Friday, December 29, 2017

When intuition overrides reason.

Gilbert Chin points to work by Walco and Risen showing that a third to a half of us will elect to rely on gut feelings even after having demonstrated an accurate understanding of which choice is more likely to pay off. This suggests that error detection and correction are not coupled (as in Kahneman' dual process model, with system 1's intuitive default decision subject to system 2's determination of accuracy), but rather that detection and correction are not coupled. The abstract:
Will people follow their intuition even when they explicitly recognize that it is irrational to do so? Dual-process models of judgment and decision making are often based on the assumption that the correction of errors necessarily follows the detection of errors. But this assumption does not always hold. People can explicitly recognize that their intuitive judgment is wrong but nevertheless maintain it, a phenomenon known as acquiescence. Although anecdotes and experimental studies suggest that acquiescence occurs, the empirical case for acquiescence has not been definitively established. In four studies—using the ratio-bias paradigm, a lottery exchange game, blackjack, and a football coaching decision—we tested acquiescence using recently established criteria. We provide clear empirical support for acquiescence: People can have a faulty intuitive belief about the world (Criterion 1), acknowledge the belief is irrational (Criterion 2), but follow their intuition nonetheless (Criterion 3)—even at a cost.
(Motivated readers can request a PDF of the article with experimental details from me.)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

On gratitude...

I want to pass on this bit from an essay by Philip Garrity in the New York Times Philosophy Forum "The Stone". On recovering from the vibrancy and trauma of illness he notes:
I notice myself falling back into that same pattern of trying to harness the vibrancy of illness...I am learning, however slowly, that maintaining that level of mental stamina, that fever pitch of experience, is less a recipe for enlightenment, and more for exhaustion.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes our experience as a perpetual transitioning between unreflective consciousness, “living-in-the-world,” and reflective consciousness, “thinking-about-the-world.” Gratitude seems to necessitate an act of reflection on experience, which, in turn, requires a certain abstraction away from that direct experience. Paradoxically, our capacity for gratitude is simultaneously enhanced and frustrated as we strive to attain it.
Perhaps, then, there is an important difference between reflecting on wellness and experiencing wellness. My habitual understanding of gratitude had me forcefully lodging myself into the realm of reflective consciousness, pulling me away from living-in-the-world. I was constantly making an inventory of my wellness, too busy counting the coins to ever spend them.
Gratitude, in the experiential sense, requires that we wade back into the current of unreflective consciousness, which, to the egocentric mind, can easily feel like an annihilation of consciousness altogether. Yet, Sartre says that action that is unreflective isn’t necessarily unconscious. There is something Zen about this, the actor disappearing into the action. It is the way of the artist in the act of creative expression, the musician in the flow of performance. But, to most of us, it is a loss of self — and the sense of competency that comes with it.
If there is any sage in me, he says I must accept the vulnerability of letting the pain fade, of allowing the wounds to heal. Even in the wake of grave illness — or, more unsettlingly, in anticipation of it — we must risk falling back asleep into wellness.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Mind the Hype - Mindfulness and Meditation

Smith et al. point to and summarize an article by Van Dam et al. I pass on the Van Dam et al. abstract:
During the past two decades, mindfulness meditation has gone from being a fringe topic of scientific investigation to being an occasional replacement for psychotherapy, tool of corporate well-being, widely implemented educational practice, and “key to building more resilient soldiers.” Yet the mindfulness movement and empirical evidence supporting it have not gone without criticism. Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed. Addressing such concerns, the present article discusses the difficulties of defining mindfulness, delineates the proper scope of research into mindfulness practices, and explicates crucial methodological issues for interpreting results from investigations of mindfulness. For doing so, the authors draw on their diverse areas of expertise to review the present state of mindfulness research, comprehensively summarizing what we do and do not know, while providing a prescriptive agenda for contemplative science, with a particular focus on assessment, mindfulness training, possible adverse effects, and intersection with brain imaging. Our goals are to inform interested scientists, the news media, and the public, to minimize harm, curb poor research practices, and staunch the flow of misinformation about the benefits, costs, and future prospects of mindfulness meditation.
And also Smith et al.'s list of points that seem fairly settled (they provide supporting references):
-Meditation almost certainly does sharpen your attention. 
-Long-term, consistent meditation does seem to increase resiliency to stress. 
-Meditation does appear to increase compassion. It also makes our compassion more effective. 
-Meditation does seem to improve mental health—but it’s not necessarily more effective than other steps you can take. 
-Mindfulness could have a positive impact on your relationships. 
-Mindfulness seems to reduce many kinds of bias. 
-Meditation does have an impact on physical health—but it’s modest.  
-Meditation might not be good for everyone all the time. 
-What kind of meditation is right for you? That depends. 
-How much meditation is enough? That also depends.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The 11 separate nations of the United States

I just became aware, through an article by Matthew Speiser in The Independent, of the interesting work of Oolin Woodard that suggests that 11 distinct cultures have historically divided the US. Speiser does capsule descriptions of the nations, given the names Yankedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, Deep South, El Norte, The left Coast, The Far West, New France, and First Nation. They are illustrated by the following graphic from his article:

Monday, December 25, 2017

Autopilots and metastates of our brains.

