Monday, October 03, 2022

Triggers for mother love

A fascinating open source article from Margaret Livingstone carrying forward the famous experiments by Harry Harlow:  


Harry Harlow found that infant monkeys form strong and lasting attachments to inanimate surrogates, but only if the surrogate is soft; here I report that postpartum monkey mothers can also form strong and lasting attachments to soft inanimate objects. Thus, mother/infant and infant/mother bonds may both be triggered by soft touch.
Previous studies showed that baby monkeys separated from their mothers develop strong and lasting attachments to inanimate surrogate mothers, but only if the surrogate has a soft texture; soft texture is more important for the infant’s attachment than is the provision of milk. Here I report that postpartum female monkeys also form strong and persistent attachments to inanimate surrogate infants, that the template for triggering maternal attachment is also tactile, and that even a brief period of attachment formation can dominate visual and auditory cues indicating a more appropriate target.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Trigger warnings and ‘safety-ism’ don’t work.

Mark Manson does an engaging "Mindf*ck Monday Newsletter from Sept. 7" that I recommend you have a look at. It cites a meta-analysis by Brigland et al. that shows that trigger warning don't work, in some cases they may make things worse. Their abstract:
Trigger warnings, content warnings, or content notes are alerts about upcoming content that may contain themes related to past negative experiences. Advocates claim that warnings help people to emotionally prepare for or completely avoid distressing material. Critics argue that warnings both contribute to a culture of avoidance at odds with evidence-based treatment practices and instill fear about upcoming content. Recently, a body of psychological research has begun to investigate these claims empirically. We present the results of a meta-analysis of all empirical studies on the effects of these warnings. Overall, we found that warnings have no effect on affective responses to negative material nor on educational outcomes (i.e., comprehension). However, warnings reliably increase anticipatory affect. Findings on avoidance were mixed, suggesting either that warnings have no effect on engagement with material, or that they increase engagement with negative material under specific circumstances. Limitations and implications for policy and therapeutic practice are discussed.
Manson also discusses the dying fad of "safety-ism" noted by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their book "The Coddling of the American Mind," and makes the point that...
The human mind is antifragile—that is, it gains from discomfort and strain. That means to grow stronger, the human mind needs to regularly be confronted with difficult and upsetting experiences to develop stability and serenity for itself.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Neural synchronization predicts marital satisfaction

From Li et al.:  


Humans establish intimate social and personal relationships with their partners, which enable them to survive, successfully mate, and raise offspring. Here, we examine the neurobiological basis of marital satisfaction in humans using naturalistic, ecologically relevant, interpersonal communicative cues that capture shared neural representations between married couples. We show that in contrast to demographic and personality measures, which are unreliable predictors of marital satisfaction, neural synchronization of brain responses during viewing of naturalistic maritally relevant movies predicted higher levels of marital satisfaction in couples. Our findings demonstrate that brain similarities that reflect real-time mental responses to subjective perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about interpersonal and social interactions are strong predictors of marital satisfaction and advance our understanding of human marital bonding.
Marital attachment plays an important role in maintaining intimate personal relationships and sustaining psychological well-being. Mate-selection theories suggest that people are more likely to marry someone with a similar personality and social status, yet evidence for the association between personality-based couple similarity measures and marital satisfaction has been inconsistent. A more direct and useful approach for understanding fundamental processes underlying marital satisfaction is to probe similarity of dynamic brain responses to maritally and socially relevant communicative cues, which may better reflect how married couples process information in real time and make sense of their mates and themselves. Here, we investigate shared neural representations based on intersubject synchronization (ISS) of brain responses during free viewing of marital life-related, and nonmarital, object-related movies. Compared to randomly selected pairs of couples, married couples showed significantly higher levels of ISS during viewing of marital movies and ISS between married couples predicted higher levels of marital satisfaction. ISS in the default mode network emerged as a strong predictor of marital satisfaction and canonical correlation analysis revealed a specific relation between ISS in this network and shared communication and egalitarian components of martial satisfaction. Our findings demonstrate that brain similarities that reflect real-time mental responses to subjective perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about interpersonal and social interactions are strong predictors of marital satisfaction, reflecting shared values and beliefs. Our study advances foundational knowledge of the neurobiological basis of human pair bonding.

Monday, September 26, 2022

How nature nurtures

MindBlog has passed on a number of articles on how exposure to nature reduces stress (see a sample list below). Here is a further contribution from Sudimac et al., who show amygdala activity decreases as the result of a one-hour walk in nature:
Since living in cities is associated with an increased risk for mental disorders such as anxiety disorders, depression, and schizophrenia, it is essential to understand how exposure to urban and natural environments affects mental health and the brain. It has been shown that the amygdala is more activated during a stress task in urban compared to rural dwellers. However, no study so far has examined the causal effects of natural and urban environments on stress-related brain mechanisms. To address this question, we conducted an intervention study to investigate changes in stress-related brain regions as an effect of a one-hour walk in an urban (busy street) vs. natural environment (forest). Brain activation was measured in 63 healthy participants, before and after the walk, using a fearful faces task and a social stress task. Our findings reveal that amygdala activation decreases after the walk in nature, whereas it remains stable after the walk in an urban environment. These results suggest that going for a walk in nature can have salutogenic effects on stress-related brain regions, and consequently, it may act as a preventive measure against mental strain and potentially disease. Given rapidly increasing urbanization, the present results may influence urban planning to create more accessible green areas and to adapt urban environments in a way that will be beneficial for citizens’ mental health.

