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:

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.
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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How we see what we expect to see.

Kok et al. show that expectations can induce the preactivation of stimulus templates in our brain that resemble the neural signals actually generated when the stimuls is presented:

The way that we perceive the world is partly shaped by what we expect to see at any given moment. However, it is unclear how this process is neurally implemented. Recently, it has been proposed that the brain generates stimulus templates in sensory cortex to preempt expected inputs. Here, we provide evidence that a representation of the expected stimulus is present in the neural signal shortly before it is presented, showing that expectations can indeed induce the preactivation of stimulus templates. Importantly, these expectation signals resembled the neural signal evoked by an actually presented stimulus, suggesting that expectations induce similar patterns of activations in visual cortex as sensory stimuli.
Perception can be described as a process of inference, integrating bottom-up sensory inputs and top-down expectations. However, it is unclear how this process is neurally implemented. It has been proposed that expectations lead to prestimulus baseline increases in sensory neurons tuned to the expected stimulus, which in turn, affect the processing of subsequent stimuli. Recent fMRI studies have revealed stimulus-specific patterns of activation in sensory cortex as a result of expectation, but this method lacks the temporal resolution necessary to distinguish pre- from poststimulus processes. Here, we combined human magnetoencephalography (MEG) with multivariate decoding techniques to probe the representational content of neural signals in a time-resolved manner. We observed a representation of expected stimuli in the neural signal shortly before they were presented, showing that expectations indeed induce a preactivation of stimulus templates. The strength of these prestimulus expectation templates correlated with participants’ behavioral improvement when the expected feature was task-relevant. These results suggest a mechanism for how predictive perception can be neurally implemented.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Computer design cues taken from human brains

Metz does an interesting article on the waning of do-it-all chips, central processing units of the sort that are running my MacBook Air as I type this, in favor distributed systems that offload specialized tasks, like hearing and seeing, to A.I. (artificial intelligence) chips specialized for those tasks, much as the human brain stem oversees the system and sends different jobs to different specialized parts of the surrounding cortex (auditory, visual, somatosensory, motor, executive, motivational, etc.):
...machines that spread computations across vast numbers of tiny, low-power chips can operate more like the human brain, which efficiently uses the energy at its disposal.
…the leading internet companies are now training their neural networks with help from another type of chip called a graphics processing unit, or G.P.U. These low-power chips — usually made by Nvidia — were originally designed to render images for games and other software, and they worked hand-in-hand with the chip — usually made by Intel — at the center of a computer. G.P.U.s can process the math required by neural networks far more efficiently than C.P.U.s.
G.P.U.s are the primary vehicles that companies use to teach their neural networks a particular task, but that is only part of the process. Once a neural network is trained for a task, it must perform it, and that requires a different kind of computing power.
After training a speech-recognition algorithm, for example, Microsoft offers it up as an online service, and it actually starts identifying commands that people speak into their smartphones. G.P.U.s are not quite as efficient during this stage of the process. So, many companies are now building chips specifically to do what the other chips have learned.
Google built its own specialty chip, a Tensor Processing Unit, or T.P.U. Nvidia is building a similar chip. And Microsoft has reprogrammed specialized chips from Altera, which was acquired by Intel, so that it too can run neural networks more easily.
The hope is that this new breed of mobile chip can help devices handle more, and more complex, tasks on their own, without calling back to distant data centers: phones recognizing spoken commands without accessing the internet; driverless cars recognizing the world around them with a speed and accuracy that is not possible now.
In other words, a driverless car needs cameras and radar and lasers. But it also needs a brain.

Monday, September 18, 2017

It’s all about tribes - not ideas, morals, or principles.

Thomas Edsall does another excellent piece on what is happening in our politics. I suggest you read are a few clips:

Since the advent of Trump,
...white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, political scientists at Princeton and Vanderbilt:
In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy ..... the more realistic view is that Citizens’ perceptions of parties’ policy stands and their own policy views are significantly colored by their party preferences. Even on purely factual questions with clear right answers, citizens are sometimes willing to believe the opposite if it makes them feel better about their partisanship and vote and partisan loyalties, not policy preferences or ideologies, are fundamental in democratic politics.
Edsall cites further work showing that those with strongest Republican identification are most likely to embrace Trump's swings in political stance to either the right or the left.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The intractability of racial discrimination

Sobering findings from Quillian et al.:

Many scholars have argued that discrimination in American society has decreased over time, while others point to persisting race and ethnic gaps and subtle forms of prejudice. The question has remained unsettled due to the indirect methods often used to assess levels of discrimination. We assess trends in hiring discrimination against African Americans and Latinos over time by analyzing callback rates from all available field experiments of hiring, capitalizing on the direct measure of discrimination and strong causal validity of these studies. We find no change in the levels of discrimination against African Americans since 1989, although we do find some indication of declining discrimination against Latinos. The results document a striking persistence of racial discrimination in US labor markets.
This study investigates change over time in the level of hiring discrimination in US labor markets. We perform a meta-analysis of every available field experiment of hiring discrimination against African Americans or Latinos (n = 28). Together, these studies represent 55,842 applications submitted for 26,326 positions. We focus on trends since 1989 (n = 24 studies), when field experiments became more common and improved methodologically. Since 1989, whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos. We observe no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years, although we find modest evidence of a decline in discrimination against Latinos. Accounting for applicant education, applicant gender, study method, occupational groups, and local labor market conditions does little to alter this result. Contrary to claims of declining discrimination in American society, our estimates suggest that levels of discrimination remain largely unchanged, at least at the point of hire.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Neuroforecasting crowd funding outcomes

Genevsky et al. find that directly measuring brain activities in the nucleus accumbens of individuals while they decide whether to fund proposed projects described on an Internet crowdfunding website proves to be a better predictor of crowding funding outcomes (weeks later) than direct behavioral measurements on the same individuals:

Although traditional economic and psychological theories imply that individual choice best scales to aggregate choice, primary components of choice reflected in neural activity may support even more generalizable forecasts. Crowdfunding represents a significant and growing platform for funding new and unique projects, causes, and products. To test whether neural activity could forecast market-level crowdfunding outcomes weeks later, 30 human subjects (14 female) decided whether to fund proposed projects described on an Internet crowdfunding website while undergoing scanning with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Although activity in both the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and medial prefrontal cortex predicted individual choices to fund on a trial-to-trial basis in the neuroimaging sample, only NAcc activity generalized to forecast market funding outcomes weeks later on the Internet. Behavioral measures from the neuroimaging sample, however, did not forecast market funding outcomes. This pattern of associations was replicated in a second study. These findings demonstrate that a subset of the neural predictors of individual choice can generalize to forecast market-level crowdfunding outcomes—even better than choice itself.
Forecasting aggregate behavior with individual neural data has proven elusive; even when successful, neural forecasts have not historically supplanted behavioral forecasts. In the current research, we find that neural responses can forecast market-level choice and outperform behavioral measures in a novel Internet crowdfunding context. Targeted as well as model-free analyses convergently indicated that nucleus accumbens activity can support aggregate forecasts. Beyond providing initial evidence for neuropsychological processes implicated in crowdfunding choices, these findings highlight the ability of neural features to forecast aggregate choice, which could inform applications relevant to business and policy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Do Americans care about rising inequality?

