Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How our advanced capabilities may have come from separation of our primary brain areas.

Buckner and Krienen put forward the fascinating idea that our advanced human capabilities may be a spandrel (i.e. a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection). They note that the striking increase of hominid brain size over the past three million years (from ~ 400cc in chimps to ~600-800cc in H. habilis to 1,500-1,800 in H. sapiens) has gone with the enlargement not of the size of primary sensory and motor regions of the brain, but instead with the association regions between them, as if the primary regions had become untethered from each other. These association regions might be to form new circuits as they mature later in development in a more plastic and adaptive way than the primary regions. Now, instead of an automatic and tightly coupled linkage between sensory areas and motor areas driving behavior, the association cortices can insert the computations required for making more complex decisions, retrieving memories, and reflecting.

Phylogeny of the cortical mantle.
Schematic depictions of the cortex of placental mammals are shown with the size and positions of several conserved areas. Two organizational features are apparent in the phylogenic tree. Across all species, the relative positions of the areas are preserved, suggesting they arise from an ancient developmental template, or Bauplan, that is conserved. Second, as the brain is enlarged in primates a greater percentage of the cortical mantle falls between the primary and secondary sensory systems. The insets at the top represent hypothetical estimates of the mammalian common ancestor and the primate common ancestor. Dark blue, primary visual area (V1); light blue, secondary visual area (V2); green, middle temporal (MT) visual area; yellow, primary auditory area (A1); red, primary somatosensory area (S1); orange, secondary somatosensory area (S2).

The Tethering Hypothesis:
Bottom: The developing cortical mantle of the estimated mammalian common ancestor is schematically displayed as a thick line with two representative signaling gradients, labeled Signal A (red) and Signal B (blue). These gradients are heuristic presentations of the signal gradients present in the embryonic telencephalon (Figure 6). In the ancestral mammal, the signaling gradients and extrinsic activity from the sensory systems placed strong constraints on most of the developing cortex. Intermediate zones existed, colored in white, but represented a small portion of the cortical mantle. The resulting cortical organization included multiple sensory–motor hierarchies that occupied most of the mantle and formed canonical networks. Top: Following massive evolutionary expansion of the cortical mantle, in the presence of the same core signaling gradients, most of the cortical mantle emerges that is distant from the combined constraints of signaling gradients and extrinsic sensory activity. This emergent zone is illustrated as the large white area in the expanded cortical mantle. Untethered from sensory hierarchies, these distributed in-between zones are hypothesized to wire to one another and emerge as association cortex. The tethering hypothesis, which at this point should be considered a speculation, offers one framework to explain how association networks evolved their prominence and came to possess circuit properties vital to human cognition. The tethering hypothesis awaits further support or falsification.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Your brain has many genomes.

Life used to be simple. We had one set of genes, found in all cells of the body. Skin cells, liver cells, and brain cells were different only because different subsets of those genes were expressed appropriate to each organ. Now, it is turning out that one organ, like the heart, may be governed by one set of genes (genome) while the brain may be run by a mosaic of other genomes generated by somatic mutations, (as opposed to germline mutations that are inherited and found in every body cell.) Psychiatric genetic studies generally have assumed mutations in red blood cells would also appear in the brain, but mutations unique to brain genomes have now been found.

Thomas Insel, who is head of the National Institute of Mental Health, has written a paper on this situation titled “The dark matter of psychiatric genetics.” Here is his abstract:

Although inherited DNA sequences have a well-demonstrated role in psychiatric disease risk, for even the most heritable mental disorders, monozygotic twins are discordant at a significant rate. The genetic variation associated with mental disorders has heretofore been based on the search for rare or common variation in blood cells. This search is based on the premise that every somatic cell shares an identical DNA sequence, so that variation found in lymphocytes should reflect variation present in brain cells. Evidence from the study of cancer cells, stem cells and now neurons demonstrate that this premise is false. Somatic mutation is common in human cells and has been implicated in a range of diseases beyond cancer. The exuberant proliferation of cortical precursors during fetal development provides a likely environment for somatic mutation in neuronal and glial lineages. Studies of rare neurodevelopmental disorders, such as hemimegencephaly, demonstrate somatic mutations in affected cortical cells that cannot be detected in unaffected parts of the brain or in peripheral cells. This perspective argues for the need to investigate somatic variation in the brain as an explanation of the discordance in monozygotic twins, a proximate cause of mental disorders in individuals with inherited risk, and a potential guide to novel treatment targets.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cognitive benefits of music lessons?

