Wednesday, January 31, 2007
That's why Sullivan says of Harris: "That's why you've gone on retreats, explored Buddhism, experimented with psilocybin, as I have." and then, "...that brings me to the asymmetry of our positions. We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate... you are being intolerant." (Sullivan writes in the context of the Christian canon and uses the "God" word with ease.)
But Sullivan actually gives Harris' (I think legitimate) reason for this intolerance earlier in his text: "You argue further that even if you concede the possibility of a legitimate form of religious truth-seeking, the content of various, competing revelations renders them dangerous. They are dangerous because they logically contradict each other. And since their claims are the most profound that we can imagine, human beings will often be compelled to fight for them."
The issue seems to me a practical one. there may be higher levels of universal truth, but conventional religions haven't proven a very effective way of revealing them in a form that can be agreed to by all of us humans that share a common evolutionary biology. Only rational empiricism has done that.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Figure 1. Action–listening illustration. A, Music performance can be viewed as a complex sequence of both actions and sounds, in which sounds are made by actions. B, The sound of music one knows how to play can be reflected, as if in a mirror, in the corresponding motor representations.
Figure 2. Action–listening activation. A, B, Extensive bilateral activation in the frontoparietal motor-related brain regions was observed when subjects listened to the trained-music they knew how to play (A), but not when they listened to the never-learned untrained-different-notes-music (B). C, Activation maps are shown in areas that were significantly more active during listening to the trained-music versus the untrained-different-notes-music. L, Left; R, right.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Naqvi et al have found that smokers with brain damage involving the insula are more likely than smokers with brain damage not involving the insula to undergo a disruption of smoking addiction, characterized by the ability to quit smoking easily, immediately, without relapse, and without persistence of the urge to smoke.
Here is a figure from their paper:
From the figure legend: "Whole-brain region-by-region logistic regression analysis. The only regions that were assigned a color were those for which the number of patients was sufficient to detect a statistically significant effect. Regions for which there was a statistically significant association between a lesion and a disruption of smoking addiction (P < 0.05, uncorrected) are highlighted in red. The insula is the only region on either side of the brain where a lesion was significantly associated with a disruption of smoking addiction. The likelihood of having a disruption of smoking addiction was not increased after damage in the orbitofrontal cortex."
From their discussion:
"The results of this study suggest that the insula is a critical neural substrate for the urge to smoke, although they do not in themselves indicate why the insula, a region known to play a role in the representation of the bodily states), would play such an important role in urge. A clue may be provided by the account of one patient in our sample who quit smoking immediately after he suffered a stroke that damaged his left insula. He stated that he quit because his "body forgot the urge to smoke" . His experience suggests that the insula plays a role in the feeling that smoking is a bodily need. Indeed, much of the pleasure and satiety that is obtained from smoking is derived from its bodily effects, in particular its impact on the airway. In addition, nicotine withdrawal is associated with changes in autonomic and endocrine function, which may contribute to its unpleasantness. Current evidence suggests that the insula plays a role in conscious feelings by anticipating the bodily effects of emotional events. The insula may therefore function in the conscious urge to smoke by anticipating pleasure from the airway effects of smoking and/or relief from the aversive autonomic effects of nicotine withdrawal. Thus, damage to the insula could lead a smoker to feel that his or her body has "forgotten" the urge to smoke."
Sunday, January 28, 2007
"Two years ago the journalist Ron Suskind offered a disturbing insight into the presidency of George W. Bush. In an article in The New York Times Magazine on 17 October 2004, Suskind quoted a senior White House adviser mocking journalists and others in the "reality-based community" who believe that "solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality". The adviser added: "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." "
Friday, January 26, 2007
Thursday, January 25, 2007
The figures of the paper illustrate a network of many brain regions that are relatively more active in the stimulus-independent thought that occurs more frequently during practiced compared with novel tasks (verbal and visuospatial working-memory tasks were used).
