Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Culture of Empathy

While approving comments submitted on a MindBlog post, I always go back and read the post. (I have to vet comments, because most are designed to get clicks on links to commercial sites). I sometimes find posts referencing sites that I really wish I had stayed in touch with. This following example is a slightly edited re-posting of an item from 2012:

I have finally taken time to look more thoroughly at a site noted in a comment to my July 25 post on compassion research. The "Culture of Empathy" site is an aggregator of resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It makes interesting, if a bit overwhelming, browsing. I feel like a complete trogdolyte as only now do I notice sites like CAUSES that hosts seven different empathy related causes that one can sign on to, listing the very same gentleman who commented on my post (Edwin Rutsch) as leader.  Mr. Rutsch would also like you to join the Empathy Center Page on Facebook, and join him on Facebook Causes. This guy really gets around! The Culture of Empathy website lists summaries of a large number of interviews, book reviews, and conferences involving Mr. Rutsch, noting the neuroscience of empathy (things like mirror neurons, etc.), different cultural aspects of empathy, linguistics.... I guess its gotta be a good thing, but while fully thinking that my own behavior could certainly be leavened by a more empathetic bias, I'm overwhelmed by this web input to the point of inaction regarding social venues to support.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Computerized Gaydar - a threat to privacy and safety of gay people

My Oct. 13, 2017 post dealt with controversy over an article referenced as forthcoming that showed neural networks to be more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation. It has now appeared, and I want to pass on its abstract here:
We show that faces contain much more information about sexual orientation than can be perceived or interpreted by the human brain. We used deep neural networks to extract features from 35,326 facial images. These features were entered into a logistic regression aimed at classifying sexual orientation. Given a single facial image, a classifier could correctly distinguish between gay and heterosexual men in 81% of cases, and in 71% of cases for women. Human judges achieved much lower accuracy: 61% for men and 54% for women. The accuracy of the algorithm increased to 91% and 83%, respectively, given five facial images per person. Facial features employed by the classifier included both fixed (e.g., nose shape) and transient facial features (e.g., grooming style). Consistent with the prenatal hormone theory of sexual orientation, gay men and women tended to have gender-atypical facial morphology, expression, and grooming styles. Prediction models aimed at gender alone allowed for detecting gay males with 57% accuracy and gay females with 58% accuracy. Those findings advance our understanding of the origins of sexual orientation and the limits of human perception. Additionally, given that companies and governments are increasingly using computer vision algorithms to detect people’s intimate traits, our findings expose a threat to the privacy and safety of gay men and women. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Amygdala structure and defense of the social system.

Nam et al. examine the neuroanatomical substrates of preferences for maintaining existing social arrangements.
Individual variation in preferences to maintain versus change the societal status quo can manifest in the political realm by choosing leaders and policies that reinforce or undermine existing inequalities1. We sought to understand which individuals are likely to defend or challenge inequality in society by exploring the neuroanatomical substrates of system justification tendencies. In two independent neuroimaging studies, we observed that larger bilateral amygdala volume was positively correlated with the tendency to believe that the existing social order was legitimate and desirable. These results held for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups (men and women, respectively). Furthermore, individuals with larger amygdala volume were less likely to participate in subsequent protest movements. We ruled out alternative explanations in terms of attitudinal extremity and political orientation per se. Exploratory whole-brain analyses suggested that system justification effects may extend to structures that are adjacent to the amygdala, including parts of the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. These findings suggest that the amygdala may provide a neural substrate for maintaining the societal status quo, and opens avenues for further investigation into the association between system justification and other neuroanatomical regions.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Our microbiome challenges our concept of self.

Rees et al. offer an interesting perspective on the significance of our microbiome. Their abstract:
Today, the three classical biological explanations of the individual self––the immune system, the brain, the genome––are being challenged by the new field of microbiome research. Evidence shows that our resident microbes orchestrate the adaptive immune system, influence the brain, and contribute more gene functions than our own genome. The realization that humans are not individual, discrete entities but rather the outcome of ever-changing interactions with microorganisms has consequences beyond the biological disciplines. In particular, it calls into question the assumption that distinctive human traits set us apart from all other animals––and therefore also the traditional disciplinary divisions between the arts and the sciences.
Here from the discussion is their development (a bit shaky, I think) of the last point in the abstract:
Historically, the division of labor between faculties of arts and faculties of science emerged in the 18th century, alongside the idea that humans are more than mere nature––that there are human-exclusive capacities that set us apart from “mere” animals and plants. More specifically, the argument was that reason, language, and art had liberated the human from the contingencies of nature and had gradually given rise to a uniquely human world, a world of “culture” that is irreducible to the laws of nature and that therefore requires its own set of sciences (the term “culture” was first used to mark a distinctive human world in the late 1770s). Arguably, the findings of microbiome research profoundly trouble the comprehension of the human that has sustained the traditional distinction between the natural sciences (concerned with the nonhuman) and the arts (concerned with the human as more than mere nature). Provocatively put, if humans depend on microorganisms, then what is at stake in the study of microbes qua microbes is not only an understanding of microorganisms but also the human. This doesn’t mean that the field of the arts can now be conveniently ploughed in terms of the natural sciences. On the contrary, it means that the stakes of the natural sciences exceed the expertise of the natural sciences and reach over into the arts. This makes a close collaboration of the life sciences with the human sciences imperative.
As we see it, it is important but not enough to argue that we have never been individuals –– or to suggest that human and microbial worlds are inseparably entangled. What is needed, in addition, is a whole new configuration of research, one where arts and science are combined. The challenge is 2-fold. Researchers in the life sciences have to learn that the stakes of their research are bigger than their expertise, and researchers in the arts have to learn to think the human––philosophy, politics, and poetry––beyond the now untenable idea that humans are more than mere nature. The challenge is big, the opportunity even bigger: it is time, and perhaps past time, to rethink collaboratively––beyond arts and science divisions––what it means to be a living human being at home in a microbial world, one on which we depend and with which we are inseparably interwoven. Microbiome science has the exciting––the important––potential to catalyze the breakdown of the anachronistic barriers between the natural and the human sciences and enable a truly integrated understanding of what it means to be human, after the illusion of the bounded, individual self. The human is more than the human.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

