Friday, October 18, 2019

The default mode network represents esthetic appeal.

Vessel et al. note another role for the default mode network of our brain:

Significance
Despite being highly subjective, aesthetic experiences are powerful moments of interaction with one’s surroundings, shaping behavior, mood, beliefs, and even a sense of self. The default-mode network (DMN), which sits atop the cortical hierarchy and has been implicated in self-referential processing, is typically suppressed when a person engages with the external environment. Yet not only is the DMN surprisingly engaged when one finds a visual artwork aesthetically moving, here we present evidence that the DMN also represents aesthetic appeal in a manner that generalizes across visual aesthetic domains, such as artworks, landscapes, or architecture. This stands in contrast to ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT), which represents the content of what we see, but does not contain domain-general information about aesthetic appeal.
Abstract
Visual aesthetic evaluations, which impact decision-making and well-being, recruit the ventral visual pathway, subcortical reward circuitry, and parts of the medial prefrontal cortex overlapping with the default-mode network (DMN). However, it is unknown whether these networks represent aesthetic appeal in a domain-general fashion, independent of domain-specific representations of stimulus content (artworks versus architecture or natural landscapes). Using a classification approach, we tested whether the DMN or ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT) contains a domain-general representation of aesthetic appeal. Classifiers were trained on multivoxel functional MRI response patterns collected while observers made aesthetic judgments about images from one aesthetic domain. Classifier performance (high vs. low aesthetic appeal) was then tested on response patterns from held-out trials from the same domain to derive a measure of domain-specific coding, or from a different domain to derive a measure of domain-general coding. Activity patterns in category-selective VOT contained a degree of domain-specific information about aesthetic appeal, but did not generalize across domains. Activity patterns from the DMN, however, were predictive of aesthetic appeal across domains. Importantly, the ability to predict aesthetic appeal varied systematically; predictions were better for observers who gave more extreme ratings to images subsequently labeled as “high” or “low.” These findings support a model of aesthetic appreciation whereby domain-specific representations of the content of visual experiences in VOT feed in to a “core” domain-general representation of visual aesthetic appeal in the DMN. Whole-brain “searchlight” analyses identified additional prefrontal regions containing information relevant for appreciation of cultural artifacts (artwork and architecture) but not landscapes.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Cross-national negativity bias in reacting to news

There seems to be a world-wide anxiety industry of media that find maximum profits in presenting mostly negative news - in a way similar to the drug companies that have reaped great profits from flooding distressed population areas with opioids. An interesting study in this area comes from Soroka et al., who provide more information on our human tendency to react more strongly to negative than positive information. (See also my post on Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" book that engages this topic):
What accounts for the prevalence of negative news content? One answer may lie in the tendency for humans to react more strongly to negative than positive information. “Negativity biases” in human cognition and behavior are well documented, but existing research is based on small Anglo-American samples and stimuli that are only tangentially related to our political world. This work accordingly reports results from a 17-country, 6-continent experimental study examining psychophysiological reactions to real video news content. Results offer the most comprehensive cross-national demonstration of negativity biases to date, but they also serve to highlight considerable individual-level variation in responsiveness to news content. Insofar as our results make clear the pervasiveness of negativity biases on average, they help account for the tendency for audience-seeking news around the world to be predominantly negative. Insofar as our results highlight individual-level variation, however, they highlight the potential for more positive content, and suggest that there may be reason to reconsider the conventional journalistic wisdom that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Monday, October 14, 2019

An update on the science of ‘free will’

I want to point to an excellent article by Gholilpour in the Atlantic Magazine that describes a reinterpretation of experiments by Libet taken to suggest that our brains 'decide' to initiate a movement before our subjective awareness of intending to initiate that movement. A 'readiness potential' is observed about 500 msec before an action occurs, while a subject reports initiating that action about 150 msec before it occurs. Gholilpour points to work of Schurger and colleagues that suggests that the readiness potential is not the mark of a brain's brewing intention, but something much more circumstantial.
...Schurger and his colleagues ... proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.
Libet’s experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.
This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The readiness potential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.
The name Schurger rang a bell with me, and so I did a MindBlog search, only to discover that I had reported Schurger's work in a 2016 post "A 50 year misunderstanding of how we decide to initiate action - our intuition is valid". I then proceeded to completely forget about it when I was preparing a subsequent 2019 lecture mentioning Libet's work. The conventional dogma that we are 'late to action' was apparently burned into my brain - most embarrassing. (I've now inserted the new perspective into four of my web lectures, dating as far back as 2012). The real clincher is...
In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.
In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.
Gholilpour points out that this does not resolve the question of free will, it only deepens the question, which is the subject of an intensive collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers, backed by $7 million from two private foundations, the John Templeton Foundation and the Fetzer Institute.

Friday, October 11, 2019

More critique of work linking loving kindness meditation and cellular again

In my Sept. 23 post, "Loving kindness meditation slows cellular aging?", I gave a few of the reasons that the article triggered my bullshit detector. A email from Harris Friedman, Univ. of Florida, has pointed me to their more extended critique in a letter to the editor of Psychoneuroendocrinology, which I pass on in a slightly truncated version:
Extraordinary claims require compelling evidence: Concerns about “loving-kindness meditation slows biological aging in novices”
The recent paper by Le Nguyen et al. (2019) makes the extra- ordinary claim that loving-kindness meditation (LKM) slows biological aging. Unfortunately, its headline-grabbing title lacks compelling evidence. This paper shows telomere length (TL) decreased considerably in a control group over a very short time period, as compared to a LKM group, while a mindfulness meditation (MM) group was somewhere in between. From this difference, the paper argues that LKM slows biological aging, which is quite a logical leap. Clearly LKM had nothing to do with the extent of TL shrinkage in the control group, and why the control group’s TL decreased so much is ignored in the paper. More generally, there are many problems with using TL as a proxy for biological aging. Even if this paper’s basic logic is accepted, there are many problems with how the paper’s data are handled.1 The most important problem is the absence of any analyses that provides a direct and straightforward examination of pre-post TL as a function of experimental condition. Consequently, we ran a 2×3 mixed factorial ANOVA using TL measured across two times (pre and post) compared across three conditions (control, MM, and LKM) with the paper’s data. Although a significant repeated measures main effect was found, the interaction with experimental condition was non-sig- nificant. One-way ANOVAs examining pre-, post-, and change/differ- ence TL variables as a function of condition also produced non-sig nificant results. Looking at the data using other statistical approaches, however, did show some pattern of mixed results that trend, although most are non-significant, in the direction of the LKM group having less TL shortening compared to the other groups. Regardless of analysis, effect sizes were consistently meager.
In addition, there are several serious confounds compromising any valid comparison among the groups. For example, the data show that six in the control group engaged in some meditation, and one even reported meditating 16 days during the study’s short time-span. This hardly constitutes an adequate control group for a meditation study. Also, the LKM group spent considerably more time meditating than the MM group, so these did not differ only in meditation type. We are unable to address many other problems with this paper due to this journal’s length restrictions in a letter to the editor. We simply conclude that this paper’s extraordinary claim does not have the compelling evidence to back it up, and we urge not making extraordinary claims without such evidence. 
Harris L. Friedman - University of Florida, United States
Douglas A. MacDonald - University of Detroit Mercy, United States
Nicholas J.L. Brown-  University of Groningen, the Netherlands
James C. Coyne University of Pennsylvania, United States

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Psilocybin + Mindfulness Meditation change brain connectivity - lasting positive effects

Dolan points to work by Smigielski et al.:
Both psychedelics and meditation exert profound modulatory effects on consciousness, perception and cognition, but their combined, possibly synergistic effects on neurobiology are unknown. Accordingly, we conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study with 38 participants following a single administration of the psychedelic psilocybin (315 μg/kg p.o.) during a 5-day mindfulness retreat. Brain dynamics were quantified directly pre- and post-intervention by functional magnetic resonance imaging during the resting state and two meditation forms. The analysis of functional connectivity identified psilocybin-related and mental state–dependent alterations in self-referential processing regions of the default mode network (DMN). Notably, decoupling of medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, which is thought to mediate sense of self, was associated with the subjective ego dissolution effect during the psilocybin-assisted mindfulness session. The extent of ego dissolution and brain connectivity predicted positive changes in psycho-social functioning of participants 4 months later. Psilocybin, combined with meditation, facilitated neurodynamic modulations in self-referential networks, subserving the process of meditation by acting along the anterior–posterior DMN connection. The study highlights the link between altered self-experience and subsequent behavioral changes. Understanding how interventions facilitate transformative experiences may open novel therapeutic perspectives. Insights into the biology of discrete mental states foster our understanding of non-ordinary forms of human self-consciousness and their concomitant brain substrate.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Mindfulness doesn't reduce impulsive behavior.

