Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Smiles of reward, affiliation, and dominance.

From Martin et al.:

The human smile is highly variable in both its form and the social contexts in which it is displayed. A social-functional account identifies three distinct smile expressions defined in terms of their effects on the perceiver: reward smiles reinforce desired behavior; affiliation smiles invite and maintain social bonds; and dominance smiles manage hierarchical relationships. Mathematical modeling uncovers the appearance of the smiles, and both human and Bayesian classifiers validate these distinctions. New findings link laughter to reward, affiliation, and dominance, and research suggests that these functions of smiles are recognized across cultures. Taken together, this evidence suggests that the smile can be productively investigated according to how it assists the smiler in meeting the challenges and opportunities inherent in human social living.
From the text:
Extant research on smiles, as well as the descriptions of play, threat, and submissive expressions in primates, provide some hints about the possible stereotypical appearances of reward, affiliation, and dominance smiles. In humans, a data-driven approach was recently used to investigate the dynamic patterns that convey each of the three social-functional smile meanings to receivers. The researchers combined computer graphics and psychophysics to model the facial movements – or, action units (AUs) – that, in combination with the zygomaticus major, are perceived to communicate reward, affiliation, and dominance. Specifically, on each of 2400 trials, bilateral or unilateral zygomaticus major plus a random sample of between one and four other facial AUs were selected from a set of 36. The dynamic movement of each AU was determined by randomly specifying values of each of six temporal parameters. The facial animation was then presented on one of eight face identities. Participants rated the extent to which each animation matched their personal understanding of a display signaling reward, affiliation, or dominance.
Methods of reverse correlation were used to quantify facial movements that predicted the ratings. Results showed that eyebrow flashes – involving the inner and outer brow raiser – and symmetry of contraction of the zygomaticus major were rated as rewarding by participants. In addition to the facial actions that signaled reward, ratings of affiliation were predicted by activation of the lip pressor; one of the smile control movements. Finally, faces that displayed unilateral, asymmetrical activation of zygomaticus major and AUs known to be related to disgust including the nose wrinkler and upper lip raiser were perceived as more dominant.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Rethinking our conceptions of mental life.

Interesting ideas from Weisman et al.:

How do ordinary people make sense of mental life? Pioneering work on the dimensions of mind perception has been widely interpreted as evidence that lay people perceive two fundamental components of mental life: experience and agency. However, using a method better suited to addressing this question, we discovered a very different conceptual structure. Our four studies consistently revealed three components of mental life—suites of capacities related to the body, the heart, and the mind—with each component encompassing related aspects of both experience and agency. This body–heart–mind framework distinguishes itself from the experience–agency framework by its clear and importantly different implications for dehumanization, moral reasoning, and other important social phenomena.
How do people make sense of the emotions, sensations, and cognitive abilities that make up mental life? Pioneering work on the dimensions of mind perception has been interpreted as evidence that people consider mental life to have two core components—experience (e.g., hunger, joy) and agency (e.g., planning, self-control) [Gray HM, et al. (2007) Science 315:619]. We argue that this conclusion is premature: The experience–agency framework may capture people’s understanding of the differences among different beings (e.g., dogs, humans, robots, God) but not how people parse mental life itself. Inspired by Gray et al.’s bottom-up approach, we conducted four large-scale studies designed to assess people’s conceptions of mental life more directly. This led to the discovery of an organization that differs strikingly from the experience–agency framework: Instead of a broad distinction between experience and agency, our studies consistently revealed three fundamental components of mental life—suites of capacities related to the body, the heart, and the mind—with each component encompassing related aspects of both experience and agency. This body–heart–mind framework distinguishes itself from Gray et al.’s experience–agency framework by its clear and importantly different implications for dehumanization, moral reasoning, and other important social phenomena.

Friday, October 27, 2017

“Let’s Get Togetherism.”

I have to pass on the ending paragraphs of Brooks NYTimes OpEd piece today, titled "The week Trump won." He compares our situation today with the 1927 chaos, which pitted democrats who lacked a clear vision, led by Alexander Kerensky, against Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks who knew exactly what they believed.
The people who oppose Trump make a big error: “Let’s Get Togetherism.” This is the belief that if we can only have a civil conversation between red and blue, then everything will be better. But you can’t destroy a moral vision with a process. You need a counter-moral vision.
The people who reluctantly collaborate with Trump make a different error: economism. This is the belief that Trump’s behavior is tolerable because at least Republicans can pass a tax cut. People who believe that value money more than morals. Trumpism is not just economic, and it can’t be thwarted by passing a bit of economic policy.
This is like 1917, a clash of political, moral, economic and social ideologies all rolled into one.
Frankly, I think America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA. But there has to be a leader who can restore it to life.