Interesting ideas from McCall et al.:

Although rising economic inequality in the United States has alarmed many, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. We argue that this conclusion may be premature. Here, we present the results of three experiments that test a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about inequality. Tempering the conclusions of past work, the findings suggest that perceptions of rising economic inequality spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for equity-enhancing policies. Hence, this work calls for new theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of rising economic inequality, especially those that bridge disciplinary boundaries, as well as the largely separate experimental and correlational liter
Economic inequality has been on the rise in the United States since the 1980s and by some measures stands at levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Although the strikingly high and rising level of economic inequality in the nation has alarmed scholars, pundits, and elected officials alike, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. Considerable research has documented, for instance, the important role of psychological processes, such as system justification and American Dream ideology, in engendering Americans’ relative insensitivity to economic inequality. The present work offers, and reports experimental tests of, a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality. Specifically, two convenience samples (study 1, n = 480; and study 2, n = 1,305) and one representative sample (study 3, n = 1,501) of American adults were exposed to information about rising economic inequality in the United States (or control information) and then asked about their beliefs regarding the roles of structural (e.g., being born wealthy) and individual (e.g., hard work) factors in getting ahead in society (i.e., opportunity beliefs). They then responded to policy questions regarding the roles of business and government actors in reducing economic inequality. Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality, the results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress economic inequality.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How to regulate Artificial Intelligence

As a postscript to MindBlog's Aug. 23 post on Artificial Intelligence (AI), I pass on chunks from Oren Etzioni's more recent piece on how to artificial intelligence might be regulated in an effort to respond to apocolytic fears being voiced by Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and others. While caution is in order, he doesn't think progress in AI should be slowed down over concerns over it will run Amok, because competition with China for primacy is intense. He suggests amending:
...the “three laws of robotics” that the writer Isaac Asimov introduced in 1942: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except when such orders would conflict with the previous law; and a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the previous two laws.
Pointing out their ambiguity, he suggests an alternative set of rules, as a starting point for further discussion: A.I. system must be subject to the full gamut of laws that apply to its human operator. This rule would cover private, corporate and government systems. We don’t want A.I. to engage in cyberbullying, stock manipulation or terrorist threats; we don’t want the F.B.I. to release A.I. systems that entrap people into committing crimes. We don’t want autonomous vehicles that drive through red lights, or worse, A.I. weapons that violate international treaties. A.I. system must clearly disclose that it is not human. As we have seen in the case of bots — computer programs that can engage in increasingly sophisticated dialogue with real people — society needs assurances that A.I. systems are clearly labeled as such. In 2016, a bot known as Jill Watson, which served as a teaching assistant for an online course at Georgia Tech, fooled students into thinking it was human. A more serious example is the widespread use of pro-Trump political bots on social media in the days leading up to the 2016 elections, according to researchers at Oxford. A.I. system cannot retain or disclose confidential information without explicit approval from the source of that information. Because of their exceptional ability to automatically elicit, record and analyze information, A.I. systems are in a prime position to acquire confidential information. Think of all the conversations that Amazon Echo — a “smart speaker” present in an increasing number of homes — is privy to, or the information that your child may inadvertently divulge to a toy such as an A.I. Barbie.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How “ought” exceeds but implies “can”

From John Turri:
This paper tests a theory about the relationship between two important topics in moral philosophy and psychology. One topic is the function of normative language, specifically claims that one “ought” to do something. Do these claims function to describe moral responsibilities, encourage specific behavior, or both? The other topic is the relationship between saying that one “ought” to do something and one’s ability to do it. In what respect, if any, does what one “ought” to do exceed what one “can” do? The theory tested here has two parts: (1) “ought” claims function to both describe responsibilities and encourage people to fulfill them (the dual-function hypothesis); (2) the two functions relate differently to ability, because the encouragement function is limited by the person’s ability, but the descriptive function is not (the interaction hypothesis). If this theory is correct, then in one respect “ought implies can” is false because people have responsibilities that exceed their abilities. But in another respect “ought implies can” is legitimate because it is not worthwhile to encourage people to do things that exceed their ability. Results from two behavioral experiments support the theory that “ought” exceeds but implies “can.” Results from a third experiment provide further evidence regarding an “ought” claim’s primary function and how contextual features can affect the interpretation of its functions.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Debate over a scientific wellness study.

Ryan Cross discusses reactions to a new "Scientific Wellness" pilot study set up by distinguished biologist Lee Hood and their recent report on the effort in Nature Biotechnology:
Leroy “Lee” Hood is one of biology's living legends. Now 78 years old, he played an influential role in the development of the first automated DNA sequencer, pioneered systems biology, and still leads an institute devoted to it in Seattle, Washington. But his latest venture may not burnish his reputation: a company promoting “scientific wellness,” the notion that intensive, costly monitoring and coaching of apparently healthy people can head off disease.
In a pilot study of the concept, Hood and colleagues compiled what he calls “personal, dense, dynamic data clouds” for 108 people: full genome sequences; blood, saliva, urine, and stool samples taken three times at 3-month intervals and analyzed for 643 metabolites and 262 proteins; and physical activity and sleep monitoring. The team reports in the August issue of Nature Biotechnology that dozens of the participants turned out to have undiscovered health risks, including prediabetes and low vitamin D, which the coaching helped them address...nearly every participant had something to worry about: Ninety-five had low vitamin D levels, 81 had high mercury levels, and 52 were considered prediabetic. One person had high blood levels of the iron-containing protein ferritin and a genetic risk for developing hemochromatosis
Hood says the findings justify commercializing the monitoring, in a service costing thousands of dollars a year. But some colleagues disagree. The effort takes health monitoring “to new heights, or depths, depending on how you look at it,” says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego, California....many of the problems the monitoring uncovered could be detected with simpler and cheaper tests, he adds.
Clayton Lewis, one of the subjects in the first study,
...joined with study leaders Nathan Price and Hood to launch the new company, called Arivale, with Lewis as CEO. Now 2 years old, the Seattle-based company has already enrolled 2500 people. They pay a first-year $3499 subscription fee for tracking and analysis similar to the pilot study, and nearly all have opted to let their data be used in research by Hood's Institute of Systems Biology.
From Jonathan Berg, a physician scientist who studies cancer and genetics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill:
The problem is that we don't have any idea at all how this information should be used clinically. Topol agrees, noting that he had comparable concerns about a similar barrage of tests on presumably healthy people, including genome sequencing and a full-body MRI scan, from a company launched by another genome legend, J. Craig Venter.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Oxytocin reduces xenophobic outgroup rejection.

This work from Marsh et al. suggests that it might be useful to spritz a bit of oxytocin up the noses of alt-right, alt-left, fascist, and antifa partisans:

In the midst of rapid globalization, the peaceful coexistence of cultures requires a deeper understanding of the forces that compel prosocial behavior and thwart xenophobia. Yet, the conditions promoting such outgroup-directed altruism have not been determined. Here we report the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment showing that enhanced activity of the oxytocin system paired with charitable social cues can help counter the effects of xenophobia by fostering altruism toward refugees. These findings suggest that the combination of oxytocin and peer-derived altruistic norms reduces outgroup rejection even in the most selfish and xenophobic individuals, and thereby would be expected to increase the ease by which people adapt to rapidly changing social ecosystems.
Never before have individuals had to adapt to social environments defined by such magnitudes of ethnic diversity and cultural differentiation. However, neurobiological evidence informing about strategies to reduce xenophobic sentiment and foster altruistic cooperation with outsiders is scarce. In a series of experiments settled in the context of the current refugee crisis, we tested the propensity of 183 Caucasian participants to make donations to people in need, half of whom were refugees (outgroup) and half of whom were natives (ingroup). Participants scoring low on xenophobic attitudes exhibited an altruistic preference for the outgroup, which further increased after nasal delivery of the neuropeptide oxytocin. In contrast, participants with higher levels of xenophobia generally failed to exhibit enhanced altruism toward the outgroup. This tendency was only countered by pairing oxytocin with peer-derived altruistic norms, resulting in a 74% increase in refugee-directed donations. Collectively, these findings reveal the underlying sociobiological conditions associated with outgroup-directed altruism by showing that charitable social cues co-occurring with enhanced activity of the oxytocin system reduce the effects of xenophobia by facilitating prosocial behavior toward refugees.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Evaluation of brain training programs.