I pass on summaries from two recent contributions to understanding automatic information processing in our brains. First from Vatansever et al., work showing a role of the default mode network that has been a subject of many MindBlog posts:
Concurrent with mental processes that require rigorous computation and control, a series of automated decisions and actions govern our daily lives, providing efficient and adaptive responses to environmental demands. Using a cognitive flexibility task, we show that a set of brain regions collectively known as the default mode network plays a crucial role in such “autopilot” behavior, i.e., when rapidly selecting appropriate responses under predictable behavioral contexts. While applying learned rules, the default mode network shows both greater activity and connectivity. Furthermore, functional interactions between this network and hippocampal and parahippocampal areas as well as primary visual cortex correlate with the speed of accurate responses. These findings indicate a memory-based “autopilot role” for the default mode network, which may have important implications for our current understanding of healthy and adaptive brain processing.
Also, Vidaurre et al. describe two distinct networks, or metastates, within which the brain cycles.
We address the important question of the temporal organization of large-scale brain networks, finding that the spontaneous transitions between networks of interacting brain areas are predictable. More specifically, the network activity is highly organized into a hierarchy of two distinct metastates, such that transitions are more probable within, than between, metastates. One of these metastates represents higher order cognition, and the other represents the sensorimotor systems. Furthermore, the time spent in each metastate is subject-specific, is heritable, and relates to behavior. Although evidence of non–random-state transitions has been found at the microscale, this finding at the whole-brain level, together with its relation to behavior, has wide implications regarding the cognitive role of large-scale resting-state networks.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Detailed demographics from Google Street Views.

Interesting....neighborhood-level estimates of the racial, economic and political characteristics of 200 U.S. cities using Google Street View images of people's cars. ...From Gebru et al.:
The United States spends more than $250 million each year on the American Community Survey (ACS), a labor-intensive door-to-door study that measures statistics relating to race, gender, education, occupation, unemployment, and other demographic factors. Although a comprehensive source of data, the lag between demographic changes and their appearance in the ACS can exceed several years. As digital imagery becomes ubiquitous and machine vision techniques improve, automated data analysis may become an increasingly practical supplement to the ACS. Here, we present a method that estimates socioeconomic characteristics of regions spanning 200 US cities by using 50 million images of street scenes gathered with Google Street View cars. Using deep learning-based computer vision techniques, we determined the make, model, and year of all motor vehicles encountered in particular neighborhoods. Data from this census of motor vehicles, which enumerated 22 million automobiles in total (8% of all automobiles in the United States), were used to accurately estimate income, race, education, and voting patterns at the zip code and precinct level. (The average US precinct contains ∼1,000 people.) The resulting associations are surprisingly simple and powerful. For instance, if the number of sedans encountered during a drive through a city is higher than the number of pickup trucks, the city is likely to vote for a Democrat during the next presidential election (88% chance); otherwise, it is likely to vote Republican (82%). Our results suggest that automated systems for monitoring demographics may effectively complement labor-intensive approaches, with the potential to measure demographics with fine spatial resolution, in close to real time.
From the summary by Ingraham:
...The 22 million vehicles in the Google Street View database comprise roughly 8 percent of all vehicles in the United States...the researchers first paired the Zip code-level vehicle data with numbers on race, income and education from the U.S. Census Bureau'sAmerican Community Survey. They did this for a random 15 percent of the Zip codes in their data set to create a “training set.” They then created another algorithm to go through the training set to see how vehicle characteristics correlated with neighborhood characteristics: What kinds of vehicles are disproportionately likely to appear in white neighborhoods, or black ones? Low-income vs. high-income? Highly-educated areas vs. less-educated ones?
You can do similar exercises for other demographic characteristics, like educational attainment. People with graduate degrees were more likely to drive Audi hatchbacks with high city MPG. Those with less than a high school education, on the other hand, were more likely to drive cars made by U.S. manufacturers in the 1990s.
“We found a strong correlation between our results and ACS [American Community Survey] values for every demographic statistic we examined,” the researchers wrote. They plotted the algorithm's demographic estimates against the actual numbers from the ACS and measured their correlation coefficient: a number from zero (no correlation) to 1 (perfect correlation) that measures how accurately one set of numbers can predict the variation in a separate set of numbers.
At the city level, the algorithm did a particularly good job of predicting the percent of Asians (correlation coefficient of 0.87), blacks (0.82) and whites (0.77). It also predicted median household income (0.82) quite well. On measures of educational attainment, the correlation coefficients ran from about 0.54 to 0.70 — again, not perfect, but fairly impressive accuracy considering the predictions derived solely from auto information and nothing else.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Some morning Rachmaninoff - Fantasy Piece, in E, Op. 3. No. 3

Here is a Rachmaninoff Fantasy Piece, in E, Op. 3 No. 3, which I recorded last week, continuing to play with using my new iPhone X with a USB Zoom iQ6 condenser microphone in the lightning port for making video recordings that can be edited and then sent directly to YouTube.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Wealth inequality as a law of nature.

Here is the abstract from Scheffer et al.,  a bit of work that casts an interesting light on the current Republican tax legislation that significantly accelerates the unequal distribution of wealth in this country, as described nicely by David Leonhardt:

Inequality is one of the main drivers of social tension. We show striking similarities between patterns of inequality between species abundances in nature and wealth in society. We demonstrate that in the absence of equalizing forces, such large inequality will arise from chance alone. While natural enemies have an equalizing effect in nature, inequality in societies can be suppressed by wealth-equalizing institutions. However, over the past millennium, such institutions have been weakened during periods of societal upscaling. Our analysis suggests that due to the very same mathematical principle that rules natural communities (indeed, a “law of nature”) extreme wealth inequality is inevitable in a globalizing world unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions are installed on a global scale.
Most societies are economically dominated by a small elite, and similarly, natural communities are typically dominated by a small fraction of the species. Here we reveal a strong similarity between patterns of inequality in nature and society, hinting at fundamental unifying mechanisms. We show that chance alone will drive 1% or less of the community to dominate 50% of all resources in situations where gains and losses are multiplicative, as in returns on assets or growth rates of populations. Key mechanisms that counteract such hyperdominance include natural enemies in nature and wealth-equalizing institutions in society. However, historical research of European developments over the past millennium suggests that such institutions become ineffective in times of societal upscaling. A corollary is that in a globalizing world, wealth will inevitably be appropriated by a very small fraction of the population unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions emerge at the global level.