Korponay, Davidson and colleagues present results of a study that were contrary to their expectation that the practice of mindfulness meditation would correlate with a reduction in impulsive behaviors (like having that second dish of ice cream). What they found is that neither short-term nor long-term meditation appears to be effective for reducing impulsivity that is not related to attentional difficulties, but rather is a function of motor control and planning capacities. Here is their detailed abstract:
Interest has grown in using mindfulness meditation to treat conditions featuring excessive impulsivity. However, while prior studies find that mindfulness practice can improve attention, it remains unclear whether it improves other cognitive faculties whose deficiency can contribute to impulsivity. Here, an eight-week mindfulness intervention did not reduce impulsivity on the go/no-go task or Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11), nor produce changes in neural correlates of impulsivity (i.e. frontostriatal gray matter, functional connectivity, and dopamine levels) compared to active or wait-list control groups. Separately, long-term meditators (LTMs) did not perform differently than meditation-naïve participants (MNPs) on the go/no-go task. However, LTMs self-reported lower attentional impulsivity, but higher motor and non-planning impulsivity on the BIS-11 than MNPs. LTMs had less striatal gray matter, greater cortico-striatal-thalamic functional connectivity, and lower spontaneous eye-blink rate (a physiological dopamine indicator) than MNPs. LTM total lifetime practice hours (TLPH) did not signifcantly relate to impulsivity or neurobiological metrics. Findings suggest that neither short nor long-term mindfulness practice may be efective for redressing impulsive behavior derived from inhibitory motor control or planning capacity defcits in healthy adults. Given the absence of TLPH relationships to impulsivity or neurobiological metrics, diferences between LTMs and MNPs may be attributable to pre-existing diferences.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Gender and race stereotypes - what's in a name...

Eaton et al. give us more data on the application of gender and race stereotypes in academia:
The current study examines how intersecting stereotypes about gender and race influence faculty perceptions of post-doctoral candidates in STEM fields in the United States. Using a fully-crossed, between-subjects experimental design, biology and physics professors (n = 251) from eight large, public, U.S. research universities were asked to read one of eight identical curriculum vitae (CVs) depicting a hypothetical doctoral graduate applying for a post-doctoral position in their field, and rate them for competence, hireability, and likeability. The candidate’s name on the CV was used to manipulate race (Asian, Black, Latinx, and White) and gender (female or male), with all other aspects of the CV held constant across conditions. Faculty in physics exhibited a gender bias favoring the male candidates as more competent and more hirable than the otherwise identical female candidates. Further, physics faculty rated Asian and White candidates as more competent and hirable than Black and Latinx candidates, while those in biology rated Asian candidates as more competent and hirable than Black candidates, and as more hireable than Latinx candidates. An interaction between candidate gender and race emerged for those in physics, whereby Black women and Latinx women and men candidates were rated the lowest in hireability compared to all others. Women were rated more likeable than men candidates across departments. Our results highlight how understanding the underrepresentation of women and racial minorities in STEM requires examining both racial and gender biases as well as how they intersect.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

I want to point the subset of MindBlog readers interested in brain-behavior correlations to the journal “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” particularly to the June 2019 issue. Most of the articles in this issue are open source, and a scan of the article abstracts gives a good sense of the kind of work being done in this field to identify correlations between behaviors and brain activities in different brain areas. Such work gives us an idea of where to focus our attention when extreme behaviors are at issue, such as (in the first article) being willing to fight and die for a cause. Another interesting article suggests that the medial prefrontal cortex may play a role in maintaining a positively biased self-concept.

Monday, September 30, 2019

People of color - getting quantitative about police-involved deaths

From Edwards et al.:

Significance
Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. Risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups. Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.
Abstract
We use data on police-involved deaths to estimate how the risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States varies across social groups. We estimate the lifetime and age-specific risks of being killed by police by race and sex. We also provide estimates of the proportion of all deaths accounted for by police use of force. We find that African American men and women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Latino men face higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. We find that Latina women and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women face lower risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. Risk is highest for black men, who (at current levels of risk) face about a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police over the life course. The average lifetime odds of being killed by police are about 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Risk peaks between the ages of 20 y and 35 y for all groups. For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Red and Blue Voters Live in Different Economies

Wow... if you want some graphics that powerfully describe our current political malaise, check out Edsall's Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes. Here is a graph showing how economic output and income for Democratic and Republican House districts diverged over the last decade - two different economies that are diverging rapidly:

Another Edsall piece notes that insecurity caused by rapid cultural change as well as economic insecurity has generated a class of voters who feel powerless and angry, and actually feel a need for the chaos Trump generates - that they hope might disrupt the system that disadvantages them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Mindfulness training and attentional control of mind-wandering

Several studies have suggested that mindfulness training can strengthen the connections between the networks in our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC] attentional executive control network and those supporting the posterior cingulate cortex [PCC] default mode network active in mind-wandering. Davidson and his colleagues have expanded on this to see whether a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course can increase DLPFC-PCC connectivity:
Mindfulness meditation training has been shown to increase resting state functional connectivity between nodes of the frontoparietal executive control network (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]) and the default mode network (posterior cingulate cortex [PCC]). We investigated whether these effects generalized to a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, and tested for structural and behaviorally relevant consequences of change in connectivity. Healthy, meditationnaïve adults were randomized to either MBSR (N=48), an active (N=47) or waitlist (N=45) control group. Participants completed behavioral testing, resting state fMRI scans, and diffusion tensor scans at pre-randomization (T1), post-intervention (T2) and approximately 5.5 months later (T3). We found increased T2-T1 PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity for MBSR relative to control groups. Although these effects did not persist through long-term follow-up (T3-T1), MBSR participants showed a significantly stronger relationship between days of practice (T1 to T3) and increased PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity than participants in the active control group. Increased PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity in MBSR participants was associated with increased microstructural connectivity of a white matter tract connecting these regions, and increased self reported attention. These data show that MBSR increases PCC–DLPFC resting connectivity, which is related to increased practice time, attention, and structural connectivity.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Loving kindness meditation slows cellular aging?

I like to be generous, loving, kind and nice, but a recent PsyPost article on the slowing of cellular aging by loving-kindness meditation triggered my bullshit detector. I first pass on the summary and abstract of the work referenced in the article by Le Nguyen et al., and then get a bit into the details available only to those who have journal access (motivated readers can request a PDF of the article from me). It is a noble and complicated effort, with proper double blind controls, but with statistics compromised by a small sample size and measured changes in DNA telomere length (a proxy for aging) over a short period of time much larger than would be expected from longer terms studies. While I would like to believe the conclusions drawn by the authors, I have to remain wary of accepting them.

Highlights
•Over 12 weeks, loving-kindness meditation buffered telomere attrition.
•Telomere length decreased in the mindfulness group and the control group.
•The loving-kindness group showed less telomere attrition than the control group.
Abstract
Combinations of multiple meditation practices have been shown to reduce the attrition of telomeres, the protective caps of chromosomes (Carlson et al., Cancer, 121 (2015), pp. 476-484). Here, we probed the distinct effects on telomere length (TL) of mindfulness meditation (MM) and loving-kindness meditation (LKM). Midlife adults (N = 142) were randomized to be in a waitlist control condition or to learn either MM or LKM in a 6-week workshop. Telomere length was assessed 2 weeks before the start of the workshops and 3 weeks after their termination. After controlling for appropriate demographic covariates and baseline TL, we found TL decreased significantly in the MM group and the control group, but not in the LKM group. There was also significantly less TL attrition in the LKM group than the control group. The MM group showed changes in TL that were intermediate between the LKM and control groups yet not significantly different from either. Self-reported emotions and practice intensity (duration and frequency) did not mediate these observed group differences. This study is the first to disentangle the effects of LKM and MM on TL and suggests that LKM may buffer telomere attrition.