How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media.

Benedict Carey does a fascinating article on how misinformation is spread on social media. Here are a few clips with his major points:
For all the suspicions about social media companies’ motives and ethics, it is the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that make so many of us vulnerable to misinformation, and this has largely escaped notice.
Skepticism of online “news” serves as a decent filter much of the time, but our innate biases allow it to be bypassed, researchers have found — especially when presented with the right kind of algorithmically selected “meme.”
Facebook… does have a motive of its own. What it’s actually doing is keeping your eyes on the site. It’s curating news and information that will keep you watching…That kind of curating acts as a fertile host for falsehoods by simultaneously engaging two predigital social-science standbys: the urban myth as “meme,” or viral idea; and individual biases, the automatic, subconscious presumptions that color belief.
Social media algorithms function at one level like evolutionary selection: Most lies and false rumors go nowhere, but the rare ones with appealing urban-myth “mutations” find psychological traction, then go viral...There is no precise formula for such digital catnip. The point, experts said, is that the very absurdity of the Pizzagate lie could have boosted its early prominence, no matter the politics of those who shared it.
[A]…dynamic that works in favor of proliferating misinformation is not embedded in the software but in the biological hardware: the cognitive biases of the human brain. Purely from a psychological point of view, subtle individual biases are at least as important as rankings and choice when it comes to spreading bogus news or Russian hoaxes — like a false report of Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives.
For starters, merely understanding what a news report or commentary is saying requires a temporary suspension of disbelief. Mentally, the reader must temporarily accept the stated “facts” as possibly true. A cognitive connection is made automatically: Clinton-sex offender, Trump-Nazi, Muslim men-welfare...And refuting those false claims requires a person to first mentally articulate them, reinforcing a subconscious connection that lingers far longer than people presume.
Over time, for many people, it is that false initial connection that stays the strongest, not the retractions or corrections: “Was Obama a Muslim? I seem to remember that....”
…repetition: Merely seeing a news headline multiple times in a newsfeed makes it seem more credible before it is ever read carefully, even if it’s a fake item being whipped around by friends as a joke.
…people tend to value the information and judgments offered by good friends over all other sources. It’s a psychological tendency with significant consequences now that nearly two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media.
Stopping to drill down and determine the true source of a foul-smelling story can be tricky, even for the motivated skeptic, and mentally it’s hard work. Ideological leanings and viewing choices are conscious, downstream factors that come into play only after automatic cognitive biases have already had their way, abetted by the algorithms and social nature of digital interactions.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Do intelligent robots need emotion?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the parts of our brains processing emotions are not tidily separated from those dealing with reason, cognition, perception, motivation, and action. This leads Pessoa to suggest that efforts to construct intelligent robots that act like humans should not just have emotion-related components in their information-processing architecture, but rather that cognitive-emotional integration should be a key design principle. Here are a few clips from his essay in Trends in Cognitive Sciences:
In the past two decades a steady stream of researchers have advocated the inclusion of emotion-related components in the general information-processing architecture of autonomous agents. One type of argument is that emotion components are necessary to instill urgency to action and decisions. Others have advocated emotion components to aid understanding emotion in humans, or to generate human-like expressions. In this literature, including affect is frequently associated with the addition of an emotion module that can influence some of the components of the architecture.
The framework advanced here goes beyond these approaches and proposes that emotion (and motivation) need to be integrated with all aspects of the architecture. In particular, emotion-related mechanisms influence processing beyond the modulatory aspects of ‘moods’ linked to internal states (hunger, sex-drive, etc.). Emotion can be thought of as a set of valuating mechanisms that help to organize behavior, for instance by helping take into account both the costs and benefits linked to percepts and actions. At a general level, it can be viewed as a biasing mechanism, much like the ‘cognitive’ function of attention. However, such conceptualization is still overly simplistic because emotion does not amount to merely providing an extra boost to a specific sensory input, potential plan, or action. When the brain is conceptualized as a complex system of highly interacting networks of regions, we see that emotion is interlocked with perception, cognition, motivation, and action. Whereas we can refer to particular behaviors as ‘emotional’ or ‘cognitive’, this is only a language short-cut. Thus, the idea of a biasing mechanism is too limited. From the perspective of designing intelligent agents, all components of the architecture should be influenced by emotional and motivational variables (and vice versa). Thus, the architecture should be strongly non-modular.
...the central argument described here is not that emotion is needed – the answer is ‘yes’ – but that emotion and motivation need to be integrated with all information-processing components. This implies that cognitive–emotional integration needs to be a principle of the architecture. In particular, emotion is not an ‘add on’ that endows a robot with ‘feelings’, allowing it, for instance, to report or express its internal state. It allows the significance of percepts, plans, and actions to be an integral part of all its computations. Future research needs to integrate emotion and cognition if intelligent, autonomous robots are to be built.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Different kinds of mindfulness correlate with different benefits.