There is no speculation on what the role the particular brain regions listed might be during stimulus-independt thought (SIT). I thought the last paragraph of the paper was interesting:
"The purpose of the current inquiry was to explore how and when the mind generates SIT. A more intractable question, however, is why these thoughts emerge at all. What is the functional significance of a system that wanders from its current goals? One possibility is that SIT enables individuals to maintain an optimal level of arousal, thereby facilitating performance on mundane tasks. A second possibility is that SIT—as a kind of spontaneous mental time travel—lends a sense of coherence to one's past, present, and future experiences. Finally, the mind may generate SIT not to attain some extrinsic goal (e.g., staying alert) but simply because it evolved a general ability to divide attention and to manage concurrent mental tasks. Although the thoughts the mind produces when wandering are at times useful, such instances do not prove that the mind wanders because these thoughts are adaptive; on the contrary the mind may wander simply because it can."
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Andrew King writes an essay in the same issue giving more context for these experiments and relating them to studies on humans, where plasticity of multisensory processing has also been shown to occur. One definition clip from the essay: "for each sensory modality, stimulus location is represented topographically in the SC to form overlapping maps of space. In principle, this allows the different sensory cues associated with a common source to activate a specific region of the SC motor map and therefore be transformed into motor commands that result in a change in gaze direction....many of the neurons found in the deeper layers of this midbrain structure receive converging inputs from two or more sensory systems and generate higher spike discharge rates—and it is likely, in turn, more accurate orienting responses—when combinations of stimuli are delivered in close temporal and spatial proximity."
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Credit: New York Times
Cognitive psychologists believe "the appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior." Daniel Wegner at Harvard and collaborators have reported experiments showing how easy it is to induce magical thinking in well-educated young adults (young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache.)
An idea is that the brain has evolved to make snap judgments about causation, and will leap to conclusions well before logic can be applied. A relevant interpretation that connects all the dots can be preferred to a rational one. Wegner also suggests: "For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator."
The new and interesting result is that these patients, compared with normal controls, had difficulty envisioning commonplace scenarios they might reasonably have expected to encounter in the future. The healthy subjects provided rich descriptions, remarking for example on the curve of a beach, the sound of waves hitting the shore, and the feel of burning hot sand. The amnesic patients were able to follow the researchers' instructions, but their descriptions were far less vivid. They described fewer objects, fewer sensory details such as sounds and smells, and fewer thoughts or emotions that might be evoked in the imagined scenario.
This suggests that the same system we use to remember the past we also use to construct possible futures. The emerging view is that to have vivid constructions of the past, the future, or of imaginary events, you always need the hippocampus. A forthcoming report from Addis and Schacter of Harvard University in fact demonstrates that a similar network of brain regions, including the hippocampus, is activated when healthy volunteers are asked either to recall a vivid memory or to envision a future experience.
Monday, January 22, 2007
Friday, January 19, 2007
From the article's abstract: "Consistent with neuroimaging evidence suggesting that distinct circuits anticipate gain and loss, product preference activated the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), while excessive prices activated the insula and deactivated the mesial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) prior to the purchase decision. Activity from each of these regions independently predicted immediately subsequent purchases above and beyond self-report variables. These findings suggest that activation of distinct neural circuits related to anticipatory affect precedes and supports consumers' purchasing decisions."
From Knutson: “It was amazing to be able to see brain activity seconds before a decision and predict whether the person would buy it or not.”
NOTE: I'm not including a graphic of the MRI data from the article, as I have been doing in many posts like this, because they don't give you much you couldn't learn from simply entering the name of brain structures mentioned (insula, nucleus accumbens) in Google Images and getting even more information on their general context.
Another point is that articles like this are trendy and get popular press, but one reasonable reaction is "Well, duh! What did you expect?" Brain changes correlate with behavior changes! Of course, the slicing and dicing of what happens where is a necessary part of describing the machine, and there is a sense of relief that discrete behaviors correlate with discrete regions of brain activity. It could have looked like undifferentiated mush, everything happening everywhere. And, some lists of the multiple areas suggested to be implicated in consciousness begin to look like this.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
"There were some suggestions in Overbye's article that questioning free will is a *good* thing. Einstein said seeing we don't have free will keeps us humble, and psychologist Dan Wegner suggested it would allow us to understand evil and prompt us to reform people instead of merely paying them back."
"There's a roundup of recent articles on free will, including Overbye's, at http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm."