Fig. 1. Descriptive Mean and Standard Errors of Changes in TL per Experimental Conditions. (TL is expressed as the ratio (T/S) of telomeric (T) to single copy (S) gene product for a particular blood sample)
Apart from picking apart their statistics and the "controls for demographic covariates," the discussion paragraph that troubles me most is:
The difference in telomere length between the Control and LKM groups was .048 T/S ratio after demographic covariates were considered. Based on comparison of T/S ratios and telomere length measured by Southern blot in a series of quality control samples from the same lab, we estimated this difference of .048 T/S ratio to be 115 basepairs. This TL decrease over the 12-week period appears to be large compared to studies of TL change with much longer time periods (Müezzinler et al., Obes. Rev., 15 (2014), pp. 192-201). It is possible that this reflects short term dynamic change, or potential systematic differences in the collection and/or assay of baseline and follow-up samples. The fact that DNA extraction and assay were done as one batch (all samples from Time 1 and Time 2) argues against the latter concern, although we cannot completely rule out other potential unaccounted for systematic differences. Although it is unknown whether this effect remains longer than 3 weeks post-intervention, the current study demonstrated proof of concept for the malleability of TL changes, and that certain forms of meditation, in this case loving-kindness meditation, may buffer against telomere erosion.
After several paragraphs of other reservations and cautions on the data, the authors state:
...one should interpret the differences in TL changes here with caution, treating them as evidence for “apparent” rather than true alterations in TL.
In balance, the PsyPost article title: "Study provides evidence that loving-kindness meditation slows cellular aging" is wrong.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Gender neutral pronouns reduce bias in favor of traditional gender roles

An interesting study by Tavits and Pérez on Sweden's 2015 incorporation into the Swedish Academy Glossary (which sets norms for Sweden's language) of the gender-neutral pronoun hen. A majority of Swedes now use hen alongside the explicitly gendered hon (she) and han (he) as part of their grammatical toolkit.

Significance
Evidence from 3 survey experiments traces the effects of gender-neutral pronoun use on mass judgments of gender equality and tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. The results establish that individual use of gender-neutral pronouns reduces the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with people expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as manifested in more positive attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public affairs.
Abstract
To improve gender equality and tolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, several nations have promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns and words. Do these linguistic devices actually reduce biases that favor men over women, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals? The current article explores this question with 3 large-scale experiments in Sweden, which formally incorporated a gender-neutral pronoun into its language alongside established gendered pronouns equivalent to he and she. The evidence shows that compared with masculine pronouns, use of gender-neutral pronouns decreases the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with individuals expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as reflected in more favorable attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public life. Additional analyses reveal similar patterns for feminine pronouns. The influence of both pronouns is more automatic than controlled.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The power of "cute"

I want to point MindBlog readers to an article by Simon May at aeon.co that encapsulates the contents of his new book "The Power of Cute" (2019), and to a Trends in Cognitive Sciences review article by Kringelbach et al. on cuteness that summarizes work on brain activities underlying survival related cuteness responses. The latter article's introduction notes that the prevailing view of cuteness...
...came from the founding fathers of ethology, Nobel prizewinners Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. They proposed that the cute facial features of infants form a ‘Kindchenschema’ (infant schema), a prime example of an ‘innate releasing mechanism’ that unlocks instinctual behaviours...These characteristics contribute to ‘cuteness’ and propel our caregiving behaviours, which is vital because infants need our constant attention to survive and thrive. Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour.
May considers the increasing popularity of child-like figures in popular culture and asks:
In such uncertain and uneasy times, and with so much injustice, hate and intolerance threatening the world, don’t we have more serious things to focus on than the escapades of that feline girl-figure Hello Kitty? Or Pokémon, the video-game franchise that’s hot again in 2019...The craze for all things cute is motivated, most obviously, by the urge to escape from precisely such a threatening world into a garden of innocence in which childlike qualities arouse deliciously protective feelings, and bestow contentment and solace. Cute cues include behaviours that appear helpless, harmless, charming and yielding, and anatomical features such as outsize heads, protruding foreheads, saucer-like eyes, retreating chins and clumsy gaits.
May suggests that the increasingly popularity of cuteness derives not only from the 'sweet' end of the whole spectrum of cuteness but also from moving towards the 'uncanny' and ambiguous end, a....
...faintly menacing subversion of boundaries – between the fragile and the resilient, the reassuring and the unsettling, the innocent and the knowing – when presented in cute’s frivolous, teasing idiom, is central to its immense popularity... ‘unpindownability’, as we might call it, that pervades cute – the erosion of borders between what used to be seen as distinct or discontinuous realms, such as childhood and adulthood – is also reflected in the blurred gender of many cute objects such as Balloon Dog or a lot of Pokémon. It is reflected, too, in their frequent blending of human and nonhuman forms, as in the cat-girl Hello Kitty. And in their often undefinable age...In such ways, cute is attuned to an era that is no longer so wedded to such hallowed dichotomies as masculine and feminine, sexual and nonsexual, adult and child, being and becoming, transient and eternal, body and soul, absolute and contingent, and even good and bad.
Although attraction to such cute objects as the mouthless, fingerless Hello Kitty can express a desire for power, cuteness can also parody and subvert power by playing with the viewer’s sense of her own power, now painting her into a dominant pose, now sowing uncertainty about who is really in charge...

Monday, September 16, 2019

Psychological adaptation to the apocalypse - meditate, or just be happy?

In this post, not exactly an upper, I point first to two in-your-face articles on how we ought to be afraid, very afraid, about humanity's future technological and ecological environment, and then note two pieces of writing on psychological adaptations that might dampen down the full turn on of our brains' fear machinery.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen does a screed very effective at scaring the bejesus out of us. His basic argument: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” A chorus of criticism has greeted Franzen's article: "Franzen is wrong on the science, on the politics, and on the psychology of human behavior as it pertains to climate change." (See also Chrobak.)

And, for alarm on our looming digital environment, The 6,000 word essay by Glenn S. Gerstell, general counsel of the National Security, and summarized by Warzel, should do the job. The first nation to crack quantum computing (China or the US) will rule the world! 

So, how do we manage to wake up cheerful in the morning? Futurist Yuval Harari offers his approach in Chapter 21 of his book "21 Lessons for the 21st century," by describing his experience of learning to meditate, starting with the initial instructions (to observe your process of breathing) in his first Vipassana meditation course. He now meditates two hours every day.
The point is that meditation is a tool for observing the mind directly...For at least two hours a day I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other twenty-two hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and cute-puppy videos. Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens or Homo Deus.
A glimmer of hopefulness can also be obtained by reading books in the vein of Pinker's "Enlightenment Now", which documents again and again, for many areas, how dire predictions about the future have not come to pass. The injunction here would be to be optimistic, not a bad idea, given the recent PNAS article by Lee et al. documenting that the lifespan of optimistic people, on average, is 11 to 15% longer.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Twitter is making us dumber.

Stanley-Becker points to some research providing hardly surprising evidence that communicating about complex issues using 280 character chunks of text dumbs down the understanding of twitter users. Using Twitter to teach literature has an overall negative effect on students’ average achievement, with the effect being strongest on students who usually perform better. Numerous schools have started to utilize twitter discussion among students assuming that this would enhance intellectual attainment, but in fact it undermines it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Can we reverse our biological age? The usual media hysteria...