By now there is a consensus that most claims about brain training making improving mental agility have no scientific basis. Most brain training only makes you better at the exercises themselves, and doesn't carry those gains over to your real-world concentration, productivity, or mental acuity. An article by Grothaus suggests that a single exception may be BrainHQ and Cognifit exercises that focus on improving visual processing speed. I've done the BrainHQ 'double decision' exercise, in which
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.
I have noticed that doing this exercise for about 10 min a day over a period of days enhances my attention to and awareness of peripheral visual details while I am driving. The effect wears off if the exercises are stopped.

Grothaus ends his article with the usual advice to those who aren't inclined towards computer games: engage novelty, be physically active, eat right, etc.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

American Nirvana

I've been meaning to point to an engaging article by polymath Adam Gopnik reviewing Robert Wright's recent book "Why Buddhism Is True." (Wright has written popular books on evolutionary psychology.) Gopnik briefly reviews the major appearances of Buddhism in late 19th century New England and then in the nineteen-fifties, spurred by writings of Suzuki and others. A few clips from the review, which I encourage you to read in its entirety:
Wright, like his Bay Area and Boston predecessors, is delighted to announce the ways in which Buddhism intersects with our own recent ideas. His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously secularized but aggressively “scientized.” He believes that Buddhist doctrine and practice anticipate and affirm the “modular” view of the mind favored by much contemporary cognitive science. Instead of there being a single, consistent Cartesian self that monitors the world and makes decisions, we live in a kind of nineties-era Liberia of the mind, populated by warring independent armies implanted by evolution, representing themselves as a unified nation but unable to reconcile their differences, and, as one after another wins a brief battle for the capital, providing only the temporary illusion of control and decision. By accepting that the fixed self is an illusion imprinted by experience and reinforced by appetite, meditation parachutes in a kind of peacekeeping mission that, if it cannot demobilize the armies, lets us see their nature and temporarily disarms their still juvenile soldiers.
Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind.
Meditation shows us how anything can be emptied of the story we tell about it: he tells us about an enlightened man who tastes wine without the contextual tales about vintage, varietal, region. It tastes . . . less emotional. “All the states of equanimity come through the realization that things aren’t what we thought they were,” Wright quotes a guru as saying. What Wright calls “the perception of emptiness” dampens the affect, but it also settles the mind. If it isn’t there, you don’t overreact to it.
Simply to sit and breathe for twenty-five minutes, if only to hear cars and buses go by on a city avenue—listening to the world rather than to the frantic non sequiturs of one’s “monkey mind,” fragmented thoughts and querulous moods racing each other around—can intimate the possibility of a quiet grace in the midst of noise.
A faith practice with an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a horror; a faith practice without an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a hobby. The dwindling down of Buddhism into another life-style choice will doubtless irritate many, and Wright will likely be sneered at for reducing Buddhism to another bourgeois amenity, like yoga or green juice...Yet what Wright is doing seems an honorable, even a sublime, achievement. Basically, he says that meditation has made him somewhat less irritable. Being somewhat less irritable is not the kind of achievement that people usually look to religion for, but it may be as good an achievement as we ought to expect. (If Donald Trump became somewhat less irritable, the world would be a less dangerous place.)

Monday, September 04, 2017

Washing away your sins in the brain.

From Tang et al.
The association between moral purity and physical cleanliness has been widely discussed recently. Studies found that moral threat initiates the need of physical cleanliness, but actual physical cleaning and priming of cleaning have inconsistent effects on subsequent attitudes and behaviors. Here, we used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging to explore the underlying neural mechanism of actual physical cleaning and priming of cleaning. After recalling moral transgression with strong feelings of guilt and shame, participants either actually cleaned their faces with a wipe or were primed with cleanliness through viewing its pictures. Results showed that actual physical cleaning reduced the spontaneous brain activities in the right insula and MPFC, regions that involved in embodied moral emotion processing, while priming of cleaning decreased activities in the right superior frontal gyrus and middle frontal gyrus, regions that participated in executive control processing. Additionally, actual physical cleaning also changed functional connectivity between insula/MPFC and emotion related regions, whereas priming of cleaning modified connectivity within both moral and sensorimotor areas. These findings revealed that actual physical cleaning and priming of cleaning led to changes in different brain regions and networks, providing neural evidence for the inconsistent effects of cleanliness on subsequent attitudes and behaviors.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Mindfulness management of stress and inflammation

I pass on a description from the Univ. of Wisconsin Center for Healthy Minds of research suggesting that mindfulness meditation may be an effective way to manage inflammation the the expression of disease. Their text:
In one study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, the group compared people with asthma that had high versus low levels of chronic stress. Both groups were exposed to an acute stressor. During exposure to the stressor, the increase in activity in the mid-insula – a part of the brain involved in bi-directional influence with the state of the body – was associated with greater stress reactivity and predicted subsequent airway inflammation after the stressor. The findings provide support for the idea that psychological stressors result in detrimental outcomes in inflammatory disease expression, particularly in people experiencing chronic life stress.
In another study, Rosenkranz and scientists measured inflammatory responses in experienced meditators and people with no or little meditation experience. By examining participants’ responses to an acute stressor through their levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – in saliva samples and inflammatory response to a topical capsaicin cream, the team found that experienced meditators showed lower reactivity, suggesting that meditation practices may be helpful in mitigating inflammatory responses brought about by psychological stress.
With roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population living with asthma, and inflammation being a contributor to many other chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, Rosenkranz says the findings are important in challenging the medical community to look beyond pharmaceutical approaches to address these physical manifestations of disease and to also consider strategies that harness the influence of the mind on the body.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

How to make time slow down.

Many days I feel by 5 p.m. like my day has evaporated without my noticing it. I recall that when I was 20-40 years old my days seems to stretch out much longer. Cooper does a piece on the interesting science of time perception that explains how this has a lot to do with my being in my 76th year. Put most simply, when we are younger we are attending to more new information, it takes our brains a while to process it all, and the longer this processing takes, the longer that period of time feels. When we are older we typically are taking in information we've processed before ("I've see it all."), the brain doesn't work so hard, so it processes time faster.
Our ‘sense’ of time is unlike our other senses—i.e. taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. With time, we don’t so much sense it as perceive it...our brains take a whole bunch of information from our senses and organize it in a way that makes sense to us, before we ever perceive it. So what we think is our sense of time is actually just a whole bunch of information presented to us in a particular way, as determined by our brains.
When our brains receive new information, it doesn’t necessarily come in the proper order. This information needs to be reorganized and presented to us in a form we understand. When familiar information is processed, this doesn’t take much time at all. New information, however, is a bit slower and makes time feel isn’t just a single area of the brain that controls our time perception—it’s done by a whole bunch of brain areas, unlike our common five senses, which can each be pinpointed to specific area.
So, here's the self-helpy message: How do we make our days last longer? We can feed our brains more new information - keep learning, visit new places, meet new people, try new activities, be spontaneous. The extra processing time required will make us feel like time is moving more slowly! 

