Friday, November 27, 2020

A unified view of reasons and emotions.

As indicated in my Nov. 18 post, I have been taking a mini-sabbitical from grinding out daily MindBlog posts to sort out my understanding of what emotions are. The catalyst for this pause has been my careful reading of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” I have dutifully abstracted text clips (and dived into some primary reference sources) to line up core points in each chapter. I will proceed, as I have with books by Metzinger, Harari, Pinker, Sapolsky, Graziano, Gilbert and others, to do a series of posts on the chapters. I have decided to cut to the chase, and present the bottom lines I agree with urging you to read the book to find the sometimes massive amounts of evidence presented. Barretts’ presentation is a bit more folksy, rambling, and disorganized that suits my taste, but her style does make the material more friendly and palatable to a general readership. 

What we are now seeing is a new view of what emotions are, fueled by data from improving brain imaging techniques that started to appear in the 1990’s. Here is my paraphrase and editing of Barrett’s introduction:

The classical view of ancient Greek philosophers up through prominent modern thinkers is that we have many evolved universal emotion circuits in our brains (for fear, sadness, rage, etc), each with a distinctive fingerprint, brute reflexes often at war with our rationality. Embedded in our social institutions and legal systems is the assumption that emotions are part of our inherent animal nature, needing control by rational thoughts.
In fact they are not universal, varying from culture to culture, with a century of effort failing to reveal a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion (for example in facial expressions, heart rate, blood pressure, or brain activity patterns).
The classical view of emotion remains compelling, despite evidence against it, because it’s intuitive. It provides reassuring answers to deep questions like where we come from, evolutionarily speaking, whether we are responsible for our actions when we get emotional.
Barrett’s ‘theory of constructed emotion’ takes the data to show that
…emotions are not built in, but made from more basic parts. They are not triggered but emerge as you create them from a combination of the physical properties of your body and a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever physical and cultural environment it develops in. Emotions are real in same sense that money is real - a product of human agreement.

A core distinction is between: 

-essentialism, which posits evolved hard wired modules of behavior such as a universal set of basic emotions signaled by stereotypes brain, facial and visceral changes, or a layered triune brain generating evolutionarily older and newer behaviors. 

versus 

-constructionism, which describes virtually all behaviors as being instances of construction transiently executed on the fly to deal with affect (feelings) registered along axes of valence (pleasant/unpleasant) and intensity (calm vs. arousal) using a basic toolkit of evolved brain hubs. (An analogy would be the many kinds of bakery products that can be made from the same simple set of ingredients such as flour, water, eggs, fat, etc,). 

The ultimate referent is suggested to be interoceptive sensing of allostatic (achieving stability) well being. The interoceptive sensory cortex of the brain’s insula appears to be central to generating our feelings (affect) of comfort/discomfort, pleasant/unpleasant, calm/arousal - the valence and degrees of arousal that inform actions such as the four F’s (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fornicating), our emotions, and our feelings - all in the service of maintaining general well being. 

 *******

Subsequent posts will deal with material in chapters 1-13 of Barrett’s book.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Your brain is not for thinking.

Lisa Feldman Barrett,the author whose book has prompted me to take a mini-sabbitical from MindBlog to do a period of study, has an Op-Ed piece in today's NYTimes that I suggest you read. A few clips to whet your appetite:
Much of your brain’s activity happens outside your awareness. In every moment, your brain must figure out your body’s needs for the next moment and execute a plan to fill those needs in advance...Your brain runs your body using something like a budget... The budget for your body tracks resources like water, salt and glucose as you gain and lose them. Each action that spends resources, such as standing up, running, and learning, is like a withdrawal from your account. Actions that replenish your resources, such as eating and sleeping, are like deposits.
It may seem less natural to view your mental life as a series of deposits and withdrawals. But your own experience is rarely a guide to your brain’s inner workings. Every thought you have, every feeling of happiness or anger or awe you experience, every kindness you extend and every insult you bear or sling is part of your brain’s calculations as it anticipates and budgets your metabolic needs.
There is no such thing as a purely mental cause, because every mental experience has roots in the physical budgeting of your body. This is one reason physical actions like taking a deep breath, or getting more sleep, can be surprisingly helpful in addressing problems we traditionally view as psychological.
We’re all living in challenging times, and we’re all at high risk for disrupted body budgets. If you feel weary from the pandemic and you’re battling a lack of motivation, consider your situation from a body-budgeting perspective. Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.”
I’m not saying you can snap your fingers and dissolve deep misery, or sweep away depression with a change of perspective. I’m suggesting that it’s possible to acknowledge what your brain is actually doing and take some comfort from it. Your brain is not for thinking. Everything that it conjures, from thoughts to emotions to dreams, is in the service of body budgeting. This perspective, adopted judiciously, can be a source of resilience in challenging times.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