I must have seen at least 10 of my media inputs hyping a small study by Fahy et al. (9 white men, and lacking controls) pointed to by Abbott suggesting that the body's epigenetic clock might be reversed. The study actually had the goal of seeing whether human growth hormone could stimulates regeneration of the thymus gland and enhance immune function. Because the hormone can promote diabetes, the trial included two widely used anti-diabetic drugs, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and metformin, in the treatment cocktail. (Metformin is being evaluated as an anti-aging drug in several large scale studies).
Checking the effect of the drugs on the participants’ epigenetic clocks was an afterthought. The clinical study had finished when Fahy approached Horvath to conduct an analysis. (Epigenetic clocks are constructed by selecting sets of DNA-methylation sites across the genome. In the past few years, Horvath — a pioneer in epigenetic-clock research — has developed some of the most accurate ones)...Horvath used four different epigenetic clocks to assess each patient’s biological age, and he found significant reversal for each trial participant in all of the tests. “This told me that the biological effect of the treatment was robust,” he says. What’s more, the effect persisted in the six participants who provided a final blood sample six months after stopping the trial, he says.
The understandable excitement over this result is probably out of proportion to the probability it will be confirmed in larger experiments with proper controls.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Training to reduce cognitive biases.

Sellier et al. show that students assigned to solve a business case exercise are less likely to choose an inferior confirmatory solution when they have previously undergone a debiasing-training intervention:
The primary objection to debiasing-training interventions is a lack of evidence that they improve decision making in field settings, where reminders of bias are absent. We gave graduate students in three professional programs (N = 290) a one-shot training intervention that reduces confirmation bias in laboratory experiments. Natural variance in the training schedule assigned participants to receive training before or after solving an unannounced business case modeled on the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger. We used case solutions to surreptitiously measure participants’ susceptibility to confirmation bias. Trained participants were 29% less likely to choose the inferior hypothesis-confirming solution than untrained participants. Analysis of case write-ups suggests that a reduction in confirmatory hypothesis testing accounts for their improved decision making in the case. The results provide promising evidence that debiasing-training effects transfer to field settings and can improve decision making in professional and private life.

Friday, September 06, 2019

How personal and professional conduct relate to one another.

From Griffin et al.:

Significance
The relative importance of personal traits compared with context for predicting behavior is a long-standing issue in psychology. This debate plays out in a practical way every time an employer, voter, or other decision maker has to infer expected professional conduct based on observed personal behavior. Despite its theoretical and practical importance, there is little academic consensus on this question. We fill this void with evidence connecting personal infidelity to professional behavior in 4 different settings.
Abstract
We study the connection between personal and professional behavior by introducing usage of a marital infidelity website as a measure of personal conduct. Police officers and financial advisors who use the infidelity website are significantly more likely to engage in professional misconduct. Results are similar for US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defendants accused of white-collar crimes, and companies with chief executive officers (CEOs) or chief financial officers (CFOs) who use the website are more than twice as likely to engage in corporate misconduct. The relation is not explained by a wide range of regional, firm, executive, and cultural variables. These findings suggest that personal and workplace behavior are closely related.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Training wisdom - the Illeist (third person) method.

I think my most sane moments are those when I experience myself as watching, in third-person mode, rather than “being” Deric, the immersed actor. Science journalist David Robson does an essay on this perspective in Aeon, “Why speaking to yourself in the third person makes you wiser,” noting that this ancient rhetorical method, used by Julius Caesar and termed ‘illeism’ in 1809 by the poet Coleridge (latin ille meaning ‘he, that’) can clear the emotional fog of simple rumination, shifting perspective to see past biases. Robson notes the work of Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada, whose aim is:
...to build a strong experimental footing for the study of wisdom, which had long been considered too nebulous for scientific enquiry. In one of his earlier experiments, he established that it’s possible to measure wise reasoning and that, as with IQ, people’s scores matter. He did this by asking participants to discuss out-loud a personal or political dilemma, which he then scored on various elements of thinking long-considered crucial to wisdom, including: intellectual humility; taking the perspective of others; recognising uncertainty; and having the capacity to search for a compromise. Grossmann found that these wise-reasoning scores were far better than intelligence tests at predicting emotional wellbeing, and relationship satisfaction – supporting the idea that wisdom, as defined by these qualities, constitutes a unique construct that determines how we navigate life challenges.
The abstract from Grossmann et al.:
We tested the utility of illeism – a practice of referring to oneself in the third person – for the trainability of wisdom-related characteristics in everyday life: i) wise reasoning (intellectual humility, open-mindedness in ways a situation may unfold, perspective-taking, attempts to integrate different viewpoints) and ii) accuracy in emotional forecasts toward close others. In a month-long field experiment, people adopted either the third-person training or first-person control perspective when describing their most significant daily experiences. Assessment of spontaneous wise reasoning before and after the intervention revealed substantial growth in the training (vs. control) condition. At the end of the intervention, people forecasted their feelings toward a close other in challenging situations. A month later, these forecasted feelings were compared against their experienced feelings. Participants in the training (vs. control) condition showed greater alignment of forecasts and experiences, largely due to changes in their emotional experiences. The present research demonstrates a path to evidence-based training of wisdom-related processes via the practice of illeism.
Robson finds this work particularly fascinating,
...considering the fact that illeism is often considered to be infantile. Just think of Elmo in the children’s TV show Sesame Street, or the intensely irritating Jimmy in the sitcom Seinfeld – hardly models of sophisticated thinking. Alternatively, it can be taken to be the sign of a narcissistic personality – the very opposite of personal wisdom. After all, Coleridge believed that it was a ruse to cover up one’s own egotism: just think of the US president’s critics who point out that Donald Trump often refers to himself in the third person. Clearly, politicians might use illeism for purely rhetorical purposes but, when applied to genuine reflection, it appears to be a powerful tool for wiser reasoning.
For an example of third person usage reflecting not wisdom, but a narcissistic personality, look no further than our current president, Donald Trump, as noted in this Washington Post piece by Rieger.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Infants expect leaders to right wrongs

From Stavans and Baillargeon:
Anthropological and psychological research on direct third-party punishment suggests that adults expect the leaders of social groups to intervene in within-group transgressions. Here, we explored the developmental roots of this expectation. In violation-of-expectation experiments, we asked whether 17-mo-old infants (n = 120) would expect a leader to intervene when observing a within-group fairness transgression but would hold no particular expectation for intervention when a nonleader observed the same transgression. Infants watched a group of 3 bear puppets who served as the protagonist, wrongdoer, and victim. The protagonist brought in 2 toys for the other bears to share, but the wrongdoer seized both toys, leaving none for the victim. The protagonist then either took 1 toy away from the wrongdoer and gave it to the victim (intervention event) or approached each bear in turn without redistributing a toy (nonintervention event). Across conditions, the protagonist was either a leader (leader condition) or a nonleader equal in rank to the other bears (nonleader condition); across experiments, leadership was marked by either behavioral or physical cues. In both experiments, infants in the leader condition looked significantly longer if shown the nonintervention as opposed to the intervention event, suggesting that they expected the leader to intervene and rectify the wrongdoer’s transgression. In contrast, infants in the nonleader condition looked equally at the events, suggesting that they held no particular expectation for intervention from the nonleader. By the second year of life, infants thus already ascribe unique responsibilities to leaders, including that of righting wrongs.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Loss of control in aging cells.

Wow...experiments like those of Pereda et al. make me feel rather fatalistic and resigned to the aging process, notwithstanding all the numerous pie in the sky biotech startups that are trying to find magic bullets that will reverse human aging. They note that deterioration in learning and memory with aging is not accompanied by obvious increases in nerve cell death, and so looked for more subtle changes that might be a play. They created transgenic mice that expressed a calcium sensor specifically in presynaptic terminals of the CA1 region of the hippocampus, allowing them to measure how calcium signaling altered with age. Older animals showed increased calcium influx into the neurons and persistently increased concentration of calcium in resting neurons, most likely caused by by an age‐dependent change in the properties or numbers of presynaptic calcium channels. Higher calcium altered neuronal transmission with parallel loss of cognitive function in the animals. Interestingly, reducing extracellular calcium made old synapses behave more like younger ones, and raising extracellular calcium made young synapses act like old ones.  Here is their technical abstract:
The loss of cognitive function accompanying healthy aging is not associated with extensive or characteristic patterns of cell death, suggesting it is caused by more subtle changes in synaptic properties. In the hippocampal CA1 region, long‐term potentiation requires stronger stimulation for induction in aged rats and mice and long‐term depression becomes more prevalent. An age‐dependent impairment of postsynaptic calcium homeostasis may underpin these effects. We have examined changes in presynaptic calcium signalling in aged mice using a transgenic mouse line (SyG37) that expresses a genetically encoded calcium sensor in presynaptic terminals. SyG37 mice showed an age‐dependent decline in cognitive abilities in behavioural tasks that require hippocampal processing including the Barnes maze, T‐maze and object location but not recognition tests. The incidence of LTP was significantly impaired in animals over 18 months of age. These effects of aging were accompanied by a persistent increase in resting presynaptic calcium, an increase in the presynaptic calcium signal following Schaffer collateral fibre stimulation, an increase in postsynaptic fEPSP slope and a reduction in paired‐pulse facilitation. These effects were not caused by synapse proliferation and were of presynaptic origin since they were evident in single presynaptic boutons. Aged synapses behaved like younger ones when the extracellular calcium concentration was reduced. Raising extracellular calcium had little effect on aged synapses but altered the properties of young synapses into those of their aged counterparts. These effects can be readily explained by an age‐dependent change in the properties or numbers of presynaptic calcium channels.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Interindividual variability - rather than universality - in facial-emotion perception.