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
My take on the fact that we frequently experience warm feelings after doing good is that we are experiencing the activation of our evolved affiliative neuro-endrocine repertoire, which has components like the release the neuropeptide oxytocin that promotes bonding and trust (see Feb. 13 post). There seems an obvious evolutionary rationale for the pleasure we take in helping others: groups of humans who develop this trait more highly might be more cooperative and effective in competition with other groups of humans whose members treat each other less sweetly. This, like all evolutionary psychology explanations, is hard to test or prove and thus criticized as pseudoscientific hand waving, but I like it. (There does seem to be a consensus that a major engine driving hominid evolution over the past several hundred thousand years has been competition between groups of humans.)
Such a group selection rationale can be applied also to why humans invent religions (which draw caustic blog posts from dry rationalists)...they wage war against other groups of humans more effectively. I do think David Sloan Wilson has it right on the central importance of group selection to human evolution. Have a look at his article "Testing major evolutionary hypothesis about religion with a random sample" which, along with several of this other recent interesting articles can be downloaded in PDF form from his website. I completely fail to understand the objection of the selfish-gene purists to group selection. Their points are now finding some refutation in mathematical models (cf. Bowles) that show how groups with altruistic genes might be better at waging war.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Tomasello: "Evolutionary theory tells us that, in general, the only individuals who are around today are those whose ancestors did things that were beneficial to their own survival and reproduction. If I have eyes whose direction is especially easy to follow, it must be of some advantage to me...If I am, in effect, advertising the direction of my eyes, I must be in a social environment full of others who are not often inclined to take advantage of this to my detriment — by, say, beating me to the food or escaping aggression before me. Indeed, I must be in a cooperative social environment in which others following the direction of my eyes somehow benefits me."
"our research team has shown that even infants — at around their first birthdays, before language acquisition has begun — tend to follow the direction of another person’s eyes, not their heads. Thus, when an adult looked to the ceiling with her eyes only, head remaining straight ahead, infants looked to the ceiling in turn. However, when the adult closed her eyes and pointed her head to the ceiling, infants did not very often follow."
"Our nearest primate relatives, the African great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) showed precisely the opposite pattern of gaze following. When the human pointed her eyes only to the ceiling (head remaining straight ahead), they followed only rarely. But when she pointed her head only (eyes closed) to the ceiling, they followed much more often."
"It has been repeatedly demonstrated that all great apes, including humans, follow the gaze direction of others. But in previous studies the head and eyes were always pointed in the same direction. Only when we made the head and eyes point in different directions did we find a species difference: humans are sensitive to the direction of the eyes specifically in a way that our nearest primate relatives are not. This is the first demonstration of an actual behavioral function for humans’ uniquely visible eyes."
"Why might it have been advantageous for some early humans to advertise their eye direction in a way that enabled others to determine what they were looking at more easily? One possible answer, what we have called the cooperative eye hypothesis, is that especially visible eyes made it easier to coordinate close-range collaborative activities in which discerning where the other was looking and perhaps what she was planning, benefited both participants...If we are gathering berries to share, with one of us pulling down a branch and the other harvesting the fruit, it would be useful — especially before language evolved — for us to coordinate our activities and communicate our plans, using our eyes and perhaps other visually based gestures....Infant research, too, suggests that coordinating visual attention may have provided the foundation for the evolution of human language. Babies begin to acquire language through joint activities with others, in which both parties are focused on the same object or task. That’s the best time for an infant to learn the word for the object or activity in question."
Monday, January 15, 2007
1. Seth, A.K. and Izhikevich, E.I. and Reeke, G.N. and Edelman, G.M. (2006)
*Theories and measures of consciousness: An extended framework.* Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 103 (28). pp. 10799-10804. With
1168 downloads from 23 countries. See: http://eprints.assc.caltech.edu/162/
2. Dehaene, Stanislas and Changeux, Jean-Pierre and Naccache, Lionel
and Sackur, Jérôme and Sergent, Claire (2006) *Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: a testable taxonomy.* Trends in Cognitive Science, 10 (5).