I’ve done numerous posts on effects that early music training has on the brain. Adults with early music training in general show enhanced capabilities in sensory (auditory time resolution) and motor actives related to music generation. There also has been the claim that early music training also enhances cognitive development in other areas. Mehr et al have now done randomized trial studies that show no consistent evidence for nonmusical cognitive benefits of preschool music enrichment. Only one music curriculum was used, and it is possible that a trial with a different kind or intensity of training might yield different results.
Young children regularly engage in musical activities, but the effects of early music education on children's cognitive development are unknown. While some studies have found associations between musical training in childhood and later nonmusical cognitive outcomes, few randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been employed to assess causal effects of music lessons on child cognition and no clear pattern of results has emerged. We conducted two RCTs with preschool children investigating the cognitive effects of a brief series of music classes, as compared to a similar but non-musical form of arts instruction (visual arts classes, Experiment 1) or to a no-treatment control (Experiment 2). Consistent with typical preschool arts enrichment programs, parents attended classes with their children, participating in a variety of developmentally appropriate arts activities. After six weeks of class, we assessed children's skills in four distinct cognitive areas in which older arts-trained students have been reported to excel: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. We initially found that children from the music class showed greater spatial-navigational ability than did children from the visual arts class, while children from the visual arts class showed greater visual form analysis ability than children from the music class (Experiment 1). However, a partial replication attempt comparing music training to a no-treatment control failed to confirm these findings (Experiment 2), and the combined results of the two experiments were negative: overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment. Our findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs, and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music instruction.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Oxytocin and the strength of romantic bonds in men.

Here is an interesting bit from Scheele et al.:

Sexual monogamy is potentially costly for males, and few mammalian species along with humans exhibit it. The hypothalamic peptide oxytocin (OXT) has been implicated in mediating pair bonds in various species, but as yet, we know little about neurobiological factors that might act to promote fidelity, especially in men. Here we provide evidence for a mechanism by which OXT may contribute to romantic bonds in men by enhancing their partner's attractiveness and reward value compared with other women.
The biological mechanisms underlying long-term partner bonds in humans are unclear. The evolutionarily conserved neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) is associated with the formation of partner bonds in some species via interactions with brain dopamine reward systems. However, whether it plays a similar role in humans has as yet not been established. Here, we report the results of a discovery and a replication study, each involving a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject, pharmaco-functional MRI experiment with 20 heterosexual pair-bonded male volunteers. In both experiments, intranasal OXT treatment (24 IU) made subjects perceive their female partner's face as more attractive compared with unfamiliar women but had no effect on the attractiveness of other familiar women. This enhanced positive partner bias was paralleled by an increased response to partner stimuli compared with unfamiliar women in brain reward regions including the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). In the left NAcc, OXT even augmented the neural response to the partner compared with a familiar woman, indicating that this finding is partner-bond specific rather than due to familiarity. Taken together, our results suggest that OXT could contribute to romantic bonds in men by enhancing their partner's attractiveness and reward value compared with other women.