Figure - Inequality in society (Left) and nature (Right). The Upper panels illustrate the similarity between the wealth distribution of the world’s 1,800 billionaires (A) (8) and the abundance distribution among the most common trees in the Amazon forest (B) (3). The Lower panels illustrate inequality in nature and society more systematically, comparing the Gini index of wealth in countries (C) and the Gini index of abundance in a large set of natural communities (D). (The Gini index is an indicator of inequality that ranges from 0 for entirely equal distributions to 1 for the most unequal situation. It is a more integrative indicator of inequality than the fraction that represents 50%, but the two are closely related in practice. Surprisingly, Gini indices for our natural communities are quite similar to the Gini indices for wealth distributions of 181 countries.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Skill networks and human capital.

Anderson does an interesting analysis showing that workers who can combine different skills synergistically earn more than other skilled workers. I pass on both the Abstract and the Significance statements:

The relationship between worker human capital and wages is a question of considerable economic interest. Skills are usually characterized using a one-dimensional measure, such as years of training. However, in knowledge-based production, the interaction between a worker’s skills is also important. Here, we propose a network-based method for characterizing worker skill sets. We construct a human capital network, wherein nodes are skills and two skills are connected if a worker has both or both are required for the same job. We then illustrate the method by analyzing an online freelance labor market, showing that workers with diverse skills earn higher wages and that those who use their diverse skills in combination earn the highest wages of all.
We propose a network-based method for measuring worker skills. We illustrate the method using data from an online freelance website. Using the tools of network analysis, we divide skills into endogenous categories based on their relationship with other skills in the market. Workers who specialize in these different areas earn dramatically different wages. We then show that, in this market, network-based measures of human capital provide additional insight into wages beyond traditional measures. In particular, we show that workers with diverse skills earn higher wages than those with more specialized skills. Moreover, we can distinguish between two different types of workers benefiting from skill diversity: jacks-of-all-trades, whose skills can be applied independently on a wide range of jobs, and synergistic workers, whose skills are useful in combination and fill a hole in the labor market. On average, workers whose skills are synergistic earn more than jacks-of-all-trades.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Positive stimuli blur time.

From Roberts et al.:
Anecdotal reports that time “flies by” or “slows down” during emotional events are supported by evidence that the motivational relevance of stimuli influences subsequent duration judgments. Yet it is unknown whether the subjective quality of events as they unfold is altered by motivational relevance. In a novel paradigm, we measured the subjective experience of moment-to-moment visual perception. Participants judged the temporal smoothness of high-approach positive images (desserts), negative images (e.g., of bodily mutilation), and neutral images (commonplace scenes) as they faded to black. Results revealed approach-motivated blurring, such that positive stimuli were judged as smoother and negative stimuli as choppier relative to neutral stimuli. Participants’ ratings of approach motivation predicted perceived fade smoothness after we controlled for low-level stimulus features. Electrophysiological data indicated that approach-motivated blurring modulated relatively rapid perceptual activation. These results indicate that stimulus value influences subjective temporal perceptual acuity; approach-motivating stimuli elicit perception of a “blurred” frame rate characteristic of speeded motion.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Teaching A.I. to explain itself

An awkward feature of the artificial intelligence, or machine learning, algorithms that teach themselves to translate languages, analyze X-ray images and mortgage loans, judge probability of behaviors from faces, etc., is that we are unable to discern exactly what they are doing as they perform these functions. How can we we trust these machine unless they can explain themselves? This issue is the subject of an interesting piece by Cliff Kuang. A few clips from the article:
Instead of certainty and cause, A.I. works off probability and correlation. And yet A.I. must nonetheless conform to the society we’ve built — one in which decisions require explanations, whether in a court of law, in the way a business is run or in the advice our doctors give us. The disconnect between how we make decisions and how machines make them, and the fact that machines are making more and more decisions for us, has birthed a new push for transparency and a field of research called explainable A.I., or X.A.I. Its goal is to make machines able to account for the things they learn, in ways that we can understand.
A decade in the making, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation finally goes into effect in May 2018. It’s a sprawling, many-tentacled piece of legislation whose opening lines declare that the protection of personal data is a universal human right. Among its hundreds of provisions, two seem aimed squarely at where machine learning has already been deployed and how it’s likely to evolve. Google and Facebook are most directly threatened by Article 21, which affords anyone the right to opt out of personally tailored ads. The next article then confronts machine learning head on, limning a so-called right to explanation: E.U. citizens can contest “legal or similarly significant” decisions made by algorithms and appeal for human intervention. Taken together, Articles 21 and 22 introduce the principle that people are owed agency and understanding when they’re faced by machine-made decisions.
To create a neural net that can reveal its inner workings...researchers...are pursuing a number of different paths. Some of these are technically ingenious — for example, designing new kinds of deep neural networks made up of smaller, more easily understood modules, which can fit together like Legos to accomplish complex tasks. Others involve psychological insight: One team at Rutgers is designing a deep neural network that, once it makes a decision, can then sift through its data set to find the example that best demonstrates why it made that decision. (The idea is partly inspired by psychological studies of real-life experts like firefighters, who don’t clock in for a shift thinking, These are the 12 rules for fighting fires; when they see a fire before them, they compare it with ones they’ve seen before and act accordingly.) Perhaps the most ambitious of the dozen different projects are those that seek to bolt new explanatory capabilities onto existing deep neural networks. Imagine giving your pet dog the power of speech, so that it might finally explain what’s so interesting about squirrels. Or, as Trevor Darrell, a lead investigator on one of those teams, sums it up, “The solution to explainable A.I. is more A.I.”
... a novel idea for letting an A.I. teach itself how to describe the contents of a picture...create two deep neural networks: one dedicated to image recognition and another to translating languages. ...they lashed these two together and fed them thousands of images that had captions attached to them. As the first network learned to recognize the objects in a picture, the second simply watched what was happening in the first, then learned to associate certain words with the activity it saw. Working together, the two networks could identify the features of each picture, then label them. Soon after, Darrell was presenting some different work to a group of computer scientists when someone in the audience raised a hand, complaining that the techniques he was describing would never be explainable. Darrell, without a second thought, said, Sure — but you could make it explainable by once again lashing two deep neural networks together, one to do the task and one to describe it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Debussy La plus que lente - a first musical offering from Austin Texas.