We have been wrong about what emotions are - MindBlog is taking a study mini-sabbitical

I have been doing a careful reading of Barrett's book "How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain" - hence the decreased frequency of MindBlog posts. Much of the material in the book references research that MindBlog has dutifully reported, showing that our brains are prediction machines working with statistical probabilities, how what we see is what we expect to see, etc. But MindBlog has been seriously remiss in not pointing out the conflicts with, and continuing to use, concepts and categories that we now know to be flawed, such as the triune brain model, emotional categories and facial expressions that are erroneously claimed to be universal across cultures, etc. When I have finished my reading and abstracting of Barrett's book, I hope to pass on a synopsis of the main points, trying to be cautious about the new constructionist models replacing older essential assumptions about evolutionarily hard wired circuits dedicated to specific emotional categories. I want to be sure I'm not tossing out the baby with the bathwater, as far as our older essentialist explanations are concerned. Anyway, as this post's title indicates, I'm diverting time away from the scanning of journals' tables of contents that I use to find interesting material to post.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Nature's lessons for a more kind society.

I recently came across this 2009 MindBlog post... relevant to our times. Here is a re-post (this link to the original post takes you to some comments.)

Blog reader Gary Olson has pointed me to his review of Franz De Waal's new book "The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society." From that review:

de Waal provides compelling support for the proposition that humans are “preprogrammed to reach out.” From dolphins ferrying injured companions to safety and grieving elephants, baboons and cats (yes, even cats) to commiserating mice and hydrophobic chimps risking death to save a drowning companion, this is a major contribution to understanding the biological genesis of our inborn capacity for empathy, hence morality. In seven crisply written and wholly accessible chapters de Waal methodically demolishes the rationale behind Gordon Gekko’s admonition in the film "Wall Street" that greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”...De Waal objects to an unrestrained market system, not capitalism itself. He prefers that the economic system be mitigated by more attention to empathy in order to soften its rough edges...Nevertheless, de Waal seriously underestimates certain capitalist imperatives and the role played by elites in cultivating callousness, thereby undermining social solidarity, reciprocity and empathy. Capitalist culture devalues an empathic disposition, and, as Erich Fromm argued some fifty years ago, there is a basic incompatibility between the underlying principles of capitalism and the lived expression of an ethos of empathy.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The complexity model of societal collapse

Continuing in the thread of the previous MindBlog post describing Turchin's historical model, I want to point to Ben Ehrenreich's piece that also describes Joseph Tainter's model for the collapse of complex societies (PDF here). Some slightly edited clips:
Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity, i.e. specialized roles and the institutional structures that coordinate them, in order to solve problems...large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all...a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls “legitimacy,” the maintenance of which itself requires ever more complex structures, which become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they pile up.
His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns. It costs more and more, in other words, while producing smaller and smaller profits. “It’s a classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation,” Tainter says. You’re “running faster and faster to stay in the same place.” Take Rome, which, in Tainter's telling, was able to win significant wealth by sacking its neighbors but was thereafter required to maintain an ever larger and more expensive military just to keep the imperial machine from stalling — until it couldn’t anymore.
Only complexity, Tainter argues, provides an explanation that applies in every instance of collapse. We go about our lives, addressing problems as they arise. Complexity builds and builds, usually incrementally, without anyone noticing how brittle it has all become. Then some little push arrives, and the society begins to fracture. The result is a “rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” In human terms, that means central governments disintegrating and empires fracturing into “small, petty states,” often in conflict with one another. Trade routes seize up, and cities are abandoned. Literacy falls off, technological knowledge is lost and populations decline sharply. “The world,” Tainter writes, “perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown.”
“The world today is full,” Tainter writes. Complex societies occupy every inhabitable region of the planet. There is no escaping. This also means, he writes, that collapse, “if and when it comes again, will this time be global.” Our fates are interlinked. “No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”...The quest for efficiency, he wrote recently, has brought on unprecedented levels of complexity: “an elaborate global system of production, shipping, manufacturing and retailing” in which goods are manufactured in one part of the world to meet immediate demands in another, and delivered only when they’re needed. The system’s speed is dizzying, but so are its vulnerabilities.
If you close your eyes and open them again, the periodic disintegrations that punctuate our history — all those crumbling ruins — begin to fade, and something else comes into focus: wiliness, stubbornness and, perhaps the strongest and most essential human trait, adaptability. Perhaps our ability to band together, to respond creatively to new and difficult circumstances is not some tragic secret snare, as Tainter has it, a story that always ends in sclerotic complexity and collapse. Perhaps it is what we do best. When one way doesn’t work, we try another. When one system fails, we build another. We struggle to do things differently, and we push on. As always, we have no other choice.
These few clips do not to justice to Ehrenreich's article, which notes the ideas of other thinkers, and contemporary research initiatives. I recommend you read the whole thing.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Our looming civil unrest is predicted by Turchin's historical model.

