leadership? Or, will there be a radical rethinking of issues of cultural, economic, racial and sexual discrimination and inequality that the current (or former?) ruling class has been unable to face? Will we dissolve into a chaos of conflicting tribes, or come to realize that the only way forward is to transcend (i.e. inhibit) the more unpleasant features of our evolved psychology, to emphasize the more affiliative, altruistic, tolerant, and pro-social behaviors that are also part of that evolved psychology. Can a system for a universal basic income and support - ensuring no one is hungry, without shelter, and basic health care - be devised that lets people ‘work’ in arenas of art, creativity, and social people-to-people services? Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting to watch.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Coordination of brain waves between humans facing territorial threats.

Here is an interesting piece from Mu et al., first their abstract, and then a chunk of their introduction which gives rationale and background.

Abstract
Throughout history and into the modern era, human groups have been continually subjected to a wide range of societal threats, from natural disasters to pandemics to terrorism. Yet despite this fundamental aspect of human existence, there has been little research on how societal threat affects social coordination at both the neural and the behavioral level. Here, we show for the first time that individuals are better able to coordinate under high societal threat as compared to low or no threat (Experiment 1). Using a method of hyperscanning electroencephalography (EEG), which simultaneously measures brain activity among interacting subjects, we further illustrate that interbrain synchrony of gamma band oscillations is enhanced when people are under high threat, and increased gamma interbrain synchrony is associated with lower dyadic interpersonal time lag (i.e. higher coordination) (Experiment 2). To our knowledge, the current work provides some of the first empirical evidence that gamma interbrain synchrony is associated with social coordination when humans are under threat.
And, excerpts from their introduction:
...there has been little research on the behavioral or neural mechanisms through which humans coordinate under high societal threat. From an evolutionary point of view, the ability of humans to effectively synchronize their actions under threat would presumably confer an important survival advantage.
To address this question, we combine state of the art hyperscanning techniques with exposure to real-world threat. Hyperscanning techniques, which record multiple brains’ neural activity simultaneously with great precision as humans interact over time, are perfectly situated to elucidate the interbrain mechanisms underlying social coordination under high societal threat. Accumulating hyperscanning eletroenthephalograph (EEG) studies have indeed shown that interbrain synchrony plays a critical role in various forms of human coordination, such as the ability to synchronize body movements and speech rhythms and to perform duets.
We complement previous research by examining the role interbrain synchrony plays in coordination when humans are under threat. Using a coordination game validated in previous research (Mu et al., 2016), in Experiment 1, we examined whether dyads exposed to ingroup threat (IGT) would exhibit greater coordination as compared to dyads exposed to outgroup threat (OGT) or no threat control conditions (IGC).
In Experiment 2, we combined hyperscanning EEG with the same threat manipulation (i.e. IGT, OGT and IGC) and the same coordination game employed in Experiment 1 to investigate whether interbrain synchrony would help humans coordinate under conditions of high societal threat. Using a dual-EEG setup, we tested how societal threat influences interbrain synchrony while participants attempted to coordinate. Previous hyperscanning EEG studies have shown that alpha interbrain synchrony is activated in a variety of social coordination tasks, including interactional synchrony, coordinated teamwork and synchronized counting. Thus, we examined whether alpha interbrain synchrony would be recruited to support social coordination in an unexplored context, namely that of societal threat.
We also examined other bands of interbrain synchrony which may be particularly relevant to social coordination under threat—most notably gamma band, a high frequency band (>28 Hz) that is a threat-sensitive neural marker. In particular, single brain analyses have shown that gamma band oscillations contribute to threat detection, reflecting the involvement of a quick subcortical route to the amygdala, which plays a central role in processing threat-related stimuli, such as fearful images and threat-related words. Gamma activity is also higher in anxiety disorder patients who experience chronic fear. Thus, if threat affects interpersonal coordination by modulating interbrain synchrony linked to threat processing, we would expect that gamma band synchrony may be associated with human coordination under threat.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Like apes and small children, ravens plan ahead.