This is a personal post, a musical offering of the sort I have done on MindBlog in previous years. The Steinway B that I have used since 2002 recently moved with me from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Austin, Texas, not to the family house I moved back into, but to the larger living room of my son's home which can manage the kind of musical socials I have given for many years.  Techie MindBlog readers might be interested in my discovery that the video camera on my iPhone X is better than the Canon video camera I had been using, and that a small USB Zoom iQ6 condenser microphone attached to its Lightning connector gives audio quality comparable to the much larger C1 Studio condenser microphone whose output had to be tediously synchronized with video from the Canon camera stripped of its inferior audio sound track.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Digital mass persuasion via psychological targeting.

Sigh...we're heading full-tilt towards a plutocracy which will manipulate the masses via technologies of the sort described by Matz et al.:

Building on recent advancements in the assessment of psychological traits from digital footprints, this paper demonstrates the effectiveness of psychological mass persuasion—that is, the adaptation of persuasive appeals to the psychological characteristics of large groups of individuals with the goal of influencing their behavior. On the one hand, this form of psychological mass persuasion could be used to help people make better decisions and lead healthier and happier lives. On the other hand, it could be used to covertly exploit weaknesses in their character and persuade them to take action against their own best interest, highlighting the potential need for policy interventions.
People are exposed to persuasive communication across many different contexts: Governments, companies, and political parties use persuasive appeals to encourage people to eat healthier, purchase a particular product, or vote for a specific candidate. Laboratory studies show that such persuasive appeals are more effective in influencing behavior when they are tailored to individuals’ unique psychological characteristics. However, the investigation of large-scale psychological persuasion in the real world has been hindered by the questionnaire-based nature of psychological assessment. Recent research, however, shows that people’s psychological characteristics can be accurately predicted from their digital footprints, such as their Facebook Likes or Tweets. Capitalizing on this form of psychological assessment from digital footprints, we test the effects of psychological persuasion on people’s actual behavior in an ecologically valid setting. In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, we find that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered their behavior as measured by clicks and purchases. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or unpersonalized counterparts. Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences. We discuss both the potential benefits of this method for helping individuals make better decisions and the potential pitfalls related to manipulation and privacy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Trauma is passed over generations.

Bakalar points to work by Santavirta et al. showing that the daughters of women exposed to childhood trauma are at increased risk for psychiatric disorders. The study compared the health of female offspring of ~47,000 Finnish children who were evacuated to Swedish foster homes during World War II, with offspring of female cousins who had not been evacuated. The study:
...found that female children of mothers who had been evacuated to Sweden were twice as likely to be hospitalized for a psychiatric illness as their female cousins who had not been evacuated, and more than four times as likely to have depression or bipolar disorder...But there was no effect among male children, and no effect among children of either sex born to fathers who had been evacuated.

Monday, December 11, 2017

How is American (and World) governance evolving?