Friday, December 20, 2013

In praise of failure

Costica Bradatan offers these thoughts (which I’ve clipped from a longer piece).
The design of a superior kind of human being – healthier, stronger, smarter, more handsome, more enduring – seems to be in the works…the promise of continual human progress and improvement is alluring. But there is a danger there, too — that in this more perfect future, failure will become obsolete.
So, allow me to make a case for the importance of failure. Failure is significant for several reasons. I’d like to discuss three of them.
Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.
…we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place…To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being..[it]…turns out to be a blessing in disguise…this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all…Most of us (the most self-aware or enlightened excepted) suffer chronically from a poor adjustment to existence; we compulsively fancy ourselves much more important than we are and behave as though the world exists only for our sake…Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility.
Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.
It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be. Whatever human accomplishments there have been in history, they have been possible precisely because of this empty space. …the capacity to fail is something that we should absolutely preserve, no matter what the professional optimists say. Such a thing is worth treasuring, even more so than artistic masterpieces, monuments or other accomplishments. For, in a sense, the capacity to fail is much more important than any individual human achievements: It is that which makes them possible.
We are designed to fail.
No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.”…most of us have pretended not to see it… A better model may be Ingmar Bergman’s Antonius Block, from the film “The Seventh Seal.” A knight returning from the Crusades and plunged into crisis of faith, Block is faced with the grand failure in the form of a man. He does not hesitate to engage Death head-on. He doesn’t flee, doesn’t beg for mercy — he just challenges him to a game of chess. Needless to say, he cannot succeed in such a game — no one can — but victory is not the point. You play against the grand, final failure not to win, but to learn how to fail.
Bergman the philosopher [in his classic movie "The Seventh Seal"] teaches us a great lesson... We will all end in failure, but that’s not the most important thing. What really matters is how we fail and what we gain in the process. During the brief time of his game with Death, Antonius Block must have experienced more than he did all his life; without that game he would have lived for nothing. In the end, of course, he loses, but accomplishes something rare. He not only turns failure into an art, but manages to make the art of failing an intimate part of the art of living.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My grandsons - making it in the brave new world - part III

This is the final post in my ramblings on the world my grandsons will face. The first two posts dealt with professional achievement, this final piece touches on the challenge to traditional human friendship and intimacy now presented by the internet, or as Frank Bruni puts it, "The Sweet Caress of Cyberspace." He begins by noting a new movie "Her," in which a man (Joaquin Phoenix)falls in love with the voice (Johansson) generated by the operating system of his smart device that provides not only information, but also motivation, consolation, and intimacy. Bruni:
savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone…You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions.
In “Her,” the very nature of Johansson’s operating system is to adapt to and evolve from her interactions with Phoenix. She’s a projection of his needs. She blooms in accordance with his wants (and has an aurally explosive orgasm on cue). He needn’t doubt himself, compromise or color outside the lines…It’s a parable of narcissism in the digital world, which lets you sprint to the foreground of everything, giving you an audience or the illusion of one.
But “Her” also traces the flip side of the coin — that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete. ..Google’s grand designs for robots in manufacturing and shipping… Economists have sounded the alarm about what this could mean for employment and the distribution of wealth. It falls to artists to contemplate what this could mean for psyches and souls, and “Her” imagines a society in which human beings are so thoroughly marginalized that they’re being edited out of courtship and companionship, because they’re superfluous, messy. It’s a love story as horror story. If we no longer need anyone in the passenger seat, do we need anyone at all?
I can't imagine this future dystopian extreme is actually the world my grandchildren will face, but it is good to be aware of such possible dangers ahead so that appropriate defenses can be mounted.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My grandsons making it in the brave new world - part II

The first post in this series dealt with mental capabilities required to be included in the small fraction of future workers who live a comfortable life with plenty of disposable income.  Mental capacities also underlie our kinesthetic (athletic movement) abilities.  Amateur and professional sports (not to mention musical and other artistic kinds of performance) appear now to be undergoing a fundamental transformation that is moving beyond traditional instruction, practice, and repetition to include training the brain to more effective perform the mental computations required to be at the right place at the right time.  I recently received an email pointing me to a brain training regime - of the sort I've described for general cognitive enhancement used to counter aging - that specifically addresses the sports of hockey and basketball (the technology was originally developed to teach Israeli Air Force pilots about aerial combat.)  The demonstration video pasted in below shows the integration of a variety of cognitive enhancement techniques (spatial awareness, anticipation of movements) into an ensemble appropriate for those sports.

