Thursday, September 30, 2010

High income improves life evaluation, but not emotional well-being

Yet another incisive bit from Kahneman and coworkers:
Recent research has begun to distinguish two aspects of subjective well-being. Emotional well-being refers to the emotional quality of an individual's everyday experience—the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one's life pleasant or unpleasant. Life evaluation refers to the thoughts that people have about their life when they think about it. We raise the question of whether money buys happiness, separately for these two aspects of well-being. We report an analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 US residents conducted by the Gallup Organization. We find that emotional well-being (measured by questions about emotional experiences yesterday) and life evaluation (measured by Cantril's Self-Anchoring Scale) have different correlates. Income and education are more closely related to life evaluation, but health, care giving, loneliness, and smoking are relatively stronger predictors of daily emotions. When plotted against log income, life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Worm brains N' Us - a hint of the ancestral brain

Tomer et al. have combined gene expression profiling with image registration to find that the mushroom body of the segmented annelid worm Platynereis dumerilii shares many features with the mammalian cerebral cortex. They suggest that the mushroom body and cortex evolved from the same structure in the common ancestor of vertebrates and invertebrates, before the appearance of bilateral symmetry in animals. Here is their summary:
The evolution of the highest-order human brain center, the “pallium” or “cortex,” remains enigmatic. To elucidate its origins, we set out to identify related brain parts in phylogenetically distant animals, to then unravel common aspects in cellular composition and molecular architecture. Here, we compare vertebrate pallium development to that of the mushroom bodies, sensory-associative brain centers, in an annelid. Using a newly developed protocol for cellular profiling by image registration (PrImR), we obtain a high-resolution gene expression map for the developing annelid brain. Comparison to the vertebrate pallium reveals that the annelid mushroom bodies develop from similar molecular coordinates within a conserved overall molecular brain topology and that their development involves conserved patterning mechanisms and produces conserved neuron types that existed already in the protostome-deuterostome ancestors. These data indicate deep homology of pallium and mushroom bodies and date back the origin of higher brain centers to prebilaterian times.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Willy Street Fair - the 70's still live in Madison, WI....

Williamson Street in Madison Wisconsin is like a time capsule from the hippie era of the 1970's. Here is a brief collage from the parade at the annual Willy Street fair that I attended yesterday with my partner Len.

Choice blindness at the marketplace

Hall et al. do a nice demonstration of the extent to which we can delude our sensory capacities to justify a choice or preference we have previously made:
We set up a tasting venue at a local supermarket and invited passerby shoppers to sample two different varieties of jam and tea, and to decide which alternative in each pair they preferred the most. Immediately after the participants had made their choice, we asked them to again sample the chosen alternative, and to verbally explain why they chose the way they did. At this point we secretly switched the contents of the sample containers, so that the outcome of the choice became the opposite of what the participants intended. In total, no more than a third of the manipulated trials were detected. Even for remarkably different tastes like Cinnamon-Apple and bitter Grapefruit, or the smell of Mango and Pernod was no more than half of all trials detected, thus demonstrating considerable levels of choice blindness for the taste and smell of two different consumer goods.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?

I'm bouncing the post in the queue for today to bring forward this article by Jaron Lanier, from last Sunday's New York Times Magazine education issue, which I think you should read in its brief entirety. Here is just one clip to whet your appetite:
How can you be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education? Education — in the broadest sense — does what genes can’t do. It forever filters and bequeaths memories, ideas, identities, cultures and technologies. Humans compute and transfer nongenetic information between generations, creating a longitudinal intelligence that is unlike anything else on Earth. The data links that hold the structure together in time swell rhythmically to the frequency of human regeneration. This is education.

Now we have information machines. The future of education in the digital age will be determined by our judgment of which aspects of the information we pass between generations can be represented in computers at all. If we try to represent something digitally when we actually can’t, we kill the romance and make some aspect of the human condition newly bland and absurd. If we romanticize information that shouldn’t be shielded from harsh calculations, we’ll suffer bad teachers and D.J.’s and their wares.

Right now, many of these decisions are being made by the geeks of Silicon Valley, who run a lot of things that other people pretend to run. The crucial choice of which intergenerational information is to be treated as computational grist is usually not made by educators or curriculum developers but by young engineers.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Do social moods predict financial markets, not vice versa?