The notion that animal cognition outside of the primate lineage is locked into the present has to be tossed. It appears that cognitive evolution of the ability to plan ahead proceeded independently in the (Corvid) lineage that lead to modern Ravens. Kabadayi and Osvath now show that ravens anticipate the nature, time, and location of a future event based on previous experiences. The ravens' behavior is not merely prospective, anticipating future states; rather, they flexibly apply future planning in behaviors not typically seen in the wild. From the summary by Boeckle and Clayton:
Kabadayi and Osvath test ravens' abilities to plan for future tool use and trading, rather than for food caching (a behavior that might be considered as an adaptive specialization to gather food in order to eat it at a future date)...The authors presented five ravens with a choice of objects. Only one of these objects was a functional tool, which could be used to retrieve food from a puzzle box. The ravens chose correctly not only when they were offered the box but also when they had to store the tool and plan for the next day. In another experiment, the ravens were trained to exchange tokens for food. When the ravens knew that trading would only happen on the next day, they chose and stored these tokens as soon as they were offered to them. By manipulating tool choice, time, and trading opportunities, the authors controlled the value of the items at choice in relation to current as well as future interactions.
The results from the two experiments show that ravens take temporal distance between item choice and reward into account, exercise self-control, and make decisions for predicted futures rather than arbitrary ones. Thus, the birds opt for a more distant but higher gratification rather than an immediate but lower gratification and do so flexibly across behaviors.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Premortem

Richard Thaler, the father of behavioral economics, just received the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics. I thought I would pass on this brief piece he did for edge.org, answering it's annual question "What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to be more widely known?":
The Premortem
Before a major decision is taken, say to launch a new line of business, write a book, or form a new alliance, those familiar with the details of the proposal are given an assignment. Assume we are at some time in the future when the plan has been implemented, and the outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.
Applied psychologist Gary Klein came up with “The Premortem,” which was later written about by Daniel Kahneman. Of course we are all too familiar with the more common postmortem that typically follows any disaster, along with the accompanying finger pointing. Such postmortems inevitably suffer from hindsight bias, also known as Monday-morning quarterbacking, in which everyone remembers thinking that the disaster was almost inevitable. As I often heard Amos Tversky say, “the handwriting may have been written on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?”
There are two reasons why premortems might help avert disasters. (I say might because I know of no systematic study of their use. Organizations rarely allow such internal decision making to be observed and recorded.) First, explicitly going through this exercise can overcome the natural organizational tendencies toward groupthink and overconfidence. A devil’s advocate is unpopular anywhere. The premortem procedure gives cover to a cowardly skeptic who otherwise might not speak up. After all, the entire point of the exercise is to think of reasons why the project failed. Who can be blamed for thinking of some unforeseen problem that would otherwise be overlooked in the excitement that usually accompanies any new venture?
The second reason a premortem can work is subtle. Starting the exercise by assuming the project has failed, and now thinking of why that might have happened creates the illusion of certainty, at least hypothetically. Laboratory research shows that by asking why did it fail rather than why might it fail, gets the creative juices flowing. (The same principle can work in finding solutions to tough problems. Assume the problem has been solved, and then ask, how did it happen? Try it!)
An example illustrates how this can work. Suppose a couple years ago an airline CEO invited top management to conduct a premortem on this hypothetical disaster: All of our airline’s flights around the world have been cancelled for two straight days. Why? Of course, many will immediately think of some act of terrorism. But real progress will be made by thinking of much more mundane explanations. Suppose someone timidly suggests that the cause was the reservation system crashed and the backup system did not work properly.
Had this exercise been conducted, it might have prevented a disaster for a major airline that cancelled nearly 2000 flights over a three-day period. During much of that time, passengers could not get any information because the reservation system was down. What caused this fiasco? A power surge blew a transformer and critical systems and network equipment didn’t switch over to backups properly. This havoc was all initiated by the equivalent of blowing a fuse.
T
his episode was bad, but many companies that were once household names and now no longer exist might still be thriving if they had conducted a premortum with the question being: It is three years from now and we are on the verge of bankruptcy. How did this happen?
A
nd, how many wars might not have been started if someone had first asked: We lost. How?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A sobering political graphic

The graphic (click to enlarge) is from Thomas Edsall's thoughtful and well-researched piece (as usual) on our current political situation, titled "Democrats are playing Checkers While Trump is Playing Chess." I recommend you read it.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Does acupuncture work by re-mapping the brain?