I recommend you have a look at Graeme Wood's article on the writing and thoughts of Peter Turchin, who has developed a model based on the past 10,000 years of human history that in 2010 predicted that an "age of discord" worse than most Americans have experienced would get serious around 2020. Here are some clips:
The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari.
“You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said....Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-­Yale establishment simply didn’t have any vacancies.
Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.
So, if these clips whet your appetite, you should read the whole article,

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights

The Nov. 10 issue of PNAS has a open source perspective article authored by an all star cast of prominent thinkers (including Steven Pinker, Same Harris, Paul Bloom, David Buss, David Sloan Wilson....and others). Here is the abstract, a list of the 10 insights and the scientific they suggest, and the article's conclusion.
Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment.

Insight 1: The Virus Might Alter Host Sociability

 Insight 2: “Generation Quarantine” May Lack Critical Microbial Exposures

 Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread

 Insight 4: The Mating Landscape Is Changing, and There Will Be Economic Consequences from a Decrease in Birth Rates

 Insight 5: Gender Norms Are Backsliding, and Gender Inequality Is Increasing

 Insight 6: An Increase in Empathy and Compassion Is Not Guaranteed

 Insight 7: We Have Not Evolved to Seek the Truth

 Insight 8: Combating the Pandemic Requires Its Own Evolutionary Process

 Insight 9: Cultural Evolutionary Forces Impact COVID-19 Severity

 Insight 10: Human Progress Continues

Conclusion
COVID-19 has brought radical change, through deaths, stress of extended quarantine, confusion that slowed adequate responding, social unrest at a massive scale, and a long and uncertain social and economic aftermath. This radical change is global—no human, anywhere, is unaffected by COVID-19.
To understand the virus and our response to it, we need to understand how viruses and humans evolve. We know that there is a long history of the coevolution of viruses and humans. Viruses evolve to exploit their hosts to encourage their own replication, but they also depend on hosts to survive. Humans can tolerate some manipulation by viruses, but we have also evolved to combat them. This delicate coevolutionary dance is why we often seem to be running as fast as we can, just to stay in the same place (90).
However, humans also possess the tool of scientific insight that gives us a broader view than what the virus can see. Perhaps this can help us stay one step ahead. By understanding the nature of viral strategies, we can better anticipate the spread of COVID-19 and try to block it. Likewise, by understanding human nature, we can try to activate evolved motivational systems that will help fight the virus, such as providing cues that trigger our behavioral immune system. Understanding human nature will also enhance our ability to address the aftermath of COVID-19, as it has disrupted so many of our fundamental human activities, such as mating, parenting, and simply maintaining social contact.
Herein, we have described 10 insights offered by a broad range of evolutionary thinkers, with expertise ranging from evolutionary medicine to broadscale cultural evolution. These insights offer possibilities for guiding science to address the spread of COVID-19 and its inevitable aftermath. However, these insights represent only a limited snapshot of this historic moment, and a selection of topics, although important, that an evolutionary perspective on the pandemic can provide.
The objective in providing these insights is to help make sense of the vast confusion that mars this pandemic and to illuminate paths for research. In addition to insights that can produce immediate action, the pandemic has provided us with unique opportunities to witness human nature as it unfolds, from changes in patterns of reproduction, shifting social norms, and curiosities of cognition that can warp our recognition of threat. This paper is a call to action in science—both in the application of existing knowledge about viral and human nature and also as an opportunity to make discoveries that would not be possible except when a global social experiment is underway.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Increasing acceptance of psychotropic drugs reflected by US Election results