pp. 204-211. With 1017 downloads from 19 countries. See:
3. Koch, Christof and Tsuchiya, Nao (2006) *(PART 1) The relationship
between attention and consciousness.* In: 10th annual meeting of the
Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, June, Oxford. With
880 downloads from 16 countries. See:
4. Chai-Youn, Kim and Blake, Randolph (2005) *Psychophysical magic:
rendering the visible 'invisible'.* Trends in Cognitive Science, 9 (8).
pp. 381-8. With 661 downloads from 14 countries. See:
5. Windt, Jennifer Michelle and Metzinger, Thomas (2006) *The philosophy of
dreaming and self-consciousness: What happens to the experiential subject
during the dream state?* In: The new science of dreaming. Praeger
Imprint/Greenwood Publishers, Estport, CT. With 544 downloads from 13
countries. See: http://eprints.assc.caltech.edu/200/
- Destrebecqz, Arnaud and Peigneux, Philippe (2005) *Methods for studying
unconscious learning.* In: Progress in Brain Research. Elsevier, pp. 69-80.
- Carter, O and Burr, D and Pettigrew, J and Wallis, G and Hasler, F
and Vollenweider, F (2005) *Using psilocybin to investigate the relationship between
attention, working memory and the Serotonin1A&2A receptors.* Journal of
Consciousness studies, 17 (10). pp. 1497-1508. See:
- Laureys, Steven (2005) *The neural correlate of (un)awareness: lessons
from the vegetative state.* Trends Cogn Sci, 9. pp. 556-559. See:
Sunday, January 14, 2007
For some strange reason the Times doesn't mention another major and growing group, The Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster.
Friday, January 12, 2007
The authors identified a distributed set of cortical regions that appear to be important for episodic future thought and that are not isolated to regions within frontal cortex. These regions neatly break apart into two sets of regions, each characterized by their pattern of activity across tasks. One set of regions (within left lateral premotor cortex, left precuneus, and right posterior cerebellum) was more active while envisioning the future than while recollecting the past (and more active in both of these conditions than in the task involving imagining another person). These regions have previously been implicated in imagined (simulated) bodily movements. A second set of regions (bilateral posterior cingulate, bilateral parahippocampal gyrus, and left occipital cortex) demonstrated indistinguishable activity during the future and past tasks (but greater activity in both tasks than the imagery control task); similar regions have been shown to be important for remembering previously encountered visual-spatial contexts. Hence, differences between the future and past tasks are attributed to differences in the demands placed on regions that underlie motor imagery of bodily movements, and similarities in activity for these two tasks are attributed to the reactivation of previously experienced visual–spatial contexts. That is, subjects appear to place their future scenarios in well known visual–spatial contexts.
The authors suggest that simulation of bodily actions and reinstatement of visual–spatial context may be particularly relevant to the understanding of the ability to mentally represent a future event.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
"One emerging theoretical view posits two systems of reasoning: a slow-learning system that acquires and classifies associations over long periods of time, and a fast-learning module that emphasizes higher-order conscious cognition. A stimulus--for example, the negatively valenced word "hate"--can be paired in a subliminal fashion with a person's face (for example, Bob's); this association will induce subjects to regard Bob unfavorably, as assessed by their poststimulus choice of positive or negative adjectives, yet they will be unaware of having evolved this implicit attitude. Similarly, written descriptions of Bob's praiseworthy behavior will result in subjects expressing a liking for Bob, where this evaluation reflects a studied and thoughtful appraisal--that is, the formation of an explicit attitude. Rydell et al. show that these mental processes can be accessed separately and appear to operate independently. Not only are subjects capable of developing apparently inconsistent negative implicit attitudes and positive explicit attitudes about the same individual, but they can actually be influenced to invert their preferences by the subsequent presentation of subliminal (positive) words and supraliminal (negative) descriptions."
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The close relationship between attention and consciousness has led many scholars to conflate these processes. This article summarizes psychophysical evidence, arguing that top-down attention and consciousness are distinct phenomena that need not occur together and that can be manipulated using distinct paradigms. Subjects can become conscious of an isolated object or the gist of a scene despite the near absence of top-down attention; conversely, subjects can attend to perceptually invisible objects. Furthermore, top-down attention and consciousness can have opposing effects. Such dissociations are easier to understand when the different functions of these two processes are considered. Untangling their tight relationship is necessary for the scientific elucidation of consciousness and its material substrate.