Is it going to be the case that my grandsons can not hope to compete in their brave new world unless they have explicitly performed cognitive enhancement training on themselves?  I certainly hope not!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My grandsons - making it in the brave new world - part I

I will be going soon to Austin Texas, to spend the holiday with my son's family, who live in the same house I grew up in. Every grandfather says this, but I have to also say a how incredulous I am at the vastly different a world my two year old grandson and his younger brother will face than the one I grew up in, a period of continuously expanding opportunities from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. The same Univ. of Wisconsin assistant professorship I took as a 27 year old would now go only to someone much older, who would most likely have to settle for a non-tenure position, if even that were available. With the partition of our economy into a service sector whose employees can't support a family and an educated, computer savvy, creative, managing elite, an extraordinary set of skill are now required to 'make it.' David Brooks presents a list of mental types that might thrive in a world in which we we must interface with intelligent machines:

Freestylers - who can play with the computer but know when to overrule it (as you sometimes overrule your GPS in neighborhoods you are familiar with).

Synthesizers - who surf vast amounts of data to crystallize a pattern or story.

Humanizers - who make the human-machine interplay feel more natural.

Conceptual engineers - who come up with creative methods to think about unexpected problems.

Motivators - who can inspire efforts on behalf of machines that are more naturally generated in the service of other humans.

Moralizers - who keep performance metrics from being reduced to productivity statistics that devalue personal moral traits like loyalty and end up destroying morale and social capital.

Greeters - who provide personalized services to the 15 percent of workers who 'make it' (have lots of disposable income).

Economizers - who advise the bottom 85 percent how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

Weavers - who try to deal with the social disintegration, disaffected lifestyles, that are a consequence of the inegalitarian facts of this new world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sequence your microbiome!

Some months ago I paid 23andMe about a $100 to analyze a mouth swab of epithelial cell and report back information on my genetic makeup, ancestry, health risks, etc. I was particularly interested in the SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that correlate with more or less risk for things like heart disease, alzheimer’s, etc. (The FDA has recently shut down their releasing that information to new subscribers because they have decided it is an untested medical diagnostic procedure.)

I want now to mention another neat test you can purchase for ~$100, where you send in a swab of your poop, mouth , and skin and are sent back information on your microbiome, the genes of hundreds of microbial species (microbiota) that share your body with you. Michael Pollan, the guy who has written best selling food books (Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.) has done an engaging piece on this. Some clips:
To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this “second genome,” as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome.
Disorders in our internal ecosystem — a loss of diversity, say, or a proliferation of the “wrong” kind of microbes — may predispose us to obesity and a whole range of chronic diseases, as well as some infections. “Fecal transplants,” which involve installing a healthy person’s microbiota into a sick person’s gut, have been shown to effectively treat an antibiotic-resistant intestinal pathogen named C. difficile, which kills 14,000 Americans each year....[there is concern] about the damage that antibiotics, even in tiny doses, are doing to the microbiome — and particularly to our immune system and weight. “Farmers have been performing a great experiment for more than 60 years...by giving subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to their animals to make them gain weight...the “Westernized microbiome” most of us now carry around is in fact an artifact of civilization”
...a pristine microbiome — of people who have had little or no contact with Westerners — features much greater biodiversity, including a number of species never before sequenced, and ... much higher levels of prevotella than is typically found in the Western gut....these vibrant, diverse and antibiotic-naïve microbiomes may play a role in Amerindians’ markedly lower rates of allergies, asthma, atopic disease and chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The successful gardener has always known you don’t need to master the science of the soil, which is yet another hotbed of microbial fermentation, in order to nourish and nurture it. You just need to know what it likes to eat — basically, organic matter — and how, in a general way, to align your interests with the interests of the microbes and the plants. The gardener also discovers that, when pathogens or pests appear, chemical interventions “work,” that is, solve the immediate problem, but at a cost to the long-term health of the soil and the whole garden. The drive for absolute control leads to unanticipated forms of disorder.
This, it seems to me, is pretty much where we stand today with respect to our microbiomes — our teeming, quasi-wilderness. We don’t know a lot, but we probably know enough to begin taking better care of it. We have a pretty good idea of what it likes to eat, and what strong chemicals do to it. We know all we need to know, in other words, to begin, with modesty, to tend the unruly garden within.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Psychobiotics - gut bacteria changing our brains?  

