Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The 2020 Ig Nobel Prizes - research on knives made of feces.

A piece in Science Magazine gives the highlights of this year's Ig Noble prize s published in the Annals of Improbable Research. If the award for research showing that knives can not be made from feces (despite a previous account of an Inuit man doing so) turns you on, you might also enjoy this Poop Mystery Story in the New Yorker Magazine.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Brain circuits signaling the absence of emotion in body language

Sokolov et al. show that modulation of the reciprocal effective connectivity between the amygdala and insula during processing of neutral and emotional body language predicts people’s ability to recognize neutral body language, suggesting that their interplay may be important not only for the processing of emotions but also, for inferring the absence of emotional content in body language. Their abstract:
Adaptive social behavior and mental well-being depend on not only recognizing emotional expressions but also, inferring the absence of emotion. While the neurobiology underwriting the perception of emotions is well studied, the mechanisms for detecting a lack of emotional content in social signals remain largely unknown. Here, using cutting-edge analyses of effective brain connectivity, we uncover the brain networks differentiating neutral and emotional body language. The data indicate greater activation of the right amygdala and midline cerebellar vermis to nonemotional as opposed to emotional body language. Most important, the effective connectivity between the amygdala and insula predicts people’s ability to recognize the absence of emotion. These conclusions extend substantially current concepts of emotion perception by suggesting engagement of limbic effective connectivity in recognizing the lack of emotion in body language reading. Furthermore, the outcome may advance the understanding of overly emotional interpretation of social signals in depression or schizophrenia by providing the missing link between body language reading and limbic pathways. The study thus opens an avenue for multidisciplinary research on social cognition and the underlying cerebrocerebellar networks, ranging from animal models to patients with neuropsychiatric conditions.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Another Big History - why the West is WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic)

Alas, I usually end up reading reviews of books rather than the books themselves. Here I want to pass on clips from Shulevitz's review in The Atlantic: of Joseph Henrich's theory-of-everything type book: "The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous." Henrich directs Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology.
Consider this the latest addition to the Big History category, popularized by best sellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The outstanding feature of the genre is that it wrangles all of human existence into a volume or two, starting with the first hominids to rise up on their hind legs and concluding with us, cyborg-ish occupants of a networked globe. Big History asks Big Questions and offers quasi-monocausal answers. Why and how did humans conquer the world? Harari asks. Cooperation. What explains differences and inequalities among civilizations? Diamond asks. Environment, which is to say, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Henrich also wants to explain variation among societies, in particular to account for the Western, prosperous kind.
One culture... is different from the others, and that’s modern WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic”) culture. Henrich’s ambition is tricky: to account for Western distinctiveness while undercutting Western arrogance. He rests his grand theory of cultural difference on an inescapable fact of the human condition: kinship, one of our species’ “oldest and most fundamental institutions.”...Higher-order institutions—governments and armies as well as religions—evolved from kin-based institutions...The Catholic Church changed all that. As of late antiquity, Europeans still lived in tribes, like most of the rest of the world. But the Church dismantled these kin-based societies with what Henrich calls its “Marriage and Family Program,..it meant quashing pagan practices such as polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula “I do”), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest.. ..Forced to find Christian partners, Christians left their communities. Christianity’s insistence on monogamy broke extended households into nuclear families. The Church uprooted horizontal, relational identity, replacing it with a vertical identity oriented toward the institution itself...Formerly, property almost always went to family members. The idea now took hold that it could go elsewhere. At the same time, the Church urged the wealthy to ensure their place in heaven by bequeathing their money to the poor—that is, to the Church, benefactor to the needy...The Church, thus enriched, spread across the globe...Loosened from their roots, people gathered in cities. There they developed “impersonal prosociality”—that is, they bonded with other city folk. They wrote city charters and formed professional guilds. Sometimes they elected leaders, the first inklings of representative democracy.
Why, if Italy has been Catholic for so long, did northern Italy become a prosperous banking center, while southern Italy stayed poor and was plagued by mafiosi? The answer, Henrich declares, is that southern Italy was never conquered by the Church-backed Carolingian empire. Sicily remained under Muslim rule and much of the rest of the south was controlled by the Orthodox Church until the papal hierarchy finally assimilated them both in the 11th century. This is why, according to Henrich, cousin marriage in the boot of Italy and Sicily is 10 times higher than in the north, and in most provinces in Sicily, hardly anyone donates blood (a measure of willingness to help strangers), while some northern provinces receive 105 donations of 16-ounce bags per 1,000 people per year.
Henrich’s most consequential—and startling—claim is that WEIRD and non-WEIRD people possess opposing cognitive styles. They think differently. Standing apart from the community, primed to break wholes into parts and classify them, Westerners are more analytical. People from kinship-intensive cultures, by comparison, tend to think more holistically.
Henrich is more persuasive when applying his theory of cumulative culture to the evolution of ideas. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights “didn’t start with fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians,” Henrich writes. “Instead, the ideas formed slowly, piece by piece, as regular Joes with more individualistic psychologies—be they monks, merchants, or artisans—began to form competing voluntary associations” and learned how to govern them. Toppling the accomplishments of Western civilization off their great-man platforms, he erases their claim to be monuments to rationality: Everything we think of as a cause of culture is really an effect of culture, including us.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy

Bartels does a survey (open source) that provides numbers and graphs on what is obvious from current news sources - the frailty of public commitment to democratic norms in the contemporary United States illustrated by the survey responses of 1,151 Republican identifiers and Republican-leaning Independents* interviewed in January 2020:  

Growing partisan polarization and democratic “backsliding” in various parts of the world have raised concerns about the attachment of ordinary Americans to democratic institutions and procedures. I find that substantial numbers of Republicans endorse statements contemplating violations of key democratic norms, including respect for the law and for the outcomes of elections and eschewing the use of force in pursuit of political ends. The strongest predictor by far of these antidemocratic attitudes is ethnic antagonism—especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The strong tendency of ethnocentric Republicans to countenance violence and lawlessness, even prospectively and hypothetically, underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics.
Most Republicans in a January 2020 survey agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40% agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” (In both cases, most of the rest said they were unsure; only one in four or five disagreed.) I use 127 survey items to measure six potential bases of these and other antidemocratic sentiments: partisan affect, enthusiasm for President Trump, political cynicism, economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, and ethnic antagonism. The strongest predictor by far, for the Republican rank-and-file as a whole and for a variety of subgroups defined by education, locale, sex, and political attitudes, is ethnic antagonism—especially concerns about the political power and claims on government resources of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos. The corrosive impact of ethnic antagonism on Republicans’ commitment to democracy underlines the significance of ethnic conflict in contemporary US politics.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Disagreeable people are not more likely than agreeable people to obtain power in an organization.

An interesting study from Anderson et al.:
Does being disagreeable—that is, behaving in aggressive, selfish, and manipulative ways—help people attain power? This question has long captivated philosophers, scholars, and laypeople alike, and yet prior empirical findings have been inconclusive. In the current research, we conducted two preregistered prospective longitudinal studies in which we measured participants’ disagreeableness prior to entering the labor market and then assessed the power they attained in the context of their work organization ∼14 y later when their professional careers had unfolded. Both studies found disagreeable individuals did not attain higher power as opposed to extraverted individuals who did gain higher power in their organizations. Furthermore, the null relationship between disagreeableness and power was not moderated by individual differences, such as gender or ethnicity, or by contextual variables, such as organizational culture. What can account for this null relationship? A close examination of behavior patterns in the workplace found that disagreeable individuals engaged in two distinct patterns of behavior that offset each other’s effects on power attainment: They engaged in more dominant-aggressive behavior, which positively predicted attaining higher power, but also engaged in less communal and generous behavior, which predicted attaining less power. These two effects, when combined, appeared to cancel each other out and led to a null correlation between disagreeableness and power.

Monday, September 14, 2020

"Us" versus "Them" in 17 month old infants.