I want to pass on a chunk of a sane article offered by Vitaly Napadow in Aeon. Napadow is director of the Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging (CiPNI) and an associate professor at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, both at the Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He describes the sort of experiment needed to demonstrate that acupuncture can not be explained solely as a placebo effect:
While most chronic-pain disorders lack ... established, objective outcomes of disease, this is not true for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a neuropathic pain disorder that can be validated by measuring electrical conduction across the median nerve, which passes through the wrist. Interestingly, the slowing of nerve conduction at the wrist does not occur in isolation – it’s not just the nerve in the wrist that’s affected in CTS. My own department’s research and others’ has clearly demonstrated that the brain, and particularly a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), is re-mapped by CTS. Specifically, in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, the representation of fingers innervated by the median nerve are blurred in S1. We then showed that both real and placebo acupuncture improved CTS symptoms. Does this mean that acupuncture is a placebo? Maybe not. While symptom relief was the same immediately following therapy, real acupuncture was linked to long-term improvement while sham acupuncture was not. And better S1 re-mapping immediately following therapy was linked with better long-term symptom reduction. Thus, sham acupuncture might work through an alternative route, by modulating known placebo circuitry in the brain, while real acupuncture rewires brain regions such as S1, along with modulating local blood flow to the median nerve in the wrist.
Where you stick the needle might matter as well. While site-specificity is one of the key features of acupuncture therapy, it has been controversial. Interestingly, in the S1 region of the brain, different body areas are represented in different spatial areas – this is how we localise the mosquito that’s biting us, and swat it. Different S1 areas might also pass along information to a diverse set of other areas that affect different bodily systems such as the immune, autonomic and other internal motor systems. As far as acupuncture is concerned, the body-specific map in S1 could serve as the basis for a crude form of point specificity. In our study, we compared patients receiving real acupuncture locally to the wrist with patients receiving real acupuncture far from the wrist, in the opposite ankle. Our results suggested that both local and distal acupuncture improved median nerve function at the wrist. This suggests that the brain changes resulting from acupuncture might not just be a reflection of changes at the wrist, but could also drive the improved median nerve function directly by linking to autonomic brain regions that control blood vessel diameter and blood flow to the median nerve.
This new research clearly demonstrates that bodily response is not the only means by which acupuncture works; response within the brain might be the most critical part. Once we better understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain, we can optimise this therapy to provide effective, non-pharmacological care for many more chronic-pain patients.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A 'Gaydar' machine?

Heather Murphy describes the kerfuffle that has ensued after Stanford researchers published a preprint of their work that will soon appear in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychlogy. To teach a machine (a widely used facial analysis program employing a pattern identifying neural network) to detect sexuality, authors Kosinski and Wang copied more than 75,000 dating profiles of men and women seeking same or different sex partners. The software extracted information from thousands of facial data points to generate average composite heterosexual and gay male and female faces (pictures are in the Murphy article). They found that their model did much better than humans at identifying sexual orientation. When the computer was given five photos for each person instead of just one, accuracy rose to 83% for women and 91% for men.

The negative Tweet storms and blog posts criticized the study as being a technology-fueled revival of the long discredited notion that physiognomy, measuring the size and shape of a person's eyes, nose and face, can predict personality traits. Highly inaccurate science, racism by algorithm, etc.