Walking through the aisles of my local health food store, the Williamson Street Co-op, I’ve often been tempted by the claims of exotic yoghurts and “probiotic” drinks like Kefir, that contain strains of Lactobacillus and a number of other “good” bacteria. It turns out a number of these bugs produce and release into our gut neuroactive compounds such as GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and serotonin, a mood regulator. Dinan et al. do a review article on what they term psychobiotics (organisms that alleviate psychiatric illness)
Here, we define a psychobiotic as a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness. As a class of probiotic, these bacteria are capable of producing and delivering neuroactive substances such as gamma-aminobutyric acid and serotonin, which act on the brain-gut axis. Preclinical evaluation in rodents suggests that certain psychobiotics possess antidepressant or anxiolytic activity. Effects may be mediated via the vagus nerve, spinal cord, or neuroendocrine systems. So far, psychobiotics have been most extensively studied in a liaison psychiatric setting in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, where positive benefits have been reported for a number of organisms including Bifidobacterium infantis. Evidence is emerging of benefits in alleviating symptoms of depression and in chronic fatigue syndrome. Such benefits may be related to the anti-inflammatory actions of certain psychobiotics and a capacity to reduce hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. Results from large scale placebo-controlled studies are awaited.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Three psychological regions of the U.S. - economic, health, social, political correlates

Rentfrow and collaborators probe the possibility of dividing regions of the United States, not in terms of traditional social and economic indicators, but in terms of psychological characteristics instead. It seems reasonable that psychological factors would underlie higher level outcomes such as social and economic indicators.
...the present work aimed to determine whether it is possible to construct a map of the United States based entirely on psychological characteristics, in this case personality traits. What would such a map look like? And how would its individual regions vary in terms of key political, economic, social, and health (PESH) metrics known to vary geographically within countries?
The analysis was at a state level, covered data obtained in many studies for millions of people, and the article has mind-numbing detail on statistical analysis of these studies. Just to cut to the chase, I though it would be interesting to show their final summary and graphic.

The maps displayed show the geographical concentrations of the personality clusters across the United States. What is especially striking is that each of the personality clusters formed a distinctive geographical pattern. Cluster 1 (Friendly & Conventional) comprises states predominantly in the north central Great Plains and in the South. States in the Mountain, Pacific Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and New England regions were the least similar to this particular cluster. States predominantly in the West and some along the Eastern Seaboard were prototypical of Cluster 2 (Relaxed & Creative), whereas most of the states in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Gulf Coast were most different from this cluster. Finally, states in New England and the Middle Atlantic were prototypical of Cluster 3 (Temperamental & Uninhibited), whereas states in the Southeast, Great Plains, and Mountain region were not members of this cluster.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Imaging the the updating of true and false memories.