When our eyes move, our eardrums move.

Interesting stuff from Gruters et al.:

The peripheral hearing system contains several motor mechanisms that allow the brain to modify the auditory transduction process. Movements or tensioning of either the middle ear muscles or the outer hair cells modifies eardrum motion, producing sounds that can be detected by a microphone placed in the ear canal (e.g., as otoacoustic emissions). Here, we report a form of eardrum motion produced by the brain via these systems: oscillations synchronized with and covarying with the direction and amplitude of saccades. These observations suggest that a vision-related process modulates the first stage of hearing. In particular, these eye movement-related eardrum oscillations may help the brain connect sights and sounds despite changes in the spatial relationship between the eyes and the ears.
Interactions between sensory pathways such as the visual and auditory systems are known to occur in the brain, but where they first occur is uncertain. Here, we show a multimodal interaction evident at the eardrum. Ear canal microphone measurements in humans (n = 19 ears in 16 subjects) and monkeys (n = 5 ears in three subjects) performing a saccadic eye movement task to visual targets indicated that the eardrum moves in conjunction with the eye movement. The eardrum motion was oscillatory and began as early as 10 ms before saccade onset in humans or with saccade onset in monkeys. These eardrum movements, which we dub eye movement-related eardrum oscillations (EMREOs), occurred in the absence of a sound stimulus. The amplitude and phase of the EMREOs depended on the direction and horizontal amplitude of the saccade. They lasted throughout the saccade and well into subsequent periods of steady fixation. We discuss the possibility that the mechanisms underlying EMREOs create eye movement-related binaural cues that may aid the brain in evaluating the relationship between visual and auditory stimulus locations as the eyes move.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Human cooperation in dynamic networks.

Melamed et al. show that the emergence of cooperative networks of humans does not require knowledge of the reputations of participants, only the severing of ties to non-cooperators.

Understanding the patterns and processes of human cooperation is of central scientific importance. Networks can promote cooperation when their existing or emergent topology allows conditional cooperators in the network to isolate themselves from exploitation by noncooperators. We do not know from prior work whether the emergent structures that promote cooperation are driven by reputation or can emerge purely via dynamics, i.e., the severing of ties to noncooperators and the formation of new ties irrespective of reputational information. Here we demonstrate, experimentally, that dynamic networks yield very high rates of cooperation even without reputational knowledge. Further, we identify realistic conditions under which static networks (where ties cannot be altered) yield cooperation rates as high as those in dynamic networks.
Humans’ propensity to cooperate is driven by our embeddedness in social networks. A key mechanism through which networks promote cooperation is clustering. Within clusters, conditional cooperators are insulated from exploitation by noncooperators, allowing them to reap the benefits of cooperation. Dynamic networks, where ties can be shed and new ties formed, allow for the endogenous emergence of clusters of cooperators. Although past work suggests that either reputation processes or network dynamics can increase clustering and cooperation, existing work on network dynamics conflates reputations and dynamics. Here we report results from a large-scale experiment (total n = 2,675) that embedded participants in clustered or random networks that were static or dynamic, with varying levels of reputational information. Results show that initial network clustering predicts cooperation in static networks, but not in dynamic ones. Further, our experiment shows that while reputations are important for partner choice, cooperation levels are driven purely by dynamics. Supplemental conditions confirmed this lack of a reputation effect. Importantly, we find that when participants make individual choices to cooperate or defect with each partner, as opposed to a single decision that applies to all partners (as is standard in the literature on cooperation in networks), cooperation rates in static networks are as high as cooperation rates in dynamic networks. This finding highlights the importance of structured relations for sustained cooperation, and shows how giving experimental participants more realistic choices has important consequences for whether dynamic networks promote higher levels of cooperation than static networks.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Welcome to the post text future (of the new authoritarian state?)