Several landmark drug reform measures were passed in the recent election. Four states legalized recreational marijuana, one state decriminalizing natural psychedelics, and Oregon decriminalizing all drugs and legalizing psilocybin psychotherapy. Andrew Sullivan comments on The Psychedelic Election. New York is getting its first psychedelic-medicine center, with the help of a startup called MindMed, which develops hallucinogens to treat mental illness and addiction. Several studies are showing psilocybin to be effective for treatment-resistant depression.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Oxytocin can increase or decrease anxiety-related behaviors.

Duque-Wilckens et al. report experiments in mice showing that oxytocin, usually regarding as reducing anxious behaviors, enables stress-induced social anxiety behaviors if it is produced outside of its normal source in the hypothalmus.  

Significance

The neuropeptide oxytocin is an important regulator of social behavior and is widely considered to reduce anxiety-related behaviors. However, growing evidence suggests that sometimes oxytocin increases anxiety. How can the same molecule have such different effects on behavior? Here we provide evidence that oxytocin produced outside of the hypothalamus is necessary and sufficient for stress-induced social anxiety behaviors. This suggests that the diverse effects of oxytocin on anxiety-related behaviors are mediated by circuit-specific oxytocin action.
Abstract
Oxytocin increases the salience of both positive and negative social contexts and it is thought that these diverse actions on behavior are mediated in part through circuit-specific action. This hypothesis is based primarily on manipulations of oxytocin receptor function, leaving open the question of whether different populations of oxytocin neurons mediate different effects on behavior. Here we inhibited oxytocin synthesis in a stress-sensitive population of oxytocin neurons specifically within the medioventral bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNSTmv). Oxytocin knockdown prevented social stress-induced increases in social vigilance and decreases in social approach. Viral tracing of BNSTmv oxytocin neurons revealed fibers in regions controlling defensive behaviors, including lateral hypothalamus, anterior hypothalamus, and anteromedial BNST (BNSTam). Oxytocin infusion into BNSTam in stress naïve mice increased social vigilance and reduced social approach. These results show that a population of extrahypothalamic oxytocin neurons plays a key role in controlling stress-induced social anxiety behaviors.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Power to the people (on climate change policy)

Cathleen O'Grady points to a good model for the United States - countries using citizens' assemblies to address longer term problems that politicians - focused mainly on their next election - fail to address. Motivated readers can obtain the full text by emailing me.
Summary
A growing number of countries are turning to citizens' assemblies—randomly selected groups of ordinary citizens—to offer suggestions on thorny policy matters, including climate change. The U.K. Climate Assembly produced its final policy recommendations last month, following a French assembly that recommended including climate goals in the French constitution, and an Irish assembly that led to a government plan to quadruple its carbon tax. Advocates of the method say random selection can cut through the polarization that emerges when politics listens only to the loudest voices, and that citizens can engage in longer term thinking than elected politicians, producing more ambitious proposals and bolstering political will. Scotland, Denmark, and Spain have announced their own climate assemblies, joining the worldwide surge of experiments in deliberative democracy.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Learned hopefulness

My son Jon pointed me to an irreverent 'Life Advice' column by Mark Manson whose Nov. 2 installment had an interesting piece describing Marin Seligman's updating of the interpretation of his classical 'learned helplessness' experiments.  I urge you to read the first of the three ideas ("Natural helplessness, learned hopefulness") presented in the Nov. 2 newsletter.  Jon had previously mentioned the free weekly column to me, but, as a sign of my age, I was so turned off by its title, "Mindf*ck Monday" and the gratuitous vulgarity of Manson's prose that I wrote it off. No longer...after looking at Manson's website I've signed on for a free subscription to his weekly letter. I have to get used to the language that our 40-something future leaders use to communicate. 