At the end of their paper the authors comment on the implications their consclusions hold for real life:
It could be contested that top-down attention without consciousness and consciousness with little or no top-down attention are arcane laboratory curiosities that have little relevance to the real world. We believe otherwise. A lasting insight into human behavior – eloquently articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche – is that much action bypasses conscious perception and introspection. In particular, Goodale and Milner isolated highly trained, automatic, stereotyped and fluid visuomotor behaviors that work in the absence of phenomenal experience. As anybody who runs mountain trails, climbs, plays soccer or drives home on automatic pilot knows, these sensorimotor skills – dubbed zombie behaviors – require rapid and sophisticated sensory processing. Confirming a long-held belief among trainers, athletes perform better at their highly tuned skill when they are distracted by a skill-irrelevant dual task (e.g. paying attention to tones) than when they pay attention to their exhaustively trained behaviors.
The history of any scientific concept (e.g. energy, atoms or genes) is one of increasing differentiation and sophistication until its action can be explained in a quantitative and mechanistic manner at a lower, more elemental level. We are far from this ideal in the inchoate science of consciousness. Yet functional considerations and the empirical and conceptual work of many scholars over the past decade make it clear that these psychologically defined processes – top-down attention and consciousness – so often conflated, are not the same. This empirical and functional distinction clears the deck for a concerted neurobiological attack on the core problem – that of identifying the necessary and sufficient neural causes of a conscious percept.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
This new site from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Rockville, Maryland, offers advice and resources for scientists who want to defend Darwinism. Downloadable documents provide pointers on meeting with public officials, testifying at school board hearings, and related topics. Much of the advice is common sense, but some of it may be counterintuitive for scientists. For example, although you want your papers to run in prestigious journals, an op-ed will probably have more impact if it appears in the local paper than if it's accepted by The Wall Street Journal. The site also furnishes PowerPoint files on topics such as the importance of learning about evolution.
Monday, January 08, 2007
"One clue comes from studies indicating that memory errors can reveal the operation of adaptive rather than defective processes. For example, consider the following words: tired, bed, awake, rest, dream, night, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, pillow, peace, yawn and drowsy. When asked whether 'blanket'; was on the list (a few minutes after seeing the words), most people correctly recognize that it was; when asked about 'point';, they correctly remember that it was not. When asked about 'sleep';, most people confidently remember having seen it — but they are wrong. They falsely recognize 'sleep'; because they remember that many associated words were present, and mistakenly rely on their accurate memory for the general theme of the list."
"Future events are not exact replicas of past events, and a memory system that simply stored rote records would not be well-suited to simulating future events. A system built according to constructive principles may be a better tool for the job: it can draw on the elements and gist of the past, and extract, recombine and reassemble them into imaginary events that never occurred in that exact form. Such a system will occasionally produce memory errors, but it also provides considerable flexibility."
"Taken together, neurological and neuroimaging studies suggest that false-recognition errors reflect the healthy operation of adaptive, constructive processes supporting the ability to remember what actually happened in the past. Many researchers believe that remembering the gist of what happened is an economical way of storing the most important aspects of our experiences without cluttering memory with trivial details. We agree. But we also see another important function for constructive memory, one that emerges from an idea that a growing number of researchers are embracing — that memory is important for the future as well as the past."
Saturday, January 06, 2007
Fig. 1. Stimulus display. Ambiguous and disambiguated versions of the apparent motion quartet used in the rivalry and replay conditions, respectively, are shown. The single frames alternated at 4 Hz. When looking at the rivalry stimulus, perception is bistable and fluctuates spontaneously between periods of horizontal and vertical apparent motion perception. Disambiguated versions of the stimulus were used to change participants' perception of apparent motion with the same temporal sequence as during the rivalry condition.