A few previous MindBlog posts on this topic:

Blue Mind - looking at water improves your health and calm 

Pictures of green spaces make you happier. 

More green space in childhood, fewer psychiatric disorders in adulthood.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Machine learning is translating the languages of animals

Anthes does an article on how machine learning is being used to eavesdrop on naked mole rats, fruit bats, crows and whales — and to communicate back. Some edited clips:
Machine-learning systems, which use algorithms to detect patterns in large collections of data, have excelled at analyzing human language, giving rise to voice assistants that recognize speech, transcription software that converts speech to text and digital tools that translate between human languages.
...this technology can be deployed to decode animal communication, working towards finding a Google Translate for animals, using machine-learning algorithms to identify when squeaking mice are stressed or why fruit bats are shouting. Even more ambitious projects are underway — to create a comprehensive catalog of crow calls, map the syntax of sperm whales and even to build technologies that allow humans to talk back.
...machine-learning algorithms can spot subtle patterns that might elude human listeners...these programs can tell apart the voices of individual animals, distinguish between sounds that animals make in different circumstances and break their vocalizations down into smaller parts, a crucial step in deciphering meaning.
...the technology could also be deployed for the benefit of animals, helping experts monitor the welfare of both wild and domestic fauna. Scientists also said that they hoped that by providing new insight into animal lives, this research might prompt a broader societal shift. Many pointed to the galvanizing effect of the 1970 album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which featured recordings of otherworldly whale calls and has been widely credited with helping to spark the global Save the Whales movement...many scientists said they hoped these new, high-tech efforts to understand the vocalizations of whales — and crows and bats and even naked mole rats — will be similarly transformative, providing new ways to connect with and understand the creatures with whom we share the planet.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lasting improvements in seniors’ working and long-term memory with repetitive neuromodulation

From Grover et al., an open source article in which details of their transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) protocols are given:
The development of technologies to protect or enhance memory in older people is an enduring goal of translational medicine. Here we describe repetitive (4-day) transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) protocols for the selective, sustainable enhancement of auditory–verbal working memory and long-term memory in 65–88-year-old people. Modulation of synchronous low-frequency, but not high-frequency, activity in parietal cortex preferentially improved working memory on day 3 and day 4 and 1 month after intervention, whereas modulation of synchronous high-frequency, but not low-frequency, activity in prefrontal cortex preferentially improved long-term memory on days 2–4 and 1 month after intervention. The rate of memory improvements over 4 days predicted the size of memory benefits 1 month later. Individuals with lower baseline cognitive function experienced larger, more enduring memory improvements. Our findings demonstrate that the plasticity of the aging brain can be selectively and sustainably exploited using repetitive and highly focalized neuromodulation grounded in spatiospectral parameters of memory-specific cortical circuitry.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The sex of human experimenters influences mouse behaviors and neural responses.

As I was scanning a recent nature neuroscience table of contents, the title of this item elicited an immediate “What the f…..?” reaction, so I had to click on it. I had not been aware that mice are aversive to the scent of male versus female human experimenters. Here is the Georgiou et al. abstract:
We show that the sex of human experimenters affects mouse behaviors and responses following administration of the rapid-acting antidepressant ketamine and its bioactive metabolite (2R,6R)-hydroxynorketamine. Mice showed aversion to the scent of male experimenters, preference for the scent of female experimenters and increased stress susceptibility when handled by male experimenters. This human-male-scent-induced aversion and stress susceptibility was mediated by the activation of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons in the entorhinal cortex that project to hippocampal area CA1. Exposure to the scent of male experimenters before ketamine administration activated CA1-projecting entorhinal cortex CRF neurons, and activation of this CRF pathway modulated in vivo and in vitro antidepressant-like effects of ketamine. A better understanding of the specific and quantitative contributions of the sex of human experimenters to study outcomes in rodents may improve replicability between studies and, as we have shown, reveal biological and pharmacological mechanisms.

Friday, September 16, 2022

A 2020 MindBlog anti-aging experiment whose results I forgot to report to MindBlog readers.