Brooks et al. do experiments suggesting that the representational structure of emotion expressions in visual face-processing regions may be shaped by idiosyncratic conceptual understanding of emotion categories:

Significance
Classic theories of emotion hold that emotion categories (e.g., Anger and Sadness) each have corresponding facial expressions that can be universally recognized. Alternative approaches emphasize that a perceiver’s unique conceptual knowledge (e.g., memories, associations, and expectations) about emotions can substantially interact with processing of facial cues, leading to interindividual variability—rather than universality—in facial-emotion perception. We find that each individual’s conceptual structure significantly predicts the brain’s representational structure, over and above the influence of facial features. Conceptual structure also predicts multiple behavioral patterns of emotion perception, including cross-cultural differences in patterns of emotion categorizations. These findings suggest that emotion perception, and the brain’s representations of face categories, can be flexibly influenced by conceptual understanding of emotions.
Abstract
Humans reliably categorize configurations of facial actions into specific emotion categories, leading some to argue that this process is invariant between individuals and cultures. However, growing behavioral evidence suggests that factors such as emotion-concept knowledge may shape the way emotions are visually perceived, leading to variability—rather than universality—in facial-emotion perception. Understanding variability in emotion perception is only emerging, and the neural basis of any impact from the structure of emotion-concept knowledge remains unknown. In a neuroimaging study, we used a representational similarity analysis (RSA) approach to measure the correspondence between the conceptual, perceptual, and neural representational structures of the six emotion categories Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise. We found that subjects exhibited individual differences in their conceptual structure of emotions, which predicted their own unique perceptual structure. When viewing faces, the representational structure of multivoxel patterns in the right fusiform gyrus was significantly predicted by a subject’s unique conceptual structure, even when controlling for potential physical similarity in the faces themselves. Finally, cross-cultural differences in emotion perception were also observed, which could be explained by individual differences in conceptual structure. Our results suggest that the representational structure of emotion expressions in visual face-processing regions may be shaped by idiosyncratic conceptual understanding of emotion categories.

Monday, August 26, 2019

From "Love Your Enemies" - Arthur Brooks on Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory

I have read through Arthur Brooks' new book, "Love your Enemies," which addresses the many facets of our current political polarization, with the goal of suggesting some ways to ameliorate our current impasse. While I'm tempted to pass on an abstracted version of the main points of each of the book chapters, as I have done for several other books that have influenced me, I'm going to restrict myself to passing on some clips from Chapter 4 "How Can I Love my Enemies if They are Immoral," in which he does a nice summary of the ideas and work of Jonathan Haidt. At the end of the clips I attach a graphic from one of Haidt's lectures that summarizes his findings.
...“moral foundations theory,”... specifically addresses how conservatives and liberals differ in their moral views. Haidt was finding that certain ideas of morality are innate and that “the worst idea in all of psychology is the idea that the mind is a blank slate at birth.”* His research showed that we are in fact born with particular moral foundations that make it easy for us to learn certain ideas of right and wrong, and hard to learn others. Using survey data for hundreds of thousands of individuals, Haidt was finding that there are in fact five innate moral values that exist among humans of all races and cultures, which he calls the “five foundations of morality.” They are: (1) fairness, (2) care for others, (3) respect for authority, (4) loyalty to one’s group, and (5) purity or sanctity. (Later, he added liberty to the list.) Haidt’s research has shown that of these five moral foundations, the first two—fairness and care—are nearly universal. Except for sociopaths, almost everyone—conservative or liberal, young or old, religious or nonreligious—believes in fairness and compassion to others.
Conservatives look at all this and often conclude that liberals are less moral than they are, but the science shows this is not true. Liberals are not less moral; they simply have fewer moral foundations. According to Haidt’s research, “Liberals have a kind of a two-channel, or two-foundation morality” while “conservatives have more of a . . . five-channel morality.” All of us, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, care about social morality, treating others with fairness and compassion. By contrast, personal moral values, such as sexual purity, respect for authority, and tribal loyalty—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a part of the population. When it comes to loyalty, authority, and purity, conservatives are from Mars, and liberals are from Venus. Or vice versa, I’m not sure. I just know it’s different planets.
Even in an age that celebrates diversity, most people assiduously avoid those who hold different moral values. Indeed, people avoid those with different values more than they do people of different racial backgrounds. In one study with undergraduate students, Haidt and his colleagues found that “in fraternity admissions, fraternity brothers were happy to admit people who were demographically different from themselves, although they avoided candidates who had strong moral or political values that differed either from the group as a whole, or from themselves as individuals.” He also found that in choosing a study partner, most undergraduates did not care about racial differences, “but political/moral differences generally made a candidate less attractive.” Haidt’s work is consistent with more recent research that shows the starkest dividing line in America today is not race, religion, or economic status, but rather party affiliation. In fact, scholars at Stanford and Princeton have found that political partisans in America now take a more discriminatory view of those in the opposing party than they do of people of other races.
You may be genetically predisposed to a conservative, five-channel moral foundation, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a conservative if your intellect tells you otherwise. Think deeply. Listen to the other side. Reflect on what others are saying. Then ask yourself not just how you feel, but what you think is right. We’re not slaves. We’re not shackled to a pipe in the basement of our own built-in genetic morality. In his book The Birth of the Mind, the eminent brain scientist Gary Marcus writes, “‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” When it comes to our moral outlook, Marcus says, “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises.” It is up to each of us to create the next drafts of our moral minds. We should constantly be evaluating whether our particular expression of our moral values is the right one, much less the only legitimate expression of those values. Doing so requires the humility to recognize that none of us has a monopoly on truth. The left favors redistribution; the right, meritocracy. But if we had a completely redistributionist society we’d be the Soviet Union; if we had a complete meritocracy, millions would be starving. There is a sweet spot between the two and we should all be searching together to find it.

Friday, August 23, 2019

What we see is biased by ongoing neural activity.

Rassi et al. (open source) show that ongoing neural activity in our brain, as in the fusiform face area, can influence what we perceive in an ambiguous sensory stimulus such as the Rubin face/vase illusion.