Fig. 2. Transient activation during perceptual switches. (A) Regions commonly activated in response to both spontaneous and stimulus-driven perceptual switches are rendered in blue onto a standard anatomical template image Numbers 1–6 indicate the regions that were subsequently used for detailed analyses of signal time courses. (B) Greater response amplitudes during spontaneous as opposed to stimulus-driven switches were observed in bilateral inferior frontal regions and are shown in red. (C) Earlier responses during spontaneous as opposed to stimulus-driven switches were observed in the right inferior frontal gyrus.
Greater activations during spontaneous compared with stimulus-driven switches were observed in inferior frontal cortex bilaterally. Subsequent chronometric analyses of event-related signal time courses showed that, relative to activations in motion-sensitive extrastriate visual cortex, right inferior frontal cortex activation occurred earlier during spontaneous than during stimulus-driven perceptual changes. The temporal precedence of right inferior frontal activations suggests that this region participates in initiating spontaneous switches in perception during constant physical stimulation. Their findings can thus be seen as a signature of when and where the brain "makes up its mind" about competing perceptual interpretations of a given sensory input pattern.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Figure: Blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response and proximity to the WTC. (a) Coronal slice of the structurally defined left amygdala (outlined in red) that includes the peak active voxel. (b) Mean percentage signal change from the peak active voxel in the left amygdala, revealing a two-way interaction of trial type (9/11 vs. summer) x group (Downtown vs. Midtown). (c and d) ANCOVA contrasting activation during 9/11 trials vs. summer trials, with participants' distance from the WTC as a covariate, in voxels within the structurally defined amygdala (c) and posterior parahippocampal cortex (d). Warm colors indicate positive correlation, and cool colors indicate negative correlation. Participants who were closer to the WTC showed decreased activation in the posterior parahippocampal cortex and increased activation in the amygdala bilaterally during retrieval of 9/11 memories relative to summer memories.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Steven is an autistic savant living in London who did not speak until he was five and now has great difficulty with language as an adult. When he was eleven he drew a perfect aerial view of London after flying over it only once. Here is a windows media player movie describing his Rome flyover and drawing.
Overbye: A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.
Silberstein: If people freak at evolution, etc., how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?
Dennett: When we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.
Overbye: Dennett...is one of many who have tried to redefine free will in a way that involves no escape from the materialist world while still offering enough autonomy for moral responsibility, which seems to be what everyone cares about. ... Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.
Dennett: All the varieties of free will worth having, we have...We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures...That’s what makes us moral agents...You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.
Overbye also reviews the idea of freedom as a possible emergent phenomena that grows naturally in accordance with the laws of physics - like stock markets, brains, or the rules of democracy - that play by new rules once they are here.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Patterson suggests that "Authenticity now dominates our way of viewing ourselves and our relationships, with baleful consequences. Within sensitive individuals it breeds doubt; between people it promotes distrust; within groups it enhances group-think in the endless quest to be one with the group’s true soul; and between groups it is the inner source of identity politics...the primacy of the self has penetrated major areas of government: emotivist arguments trump reasoned discourse in Congressional hearings and criminal justice; and in public education."
"Social scientists and pollsters routinely belittle results showing growing tolerance; they argue that Americans have simply learned how to conceal their deeply...Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and her collaborators claim to have evidence, based on more than three million self-administered Web-based tests, that nearly all of us are authentically bigoted to the core with hidden “implicit prejudices” — about race, gender, age, homosexuality and appearance — that we deny, sometimes with consciously tolerant views ingrained prejudices."
"I couldn’t care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?...Sincerity rests in reconciling our performance of tolerance with the people we become. And what it means for us today is that the best way of living in our diverse and contentiously free society is neither to obsess about the hidden depths of our prejudices nor to deny them, but to behave as if we had none."
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Blum then continues: "The nonpurists suggest a different conclusion: willful scientific blindness. And there’s no reason Dr. Blanke’s study can’t support their theories of the paranormal. Perhaps his experimental electric current simply mimics the work of an equally powerful spirit. Much of the psychical research done today applies similar principles: brain-imaging machines highlight parts of the brain that respond to psychic phenomena, while other devices are used to search for infrared radiation or increased electrical activity in haunted houses."
