Monday, October 21, 2019

Shape of your heart is determined by whether you run or sit.

Shave et al. show that endurance runners and farmers have larger, elongated left ventricles with thin walls (traits that help pump large volumes of blood for a long time) compared with football linemen, whose training emphasizes short, high-intensity exercise. Linemen, as well has sedentary people, have shorter, wider ventricles with thicker walls and are more prone to hypertensive heart disease. Their experiments used ultrasound imaging to examine the hearts of more than 160 adult men from four groups: long-distance runners, sedentary adults, highly trained football linemen, and the Tarahumara, Native American farmers renowned for their running ability.

Chimpanzees and gorillas, when not inactive, engage primarily in short bursts of resistance physical activity (RPA), such as climbing and fighting, that creates pressure stress on the cardiovascular system. In contrast, to initially hunt and gather and later to farm, it is thought that preindustrial human survival was dependent on lifelong moderate-intensity endurance physical activity (EPA), which creates a cardiovascular volume stress. Although derived musculoskeletal and thermoregulatory adaptations for EPA in humans have been documented, it is unknown if selection acted similarly on the heart. To test this hypothesis, we compared left ventricular (LV) structure and function across semiwild sanctuary chimpanzees, gorillas, and a sample of humans exposed to markedly different physical activity patterns. We show the human LV possesses derived features that help augment cardiac output (CO) thereby enabling EPA. However, the human LV also demonstrates phenotypic plasticity and, hence, variability, across a wide range of habitual physical activity. We show that the human LV’s propensity to remodel differentially in response to chronic pressure or volume stimuli associated with intense RPA and EPA as well as physical inactivity represents an evolutionary trade-off with potential implications for contemporary cardiovascular health. Specifically, the human LV trades off pressure adaptations for volume capabilities and converges on a chimpanzee-like phenotype in response to physical inactivity or sustained pressure loading. Consequently, the derived LV and lifelong low blood pressure (BP) appear to be partly sustained by regular moderate-intensity EPA whose decline in postindustrial societies likely contributes to the modern epidemic of hypertensive heart disease.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The default mode network represents esthetic appeal.

Vessel et al. note another role for the default mode network of our brain:

Despite being highly subjective, aesthetic experiences are powerful moments of interaction with one’s surroundings, shaping behavior, mood, beliefs, and even a sense of self. The default-mode network (DMN), which sits atop the cortical hierarchy and has been implicated in self-referential processing, is typically suppressed when a person engages with the external environment. Yet not only is the DMN surprisingly engaged when one finds a visual artwork aesthetically moving, here we present evidence that the DMN also represents aesthetic appeal in a manner that generalizes across visual aesthetic domains, such as artworks, landscapes, or architecture. This stands in contrast to ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT), which represents the content of what we see, but does not contain domain-general information about aesthetic appeal.
Visual aesthetic evaluations, which impact decision-making and well-being, recruit the ventral visual pathway, subcortical reward circuitry, and parts of the medial prefrontal cortex overlapping with the default-mode network (DMN). However, it is unknown whether these networks represent aesthetic appeal in a domain-general fashion, independent of domain-specific representations of stimulus content (artworks versus architecture or natural landscapes). Using a classification approach, we tested whether the DMN or ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT) contains a domain-general representation of aesthetic appeal. Classifiers were trained on multivoxel functional MRI response patterns collected while observers made aesthetic judgments about images from one aesthetic domain. Classifier performance (high vs. low aesthetic appeal) was then tested on response patterns from held-out trials from the same domain to derive a measure of domain-specific coding, or from a different domain to derive a measure of domain-general coding. Activity patterns in category-selective VOT contained a degree of domain-specific information about aesthetic appeal, but did not generalize across domains. Activity patterns from the DMN, however, were predictive of aesthetic appeal across domains. Importantly, the ability to predict aesthetic appeal varied systematically; predictions were better for observers who gave more extreme ratings to images subsequently labeled as “high” or “low.” These findings support a model of aesthetic appreciation whereby domain-specific representations of the content of visual experiences in VOT feed in to a “core” domain-general representation of visual aesthetic appeal in the DMN. Whole-brain “searchlight” analyses identified additional prefrontal regions containing information relevant for appreciation of cultural artifacts (artwork and architecture) but not landscapes.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Cross-national negativity bias in reacting to news