[[By the way, sharp readers will have noted a conflict of the above with yesterday's blog post, namely in the statement above with "Our ‘sense’ of time is unlike our other senses—i.e. taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. With time, we don’t so much sense it as perceive it..." While the basic message above is still OK, yesterday's post points out that we don't directly 'sense it', i.e.  directly taste, touch, smell, see, and hear... the function of that sensory input is to test and tweak our top-down ongoing model of tasting, touching, smelling, seeing. That model, like our perception of time, is a derivative perception, which can also be altered in various ways.]]

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

An essay on the real problem of consciousness.

For those of you who are consciousness mavens, I would recommend having a glance at Anil Seth’s essay, which does a clear headed description of some current ideas about what consciousness is. He summarizes the model of consciousness as an ensemble of predictive perceptions. Clips from his essay:
The classical view of perception is that the brain processes sensory information in a bottom-up or ‘outside-in’ direction: sensory signals enter through receptors (for example, the retina) and then progress deeper into the brain, with each stage recruiting increasingly sophisticated and abstract processing. In this view, the perceptual ‘heavy-lifting’ is done by these bottom-up connections. The Helmholtzian view inverts this framework, proposing that signals flowing into the brain from the outside world convey only prediction errors – the differences between what the brain expects and what it receives. Perceptual content is carried by perceptual predictions flowing in the opposite (top-down) direction, from deep inside the brain out towards the sensory surfaces. Perception involves the minimisation of prediction error simultaneously across many levels of processing within the brain’s sensory systems, by continuously updating the brain’s predictions. In this view, which is often called ‘predictive coding’ or ‘predictive processing’, perception is a controlled hallucination, in which the brain’s hypotheses are continually reined in by sensory signals arriving from the world and the body. ‘A fantasy that coincides with reality,’ as the psychologist Chris Frith eloquently put it in Making Up the Mind (2007).
...instead of asking which brain regions correlate with conscious (versus unconscious) perception, we can ask: which aspects of predictive perception go along with consciousness? A number of experiments are now indicating that consciousness depends more on perceptual predictions, than on prediction errors. In 2001, Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Vincent Walsh at Harvard Medical School asked people to report the perceived direction of movement of clouds of drifting dots (so-called ‘random dot kinematograms’). They used TMS to specifically interrupt top-down signalling across the visual cortex, and they found that this abolished conscious perception of the motion, even though bottom-up signals were left intact.
More recently, in my lab, we’ve been probing the predictive mechanisms of conscious perception in more detail. In several experiments...we’ve found that people consciously see what they expect, rather than what violates their expectations. We’ve also discovered that the brain imposes its perceptual predictions at preferred points (or phases) within the so-called ‘alpha rhythm’, which is an oscillation in the EEG signal at about 10 Hz that is especially prominent over the visual areas of the brain. This is exciting because it gives us a glimpse of how the brain might actually implement something like predictive perception, and because it sheds new light on a well-known phenomenon of brain activity, the alpha rhythm, whose function so far has remained elusive.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A magic bullet to restore our brain's plasticity?

No...not yet. But work by Jenks et al. showing that juvenile-like plasticity is restored in the visual cortex of adult mice by acute viral expression of the neuronal protein Arc makes one wonder if a similar trick might eventually be tried in adult human brains...

Neuronal plasticity peaks early in life during critical periods and normally declines with age, but the molecular changes that underlie this decline are not fully understood. Using the mouse visual cortex as a model, we found that activity-dependent expression of the neuronal protein Arc peaks early in life, and that loss of activity-dependent Arc expression parallels loss of synaptic plasticity in the visual cortex. Genetic overexpression of Arc prolongs the critical period of visual cortex plasticity, and acute viral expression of Arc in adult mice can restore juvenile-like plasticity. These findings provide a mechanism for the loss of excitatory plasticity with age, and suggest that Arc may be an exciting therapeutic target for modulation of the malleability of neuronal circuits.
The molecular basis for the decline in experience-dependent neural plasticity over age remains poorly understood. In visual cortex, the robust plasticity induced in juvenile mice by brief monocular deprivation during the critical period is abrogated by genetic deletion of Arc, an activity-dependent regulator of excitatory synaptic modification. Here, we report that augmenting Arc expression in adult mice prolongs juvenile-like plasticity in visual cortex, as assessed by recordings of ocular dominance (OD) plasticity in vivo. A distinguishing characteristic of juvenile OD plasticity is the weakening of deprived-eye responses, believed to be accounted for by the mechanisms of homosynaptic long-term depression (LTD). Accordingly, we also found increased LTD in visual cortex of adult mice with augmented Arc expression and impaired LTD in visual cortex of juvenile mice that lack Arc or have been treated in vivo with a protein synthesis inhibitor. Further, we found that although activity-dependent expression of Arc mRNA does not change with age, expression of Arc protein is maximal during the critical period and declines in adulthood. Finally, we show that acute augmentation of Arc expression in wild-type adult mouse visual cortex is sufficient to restore juvenile-like plasticity. Together, our findings suggest a unifying molecular explanation for the age- and activity-dependent modulation of synaptic sensitivity to deprivation.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Are people really unconcerned about rising economic inequality?

McCall et al. provide data to counter a common social sciences research conclusion that Americans don't are about rising inequality:
Economic inequality has been on the rise in the United States since the 1980s and by some measures stands at levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Although the strikingly high and rising level of economic inequality in the nation has alarmed scholars, pundits, and elected officials alike, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. Considerable research has documented, for instance, the important role of psychological processes, such as system justification and American Dream ideology, in engendering Americans’ relative insensitivity to economic inequality. The present work offers, and reports experimental tests of, a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality. Specifically, two convenience samples (study 1, n = 480; and study 2, n = 1,305) and one representative sample (study 3, n = 1,501) of American adults were exposed to information about rising economic inequality in the United States (or control information) and then asked about their beliefs regarding the roles of structural (e.g., being born wealthy) and individual (e.g., hard work) factors in getting ahead in society (i.e., opportunity beliefs). They then responded to policy questions regarding the roles of business and government actors in reducing economic inequality. Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality, the results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress economic inequality.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mammalian empathy: neural basis and behavioral manifestations

I want to point to an interesting review by de Waal and Preston in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Here are the Abstract and a few excerpts from the article:
Recent research on empathy in humans and other mammals seeks to dissociate emotional and cognitive empathy. These forms, however, remain interconnected in evolution, across species and at the level of neural mechanisms. New data have facilitated the development of empathy models such as the perception–action model (PAM) and mirror-neuron theories. According to the PAM, the emotional states of others are understood through personal, embodied representations that allow empathy and accuracy to increase based on the observer's past experiences. In this Review, we discuss the latest evidence from studies carried out across a wide range of species, including studies on yawn contagion, consolation, aid-giving and contagious physiological affect, and we summarize neuroscientific data on representations related to another's state.
Key points:
Observational and experimental studies dating back to the 1950s demonstrate that mammals spontaneously help distressed conspecifics. Research emphasizes the untrained, unrewarded nature of this behaviour, which is also biased towards familiar individuals, thus arguing against explanations that are exclusively based on associative learning or conditioning.
The perception–action model extends an existing motor theory on overlapping representations to emotional phenomena; it states that observers who attend to a target's state understand and 'feel into' it through personal distributed representations of the target, the state and the situation. Easily observed manifestations of this mechanism are emotional contagion and motor mimicry, which have been demonstrated in many animals. In cognitive forms of empathy, the same representations are accessed from the top-down.
Experiments on two common mammalian expressions of empathy — the consolation of distressed individuals and spontaneous assistance to those in need — support the crucial role of caught distress and arousal because these behaviours are suppressed by anti-anxiety medication and engage the same neuropeptide system that supports social attachment.
The Russian-doll model seeks to arrange forms of empathy into layers that are built on top of each other — with the layers ranging from emotional contagion to more cognitive forms of empathy — in a functionally integrated whole based on perception–action processes. Perspective-taking is well developed in some non-human species, as manifested by theory-of-mind and targeted helping.
One can segregate emotional and cognitive empathy (as well as felt and observed states) in the brains of observers, but all forms require some initial access to the observer's distributed, shared, personal representations of the target's state. At least in the initial phase of processing, this access helps to decode the target's state and provide subsequent processing with content and meaning, even if the shared state is not experienced, or is incomplete or inaccurate.
Empathic pain does not usually include the peripheral sensation of the target's injury, but it can include sensory information when the stimuli and task instructions emphasize the specific nature of the feeling at the location of the injury.
The Russian Doll Model of the Evolution of Empathy

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Forget about our brains, even the most simple nerve networks defy understanding.