And, even if the machine works as stated, William T.L. Cox, a psychologist who studies stereotypes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes:
Let’s say 5 percent of the population is gay, or 50 of every 1,000 people. A facial scan that is 91 percent accurate would misidentify 9 percent of straight people as gay; in the example above, that’s 85 people (0.91 x 950).
The software would also mistake 9 percent of gay people as straight people. The result: Of 130 people the facial scan identified as gay, 85 actually would be straight.
When an algorithm with 91 percent accuracy operates in the real world, almost two-thirds of the times it says someone is gay, it would be wrong.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Brain and body imaging of the emotional power of poetry.

By now a body of work has grown on how peak musical experiences engage the reward systems of our brains, with concomitant changes such as tingling and goosebumps triggered by our autonomic nervous systems. A colleague pointed me to this discussion by Delistraty of recent work in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Wassiliwizky et al. that extends this sort of analysis to the appreciation of poetry. I suggest you read the discussion. Here is the abstract of the work:
It is a common experience—and well established experimentally—that music can engage us emotionally in a compelling manner. The mechanisms underlying these experiences are receiving increasing scrutiny. However, the extent to which other domains of aesthetic experience can similarly elicit strong emotions is unknown. Using psychophysiology, neuroimaging and behavioral responses, we show that recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional responses, including chills and objectively measurable goosebumps that engage the primary reward circuitry. Importantly, while these responses to poetry are largely analogous to those found for music, their neural underpinnings show important differences, specifically with regard to the crucial role of the nucleus accumbens. We also go beyond replicating previous music-related studies by showing that peak aesthetic pleasure can co-occur with physiological markers of negative affect. Finally, the distribution of chills across the trajectory of poems provides insight into compositional principles of poetry.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

MindBlog has moved to Austin Texas.

A personal note.  Len and I have just moved back into the family house in Austin Texas where I grew up, through high school. My son and his family recently moved from this house into a larger home, where my Steinway B now resides in a much larger living room. The annual snowbird commute will now be between Madison WI and Austin Texas, rather than Madison and Fort Lauderdale. The picture shows an Essex upright (Steinway sub-brand) that just arrived at the smaller family house to serve as a practice piano.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Price modulates the effectiveness of your pain medication!

Fascinating observations from Tinnermann et al. A Science magazine summary, followed by the article abstract:

Price modulates early pain processing
Patients in randomized clinical trials frequently stop taking their drug, complaining of side effects. However, it turns out that some of these subjects are part of the placebo group and thus never received any active medication. This is a case of the nocebo effect seriously interfering with medical treatment. Tinnermann et al. investigated whether value information such as the price of a medication can further modulate behavioral nocebo effects and the underlying neural network dynamics (see the Perspective by Colloca). They used brain imaging to characterize the circuits involved in nocebo hyperalgesia within the descending pain pathway from the prefrontal cortex to the spinal cord. Their findings revealed how value information increased the nocebo effect.
Abstract
Value information about a drug, such as the price tag, can strongly affect its therapeutic effect. We discovered that value information influences adverse treatment outcomes in humans even in the absence of an active substance. Labeling an inert treatment as expensive medication led to stronger nocebo hyperalgesia than labeling it as cheap medication. This effect was mediated by neural interactions between cortex, brainstem, and spinal cord. In particular, activity in the prefrontal cortex mediated the effect of value on nocebo hyperalgesia. Value furthermore modulated coupling between prefrontal areas, brainstem, and spinal cord, which might represent a flexible mechanism through which higher-cognitive representations, such as value, can modulate early pain processing.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Transcending tribalism - crafting a new vision for America?

I want to point to, and comment on, two recent pieces by David Brooks. In the first, he argues that “the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. Where there is division there are fences. Mobility is retarded and the frontier is destroyed. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.” The second article deals with the gun control issue having “become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.” Both describe a reactionary core of Americans who contract into a vision of a lost past rather than opening up to feel comfortable in a more multicultural society. The first piece suggests the possibility of finding unity in a shared quest for new frontiers, with the same psychological force as the geographical western frontiers of the 1800’s, but instead in communication, the arts, science, and new social structures and media.