There seems to be a world-wide anxiety industry of media that find maximum profits in presenting mostly negative news - in a way similar to the drug companies that have reaped great profits from flooding distressed population areas with opioids. An interesting study in this area comes from Soroka et al., who provide more information on our human tendency to react more strongly to negative than positive information. (See also my post on Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" book that engages this topic):
What accounts for the prevalence of negative news content? One answer may lie in the tendency for humans to react more strongly to negative than positive information. “Negativity biases” in human cognition and behavior are well documented, but existing research is based on small Anglo-American samples and stimuli that are only tangentially related to our political world. This work accordingly reports results from a 17-country, 6-continent experimental study examining psychophysiological reactions to real video news content. Results offer the most comprehensive cross-national demonstration of negativity biases to date, but they also serve to highlight considerable individual-level variation in responsiveness to news content. Insofar as our results make clear the pervasiveness of negativity biases on average, they help account for the tendency for audience-seeking news around the world to be predominantly negative. Insofar as our results highlight individual-level variation, however, they highlight the potential for more positive content, and suggest that there may be reason to reconsider the conventional journalistic wisdom that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Monday, October 14, 2019

An update on the science of ‘free will’

I want to point to an excellent article by Gholilpour in the Atlantic Magazine that describes a reinterpretation of experiments by Libet taken to suggest that our brains 'decide' to initiate a movement before our subjective awareness of intending to initiate that movement. A 'readiness potential' is observed about 500 msec before an action occurs, while a subject reports initiating that action about 150 msec before it occurs. Gholilpour points to work of Schurger and colleagues that suggests that the readiness potential is not the mark of a brain's brewing intention, but something much more circumstantial.
...Schurger and his colleagues ... proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.
Libet’s experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The readiness potential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.
The name Schurger rang a bell with me, and so I did a MindBlog search, only to discover that I had reported Schurger's work in a 2016 post "A 50 year misunderstanding of how we decide to initiate action - our intuition is valid". I then proceeded to completely forget about it when I was preparing a subsequent 2019 lecture mentioning Libet's work. The conventional dogma that we are 'late to action' was apparently burned into my brain - most embarrassing. (I've now inserted the new perspective into four of my web lectures, dating as far back as 2012). The real clincher is...
In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.
In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.
Gholilpour points out that this does not resolve the question of free will, it only deepens the question, which is the subject of an intensive collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers, backed by $7 million from two private foundations, the John Templeton Foundation and the Fetzer Institute.

Friday, October 11, 2019

More critique of work linking loving kindness meditation and cellular again

In my Sept. 23 post, "Loving kindness meditation slows cellular aging?", I gave a few of the reasons that the article triggered my bullshit detector. A email from Harris Friedman, Univ. of Florida, has pointed me to their more extended critique in a letter to the editor of Psychoneuroendocrinology, which I pass on in a slightly truncated version:
Extraordinary claims require compelling evidence: Concerns about “loving-kindness meditation slows biological aging in novices”
The recent paper by Le Nguyen et al. (2019) makes the extra- ordinary claim that loving-kindness meditation (LKM) slows biological aging. Unfortunately, its headline-grabbing title lacks compelling evidence. This paper shows telomere length (TL) decreased considerably in a control group over a very short time period, as compared to a LKM group, while a mindfulness meditation (MM) group was somewhere in between. From this difference, the paper argues that LKM slows biological aging, which is quite a logical leap. Clearly LKM had nothing to do with the extent of TL shrinkage in the control group, and why the control group’s TL decreased so much is ignored in the paper. More generally, there are many problems with using TL as a proxy for biological aging. Even if this paper’s basic logic is accepted, there are many problems with how the paper’s data are handled.1 The most important problem is the absence of any analyses that provides a direct and straightforward examination of pre-post TL as a function of experimental condition. Consequently, we ran a 2×3 mixed factorial ANOVA using TL measured across two times (pre and post) compared across three conditions (control, MM, and LKM) with the paper’s data. Although a significant repeated measures main effect was found, the interaction with experimental condition was non-sig- nificant. One-way ANOVAs examining pre-, post-, and change/differ- ence TL variables as a function of condition also produced non-sig nificant results. Looking at the data using other statistical approaches, however, did show some pattern of mixed results that trend, although most are non-significant, in the direction of the LKM group having less TL shortening compared to the other groups. Regardless of analysis, effect sizes were consistently meager.
In addition, there are several serious confounds compromising any valid comparison among the groups. For example, the data show that six in the control group engaged in some meditation, and one even reported meditating 16 days during the study’s short time-span. This hardly constitutes an adequate control group for a meditation study. Also, the LKM group spent considerably more time meditating than the MM group, so these did not differ only in meditation type. We are unable to address many other problems with this paper due to this journal’s length restrictions in a letter to the editor. We simply conclude that this paper’s extraordinary claim does not have the compelling evidence to back it up, and we urge not making extraordinary claims without such evidence. 
Harris L. Friedman - University of Florida, United States
Douglas A. MacDonald - University of Detroit Mercy, United States
Nicholas J.L. Brown-  University of Groningen, the Netherlands
James C. Coyne University of Pennsylvania, United States