White males (and the republican party) seem to perceive that the most effective way to maintain their current prominence as they continue to become a minority of the population is to enable movement towards an authoritarian state by suppressing minority voting and delegitimizing the institutions protecting democracy. Today’s Hungary provides an example of a single party ‘democracy’ led by a powerful leader. A fascinating sequence of articles in the New York Times describes additional powerful tools that have been moving public discourse from a rational textual context towards emotional visual video communication employing simple powerful memes. So far, the right has been more effective at exploiting such memes than the left. From Farhad Manjoo's article:
...An online culture ruled by pictures and sounds rather than text is going to alter much about how we understand the world around us.
The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia — think of your phone as a Hollywood-grade visual-effects studio that could be used to make anyone appear to say or do anything. The ability to search audio and video as easily as we search text means, effectively, the end of any private space.
Then there’s the more basic question of how pictures and sounds alter how we think. An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. (Remind you of anyone?) And will someone please think of the children: Do you know how much power YouTube has over your kids? Are you afraid to find out?
But what are we going to do? There seems no going back now. For text, the writing is on the wall.
Bowles describes the mainstreaming of political memes online:
Groups like the conservative Look Ahead America and the liberal Center for Story-Based Strategy emerged to nurture memers, and big political donors like George Soros and the Mercer family funded meme efforts.
“It’s almost like a new means of communication — the image and emotion and creation,” said Matt Braynard, 39, the former director of data for Mr. Trump’s campaign, who is now the executive director of Look Ahead America. “I don’t want to call it literature, but it has an art.”
Organizers on both the left and right said the left has so far been slower to adapt to meme politics. To catch up, Sean Eldridge, husband of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is working on creating shareable content with Stand Up America, a progressive nonprofit that opposes President Trump. And the activist John Sellers’s The Other 98% has received funding from Open Society Foundations, a group backed by Mr. Soros.
Andrew Boyd, who designs campaigns for social change, was one of the first to document political memes, writing a seminal essay, “Truth is a Virus,” in 2002. He argued that the most important recent political meme has not come from either party’s campaign or donors but from the #MeToo movement around sexual harassment.
“It has a crystal quality to it, a simplicity, and elegance, something that feels right and organized,” said Mr. Boyd, 55. “Me too. Me too. That happened to me too. The best memes are very populist, and yet they have a precision.”
I won't pass on any further chunks, but strongly urge MindBlog readers to check out the sequence of articles in the NY Times special segment.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Ancient origins of walking on land - the walking skate.

From Jung et al., in the Feb. 8 issue of Cell, report finding that the circuits underlying vertebrate ambulation on dry land appear in a skate many millions of years before fish crawled out of the prehistoric ocean.

•The little skate Leucoraja erinacea exhibits bipedal walking-like behaviors 
•Neuronal subtypes essential for walking originated in primitive jawed fish 
•Fin and limb motor neurons share a common Hox-dependent gene network 
•Modulation of Hox patterning facilitates evolutionary changes in MN organization
Walking is the predominant locomotor behavior expressed by land-dwelling vertebrates, but it is unknown when the neural circuits that are essential for limb control first appeared. Certain fish species display walking-like behaviors, raising the possibility that the underlying circuitry originated in primitive marine vertebrates. We show that the neural substrates of bipedalism are present in the little skate Leucoraja erinacea, whose common ancestor with tetrapods existed ∼420 million years ago. Leucoraja exhibits core features of tetrapod locomotor gaits, including left-right alternation and reciprocal extension-flexion of the pelvic fins. Leucoraja also deploys a remarkably conserved Hox transcription factor-dependent program that is essential for selective innervation of fin/limb muscle. This network encodes peripheral connectivity modules that are distinct from those used in axial muscle-based swimming and has apparently been diminished in most modern fish. These findings indicate that the circuits that are essential for walking evolved through adaptation of a genetic regulatory network shared by all vertebrates with paired appendages.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Computers no better than humans at predicting who should go to jail.

I want to point to two pieces that offer a commentary on our trust in using algorithms to predict human behavior rather than old fashioned human judgement. In the U.S., computers help decide who goes to jail, on the basis of predicting recidivism. Matacic discusses studies showing their judgment may be no better than ours. She points, for example, to work of Dressel and Farid. Their abstract:
Algorithms for predicting recidivism are commonly used to assess a criminal defendant’s likelihood of committing a crime. These predictions are used in pretrial, parole, and sentencing decisions. Proponents of these systems argue that big data and advanced machine learning make these analyses more accurate and less biased than humans. We show, however, that the widely used commercial risk assessment software COMPAS is no more accurate or fair than predictions made by people with little or no criminal justice expertise. We further show that a simple linear predictor provided with only two features is nearly equivalent to COMPAS with its 137 features.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Afraid of A.I.? Be very afraid of quantum computing....

Several recent articles point to a quiet revolution that is receiving relatively little notice - the development of quantum computers that may operate 100,000 times faster than today's binary computers that store information as 0's and 1's, by using quantum entanglement and superposition to process information. A description from Wadhwa's article:
Unlike classic computers, in which information is represented in 0’s and 1’s, quantum computers rely on particles called quantum bits, or qubits. These can hold a value of 0 or 1 or both values at the same time — a superposition denoted as “0+1.” They solve problems by laying out all of the possibilities simultaneously and measuring the results. It’s equivalent to opening a combination lock by trying every possible number and sequence simultaneously.
Friedman quotes IBM researcher Talia Gershon, who
...posted a fun video explaining the power of quantum computers to optimize and model problems with an exponential number of variables. She displayed a picture of a table at her wedding set for 10 guests, and posed this question: How many different ways can you seat 10 people? It turns out, she explained, there are “3.6 million ways to arrange 10 people for dinner.”
Classical computers don’t solve “big versions of this problem very well at all,” she said, like trying to crack sophisticated encrypted codes, where you need to try a massive number of variables, or modeling molecules where you need to account for an exponential number of interactions. Quantum computers, with their exponential processing power, will be able to crack most encryption without breaking a sweat.
From Wadhwa:
IBM is already offering early versions of quantum computing as a cloud service to select clients. There is a global race between technology companies, defense contractors, universities and governments to build advanced versions that hold the promise of solving some of the greatest mysteries of the universe — and enable the cracking open of practically every secured database in the world.
Artificial intelligence applications based on conventional computing and already in the pipeline are going to bring about a world-wide decimation of jobs in the next 10-20 years. What will the effect of exponentially more powerful computers be? IBM recently upgraded its publicly available processor to 20 qubits and has the operational prototype of a 50-qubit processor. A 50-qubit computer would exceed the capability of the top supercomputers in the world, and a 100-qubit computer is a possibility.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Valentine's Day musical offering - Respighi's Intermezzo Serenata