Jin and Baillargeon make observations that suggest an early origin of the 'us and them' perspective being taken to extremes in our current polarized political climate:

We examined whether one mechanism contributing to ingroup favoritism might be an abstract and early-emerging sociomoral expectation of ingroup support. In violation-of-expectation experiments, 17-mo-old infants first watched third-party interactions among unfamiliar adults identified (using novel labels) as belonging to the same group, to different groups, or to unspecified groups. Next, one adult needed help, and another adult either did or did not provide it. Infants expected help to be provided when the two adults belonged to the same group, but held no expectation when the adults belonged to different groups or to unspecified groups. Infants thus already possess an abstract expectation of ingroup support, and this finding sheds light on one of the mechanisms underlying ingroup favoritism in human interactions.
One pervasive facet of human interactions is the tendency to favor ingroups over outgroups. Remarkably, this tendency has been observed even when individuals are assigned to minimal groups based on arbitrary markers. Why is mere categorization into a minimal group sufficient to elicit some degree of ingroup favoritism? We consider several accounts that have been proposed in answer to this question and then test one particular account, which holds that ingroup favoritism reflects in part an abstract and early-emerging sociomoral expectation of ingroup support. In violation-of-expectation experiments with 17-mo-old infants, unfamiliar women were first identified (using novel labels) as belonging to the same group, to different groups, or to unspecified groups. Next, one woman needed instrumental assistance to achieve her goal, and another woman either provided the necessary assistance (help event) or chose not to do so (ignore event). When the two women belonged to the same group, infants looked significantly longer if shown the ignore as opposed to the help event; when the two women belonged to different groups or to unspecified groups, however, infants looked equally at the two events. Together, these results indicate that infants view helping as expected among individuals from the same group, but as optional otherwise. As such, the results demonstrate that from an early age, an abstract expectation of ingroup support contributes to ingroup favoritism in human interactions.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Cognitive control increases honesty in cheaters but cheating in those who are honest

Abe discusses work of Speer et al. that probes:
..a long-standing paradox concerning the cognitive nature of honesty: Is it a matter of “will” or “grace”? The will hypothesis assumes that honesty requires cognitive control to suppress temptation to cheat, while dishonest behavior to serve self-interest is people’s automatic response. In contrast, the grace hypothesis assumes that honesty flows automatically without active resistance to temptation, while dishonest behavior is realized by cognitive control to override honest impulses.
Here is the Speer et al. abstract:
Every day, we are faced with the conflict between the temptation to cheat for financial gains and maintaining a positive image of ourselves as being a “good person.” While it has been proposed that cognitive control is needed to mediate this conflict between reward and our moral self-image, the exact role of cognitive control in (dis)honesty remains elusive. Here we identify this role, by investigating the neural mechanism underlying cheating. We developed a task which allows for inconspicuously measuring spontaneous cheating on a trial-by-trial basis in the MRI scanner. We found that activity in the nucleus accumbens promotes cheating, particularly for individuals who cheat a lot, while a network consisting of posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction, and medial prefrontal cortex promotes honesty, particularly in individuals who are generally honest. Finally, activity in areas associated with cognitive control (anterior cingulate cortex and inferior frontal gyrus) helped dishonest participants to be honest, whereas it enabled cheating for honest participants. Thus, our results suggest that cognitive control is not needed to be honest or dishonest per se but that it depends on an individual’s moral default.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Origins of human music - two perspectives

Because I wrote an article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (coauthored with Vadim Arshavsky), that was published in 2010, I receive the journal's calls for commentaries on forthcoming articles. Here I pass on the abstracts of two articles proposing evolutionary rationales for the origins of our human musical abilities.  Because I am a recital pianist I have always been interested in the origins and neuroscience of our musical faculties. In 2015 I agreed to give a lecture on 'Music and the Mind', generated thirty pages of fairly lucid text, became overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject, and backed out of doing the talk.  I'm curious to see whether a careful reading of these articles confirms that decision or inspires me to try again. 