Jazaieri points to work by Blanke et al. that probed how different aspects of mindfulness influence our emotional well-being. Three kinds of mindfulness were considered: present-moment attention, nonjudgmental acceptance, and acting with awareness. From Jazaieri's summary:
Seventy students ages 20-30 received pings via smartphone six times a day over the course of nine days. The pings included questions about the positive and negative emotions they had experienced recently, any unpleasant hassles that had occurred, and how mindful they had been, along the three specific dimensions of mindfulness.....Present-moment attention was the strongest predictor for increased positive emotions—the more attentive people said they were, the better they felt overall. ... Nonjudgmental acceptance was the strongest predictor for decreased negative emotions—the more people reported nonjudgmental acceptance in their lives, the less negative emotion they reported experiencing.
Here is the Blanke et al. abstract:
Mindfulness is commonly defined as a multidimensional mode of being attentive to, and aware of, momentary experiences while taking a nonjudgmental and accepting stance. These qualities have been linked to 2 different facets of affective well-being: being attentive is proposed to lead to an appreciation of experiences as they are, and thus to positive affect (PA). Accepting unpleasant experiences in a nonjudgmental fashion has been hypothesized to reduce negative affect (NA). Alternatively, however, attention may increase both positive and negative affectivity, whereas nonjudgmental acceptance may modify how people relate to their experiences. Previous research has considered such differential associations at the trait level, although a mindful mode may be understood as a state of being. Using an experience-sampling methodology (ESM) with smartphones, the present research therefore links different state mindfulness facets to positive and NA in daily life. Seventy students (50% female, 20–30 years old) of different disciplines participated in the study. Based on multidimensional assessments of self-reported state mindfulness and state affect, the findings corroborate the hypotheses on the differential predictive value of 2 mindfulness facets: Participants experienced more PA when they were attentive to the present moment and less NA when they nonjudgmentally accepted momentary experiences. Furthermore, only nonjudgmental acceptance buffered the impact of daily hassles on affective well-being. The study contributes to a more fine-grained understanding of the within-person mechanisms relating mindfulness to affective well-being in daily life. Future interventions may be able to enhance different aspects of affective well-being by addressing specific facets of mindfulness.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The “sense of self” in Biblical times.

Sigal Samuel does an article on the ideas of James Kugel in his final book “The Great Shift - Encountering Good in the Biblical Era” Here are a few clips from the piece, which inexplicably does not mention similar and antecedent work and ideas of Julian Jaynes:
Kugel uses biblical research to show that ancient people had a “sense of self” that was fundamentally different from the one modern Westerners have—and that this enabled them to experience and interpret prophecy differently than we do… If anything, our modern Western notion of the bounded, individual self is the anomaly; most human beings throughout history conceived of the self as a porous entity open to intrusions. In fact, much of the rest of the world today still does.
Kugel cites several studies showing that even now, many healthy people hear voices—as much as 15 percent of the general population. He also cites a recent cross-cultural study in which researchers interviewed voice hearers in the United States, Ghana, and India. The researchers recorded “striking differences” in how the different groups of people felt about the voices they hear: In Ghana and India, many participants “insisted that their predominant or even only experience of the voice was positive. … Not one American did so.”…cultural conditioning impacts whether a phenomenon like prophecy will be celebrated or pathologized. 
Even today, people hear voices. Some of them are homicidal maniacs, but others lead perfectly normal lives, they just hear people who aren’t there. They even have an organization, the Hearing Voices Movement, with an annual convention of hundreds of voice hearers. 
Samuel’s interview of Kugel is worth a read.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The coming dark age…or a new integration?