 

 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Healing the partisan partisan divide - is there a vital center?

A recent NYTimes OpEd by David Brooks notes that Biden has been taking steps towards healing political polarization and divisiveness. Andrew Sullivan echoes this theme in his Weekly Dish article "Healing From The Center Out". A clip from Sullivan:
Biden ran a campaign, in stark contrast to Clinton’s, focused not on rallying the base around identity grievances, but on persuading the other side with argument and engagement. If you believe in liberal democracy — in persuasion, dialogue, and civility — and want to resist tribalism, Biden may be our unexpected but real last chance. And in this campaign, he has walked the walk.
His core message, which has been remarkably consistent, is not a divisive or partisan one. It is neither angry nor bitter. Despite mockery and scorn from some understandably embittered partisans, he has a hand still held out if Republicans want to cooperate. In this speech at Warm Springs, where Biden invoked the legacy of FDR, you can feel the Obama vibe, so alien to the woke: “Red states, blue states, Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, and Liberals. I believe from the bottom of my heart, we can do it. People ask me, why are you so confident Joe? Because we are the United States of America.”

Reading these pieces has made me want to pass on this link to a youtube video of a Braver Angels public forum I attended recently titled "A Vital Center in the Age of Trump and Wokeness?," where Braver Angel's Luke Nathan Phillips hosted a conversation between Geoffrey Kabaservice, Director of Political Studies at the Niskanen Center, and Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, on the future of the political center in our polarized age.  Like the Braver Angels organization, The National Institute for Civil Discourse also sponsors programs aimed at engaging differences constructively. 

 

 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Being an America First populist correlates with reported lifetime criminal arrests.

Here is an interesting tidbit from Levi at al.:  

Significance

Using the 2016 American National Election Study, we develop comprehensive measures of the current populist moment in the United States. Our purpose is to develop a behavioral analysis of this current socially volatile moment. Using hierarchical modeling, we find that political narratives of America First populism are connected to reported lifetime criminal arrests, and this holds when taking into account political leanings or the economic precarity facing individuals. While we make no claims of causation, our findings provide important clues about the social volatility of the current moment. We find that political beliefs of America First express and reflect economic frustrations, and that the social boundaries these narratives draw against perceived outsiders and internationalism are associated with lifetime criminal arrests.
Abstract
Despite research on the causes of populism and on the narratives of populist leaders, there is little empirical work on the relationship between populist attitudes and behavior, notably including criminal behavior. Our overarching concern is the recurrent social volatility of metaphorical populist themes that are central to impactful political messaging. Drawing on a national United States survey conducted around the 2016 election, we use multilevel models to show that the politically charged exclusionary boundaries of “America First” populism are behaviorally connected to increased odds of having been arrested. We argue that the rapid redrawing of social boundaries that make up populist attitudes is closely connected with the effects of economic and political frustrations during times of rapid social change. In the process, we develop a behavioral analysis of the social volatility of the recurrent populist movement in America.

Friday, October 30, 2020

MindBlog's 5,000th post - The milliseconds of a choice - Watching your mind when it matters.

This was going to be a post on oxytocin research...but I looked at the Blogger counter to see that it will be the 5,000th post done since the start of MindBlog in 2006.  Wow, that's a lot of words.  I've decided to note the occasion by repeating for the second time a post on material I find very fascinating. Here is the 2017 repeat of a 2014 post:

I'm finding, with increasing frequency, that an article about health or psychology in the New York Times that I find interesting has an attached note that it was first published several years earlier. While working on yesterday's MindBlog post I came across a 2014 post I wrote that I think makes some important points about our self-regulation that are worth repeating. So, I'm going to copy what the Times is doing and repeat it today. I'm tempted to edit it, but won't, beyond mentioning that I would considerably tone down my positive reference to brain training games (that I no longer indulge in). Here is the 2014 post:

This is actually a post about mindfulness, in reaction to Dan Hurley's article describing how contemporary applications of the ancient tradition of mindfulness meditation are being engaged in many more contexts than the initial emphasis on chilling out in the 1970s, and being employed for very practical purses such as mental resilience in a war zone. It seems like to me that we are approaching a well defined technology of brain control whose brain basis is understood in some detail. I've done numerous posts on behavioral and brain correlates of mindfulness meditation (enter 'meditation' or 'mindfulness' in MindBlog's search box in the left column). For example, only four weeks of a mindfulness meditation regime emphasizing relaxation of different body parts correlates with increases in white matter (nerve tract) efficiency. Improvements in cognitive performance, working memory, etc. have been claimed. A special issue of The journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience discusses issues in the research.