A piano transcription by Respighi of the Intermezzo Serenata from his comic opera Re Enzo.  Making a recording of a piano piece I like motivates me to learn it a bit more thoroughly and is necessary if I plan to play it for one of our house social/musical occasions.  I never manage a playing without some minor error,  so from the four takes I did yesterday I pass on with one with the smallest number of glitches. Readers who are Apple groupies might note the Apple watch camera app displaying the scene being recorded by the iPhone X camera and the shutter button on the watch starting and stopping the recording.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mind treats on the web.

This MindBlog is a miniscule drop in a large internet pond of excellent and interesting sites describing new mind research and ideas. I am aware of only a fraction what is out there. This brief post is to pass on a few random mentions. A recent email asks me to pitch a new drop in the pond,, that describes itself as an online magazine covering experiments we’re doing on ourselves, tracking ideas and technologies that enable us to analyze, enhance, and edit ourselves (see, for example “When algorithms are running the asylum").” offers a daily email with occasional articles that I find so interesting that I have sent them a modest contribution. is a very rich site whose annual question has provoked many thoughtful essays, although I think this year’s annual question (‘What is the last question?’) is a loser. And, of course there are the well known TED talks. When I find a talk on mind matters that I think might be interesting I go straight to the text transcript, not being patient enough to watch the video.

My apologies to many other sites I am not mentioning.

Monday, February 12, 2018

“The rich are different from you and me..” - the psychology of inequality

In the mythical exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Hemingway responds “Yes, they have more money.” Who are ‘they’? … presumably those who can be unconcerned about the stock market ‘correction’ over the past week. (Cohen brings some perspective the market drop by noting that 84% of all stocks owned by Americans - including all retirement and savings assets - belong to the wealthiest 10 percent of households, for whom a market drop of 10% would bring only a 1-2% change in their wealth holdings.)

In this vein, I would like to point to Elizabeth Kolbert's fascinating essay on the differences between being on the lower rather than the upper part of the economic ladder. She cites psychological studies showing that much of the damage done by being poor comes from feeling poor (as, for example when people find they are making less than their peers), not from actual material deprivations. "In a world where people measure themselves against their neighbors, it possible to earn good money and still feel deprived...thanks to the growing gap between the one percent and everyone else, the subjective effect is of widespread impoverishment...inequality mimics poverty in our minds.

Studies show that feeling disadvantaged leads people to do more risk taking, amplify perception of racial differences, be more susceptible to conspiracy theories, and be more likely to have medical problems.

If feeling poor goes with feeling bad about it, it would seem reasonable to suppose that rich people feel good about being rich. Work by Rachel Sherman shows that this is not the case. The few rich people who were willing to be interviewed by her didn't want their wealth to be known and preferred not to think of themselves as privileged, citing friends who even more wealthy. "If affluence is in the eye of the beholder, then even the super-rich, when they compare their situation with that of the ultra-rich, can feel sorry for themselves." Also, they also feel moral conflicts about having privilege in general.
Preschoolers, brown capuchin monkeys, California state workers, college students recruited for psychological experiments—everyone, it seems, resents inequity. This is true even though what counts as being disadvantaged varies from place to place and from year to year...Thomas Jefferson, living at Monticello without hot water or overhead lighting, would, by the standards of contemporary America, be considered “poorer than the poor.” No doubt inequity, which, by many accounts, is a precondition for civilization, has been a driving force behind the kinds of innovations that have made indoor plumbing and electricity, not to mention refrigeration, central heating, and Wi-Fi, come, in the intervening centuries, to seem necessities in the U.S.
Still, there are choices to be made. The tax bill recently approved by Congress directs, in ways both big and small, even more gains to the country’s plutocrats. Supporters insist that the measure will generate so much prosperity that the poor and the middle class will also end up benefitting. But even if this proves true—and all evidence suggests that it will not—the measure doesn’t address the real problem. It’s not greater wealth but greater equity that will make us all feel richer. 

Friday, February 09, 2018

Our body tissues crosstalk during exercise.

Gretchen Reynolds points to fascinating work showing that exercise causes cells to release tiny lipid coated hollow spheres (vesicles) containing protein molecules that carry signals between muscle cells, fat cells, and the liver cells that generate energy during exercise - regulating coordination between organs during exercise. 