When we recall, or reactivate a memory, we render it susceptible to alterations such as incorporating relevant new information, so that it might be then stored again in an altered form. Schacter and collaborators at Harvard show show more of what is going on in our brains as reactivation-induced updating both enhances and distorts memory. This process has important implications for understanding the unreliability of eyewitness memories. Here is their abstract:
We remember a considerable number of personal experiences because we are frequently reminded of them, a process known as memory reactivation. Although memory reactivation helps to stabilize and update memories, reactivation may also introduce distortions if novel information becomes incorporated with memory. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural mechanisms mediating reactivation-induced updating in memory for events experienced during a museum tour. During scanning, participants were shown target photographs to reactivate memories from the museum tour followed by a novel lure photograph from an alternate tour. Later, participants were presented with target and lure photographs and asked to determine whether the photographs showed a stop they visited during the tour. We used a subsequent memory analysis to examine neural recruitment during reactivation that was associated with later true and false memories. We predicted that the quality of reactivation, as determined by online ratings of subjective recollection, would increase subsequent true memories but also facilitate incorporation of the lure photograph, thereby increasing subsequent false memories. The fMRI results revealed that the quality of reactivation modulated subsequent true and false memories via recruitment of left posterior parahippocampal, bilateral retrosplenial, and bilateral posterior inferior parietal cortices. However, the timing of neural recruitment and the way in which memories were reactivated contributed to differences in whether memory reactivation led to distortions or not. These data reveal the neural mechanisms recruited during memory reactivation that modify how memories will be subsequently retrieved, supporting the flexible and dynamic aspects of memory.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Naked bodies and mind perception.

Numerous studies have found that viewing people’s bodies, as opposed to their faces, makes us judge them as less intelligent, ambitious, likable, and competent. Kurt Gray, Paul Bloom, and collaborators have published a neat study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shows further than naked bodies are viewed as having less purposeful agency, but stronger feelings and emotional responses They obtained this result by questioning subjects who were shown pictures of 30 porn stars, with each star represented in an identical pose in two photographs, one naked and the other fully dressed. (Simply revealing more flesh by something as simple as taking off a sweater also could change the way a mind was perceived.)  Here is their abstract:
According to models of objectification, viewing someone as a body induces de-mentalization, stripping away their psychological traits. Here evidence is presented for an alternative account, where a body focus does not diminish the attribution of all mental capacities but, instead, leads perceivers to infer a different kind of mind. Drawing on the distinction in mind perception between agency and experience, it is found that focusing on someone's body reduces perceptions of agency (self-control and action) but increases perceptions of experience (emotion and sensation). These effects were found when comparing targets represented by both revealing versus nonrevealing pictures (Experiments 1, 3, and 4) or by simply directing attention toward physical characteristics (Experiment 2). The effect of a body focus on mind perception also influenced moral intuitions, with those represented as a body seen to be less morally responsible (i.e., lesser moral agents) but more sensitive to harm (i.e., greater moral patients; Experiments 5 and 6). These effects suggest that a body focus does not cause objectification per se but, instead, leads to a redistribution of perceived mind.
Below I include one graphic showing pictures and data from experiment 3, in which subjects were shown naked or clothed people and than asked to rate the person's mental capacities by answering 12 questions with the following beginning: “Compared to the average person, how much is this person capable of X?” In the place of “X” were six agency-related words (self-control, acting morally, planning, communication, memory, and thought) and six experience-related words (feeling pain, feeling pleasure, feeling desire, feeling fear, feeling rage, feeling joy).
Pictures and data from Experiment 3. Ratings of agency and experience for clothed and naked portraits. Error bars are ±1 SE. From XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, by T. Greenfield-Sanders and G. Vidal, 2004, pp. 14, 15, 18–21, 30, 31, 44, 45, 80–85, 92, 93, 102, 103.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Unconscious, not conscious, attitudes predict relationship success.

There has been some recent criticism of 'priming" experiments, in which subliminal presentation, particularly of emotional, stimuli is said to influence the outcome of a decision (see my Nov. 12 post). This is not to be confused with unconscious emotional attitudes, which indeed can be a variance with consciously expressed opinions. McNulty et al. do a nice demonstration of this effect, in showing that 'gut feelings' (implicit attitudes) are a better predictor of success in a marriage than explicit attitudes. They measured explicit and implicit attitudes of newlywed couples toward one another twice a year for 4 years. Over time, the implicit or unaware evaluations of the relationship predicted changes of marital satisfaction, whereas the explicit or conscious evaluations did not.