Music as a coevolved system for social bonding
Why do humans make music? Theories of the evolution of musicality have focused mainly on the value of music for specific adaptive contexts such as mate selection, parental care, coalition signaling, and group cohesion. Synthesizing and extending previous proposals, we argue that social bonding is an overarching function that unifies all of these theories, and that musicality enabled social bonding at larger scales than grooming and other bonding mechanisms available in ancestral primate societies. We combine cross-disciplinary evidence from archaeology, anthropology, biology, musicology, psychology, and neuroscience into a unified framework that accounts for the biological and cultural evolution of music. We argue that the evolution of musicality involves gene-culture coevolution, through which proto-musical behaviors that initially arose and spread as cultural inventions had feedback effects on biological evolution due to their impact on social bonding. We emphasize the deep links between production, perception, prediction, and social reward arising from repetition, synchronization, and harmonization of rhythms and pitches, and summarize empirical evidence for these links at the levels of brain networks, physiological mechanisms, and behaviors across cultures and across species. Finally, we address potential criticisms and make testable predictions for future research, including neurobiological bases of musicality and relationships between human music, language, animal song, and other domains. The music and social bonding (MSB) hypothesis provides the most comprehensive theory to date of the biological and cultural evolution of music.
Origins of music in credible signaling
Music comprises a diverse category of cognitive phenomena that likely represent both the effects of psychological adaptations that are specific to music (e.g., rhythmic entrainment) and the effects of adaptations for non-musical functions (e.g., auditory scene analysis). How did music evolve? Here, we show that prevailing views on the evolution of music — that music is a byproduct of other evolved faculties, evolved for social bonding, or evolved to signal mate quality — are incomplete or wrong. We argue instead that music evolved as a credible signal in at least two contexts: coalitional interactions and infant care. Specifically, we propose that (1) the production and reception of coordinated, entrained rhythmic displays is a co-evolved system for credibly signaling coalition strength, size, and coordination ability; and (2) the production and reception of infant-directed song is a co-evolved system for credibly signaling parental attention to secondarily altricial infants. These proposals, supported by interdisciplinary evidence, suggest that basic features of music, such as melody and rhythm, result from adaptations in the proper domain of human music. The adaptations provide a foundation for the cultural evolution of music in its actual domain, yielding the diversity of musical forms and musical behaviors found worldwide.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The science of inequality.

Economic inequality is a continuing focus of political debate, and I think a re-post of a brief MindBlog item from 6/2/2014 is relevant:

The May 23 issue of Science Magazine has a large section devoted the origins and analysis of economic inequality. And, the general gist of virtually all the articles is that inequality is here to stay, predicted by social and also simple physical models of exchange. A weekly chaos and complexity discussion group that I attend just this past Tuesday discussed the economic Yard-Sale Model of wealth redistribution, in which power-law-like distributions result even when all individuals are identical and playing by the same rules. In a previous post, I have passed on a simple model illustrated by Clint Sprott, organizer of the seminars.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Predicting results of our presidential election.

I want to pass on an email from retired historian Lou Wangberg, a friend from my Fort Lauderdale period who leads a history discussion group there. He gives links to analyses by The Economist magazine and Mind Matters A.I.
Between now and the election on November 3rd you will see literally countless polls and forecasts. You see, as humans we hate to live with uncertainty. We want to know in advance what is ahead for us. And it is a legitimate question to ask, "Which poll(s) should I pay attention to? "Which poll(s) will be most on target?" the answer is NONE OF THEM. In the end virtually all of them will be wrong for one reason or another. That is why we hold elections. But I have found one that is more sophisticated than the rest and uses 20,000 factors. It also goes day by day so it is interesting to watch. So give this one a try and you will at least have something you can quote in your discussions (arguments) with friends. I'm going to share an additional link that will explain why most predictions are bogus. Enjoy! Here are the links:
The Economist - Forecasting the US elections
Mind Matters - Election Models: Predicting the past is easy - and useless

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The illusion of objectivity enhances political polarization.