The proverb "This too shall pass" , has multiple ancient sources. The version beginning with the Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur has the phrase inscribed on a ring given to great king, which therefore has the ability to make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. Consonant with this proverb, a recent book by John Casti ("Mood Matters - From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers", recently reviewed by Richard Taylor) suggests that swings in the public mood between optimism and pessimism occur in natural cycles, recognizable patterns as function of time. Casti suggest that it is these cycles that drive the peaks and troughs of financial waves, which recur at increasingly fine time scales, representing one of the earliest noted fractal patterns in a physical system. He presents a number of detailed cases that argue for mood changes preceding and influencing unfolding events, rather than vice versa. His argument is opinionated, meant to be a foil its conventional wisdom opposite, that mood is set by financial markets. He runs through a comprehensive set of examples which include the lack of long-term response of the financial markets (and therefore social mood) to dramatic events such as Pearl Harbor and John F. Kennedy's assassination. Casti suggest that the financial market serves as an optimal choice for a sociometer to measure public mood, since it is largely determined by it. (He also reviews other measures that might be used to measure optimism for the future, such as rising or falling birth rates, skyscraper construction, car color, rise and fall of skirt length, and music trends.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Internet and Society - Swept into Superficiality

Smallwood reviews Carr's recent book "The Shallows - What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains"
As was the case for books, the development of the Internet has had a powerful influence on the way we think...In today's world of Google and Wikipedia, one hardly needs to be able to remember anything at all...Sites such as Facebook allow us to maintain social groups that far exceed the size of those in pre-Internet society...Carr's radical message is that the volume of content that we can access is increasing with a trajectory that outstrips even the most optimistic rates of evolutionary change for the physical matter of our brains. Carr argues that faced with this blizzard of content, we can no longer engage in detailed and thoughtful analysis. Rather, the rapid expansion in information has been accompanied by an increasingly superficial level of analysis.

Carr also proposes that the Internet's influence on our cognition is amplified by its design. One of Google's stated aims is to make knowledge as accessible as possible. In sharp contrast to authors such as Tolstoy or Steinbeck who demanded studious attention from their readers, the Internet aims to deliver an information fix with minimal effort...Search engines are not only experts in providing content, they are also experts in what we want...unlike books, which yielded cultural change that emphasized concentration and disciplined thought, the Internet (either by design or accident) is creating a society that specializes in the superficial.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Language about motion causes motion adaptation of our visual cortex.

Here are some fascinating observations from Dils and Boroditsky, who ask:
To what extent is hearing a story about something similar to really witnessing it? What is the nature of the representations that arise in the course of normal language processing? Do people spontaneously form visual mental images when understanding language, and if so how truly visual are these representations?
We test whether processing linguistic descriptions of motion produces sufficiently vivid mental images to cause direction-selective motion adaptation in the visual system (i.e., cause a motion aftereffect illusion). We tested for motion aftereffects (MAEs) following explicit motion imagery, and after processing literal or metaphorical motion language (without instructions to imagine). Intentionally imagining motion produced reliable MAEs. The aftereffect from processing motion language gained strength as people heard more and more of a story (participants heard motion stories in four installments, with a test after each). For the last two story installments, motion language produced reliable MAEs across participants. Individuals differed in how early in the story this effect appeared, and this difference was predicted by the strength of an individual’s MAE from imagining motion. Strong imagers (participants who showed the largest MAEs from imagining motion) were more likely to show an MAE in the course of understanding motion language than were weak imagers. The results demonstrate that processing language can spontaneously create sufficiently vivid mental images to produce direction-selective adaptation in the visual system. The timecourse of adaptation suggests that individuals may differ in how efficiently they recruit visual mechanisms in the service of language understanding. Further, the results reveal an intriguing link between the vividness of mental imagery and the nature of the processes and representations involved in language understanding.
Here is their description of motion aftereffects and their measurement.
The MAE arises when direction-selective neurons in the human visual area MT+ complex lower their firing rate as a function of adapting to motion in their preferred direction. The net difference in the firing rate of neurons selective for the direction of the adapting stimulus relative to those selective for the opposite direction of motion produces a motion illusion. For example, after adapting to upward motion, people are more likely to see a stationary stimulus or a field of randomly moving dots as moving downward, and vice versa. To quantify the size of the aftereffect, one can parametrically vary the degree of motion coherence in the test display of moving dots. The amount of coherence necessary to null the MAE provides a nice measure of the size of the aftereffect produced by the adapting stimulus.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse

Today's children are growing very different brains because of their interaction with technology. Baveller et al. review work showing that video games designed to be reasonably mindless result in widespread enhancements of various abilities, acting as exemplary learning tools. In another recent paper,  Green et al. show that action video games improve probabilistic inference, which provides a general mechanism for why action video game playing enhances performance in a wide variety of tasks. The Baveller review notes that “Good” things can be bad and “Bad” things can be good. The best current research suggests that “baby DVDs,” or media designed to enhance the cognitive capabilities of infants and toddlers produce no changes in cognitive development. Playing violent action video games, where avatars run about elaborate landscapes while eliminating enemies with well-placed shots, turns out to enhance vision, attention, cognition, and motor control.
For instance, action video game experience heightens the ability to view small details in cluttered scenes and to perceive dim signals, such as would be present when driving in fog. Avid players display enhanced top-down control of attention and choose among different options more rapidly. They also exhibit better visual short-term memory, and can more flexibility switch from one task to another.

The contrast between the widespread benefits observed after playing action video games and the limited value of training on “mini brain games” suggests that we may need to drastically rethink how educational games should be structured. While action game developers intuitively value emotional content, arousing experiences, and richly structured scenarios, educational games have until now, for the most part, shied away from these attractive features that video games offer. Instead, educational games have mostly exploited the interactivity and the repetitive nature of practice-makes-perfect that computer-based games can afford—often reducing the experience to automated flashcards.
Work is beginning to show how the brain is altered by learning games.
A recent seminal study compared the impact of playing a grapheme-to-phoneme game versus a mathematics game in 6- to7-year-olds on the maturation of the visual word form area (VWFA), a brain area important in mediating literacy. As assessed by functional magnetic resonance imaging, the group trained with the phoneme-to-grapheme game showed greater maturation of the VWFA than the control group, suggesting direct involvement of the VWFA in the acquisition of reading skills...Experimental trainees demonstrated significant brain changes from pre- to post-test compared with the control group, but with no significant behavioral improvement differences. Thus, brain-imaging studies may provide a more sensitive assay of the effects of technology than do behavioral studies.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Aging - How alcohol is good for you

Numerous studies have shown that non-drinkers tend to die before moderate drinkers. Jonah Lehrer points to a striking (and reassuring to me) long term study that fills in more detail, finding over a period of twenty years that the death rate among non-drinkers is twice that of moderate drinkers. Chunks from the abstract:
The sample at baseline included 1,824 individuals between the ages of 55 and 65. The database at baseline included information on daily alcohol consumption, sociodemographic factors, former problem drinking status, health factors, and social-behavioral factors. Abstention was defined as abstaining from alcohol at baseline. Death across a 20-year follow-up period was confirmed primarily by death certificate.

Controlling only for age and gender, compared to moderate drinkers, abstainers had a more than 2 times increased mortality risk, heavy drinkers had 70% increased risk, and light drinkers had 23% increased risk. A model controlling for former problem drinking status, existing health problems, and key sociodemographic and social-behavioral factors, as well as for age and gender, substantially reduced the mortality effect for abstainers compared to moderate drinkers. However, even after adjusting for all covariates, abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45%, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers.
Leher notes that apart from anti-aging antioxidant or cardiac and circulatory effects of alcohol, a correlation of alcohol and socializing and its chemical correlates (dopamine, oxytocin, etc.) should be considered.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Dictionary of the Near Future