How embarassing. While doing a scan of posts on aging to update my Jan. 2018 talk "How Much Can We Change Our Aging?" talk, I pulled up a post from Wed. Oct. 14, 2020 describing an experiment to test the effects of trying alpha-ketoglutarate (meant to promote mitochondrial metabolism) as a dietary supplement. I did not follow up on my promise to report and side effects in an addendum to the post. I have now done that, and below paste in the amended text:

I've done a bit more reading on alpha-ketoglutarate, a natural component of the Krebs biochemical cycle that generates body energy and whose levels normally decline with aging. It was the subject of a recent post pointing to studies indicating the positive effects of its supplementation on health and longevity in mice.  So...I have started taking 300 mg capsules of the stuff with my other breakfast supplements. I decided to pass on the pricey 'Rejuvant Life Tabs', containing 1000 mg and offered by Ponce de Leon Health, a company set up by some of the researchers, and instead got the compound from Kirkman, one of the supplement providers. I'm inclined not to be too paranoid about their sending sawdust instead of the real product.  I noted that I could buy the >98% pure dry powder from the Sigma-Aldrich company, the supplier my biochemisty lab used for over 30 years, but decided the hassle of dealing with bulk powder wasn't worth it.  The compound is quite acidic, so best taken as the Calcium or Magnesium salt and with a meal.  I had an unhappy tummy when I tried it without food.  

I will continue taking the compound, will report imagined positive or negative effects as addenda to this post.  Undesirable side effects will lead me to discontinue the supplement, as was the case with my 2010 (Acetyl L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, and the B-vitamin biotin) and 2016 (pterostilbene and nicotinamide riboside) self experiments.  The latter, like a 2008 experiment with resveratrol was terminated because of increasing arthritic symptoms. The 2008 post had 33 comments reporting negative effects resveratrol.

And, a necessary comment regarding Ponce de Leon Health and other purveyors of life extension elixirs:

You're gonna die..there is compelling evidence that none of us will make it past ~120 years of age.   

ADDENDUM... added 9/1/2022 Apologies for spacing out for almost two years.... I took 300 mg capsules of alpha-ketoglutarate with breakfast for one week in early Nov. 2020. It caused acid reflux and increasing hand arthritis over the week. Both side effects vanished after a week off the supplement. I had observed the hand arthritis side effect also in my resveratrol experiment.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

How the internet has fueled our current cultural stagnation.

I pass on some of Michelle Goldberg's description of a forthcoming book by W. David Marx, “Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change,” and suggest you read her whole essay.
Marx posits cultural evolution as a sort of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to ascend the social hierarchy. Artists innovate to gain status, and people unconsciously adjust their tastes to either signal their status tier or move up to a new one. As he writes in the introduction, “Status struggles fuel cultural creativity in three important realms: competition between socioeconomic classes, the formation of subcultures and countercultures, and artists’ internecine battles.”
Marx uses the rise of avant-garde compose John Cage after his first major orchestral piece premiered at Lincoln Center in 1964, as an example the introduction of a radical new perspective that would most likely be impossible today.
“There was a virtuous cycle for Cage: His originality, mystery and influence provided him artist status; this encouraged serious institutions to explore his work; the frequent engagement with his work imbued Cage with cachet among the public, who then received a status boost for taking his work seriously,” writes Marx. For Marx, this isn’t a matter of pretension. Cachet, he writes, “opens minds to radical propositions of what art can be and how we should perceive it.”
The internet, Marx writes in his book’s closing section, changes this dynamic. With so much content out there, the chance that others will recognize the meaning of any obscure cultural signal declines. Challenging art loses its prestige. Besides, in the age of the internet, taste tells you less about a person. You don’t need to make your way into any social world to develop a familiarity with Cage — or, for that matter, with underground hip-hop, weird performance art, or rare sneakers.
...people are, obviously, no less obsessed with their own status today than they were during times of fecund cultural production. It’s just that the markers of high social rank have become more philistine...When the value of cultural capital is debased, it makes “popularity and economic capital even more central in marking status...there’s “less incentive for individuals to both create and celebrate culture with high symbolic complexity.” ...We live in a time of rapid and disorienting shifts in gender, religion and technology. Aesthetically, thanks to the internet, it’s all quite dull.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Non-duality as a platform for experiencing daily life.