From Schwalbe et al. (open source):  

Political polarization increasingly threatens democratic institutions. The belief that “my side” sees the world objectively while the “other side” sees it through the lens of its biases contributes to this political polarization and accompanying animus and distrust. This conviction, known as the “objectivity illusion,” was strong and persistent among Trump and Clinton supporters in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election. We show that the objectivity illusion predicts subsequent bias and polarization, including heightened partisanship over the presidential debates. A follow-up study showed that both groups impugned the objectivity of a putative blog author supporting the opposition candidate and saw supporters of that opposing candidate as evil.
Two studies conducted during the 2016 presidential campaign examined the dynamics of the objectivity illusion, the belief that the views of “my side” are objective while the views of the opposing side are the product of bias. In the first, a three-stage longitudinal study spanning the presidential debates, supporters of the two candidates exhibited a large and generally symmetrical tendency to rate supporters of the candidate they personally favored as more influenced by appropriate (i.e., “normative”) considerations, and less influenced by various sources of bias than supporters of the opposing candidate. This study broke new ground by demonstrating that the degree to which partisans displayed the objectivity illusion predicted subsequent bias in their perception of debate performance and polarization in their political attitudes over time, as well as closed-mindedness and antipathy toward political adversaries. These associations, furthermore, remained significant even after controlling for baseline levels of partisanship. A second study conducted 2 d before the election showed similar perceptions of objectivity versus bias in ratings of blog authors favoring the candidate participants personally supported or opposed. These ratings were again associated with polarization and, additionally, with the willingness to characterize supporters of the opposing candidate as evil and likely to commit acts of terrorism. At a time of particular political division and distrust in America, these findings point to the exacerbating role played by the illusion of objectivity.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Mechanisms of our current political polarization.

I want to point to three sources that provide complimentary perspectives on the origins and maintenance of the extreme Red versus Blue divide in the U.S.:

The first is a freakonomics podcast, with a text version also offered,  describing how Republicans and Democrats form a duopoly analogous to Coke and Pepsi, Intel and AMD, Boeing and Airbus, etc.
"America's Hidden Duopoly - We all know our political system is “broken” — but what if that’s not true? Some say the Republicans and Democrats constitute a wildly successful industry that has colluded to kill off competition, stifle reform, and drive the country apart.  So, what can we do about it?
A second perspective is offered by Yang et al., who provide a "Satisficing" Dynamical Model of why U.S. political parties are so polarized. Here is a summary by Clint Sprott of the Univ. of Wisc. Chaos and Complex Systems Discussion Group:
Basically, it contends that when the parties are too centrist and too inclusive, voters with extreme views find little reason to choose one over the other and either abstain from voting or vote randomly. Thus it is advantageous for the parties to move off center to pick up more of these voters. In the coming election, most people long ago decided which side they are on. Thus all the parties can hope to do at this point is to induce those who lean in their direction to get out and vote. Would mandatory voting reduce polarization? Why is the popular vote usually so close to 50/50?
And finally, a book by Achen and Bartels, "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government." From the book description:
Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens.
Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters―even those who are well informed and politically engaged―mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents' control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

The active grandparent hypothesis - an evolutionary explanation of why and how exercise delays senescence and death.

I recommend that you read an interesting article by Daniel Lieberman in the current issue of Harvard Magazine. Here are a few clips:
The evidence that hunter-gatherers stay physically active for several decades after they stop having children is fundamental for understanding the nature of human aging. Most especially, our uniquely cooperative system of intergenerational cooperation and food-sharing postpones Medawar’s grim shadow. Instead of becoming obsolete, middle-aged and elderly hunter-gatherers bolster their reproductive success by provisioning children and grandchildren, doing childcare, processing food, passing on expertise, and otherwise helping younger generations. Once this novel cooperative strategy—the essence of the hunting and gathering way of life—started to emerge during the Stone Age, natural selection had the chance to select for longevity. According to this theory, hard-working and helpful grandparents who looked out for others and who were blessed with genes that favored a long life had more children and grandchildren, thus passing on those genes. Over time, humans were evidently selected to live longer to be generous, useful grandparents. One version of this idea is known as the Grandmother Hypothesis in recognition of the evidence that grandmothers play especially important roles.
In order to elucidate the links between exercise and aging, I propose a corollary to the Grandmother Hypothesis, which I call the Active Grandparent Hypothesis. According to this idea, human longevity was not only selected for but was also made possible by having to work hard during old age to help as many children, grandchildren, and other younger relatives as possible survive and thrive. That is, while there may have been selection for genes (as yet unidentified) that help humans live past the age of 50, there was also selection for genes that repair and maintain our bodies when we are physically active. As a result, many of the mechanisms that slow aging and extend life are turned on by physical activity, especially as we get older. Human health and longevity are thus extended both by and for physical activity.
While exercise restores most structures (what biologists term homeostasis), in some cases it may create stability by making things even better than before (allostasis). For example, demanding physical activities can increase the strength of bones and muscles, increase cells’ abilities to uptake glucose from the blood, and both augment and replace mitochondria in muscles. In addition, repair mechanisms sometimes overshoot the damage induced by exercise, leading to a net benefit. It’s like scrubbing the kitchen floor so well after a spill that the whole floor ends up being cleaner. All in all, the modest physiological stresses caused by exercise trigger a reparative response yielding a general benefit, a phenomenon sometimes known as hormesis.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Changes as MindBlog's autonomic nervous system ages 11 years