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Psilocybin + Mindfulness Meditation change brain connectivity - lasting positive effects

Dolan points to work by Smigielski et al.:
Both psychedelics and meditation exert profound modulatory effects on consciousness, perception and cognition, but their combined, possibly synergistic effects on neurobiology are unknown. Accordingly, we conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study with 38 participants following a single administration of the psychedelic psilocybin (315 μg/kg p.o.) during a 5-day mindfulness retreat. Brain dynamics were quantified directly pre- and post-intervention by functional magnetic resonance imaging during the resting state and two meditation forms. The analysis of functional connectivity identified psilocybin-related and mental state–dependent alterations in self-referential processing regions of the default mode network (DMN). Notably, decoupling of medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, which is thought to mediate sense of self, was associated with the subjective ego dissolution effect during the psilocybin-assisted mindfulness session. The extent of ego dissolution and brain connectivity predicted positive changes in psycho-social functioning of participants 4 months later. Psilocybin, combined with meditation, facilitated neurodynamic modulations in self-referential networks, subserving the process of meditation by acting along the anterior–posterior DMN connection. The study highlights the link between altered self-experience and subsequent behavioral changes. Understanding how interventions facilitate transformative experiences may open novel therapeutic perspectives. Insights into the biology of discrete mental states foster our understanding of non-ordinary forms of human self-consciousness and their concomitant brain substrate.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Mindfulness doesn't reduce impulsive behavior.

Korponay, Davidson and colleagues present results of a study that were contrary to their expectation that the practice of mindfulness meditation would correlate with a reduction in impulsive behaviors (like having that second dish of ice cream). What they found is that neither short-term nor long-term meditation appears to be effective for reducing impulsivity that is not related to attentional difficulties, but rather is a function of motor control and planning capacities. Here is their detailed abstract:
Interest has grown in using mindfulness meditation to treat conditions featuring excessive impulsivity. However, while prior studies find that mindfulness practice can improve attention, it remains unclear whether it improves other cognitive faculties whose deficiency can contribute to impulsivity. Here, an eight-week mindfulness intervention did not reduce impulsivity on the go/no-go task or Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11), nor produce changes in neural correlates of impulsivity (i.e. frontostriatal gray matter, functional connectivity, and dopamine levels) compared to active or wait-list control groups. Separately, long-term meditators (LTMs) did not perform differently than meditation-naïve participants (MNPs) on the go/no-go task. However, LTMs self-reported lower attentional impulsivity, but higher motor and non-planning impulsivity on the BIS-11 than MNPs. LTMs had less striatal gray matter, greater cortico-striatal-thalamic functional connectivity, and lower spontaneous eye-blink rate (a physiological dopamine indicator) than MNPs. LTM total lifetime practice hours (TLPH) did not signifcantly relate to impulsivity or neurobiological metrics. Findings suggest that neither short nor long-term mindfulness practice may be efective for redressing impulsive behavior derived from inhibitory motor control or planning capacity defcits in healthy adults. Given the absence of TLPH relationships to impulsivity or neurobiological metrics, diferences between LTMs and MNPs may be attributable to pre-existing diferences.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Gender and race stereotypes - what's in a name...