I pass on abstracted edited clip from a recent podcast conversation between Sam Harris and M.I.T philosopher Kierna Setiya on “Philosophy and the Good Life” which has a succinct definition of what Harris takes non-duality or ‘having no self’ to mean, and how experiencing this can lead to a surprising kind of equanimity and even eudemonia, as well as solving a very wide class of psychological problems. I suggest that MindBlog readers who enjoy this subject matter also have a look back at my March 22 post, titled "Points on having a self and free will."
There can be confusion over what is meant by no-self in various meditative traditions. It’s not the claim that people are illusions, or that you can’t say anything about the psychological or biological continuity of a person. It’s not mysterious that we wake up today as ourselves and not someone else. These are not the puzzles being addressed.
The core insight, the illusion that is cut through, conceptually and experientially, is our apparent normal default condition of feeling like there is a subject in the center of experience. Most people don’t merely feel identical to experience, they feel like they are having an experience, they feel like they are appropriating their experience from some point - very likely in their heads - the witness, the thinker of thoughts, the willer of will, the guy in the boat who has free will, who can decide what to think and do next. That’s the default state for almost everybody, and commonplace as it is, it is a peculiar point of view. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly biological sense. It’s not the same thing as feeling identical to our bodies, because we usually don’t feel identical to our bodies, we feel like we are subjects who have bodies, there is a kind of Cartesian dualism that is intuitive. People are ‘common sense dualists.’ As a matter of experience there is this feeling that “I am a subject behind my face.” “I” have a body, am a subject who is thinking, internal to the body, has a body. It is the final representation of the subject that is the illusion.
To put this in neurological terms, let’s just say for the sake of argument at all of this is just neurophysiological events in the brain delivering these representations. It is plausible that any one of these processes can be interrupted, so that you can cease to faithfully or coherently represent a world. You can suddenly go blind, may not be able to name living things but still be able to name tools, suddenly not be able to perceive motion or location, those things can break apart. All kinds of things can be disrupted for the worse certainly. But what these contemplative traditions have recognized is that certain things can be disrupted or brought to a halt for the better. The thing that can interrupt the usual cascade of mediocrity and suffering psychologically speaking is this representation of self as subject in the middle of experience.
You can cease to construct a subject that is internal to the body. What remains in that case is a sense that mind is much vaster than it was a moment ago, because it is no longer confined to the sense that there is this central thinker of thoughts. There is a recognition that thoughts arise all by themselves, just as sounds do, no one is authoring your thoughts - you certainly aren’t. The sense that you are is what it feels like to be identified with this next spontaneously arising thought.
So, you loose sense that you are on the edge of your life, looking over your own shoulder, appropriating experience and what you can feel very vividly here is a real unity. emptyness, non-duality of subjects and objects, such that there is really just experience. This is not a new way of thinking about yourself in the world, this is a ceasing to identify with thought. This is making no metaphysical claims about how this relates to matter or the universe.
As as matter of experience you can feel identical to experience itself. You are not standing on the river bank watching things go by, you are the river, and that solves a very wide class of problems, psychologically speaking, with respect to suffering. And, it does land one in a surprising kind of equanimity and even eudemonia (well being) that may seem counter intuitive in the midst of the cacophony of daily life. But again, it’s not about the negation of personhood, it is just a recognition that as a matter of experience there is just experience, and the feeling that there is an experiencer is yet more experience, so that if you just drop back… there is just everything in its own place.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Eye movements are related to the contents of consciousness in REM (rapid eye movment) sleep

Senzai and Scanziani have recorded head direction cells in the anterior dorsal nucleus of the thalamus in mice during wake and sleep. The direction and amplitude of eye movements encoded the direction and amplitude of the heading of mice in their virtual environment during REM sleep. It was possible to predict the actual heading in the real and virtual world of the mice during wake and REM sleep, respectively, using saccadic eye movements. Their abstract:
Since the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the nature of the eye movements that characterize this sleep phase has remained elusive. Do they reveal gaze shifts in the virtual environment of dreams or simply reflect random brainstem activity? We harnessed the head direction (HD) system of the mouse thalamus, a neuronal population whose activity reports, in awake mice, their actual HD as they explore their environment and, in sleeping mice, their virtual HD. We discovered that the direction and amplitude of rapid eye movements during REM sleep reveal the direction and amplitude of the ongoing changes in virtual HD. Thus, rapid eye movements disclose gaze shifts in the virtual world of REM sleep, thereby providing a window into the cognitive processes of the sleeping brain.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Is History History?