My comment would be that we do not face such a new world with a blank slate, but rather an evolved psychology that permits individuals to have stable relationship with only ~150 other people (see Robin Dunbar), in a larger tribe that has clear rules and expectation of its members, and that organize itself to complete successfully with other groups. In the basements of our minds there is a paleolithic psychology trying to cope with an utterly altered world. Having at age 75 just moved back into the childhood home I grew up in, in Austin Texas, I have very strong recall of my immersion in, and comfort with, the social rites of fellow Texans of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

I can not imagine, for myself or others, feeling analogous emotional bonding to an national or international multicultural meritocracy with a ruling elite, permissive of its components having conflicting moralities and rules. An ‘us’ and (or versus) ‘them’ is mentally much less taxing. Brooks faces an uphill battle with his hopeful vision: “The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier…It may be dormant, but this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say no to tribe, yes to universal nation, no to fences, yes to the frontier, no to closed, and yes to the open future, no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.”

It would take a very charismatic new leader to pull all this together. Sigh… we thought we had that at one point, with Barack Obama.

Friday, October 06, 2017

MindBlog's book abstracts.

I’ve been working on abstracting a book I’ve mentioned recently, Sapolsky’s “Behave - The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” hoping to present the basic message of its chapters in a series of MindBlog posts. This is taking longer than I expected. It is a more sprawling and messy affair (just like human behavior) than some of the other book extracts I have offered this way (Gilbert - Stumbling on Happiness, 8 posts; Metzinger - The Ego Tunnel, 5 posts, Grazanio - Consciousness and the Social Brain, post). I’m actually doing this brief post to point you to those previous abstracts, which are worth a look, because I suspect few current readers are aware of them.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Curtailing proactive policing can reduce major crime.

Weisburd points to work by Sullivan and O’Keeffe, yielding counter-intuitive results, that "took advantage of a natural experiment in New York City that resulted from the strangling death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Subsequent political events led to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) engaging in a ‘slowdown’ characterized by dramatic reductions in arrests and summonses. One would have expected crime to go up in this period if this type of proactivity was effective. Instead, analyzing several years of data obtained from the NYPD, they find that civilian complaints of major crimes decreased. Accordingly, they conclude that prior proactivity did not reduce crime, but led to increases in crime." Here is the Sullivan and O'Keeffe abstract:
Governments employ police to prevent criminal acts. But it remains in dispute whether high rates of police stops, criminal summonses and aggressive low-level arrests reduce serious crime1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Police officers target their efforts at areas where crime is anticipated and/or where they expect enforcement will be most effective. Simultaneously, citizens decide to comply with the law or commit crime partly on the basis of police deployment and enforcement strategies. In other words, policing and crime are endogenous to unobservable strategic interaction, which frustrates causal analysis. Here, we resolve these challenges and present evidence that proactive policing—which involves systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations—is positively related to reports of major crime. We examine a political shock that caused the New York Police Department (NYPD) to effectively halt proactive policing in late 2014 and early 2015. Analysing several years of unique data obtained from the NYPD, we find that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing. The results challenge prevailing scholarship as well as conventional wisdom on authority and legal compliance, as they imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Brain circuits that modulate sociability.

The social bonding neuropeptide oxytocin can be traced over 500 million years, with analogous peptides found in birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and some invertebrates. Hung et al. have found that release of oxytocin in the ventral tegmental area of the brain increases prosocial behaviors in mice. Optogenetic manipulation of oxytocin release influences sociability in a context-dependent manner. Oxytocin increases activity in dopamine cells that project to the nucleus accumbens, another key node of reward circuitry in the brain. Here is their abstract, followed by a nice graphic of the relevant systems in the human brain.
The reward generated by social interactions is critical for promoting prosocial behaviors. Here we present evidence that oxytocin (OXT) release in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a key node of the brain’s reward circuitry, is necessary to elicit social reward. During social interactions, activity in paraventricular nucleus (PVN) OXT neurons increased. Direct activation of these neurons in the PVN or their terminals in the VTA enhanced prosocial behaviors. Conversely, inhibition of PVN OXT axon terminals in the VTA decreased social interactions. OXT increased excitatory drive onto reward-specific VTA dopamine (DA) neurons. These results demonstrate that OXT promotes prosocial behavior through direct effects on VTA DA neurons, thus providing mechanistic insight into how social interactions can generate rewarding experiences.