Eaton et al. give us more data on the application of gender and race stereotypes in academia:
The current study examines how intersecting stereotypes about gender and race influence faculty perceptions of post-doctoral candidates in STEM fields in the United States. Using a fully-crossed, between-subjects experimental design, biology and physics professors (n = 251) from eight large, public, U.S. research universities were asked to read one of eight identical curriculum vitae (CVs) depicting a hypothetical doctoral graduate applying for a post-doctoral position in their field, and rate them for competence, hireability, and likeability. The candidate’s name on the CV was used to manipulate race (Asian, Black, Latinx, and White) and gender (female or male), with all other aspects of the CV held constant across conditions. Faculty in physics exhibited a gender bias favoring the male candidates as more competent and more hirable than the otherwise identical female candidates. Further, physics faculty rated Asian and White candidates as more competent and hirable than Black and Latinx candidates, while those in biology rated Asian candidates as more competent and hirable than Black candidates, and as more hireable than Latinx candidates. An interaction between candidate gender and race emerged for those in physics, whereby Black women and Latinx women and men candidates were rated the lowest in hireability compared to all others. Women were rated more likeable than men candidates across departments. Our results highlight how understanding the underrepresentation of women and racial minorities in STEM requires examining both racial and gender biases as well as how they intersect.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

I want to point the subset of MindBlog readers interested in brain-behavior correlations to the journal “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” particularly to the June 2019 issue. Most of the articles in this issue are open source, and a scan of the article abstracts gives a good sense of the kind of work being done in this field to identify correlations between behaviors and brain activities in different brain areas. Such work gives us an idea of where to focus our attention when extreme behaviors are at issue, such as (in the first article) being willing to fight and die for a cause. Another interesting article suggests that the medial prefrontal cortex may play a role in maintaining a positively biased self-concept.

Monday, September 30, 2019

People of color - getting quantitative about police-involved deaths

From Edwards et al.:

Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. Risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups. Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.
We use data on police-involved deaths to estimate how the risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States varies across social groups. We estimate the lifetime and age-specific risks of being killed by police by race and sex. We also provide estimates of the proportion of all deaths accounted for by police use of force. We find that African American men and women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Latino men face higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. We find that Latina women and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women face lower risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. Risk is highest for black men, who (at current levels of risk) face about a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police over the life course. The average lifetime odds of being killed by police are about 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Risk peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for all groups. For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Red and Blue Voters Live in Different Economies

Wow... if you want some graphics that powerfully describe our current political malaise, check out Edsall's Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes. Here is a graph showing how economic output and income for Democratic and Republican House districts diverged over the last decade - two different economies that are diverging rapidly:

Another Edsall piece notes that insecurity caused by rapid cultural change as well as economic insecurity has generated a class of voters who feel powerless and angry, and actually feel a need for the chaos Trump generates - that they hope might disrupt the system that disadvantages them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Mindfulness training and attentional control of mind-wandering

Several studies have suggested that mindfulness training can strengthen the connections between the networks in our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC] attentional executive control network and those supporting the posterior cingulate cortex [PCC] default mode network active in mind-wandering. Davidson and his colleagues have expanded on this to see whether a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course can increase DLPFC-PCC connectivity:
Mindfulness meditation training has been shown to increase resting state functional connectivity between nodes of the frontoparietal executive control network (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]) and the default mode network (posterior cingulate cortex [PCC]). We investigated whether these effects generalized to a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, and tested for structural and behaviorally relevant consequences of change in connectivity. Healthy, meditationnaïve adults were randomized to either MBSR (N=48), an active (N=47) or waitlist (N=45) control group. Participants completed behavioral testing, resting state fMRI scans, and diffusion tensor scans at pre-randomization (T1), post-intervention (T2) and approximately 5.5 months later (T3). We found increased T2-T1 PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity for MBSR relative to control groups. Although these effects did not persist through long-term follow-up (T3-T1), MBSR participants showed a significantly stronger relationship between days of practice (T1 to T3) and increased PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity than participants in the active control group. Increased PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity in MBSR participants was associated with increased microstructural connectivity of a white matter tract connecting these regions, and increased self reported attention. These data show that MBSR increases PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity, which is related to increased practice time, attention, and structural connectivity.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Loving kindness meditation slows cellular aging?