I would like to offer Mindblog’s rambling thoughts on possible futures, if, as in some estimates , the relentless march of the machines of artificial intelligence makes roughly half of all jobs disappear in the next decade, concentrating power and financial assets in the hands of a small number of world-spanning corporations. The numbers of the threatened or former middle class citizens that elected Donald Trump will be greatly magnified by the job decimation that is yet to come. As Trump continues to proceed with what is by now a clear sense of his purpose - being an engine of chaos that attempts to break down virtually all of rituals, allegiances, and governing rules of a fading establishment - what are we to expect? Will Democracy devolve? Will the mass of the disaffected coalesce around more primitive nativistic emotion (rather than reason) driven collectives, repealing the enlightenment to generate a modern form of the middle ages or more ancient times, with their more collective tribal identities and more authoritarian leadership? Or, will there be a radical rethinking of issues of cultural, economic, racial and sexual discrimination and inequality that the current (or former?) ruling class has been unable to face? Will we dissolve into a chaos of conflicting tribes, or come to realize that the only way forward is to transcend (i.e. inhibit) the more unpleasant features of our evolved psychology, to emphasize the more affiliative, altruistic, tolerant, and pro-social behaviors that are also part of that evolved psychology. Can a system for a universal basic income and support - ensuring no one is hungry, without shelter, and basic health care - be devised that lets people ‘work’ in arenas of art, creativity, and social people-to-people services? Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting to watch.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Coordination of brain waves between humans facing territorial threats.

Here is an interesting piece from Mu et al., first their abstract, and then a chunk of their introduction which gives rationale and background.

Throughout history and into the modern era, human groups have been continually subjected to a wide range of societal threats, from natural disasters to pandemics to terrorism. Yet despite this fundamental aspect of human existence, there has been little research on how societal threat affects social coordination at both the neural and the behavioral level. Here, we show for the first time that individuals are better able to coordinate under high societal threat as compared to low or no threat (Experiment 1). Using a method of hyperscanning electroencephalography (EEG), which simultaneously measures brain activity among interacting subjects, we further illustrate that interbrain synchrony of gamma band oscillations is enhanced when people are under high threat, and increased gamma interbrain synchrony is associated with lower dyadic interpersonal time lag (i.e. higher coordination) (Experiment 2). To our knowledge, the current work provides some of the first empirical evidence that gamma interbrain synchrony is associated with social coordination when humans are under threat.
And, excerpts from their introduction:
...there has been little research on the behavioral or neural mechanisms through which humans coordinate under high societal threat. From an evolutionary point of view, the ability of humans to effectively synchronize their actions under threat would presumably confer an important survival advantage.
To address this question, we combine state of the art hyperscanning techniques with exposure to real-world threat. Hyperscanning techniques, which record multiple brains’ neural activity simultaneously with great precision as humans interact over time, are perfectly situated to elucidate the interbrain mechanisms underlying social coordination under high societal threat. Accumulating hyperscanning eletroenthephalograph (EEG) studies have indeed shown that interbrain synchrony plays a critical role in various forms of human coordination, such as the ability to synchronize body movements and speech rhythms and to perform duets.
We complement previous research by examining the role interbrain synchrony plays in coordination when humans are under threat. Using a coordination game validated in previous research (Mu et al., 2016), in Experiment 1, we examined whether dyads exposed to ingroup threat (IGT) would exhibit greater coordination as compared to dyads exposed to outgroup threat (OGT) or no threat control conditions (IGC).
In Experiment 2, we combined hyperscanning EEG with the same threat manipulation (i.e. IGT, OGT and IGC) and the same coordination game employed in Experiment 1 to investigate whether interbrain synchrony would help humans coordinate under conditions of high societal threat. Using a dual-EEG setup, we tested how societal threat influences interbrain synchrony while participants attempted to coordinate. Previous hyperscanning EEG studies have shown that alpha interbrain synchrony is activated in a variety of social coordination tasks, including interactional synchrony, coordinated teamwork and synchronized counting. Thus, we examined whether alpha interbrain synchrony would be recruited to support social coordination in an unexplored context, namely that of societal threat.
We also examined other bands of interbrain synchrony which may be particularly relevant to social coordination under threat—most notably gamma band, a high frequency band (>28 Hz) that is a threat-sensitive neural marker. In particular, single brain analyses have shown that gamma band oscillations contribute to threat detection, reflecting the involvement of a quick subcortical route to the amygdala, which plays a central role in processing threat-related stimuli, such as fearful images and threat-related words. Gamma activity is also higher in anxiety disorder patients who experience chronic fear. Thus, if threat affects interpersonal coordination by modulating interbrain synchrony linked to threat processing, we would expect that gamma band synchrony may be associated with human coordination under threat.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Like apes and small children, ravens plan ahead.