Douglas Coupland has produced a clever and alarming dictionary of the near future (which seems to actually be applying to the present moment). Here are just a few of his entries:
BELL’S LAW OF TELEPHONY No matter what technology is used, your monthly phone bill magically remains about the same size.
DENARRATION The process whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story.
DESELFING Willingly diluting one’s sense of self and ego by plastering the Internet with as much information as possible. (See also Omniscience Fatigue; Undeselfing)
DIMANCHOPHOBIA Fear of Sundays, a condition that reflects fear of unstructured time. Also known as acalendrical anxiety.
FICTIVE REST The inability of many people to fall asleep until after reading even the tiniest amount of fiction.
FRANKENTIME What time feels like when you realize that most of your life is spent working with and around a computer and the Internet.
INSTANT REINCARNATION The fact that most adults, no matter how great their life is, wish for radical change in their life. The urge to reincarnate while still alive is near universal.
INTRAVINCULAR FAMILIAL SILENCE We need to be around our families not because we have so many shared experiences to talk about, but because they know precisely which subjects to avoid.
INTERNAL VOICE BLINDNESS The near universal inability of people to articulate the tone and personality of the voice that forms their interior monologue.
MALFACTORY AVERSION The ability to figure out what it is in life you don’t do well, and then to stop doing it.
OMNISCIENCE FATIGUE The burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost anything online.
PROCELERATION The acceleration of acceleration.
PSEUDOALIENATION The inability of humans to create genuinely alienating situations. Anything made by humans is a de facto expression of humanity. Technology cannot be alienating because humans created it. Genuinely alien technologies can be created only by aliens. Technically, a situation one might describe as alienating is, in fact, “humanating.”
ROSENWALD’S THEOREM The belief that all the wrong people have self-esteem.
UNDESELFING The attempt, usually frantic and futile, to reverse the deselfing process.

(please ignore -technorati probe- YFTQH7ZAY5KS)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Men's dance moves that catch a woman's eyes.

A loyal mindblog follower who occasionally sends me stuff he finds interesting has just forwarded this gem,  the associated videos are here and here.   The abstract:
Male movements serve as courtship signals in many animal species, and may honestly reflect the genotypic and/or phenotypic quality of the individual. Attractive human dance moves, particularly those of males, have been reported to show associations with measures of physical strength, prenatal androgenization and symmetry. Here we use advanced three-dimensional motion-capture technology to identify possible biomechanical differences between women's perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ male dancers. Nineteen males were recorded using the ‘Vicon’ motion-capture system while dancing to a basic rhythm; controlled stimuli in the form of avatars were then created in the form of 15 s video clips, and rated by 39 females for dance quality. Initial analyses showed that 11 movement variables were significantly positively correlated with perceived dance quality. Linear regression subsequently revealed that three movement measures were key predictors of dance quality; these were variability and amplitude of movements of the neck and trunk, and speed of movements of the right knee. In summary, we have identified specific movements within men's dance that influence women's perceptions of dancing ability. We suggest that such movements may form honest signals of male quality in terms of health, vigour or strength, though this remains to be confirmed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Differences in brain connectivity drive cognitive differences

Forstmann et al. do some interesting work on examining pathways that regulate how readily we respond (i.e. decrease response thresholds) to decisions varying in their demands for speed versus accuracy. The figure showing the relevant structures (the striatum and subthalmic nucleus in the basal ganglia which are regulated by the cortex, click to enlarge) is taken from an academic website. Their abstract:
When people make decisions they often face opposing demands for response speed and response accuracy, a process likely mediated by response thresholds. According to the striatal hypothesis, people decrease response thresholds by increasing activation from cortex to striatum, releasing the brain from inhibition. According to the STN hypothesis, people decrease response thresholds by decreasing activation from cortex to subthalamic nucleus (STN); a decrease in STN activity is likewise thought to release the brain from inhibition and result in responses that are fast but error-prone. To test these hypotheses—both of which may be true—we conducted two experiments on perceptual decision making in which we used cues to vary the demands for speed vs. accuracy. In both experiments, behavioral data and mathematical model analyses confirmed that instruction from the cue selectively affected the setting of response thresholds. In the first experiment we used ultra-high-resolution 7T structural MRI to locate the STN precisely. We then used 3T structural MRI and probabilistic tractography to quantify the connectivity between the relevant brain areas. The results showed that participants who flexibly change response thresholds (as quantified by the mathematical model) have strong structural connections between presupplementary motor area and striatum. This result was confirmed in an independent second experiment. In general, these findings show that individual differences in elementary cognitive tasks are partly driven by structural differences in brain connectivity. Specifically, these findings support a cortico-striatal control account of how the brain implements adaptive switches between cautious and risky behavior.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The brain's fight against aging