If the artificial intelligence researchers who want to ‘reverse engineer the brain’ as a model for artificial general intelligence want yet another sobering read, they should have a look at Kerri Smith’s recent Nature review of work in many labs on different simple animal models that are vastly less complicated than the human brain (nematodes, fruit fly larvae, zebrafish embryos, etc.). They are bloody complicated:
...neural-network diagrams are yielding surprises — showing, for example, that a brain can use one network in multiple ways to create the same behaviours...Circuits vary in layout and function from animal to animal. The systems have redundancy that makes it difficult to pin one function to one circuit. Plus, wiring alone doesn't fully explain how circuits generate behaviours; other factors, such as neurochemicals, have to be considered.
...Eve Marder of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has been working on a simple circuit of 30 neurons in the crab gastric system...although the circuits of individual animals may look the same and produce the same output, they vary widely in the strength of their signals and the conductance at their synapses

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Different flavors of artificial intelligence - and, can we pull the plug?

I want to pass on a few summary points from two recent sessions of the Chaos and Complex Systems seminar that I attend at the University of Wisconsin. I led the first of the sessions and Terry Allard, a retired government science administrator (ONR, NASA, FAA) led the second.

Artificial intelligence (AI) comes in at least three flavors, or stages of development.

There is Artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), which where we are now, crunching massive amounts of data to discern patterns that let us solve problems, like reading X-rays or deciding whether to approve mortgage loans.

Then there’s artificial general intelligence (AGI, not yet happening), meant to achieve the kind of flexible and novel thinking that even human infants can do. Ideas about how to proceed include reverse engineering how the brain does what it does, making evolution happen with genetic algorithms, devising programs that change themselves as they learn (recursive self improvement), etc.

These approaches, especially recursive self improvement, might eventually lead on to artificial super intelligence (ASI), transcending human abilities. We might be no more able to understand this new kind of entity than a dog is able to understand quantum physics.  (See The Road to Superintelligence for one line of speculation.)

Intelligence. or how intelligent something is, is a measure of ability to achieve a particular aim, to deploy novel means to attain a goal, whatever it happens to be, the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself. Being smart is not the same as wanting something. Any level of intelligence — including superintelligence — can be combined with just about any set of final goals — including goals that strike us as stupid.

So...what is the fundamental overall goal or aim of humans? Presumably, as with all other biological life forms, to perpetuate the species, which requires not having the environmental niche from which it draws support disappear, either through its own actions or though other natural forces. A super AI that might supplant us or be the next stage in our evolution would have to maintain or reproduce itself in a natural physical environment in the same way .

Paranoid fantasies about AI dystopias abound, and Applebaum suggests the AI dystopia may already be here, in the form of ubiquitous bots:
...bits of code that can crawl around the web doing all sorts of things more sinister than correcting spelling and grammar, like completely infecting and distorting social media, the article cites one estimate that half of the users on Twitter are bots, created by companies that either sell them or use them to promote various causes. The Computational Propaganda Research Project at the University of Oxford has described how bots are used to promote either political parties or government agendas in 28 countries. They can harass political opponents or their followers, promote policies, or simply seek to get ideas into circulation….no one is really able to explain the way they all interact, or what the impact of both real and artificial online campaigns might be on the way people think or form opinions.
Maybe we’ve been imagining this scenario incorrectly all of this time. Maybe this is what “computers out of control” really look like. There’s no giant spaceship, nor are there armies of lifelike robots. Instead, we have created a swamp of unreality, a world where you don’t know whether the emotions you are feeling are manipulated by men or machines, and where — once all news moves online, as it surely will — it will soon be impossible to know what’s real and what’s imagined. Isn’t this the dystopia we have so long feared?
Distinctions between human and autonomous agents are blurred in virtual worlds. What is real and what is “fake news”  is difficult to ascertain. “Spoofing” is rampant. (See The curious case of ‘Nicole Mincey,’ the Trump fan who may actually be a bot.).

Terry Allard offered the following Assertions/Assumptions in the second of our sessions:

-Artificial Intelligence is not a continuum. Human-Level Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is not a required step to super-intelligence.  -Machine evolution requires machine capability to self-code and to build physical artifacts.
-People will become dependent on machine intelligence but largely unaware and unconcerned.
-AI’s will be pervasive, distributed, multi-layered and networked, not single independent entities.
-Super-intelligent Machines may have multiple levels of agency. There will be no single “off switch” allowing humans to pull the plug.
-What can be invented, will be invented; it’s just a question of time.

Finally, I point to an article by Cade Metz, "Teaching AI systems to behave themselves," that is an antidote to paranoid fantasies and questions about whether there can be an 'off switch'.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Race based biases in deception judgements.

From Lloyd et al.:
In six studies (N = 605), participants made deception judgments about videos of Black and White targets who told truths and lies about interpersonal relationships. White participants judged that Black targets were telling the truth more often than they judged that White targets were telling the truth. This truth bias was predicted by Whites’ motivation to respond without prejudice. For Black participants, however, motives to respond without prejudice did not moderate responses. We found similar effects with a manipulation of the targets’ apparent race. Finally, we used eye-tracking techniques to demonstrate that Whites’ truth bias for Black targets is likely the result of late-stage correction processes: Despite ultimately judging that Black targets were telling the truth more often than White targets, Whites were faster to fixate on the on-screen “lie” response box when targets were Black than when targets were White. These systematic race-based biases have important theoretical implications (e.g., for lie detection and improving intergroup communication and relations) and practical implications (e.g., for reducing racial bias in law enforcement).

Monday, August 21, 2017

Beyond anger.