The notion that animal cognition outside of the primate lineage is locked into the present has to be tossed. It appears that cognitive evolution of the ability to plan ahead proceeded independently in the (Corvid) lineage that lead to modern Ravens. Kabadayi and Osvath now show that ravens anticipate the nature, time, and location of a future event based on previous experiences. The ravens' behavior is not merely prospective, anticipating future states; rather, they flexibly apply future planning in behaviors not typically seen in the wild. From the summary by Boeckle and Clayton:
Kabadayi and Osvath test ravens' abilities to plan for future tool use and trading, rather than for food caching (a behavior that might be considered as an adaptive specialization to gather food in order to eat it at a future date)...The authors presented five ravens with a choice of objects. Only one of these objects was a functional tool, which could be used to retrieve food from a puzzle box. The ravens chose correctly not only when they were offered the box but also when they had to store the tool and plan for the next day. In another experiment, the ravens were trained to exchange tokens for food. When the ravens knew that trading would only happen on the next day, they chose and stored these tokens as soon as they were offered to them. By manipulating tool choice, time, and trading opportunities, the authors controlled the value of the items at choice in relation to current as well as future interactions.
The results from the two experiments show that ravens take temporal distance between item choice and reward into account, exercise self-control, and make decisions for predicted futures rather than arbitrary ones. Thus, the birds opt for a more distant but higher gratification rather than an immediate but lower gratification and do so flexibly across behaviors.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Premortem

Richard Thaler, the father of behavioral economics, just received the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics. I thought I would pass on this brief piece he did for edge.org, answering it's annual question "What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to be more widely known?":
The Premortem
Before a major decision is taken, say to launch a new line of business, write a book, or form a new alliance, those familiar with the details of the proposal are given an assignment. Assume we are at some time in the future when the plan has been implemented, and the outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.
Applied psychologist Gary Klein came up with “The Premortem,” which was later written about by Daniel Kahneman. Of course we are all too familiar with the more common postmortem that typically follows any disaster, along with the accompanying finger pointing. Such postmortems inevitably suffer from hindsight bias, also known as Monday-morning quarterbacking, in which everyone remembers thinking that the disaster was almost inevitable. As I often heard Amos Tversky say, “the handwriting may have been written on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?”
There are two reasons why premortems might help avert disasters. (I say might because I know of no systematic study of their use. Organizations rarely allow such internal decision making to be observed and recorded.) First, explicitly going through this exercise can overcome the natural organizational tendencies toward groupthink and overconfidence. A devil’s advocate is unpopular anywhere. The premortem procedure gives cover to a cowardly skeptic who otherwise might not speak up. After all, the entire point of the exercise is to think of reasons why the project failed. Who can be blamed for thinking of some unforeseen problem that would otherwise be overlooked in the excitement that usually accompanies any new venture?
The second reason a premortem can work is subtle. Starting the exercise by assuming the project has failed, and now thinking of why that might have happened creates the illusion of certainty, at least hypothetically. Laboratory research shows that by asking why did it fail rather than why might it fail, gets the creative juices flowing. (The same principle can work in finding solutions to tough problems. Assume the problem has been solved, and then ask, how did it happen? Try it!)
An example illustrates how this can work. Suppose a couple years ago an airline CEO invited top management to conduct a premortem on this hypothetical disaster: All of our airline’s flights around the world have been cancelled for two straight days. Why? Of course, many will immediately think of some act of terrorism. But real progress will be made by thinking of much more mundane explanations. Suppose someone timidly suggests that the cause was the reservation system crashed and the backup system did not work properly.
Had this exercise been conducted, it might have prevented a disaster for a major airline that cancelled nearly 2000 flights over a three-day period. During much of that time, passengers could not get any information because the reservation system was down. What caused this fiasco? A power surge blew a transformer and critical systems and network equipment didn’t switch over to backups properly. This havoc was all initiated by the equivalent of blowing a fuse.
his episode was bad, but many companies that were once household names and now no longer exist might still be thriving if they had conducted a premortum with the question being: It is three years from now and we are on the verge of bankruptcy. How did this happen?
nd, how many wars might not have been started if someone had first asked: We lost. How?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A sobering political graphic