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

You want younger or older?

Interesting piece from Mona Chalabi:

(According to the Census Bureau, the average age difference between men and their wives is 2.3 years.)

Monday, October 02, 2017

This year's Ig Nobel prizes.

If you want a few chuckles, have a look at this link. The prize winning work this year shows that cats can be simultaneously solid and liquid because of their ability to adopt the shape of their container.


Friday, September 29, 2017

Does it matter whether we believe in free will or not?

From Genschow et al.:

Significance
The question whether free will exists or not has been a matter of debate in philosophy for centuries. Recently, researchers claimed that free will is nothing more than a myth. Although the validity of this claim is debatable, it attracted much attention in the general public. This raises the crucial question whether it matters if people believe in free will or not. In six studies, we tested whether believing in free will is related to the correspondence bias—that is, people’s automatic tendency to overestimate the influence of internal as compared to external factors when interpreting others’ behavior. Overall, we demonstrate that believing in free will increases the correspondence bias and predicts prescribed punishment and reward behavior.
Abstract
Free will is a cornerstone of our society, and psychological research demonstrates that questioning its existence impacts social behavior. In six studies, we tested whether believing in free will is related to the correspondence bias, which reflects people’s automatic tendency to overestimate the influence of internal as compared to external factors when interpreting others’ behavior. All studies demonstrate a positive relationship between the strength of the belief in free will and the correspondence bias. Moreover, in two experimental studies, we showed that weakening participants’ belief in free will leads to a reduction of the correspondence bias. Finally, the last study demonstrates that believing in free will predicts prescribed punishment and reward behavior, and that this relation is mediated by the correspondence bias. Overall, these studies show that believing in free will impacts fundamental social-cognitive processes that are involved in the understanding of others’ behavior.
Also, you should have a look at Frith's essay on how our illusory sense of agency has a deeply important social purpose. Belief in free will and agency is important if a distinction critical to all legal systems is to be made: between intentional and accidental wrongs. Further,
Responsibility... is the real currency of conscious experience. In turn, it is also the bedrock of culture. Humans are social animals, but we’d be unable to cooperate or get along in communities if we couldn’t agree on the kinds of creatures we are and the sort of world we inhabit. It’s only by reflecting, sharing and accounting for our experiences that we can find such common ground. To date, the scientific method is the most advanced cognitive technology we’ve developed for honing the accuracy of our consensus – a method involving continuous experimentation, discussion and replication.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Greater internet use does not correlate with faster growth of political polarization.

Continuing a topic from MindBlog's April 20 post...Most writing on the increase in political polarization over the past decades argues that it is facilitated by more extensive use of the internet, enhancing formation of social sites for like minded people which form isolated 'echo chambers.' Boxell et al. find, to the contrary, that polarization has increased the most among the demographic groups least likely to use the Internet and social media.
We combine eight previously proposed measures to construct an index of political polarization among US adults. We find that polarization has increased the most among the demographic groups least likely to use the Internet and social media. Our overall index and all but one of the individual measures show greater increases for those older than 65 than for those aged 18–39. A linear model estimated at the age-group level implies that the Internet explains a small share of the recent growth in polarization.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

“No problem” vs “you’re welcome”