So... what is the United State to become? From the recent outpouring of Op-Ed pieces you can take your choice: Autocracy, Plutocracy, Oligarchy, Kleptocracy... with liberal democracy viewed as vitally threatened. Articles by Thomas Edsall and Andrew Sullivan describe how American democracy is destroying itself, as Roger Cohen sadly notes the irreversible passing of the Pax Americana, an ordering of the world that began with Woodrow Wilson's 14 points speech one hundred years ago. David Frum outlines steps towards Autocracy as Jonathan Rauch discusses whether Trump will be able to govern as an authoritarian. Paul Krugman notes how the current tax reform will enormously enhance the ongoing process of entrenching a hereditary plutocracy that actually runs the country.  Articles by Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Edsall describe how the liberal establishment has failed to understand its own role in the rise of contemporary conservatism, how its social and economic policies have disadvantaged formerly middle class voters more motivated by issues surrounding religion, race, and culture than they are by economics, thus fueling a rise of nationalism, nativism and xenophobia in both the U.S. and Europe.  Regarding this last point, I want to paste in here the final paragraphs of an Edsall Op-Ed piece noting Eric Schnurer's argument that blue America has over the last decade declared war on the "red way of life."
The political, economic, and cultural triumph nationwide of a set of principles and realities essentially alien to large numbers of Americans is viewed as (a) being imposed upon them, and (b) overturning much of what they take for granted in their lives — and I don’t think they’re wrong about that. I think they’ve risen in angry revolt, and now intend to give back to the “elite” in the same terms that they’ve been given to. I don’t think this is good — in fact, I think it’s a very dangerous situation — but I think we need to understand it in order to responsibly address it.
Do liberals in fact need to understand — or empathize with — their many antagonists, the men and women who are sharply critical of the liberal project?
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, observes that “believers in liberal democracy have unilaterally disarmed in the defense of the institution” by agreeing in many cases with the premise of the Trump campaign: “that the country is a hopeless swamp.” This left Democrats “defenseless when he proposed to drain it.” Where, Pinker asks,
are the liberals who are willing to say that liberal democracy has worked? That environmental regulations have slashed air pollutants while allowing Americans to drive more miles and burn more fuel? That social transfers have reduced poverty rates fivefold? That globalization has allowed Americans to afford more food, clothing, TVs, cars, and air-conditioners? That international organizations have prevented nuclear war, and reduced the rate of death in warfare by 90 percent? That environmental treaties are healing the hole in the ozone layer?
Pinker remains confident:
Progress always must fight headwinds. Human nature doesn’t change, and the appeal of regressive impulses is perennial. The forces of liberalism, modernity, cosmopolitanism, the open society, and Enlightenment values always have to push against our innate tribalism, authoritarianism, and thirst for vengeance. We can even recognize these instincts in ourselves, even in Trump’s cavalier remarks about the rule of law...Over the longer run, I think the forces of modernity prevail — affluence, education, mobility, communication, and generational replacement. Trumpism, like Brexit and European populism, are old men’s movements: support drops off sharply with age.
Pinker is optimistic about the future. I hope he is right.
The problem is that even if Pinker is right, his analysis does not preclude a sustained period in which the anti-democratic right dominates American politics. There is no telling how long it will be before the movement Trump has mobilized will have run its course. Nor can we anticipate — if and when Trumpism does implode — how extensive the damage will be that Pinker’s “forces of modernity” will have to repair.
But... what if all of this wringing of hands about changes the political order is a thin veneer over deeper changes that are really going to end up controlling the show?  One is seeing now the rise of a de facto world government of interlocked and interdependent giant corporations, mainly in the U.S. and China (think Apple and Foxconn) versed in the neuroeconomic techniques central to influencing the behaviors, desires, and consumptions of their subjects.  They are assembling a level of power that might increasingly override the ability of individual nation states to contest or control their actions.  Will this ensemble nudge towards mirroring the values of liberalism currently reflected in the public stances of the largest U.S. corporations, or will the political accommodations shown by  their Asian counterparts be more likely to prevail?

Friday, December 08, 2017

Dogs can smell our happiness and fear.

From D'Aniello et al:
We report a study examining interspecies emotion transfer via body odors (chemosignals). Do human body odors (chemosignals) produced under emotional conditions of happiness and fear provide information that is detectable by pet dogs (Labrador and Golden retrievers)? The odor samples were collected from the axilla of male donors not involved in the main experiment. The experimental setup involved the co-presence of the dog's owner, a stranger and the odor dispenser in a space where the dogs could move freely. There were three odor conditions [fear, happiness, and control (no sweat)] to which the dogs were assigned randomly. The dependent variables were the relevant behaviors of the dogs (e.g., approaching, interacting and gazing) directed to the three targets (owner, stranger, sweat dispenser) aside from the dogs' stress and heart rate indicators. The results indicated with high accuracy that the dogs manifested the predicted behaviors in the three conditions. There were fewer and shorter owner directed behaviors and more stranger directed behaviors when they were in the "happy odor condition" compared to the fear odor and control conditions. In the fear odor condition, they displayed more stressful behaviors. The heart rate data in the control and happy conditions were significantly lower than in the fear condition. Our findings suggest that interspecies emotional communication is facilitated by chemosignals.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

How Evil is Tech?

The title of this post is from an Op-Ed piece by David Brooks. Some clips:
There are three main critiques of big tech.
The first is that it is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.
The second critique of the tech industry is that it is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money. Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with “hijacking techniques” that lure us in and create “compulsion loops.”
The third critique is that Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are near monopolies that use their market power to invade the private lives of their users and impose unfair conditions on content creators and smaller competitors. The political assault on this front is gaining steam.
The big breakthrough will come when tech executives clearly acknowledge the central truth: Their technologies are extremely useful for the tasks and pleasures that require shallower forms of consciousness, but they often crowd out and destroy the deeper forms of consciousness people need to thrive...Online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living. “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, joy and reticence,” he said. By cutting off work and technology we enter a different state of consciousness, a different dimension of time and a different atmosphere, a “mine where the spirit’s precious metal can be found.”
Imagine if instead of claiming to offer us the best things in life, tech merely saw itself as providing efficiency devices. Its innovations can save us time on lower-level tasks so we can get offline and there experience the best things in life.
Imagine if tech pitched itself that way. That would be an amazing show of realism and, especially, humility, which these days is the ultimate and most disruptive technology.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Trust and cooperation across societies.

Romano et al. (open source) offer, in a study over 17 countries, an example of the kind of research needed to understand and enhance cooperation within and between groups.