The graphic (click to enlarge) is from Thomas Edsall's thoughtful and well-researched piece (as usual) on our current political situation, titled "Democrats are playing Checkers While Trump is Playing Chess." I recommend you read it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Does acupuncture work by re-mapping the brain?

I want to pass on a chunk of a sane article offered by Vitaly Napadow in Aeon. Napadow is director of the Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging (CiPNI) and an associate professor at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, both at the Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School. He describes the sort of experiment needed to demonstrate that acupuncture can not be explained solely as a placebo effect:
While most chronic-pain disorders lack ... established, objective outcomes of disease, this is not true for carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a neuropathic pain disorder that can be validated by measuring electrical conduction across the median nerve, which passes through the wrist. Interestingly, the slowing of nerve conduction at the wrist does not occur in isolation – it’s not just the nerve in the wrist that’s affected in CTS. My own department’s research and others’ has clearly demonstrated that the brain, and particularly a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), is re-mapped by CTS. Specifically, in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, the representation of fingers innervated by the median nerve are blurred in S1. We then showed that both real and placebo acupuncture improved CTS symptoms. Does this mean that acupuncture is a placebo? Maybe not. While symptom relief was the same immediately following therapy, real acupuncture was linked to long-term improvement while sham acupuncture was not. And better S1 re-mapping immediately following therapy was linked with better long-term symptom reduction. Thus, sham acupuncture might work through an alternative route, by modulating known placebo circuitry in the brain, while real acupuncture rewires brain regions such as S1, along with modulating local blood flow to the median nerve in the wrist.
Where you stick the needle might matter as well. While site-specificity is one of the key features of acupuncture therapy, it has been controversial. Interestingly, in the S1 region of the brain, different body areas are represented in different spatial areas – this is how we localise the mosquito that’s biting us, and swat it. Different S1 areas might also pass along information to a diverse set of other areas that affect different bodily systems such as the immune, autonomic and other internal motor systems. As far as acupuncture is concerned, the body-specific map in S1 could serve as the basis for a crude form of point specificity. In our study, we compared patients receiving real acupuncture locally to the wrist with patients receiving real acupuncture far from the wrist, in the opposite ankle. Our results suggested that both local and distal acupuncture improved median nerve function at the wrist. This suggests that the brain changes resulting from acupuncture might not just be a reflection of changes at the wrist, but could also drive the improved median nerve function directly by linking to autonomic brain regions that control blood vessel diameter and blood flow to the median nerve.
This new research clearly demonstrates that bodily response is not the only means by which acupuncture works; response within the brain might be the most critical part. Once we better understand how acupuncture works to relieve pain, we can optimise this therapy to provide effective, non-pharmacological care for many more chronic-pain patients.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A 'Gaydar' machine?

Heather Murphy describes the kerfuffle that has ensued after Stanford researchers published a preprint of their work that will soon appear in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychlogy. To teach a machine (a widely used facial analysis program employing a pattern identifying neural network) to detect sexuality, authors Kosinski and Wang copied more than 75,000 dating profiles of men and women seeking same or different sex partners. The software extracted information from thousands of facial data points to generate average composite heterosexual and gay male and female faces (pictures are in the Murphy article). They found that their model did much better than humans at identifying sexual orientation. When the computer was given five photos for each person instead of just one, accuracy rose to 83% for women and 91% for men.

The negative Tweet storms and blog posts criticized the study as being a technology-fueled revival of the long discredited notion that physiognomy, measuring the size and shape of a person's eyes, nose and face, can predict personality traits. Highly inaccurate science, racism by algorithm, etc.