I recommend that you read Bret Stephens fascinating NYTimes piece. Some clips:
The End of History was supposed to have happened back in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and Francis Fukuyama announced the conclusive triumph of liberal democracy. We know how that thesis worked out. But what happens when the other kind of History — academic, not Hegelian — starts to collapse?...That’s a question that James H. Sweet, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the president of the American Historical Association, tried to raise earlier this month in a column titled “Is History History?” for the organization’s newsmagazine. It didn’t go well...Sweet’s core concern in the piece was the “trend toward presentism” — the habit of weighing the past against the social concerns and moral categories of the present.
Sweet was immediately attacked by the cancel culture of left-wing academics and felt obliged to issue an apology. Stevens notes that
...the larger shame is that Sweet had important things to say in his thoughtful column — things that the reaction to the column (and the reaction to the reaction) now risk burying...Between 2003 and 2013, a dwindling number of history Ph.D.s, he noted, were going to students doing work on topics preceding 1800. At the same time, historians were producing works that “collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates,” particularly those connected to identity politics.....“This new history,” he wrote, “often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.”
...Sweet was warning that historians risked doing an injustice both to their own profession as well as to the past itself by falling victim to “the allure of political relevance.” His main example came from a recent visit to the Elmina Castle in Ghana..which has become a kind of shrine for African Americans seeking a place to memorialize enslaved ancestors...Sweet says as a historian of Africa, “less than 1 percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America” — most...ended up in Brazil or the Caribbean. And those who were enslaved were often first brought to Elmina by other African brokers who promoted the slave trade just as cruelly and greedily as the Europeans with whom they did business.
That does nothing to diminish the evil of the trade, much less its relevance to America’s past and present...But it helps put it into a global context in which the roles of victim and victimizer seldom fall neatly along a color line. If that challenges current orthodoxy, it’s only because that orthodoxy is based on a simplistic understanding of history. The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates.
Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct. This shouldn’t prevent us from making moral judgments about it. But we can make better judgments, informed by the knowledge that our forebears rarely acted with the benefit (or burden) of our assumptions, expectations, experiences and values. There’s a lesson in humility in that, as well as a reminder that we are only actors in time whose most cherished ideas may eventually seem strange, and sometimes abhorrent, to our descendants.
Sweet's column...
— which bent over backward to showcase his liberal bona fides — ignited the usual progressive furies. Anyone looking for further confirmation that modern academia has become a fundamentally ideological and coercive exercise masquerading as a scholarly and collegial one need have looked no further. It will be interesting to see if Sweet manages to hold on to his post as the American Historical Association’s president...If people are wondering how history ends, maybe this is how: when a scholarly discipline tries to turn itself into something it isn’t, making itself increasingly irrelevant in its desperate bid for relevancy.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Animals (including us) conjure model-based structures from random events

Superstitious learning is usually thought to be accounted for by conditioned association, but Jin et al. now show that monkeys can develop more complex cognitive structures independent of reinforcement:  


Past studies on learning and decision-making usually rely on the assumption that the task is learnable. However, humans and other animals often infer spurious relationships from coincidental associations, and it is unknown if this could be achieved without reward conditioning. Here, we exposed monkeys to sets of images that had a hidden hierarchical order and to unordered sets that lacked an underlying structure. Monkeys treated the unordered sets as if they had a hierarchical order even under reward schedules that incentivized random choices. The results cannot be explained by simple associative mechanisms that account for other types of spurious learning, suggesting that when presented with random events animals conjure elaborate model-based structures.
Humans and other animals often infer spurious associations among unrelated events. However, such superstitious learning is usually accounted for by conditioned associations, raising the question of whether an animal could develop more complex cognitive structures independent of reinforcement. Here, we tasked monkeys with discovering the serial order of two pictorial sets: a “learnable” set in which the stimuli were implicitly ordered and monkeys were rewarded for choosing the higher-rank stimulus and an “unlearnable” set in which stimuli were unordered and feedback was random regardless of the choice. We replicated prior results that monkeys reliably learned the implicit order of the learnable set. Surprisingly, the monkeys behaved as though some ordering also existed in the unlearnable set, showing consistent choice preference that transferred to novel untrained pairs in this set, even under a preference-discouraging reward schedule that gave rewards more frequently to the stimulus that was selected less often. In simulations, a model-free reinforcement learning algorithm (Q-learning) displayed a degree of consistent ordering among the unlearnable set but, unlike the monkeys, failed to do so under the preference-discouraging reward schedule. Our results suggest that monkeys infer abstract structures from objectively random events using heuristics that extend beyond stimulus–outcome conditional learning to more cognitive model-based learning mechanisms.

Friday, September 02, 2022

Increasingly good artificial intelligence (A.I.) is offering us promise and peril.

I want to pass on a few items from my list of putative MindBlog posts on A.I. 

The first derives from an series of emails on A.I. sent to the listserve of the "Chaos and Complex Systems Discussion Group" at Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, that I attended until my move to Austin Tx. They point to the kerfuffle started by suspended Google engineer Blake Lemoine over whether one of the company's experimental AIs called LaMDA had achieved sentience, and How belief in AI sentience is becoming a problem.

(By the way, If you want to set up your own chatbot for self therapy, that won't collect and sell personal info you may divulge to it, visit I actually tried it out, was underwhelmed by its responses, so deleted my account.)

An article by Kevin Roose on the potentials and risks of A.I. is worth reading.  One amazing feat of A.I. has been solving the "protein-folding problem," which I (as a trained biochemist) have been following for over 50 years.

This summer, DeepMind announced that AlphaFold (an A.I. system descended from the Go-playing one) had made predictions of the three-dimensional structures of proteins from their one-dimensional amino acid sequences for nearly all of the 200 million proteins known to exist — producing a treasure trove of data that will help medical researchers develop new drugs and vaccines for years to come. Last year, the journal Science recognized AlphaFold’s importance, naming it the biggest scientific breakthrough of the year.