Significance
Ongoing neural activity influences stimulus detection—that is, whether or not an object is seen. Here, we uncover how it could influence the content of what is seen. In ambiguous situations, for instance, ongoing neural fluctuations might bias perception toward one or the other interpretation. Indeed, we show increased information flow from category-selective brain regions (here, the fusiform face area [FFA]) to the primary visual cortex before participants subsequently report seeing faces rather than a vase in the Rubin face/vase illusion. Our results identify a neural connectivity pathway that biases future perception and helps determine mental content.
Abstract
Ongoing fluctuations in neural excitability and in networkwide activity patterns before stimulus onset have been proposed to underlie variability in near-threshold stimulus detection paradigms—that is, whether or not an object is perceived. Here, we investigated the impact of prestimulus neural fluctuations on the content of perception—that is, whether one or another object is perceived. We recorded neural activity with magnetoencephalography (MEG) before and while participants briefly viewed an ambiguous image, the Rubin face/vase illusion, and required them to report their perceived interpretation in each trial. Using multivariate pattern analysis, we showed robust decoding of the perceptual report during the poststimulus period. Applying source localization to the classifier weights suggested early recruitment of primary visual cortex (V1) and ∼160-ms recruitment of the category-sensitive fusiform face area (FFA). These poststimulus effects were accompanied by stronger oscillatory power in the gamma frequency band for face vs. vase reports. In prestimulus intervals, we found no differences in oscillatory power between face vs. vase reports in V1 or in FFA, indicating similar levels of neural excitability. Despite this, we found stronger connectivity between V1 and FFA before face reports for low-frequency oscillations. Specifically, the strength of prestimulus feedback connectivity (i.e., Granger causality) from FFA to V1 predicted not only the category of the upcoming percept but also the strength of poststimulus neural activity associated with the percept. Our work shows that prestimulus network states can help shape future processing in category-sensitive brain regions and in this way bias the content of visual experiences.




Wednesday, August 21, 2019

More diversity in Flow-land.

I will pass on part of an email from Mr. Todd Denen occasioned by my 8/16/19 post, in which he assures me, that unlike the Flow Genome Project and Flow Collective Research Project discussed in that post, his Flow Research University is legit:
“ My name is Todd Denen and I just came across your post on the FGP guys. I just wanted to say not all Flow training programs are bullshit.....
I'm the founder of the Advanced Flow University which teaches the Flow state from the perspective of the Yogi Flow Experts.
In my book, PEAK PERFORMANCE SECRETS, I reveal the Advanced Flow Techniques which have been used by the Yogi Flow Experts for over 5,000 years. This has allowed them to achieve the highest level of Consciousness, the 7th Level of Flow.
If you are interested, I'm doing a promotion on it right now and you can get it for free on Amazon….."
Here is a screen shot showing only three of the numerous free books by Mr. Denen available from Amazon's Kindle offerings.


I couldn't resist downloading and having a look at "Peak Performance Secrets" and "FLOW STATE SEX TEST" (Advanced Flow University Book 3).

Unbelievable stuff.   Kudos to Amazon for its carefully vetted high quality Kindle offerings!

Monday, August 19, 2019

What we see is influenced by what we can do about it

Djebbara et al. do experiments that resolve an ancient debate on the relationship between cognition, movement, and environment, showing that potential actions afforded by an architectural environment influence perception. We perceive the world not as an observer-independent reality but in the mold of potential actions, shaped by the current needs and other personal attributes of the actor–perceiver. I pass on their significance and abstract statements, and then a clip from a description of the work by Gepshtein and Snider.

Significance
Using electroencephalography and virtual reality, our research provides a unique perspective on the centuries-old open-ended debate in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy on the relationship among cognition, movement, and environment. Our results indicate that cortical potentials vary as a function of bodily affordances reflected by the physical environment. First, the results imply that cognition is inherently related to the potential movement of the body; thus, we posit that action is interrelated with perception, actively influencing the perceivable environment. Second, these results indicate that moving in space is to continuously construct a prediction of a world of affordances, suggesting that architects take up the continuity of spaces, given that the unfolding of bodily movement alters perception and experience.
Abstract
Anticipating meaningful actions in the environment is an essential function of the brain. Such predictive mechanisms originate from the motor system and allow for inferring actions from environmental affordances, and the potential to act within a specific environment. Using architecture, we provide a unique perspective on the ongoing debate in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy on whether cognition depends on movement or is decoupled from our physical structure. To investigate cognitive processes associated with architectural affordances, we used a mobile brain/body imaging approach recording brain activity synchronized to head-mounted displays. Participants perceived and acted on virtual transitions ranging from nonpassable to easily passable. We found that early sensory brain activity, on revealing the environment and before actual movement, differed as a function of affordances. In addition, movement through transitions was preceded by a motor-related negative component that also depended on affordances. Our results suggest that potential actions afforded by an environment influence perception.
And, the clip from the review by Gepshtein and Snider:
Djebbara et al. had human participants walking freely while immersed in a virtual environment. A wearable “brain/body imaging setup” included a 64-channel electroencephalographic (EEG) cap that allowed researchers to record the participants’ electrical activity of the brain. The experiment consisted of a series of trials in which participants confronted simulated doors of different widths: Narrow (0.2 m wide), medium (1 m), and wide (1.5 m). At the onset of every trial, the participant was shown 1 of the 3 doors for several seconds. Then the wall framing the door changed its color: To green, prompting the person to pass through the door (the Go condition), or to red, indicating that the person should not approach the door (NoGo). A key result from the analysis of the participants’ brain activity came from the temporal window that just followed the Go/NoGo signal. On average, the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information functioned differently in the Go and NoGo conditions. In the Go condition, brain activity depended significantly on whether the door was passable or not, but in the NoGo condition, no such difference was found.
The authors explain this result by evoking the familiar concept of affordance, introduced by the influential American psychologist James J. Gibson in 1966. Gibson coined the term “affordance” to designate action opportunities offered by objects, trying to find a substitute to the term “value” which he worried would carry “an old burden of philosophical meaning”

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Schism in Flow-land? Flow Genome Project vs. Flow Research Collective

In Nov. 2017 I did a scathing review of  the "Stealing Fire" book by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler - in support of expensive workshops offered by their "Flow Genome Project" - purporting to show the latest science relevant to the flow states of enhanced human performance described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original writings on this subject. I judged the book a mess, with very little of substance to offer. A follow up post in Sept. 2018 passed on an exchange between one dissatisfied customer and a representative of the flow genome workshops.

Given this background, I can't resist passing on to MindBlog readers an email I just received indicating that there has been trouble in Flow-land... Mr. Kotler and Mr. Wheal have apparently split up and are now present competing websites, both very slick, with Mr. Kotler's (https://www.flowresearchcollective.com) radiating a bit more gravitas than Mr. Wheal's (https://www.flowgenomeproject.com.) Here is the email:
Hey there, 
I work with Steven Kotler who is featured in this article on your site. I have a critical request to change the text and link from Flow Genome Project to Flow Research Collective as this is Steven's new company. 
Currently there is traffic that is being directed from your site to the old company that Steven resigned from and so it's important that we get this updated so that the piece is accurate and up to date. 
We are not requesting that the mention of Flow Genome Project must be withdrawn in relation to Jamie, just that we need it to be clear that Steven is with the Flow Research Collective and that we're directing toward's [sic] that site. 
Please confirm that this is possible. Thanks, 
Gabby-- Gabby Nuñez Chief Of Customer Service and Satisfaction 
W: flowresearchcollective.com
Continuing in the tradition of the "Stealing Fire" book the link in the email "this article on your site" is not to either of the posts I mention above (Nov. 2017, Sept. 2018), but to all the posts done in Nov. and Dec.  of 2017.

I'm not taking the time to look further into this, but would suggest that any potential clients of these expensive purportedly transformational programs do due diligence. CAVEAT EMPTOR!

How weight training changes the brain.

Gretchen Reynolds points to work by Kelty et al. showing that weight training in rats can ameliorate mild cognitive impairment in rats induced by a injecting a lipopolysaccharide known to induce inflammation in the brain, creating a rodent form of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia. The weight training also induces chemical factors that support new nerve cell growth. How do you get rats to train with weights? Get them to climb a ladder for a Froot Loop reward with weights gently taped to their rear ends! Do three workouts a week, increasing the load as in regular resistance training. Similar experiments (inducing mild cognitive impairment) obviously can't be done in humans, but it would be useful to look more at whether and how much weight training in humans might stimulate the appearance of nerve growth factors that support new nerve cell growth. Numerous studies have shown that aerobic exercise has this effect.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Five myths about consciousness

In a perspective piece for the Washington Post Christof Koch (chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute of Brain Science) does a brief and concise debunking of five common fables about consciousness. I suggest you give it a read. The myths are:
Humans have a unique brain.
Science will never understand consciousness.
Dreams contain hidden clues about our secret desires.
We are susceptible to subliminal messages.
Near-death 'visions' are evidence of life after death.