Numerous studies have documented diminution in sensory and cognitive functions with aging, but very little is known about what is actually happening to cells in the brain. Knowing more about structural alterations as the brain ages is essential to understanding functional and cognitive changes. Richard et al.have used a simplified cortical model, the olfactory bulb in the mouse brain, to show, somewhat surprisingly, overall stability of structure and no neurodegeneration with aging. What they do observe is fine synaptic alterations that affect selected cellular compartments, and losses of synapses in specific layers. (The olfactory bulb sensory cortex is an appropriate model because it has well-known synaptic organization, and its normal and pathological aging is associated with impairment of food intake and reduced health.)
Little is known about how normal aging affects the brain. Recent evidence suggests that neuronal loss is not ubiquitous in aging neocortex. Instead, subtle and still controversial, region- and layer-specific alterations of neuron morphology and synapses are reported during aging, leading to the notion that discrete changes in neural circuitry may underlie age-related cognitive deficits. Although deficits in sensory function suggest that primary sensory cortices are affected by aging, our understanding of the age-related cellular and molecular changes is sparse. To assess the effect of aging on the organization of olfactory bulb (OB) circuitry, we carried out quantitative morphometric analyses in the mouse OB at 2, 6, 12, 18, and 24 mo. Our data establish that the volumes of the major OB layers do not change during aging. Parallel to this, we are unique in demonstrating that the stereotypic glomerular convergence of M72-GFP OSN axons in the OB is preserved during aging. We then provide unique evidence of the stability of projection neurons and interneurons subpopulations in the aging mouse OB, arguing against the notion of an age-dependent widespread loss of neurons. Finally, we show ultrastructurally a significant layer-specific loss of synapses; synaptic density is reduced in the glomerular layer but not the external plexiform layer, leading to an imbalance in OB circuitry. These results suggest that reduction of afferent synaptic input and local modulatory circuit synapses in OB glomeruli may contribute to specific age-related alterations of the olfactory function.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Seeking emotional support - effects of oxytocin gene and cultural variation.

Certain genotypes are expressed in different forms depending upon the harshness/beneficence of social conditions; examples include the serotonin transporter gene, the monoamine oxidase A gene, the dopamine receptor gene seven-repeat polymorphism, and the glucocorticoid receptor gene. Genetic variations in these can influence expression of depressive and antisocial behaviors.
Kim et al now show that an oxytocin receptor, depending on its specific genotype, is sensitive to social environment, specifically cultural norms regarding emotional social support seeking. Seeking emotional support in times of distress is normative in American culture but not in Korean culture. American participants with a GG/AG genotypes reported seeking more emotional social support than those with a AA genotype, but Korean participants did not differ by genotype. The abstract:
Research has demonstrated that certain genotypes are expressed in different forms, depending on input from the social environment. To examine sensitivity to cultural norms regarding emotional support seeking as a type of social environment, we explored the behavioral expression of oxytocin receptor polymorphism (OXTR) rs53576, a gene previously related to socio-emotional sensitivity. Seeking emotional support in times of distress is normative in American culture but not in Korean culture. Consequently, we predicted a three-way interaction of culture, distress, and OXTR genotype on emotional support seeking. Korean and American participants (n = 274) completed assessments of psychological distress and emotional support seeking and were genotyped for OXTR. We found the predicted three-way interaction: among distressed American participants, those with the GG/AG genotypes reported seeking more emotional social support, compared with those with the AA genotype, whereas Korean participants did not differ significantly by genotype; under conditions of low distress, OXTR groups did not differ significantly in either cultural group. These findings suggest that OXTR rs53576 is sensitive to input from the social environment, specifically cultural norms regarding emotional social support seeking. These findings also indicate that psychological distress and culture are important moderators that shape behavioral outcomes associated with OXTR genotypes.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Learning tricks

Benedict Carey does a nice summary of what we do and don't know about different approaches to enhancing learning.
Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review... in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas...Ditto for teaching styles...Some excellent instructors caper in front of the blackboard like summer-theater Falstaffs; others are reserved to the point of shyness...the common threads between teachers who create a constructive learning atmosphere have not been determined

In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying…For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall…cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

None of ... these techniques — alternating study environments, mixing content, spacing study sessions, self-testing or all the above — will turn a grade-A slacker into a grade-A student. Motivation matters.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The anxiolytic power of religion