•Exosomes and small vesicles are released into circulation with exercise 
•Proteins without a signal peptide sequence circulate in vesicles during exercise 
•Exercise-liberated vesicles have a propensity to localize in the liver 
•Femoral arteriovenous difference analysis identifies 35 novel candidate myokines
Exercise stimulates the release of molecules into the circulation, supporting the concept that inter-tissue signaling proteins are important mediators of adaptations to exercise. Recognizing that many circulating proteins are packaged in extracellular vesicles (EVs), we employed quantitative proteomic techniques to characterize the exercise-induced secretion of EV-contained proteins. Following a 1-hr bout of cycling exercise in healthy humans, we observed an increase in the circulation of over 300 proteins, with a notable enrichment of several classes of proteins that compose exosomes and small vesicles. Pulse-chase and intravital imaging experiments suggested EVs liberated by exercise have a propensity to localize in the liver and can transfer their protein cargo. Moreover, by employing arteriovenous balance studies across the contracting human limb, we identified several novel candidate myokines, released into circulation independently of classical secretion. These data identify a new paradigm by which tissue crosstalk during exercise can exert systemic biological effects.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

A Thursday musical offering... Charles Meyer - Valse Melancolique

Under the 'random curious stuff' in MindBlog's subtitle, above, I've decided to resume recording some of the pieces that I enjoy playing, using only my iPhone X with a small condenser microphone plugged in to its USB port.  This lyrical piece is frequently incorrectly attributed to Chopin.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Brain correlates of our ability to think creatively

I am passing on the significance statements (the links take you to the whole abstracts) from two fascinating pieces on the brain correlates of our ability to think creatively. First, from Beaty et al.:
People’s capacity to generate creative ideas is central to technological and cultural progress. Despite advances in the neuroscience of creativity, the field lacks clarity on whether a specific neural architecture distinguishes the highly creative brain. Using methods in network neuroscience, we modeled individual creative thinking ability as a function of variation in whole-brain functional connectivity. We identified a brain network associated with creative ability comprised of regions within default, salience, and executive systems—neural circuits that often work in opposition. Across four independent datasets, we show that a person’s capacity to generate original ideas can be reliably predicted from the strength of functional connectivity within this network, indicating that creative thinking ability is characterized by a distinct brain connectivity profile.
Then, from Kenett et al.:
Creative thinking requires flexibility, which facilitates the creation of novel and innovative ideas. However, so far its role in creativity has been measured via indirect measures. We propose a quantitative measure of flexibility based on the robustness of semantic memory networks to attack, assuming that the higher robustness, the higher the flexibility of the network. We show how the semantic network of high creative individuals is more robust to attack, thus more flexible. This is a direct computational investigation on flexibility of semantic memory and creativity. Our approach can be applied to more general questions such as high-level cognitive capacities and clinical populations suffering from atypical thought processes.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

MindBlog's 12th anniversary. Blogs as relics or rebirths?

Today marks the 12th anniversary of MindBlog's start.  In yesterday's MindBlog post I passed on Andrew Sullivan's comments on the demise of blogs, noting several, such as the Awl, Hairpin, and Gawker, which have appeared and disappeared since the Feb. 2006 beginning of MindBlog.  They were not economically viable...editors have to eat.  (I haven’t had that problem, living on a retired professor's annuity, and so being able to decline weekly offers to help me better 'monetize' this site.) Here is a clip from the Polentino article mentioned by Sullivan:
Blogging, that much-maligned pastime, is gradually but surely disappearing from the Internet, and so, consequently, is a lot of online freedom and fun.
Blogs are necessarily idiosyncratic, entirely about sensibility: they can only be run by workhorses who are creative enough to amuse themselves and distinct enough to hook an audience, and they tend to publish like-minded writers, who work more on the principle of personal obsession than pay. The result is editorial latitude to be obscure and silly and particular, but the finances are increasingly hard to sustain; media consumption is controlled these days by centralized tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter—whose algorithms favor what is viral, newsy, reactionary, easily decontextualized, and of general appeal. 
I'm a bit incredulous that MindBlog has persisted for 12 years... When I click on "Stats" in the Google Blogger platform that hosts this blog, I see (as I'm writing this post on 1/30/18) :
Pageviews today 4,052 
Pageviews yesterday 1,163 
Pageviews last month 32,880 
Pageviews all time history 4,513,922
Deric's MindBlog is a quirky and idiosyncratic effort, reflecting my particular interests. It passes on selected material that I would be reading about in any case. It makes it easier for me to recall and look up stuff that I have read and found interesting. A reliable readership has evolved that seems to share these interests. Occasional positive comments from readers have reinforced my motivation to continue slugging away, rescuing me from even thinking about starting to watch daytime television! 