In a study including 17 societies, we found that people are motivated to trust and cooperate more with their ingroup, than harm the outgroup. Reputation-based indirect reciprocity may offset this ingroup favoritism, because we found that reputational concern universally increases cooperation with both ingroup and outgroup members. We also found that people who are dispositionally cooperative are less parochial and more universal in their cooperation. In a time of increasing parochialism in both domestic and international relations, our findings affirm us of the danger of the strong human universal toward parochial altruism. Yet, our findings suggest that in all societies, there exist people whose cooperation transcends group boundaries and provides a solution to combating parochialism: reputation-based indirect reciprocity.
International challenges such as climate change, poverty, and intergroup conflict require countries to cooperate to solve these complex problems. However, the political tide in many countries has shifted inward, with skepticism and reluctance to cooperate with other countries. Thus, cross-societal investigations are needed to test theory about trust and cooperation within and between groups. We conducted an experimental study in 17 countries designed to test several theories that explain why, who, and where people trust and cooperate more with ingroup members, compared with outgroup members. The experiment involved several interactions in the trust game, either as a trustor or trustee. We manipulated partner group membership in the trust game (ingroup, outgroup, or unknown) and if their reputation was at stake during the interaction. In addition to the standard finding that participants trust and cooperate more with ingroup than outgroup members, we obtained findings that reputational concerns play a decisive role for promoting trust and cooperation universally across societies. Furthermore, men discriminated more in favor of their ingroup than women. Individual differences in cooperative preferences, as measured by social value orientation, predicted cooperation with both ingroup and outgroup members. Finally, we did not find support for three theories about the cross-societal conditions that influence the degree of ingroup favoritism observed across societies (e.g., material security, religiosity, and pathogen stress). We discuss the implications for promoting cooperation within and between countries.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The emotional political base supporting the consolidation of the U.S. plutocracy.

I want to pass on the ending paragraphs from a piece by Fareed Zakaria:
Is it that the Republican Party is cleverly and successfully hoodwinking its supporters, promising them populism and enacting plutocratic capitalism instead? This view has been a staple of liberal analysis for years, most prominently in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank argued that Republicans have been able to work this magic trick by dangling social issues in front of working-class voters, who fall for the bait and lose sight of the fact that they are voting against their own interests. Both Wolf and Pierson believe that this trickery will prove dangerous for Republicans. “The plutocrats are riding on a hungry tiger,” writes Wolf.
But what if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics? There is increasing evidence that Trump’s base supports him because they feel a deep emotional, cultural and class affinity for him. And while the tax bill is analyzed by economists, Trump picks fights with black athletes, retweets misleading anti-Muslim videos and promises not to yield on immigration. Perhaps he knows his base better than we do. In fact, Trump’s populism might not be as unique as it’s made out to be. Polling from Europe suggests that the core issues motivating people to support Brexit or the far-right parties in France and Germany, and even the populist parties of Eastern Europe, are cultural and social.
The most important revolution in economics in the past generation has been the rise of the behavioral scientists, trained in psychology, who are finding that people systematically make decisions that are against their own “interests.” This might be the tip of the iceberg in understanding human motivation. The real story might be that people see their own interests in much more emotional and tribal ways than scholars understand. What if, in the eyes of a large group of Americans, these other issues are the ones for which they will stand up, protest, support politicians and even pay an economic price? What if, for many people, in America and around the world, these are their true interests?

Monday, December 04, 2017

A mind reading machine?

Not quite, but Matthew Hutson points to work by Wen et al. using an artificial neural network to categorize fMRI signals from subjects watching different categories of images. The algorithm could predict with about 50% accuracy which of 15 classes of visual object a subject was watching. His description:
Artificial intelligence has taken us one baby step closer to the mind-reading machines of science fiction. Researchers have developed “deep learning” algorithms—roughly modeled on the human brain—to decipher, you guessed it, the human brain. First, they built a model of how the brain encodes information. As three women spent hours viewing hundreds of short videos, a functional MRI machine measured signals of activity in the visual cortex and elsewhere. A popular type of artificial neural network used for image processing learned to associate video images with brain activity. As the women watched additional clips, the algorithm’s predicted activity correlated with actual activity in a dozen brain regions. It also helped the scientists visualize which features each area of the cortex was processing. Another network decoded neural signals: Based on a participant’s brain activity, it could predict with about 50% accuracy what she was watching (by selecting one of 15 categories including bird, airplane, and exercise). If the network had trained on data from a different woman’s brain, it could still categorize the image with about 25% accuracy, the researchers report this month in Cerebral Cortex. The network could also partially reconstruct what a participant saw, turning brain activity into pixels, but the resulting images were little more than white blobs. The researchers hope their work will lead to the reconstruction of mental imagery, which uses some of the same brain circuits as visual processing. Translating from the mind’s eye into bits could allow people to express vivid thoughts or dreams to computers or to other people without words or mouse clicks, and could help those with strokes who have no other way to communicate.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Bringing big science to psychology

Chawla describes a new initiative dubbed the "Psychological Science Accelerator" (PSA) that:
...has so far forged alliances with more than 170 laboratories on six continents in a bid to enhance the ability of researchers to collect data at multiple sites on a massive enable researchers to expand their reach and collect “large-scale confirmatory data” at many sites.
A selection committee has evaluated eight proposals and selected one based on experiments already replicated in the US and the UK.
It aims to discover whether the research findings of Alexander Todorov, a psychologist at Princeton University, can be replicated on a global scale. Todorov has reported that people rank human faces on two components: valence and dominance. Valence is a measure of trustworthiness, whereas dominance is a measure of physical strength...More than 50 of PSA’s collaborating labs have already committed to collect data as part of the study.
PSA isn’t the only effort aiming to change how researchers conduct psychological studies, which have received extensive criticism for a lack of reproducibility. Others include the Many Labs Replication Project and the Pipeline Project. Earlier this year, Chartier also launched StudySwap, an online platform designed to help researchers find collaborators for replication studies and exchange resources.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Speed of processing training results in lower risk of dementia

While brain training exercises in general are not receiving a very good press these days, experiments testing effects of BrainHQ's speed of processing exercise called "Double Decision" have been the most convincing. I've tried it out several times, feel like it perks me up quite a bit for awhile, then get really bored repeating it and stop.