Monday, August 12, 2019

It’s not just how the game is played, it’s whether you win or lose

An open source article from Molina et al.:
Growing disparities of income and wealth have prompted extensive survey research to measure the effects on public beliefs about the causes and fairness of economic inequality. However, observational data confound responses to unequal outcomes with highly correlated inequality of opportunity. This study uses a novel experiment to disentangle the effects of unequal outcomes and unequal opportunities on cognitive, normative, and affective responses. Participants were randomly assigned to positions with unequal opportunities for success. Results showed that both winners and losers were less likely to view the outcomes as fair or attributable to skill as the level of redistribution increased, but this effect of redistribution was stronger for winners. Moreover, winners were generally more likely to believe that the game was fair, even when the playing field was most heavily tilted in their favor. In short, it’s not just how the game is played, it’s also whether you win or lose.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Ingroup vigilance in collectivistic cultures

Fascinating work from Liu et al., who provide a more nuanced view of how people in more collectivist cultures are more suspicious of possible unethical intentions in others than people in more individualistic cultures.

Significance
Decades of research have described East Asian cultures as collectivistic, often characterized by ingroup relationships that are harmonious and cooperative. We find evidence that people in collectivistic cultures can also be more vigilant, mindful of ingroup members’ bad intentions. Participants imagined what coworkers and classmates would do in competition. Compared with individualistic Americans, people in China expected more unethical competition. Is this a “China phenomenon” or a phenomenon of collectivistic culture? We next compared regional cultures within China to rule out between-country alternative explanations. We found that people from China’s collectivistic rice-farming regions were more vigilant than people from the individualistic wheat-farming regions. This research suggests a more balanced view of collectivism, revealing tensions that can co-occur with harmony.
Abstract
Collectivistic cultures have been characterized as having harmonious, cooperative ingroup relationships. However, we find evidence that people in collectivistic cultures are more vigilant toward ingroup members, mindful of their possible unethical intentions. Study 1 found that Chinese participants were more vigilant than Americans in within-group competitions, anticipating more unethical behaviors from their peers. Study 2 replicated this finding by comparing areas within China, finding that people from China’s collectivistic rice-farming regions exhibit greater ingroup vigilance than people from the less collectivistic wheat-farming regions. The rice/wheat difference was mediated by greater perceived within-group competition. Study 3 found that Chinese participants were more likely than Americans to interpret a peer’s friendly behavior as sabotage in disguise. We also manipulated within-group competition and found that it increased ingroup vigilance in both cultures. Finally, study 3 identified two boundary conditions where cultural differences in ingroup vigilance decrease: an unambiguously competitive win–lose situation where Americans also exhibit vigilance, and an unambiguously cooperative win–win situation where Chinese participants relax their vigilance. This research contributes to a more balanced view of collectivism, revealing its interpersonal tensions in the forms of within-group competition and ingroup vigilance.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Feeling pleasure from music - brain correlates of why people differ

From Martínez-Molina et al.:

SIGNIFICANCE
Music is one of the most important sources of pleasure for many people, but at the same time there are important individual differences in the sensitivity to musical reward. Previous studies have revealed the critical involvement of the functional connectivity between perceptual and subcortical brain areas in the enjoyment of music. However, it is unknown whether individual differences in music sensitivity might arise from variability in the structural connectivity among these areas. Here we show that structural connectivity between supratemporal and orbitofrontal cortices, and between orbitofrontal and nucleus accumbens, predict individual differences in sensibility to music reward. These results provide evidence for the critical involvement of the interaction between the subcortical reward system and higher-order cortical areas in music-induced pleasure.
Abstract
People show considerable variability in the degree of pleasure they experience from music. These individual differences in music reward sensitivity are driven by variability in functional connectivity between the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a key structure of the reward system, and the right superior temporal gyrus (STG). However, it is unknown whether a neuroanatomical basis exists for this variability. We used diffusion tensor imaging and probabilistic tractography to study the relationship between music reward sensitivity and white matter microstructure connecting these two regions via the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in 38 healthy human participants (24 females and 14 males). We found that right axial diffusivity (AD) in the STG–OFC connectivity inversely correlated with music reward sensitivity. Additionally, right mean diffusivity and left AD in the NAcc-OFC tract also showed an inverse correlation. Further, AD in this tract also correlated with previously acquired BOLD activity during music listening, but not for a control monetary reward task in the NAcc. Finally, we used mediation analysis to show that AD in the NAcc–OFC tract explains the influence of NAcc activation during a music task on music reward sensitivity. Overall, our results provide further support for the idea that the exchange of information among perceptual, integrative, and reward systems is important for musical pleasure, and that individual differences in the structure of the relevant anatomical connectivity influences the degree to which people are able to derive such pleasure.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Can an uprising of decency win the next presidential election?

I want to point to this massively cogent piece by David Brooks, and also pass on a video done by the democratic presidential candidate he mentions, Marianne Williamson. He credits her with being the only candidate who most effectively cuts to the real heart of what is at issue in the next presidential election: who we are as a people, our national character, and the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
It is no accident that the Democratic candidate with the best grasp of this election is the one running a spiritual crusade, not an economic redistribution effort. Many of her ideas are wackadoodle, but Marianne Williamson is right about this: “This is part of the dark underbelly of American society: the racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight. If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
And she is right about this: “We’ve never dealt with a figure like this in American history before. This man, our president, is not just a politician; he’s a phenomenon. And an insider political game will not be able to defeat it. … The only thing that will defeat him is if we have a phenomenon of equal force, and that phenomenon is a moral uprising of the American people.”
They are unready for it, but it falls on the Democrats to rebuild the moral infrastructure of our country. That does not mean standing up and saying, “Donald Trump is a racist!” 500 times a day. It means reminding Americans of the values we still share, and the damage done when people are not held accountable for trampling on them. The values are pretty basic and can be simply expressed:
Unity: We’re one people. Our leader represents all the people. He doesn’t go around attacking whole cities and regions.
Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth. None of us want congenital liars in our homes or our workplaces.
Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting. We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.
Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.
Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.
Trump has put himself on the wrong side of all these values. So Democrats, go ahead and promote your plans. But also lead an uprising of decency. There must be one Democrat who, in word and deed, can do that.
Here is the Williamson video:

Friday, August 02, 2019

What can we do when facts don't matter?

Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters are those whose lives are most diminished and compromised by his actions. They do not let facts cloud their beliefs. A similar situation is seen in the anti-science denial of the scientifically proven benefits of vaccinations or genetically modified foods. The Dunning Kruger effect is in force. Those who know the least think they are experts. As Carroll points out in his NYTimes opinion piece, only subtle persuasion can be used to nudge those who are immune to factual knowledge. Some clips:
In a paper published early this year in Nature Human Behavior, scientists asked 500 Americans what they thought about foods that contained genetically modified organisms.
The vast majority, more than 90 percent, opposed their use. This belief is in conflict with the consensus of scientists. Almost 90 percent of them believe G.M.O.s are safe — and can be of great benefit.
The second finding of the study was more eye-opening. Those who were most opposed to genetically modified foods believed they were the most knowledgeable about this issue, yet scored the lowest on actual tests of scientific knowledge.
Carroll points out that...
A great deal of science communication still relies on the “knowledge deficit model,” an idea that the lack of support for good policies, and good science, merely reflects a lack of scientific information.
The problem is that experts have been giving accurate information for years to little effect.
In 2016, a number of researchers argued in an essay that those in the sciences needed to realize that the public may not process information in the same way they do. Scientists need to be formally trained in communication skills, they said, and they also need to realize that the knowledge deficit model makes for easy policy, but not necessarily good results.
It seems important to engage the public more, and earn their trust through continued, more personal interaction, using many different platforms and technologies. Dropping knowledge from on high — which is still the modus operandi for most scientists — doesn’t work.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Politics are in our DNA - why societies evolved to have both conservatives and liberals.