A feature of our current political polarization is the pent up anger felt by both far-left and far-right political partisans against each other, sometimes including dehumanization and demonization of the opposite side. Aeon offers a brief essay by Martha Nussbaum that is worth reading. A few clips and a comment:
A good place to begin is Aristotle’s definition: not perfect, but useful, and a starting point for a long Western tradition of reflection. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback.
Nussbaum takes payback, or revenge, as a flawed way of making sense of the world. Except..
There is one, and I think only one, situation in which the payback idea does make sense. That is when I see the wrong as entirely and only what Aristotle calls a ‘down-ranking’: a personal humiliation, seen as entirely about relative status. If the problem is not the injustice itself, but the way it has affected my ranking in the social hierarchy, then I really can achieve something by humiliating the wrongdoer: by putting him relatively lower, I put myself relatively higher, and if status is all I care about, I don’t need to worry that the real wellbeing problems created by the wrongful act have not been solved.
I don't think Nussbaum gives sufficient emphasis to payback, or punishment, as a means to upholding and enforcing social norms. The main part of her essay describes Nelson Mandela's extraordinary actions in overcoming anger to bring together two parts of a deeply divided nation.
Whether the anger in question is personal, or work-related, or political, it requires exacting effort against one’s own habits and prevalent cultural forces. Many great leaders have understood this struggle, but none more deeply than Nelson Mandela...he knew that there could be no successful nation when two groups were held apart by suspicion, resentment, and the desire to make the other side pay for the wrongs they had done. Even though those wrongs were terrible, cooperation was necessary for nationhood.
Nussbaum gives examples of Mandela bringing people together:
When the ANC (African National Congress) voted to replace the old Afrikaner national anthem with the anthem of the freedom movement, he persuaded them to adopt, instead, the anthem that is now official, which includes the freedom anthem (using three African languages), a verse of the Afrikaner hymn, and a concluding section in English. When the ANC wanted to decertify the rugby team as a national team, correctly understanding the sport’s long connection to racism, Mandela, famously, went in the other direction, backing the rugby team to a World Cup victory and, through friendship, getting the white players to teach the sport to young black children.
We need our own Nelson Mandela to begin to heal the current alt-right/alt-left standoff!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hold your nose to prevent obesity?

Smell clearly affects the anticipation and appreciation of food. Riera et al. show (in mice) that activity in olfactory sensory neurons also influences energy regulation. Mice who lose their sense of smell become leaner, not because they eat less, but because increased sympathetic nerve activity causes increased fat-burning activity.

•Loss of adult olfactory neurons protects against diet-induced obesity 
•Loss of smell after obesity also reduces fat mass and insulin resistance 
•Loss of IGF1 receptors in olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) improves olfaction 
•Loss of IGF1R in OSNs increases adiposity and insulin resistance
Olfactory inputs help coordinate food appreciation and selection, but their role in systemic physiology and energy balance is poorly understood. Here we demonstrate that mice upon conditional ablation of mature olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs) are resistant to diet-induced obesity accompanied by increased thermogenesis in brown and inguinal fat depots. Acute loss of smell perception after obesity onset not only abrogated further weight gain but also improved fat mass and insulin resistance. Reduced olfactory input stimulates sympathetic nerve activity, resulting in activation of β-adrenergic receptors on white and brown adipocytes to promote lipolysis. Conversely, conditional ablation of the IGF1 receptor in OSNs enhances olfactory performance in mice and leads to increased adiposity and insulin resistance. These findings unravel a new bidirectional function for the olfactory system in controlling energy homeostasis in response to sensory and hormonal signals.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Our broken economy, in one simple chart

You probably have seen this chart from a NYTimes article by now, but I want to pass it on just in case. Also getting it into the list of MindBlog posts makes it easier for me to search for and recall it. The graph shows income growth over the past 34 years versus income percentile for those living in 1980 and in 2014.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Neural correlates of the positive effects of gratitude.

Fox offers a review noting studies showing that gratitude activates area of the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief - an area of the brain that also is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief. He points in particular to the work of Kini et al.. Their abstract:
Gratitude is a common aspect of social interaction, yet relatively little is known about the neural bases of gratitude expression, nor how gratitude expression may lead to longer-term effects on brain activity. To address these twin issues, we recruited subjects who coincidentally were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety. One group participated in a gratitude writing intervention, which required them to write letters expressing gratitude. The therapy-as-usual control group did not perform a writing intervention. After three months, subjects performed a “Pay It Forward” task in the fMRI scanner. In the task, subjects were repeatedly endowed with a monetary gift and then asked to pass it on to a charitable cause to the extent they felt grateful for the gift. Operationalizing gratitude as monetary gifts allowed us to engage the subjects and quantify the gratitude expression for subsequent analyses. We measured brain activity and found regions where activity correlated with self-reported gratitude experience during the task, even including related constructs such as guilt motivation and desire to help as statistical controls. These were mostly distinct from brain regions activated by empathy or theory of mind. Also, our between groups cross-sectional study found that a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude – subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.
Fox also points to an article suggesting a role for mu-Opioids in mediating the positive effects of gratitude.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Exposure to and recall of violence reduce short-term memory and cognitive control

From Bogliacino et al.:

Research on violence has mainly focused on its consequences on individuals’ health and behavior. This study establishes the effects of exposure to violence on individuals’ short-term memory and cognitive control. These are key factors affecting individual well-being and societal development. We sampled Colombian civilians who were exposed either to urban violence or to warfare. We found that higher exposure to violence significantly reduces short-term memory and cognitive control only in the group actively recalling emotional states linked with such experiences. This finding demonstrates and characterizes the long-lasting effects of violence. Existing studies have found effects of poverty on cognitive control similar to those that we found for violence. This set of findings supports the validity of the cognitive theory underpinning these studies.
Previous research has investigated the effects of violence and warfare on individuals' well-being, mental health, and individual prosociality and risk aversion. This study establishes the short- and long-term effects of exposure to violence on short-term memory and aspects of cognitive control. Short-term memory is the ability to store information. Cognitive control is the capacity to exert inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Both have been shown to affect positively individual well-being and societal development. We sampled Colombian civilians who were exposed either to urban violence or to warfare more than a decade earlier. We assessed exposure to violence through either the urban district-level homicide rate or self-reported measures. Before undertaking cognitive tests, a randomly selected subset of our sample was asked to recall emotions of anxiety and fear connected to experiences of violence, whereas the rest recalled joyful or emotionally neutral experiences. We found that higher exposure to violence was associated with lower short-term memory abilities and lower cognitive control in the group recalling experiences of violence, whereas it had no effect in the other group. This finding demonstrates that exposure to violence, even if a decade earlier, can hamper cognitive functions, but only among individuals actively recalling emotional states linked with such experiences. A laboratory experiment conducted in Germany aimed to separate the effect of recalling violent events from the effect of emotions of fear and anxiety. Both factors had significant negative effects on cognitive functions and appeared to be independent from each other.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Leisure just as enjoyable before as after work is done.

From O'Brien and Roney:
Four studies reveal that (a) people hold a robust intuition about the order of work and leisure and that (b) this intuition is sometimes mistaken. People prefer saving leisure for last, believing they would otherwise be distracted by looming work (Study 1). In controlled experiments, however, although subjects thought their enjoyment would be spoiled when they played a game before rather than after a laborious problem-solving task, got a massage before rather than after midterms, and consumed snacks and watched videos before rather than after a stressful performance, in reality these experiences were similarly enjoyable regardless of order (Studies 2 through 4). This misprediction was indeed mediated by anticipated distraction and was therefore attenuated after people were reminded of the absorbing nature of enjoyable activities (Studies 3 and 4). These studies highlight the power of hedonic experience within the moment of consumption, which has implications for managing (or mismanaging) everyday work and leisure. People might postpone leisure and overwork for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Perception of being overweight predicts future health and well-being

An interesting bit from Daly et al.:
Identifying oneself as being overweight may be associated with adverse health outcomes, yet prospective tests of this possibility are lacking. Over 7 years, we examined associations between perceptions of being overweight and subsequent health in a sample of 3,582 U.S. adults. Perceiving oneself as being overweight predicted longitudinal declines in subjective health (d = −0.22, p less than .001), increases in depressive symptoms (d = 0.09, p less than .05), and raised levels of physiological dysregulation (d = 0.24, p less than .001), as gauged by clinical indicators of cardiovascular, inflammatory, and metabolic functioning. These associations remained after controlling for a range of potential confounders and were observed irrespective of whether perceptions of being overweight were accurate or inaccurate. This research highlights the possibility that identifying oneself as overweight may act independently of body mass index to contribute to unhealthy profiles of physiological functioning and impaired health over time. These findings underscore the importance of evaluating whether weight-feedback interventions may have unforeseen adverse consequences.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In group favoritism shown by 17 month old infants.