Inzlicht and Tullett add a bit of information to the growing field of the cognitive science of religion (which examines religious beliefs as a natural by-product of the way human minds and brains work, meeting a number of people’s myriad needs.) They find that a brain activity related to defensive responses to error (a sort of cortical 'alarm bell') is lower in religious than in non-religious individuals:
The world is a vast and complex place that can sometimes generate feelings of uncertainty and distress for its inhabitants. Although religion is associated with a sense of meaning and order, it remains unclear whether religious belief can actually cause people to feel less anxiety and distress. To test the anxiolytic power of religion, we conducted two experiments focusing on the error-related negativity (ERN)—a neural signal that arises from the anterior cingulate cortex and is associated with defensive responses to errors. The results indicate that for believers, conscious and nonconscious religious primes cause a decrease in ERN amplitude. In contrast, priming nonbelievers with religious concepts causes an increase in ERN amplitude. Overall, examining basic neurophysiological processes reveals the power of religion to act as a buffer against anxious reactions to self-generated, generic errors—but only for individuals who believe.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Google’s Earth

Well known author William Gibson (Neuromancer, and its sequels) does a brief NYTimes Op-Ed essay in which he discusses Google. His starting point is a controversial interview with Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, in which Schmidt says:
…I ACTUALLY think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.
Gibson notes that Google is:
...a distributed entity, a two-way membrane, a game-changing tool on the order of the equally handy flint hand ax, with which we chop our way through the very densest thickets of information…it makes everything in the world accessible to everyone, and everyone accessible to the world. But we see everyone looking in, and blame Google…Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products. And still we balk at Mr. Schmidt’s claim that we want Google to tell us what to do next.

We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies. We also seldom imagined (in spite of ample evidence) that emergent technologies would leave legislation in the dust, yet they do. In a world characterized by technologically driven change, we necessarily legislate after the fact, perpetually scrambling to catch up, while the core architectures of the future, increasingly, are erected by entities like Google.

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world…We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.
On the possibility of fresh identities for those who have exposed their private lives in the cloud:
I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Laughter therapy

The August 30 issue of The New Yorker has an engaging article on Madan Kataria, "The Laughing Guru."  Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology has by now provided abundant evident that the opposite of laughter or light-heartedness - depression, stress, fear, or social isolation - can diminish health and suppress the immune system.  Kataria's international Laughter Yoga movement is based on the premise that laughter boosts health and the immune system.  Norman Cousins, who was editor of Saturday Review, wrote an influential book "Anatomy of an Illness" that described how genuine belly laughter lessened his pain from a joint disease,  and several studies have shown that laughter therapy lessens pain in cancer patients.  Other work has suggested that laughter may cause transient decreases in cortisol (stress hormone) and increases in endorphin (analgesic) levels, but Robert Provine and others have carried out exhaustive scientific reviews on laughter, humor, and health that conclude that there is not enough evidence of conclude much of anything, other perhaps than laughter can briefly limit physical pain.

I'm inclined to believe that there might be more to it, given numerous example of our embodied cognition. An instruction to contract the facial muscles that form a smile (with no instructions on accompanying feelings) causes slight enhancement of left/right frontal brain activity associated with more positive affect (elevation of mood), and small Botox injections that temporarily immobilize parts of the face can limit one's ability to express or feel emotions.   These effects are transient,  but it seems plausible to me that repetition of mechanical smiling exercises might enhance mood for  extended periods of time,  just as repeated meditation practice can decrease brain noise.  

Friday, September 03, 2010

Language shaping cognition - a followup

Relevant to today's other post on this topic, a MindBlog reader has just pointed out another good article, from the Sept. 1 New Scientist, on how words shape and enhance our cognition. The article has several links to relevant research, such as this article I was about to do a mindblog post on next week, on how assigning nonsense labels facilitates the learning of novel categories.