In the exercise, you see an image in the center of your vision–for example, either a car or a truck–and at the same time, you see another image way off in your peripheral vision. The images are only on the screen for a brief period of time–well under a second. You then have to say whether you saw the car or the truck in the center of your vision, and then you have to show where you saw the image in your peripheral vision. This challenges the speed and the accuracy of your visual system. And as you get faster and more accurate, the speed increases and the peripheral vision task gets more demanding–pushing your brain further.

Edwards et al. (open source)  now report a randomized controlled trial among 2,802 initially healthy older adults, which examined the efficacy of three cognitive training programs (memory, reasoning, or speed of processing) relative to a no-contact control condition. They found that healthy older adults randomized to the Double Decision speed of processing cognitive training, but not memory or reasoning training, had a 29% reduction in their risk of dementia after 10 years of follow-up compared to the untreated control group.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Behavior modification empires.

I have to pass on this clip from a Maureen Dowd interview of Jaron Lanier
Mr. Lanier believes that Facebook and Google, with their “top-down control schemes,” should be called “Behavior Modification Empires.”
“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.“
And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.
“The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.
“Once Facebook becomes ubiquitous, it’s a sort of giant protection racket, where, if you don’t pay them money, then someone else will pay to modify the behavior to your disadvantage, so everyone has to pay money just to stay at equilibrium where they would have been otherwise,” he says. “I mean, there’s only one way out for Facebook, which is to change its business model. Unless Facebook changes, we’ll just have to trust Facebook for any future election result. Because they do apparently have the ability to change them. Or at least change the close ones.”
Why would Facebook change its business model when it’s raking in billions?
“I would appeal to the decency of the people in it,” he replies. “And if not to them, then the toughness of the regulators. It’s going to be one of the struggles of the century.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

People who seek solitude are more creative.

Ingraham points to an article by Bowker et al. that makes me feel better about my desire for and comfort with a substantial period of solitude each day. With a psychobabble title like "How BIS/BAS and psycho-behavioral variables distinguish between social withdrawal subtypes during emerging adulthood." I never would have come across the message of this article on my own. You have to read down about three paragraphs into the article to discover that BIS and BAS refer to neurobiological behavioral inhibition and behavioral approach systems. The study is conducted on the usual gaggle of 295 WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) US college students taking a large introductory psychology course. The study makes the point that not all forms of social withdrawal are harmful. In fact there is a correlation between seeking out solitude and creativity. Bowker and colleagues used a standard battery of psychological assessments to show, in Ingraham's words, that:
People who were shy or antisocial scored lower than average on the measure of creativity. But people who were “unsociable” — those who sought out solitude — scored higher on creativity.
Unsociable people, in other words, “may be able to spend their time in solitude constructively, unlike shy and avoidant individuals who may be too distracted and/or preoccupied by their negative cognitions and distress,” the authors posit.
Other research — and indeed, the life experiences of many famously creative people — back up this notion. The solitary genius is a familiar trope in Western society. Think of Thoreau in his cabin, Van Gogh alone in an asylum and Beethoven's withdrawal into silent solitude.
Research also has found (cf. Long and Averill) that highly intelligent people are happier when they have fewer friends. They might spend less time socializing because they are focused on some other longer term objective.

Monday, November 27, 2017

How to turn conservatives into liberals.

John Bargh and collaborators have done another interesting piece of work on how implicit biases can influence us. I pass on their abstract and the first part of their introduction to the article:
Across two studies, we find evidence for our prediction that experimentally increasing feelings of physical safety increases conservatives' socially progressive attitudes. Specifically, Republican and conservative participants who imagined being endowed with a superpower that made them invulnerable to physical harm (vs. the ability to fly) were more socially (but not economically) liberal (Study 1) and less resistant to social change (Study 2). Results suggest that socially (but not economically) conservative attitudes are driven, at least in part, by needs for safety and security.
In the first inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1938), given amidst the widespread disquiet of the Great Depression, the president famously warned Americans that their fear could serve as a psychological impediment to much needed social change. Decades later, research bears out Roosevelt's supposition: Across several disciplines and methodologies, research consistently demonstrates an association between threat, broadly defined, and political conservatism. Such work has shown that: (i) political conservatives are, on average, more likely to perceive threat than their liberal counterparts; and (ii) the existence of threat, in myriad forms, is associated with increased endorsement of conservative attitudes that resist efforts toward social change. Here, we test the novel hypothesis that the opposite of threat—that is, heightened feelings of safety—will increase socially progressive beliefs, especially among conservatives. Specifically, we test the prediction that experimentally inducing feelings of safety will increase social liberalism among Republicans (Study 1) and acceptance of social change among conservatives (Study 2).