My daughter pointed me to this piece by Gretchen McCulloch, which gives me some insight into what I have considered the annoying habit of younger people to always say 'no problem' instead of 'you're welcome.' A clip:
Speaking of linguistics, there’s one particular linguistic tick that I think clearly separates Baby Boomers from Millennials: how we reply when someone says “thank you.”
You almost never hear a Millennial say “you’re welcome.” At least not when someone thanks them. It just isn’t done. Not because Millennials are ingrates lacking all manners, but because the polite response is “No problem.” Millennials only use “you’re welcome” sarcastically when they haven’t been thanked or when something has been taken from/done to them without their consent. It’s a phrase that’s used to point out someone else’s rudeness. A Millennial would typically be fairly uncomfortable saying “you’re welcome” as an acknowledgement of genuine thanks because the phrase is only ever used disingenuously.
Baby Boomers, however, get really miffed if someone says “no problem” in response to being thanked. From their perspective, saying “no problem” means that whatever they’re thanking someone for was in fact a problem, but the other person did it anyway as a personal favor. To them “You’re welcome” is the standard polite response.
“You’re welcome” means to Millennials what “no problem” means to Baby Boomers, and vice versa.The two phrases have converse meanings to the different age sets. I’m not sure exactly where this line gets drawn, but it’s somewhere in the middle of Gen X. This is a real pain in the ass if you work in customer service because everyone thinks that everyone else is being rude when they’re really being polite in their own language.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The science of emotion - now at least 27 categories of emotional states.

So...I guess we knew emotions are complicated. There has been intense debate on how to describe them in semantic and geometric dimensions such as valence and arousal. Cowan and Keltner use a natural history approach to gather and analyze self descriptions of emotional states elicited by 2,185 emotionally evocative short videos (check out the geometrical space of their results in the link below):

Significance
Claims about how reported emotional experiences are geometrically organized within a semantic space have shaped the study of emotion. Using statistical methods to analyze reports of emotional states elicited by 2,185 emotionally evocative short videos with richly varying situational content, we uncovered 27 varieties of reported emotional experience. Reported experience is better captured by categories such as “amusement” than by ratings of widely measured affective dimensions such as valence and arousal. Although categories are found to organize dimensional appraisals in a coherent and powerful fashion, many categories are linked by smooth gradients, contrary to discrete theories. Our results comprise an approximation of a geometric structure of reported emotional experience.
Abstract
Emotions are centered in subjective experiences that people represent, in part, with hundreds, if not thousands, of semantic terms. Claims about the distribution of reported emotional states and the boundaries between emotion categories—that is, the geometric organization of the semantic space of emotion—have sparked intense debate. Here we introduce a conceptual framework to analyze reported emotional states elicited by 2,185 short videos, examining the richest array of reported emotional experiences studied to date and the extent to which reported experiences of emotion are structured by discrete and dimensional geometries. Across self-report methods, we find that the videos reliably elicit 27 distinct varieties of reported emotional experience. Further analyses revealed that categorical labels such as amusement better capture reports of subjective experience than commonly measured affective dimensions (e.g., valence and arousal). Although reported emotional experiences are represented within a semantic space best captured by categorical labels, the boundaries between categories of emotion are fuzzy rather than discrete. By analyzing the distribution of reported emotional states we uncover gradients of emotion—from anxiety to fear to horror to disgust, calmness to aesthetic appreciation to awe, and others—that correspond to smooth variation in affective dimensions such as valence and dominance. Reported emotional states occupy a complex, high-dimensional categorical space. In addition, our library of videos and an interactive map of the emotional states they elicit (https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/emogifs/map.html) are made available to advance the science of emotion.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Will you be above or below “the API” in the emerging economy?