Actually, the original title of this MindBlog post on June 11, 2013 was "Changes as an autonomic nervous system ages 11 years - The "Wild Divine" is a bit less wild." - I'm reviewing old MindBlog posts (very slowly, as it turns out) and in most cases resisting the temptation to re-post even ones I thinks are quite interesting. This personal one really hit me, owever, so I pass it on, wondering how much further the noted decrease in my ability to regulate autonomic nervous system parameters has progressed by age 78:

Just after I retired from being a Univ. of Wisconsin department chair in 2001 I bought a set of finger sensors that fit on one's three middle fingers to report skin conductance and heartbeat to a PC or MAC via an A/D converter. These were part of a package with several CDs that installed a new age game on the computer that lead you through a rich environment of classical greek temples and waterfalls, attended by soothing music, that presented tasks in which you dinked with your own heart rate variability and sympathetic (arousing)/parasympathetic (calming) balance, going alternatively through periods of calm and arousal. I thought it was a hoot, and took the time to go through the "Journey to Wild Divine: passage" and "Journey to Wild Divine: Wisdom Quest."

Some of the current incarnations of these programs have moved to web browsers. Over the years a number of heavy weight new age gurus have signed on with their wares - Deepak Chopra, Dean Ornish, and Andrew Weil (Weil was in my Harvard graduating class...I'm tempted, but I won't burden you with my jaded opinion of this class of entrepreneurs, particularly Mr. Chopra.)

The main point of this post is note my experience on pulling out the finger sensors after 11 years trying the same exercises in their new presentation. What's the difference when this 71 year old tries the same manipulations of calm and arousal that the 60 year old played with with 11 years earlier? In a nutshell, I have less command over heart rate variability, which is lower, as the swings between calm and arousal have less amplitude.

And indeed, this fits with the literature on changes in the autonomic nervous system that occur on aging. If you simply do a google search for "autonomic nervous system and aging" numerous references appear that document how healthy aging is associated with lowered heart rate variability, elevated basal sympathetic nervous activity, and reduction of overall autonomic reactivity of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Here is a very recent review, from which I pass on one figure:

Schematic of proposed features associated with the imbalance in the autonomic nervous system during aging. During aging there is a shift in the balance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) towards the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This may be influenced by circulating or local brain levels of angiotensin (Ang) II and leptin. The lower activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is proposed to result at least in part from an age-related decline in Angiotensin-(1–7). Lower Angiotensin-(1–7) and higher Ang II or leptin in the brain medulla would predispose to a decline in baroreceptor reflex sensitivity (BRS) for control of heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV), both of which are associated with aging. Moreover, impairments in BRS and HRV can contribute to target organ damage, including metabolic dysfunction, with or without an increase in blood pressure. 

If you're inclined, like Mr. Dylan Thomas, to not "go gently into that good night" you can find numerous sources (example here) on slowing these aging changes, usually by some sort of physical movement or stimulation.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Reconsidering the value of believing in free will.