Full time mindfulness might be a bad idea, suppressing the mind wandering that facilitates bursts of creative insight. (During my vision research career, my most original ideas popped up when I was spacing out, once when I was riding a bike along a lakeshore path.) Many physicists and writers reports their best ideas happen when they are disengaged. It also appears that mindfulness may inhibit implicit learning in which habits and skill are acquired without conscious awareness.

Obviously knowing whether we are in an attentional or mind wandering (default, narrative) modes is useful (see here, and here), and this is where the title of this posts comes in. To note and distinguish our mind state is most effectively accomplished with a particular style of alertness or awareness that is functioning very soon (less than 200 milliseconds) after a new thought or sensory perception appears to us. This is a moment of fragility that offers a narrow time window of choice over whether our new brain activity will be either enhanced or diminished in favor of a more desired activity. This is precisely what is happening in mindfulness meditation that instructs a central focus of some sort (breathing, body relaxation, or whatever) to which one returns as soon as one notes that any other thoughts or distractions have popped into awareness. The ability to rapidly notice and attend to thoughts and emotions of these short time scales is enhanced by brain training regimes of the sort offered by BrainHq of positscience.com and others. I have found the exercises on this site, originated by Michael Merznich, to be the most useful.  It offers summaries of changes in brain speed, attention, memory, intelligence, navigation, etc. that result from performing the exercises - changes that can persist for years.

A book title that has been popping into my head for at least the last 15 years is "The 200 Millisecond Manager." (a riff on the title the popular book of the early 1980's by Blanchard and Johnson, "The One Minute Manager.") The gist of the argument would be that given in the "Guide" section of some 2005 writing, and actually in Chapter 12 of my book, Figure 12-7.

It might make the strident assertion that the most important thing that matters in regulating our thoughts, feelings, and actions is their first 100-200 msec in the brain, which is when the levers and pulleys are actually doing their thing. It would be a nuts and bolts approach to altering - or at least inhibiting - self limiting behaviors. It would suggest that a central trick is to avoid taking on on the ‘enormity of it all,’ and instead use a variety of techniques to get our awareness down to the normally invisible 100-200 msec time interval in which our actions are being programmed. Here we are talking mechanics during the time period is when all the limbic and other routines that result from life script, self image, temperament, etc., actually can start-up. The suggestion is that you can short circuit some of this process if you bring awareness to the level of observing the moments during which a reaction or behavior is becoming resident, and can sometimes say “I don’t think so, I think I'll do something else instead.”

"The 200 msec Manager" has gone through the ‘this could be a book’ cycle several times, the actual execution  bogging down as I actually got into description of the underlying science and techniques for expanding awareness. Also, I note the enormous number of books out there on meditation, relaxation, etc. that are all really addressing the same core processes in different ways.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Why have we become more comfortable and less happy over the past 40 years?