Monday, February 05, 2018

The blogging golden age

I want to pass on this piece of writing from a series of commentaries posted by Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine. He suggests that the decline of blogging - as social media like facebook and twitter moved in to draw more clicks and revenue - might be reversing, as "writers and editors are discovering that their actual economic value lies not in countless page views, but in a relationship between readers and writers."
Is social media on the decline? Here’s hoping. A lovely piece in The New Yorker last week by Jia Tolentino lamented the loss of blogging, idiosyncrasy, quirkiness, and intelligence from the web. This set of reflections on the Awl compiled by Max Read in these pages also conveys the essence of the Internet That Nearly Was. Tom Scocca gets the essence of this old era: “What the Awl represented to me was the chance to write exactly what I meant to write, for an audience I trusted to read it.”
I feel entirely the same way about the blogging golden age. What was precious about it was its simple integrity: A writer gets to explore her craft and develop her own audience. We weren’t in it for the money or the clicks or the followers. We were in it for the core experience shared between a writer and a reader — and the enormous freedom that removing the editorial gatekeepers unlocked. It was a brief period, but an alive one, and it was largely lost — or abandoned — because of a major failure of nerve on the part of most print media. (Harper’s was and is a notable exception.) I was there, for example, at The Atlantic, when it felt it had no choice but to abandon its small group of bloggers and their devoted audiences in favor of a business strategy to maximize page views through social media. I witnessed a great American literary institution a century-and-a-half old feel it necessary to suck up to Facebook and Twitter. I saw when the goal across the media shifted from simply writing what you believed, however idiosyncratically, to writing more and more and more, so that the sheer volume of traffic might save the economics of web journalism. The fire-hydrant stream of “content” (“writing” was so passé) was so overwhelming that no single editor could manage it, no group of writers could give it character, and no single reader could even begin to read it all. Maybe the web made this inevitable. But it didn’t make the dissipation of so much heritage any less agonizing to watch.
And after a few years of “social” obsession, online media began to seem all the same: a heaving, pulsating, twitching ocean of hot takes and insta-news in which tribal identity always took precedence over style or elegance or quirkiness or diversity of view. And it didn’t really work as a business model anyway. Instead of consolidating their own readerships and loyalty, magazines became dependent on Zuckerberg and Twitter, vulnerable to shifts in the Facebook News Feed, which is now moving away from news. Increasingly and mercifully, writers and editors are discovering that their actual economic value lies not in countless page views, but in a relationship between readers and writers. Subscriptions increasingly matter more than page views with their diminishing ad revenues, which is why the subscriber buoyancy of the Washington Post and the New York Times is so encouraging. I’m proud that my own blog, the Dish, never bent the knee to social media, and was eventually proof that the best business model was always reader loyalty and engagement — quality, not quantity. Which is why we were able to develop an online subscription model of 30,000 paid and passionate online subscribers — still more than any other purely online website has acquired two years later.
But there’s hope on the horizon again. The sewer of most of Twitter is now so rank that even addicts have begun to realize that they are sinking in oceans of shitholery. Facebook is long overdue for a collapse, and the old institutions are showing signs of developing more character and coherence. Nick Bilton at Vanity Fair cannot wait for FaceTwitterGramChat to peak:
A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.
The evidence that social media has turned journalism into junk, has promoted addictive addlement in our brains, is wrecking our democracy, and slowly replacing life with pseudo-life is beginning to become unavoidable. And the possibility that the media may recover from its loss of nerve is real.
Readers will reward quality. The editors of our day, if we’re lucky, will begin to realize that this is the economic future of journalism, and bank on it again. This tide will turn. Drop your Twitter; abandon Facebook; and buy a subscription to a magazine that is trying to save its own soul.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Mental autonomy - developing a ‘culture of consciousness’.