From their introductory explanation:
The explicit measure was an oft-used semantic differential that asked spouses to report the extent to which they would describe their marriage using 15 pairs of opposing adjectives (e.g., “good” versus “bad,” “satisfied” versus “dissatisfied”). The implicit measure was a version of an associative priming task that required spouses to indicate as quickly as possible the valence of positively and negatively valenced words after being exposed to 300-ms primes of photographs of their partner and various control individuals. An index of spouses’ automatic attitudes was formed by subtracting the time it took them to indicate the valence of the positive words from the time it took them to indicate the valence of the negative words. Both attitude indexes were standardized before analyses. Higher scores on both measures indicate more positive attitudes.
Here is the abstract of the article:
For decades, social psychological theories have posited that the automatic processes captured by implicit measures have implications for social outcomes. Yet few studies have demonstrated any long-term implications of automatic processes, and some scholars have begun to question the relevance and even the validity of these theories. At baseline of our longitudinal study, 135 newlywed couples (270 individuals) completed an explicit measure of their conscious attitudes toward their relationship and an implicit measure of their automatic attitudes toward their partner. They then reported their marital satisfaction every 6 months for the next 4 years. We found no correlation between spouses’ automatic and conscious attitudes, which suggests that spouses were unaware of their automatic attitudes. Further, spouses’ automatic attitudes, not their conscious ones, predicted changes in their marital satisfaction, such that spouses with more positive automatic attitudes were less likely to experience declines in marital satisfaction over time.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Digital Passivity

This piece by Jaron Lanier is well worth reading. A few clips:
I fear that 2013 will be remembered as a tragic and dark year in the digital universe, despite the fact that a lot of wonderful advances took place.
It was the year in which tablets became ubiquitous and advanced gadgets like 3-D printers and wearable interfaces emerged as pop phenomena; all great fun. Our gadgets have widened access to our world. We now regularly communicate with people we would not have been aware of before the networked age. We can find information about almost anything, any time.
But 2013 was also the year in which we became aware of the corner we’ve backed ourselves into. We learned — through the leaks of Edward J. Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, and the work of investigative journalists — how much our gadgets and our digital networks are being used to spy on us by ultra-powerful, remote organizations. We are being dissected more than we dissect...I wish I could separate the two big trends of the year in computing — the cool gadgets and the revelations of digital spying — but I cannot.
...tablets do something unforeseen: They enforce a new power structure. Unlike a personal computer, a tablet runs only programs and applications approved by a central commercial authority. You control the data you enter into a PC, while data entered into a tablet is often managed by someone else...Steve Jobs...declared that personal computers were now ‘‘trucks’’ — tools for working-class guys in T-shirts and visors, but not for upwardly mobile cool people. The implication was that upscale consumers would prefer status and leisure to influence or self-determination.
To be free is to have a private zone in which you can be alone with your thoughts and experiments. That is where you differentiate yourself and grow your personal value. When you carry around a smartphone with a GPS and camera and constantly pipe data to a computer owned by a corporation paid by advertisers to manipulate you, you are less free. Not only are you benefiting the corporation and the advertisers, you are also accepting an assault on your free will, bit by bit.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Childhood poverty changes adult brain emotion regulation pathways.

Kim et al. add sobering detail to the story of how the chronic stress experienced by children in poverty correlates with long term change in the emotion regulation pathways of those children when they become adults. Controlling our emotions depends on the ability of portions of our prefrontal cortex to suppress activation of our amygdala's reactivity. Apparently chronic stress in childhood blocks normal development of this inhibition. Here is the authors' statement of the significance of their work:
Childhood poverty has been linked to emotion dysregulation, which is further associated with negative physical and psychological health in adulthood. The current study provides evidence of prospective associations between childhood poverty and adult neural activity during effortful attempts to regulate negative emotion. Adults with lower family income at age 9 exhibited reduced ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity and failure to suppress amygdala activation at age 24. Chronic stressor exposure across childhood mediated the relations between family income at age 9 and prefrontal cortex activity. The concurrent adult income, on the other hand, was not associated with neural activity. The information on the developmental timing of poverty effects and neural mechanisms may inform early interventions aimed at reducing health disparities.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Do you use your head or follow your heart?