Here are a few further clips:

Even if the skeptics are right, and A.I. doesn’t achieve human-level sentience for many years, it’s easy to see how systems like GPT-3, LaMDA (language models) and DALL-E 2 (generating images from language descriptions) could become a powerful force in society. In a few years, the vast majority of the photos, videos and text we encounter on the internet could be A.I.-generated. Our online interactions could become stranger and more fraught, as we struggle to figure out which of our conversational partners are human and which are convincing bots. And tech-savvy propagandists could use the technology to churn out targeted misinformation on a vast scale, distorting the political process in ways we won’t see coming.

Ajeya Cotra, a senior analyst with Open Philanthropy who studies A.I. risk, estimated two years ago that there was a 15 percent chance of “transformational A.I.” — which she and others have defined as A.I. that is good enough to usher in large-scale economic and societal changes, such as eliminating most white-collar knowledge jobs — emerging by 2036...But in a recent post, Ms. Cotra raised that to a 35 percent chance, citing the rapid improvement of systems like GPT-3.

Because of how new many of these A.I. systems are, few public officials have any firsthand experience with tools like GPT-3 or DALL-E 2, nor do they grasp how quickly progress is happening at the A.I. frontier...we could end up with a repeat of what happened with social media companies after the 2016 election — a collision of Silicon Valley power and Washington ignorance, which resulted in nothing but gridlock and testy hearings...big tech companies investing billions in A.I. development — the Googles, Metas and OpenAIs of the world — need to do a better job of explaining what they’re working on, without sugarcoating or soft-pedaling the risks.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Does crypto-world really give us trustworthyness without gate keepers...? The answer is NO - It hides a new elite.

I try in the title of this post to summarize the basic conclusions of a fascinating NYTimes article by Siobhan Roberts. The article emphasizes the work of Alyussa Blackburn and others that has shown that Bitcoin activity, apart from using exorbitant amounts of electricity in generating its bitcoin token currency, has not in fact produced anonymous transactions, and its user community in fact contains a small elite group that actually wears the crown of being the arbiters of the network. (A more recent article by Yaffe-Bellany points out that Ethereum, the other major crypto platform, has a similar elite.... posing the same issues as the banks and internet companies that are self-interested gate keepers in the current financial world.)
“...Blackburn developed hacks for the period of time that was of particular interest: from the cryptocurrency’s start to when Bitcoin achieved parity with the U.S. dollar in February 2011, which coincided with the establishment of the Silk Road, a Bitcoin-based black market...Drip-by-drip, information leakage erodes the once-impenetrable blocks, carving out a new landscape of socioeconomic data,” Ms. Blackburn and her collaborators report in their new paper...Aggregating multiple leakages, Ms. Blackburn consolidated many Bitcoin addresses, which might have seemed to represent many miners, into few. She pieced together a catalog of agents and concluded that, in those first two years, 64 key players — some of whom were the community’s “founders,” as the researchers called them — mined most of the Bitcoin that existed at the time.
Although the analysis showed that the big players numbered 64 over two years, at any given moment, according to the researchers’ modeling, the effective size of that population was only five or six. And on many occasions, just one or two people held most of the mining power...As Ms. Blackburn described it, there were very few people “wearing the crown,” functioning as arbiters of the network — “which is not the ethos of decentralized trustless crypto,”...
Once Ms. Blackburn had assembled the catalog of agents, she analyzed the income they had reaped from mining. She found that within a few months of the cryptocurrency’s introduction — and contrary to Bitcoin’s egalitarian promise — a classic distribution of income inequality emerged: A small fraction of the miners held most of the wealth and power. (Mining income demonstrated what is called a Pareto distribution, after Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th-century economist.)
On several occasions, individual miners wielded more than 50 percent of the computational power and, as a result, could have taken over like a tyrant using what’s called a “51 percent attack.” For instance, they could have cheated the system and repeatedly spent the same Bitcoins on different add a twist, Ms. Blackburn found that while some miners had the power to execute 51 percent attacks, they repeatedly chose not to. Rather, they acted altruistically — preserving the cryptocurrency’s integrity, even though the decentralization-based fraud-prevention mechanism had been compromised...Although Bitcoin was designed to rely on a decentralized, trustless network of anonymous agents, its early success rested instead on cooperation among a small group of altruistic founders.
For Glen Weyl, an economist at Microsoft Research who was consulted on the research, this finding demonstrates how decentralization played a rhetorical rather than substantive role. “And that rhetorical role was very powerful — it bound together this community, much as other myths have bound together other communities, like nations,” Dr. Weyl said; he and Mr. Lanier wrote about this research for CoinDesk. But the myth and the promise, he said, were in tension with the reality that emerged. “It’s just fascinatingly ironic, and also predictable, repeating the historical patterns it aspires to erase.”
Mr. Lanier called it “decentralization theater.” Cryptocurrencies create an illusion: “‘Now we’re in utopia. Everything’s decentralized. Everybody’s equal.’ There’s this notion of democracy without annoyance.”...But, he said, these systems end up hiding a new elite, which is probably just an old elite in a new arena. And the technology cuts both ways. “Whatever you think you can achieve using new algorithms, or big data, or whatever, can also be used against you,” Mr. Lanier said. “The same algorithms can be used by scientists to interrogate and investigate these castles that are put up by the new elite.”
One moral of the story, Ms. Blackburn said, is simply: “You have to be careful.” There is a limited timeline for encryption, “a horizon beyond which it will no longer be useful. When you are encrypting private data and making it public, you cannot assume that it’ll be private forever.”