And, even if the machine works as stated, William T.L. Cox, a psychologist who studies stereotypes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes:
Let’s say 5 percent of the population is gay, or 50 of every 1,000 people. A facial scan that is 91 percent accurate would misidentify 9 percent of straight people as gay; in the example above, that’s 85 people (0.91 x 950).
The software would also mistake 9 percent of gay people as straight people. The result: Of 130 people the facial scan identified as gay, 85 actually would be straight.
When an algorithm with 91 percent accuracy operates in the real world, almost two-thirds of the times it says someone is gay, it would be wrong.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Brain and body imaging of the emotional power of poetry.

By now a body of work has grown on how peak musical experiences engage the reward systems of our brains, with concomitant changes such as tingling and goosebumps triggered by our autonomic nervous systems. A colleague pointed me to this discussion by Delistraty of recent work in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Wassiliwizky et al. that extends this sort of analysis to the appreciation of poetry. I suggest you read the discussion. Here is the abstract of the work:
It is a common experience—and well established experimentally—that music can engage us emotionally in a compelling manner. The mechanisms underlying these experiences are receiving increasing scrutiny. However, the extent to which other domains of aesthetic experience can similarly elicit strong emotions is unknown. Using psychophysiology, neuroimaging and behavioral responses, we show that recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional responses, including chills and objectively measurable goosebumps that engage the primary reward circuitry. Importantly, while these responses to poetry are largely analogous to those found for music, their neural underpinnings show important differences, specifically with regard to the crucial role of the nucleus accumbens. We also go beyond replicating previous music-related studies by showing that peak aesthetic pleasure can co-occur with physiological markers of negative affect. Finally, the distribution of chills across the trajectory of poems provides insight into compositional principles of poetry.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

MindBlog has moved to Austin Texas.

A personal note.  Len and I have just moved back into the family house in Austin Texas where I grew up, through high school. My son and his family recently moved from this house into a larger home, where my Steinway B now resides in a much larger living room. The annual snowbird commute will now be between Madison WI and Austin Texas, rather than Madison and Fort Lauderdale. The picture shows an Essex upright (Steinway sub-brand) that just arrived at the smaller family house to serve as a practice piano.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Price modulates the effectiveness of your pain medication!

Fascinating observations from Tinnermann et al. A Science magazine summary, followed by the article abstract:

Price modulates early pain processing
Patients in randomized clinical trials frequently stop taking their drug, complaining of side effects. However, it turns out that some of these subjects are part of the placebo group and thus never received any active medication. This is a case of the nocebo effect seriously interfering with medical treatment. Tinnermann et al. investigated whether value information such as the price of a medication can further modulate behavioral nocebo effects and the underlying neural network dynamics (see the Perspective by Colloca). They used brain imaging to characterize the circuits involved in nocebo hyperalgesia within the descending pain pathway from the prefrontal cortex to the spinal cord. Their findings revealed how value information increased the nocebo effect.
Value information about a drug, such as the price tag, can strongly affect its therapeutic effect. We discovered that value information influences adverse treatment outcomes in humans even in the absence of an active substance. Labeling an inert treatment as expensive medication led to stronger nocebo hyperalgesia than labeling it as cheap medication. This effect was mediated by neural interactions between cortex, brainstem, and spinal cord. In particular, activity in the prefrontal cortex mediated the effect of value on nocebo hyperalgesia. Value furthermore modulated coupling between prefrontal areas, brainstem, and spinal cord, which might represent a flexible mechanism through which higher-cognitive representations, such as value, can modulate early pain processing.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Transcending tribalism - crafting a new vision for America?

I want to point to, and comment on, two recent pieces by David Brooks. In the first, he argues that “the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. Where there is division there are fences. Mobility is retarded and the frontier is destroyed. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.” The second article deals with the gun control issue having “become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.” Both describe a reactionary core of Americans who contract into a vision of a lost past rather than opening up to feel comfortable in a more multicultural society. The first piece suggests the possibility of finding unity in a shared quest for new frontiers, with the same psychological force as the geographical western frontiers of the 1800’s, but instead in communication, the arts, science, and new social structures and media.