I like to be generous, loving, kind and nice, but a recent PsyPost article on the slowing of cellular aging by loving-kindness meditation triggered my bullshit detector. I first pass on the summary and abstract of the work referenced in the article by Le Nguyen et al., and then get a bit into the details available only to those who have journal access (motivated readers can request a PDF of the article from me). It is a noble and complicated effort, with proper double blind controls, but with statistics compromised by a small sample size and measured changes in DNA telomere length (a proxy for aging) over a short period of time much larger than would be expected from longer terms studies. While I would like to believe the conclusions drawn by the authors, I have to remain wary of accepting them.

•Over 12 weeks, loving-kindness meditation buffered telomere attrition.
•Telomere length decreased in the mindfulness group and the control group.
•The loving-kindness group showed less telomere attrition than the control group.
Combinations of multiple meditation practices have been shown to reduce the attrition of telomeres, the protective caps of chromosomes (Carlson et al., Cancer, 121 (2015), pp. 476-484). Here, we probed the distinct effects on telomere length (TL) of mindfulness meditation (MM) and loving-kindness meditation (LKM). Midlife adults (N = 142) were randomized to be in a waitlist control condition or to learn either MM or LKM in a 6-week workshop. Telomere length was assessed 2 weeks before the start of the workshops and 3 weeks after their termination. After controlling for appropriate demographic covariates and baseline TL, we found TL decreased significantly in the MM group and the control group, but not in the LKM group. There was also significantly less TL attrition in the LKM group than the control group. The MM group showed changes in TL that were intermediate between the LKM and control groups yet not significantly different from either. Self-reported emotions and practice intensity (duration and frequency) did not mediate these observed group differences. This study is the first to disentangle the effects of LKM and MM on TL and suggests that LKM may buffer telomere attrition.

Fig. 1. Descriptive Mean and Standard Errors of Changes in TL per Experimental Conditions. (TL is expressed as the ratio (T/S) of telomeric (T) to single copy (S) gene product for a particular blood sample)
Apart from picking apart their statistics and the "controls for demographic covariates," the discussion paragraph that troubles me most is:
The difference in telomere length between the Control and LKM groups was .048 T/S ratio after demographic covariates were considered. Based on comparison of T/S ratios and telomere length measured by Southern blot in a series of quality control samples from the same lab, we estimated this difference of .048 T/S ratio to be 115 basepairs. This TL decrease over the 12-week period appears to be large compared to studies of TL change with much longer time periods (Müezzinler et al., Obes. Rev., 15 (2014), pp. 192-201). It is possible that this reflects short term dynamic change, or potential systematic differences in the collection and/or assay of baseline and follow-up samples. The fact that DNA extraction and assay were done as one batch (all samples from Time 1 and Time 2) argues against the latter concern, although we cannot completely rule out other potential unaccounted for systematic differences. Although it is unknown whether this effect remains longer than 3 weeks post-intervention, the current study demonstrated proof of concept for the malleability of TL changes, and that certain forms of meditation, in this case loving-kindness meditation, may buffer against telomere erosion.
After several paragraphs of other reservations and cautions on the data, the authors state: should interpret the differences in TL changes here with caution, treating them as evidence for “apparent” rather than true alterations in TL.
In balance, the PsyPost article title: "Study provides evidence that loving-kindness meditation slows cellular aging" is wrong.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Gender neutral pronouns reduce bias in favor of traditional gender roles

An interesting study by Tavits and Pérez on Sweden's 2015 incorporation into the Swedish Academy Glossary (which sets norms for Sweden's language) of the gender-neutral pronoun hen. A majority of Swedes now use hen alongside the explicitly gendered hon (she) and han (he) as part of their grammatical toolkit.