Arthur Brooks offers another article in his biweekly series on "How to Build a Life," pointing out that we haven't gotten happier as our society has become richer over the past 40 years because we chase the wrong things. Some clips:
Consumerocracy, bureaucracy, and technocracy promise us greater satisfaction, but don’t deliver. Consumer purchases promise to make us more attractive and entertained; the government promises protection from life’s vicissitudes; social media promises to keep us connected; but none of these provide the love and purpose that bring deep and enduring satisfaction to life.
This is not an indictment of capitalism, government, or technology. They never satisfy—not because they are malevolent, but rather because they cannot. This poses a real dilemma, not just for society, but for each of us as individuals. But properly informed, we are far from defenseless. Here are three principles to help us keep the forces of modern life from ruining our happiness.
1. Don’t buy that thing. Brooks points to research that analyzes:
...the happiness benefits of at least four uses of income: buying consumer items, buying time to pay for help (by, say, hiring people to do tasks you don’t enjoy), buying accompanied experiences (for example, going on vacation with a loved one), and donating charitably or giving to friends and family. The evidence is clear that, although people tend toward the first, much greater happiness comes from the other three.
2. Don’t put your faith in princes (or politicians).
If I complain that government is soulless or that a politician is making me unhappy—which I personally have done many times—I am saying that I think government should have a soul or that politicians can and should bring me happiness. This is naive at best...Government cannot bring happiness, but it can eliminate the sources of unhappiness.
3. Don’t trade love for anything. In the...
...famous study that followed hundreds of men who graduated from Harvard from 1939 to 1944 throughout their lives, into their 90s...subjects who reported having the happiest lives were those with strong family ties, close friendships, and rich romantic lives. The subjects who were most depressed and lonely late in life—not to mention more likely to be suffering from dementia, alcoholism, or other health problems—were the ones who had neglected their close relationships....You will sacrifice happiness if you crowd out relationships with work, drugs, politics, or social media.
The world encourages us to love things and use people. But that’s backwards. Put this on your fridge and try to live by it: Love people; use things.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A case for "we" in an "I" country

James Morone does a review in Science Magazine of "The Upswing" by Robert Putnam with Romney Simon. Some clips:
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States suffered from rampant inequality, vicious partisanship, a torn social fabric, and unabashed egoism. Individuals and corporations lunged ahead, the devil take the hindmost. But from that terrible epoch—eerily similar to today—something admirable sprang up and flourished: six decades of steady, albeit imperfect, social amelioration.
The United States steadily became “a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” In the 1960s, however, the nation tumbled back toward a brash new Gilded Age, marked by ferocious inequality, bare-knuckle partisanship, social fragmentation, and a culture of narcissism. Putnam and Garrett sum up the three epochs as “I–we–I.”
But what was it about the 1960s that cracked a sunny community and turned it back into a selfish, snarling, and segregated land? ... a powerful potential cause glints through, and the authors seem repeatedly tempted to settle on it... At the height of the civil rights movement, George Wallace, a fiery segregationist, stunned everyone by riding a crude racial backlash to strong showings in the 1964 primaries. The Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater (in 1964) and Richard Nixon (in 1968 and 1972), cashed in and began to wink at white privilege. Suddenly, the majority of white people stopped voting for Democrats (who averaged just 39% of the white vote in presidential contests between 1976 and 2016).
...in 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted a majority-minority nation within a generation, further stoking white fear. Putnam and Garrett return to racial tensions in four different chapters, raising the question of whether it was white racial anxiety that shattered the great American “we.” The authors do not go so far as saying yes, but they lay out enough evidence to allow readers to judge for themselves.
Despite painting a bleak portrait of recent U.S. history, every shred of data in The Upswing reverberates with the same exhortation: We came together once, and we can do it again. The authors emphasize the role that bold reformers played in imagining a better, more inclusive nation during the 20th century's long upswing. Their book is an extended call for a new generation to take up the fight.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The end of an expanding epidemic cannot be precisely forecast

A sobering analysis from Castro et al.:  

Significance

Susceptible–infected–removed (SIR) models and their extensions are widely used to describe the dynamics of infection spreading. Certain generic features of epidemics are well-illustrated by these models, which can be remarkably good at reproducing empirical data through suitably chosen parameters. However, this does not assure a good job anticipating the forthcoming stages of the process. To illustrate this point, we accurately describe the propagation of COVID-19 in Spain using one such model and show that predictions for its subsequent evolution are disparate, even contradictory. The future of ongoing epidemics is so sensitive to parameter values that predictions are only meaningful within a narrow time window and in probabilistic terms, much as what we are used to in weather forecasts.
Abstract
Epidemic spread is characterized by exponentially growing dynamics, which are intrinsically unpredictable. The time at which the growth in the number of infected individuals halts and starts decreasing cannot be calculated with certainty before the turning point is actually attained; neither can the end of the epidemic after the turning point. A susceptible–infected–removed (SIR) model with confinement (SCIR) illustrates how lockdown measures inhibit infection spread only above a threshold that we calculate. The existence of that threshold has major effects in predictability: A Bayesian fit to the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain shows that a slowdown in the number of newly infected individuals during the expansion phase allows one to infer neither the precise position of the maximum nor whether the measures taken will bring the propagation to the inhibition regime. There is a short horizon for reliable prediction, followed by a dispersion of the possible trajectories that grows extremely fast. The impossibility to predict in the midterm is not due to wrong or incomplete data, since it persists in error-free, synthetically produced datasets and does not necessarily improve by using larger datasets. Our study warns against precise forecasts of the evolution of epidemics based on mean-field, effective, or phenomenological models and supports that only probabilities of different outcomes can be confidently given.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Machine learning detects online influence campaigns.

Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel in the struggle to determine when malign information or online influence campaigns are being spread on social media platforms. Alizadeh and collaborators summarize in a Washington Post article their use of machine learning techniques, described in more detail in an article in Science Advances. They also point to promising techniques being developed by other scholars.
There’s no single solution, but there is a path forward
Unfortunately, this means there is no single model for finding foreign influence campaigns. Social media usage is dynamic. Normal users are always responding to current events and trolls are continually adapting and trying new tactics.
While we did not find a stable set of characteristics that allow us to detect all campaigns, we did find a method for detecting these campaigns based on the fact that troll content is almost always different in detectable ways. And machine learning allows us to find those differences at scale. Other scholars have developed promising techniques, as well.
The day when we can have a “daily report” of online influence campaigns to inform citizens may not be as far away as it would seem.
Here is the abstract from their Science Advances article:
We study how easy it is to distinguish influence operations from organic social media activity by assessing the performance of a platform-agnostic machine learning approach. Our method uses public activity to detect content that is part of coordinated influence operations based on human-interpretable features derived solely from content. We test this method on publicly available Twitter data on Chinese, Russian, and Venezuelan troll activity targeting the United States, as well as the Reddit dataset of Russian influence efforts. To assess how well content-based features distinguish these influence operations from random samples of general and political American users, we train and test classifiers on a monthly basis for each campaign across five prediction tasks. Content-based features perform well across period, country, platform, and prediction task. Industrialized production of influence campaign content leaves a distinctive signal in user-generated content that allows tracking of campaigns from month to month and across different accounts.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Unethical amnesia

An interesting study from Galeotti et al. (open source):

Significance

Using large-scale incentivized online experiments, we tested two possible origins of individuals’ forgetting about their past cheating behavior in a mind game. We found that purely hedonic considerations, such as the maintenance of a positive self-image, are not sufficient to motivate unethical amnesia, but the addition of an instrumental value to forgetting triggers such amnesia. Individuals forget their past lies more when amnesia can serve as an excuse not to engage in future morally responsible behavior. These findings shed light on the interplay between dishonesty and memory and suggest further investigations of the cost function of unethical amnesia. A policy implication is that improving ethics requires making unethical amnesia more difficult for individuals.
Abstract
Humans care about morality. Yet, they often engage in actions that contradict their moral self. Unethical amnesia is observed when people do not remember or remember less vividly these actions. This paper explores two reasons why individuals may experience unethical amnesia. Forgetting past unethical behavior may be motivated by purely hedonic or affective reasons, such as the willingness to maintain one’s moral self-image, but also by instrumental or strategic motives, in anticipation of future misbehavior. In a large-scale incentivized online experiment (n = 1,322) using a variant of a mind game, we find that hedonic considerations are not sufficient to motivate the forgetting of past cheating behavior. This is confirmed in a follow-up experiment (n = 1,005) in which recalls are elicited the same day instead of 3 wk apart. However, when unethical amnesia can serve as a justification for a future action, such as deciding on whether to keep undeserved money, motivated forgetting is more likely. Thereby, we show that motivated forgetting occurs as a self-excuse to justify future immoral decisions.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Compassion research

I want to point to a recent "Making Sense" podcast titled "The power of compassion" in which Sam Harris interviews James R. Doty, a Stanford neurosurgeon who is director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine. Doty is an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist who has given support to a number of charitable organizations, is on the Board of Directors of a number of non-profit foundations, is chairman of the Dalai Lama Foundation, vice-chair of the Charter for Compassion International, and is on the International Advisory Board of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He also writes for The Huffington Post. 

I found a brief tour of the website of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education to be most instructive. It points to numerous sources of compassion research and training. Doty's website points to his book "Into the Magic Shop," which is discussed in the podcast.