My comment would be that we do not face such a new world with a blank slate, but rather an evolved psychology that permits individuals to have stable relationship with only ~150 other people (see Robin Dunbar), in a larger tribe that has clear rules and expectation of its members, and that organize itself to complete successfully with other groups. In the basements of our minds there is a paleolithic psychology trying to cope with an utterly altered world. Having at age 75 just moved back into the childhood home I grew up in, in Austin Texas, I have very strong recall of my immersion in, and comfort with, the social rites of fellow Texans of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

I can not imagine, for myself or others, feeling analogous emotional bonding to an national or international multicultural meritocracy with a ruling elite, permissive of its components having conflicting moralities and rules. An ‘us’ and (or versus) ‘them’ is mentally much less taxing. Brooks faces an uphill battle with his hopeful vision: “The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier…It may be dormant, but this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say no to tribe, yes to universal nation, no to fences, yes to the frontier, no to closed, and yes to the open future, no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.”

It would take a very charismatic new leader to pull all this together. Sigh… we thought we had that at one point, with Barack Obama.

Friday, October 06, 2017

MindBlog's book abstracts.

I’ve been working on abstracting a book I’ve mentioned recently, Sapolsky’s “Behave - The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” hoping to present the basic message of its chapters in a series of MindBlog posts. This is taking longer than I expected. It is a more sprawling and messy affair (just like human behavior) than some of the other book extracts I have offered this way (Gilbert - Stumbling on Happiness, 8 posts; Metzinger - The Ego Tunnel, 5 posts, Grazanio - Consciousness and the Social Brain, post). I’m actually doing this brief post to point you to those previous abstracts, which are worth a look, because I suspect few current readers are aware of them.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Curtailing proactive policing can reduce major crime.

Weisburd points to work by Sullivan and O’Keeffe, yielding counter-intuitive results, that "took advantage of a natural experiment in New York City that resulted from the strangling death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Subsequent political events led to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) engaging in a ‘slowdown’ characterized by dramatic reductions in arrests and summonses. One would have expected crime to go up in this period if this type of proactivity was effective. Instead, analyzing several years of data obtained from the NYPD, they find that civilian complaints of major crimes decreased. Accordingly, they conclude that prior proactivity did not reduce crime, but led to increases in crime." Here is the Sullivan and O'Keeffe abstract:
Governments employ police to prevent criminal acts. But it remains in dispute whether high rates of police stops, criminal summonses and aggressive low-level arrests reduce serious crime1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Police officers target their efforts at areas where crime is anticipated and/or where they expect enforcement will be most effective. Simultaneously, citizens decide to comply with the law or commit crime partly on the basis of police deployment and enforcement strategies. In other words, policing and crime are endogenous to unobservable strategic interaction, which frustrates causal analysis. Here, we resolve these challenges and present evidence that proactive policing—which involves systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations—is positively related to reports of major crime. We examine a political shock that caused the New York Police Department (NYPD) to effectively halt proactive policing in late 2014 and early 2015. Analysing several years of unique data obtained from the NYPD, we find that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing. The results challenge prevailing scholarship as well as conventional wisdom on authority and legal compliance, as they imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Brain circuits that modulate sociability.

The social bonding neuropeptide oxytocin can be traced over 500 million years, with analogous peptides found in birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, and some invertebrates. Hung et al. have found that release of oxytocin in the ventral tegmental area of the brain increases prosocial behaviors in mice. Optogenetic manipulation of oxytocin release influences sociability in a context-dependent manner. Oxytocin increases activity in dopamine cells that project to the nucleus accumbens, another key node of reward circuitry in the brain. Here is their abstract, followed by a nice graphic of the relevant systems in the human brain.
The reward generated by social interactions is critical for promoting prosocial behaviors. Here we present evidence that oxytocin (OXT) release in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a key node of the brain’s reward circuitry, is necessary to elicit social reward. During social interactions, activity in paraventricular nucleus (PVN) OXT neurons increased. Direct activation of these neurons in the PVN or their terminals in the VTA enhanced prosocial behaviors. Conversely, inhibition of PVN OXT axon terminals in the VTA decreased social interactions. OXT increased excitatory drive onto reward-specific VTA dopamine (DA) neurons. These results demonstrate that OXT promotes prosocial behavior through direct effects on VTA DA neurons, thus providing mechanistic insight into how social interactions can generate rewarding experiences.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

You want younger or older?

Interesting piece from Mona Chalabi:

(According to the Census Bureau, the average age difference between men and their wives is 2.3 years.)

Monday, October 02, 2017

This year's Ig Nobel prizes.

If you want a few chuckles, have a look at this link. The prize winning work this year shows that cats can be simultaneously solid and liquid because of their ability to adopt the shape of their container.