Evidence from 3 survey experiments traces the effects of gender-neutral pronoun use on mass judgments of gender equality and tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. The results establish that individual use of gender-neutral pronouns reduces the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with people expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as manifested in more positive attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public affairs.
To improve gender equality and tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, several nations have promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns and words. Do these linguistic devices actually reduce biases that favor men over women, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals? The current article explores this question with 3 large-scale experiments in Sweden, which formally incorporated a gender-neutral pronoun into its language alongside established gendered pronouns equivalent to he and she. The evidence shows that compared with masculine pronouns, use of gender-neutral pronouns decreases the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with individuals expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as reflected in more favorable attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public life. Additional analyses reveal similar patterns for feminine pronouns. The influence of both pronouns is more automatic than controlled.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The power of "cute"

I want to point MindBlog readers to an article by Simon May at that encapsulates the contents of his new book "The Power of Cute" (2019), and to a Trends in Cognitive Sciences review article by Kringelbach et al. on cuteness that summarizes work on brain activities underlying survival related cuteness responses. The latter article's introduction notes that the prevailing view of cuteness...
...came from the founding fathers of ethology, Nobel prizewinners Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. They proposed that the cute facial features of infants form a ‘Kindchenschema’ (infant schema), a prime example of an ‘innate releasing mechanism’ that unlocks instinctual behaviours...These characteristics contribute to ‘cuteness’ and propel our caregiving behaviours, which is vital because infants need our constant attention to survive and thrive. Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour.
May considers the increasing popularity of child-like figures in popular culture and asks:
In such uncertain and uneasy times, and with so much injustice, hate and intolerance threatening the world, don’t we have more serious things to focus on than the escapades of that feline girl-figure Hello Kitty? Or Pokémon, the video-game franchise that’s hot again in 2019...The craze for all things cute is motivated, most obviously, by the urge to escape from precisely such a threatening world into a garden of innocence in which childlike qualities arouse deliciously protective feelings, and bestow contentment and solace. Cute cues include behaviours that appear helpless, harmless, charming and yielding, and anatomical features such as outsize heads, protruding foreheads, saucer-like eyes, retreating chins and clumsy gaits.
May suggests that the increasingly popularity of cuteness derives not only from the 'sweet' end of the whole spectrum of cuteness but also from moving towards the 'uncanny' and ambiguous end, a....
...faintly menacing subversion of boundaries – between the fragile and the resilient, the reassuring and the unsettling, the innocent and the knowing – when presented in cute’s frivolous, teasing idiom, is central to its immense popularity... ‘unpindownability’, as we might call it, that pervades cute – the erosion of borders between what used to be seen as distinct or discontinuous realms, such as childhood and adulthood – is also reflected in the blurred gender of many cute objects such as Balloon Dog or a lot of Pokémon. It is reflected, too, in their frequent blending of human and nonhuman forms, as in the cat-girl Hello Kitty. And in their often undefinable age...In such ways, cute is attuned to an era that is no longer so wedded to such hallowed dichotomies as masculine and feminine, sexual and nonsexual, adult and child, being and becoming, transient and eternal, body and soul, absolute and contingent, and even good and bad.
Although attraction to such cute objects as the mouthless, fingerless Hello Kitty can express a desire for power, cuteness can also parody and subvert power by playing with the viewer’s sense of her own power, now painting her into a dominant pose, now sowing uncertainty about who is really in charge...

Monday, September 16, 2019

Psychological adaptation to the apocalypse - meditate, or just be happy?

In this post, not exactly an upper, I point first to two in-your-face articles on how we ought to be afraid, very afraid, about humanity's future technological and ecological environment, and then note two pieces of writing on psychological adaptations that might dampen down the full turn on of our brains' fear machinery.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen does a screed very effective at scaring the bejesus out of us. His basic argument: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” A chorus of criticism has greeted Franzen's article: "Franzen is wrong on the science, on the politics, and on the psychology of human behavior as it pertains to climate change." (See also Chrobak.)

And, for alarm on our looming digital environment, The 6,000 word essay by Glenn S. Gerstell, general counsel of the National Security, and summarized by Warzel, should do the job. The first nation to crack quantum computing (China or the US) will rule the world! 