One of MindBlog's threads has been presentation and discussion of work on the default mode network of our brains that mediates our mind wandering. One of my heroes, Thomas Metzinger, has done a nice essay on the larger implications of what we have learned. I strongly recommend that you read the whole piece, but will also pass on a rather extensive series of clips that convey the main points:
When traveling long distances, jumping saves dolphins energy, because there’s less friction in the air than in the water below. It also seems to be an efficient way to move rapidly and breathe at the same time…These cetacean acrobatics are a fruitful metaphor for what happens when we think. What most of us still call ‘our conscious thoughts’ are really like dolphins in our mind, jumping briefly out of the ocean of our unconscious for a short period before they submerge themselves once again. This ‘dolphin model of cognition’ helps us to understand the limits of our awareness.
One of the most exciting recent research fields in neuroscience and experimental psychology is mind-wandering – the study of spontaneous or task-unrelated thoughts….Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime. ..As far as our inner life is concerned, the science of mind-wandering implies that we’re only rarely autonomous persons. 
As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination. Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree. 
We ought to probe how our organism turns different sub-personal events into thoughts or states that appear to belong to ‘us’ as a whole, and how we can learn to control them more effectively and efficiently. This capacity creates what I call mental autonomy, and I believe it is the neglected ethical responsibility of government and society to help citizens cultivate it.
The mind wanders more frequently than most of us think – several hundred times a day and up to 50 per cent of our waking life, in fact…The wandering mind is like a monkey, swinging from branch to branch across an inner emotional landscape. It will flee from unpleasant perceptions and feelings, and try to reach a state that feels better. If the present moment is unattractive or boring, then of course it’s more pleasant to be planning the next holiday or drifting away into a romantic fantasy.
A multitude of empirical studies show that areas of our brain responsible for the wandering mind overlap to a large extent with the so-called default-mode network (DMN). This is a large network in our brain that typically becomes active during periods of rest, when attention is directed to the inside.
My view is that the mind-wandering network and the DMN basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time. Like nocturnal dreaming, mind-wandering also appears to be a process by which our brain and body consolidate our long-term memory and stabilise specific parts of what I call the ‘self-model’. 
At its most basic, this self-model is based on an internal model of the body, including affective and emotional states, and grounded in inner-body perceptions such as gut feelings, heartbeat, breath, hunger or thirst. On another, higher layer, the self-model reflects a person’s relationships to other people, ethical and cultural norms, and sense of self-worth. But in order to create a robust connection between the social and biological levels, the self-model fosters the illusion of transtemporal identity – the belief that we are a whole and persisting entity based on the narrative our brain tells itself about ‘our’ past, present and future. (I think that it was exactly the impression of transtemporal identity that turned into one of the central factors in the emergence of large human societies, which rely on the understanding that it is I who will be punished or rewarded in the future. Only as long as we believe in our own continuing identity does it make sense for us to treat our fellow human beings fairly, for the consequences of our actions will, in the end, always concern us.)
But don’t lose sight of the fact that all this modelling is just a convenient trick our organism plays on itself to enhance its chances of survival. We must not forget that the phenomenal realm (how we subjectively experience ourselves) is only a small part of the neurobiological one (the reality of the creatures we actually are). There’s no little person in our head, only a set of dynamical, self-organising processes at play behind the scenes. Yet it seems like these processes often function by creating self-fulfilling prophecies; in other words, we have an identity because we convince ourselves we have one. Humans have evolved to be a bit like method actors, who need to really imagine and believe they are a particular character in order to perform effectively on stage. But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either. 
…one of the main functions of the self-model is how it lets our biological organism predict, and thereby control, the sensory consequences of our actions. That produces what’s called our sense of agency. ..when I close my fingers around the stem of a wineglass or feel the rough surface of a tennis ball in my hand, I infer that I must be an agent who is capable of originating, controlling and owning all these events.
..just like a method actor can’t focus on the fact that she’s acting, our biological organism is usually unable to experience our self-model as a model. Instead, we tend to identify with its content, just as the actor identifies with the character. The more we achieve a high degree of predictability over our behaviour, the more tempting it is to say: this is me, and I did this. We tell ourselves a brilliant and parsimonious causal story, even if it’s false from the third-person perspective of science. Empirically speaking, the self-as-agent is just a useful fiction or hypothesis, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.
On the level of the brain, this process is a truly amazing affair, and a major achievement of evolution. But if we look at the resulting conscious experience from the outside, and on the level of the whole person, the brain’s mini-narrative also appears as a misrepresentation, slightly complacent, a bit grandiose, and ultimately delusional. Agency on the level of thought is really a ‘surface’ phenomenon, produced by the fact that the underwater, unconscious causal precursors are simply unknown to us. Even if we sometimes reach what resembles the rationalist ideal, we probably do so only sporadically, and the notion of controlled, effortful thinking is probably a very bad model of conscious thought in general. Our conscious mental activity is usually an unbidden, unintentional form of behaviour. Yet somehow the tourist on the prow begins to experience herself as an omnipotent magician, making dolphins come into existence out of the blue, and jump at her command.
The self might not be a Cartesian agent that causes thought or action, but perhaps there are other ways for the organism as a whole to shape what happens in its mental life. We can’t get off the ship, let alone summon dolphins from nowhere, but perhaps we can choose where to look. 
We’re familiar with the idea of autonomy over our actions in the outer realm, such as when we control our bodily movements…however, there are not only bodily actions, but also mental ones… actively re-directing attention to your breath in meditation, deliberately paying attention to a person’s face in front of you, trying to retrieve visual images from your memory, logical thinking, or engaging in mental calculation. Note that deliberately not acting is as important here as acting. The defining feature of autonomy in both the inner and outer realms is veto control, the power to inhibit, suspend or terminate ongoing actions.  A specific layer of the self-model is of central importance here. I call it the ‘epistemic agent model’ – the bit that allows us to have the feeling ‘I am a knowing self; I know that I know.’ This is the true origin of our first-person perspective. It’s created by predictions about what the organism can and will know in the future, and helps us to continuously improve our model of reality.
Now we can see mind-wandering for what it really is: a transient loss of mental autonomy, via the loss of the epistemic-agent model. A daydream just happens to you – there is ownership, but no control over the event. It is not something you do, but something in which you ‘lose yourself’. You have forgotten a specific kind of self-knowledge, the ability to terminate a train of thought and to choose what it is you want to know. You might daydream about being a knowing self, but right now you have lost all awareness of your own power to put an end to the process.
Meditation research is poised to make major contributions to mental autonomy. Mindfulness practice can sometimes lead to a crystal-clear and silent mind that is not clouded by thoughts at all, the pure conscious experience of mental autonomy as such that arises without actually exerting control. In long-term practitioners, this can result from the cultivation of a kind of inner non-acting that includes noticing, gently letting go, and resting in an open, effortless state of choiceless awareness. However, in the beginning, meditation clearly involves making decisions, as subjects develop meta-awareness, alongside an awareness of their capacity for attentional control. This can be seen as a systematic form of ‘experience sampling’.
Whether this sort of cognition really requires a robust notion of selfhood, as most Western philosophers would argue, would be disputed in many Eastern traditions. Here the highest level of mental autonomy is often seen as a form of impersonal witnessing or (in the words of the Indian-born philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) ‘observing without an observer’ (though even this pure form of global meta-awareness still contains the implicit knowledge that the organism could act if necessary). There seems to be a middle way: perhaps mental autonomy can actually be experienced as such, in a non-agentive way, as a mere capacity. The notion of ‘mental autonomy’ could therefore be a deep point of contact where Eastern and Western philosophy discover common conceptual ground.
It’s important to remember that neuroscience isn’t the only piece of the puzzle. Culture plays its part, too…Accountability and ethical responsibility might actually be implemented in the human brain from above, via early social interactions between children and adults. If we tell children at an early age that they are fully responsible for their own actions, and if we accordingly punish and reward them, then this assumption will get built into their conscious self-model...The human adult’s conscious model of the ‘self’ might therefore be an enculturated post-hoc confabulation, at least in part – a causal-inference illusion that’s become part of how we model our own sociocultural niche, ultimately based on how we’ve internalised social interactions and ingrained language games.
…the mind-wandering network does not, I believe, actually produce thoughts. It also is not conscious – the person as a whole is. Rather, it creates what I would describe as cognitive affordances, opportunities for inner action. In the theory of psychology developed by J J Gibson, what we perceive in our environment aren’t simply objects, but possible actions: this is something I could sit on, this is something I could put into my mouth, and so on. Cognitive affordances are possible mental actions, and they are not perceived with our sensory organs but they are available for introspection.
Cognitive affordances are actually precursors of thoughts, or proto-thoughts, that call out ‘Think me!’ or ‘Don’t miss me – I am the last of my kind!’ Our inner landscape is full of these possibilities, which we must constantly navigate. What mind-wandering does is create a fluid and highly dynamic task-domain. 
One central function of mind-wandering, then, could be to provide us with an internal environment of competing affordances, accompanied by possible mental actions, which have the potential to become an extended process of controlling the content of your own mind. This inner landscape could even be below our conscious awareness, but it is out of this that the epistemic-agent model emerges, like any other conscious experience, seemingly selecting what she wants to know and what she wants to ignore…true autonomy is about different levels of context-sensitivity and supple self-control.  
What is clear by now is that our societies lack systematic and institutionalised ways of enhancing citizens’ mental autonomy. This is a neglected duty of care on the part of governments. There can be no politically mature citizens without a sufficient degree of mental autonomy, but society as a whole does not act to protect or increase it. Yet, it might be the most precious resource of all. In the end, and in the face of serious existential risks posed by environmental degradation and advanced capitalism, we must understand that citizens’ collective level of mental autonomy will be the decisive factor.
It was William James, the father of American psychology, who said in 1892: ‘And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] And education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ We can finally see more clearly what meditation is really about: over the centuries, the main goal has always been a sustained enhancement of one’s mental autonomy.
Mental autonomy brings together the core ideas of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It helps us see the value of both secularised spiritual practice and of rigorous, rational thought. There seem to be two complementary ways to understand the dolphins in our own mind: one, from the point of view of a truly hard-nosed, scientifically minded tourist on the prow of the boat; and two, from the perspective of the wide-open sky, silently looking down from above at the tourist and the dolphins porpoising in the ocean.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