An application programming interface (API) is a set of subroutine definitions, protocols, and tools that are building blocks for application software...software of the sort that Uber uses to connect taxi drivers to customers without other human intervention. From Anthony Wing Kosner:
Customers use an app interface to enter their data into the system. The app sends a request that includes account data, pickup and dropoff locations via API to Uber's servers that poll available drivers nearby and dispatches one to the customer to fulfill the request. The only two humans involved are the customer and the driver. Danny DeVito has been furloughed!
From Peter Reinhardt:
Drivers are opting into a dichotomous workforce: the worker bees below the software layer have no opportunity for on-the-job training that advances their career, and compassionate social connections don’t pierce the software layer either. The skills they develop in driving are not an investment in their future. Once you introduce the software layer between ‘management’ (Uber’s full-time employees building the app and computer systems) and the human workers below the software layer (Uber’s drivers, Instacart’s delivery people), there’s no obvious path upwards. In fact, there’s a massive gap and no systems in place to bridge it.
Kosner notes some of the longer term implication of such software:
Uber drivers, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, 99design contestants, TaskRabbit taskers and HomeJoy cleaners are all targets for further automation...Yes, self-driving cars on the way, and it is likely that automated taxi fleets will be the first commercial application of this technology... Uberization of work may soon be coming to your chosen profession, affecting not just cab drivers and house cleaners, but extending to lawyers, doctors and even (some day) venture capitalists.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Color naming across languages reflects color use

Gibson et al. do a study showing that warm colors are communicated more efficiently than cool colors, and that this cross-linguistic pattern reflects the color statistics of the world:

Significance
The number of color terms varies drastically across languages. Yet despite these differences, certain terms (e.g., red) are prevalent, which has been attributed to perceptual salience. This work provides evidence for an alternative hypothesis: The use of color terms depends on communicative needs. Across languages, from the hunter-gatherer Tsimane' people of the Amazon to students in Boston, warm colors are communicated more efficiently than cool colors. This cross-linguistic pattern reflects the color statistics of the world: Objects (what we talk about) are typically warm-colored, and backgrounds are cool-colored. Communicative needs also explain why the number of color terms varies across languages: Cultures vary in how useful color is. Industrialization, which creates objects distinguishable solely based on color, increases color usefulness.
Abstract
What determines how languages categorize colors? We analyzed results of the World Color Survey (WCS) of 110 languages to show that despite gross differences across languages, communication of chromatic chips is always better for warm colors (yellows/reds) than cool colors (blues/greens). We present an analysis of color statistics in a large databank of natural images curated by human observers for salient objects and show that objects tend to have warm rather than cool colors. These results suggest that the cross-linguistic similarity in color-naming efficiency reflects colors of universal usefulness and provide an account of a principle (color use) that governs how color categories come about. We show that potential methodological issues with the WCS do not corrupt information-theoretic analyses, by collecting original data using two extreme versions of the color-naming task, in three groups: the Tsimane', a remote Amazonian hunter-gatherer isolate; Bolivian-Spanish speakers; and English speakers. These data also enabled us to test another prediction of the color-usefulness hypothesis: that differences in color categorization between languages are caused by differences in overall usefulness of color to a culture. In support, we found that color naming among Tsimane' had relatively low communicative efficiency, and the Tsimane' were less likely to use color terms when describing familiar objects. Color-naming among Tsimane' was boosted when naming artificially colored objects compared with natural objects, suggesting that industrialization promotes color usefulness.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Separate prefrontal areas code desirability versus availability.

When we make a decision, we calculate its “expected value,” by multiplying the value of something (how much we want or need it) with the probability that we might be able to obtain it, a concept first introduced by 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal. Rudebeck et al. show that this value determination involves two separate prefrontal areas:
Advantageous foraging choices benefit from an estimation of two aspects of a resource’s value: its current desirability and availability. Both orbitofrontal and ventrolateral prefrontal areas contribute to updating these valuations, but their precise roles remain unclear. To explore their specializations, we trained macaque monkeys on two tasks: one required updating representations of a predicted outcome’s desirability, as adjusted by selective satiation, and the other required updating representations of an outcome’s availability, as indexed by its probability. We evaluated performance on both tasks in three groups of monkeys: unoperated controls and those with selective, fiber-sparing lesions of either the OFC or VLPFC. Representations that depend on the VLPFC but not the OFC play a necessary role in choices based on outcome availability; in contrast, representations that depend on the OFC but not the VLPFC play a necessary role in choices based on outcome desirability.
Both OFC and VLPFC send connections to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), and functional magnetic resonance imaging suggests that the VMPFC may be where choices ultimately get made.