So, how do we manage to wake up cheerful in the morning? Futurist Yuval Harari offers his approach in Chapter 21 of his book "21 Lessons for the 21st century," by describing his experience of learning to meditate, starting with the initial instructions (to observe your process of breathing) in his first Vipassana meditation course. He now meditates two hours every day.
The point is that meditation is a tool for observing the mind directly...For at least two hours a day I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other twenty-two hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and cute-puppy videos. Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens or Homo Deus.
A glimmer of hopefulness can also be obtained by reading books in the vein of Pinker's "Enlightenment Now", which documents again and again, for many areas, how dire predictions about the future have not come to pass. The injunction here would be to be optimistic, not a bad idea, given the recent PNAS article by Lee et al. documenting that the lifespan of optimistic people, on average, is 11 to 15% longer.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Twitter is making us dumber.

Stanley-Becker points to some research providing hardly surprising evidence that communicating about complex issues using 280 character chunks of text dumbs down the understanding of twitter users. Using Twitter to teach literature has an overall negative effect on students’ average achievement, with the effect being strongest on students who usually perform better. Numerous schools have started to utilize twitter discussion among students assuming that this would enhance intellectual attainment, but in fact it undermines it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Can we reverse our biological age? The usual media hysteria...

I must have seen at least 10 of my media inputs hyping a small study by Fahy et al. (9 white men, and lacking controls) pointed to by Abbott suggesting that the body's epigenetic clock might be reversed. The study actually had the goal of seeing whether human growth hormone could stimulates regeneration of the thymus gland and enhance immune function. Because the hormone can promote diabetes, the trial included two widely used anti-diabetic drugs, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and metformin, in the treatment cocktail. (Metformin is being evaluated as an anti-aging drug in several large scale studies).
Checking the effect of the drugs on the participants’ epigenetic clocks was an afterthought. The clinical study had finished when Fahy approached Horvath to conduct an analysis. (Epigenetic clocks are constructed by selecting sets of DNA-methylation sites across the genome. In the past few years, Horvath — a pioneer in epigenetic-clock research — has developed some of the most accurate ones)...Horvath used four different epigenetic clocks to assess each patient’s biological age, and he found significant reversal for each trial participant in all of the tests. “This told me that the biological effect of the treatment was robust,” he says. What’s more, the effect persisted in the six participants who provided a final blood sample six months after stopping the trial, he says.
The understandable excitement over this result is probably out of proportion to the probability it will be confirmed in larger experiments with proper controls.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Training to reduce cognitive biases.

Sellier et al. show that students assigned to solve a business case exercise are less likely to choose an inferior confirmatory solution when they have previously undergone a debiasing-training intervention:
The primary objection to debiasing-training interventions is a lack of evidence that they improve decision making in field settings, where reminders of bias are absent. We gave graduate students in three professional programs (N = 290) a one-shot training intervention that reduces confirmation bias in laboratory experiments. Natural variance in the training schedule assigned participants to receive training before or after solving an unannounced business case modeled on the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger. We used case solutions to surreptitiously measure participants’ susceptibility to confirmation bias. Trained participants were 29% less likely to choose the inferior hypothesis-confirming solution than untrained participants. Analysis of case write-ups suggests that a reduction in confirmatory hypothesis testing accounts for their improved decision making in the case. The results provide promising evidence that debiasing-training effects transfer to field settings and can improve decision making in professional and private life.

Friday, September 06, 2019

How personal and professional conduct relate to one another.

From Griffin et al.:

The relative importance of personal traits compared with context for predicting behavior is a long-standing issue in psychology. This debate plays out in a practical way every time an employer, voter, or other decision maker has to infer expected professional conduct based on observed personal behavior. Despite its theoretical and practical importance, there is little academic consensus on this question. We fill this void with evidence connecting personal infidelity to professional behavior in 4 different settings.
We study the connection between personal and professional behavior by introducing usage of a marital infidelity website as a measure of personal conduct. Police officers and financial advisors who use the infidelity website are significantly more likely to engage in professional misconduct. Results are similar for US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defendants accused of white-collar crimes, and companies with chief executive officers (CEOs) or chief financial officers (CFOs) who use the website are more than twice as likely to engage in corporate misconduct. The relation is not explained by a wide range of regional, firm, executive, and cultural variables. These findings suggest that personal and workplace behavior are closely related.