Monday, August 29, 2022

The medium really is the message

I recommend that you read a recent Op-Ed piece by Ezra Klein that notes 20th-century media theorists who saw what was coming and tried to warn us. He quotes from Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”:
Carr’s argument began with an observation, one that felt familiar:
The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.
McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd...All this happens beneath the level of content. CNN and Fox News and MSNBC are ideologically different. But cable news in all its forms carries a sameness: the look of the anchors, the gloss of the graphics, the aesthetics of urgency and threat, the speed, the immediacy, the conflict, the conflict, the conflict.
Klein's (edited) comments on Postman's prophetic 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death":
...the dystopia we must fear is not the totalitarianism of George Orwell’s “1984” but the narcotized somnolence of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Television teaches us to expect that anything and everything should be entertaining. But not everything should be entertainment, and the expectation that it will be is a vast social and even ideological change...The border between entertainment and everything else has, and entertainers become the only ones able to fulfill our expectations for politicians....People who were viable politicians in a textual era are locked out of politics because they can not command the screen...Television, he writes, “serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion — and turns them into entertainment packages...the line of Postman’s that holds me is his challenge to the critics who spend their time urging television to be better rather than asking what television is: “The trouble with such people is that they do not take television seriously enough.”
Klein continues:
I have come to think the same of today’s technologists: Their problem is that they do not take technology seriously enough. They refuse to see how it is changing us or even how it is changing them...Over the past decade, the narrative has turned against Silicon Valley. Puff pieces have become hit jobs, and the visionaries inventing our future have been recast as the Machiavellians undermining our present. My frustration with these narratives, both then and now, is that they focus on people and companies, not technologies. I suspect that is because American culture remains deeply uncomfortable with technological critique.
Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use. That conversation, on some level, demands value judgments. This was on my mind recently, when I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”
What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.
Or take Twitter. As a medium, Twitter nudges its users toward ideas that can survive without context, that can travel legibly in under 280 characters. It encourages a constant awareness of what everyone else is discussing. It makes the measure of conversational success not just how others react and respond but how much response there is. It, too, is a mold, and it has acted with particular force on some of our most powerful industries — media and politics and technology. These are industries I know well, and I do not think it has changed them or the people in them (including me) for the better.
But what would? I’ve found myself going back to a wise, indescribable book that Jenny Odell, a visual artist, published in 2019, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” In it she suggests that any theory of media must start with a theory of attention. “One thing I have learned about attention is that certain forms of it are contagious,” she writes. She continues:
When you spend enough time with someone who pays close attention to something (if you were hanging out with me, it would be birds), you inevitably start to pay attention to some of the same things. I’ve also learned that patterns of attention — what we choose to notice and what we do not — are how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time. These aspects, taken together, suggest to me the revolutionary potential of taking back our attention.
I think Odell frames both the question and the stakes correctly. Attention is contagious. What forms of it, as individuals and as a society, do we want to cultivate? What kinds of mediums would that cultivation require?
This is anything but an argument against technology, were such a thing even coherent. It’s an argument for taking technology as seriously as it deserves to be taken, for recognizing, as McLuhan’s friend and colleague John M. Culkin put it, “we shape our tools, and thereafter, they shape us.”
There is an optimism in that, a reminder of our own agency. And there are questions posed, ones we should spend much more time and energy trying to answer: How do we want to be shaped? Who do we want to become?

Friday, August 26, 2022

Our anterior insula signals salience and deviations from expectations via bursts of beta oscillations

Haufler et al. show that the insula signals salience and prediction errors via amplitude modulations of beta bursts (~15-40 Hertz, or cycles per second), which coincide with the near simultaneous recruitment of vast cortical territories. 