Friday, November 24, 2017

Common cause of jihad and the Alt-Right

I pass on some clips from an essay by Scott Atran, who is the director of research in anthropology at the CNRS, École Normale Supérieure, and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford.
Whether alt-Right or radical Islam, the values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical ideologies. ..According to the World Values Survey, the majority of Europeans do not believe that living in a democratic country is ‘absolutely important’ for them. the US, political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk find that nearly half of American citizens lack faith in democracy; more than one-third of young high-income earners actually favour army rule, presumably to halt rising social unrest linked to income inequality, job insecurity, and persistent failures in racial integration and cultural assimilation in an age of identity politics.
It was religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who first discussed ‘the dizziness of freedom’ and the social disruption that it creates. Seizing on the idea in Escape from Freedom (1941), humanist philosopher Erich Fromm argued that too much freedom caused many to seek elimination of uncertainty in authoritarian systems. This has combined with what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls ‘the search for significance’, propelling both violent jihadists and militant supporters of populist ethno-nationalist movements worldwide.
Today, the parallels between the alt-Right and radical jihadism are clear, White-supremacist and jihadi groups parallel one another not only in strategy and tactics, but also in messaging. Klansman and Aryan Nations member Louis Beam published his 1983 manifesto, ‘Leaderless Resistance’, in The Seditionist in 1992 , as a social resistance strategy for white nationalists. Like the jihadi movement, it rejects commanding anti-government acts from the leaders of a top-down hierarchy in favour of letting independent groups and individuals act on their own. And it rejects direct messaging in favour of inferred messaging – all to prevent authorities from decapitating the movement or assigning legal responsibility for cause and effect.
There are leaders, of course – founders of groups, or those who analyse conditions and formulate plans. Whether jihadist or alt-Right, these figures are often educated and well-off. Osama bin Laden was famously a multimillionaire who studied economics and civil engineering. His successor as head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a surgeon from a distinguished and prosperous family of doctors and scholars. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi received a PhD from the University of Baghdad. Charles Lindbergh was not just an aviator but the son of a lawyer and a US Congressman. William Pierce was a physicist descended from Southern aristocracy. Richard Spencer, the president of the alt-Right’s pre-eminent think tank, the National Policy Institute, is the son of an ophthalmologist and an heir to a cotton-field fortune, who received his MA in humanities from the University of Chicago. Across the wide swath of revolutionary and insurgent groups, founders are usually members of the middle or upper class, who then reach out to the more marginalised, less educated and poorer masses to increase potency.
From jihadis in Europe to white supremacists in the US, people most susceptible to joining radical groups are youth in their teens and 20s seeking community and purpose. The attraction of community is especially keen where there are sentiments of social exclusion or community collapse, whether or not accompanied by economic deprivation. It is a sense of purpose that most readily propels action and sacrifice, including a willingness to fight and die – especially when that purpose is perceived to be in defence of transcendent values dissociated from material costs or consequences.
…what messages could compete?… we must embed ourselves within actual communities to understand which approach may work best. A necessary focus of this effort must be youth, who form the bulk of today’s extremist recruits and tomorrow’s most vulnerable populations. Volunteers for al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and many extreme nationalist groups are often youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their mates. Having left their homes, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance. The ability to understand the realities facing young people will determine whether the transnational scourge of violent extremism continues and surges or abates.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

How gratitude changes you and your brain.

Thanksgiving day is an appropriate time to point to two articles from the Greater Good Magazine.

Wong and Brown describe work on writing gratitude letters suggesting that this improves mental health, and in the usual 'preliminary' fMRI studies.
"...when we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain."
And, Fox discusses her work:
...our data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how grateful feelings lead to health benefits over time. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A debate on the pros and cons of aging and death.

I want to pass on the final comments from a debate between Allen Frances (a professor emeritus at Duke University who was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force) and his grandson Tyler, who participates in genetics and stem cells research relevant to extending lifespan. Frances’ article gives a point by point summary of their ongoing debate, and is well worth reading.
There is a disturbing myth from ancient Greece. Aurora, the immortal goddess of the dawn, falls so deeply in love with a mortal man that she cannot accept losing him to death. She pleads successfully with the Olympian gods to grant him immortality, but forgets to request that he also be gifted with perpetual youth. Her human lover Is thus punished with the worst of fates- interminable life, daily made more intolerable by progressive aging and deterioration. Jonathan Swift illustrated the same chilling issue in Gulliver’s Travels and also tragically in his own long, tortured, and undignified death from dementia. 
Modern medicine has cursed an increasing percentage of our aging population to suffer this miserable fate- an artificially prolonged life preventing a natural and peaceful death. Medicine is, so far, much more advanced in keeping elderly people alive than in keeping them well. Our goal should be enhanced health, not a longer existence if that existence is painful and has lost all meaning. Medicine should help people live well, but also let them die peacefully and with dignity. 
Tyler is much more optimistic than I that we will soon have the technical means to prolong youth and postpone death- and that we should use them. I am more accepting of the limits of life- eager to improve its quality, rather than expecting to extend its duration. Tyler trusts scientists to make scientific decisions. I believe that scientists have conflicts of interest that make them uniquely unqualified to judge the ethical implications of the scientific opportunities open to them. If scientists can do something, they will do it- fairly heedless of unintended consequences. Tyler has the optimism and enthusiasm of the young. I have the pessimism and caution of the old. 
In a final flourish, Tyler trumped my argument that aging and death are somehow natural to the evolutionary scheme of things with the paradox that evolution has also given us the power to control aging and death and that surely we are programed to use it.
He is probably right. I don’t think our debate will be settled on ethical or theoretical grounds. History provides precious few examples of a society voluntarily rejecting the application of a powerful new technology- e.g., China burning its navy in the fifteenth century; Japan banning guns in the seventeenth. But both were closed societies whose conservative decisions were governed by internal political concerns; they were much less responsive than ours to economic and scientific competition and pressure. 
My guess is that scientists will be given the freedom and the funding to follow every possible path to the fountain of youth and to doubling the lifespan.
If they succeed, some chosen few of humanity will enjoy great benefits, while the masses may suffer even more than they do today and our environment may decay even faster than it already has. But I find aesthetic comfort in the firm belief that the scientists won’t be able to deliver on their extravagant promises. Although our knowledge base is increasing exponentially, the more we learn about the body, the more we appreciate how difficult it is to translate basic science into clinical application. Our bodies are remarkably complex and carefully balanced machines. Scientists can tinker with them, but I suspect that the basic cycle of life and death will be very hard to change.

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:

• 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 
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.

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.
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.:

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.
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" This link does not work. Or, "And if you’re interested in helping further this research, visit:". 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':

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.
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.