How to goose your memory.

The abstract from Inman et al., "Direct electrical stimulation of the amygdala enhances declarative memory in humans." They show that stimulation of the amygdala that does not elicit an emotional response during a neutral event enhances memory of that event. :

Memories for emotional events tend to persist, raising a fundamental question about how the brain prioritizes significant memories. Past studies have pointed to a central role for the amygdala in mediating this endogenous memory enhancement. However, the premise that the amygdala can causally enhance declarative memory has not been directly tested in humans. Here we show that brief electrical stimulation to the human amygdala can enhance declarative memory for specific images of neutral objects without eliciting a subjective emotional response, likely by engaging other memory-related brain regions. The results show the human amygdala has a general capacity to initiate enhancement of specific declarative memories rather than a narrower role limited to indirectly mediating emotional effects on memory.
Emotional events are often remembered better than neutral events, a benefit that many studies have hypothesized to depend on the amygdala’s interactions with memory systems. These studies have indicated that the amygdala can modulate memory-consolidation processes in other brain regions such as the hippocampus and perirhinal cortex. Indeed, rodent studies have demonstrated that direct activation of the amygdala can enhance memory consolidation even during nonemotional events. However, the premise that the amygdala causally enhances declarative memory has not been directly tested in humans. Here we tested whether brief electrical stimulation to the amygdala could enhance declarative memory for specific images of neutral objects without eliciting a subjective emotional response. Fourteen epilepsy patients undergoing monitoring of seizures via intracranial depth electrodes viewed a series of neutral object images, half of which were immediately followed by brief, low-amplitude electrical stimulation to the amygdala. Amygdala stimulation elicited no subjective emotional response but led to reliably improved memory compared with control images when patients were given a recognition-memory test the next day. Neuronal oscillations in the amygdala, hippocampus, and perirhinal cortex during this next-day memory test indicated that a neural correlate of the memory enhancement was increased theta and gamma oscillatory interactions between these regions, consistent with the idea that the amygdala prioritizes consolidation by engaging other memory regions. These results show that the amygdala can initiate endogenous memory prioritization processes in the absence of emotional input, addressing a fundamental question and opening a path to future therapies.