Fetterman and Robsinon do a piece of work that tries to provide evidence of what we all commonly suppose: that where we physically locate our self (head or heart) predicts aspects of personality such as rationality versus emotionality, interpersonal warmth versus distance, etc. The kind of work derives from the Lakoff and Johnson studies on embodied cognition - how conceptual metaphors guide thought, emotion, and behavior. The experimental subjects were the usual cohort (112 total, 47 female) of college undergraduates seeking psychology laboratory credit, who were asked "Irrespective of what you know about biology, which body part do you more closely associate with your self? (choose one)." A bit more detail is given, but this is apparently how heart and head types were chosen. I'm going to spare you the details of the numbered experiments that are mentioned, and just note the abstract:
The head is thought to be rational and cold, whereas the heart is thought to be emotional and warm. In 8 studies (total N = 725), we pursued the idea that such body metaphors are widely consequential. Study 1 introduced a novel individual difference variable, one asking people to locate the self in the head or the heart. Irrespective of sex differences, head-locators characterized themselves as rational, logical, and interpersonally cold, whereas heart-locators characterized themselves as emotional, feminine, and interpersonally warm (Studies 1–3). Study 4 showed that head-locators were more accurate in answering general knowledge questions and had higher grade point averages, and Study 5 showed that heart-locators were more likely to favor emotional over rational considerations in moral decision making. Study 6 linked self-locations to reactivity phenomena in daily life—for example, heart-locators experienced greater negative emotion on high stressor days. In Study 7, we manipulated attention to the head versus the heart and found that head-pointing facilitated intellectual performance, whereas heart-pointing led to emotional decision making. Study 8 replicated Study 3’s findings with a nearly year-long delay between the self-location and outcome measures. The findings converge on the importance of head–heart metaphors for understanding individual differences in cognition, emotion, and performance.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Homage to idleness.

All of a sudden this past Saturday morning there was a subtle "poof" from somewhere in my now-cyborg body and it just started thinking and writing again, most likely because its preoccupation with pain was decreasing.

I found myself savoring the period of idleness mandated by having both medial knee joints replaced, and so felt a resonance with this opinion piece by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins "Homage to the Idols of Idleness."
Our struggle against the clock is ancient. As far back as the 2nd century B.C., the Roman playwright Plautus lamented, “The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish the hours!” as he railed against the city’s central sundial, which served to “cut and hack my days so wretchedly.” Thousands of years later, what would Plautus make of this ringing, dinging world full of productivity apps that hack ever deeper into our days and nights?
Devices that constantly keep us on course, fixed in place and in time — from the GPS to Siri — ruin our ability to get lost, eradicating randomness and its magic in their wake. Perhaps no one knew this better than France’s early-19th century flâneurs, the idle walkers who happily unspooled their days into the unknown, or the flâneurs’ lowbrow American confreres, the tramp poets of the early 20th century, who surrendered to their surroundings with even more conviction than time-bound monks. In the summer of 1912, the poet Vachel Lindsay set off tramping in a corduroy suit, walking and “meditating on the ways of Destiny,” while preaching the “Gospel of Beauty” to everyone he met...
Our worship of time-management denies the courage these aimless wanderers and idlers demonstrated when stepping out of time. They made the crucial tradeoff: reduced output for liberation. When he died, Henry David Thoreau had published only two books, and “Walden,” then out of print, had been only moderately successful. In the Massachusetts woods, he not only sought solitude, but followed an utterly unconventional timetable, hoeing his beans at 5 a.m. and quitting by noon in order to pursue “other affairs,” like befriending squirrels or lounging next to a spring while reading Homer or the Bhagavad Gita. He chose to “live on the stretch” in order to better savor every moment. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
The stupefying modern obsession with productivity denies the whimsy and the freedom that living fully demands. We must dare to relax our grip on time for a day, or even for an hour, throwing clocks, watches and iPhones over the housetops, untethering ourselves solely for the thrill of not knowing what happens next.