Functional imaging studies indicate that the anterior insula encodes salience and deviations from expectations. Beyond changing BOLD signals, however, the physiological underpinnings of these signals are unknown. By recording local field potentials in patients with epilepsy, we found that the anterior insula generates large bursts of beta oscillations whose amplitude is modulated by the salience of outcomes and deviations from expectations. Moreover, insular beta bursts coincide with the activation of many high-order cortical areas.
Functional imaging studies indicate that the insula encodes the salience of stimuli and deviations from expectations, signals that can mobilize cognitive resources and facilitate learning. However, there is no information about the physiological underpinnings of these phenomena beyond changing BOLD signals. To shed light on this question, we analyzed intracerebral local field potentials (LFPs) in five patients with epilepsy of both genders performing a virtual reality task that featured varying odds of monetary rewards and losses. Upon outcome disclosure, the anterior (but not the posterior) insula generated bursts of beta oscillations whose amplitudes were lower for neutral than positive and negative outcomes, consistent with a salience signal. Moreover, beta burst power was higher when outcomes deviated from expectations, whether the outcome was better or worse than expected, indicating that the insula provides an unsigned prediction error signal. Last, in relation to insular beta bursts, many higher-order cortical areas exhibited robust changes in LFP activity that ranged from spectrally nonspecific or differentiated increases in gamma power to bursts of beta activity that closely resembled the insular beta bursts themselves. Critically, the activity of these other cortical regions was more closely tied in time to insular bursts than task events, suggesting that they are associated with particularly significant cognitive phenomena. Overall, our findings suggest that the insula signals salience and prediction errors via amplitude modulations of beta bursts, which coincide with the near simultaneous recruitment of vast cortical territories.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The brain chemistry underlying mental exhaustion.

Emily Underwood does a review of work by Wiehler et al. (open source) on the brain chemistry underlying mental fatigue, also describing several reservations expressed by other researchers. From her description:
The researchers divided 39 paid study participants into two groups, assigning one to a series of difficult cognitive tasks that were designed to induce mental exhaustion. In one, participants had to decide whether letters and numbers flashing on a computer screen in quick succession were green or red, uppercase or lowercase, and other variations. In another, volunteers had to remember whether a number matched one they’d seen three characters earlier...As the day dragged on, the researchers repeatedly measured cognitive fatigue by asking participants to make choices that required self-control—deciding to forgo cash that was immediately available so they could earn a larger amount later, for example. The group that had been assigned to more difficult tasks made about 10% more impulsive choices than the group with easier tasks, the researchers observed. At the same time, their glutamate levels rose by about 8% in the lateral prefrontal cortex—a pattern that did not show up in the other group...

Here is the Wiehler et al. abstract:  


• Cognitive fatigue is explored with magnetic resonance spectroscopy during a workday 
• Hard cognitive work leads to glutamate accumulation in the lateral prefrontal cortex 
• The need for glutamate regulation reduces the control exerted over decision-making 
• Reduced control favors the choice of low-effort actions with short-term rewards
Behavioral activities that require control over automatic routines typically feel effortful and result in cognitive fatigue. Beyond subjective report, cognitive fatigue has been conceived as an inflated cost of cognitive control, objectified by more impulsive decisions. However, the origins of such control cost inflation with cognitive work are heavily debated. Here, we suggest a neuro-metabolic account: the cost would relate to the necessity of recycling potentially toxic substances accumulated during cognitive control exertion. We validated this account using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to monitor brain metabolites throughout an approximate workday, during which two groups of participants performed either high-demand or low-demand cognitive control tasks, interleaved with economic decisions. Choice-related fatigue markers were only present in the high-demand group, with a reduction of pupil dilation during decision-making and a preference shift toward short-delay and little-effort options (a low-cost bias captured using computational modeling). At the end of the day, high-demand cognitive work resulted in higher glutamate concentration and glutamate/glutamine diffusion in a cognitive control brain region (lateral prefrontal cortex [lPFC]), relative to low-demand cognitive work and to a reference brain region (primary visual cortex [V1]). Taken together with previous fMRI data, these results support a neuro-metabolic model in which glutamate accumulation triggers a regulation mechanism that makes lPFC activation more costly, explaining why cognitive control is harder to mobilize after a strenuous workday.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Even novices intuit complex music theory,

Bridget Alex does a nice summary of work by Weis and Peretz showing that people without musical training naturally improvise melodies that have hallmarks of tunes composed by professionals. Most individuals follow the arcane rules of music composition, even those who are unaware those rules exist. Here is the research article abstract:
Humans spontaneously invent songs from an early age. Here, we exploit this natural inclination to probe implicit musical knowledge in 33 untrained and poor singers (amusia). Each sang 28 long improvisations as a response to a verbal prompt or a continuation of a melodic stem. To assess the extent to which each improvisation reflects tonality, which has been proposed to be a core organizational principle of musicality and which is present within most music traditions, we developed a new algorithm that compares a sung excerpt to a probability density function representing the tonal hierarchy of Western music. The results show signatures of tonality in both nonmusicians and individuals with congenital amusia, who have notorious difficulty performing musical tasks that require explicit responses and memory. The findings are a proof of concept that improvisation can serve as a novel, even enjoyable method for systematically measuring hidden aspects of musicality across the spectrum of musical ability.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Reproducability crisis in machine learning systems that inform immediate or future actions

I have by now accumulated a list of articles on a growing debate over naive scientists, especially social scientists, botching their research by using machine learning techniques they don't understand. They can't 'show their work' or provide enough information for others to reproduce their results. This article by Harrison is a short and succinct summary that includes links to other publications, and you should check out the article by Gibney in Nature Magazine.