Jin and Baillargeon make observations that suggest an early origin of the 'us and them' perspective being taken to extremes in our current political climate.
One pervasive facet of human interactions is the tendency to favor ingroups over outgroups. Remarkably, this tendency has been observed even when individuals are assigned to minimal groups based on arbitrary markers. Why is mere categorization into a minimal group sufficient to elicit some degree of ingroup favoritism? We consider several accounts that have been proposed in answer to this question and then test one particular account, which holds that ingroup favoritism reflects in part an abstract and early-emerging sociomoral expectation of ingroup support. In violation-of-expectation experiments with 17-mo-old infants, unfamiliar women were first identified (using novel labels) as belonging to the same group, to different groups, or to unspecified groups. Next, one woman needed instrumental assistance to achieve her goal, and another woman either provided the necessary assistance (help event) or chose not to do so (ignore event). When the two women belonged to the same group, infants looked significantly longer if shown the ignore as opposed to the help event; when the two women belonged to different groups or to unspecified groups, however, infants looked equally at the two events. Together, these results indicate that infants view helping as expected among individuals from the same group, but as optional otherwise. As such, the results demonstrate that from an early age, an abstract expectation of ingroup support contributes to ingroup favoritism in human interactions.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Redistribution is supported by compassion, envy, and self interest, but not sense of fairness.

A huge collaboration looks at support for redistribution of wealth from an evolutionary psychology perspective:

Markets have lifted millions out of poverty, but considerable inequality remains and there is a large worldwide demand for redistribution. Although economists, philosophers, and public policy analysts debate the merits and demerits of various redistributive programs, a parallel debate has focused on voters’ motives for supporting redistribution. Understanding these motives is crucial, for the performance of a policy cannot be meaningfully evaluated except in the light of intended ends. Unfortunately, existing approaches pose ill-specified motives. Chief among them is fairness, a notion that feels intuitive but often rests on multiple inconsistent principles. We show that evolved motives for navigating interpersonal interactions clearly predict attitudes about redistribution, but a taste for procedural fairness or distributional fairness does not.
Why do people support economic redistribution? Hypotheses include inequity aversion, a moral sense that inequality is intrinsically unfair, and cultural explanations such as exposure to and assimilation of culturally transmitted ideologies. However, humans have been interacting with worse-off and better-off individuals over evolutionary time, and our motivational systems may have been naturally selected to navigate the opportunities and challenges posed by such recurrent interactions. We hypothesize that modern redistribution is perceived as an ancestral scene involving three notional players: the needy other, the better-off other, and the actor herself. We explore how three motivational systems—compassion, self-interest, and envy—guide responses to the needy other and the better-off other, and how they pattern responses to redistribution. Data from the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel support this model. Endorsement of redistribution is independently predicted by dispositional compassion, dispositional envy, and the expectation of personal gain from redistribution. By contrast, a taste for fairness, in the sense of (i) universality in the application of laws and standards, or (ii) low variance in group-level payoffs, fails to predict attitudes about redistribution.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Smiles for love, sympathy, and war.

From Rychlowska et al.:
A smile is the most frequent facial expression, but not all smiles are equal. A social-functional account holds that smiles of reward, affiliation, and dominance serve basic social functions, including rewarding behavior, bonding socially, and negotiating hierarchy. Here, we characterize the facial-expression patterns associated with these three types of smiles. Specifically, we modeled the facial expressions using a data-driven approach and showed that reward smiles are symmetrical and accompanied by eyebrow raising, affiliative smiles involve lip pressing, and dominance smiles are asymmetrical and contain nose wrinkling and upper-lip raising. A Bayesian-classifier analysis and a detection task revealed that the three smile types are highly distinct. Finally, social judgments made by a separate participant group showed that the different smile types convey different social messages. Our results provide the first detailed description of the physical form and social messages conveyed by these three types of functional smiles and document the versatility of these facial expressions.  (click on figure to enlarge). 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Why it's a bad idea to tell students that words are violence

A piece by Haidt and Lukianoff contesting several points made by Lisa Friedman in a much discussed NYTimes Grey Matter essay is worth a read. After noting that Friedman makes the valid and well known point that chronic stress can cause physical damage to the body, they contest her logic that follows:
Feldman Barrett used these empirical findings to advance a syllogism: “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.” It is logically true that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. But following this logic, the resulting inference should be merely that words can cause physical harm, not that words are violence. If you’re not convinced, just re-run the syllogism starting with “gossiping about a rival,” for example, or “giving one’s students a lot of homework.” Both practices can cause prolonged stress to others, but that doesn’t turn them into forms of violence.
Friedman also notes that brief adversity, like being exposed to a distasteful perspective, can be a 'good kind of stress,' not harmful to the body, but rather building more resilience and strength. She notes further that a political or social climate exposing people to hateful words or casual brutality, can be toxic to the body, and then follows with a second invalid point:
That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.
Haidt and Lukianoff:
But wait, wasn’t Feldman Barrett’s key point the contrast between short- and long-term stressors? What would have happened had Yiannopoulos been allowed to speak at Berkeley? He would have faced a gigantic crowd of peaceful protesters, inside and outside the venue. The event would have been over in two hours. Any students who thought his words would cause them trauma could have avoided the talk and left the protesting to others. Anyone who joined the protests would have left with a strong sense of campus solidarity. And most importantly, all Berkeley students would have learned an essential lesson for life in 2017: How to encounter a troll without losing one’s cool. (The goal of a troll, after all, is to make people lose their cool.)

Friday, August 04, 2017

A positive mood from listening to music broadens our auditory attention.

An addition to the literature from Putkinen et al. expanding on previous findings that positive mood broadens visual attention:
Previous studies indicate that positive mood broadens the scope of visual attention, which can manifest as heightened distractibility. We used event-related potentials (ERP) to investigate whether music-induced positive mood has comparable effects on selective attention in the auditory domain. Subjects listened to experimenter-selected happy, neutral or sad instrumental music and afterwards participated in a dichotic listening task. Distractor sounds in the unattended channel elicited responses related to early sound encoding (N1/MMN) and bottom-up attention capture (P3a) while target sounds in the attended channel elicited a response related to top-down-controlled processing of task-relevant stimuli (P3b). For the subjects in a happy mood, the N1/MMN responses to the distractor sounds were enlarged while the P3b elicited by the target sounds was diminished. Behaviorally, these subjects tended to show heightened error rates on target trials following the distractor sounds. Thus, the ERP and behavioral results indicate that the subjects in a happy mood allocated their attentional resources more diffusely across the attended and the to-be-ignored channels. Therefore, the current study extends previous research on the effects of mood on visual attention and indicates that even unfamiliar instrumental music can broaden the scope of auditory attention via its effects on mood.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Default mode network and the wandering mind.