How language shapes our thinking

Just after drafting Monday's post  on how cultural setting shapes our visual cognition,  I read an excellent article by Guy Deutscher in the Sunday NYTimes Magazine, on how language shapes our thinking.  He starts by reviewing the story of the rise and fall of "the Whorfian hypothesis,"  which maintained that if a language had no term for a concept (such as the future), then the speaker of that language would not be able to grasp the concept in the sense that we can.  Hard data crashed the hypothesis, and the counter reaction was so severe that for many years no limits of language on basic cognition have been admitted.  How it turns out that the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Some clips from the article, starting with some fact about differences between languages pointed out 50 years ago by linguist Roman Jakobson:
Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey...if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love...When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it...Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us...egocentric coordinates...depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn... a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all...Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.”...languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives..This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy...When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sealing the emotions genie

Need to put out of mind an unpleasant memory or unfulfilled desire? By offering yet another example of embodied cognition and metaphorical thinking Li et al. may have just the trick for you:
This research investigated whether the physical act of enclosing an emotionally laden stimulus can help alleviate the associated negative emotions. Four experiments found support for this claim. In the first two experiments, emotional negativity was reduced for participants who placed a written recollection of a regretted past decision or unsatisfied strong desire inside an envelope. A further experiment showed that enclosing a stimulus unrelated to the emotional experience did not have the same effect. Finally, we showed that the effect was not driven by participants simply doing something extra with the materials, and that the effect of physical enclosure was mediated by the psychological closure that participants felt toward the event.

Robbed of lasting pleasures by drugs

Friedman does a nice summary of the course of drug addiction and withdrawal,  noting work on brain correlates of the craving that persists after drug highs have ceased and drug usage has stopped. 

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Money looms larger to the powerless.

DuBois et al. make observations on an accentuation bias. They explore: people’s place in a power hierarchy alters their representations of valued objects. The authors hypothesized that powerlessness produces an accentuation bias by altering the physical representation of monetary objects in a manner consistent with the size-to-value relationship. In the first three experiments, powerless participants, induced through episodic priming or role manipulations, systematically overestimated the size of objects associated with monetary value (i.e., quarters, poker chips) compared to powerful and baseline participants. However, when value was inversely associated with size (i.e., smaller objects were more valuable), the powerless drew these valued objects smaller, not larger. In addition, the accentuation bias by the powerless was more pronounced when the monetary value associated with the object was greater, increased when the object was physically present, and was mediated by differences in subjective value. These findings suggest that powerlessness fosters compensatory processes that guide representations of valued objects.

Social learning - The importance of copying others

In the August 24 issue of Current Biology Grüter et al. offer a description of experiments on social learning carried out by Rendell et al. that enhance the description given in the abstract of the original paper:
In humans, learning by observing or asking others can save time and effort. For example, a traveler can bypass the need to check out the numerous available restaurants in an unknown city by asking the residents where there is a good place to eat. However, relying on others can be a risky strategy. The person you rely on might have a different taste, a bad memory, or not have visited a restaurant for years. An inability to avoid out-of-date or unreliable information is considered a major pitfall of social learning. As a consequence, theory has predicted that both individuals and populations should usually employ a mixture of both social and individual learning. A new study by Rendell et al. challenges this view and argues that social learning is usually superior.... Inspired by a classic evolutionary tournament that investigated the evolution of cooperation, Rendell et al. organised a computer tournament in which social learning strategies, submitted by entrants, competed in a game of natural selection for a 10,000 Euro prize. Each strategy specified when an individual should copy another, when it should gather its own information, and when it should simply use the information it had already acquired. They found that the strategies that performed best relied almost exclusively on social learning. Because ‘demonstrators’ have information about the expected pay-off of different behaviours, they selectively perform those that are most beneficial for themselves. By doing so, they inadvertently filter information for all other individuals in the population. As a result, individuals relying mostly on copying acquire high-payoff behaviours as well.
Here is the Rendell et al abstract:
Social learning (learning through observation or interaction with other individuals) is widespread in nature and is central to the remarkable success of humanity, yet it remains unclear why copying is profitable and how to copy most effectively. To address these questions, we organized a computer tournament in which entrants submitted strategies specifying how to use social learning and its asocial alternative (for example, trial-and-error learning) to acquire adaptive behavior in a complex environment. Most current theory predicts the emergence of mixed strategies that rely on some combination of the two types of learning. In the tournament, however, strategies that relied heavily on social learning were found to be remarkably successful, even when asocial information was no more costly than social information. Social learning proved advantageous because individuals frequently demonstrated the highest-payoff behavior in their repertoire, inadvertently filtering information for copiers. The winning strategy (discountmachine) relied nearly exclusively on social learning and weighted information according to the time since acquisition.