Sebastian Junger points out an evolutionary rationale for the presence of both liberals and conservatives within a group - that over our evolutionary history such heterogeneity has proven to enhance a group's ability to compete with other groups. One could wish that respect for these deep roots of our current political polarization might ameliorate the culture of contempt that currently prevails between red and blue America. There are now numerous studies correlating conservative or liberal orientation with basic biological differences, notably studies on young adults showing correlations between political orientation, brain structures, and genetics. Such differences can be shaped by different socialization processes (such as strict versus nurturant family values). Yudkin reviews differences in core beliefs (on how dangerous the world is, on personal responsibility, on parenting philosophy, etc.) between conservatives and liberals to suggest that the sides are more aligned on many issues than they realize.

Here is a clip from Junger's article:
If liberalism and conservatism are partly rooted in genetics, then those worldviews had to have been adaptive — and necessary — in our evolutionary past. That means that neither political party can accuse the other of being illegitimate or inherently immoral; we are the way we are for good reason. Every human society must do two things: It must be strong enough to protect itself from outside groups, and it must be fair enough to avoid internal conflict. A society entirely composed of liberals risks being overrun by enemies, and a society entirely composed of conservatives risks breaking apart over issues of inequality — “social justice,” as it’s now termed.
Put those groups together, however, and you have addressed the two greatest threats to human welfare: enemies and discord. The task for every society, from the earliest Homo sapiens of Africa to Americans of the 21st century, is to accommodate different values and worldviews into one ethos. It’s not easy to do, but our own genetic diversity clearly demonstrates that it’s possible. Otherwise, one set of values would have gradually dominated the other until there was no political discord at all, just a broad, flat uniformity. That may sound appealing at the moment. But in the long term, what a great loss that would be.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Re-skilling the brain.

For the first time, Oby et al (open source, nice graphics) observe the new neural activity patterns that cause a new learned behavior.

Significance
Consider a skill you would like to learn, like playing the piano. How do you progress from “Chopsticks” to Chopin? As you learn to do something new with your hands, does the brain also do something new? We found that monkeys learned new skilled behavior by generating new neural activity patterns. We used a brain–computer interface (BCI), which directly links neural activity to movement of a computer cursor, to encourage animals to generate new neural activity patterns. Over several days, the animals began to exhibit new patterns of neural activity that enabled them to control the BCI cursor. This suggests that learning to play the piano and other skills might also involve the generation of new neural activity patterns.
Abstract
Learning has been associated with changes in the brain at every level of organization. However, it remains difficult to establish a causal link between specific changes in the brain and new behavioral abilities. We establish that new neural activity patterns emerge with learning. We demonstrate that these new neural activity patterns cause the new behavior. Thus, the formation of new patterns of neural population activity can underlie the learning of new skills.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Deindividuation of outgroup faces occurs at the earliest stages of visual perception.

From Hughes et al:
A hallmark of intergroup biases is the tendency to individuate members of one’s own group but process members of other groups categorically. While the consequences of these biases for stereotyping and discrimination are well-documented, their early perceptual underpinnings remain less understood. Here, we investigated the neural mechanisms of this effect by testing whether high-level visual cortex is differentially tuned in its sensitivity to variation in own-race versus other-race faces. Using a functional MRI adaptation paradigm, we measured White participants’ habituation to blocks of White and Black faces that parametrically varied in their groupwise similarity. Participants showed a greater tendency to individuate own-race faces in perception, showing both greater release from adaptation to unique identities and increased sensitivity in the adaptation response to physical difference among faces. These group differences emerge in the tuning of early face-selective cortex and mirror behavioral differences in the memory and perception of own- versus other-race faces. Our results suggest that biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Facial muscles in dogs evolved for interactions with humans.

From Kaminski et al. (check out the videos in the article):
Domestication shaped wolves into dogs and transformed both their behavior and their anatomy. Here we show that, in only 33,000 y, domestication transformed the facial muscle anatomy of dogs specifically for facial communication with humans. Based on dissections of dog and wolf heads, we show that the levator anguli oculi medialis, a muscle responsible for raising the inner eyebrow intensely, is uniformly present in dogs but not in wolves. Behavioral data, collected from dogs and wolves, show that dogs produce the eyebrow movement significantly more often and with higher intensity than wolves do, with highest-intensity movements produced exclusively by dogs. Interestingly, this movement increases paedomorphism and resembles an expression that humans produce when sad, so its production in dogs may trigger a nurturing response in humans. We hypothesize that dogs with expressive eyebrows had a selection advantage and that “puppy dog eyes” are the result of selection based on humans’ preferences.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Around the globe, financial temptation increases civic honesty.

Shalvi does a commentary on work by Cohn et al. Here is the Cohn et al. abstract:
Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. In these experiments, we turned in more than 17,000 lost wallets containing varying amounts of money at public and private institutions and measured whether recipients contacted the owners to return the wallets. In virtually all countries, citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Neither nonexperts nor professional economists were able to predict this result. Additional data suggest that our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, both of which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.

Friday, July 19, 2019

It’s never simple...The tidy textbook story about the primary visual cortex is wrong.

When I was a postdoc in the Harvard Neurobiology department in the mid-1960’s I used to have afternoon tea with the Hubel and Weisel group. These are the guys who got a Nobel prize for, among other things, finding that the primary visual cortex is organized into cortical columns of cells that responded to lines that prefer different orientations. Another grouping of columns, called ‘blobs’ responded selectively to color and brightness but not orientation. These two different kinds of groups sent their outputs to higher visual areas that were supposed to integrate the information. My neurobiology course lectures and my Biology of Mind book showed drawings illustrating these tidy distinctions.

Sigh… now Garg et al. come along with two-photon calcium imaging to probe a very large spatial and chromatic visual stimulus space and map functional microarchitecture of thousands of neurons with single-cell resolution. They show that processing of orientation and color is combined at the earliest stages of visual processing, totally challenging the existing model. Their abstract:
Previous studies support the textbook model that shape and color are extracted by distinct neurons in primate primary visual cortex (V1). However, rigorous testing of this model requires sampling a larger stimulus space than previously possible. We used stable GCaMP6f expression and two-photon calcium imaging to probe a very large spatial and chromatic visual stimulus space and map functional microarchitecture of thousands of neurons with single-cell resolution. Notable proportions of V1 neurons strongly preferred equiluminant color over achromatic stimuli and were also orientation selective, indicating that orientation and color in V1 are mutually processed by overlapping circuits. Single neurons could precisely and unambiguously code for both color and orientation. Further analyses revealed systematic spatial relationships between color tuning, orientation selectivity, and cytochrome oxidase histology.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

An anti-aging pill with some credibility....

An AARP article points to studies on the new drug RTB101, which boosts immune function in older people and lowers risk for respiratory diseases. By virtue of it's inhibition of the multiprotein complex TORC1, which mediates temporal control of cell growth, it is also a potential anti-aging drug. Below is text from the anti-aging website lifespan.io:
resTORbio, Inc. is developing RTB101, an oral medication that inhibits target of rapamycin complex 1 (TORC1). Using a combination of RTB101 and everolimus, another TORC1 inhibitor, the company is testing a comprehensive immunotherapy program to fight respiratory tract infections in the elderly, improving the immune system rather than attempting to target individual infectious agents.
The mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway uses the multiprotein complexes TORC1 and TORC2 to conduct signaling. While inhibiting TORC2 has been observed to decrease lifespan, TORC1 inhibition has been shown to have multiple positive effects, including enhanced brain functions, reduction of adipose tissue, and delaying the onset of age-related pathology. Inhibiting TORC1 with both RTB101 and everolimus decreases S6K while increasing 4EBP1 and Atg; affecting each of these downstream products in this way is reported to enhance lifespan.
In 2018, the company reported that a phase 2b trial of RTB101 has returned positive results for boosting the immune system to respond better to respiratory infections. The trial saw 652 aged people with increased risk of RTIs enroll and compared to the control group, there were significantly fewer patients treated with RTB101 who suffered from one or more RTIs during a 16-week trial period. The next step for resTORbio is to conduct a study of its effects on other infections, heart failure, or autophagy-related diseases later in 2018.
Concluding the successful Phase 2 and 2b studies the company has agreed with the FDA to proceed to a large scale phase 3 clinical trial scheduled to begin later in 2019...resTORbio has licensed the worldwide rights for its product from Novartis Limited, a major pharmaceutical company...Website: resTORbio