Wait a minute... Equally powerful spirit? Will someone please measure this spirit with a physical instrument, because it is altering physical processes in the brain! Or, "parts of the brain that respond to psychic phenomena?" What is cause and what is effect here? Are we presupposing the existence of psychic phenomena as causes? Then please measure them. I'm sorry, but I can't give up my skepticism about things that alter material physical processes in the brain, how can a non-physical process (spirit, ectoplasm, soul, whatever) change them? We're back to Descartes putting the soul in the pineal gland.
Photo credit: New York Times.
Monday, January 01, 2007
"USER participation is crucial to the survival of popular websites like YouTube and Flickr. But how do these sites ensure that new videos, photos and comments keep flooding in?
It all comes down to persuasion strategies, says B. J. Fogg at Stanford University in California, who is analysing the techniques employed by websites that rely on their users for content, known collectively as Web 2.0. The secret is to tie the acquisition of friends, compliments and status – spoils that humans will work hard for – to activities that enhance the site, such as inviting new users and contributing photos, he says. “You offer someone a context for gaining status, and they are going to work for that status.”
If you offer people a chance to gain status, they will work for it
Fogg and his colleagues analysed hundreds of such sites and identified three stages to their success, which they called discovery, superficial involvement and true commitment.
They found that the first two stages are easily achieved, for example by making it simple for existing users to email their friends with something they have posted online. In this way other people discover the site and become superficially involved through activities such as rating a posted video or photo. What separates successful from unsuccessful websites is the ability to get these people to create content of their own, involve yet more friends, and remain active and loyal (see “Watch yourself”).
By studying over 150 videos of people using successful sites, Fogg identified key strategies that persuade users to get involved. One incentive is to give people the opportunity to increase their status. For example, the photo-sharing website Flickr assigns images an “interestingness” score depending on how many people view them and whether they comment. This encourages users to email their friends with links to their photos. This is good for the site as it improves the quality of Flickr's search engine by ensuring the most interesting photos are ranked most highly.
Sites also keep people involved by giving them the chance to earn rewards. For bloggers these could come in the form of comments from other users, while on the business networking site Linked-In they might be endorsements that potential contacts can read. Again, these benefit the websites by engaging other users.
The effects of both status and rewards are increased because they are doled out unpredictably – new people joining your friendship group on MySpace say, or a new comment on your blog. This ensures users frequently return to the site to check for changes.
Fogg hopes that by studying how well these strategies work, he will be able to quantify them and discover new ways in which people are open to persuasion. “The web is a huge lab for studying human psychology,” he says. “I think what we are seeing with Web 2.0 is which persuasion technologies work and which do not.”
And the next article, by Pogue:
"IN 2006, the big Internet news was “Web 2.0” — that is, participatory Web sites, like YouTube, MySpace, Wikipedia, Digg and Flickr, which relied on material supplied by the audience itself. On these explosively popular sites, the Web is not so much a publication as a global conversation.
In 2007, the challenge may be keeping that conversation from descending into the muck.
As a Web 2.0 site or a blog becomes more popular, a growing percentage of its reader contributions devolve into vitriol, backstabbing and name-calling (not to mention Neanderthal spelling and grammar). Participants address each other as “idiot” and “moron” (and worse) the way correspondents of old might have used “sir” or “madam.”
The New Nastiness may be no different from the incivility people can show each other in everyday life. It may be inspired by the political insultfests on TV and radio. Or it may be that anonymity online removes whatever self-control they might have exhibited when confronting their subjects in person.
Internet veterans scoff at the notion that there’s any increase in hostility online. They point to similar “flame wars” dating back to the earliest days of the Internet, even before there was a Web.
Instead, these observers note that rudeness increases disproportionately with a site’s popularity. That is, the decline of comment quality on YouTube doesn’t reflect a decline on the Internet in general, only of YouTube’s wider appeal.
One thing is clear, however: the uncivil participants are driving away the civil ones. The result is an acceleration of the cycle, and an increasing proportion of hostile remarks.
Requiring commenters to use their real names might work to add some civility, but such a radical change might drive away a big chunk of the audience. It’s more likely that the citizens of the Internet will simply learn to accept the poison on the comment boards as an unfortunate side effect of free speech online, much the way they grumblingly tolerate spam in their e-mail in-box."