The respective roles of attentional and default mode networks in our brains has been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts (enter 'default mode' in the search box in the left column). Here is a further installment from Poerio et al.:
Experiences such as mind-wandering illustrate that cognition is not always tethered to events in the here-and-now. Although converging evidence emphasises the default mode network (DMN) in mind-wandering, its precise contribution remains unclear. The DMN comprises cortical regions that are maximally distant from primary sensory and motor cortex, a topological location that may support the stimulus-independence of mind-wandering. The DMN is functionally heterogeneous, comprising regions engaged by memory, social cognition and planning; processes relevant to mind-wandering content. Our study examined the relationships between: (i) individual differences in resting-state DMN connectivity, (ii) performance on memory, social and planning tasks and (iii) variability in spontaneous thought, to investigate whether the DMN is critical to mind-wandering because it supports stimulus-independent cognition, memory retrieval, or both. Individual variation in task performance modulated the functional organization of the DMN: poor external engagement was linked to stronger coupling between medial and dorsal subsystems, while decoupling of the core from the cerebellum predicted reports of detailed memory retrieval. Both patterns predicted off-task future thoughts. Consistent with predictions from component process accounts of mind-wandering, our study suggests a 2-fold involvement of the DMN: (i) it supports experiences that are unrelated to the environment through strong coupling between its sub-systems; (ii) it allows memory representations to form the basis of conscious experience.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The real threat of artificial intelligence

I want to pass on some clips from a very cogent article by Kai-Fu Lee (chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm, and the president of its Artificial Intelligence Institute). Then you might like to note the article by Gary Marcus suggesting that A.I. has a long way to go before bringing us to the crisis Lee suggests.
What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan)...This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.
Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too...This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it.
We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?
The solution to the problem of mass unemployment, I suspect, will involve “service jobs of love.” These are jobs that A.I. cannot do, that society needs and that give people a sense of purpose. Examples include accompanying an older person to visit a doctor, mentoring at an orphanage and serving as a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous — or, potentially soon, Virtual Reality Anonymous (for those addicted to their parallel lives in computer-generated simulations). The volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of the future.
Who will pay for these jobs? Here is where the enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands comes in. It strikes me as unavoidable that large chunks of the money created by A.I. will have to be transferred to those whose jobs have been displaced. This seems feasible only through Keynesian policies of increased government spending, presumably raised through taxation on wealthy companies.
The Keynesian approach I have sketched out may be feasible in the United States and China, which will have enough successful A.I. businesses to fund welfare initiatives via taxes. But what about other countries? ...They face two insurmountable problems. First, most of the money being made from artificial intelligence will go to the United States and China. A.I. is an industry in which strength begets strength...The other challenge for many countries that are not China or the United States is that their populations are increasing, especially in the developing world. While a large, growing population can be an economic asset (as in China and India in recent decades), in the age of A.I. it will be an economic liability because it will comprise mostly displaced workers, not productive ones.
So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.
One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Buying time promotes happiness.

A nice piece from Whillans et al.:

Despite rising incomes, people around the world are feeling increasingly pressed for time, undermining well-being. We show that the time famine of modern life can be reduced by using money to buy time. Surveys of large, diverse samples from four countries reveal that spending money on time-saving services is linked to greater life satisfaction. To establish causality, we show that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. This research reveals a previously unexamined route from wealth to well-being: spending money to buy free time.
Around the world, increases in wealth have produced an unintended consequence: a rising sense of time scarcity. We provide evidence that using money to buy time can provide a buffer against this time famine, thereby promoting happiness. Using large, diverse samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands (n = 6,271), we show that individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. A field experiment provides causal evidence that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Cognitive reappraisal in frontal cortex underlies placebo analgesia.

Interesting work from van der Meulen et al.:
Placebo analgesia (PA) depends crucially on the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is assumed to be responsible for initiating the analgesic response. Surprisingly little research has focused on the psychological mechanisms mediated by the PFC and underlying PA. One increasingly accepted theory is that cognitive reappraisal—the reinterpretation of the meaning of adverse events—plays an important role, but no study has yet addressed the possible functional relationship with PA. We studied the influence of individual differences in reappraisal ability on PA and its prefrontal mediation. Participants completed a cognitive reappraisal ability task, which compared negative affect evoked by pictures in a reappraise versus a control condition. In a subsequent fMRI session, PA was induced using thermal noxious stimuli and an inert skin cream. We found a region in the left dorsolateral PFC, which showed a positive correlation between placebo-induced activation and (i) the reduction in participants’ pain intensity ratings; and (ii) cognitive reappraisal ability scores. Moreover, this region showed increased placebo-induced functional connectivity with the periaqueductal grey, indicating its involvement in descending nociceptive control. These initial findings thus suggest that cognitive reappraisal mechanisms mediated by the dorsolateral PFC may play a role in initiating pain inhibition in PA.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Different languages use different systems of nerve cells.

From Xu et al.:
A large body of previous neuroimaging studies suggests that multiple languages are processed and organized in a single neuroanatomical system in the bilingual brain, although differential activation may be seen in some studies because of different proficiency levels and/or age of acquisition of the two languages. However, one important possibility is that the two languages may involve interleaved but functionally independent neural populations within a given cortical region, and thus, distinct patterns of neural computations may be pivotal for the processing of the two languages. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and multivariate pattern analyses, we tested this possibility in Chinese-English bilinguals when they performed an implicit reading task. We found a broad network of regions wherein the two languages evoked different patterns of activity, with only partially overlapping patterns of voxels in a given region. These regions, including the middle occipital cortices, fusiform gyri, and lateral temporal, temporoparietal, and prefrontal cortices, are associated with multiple aspects of language processing. The results suggest the functional independence of neural computations underlying the representations of different languages in bilinguals.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The world’s laziest countries.

From Althoff et al.:
To be able to curb the global pandemic of physical inactivity and the associated 5.3 million deaths per year, we need to understand the basic principles that govern physical activity. However, there is a lack of large-scale measurements of physical activity patterns across free-living populations worldwide. Here we leverage the wide usage of smartphones with built-in accelerometry to measure physical activity at the global scale. We study a dataset consisting of 68 million days of physical activity for 717,527 people, giving us a window into activity in 111 countries across the globe. We find inequality in how activity is distributed within countries and that this inequality is a better predictor of obesity prevalence in the population than average activity volume. Reduced activity in females contributes to a large portion of the observed activity inequality. Aspects of the built environment, such as the walkability of a city, are associated with a smaller gender gap in activity and lower activity inequality. In more walkable cities, activity is greater throughout the day and throughout the week, across age, gender, and body mass index (BMI) groups, with the greatest increases in activity found for females. Our findings have implications for global public health policy and urban planning and highlight the role of activity inequality and the built environment in improving physical activity and health.
From Erickson's summary of the work:
Interestingly, the average number of steps stepped was not correlated to obesity levels in a particular country...In places where some people got lots of steps and others got just a tiny amount, obesity levels were higher...Sweden had one of the smallest gaps between activity rich and activity also had one of the lowest rates of obesity...That pattern becomes even more clear when you compare the United States to Mexico. The countries have a similar step average, but Mexico's activity inequality and obesity levels are both much lower...When activity inequality is greatest, women's activity is reduced much more dramatically than men's activity, and thus the negative connections to obesity can affect women more greatly.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The brain circuits of a winner.

Social dominance in mice depends on winning social contests. Zhou et al. manipulate synapses connecting the thalamus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex to show that they store memory of previous winning or losing:
Mental strength and history of winning play an important role in the determination of social dominance. However, the neural circuits mediating these intrinsic and extrinsic factors have remained unclear. Working in mice, we identified a dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) neural population showing “effort”-related firing during moment-to-moment competition in the dominance tube test. Activation or inhibition of the dmPFC induces instant winning or losing, respectively. In vivo optogenetic-based long-term potentiation and depression experiments establish that the mediodorsal thalamic input to the dmPFC mediates long-lasting changes in the social dominance status that are affected by history of winning. The same neural circuit also underlies transfer of dominance between different social contests. These results provide a framework for understanding the circuit basis of adaptive and pathological social behaviors.