Nadelhoffer et al. fail to replicate 2008 experiments suggesting that a belief in determinish increases cheating:
A key source of support for the view that challenging people's beliefs about free will may undermine moral behavior is two classic studies by Vohs and Schooler (2008). These authors reported that exposure to certain prompts suggesting that free will is an illusion increased cheating behavior. In the present paper, we report several attempts to replicate this influential and widely cited work. Over a series of five studies (sample sizes of N = 162, N = 283, N = 268, N = 804, N = 982) (four preregistered) we tested the relationship between (1) anti-free-will prompts and free will beliefs and (2) free will beliefs and immoral behavior. Our primary task was to closely replicate the findings from Vohs and Schooler (2008) using the same or highly similar manipulations and measurements as the ones used in their original studies. Our efforts were largely unsuccessful. We suggest that manipulating free will beliefs in a robust way is more difficult than has been implied by prior work, and that the proposed link with immoral behavior may not be as consistent as previous work suggests.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A brief history of risk

Li, Hills, and Hertwig do an open access review with the title of this post. From their introductory paragraph:
...First, we examined how the frequency of the word risk has changed over historical time. Is the construct of risk playing an ever-increasing role in the public discourse, as the sociological notion of a ‘risk society’ suggests? Second, we investigated how the sentiments for the words co-occurring with risk have changed. Are the connotations of risk becoming increasingly ominous? Third, how has the meaning of risk changed relative to close associates such as danger and hazard? Is risk more subject to semantic change? Finally, we decompose the construct of risk into the specific topics with which it has been associated and track those topics over historical time. This brief history of the semantics of risk reveals new and surprising insights—a fourfold increase in frequency, increasingly negative sentiment, a semantic drift toward forecasting and prevention, and a shift away from war toward chronic disease—reflecting the conceptual evolution of risk in the archeological records of public discourse.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Getting the rhythm to suppress Alzheimer's

An interesting brief open source review by Lynne Peeples in PNAS describes experiments on mice and humans showing that visual and sound stimulation in the e.e.g gamma frequency range (30-80 Hertz, or cycles/sec, peaking at 40 Hz) elicits gamma frequency brain oscillation, enhance cognition, and diminishes levels of the amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles associated with Alzheismer's. The article is worth a read, and I pass on just a bit of a background paragraph:
Brain rhythms are known to participate in all forms of cognition. And changes of brain rhythms appear to be implicated in all forms of neurological disease...Growing evidence indicates that neurons in many animals, including humans, can strongly synchronize in the gamma range of frequencies—between 30 and 80 hertz, and peaking around 40 hertz. As far back as a 1955 study of meditating yogis, researchers have associated gamma waves with peak concentration and high levels of cognitive functioning. Studies in the last decade that manipulated brain rhythms in lab animals and humans have confirmed the impact of those rhythms on cognition and disease. Researchers have also found that fewer neurons fire together at this rate in patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological conditions, suggesting that gamma rhythms may play a role in the cognitive impairments associated with such disorders.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Rice-farming predicts tigher social norms, less innovative thinking, worldwide

From Talhelm and English (open source):
Data recently published in PNAS mapped out regional differences in the tightness of social norms across China [R. Y. J. Chua, K. G. Huang, M. Jin, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 6720–6725 (2019)]. Norms were tighter in developed, urbanized areas and weaker in rural areas. We tested whether historical paddy rice farming has left a legacy on social norms in modern China. Premodern rice farming could plausibly create strong social norms because paddy rice relied on irrigation networks. Rice farmers coordinated their water use and kept track of each person’s labor contributions. Rice villages also established strong norms of reciprocity to cope with labor demands that were twice as high as dryland crops like wheat. In line with this theory, China’s historically rice-farming areas had tighter social norms than wheat-farming areas, even beyond differences in development and urbanization. Rice–wheat differences were just as large among people in 10 neighboring provinces (n = 3,835) along the rice–wheat border. These neighboring provinces differ sharply in rice and wheat, but little in latitude, temperature, and other potential confounding variables. Outside of China, rice farming predicted norm tightness in 32 countries around the world. Finally, people in rice-farming areas scored lower on innovative thinking, which tends to be lower in societies with tight norms. This natural test case within China might explain why East Asia—historically reliant on rice farming—has tighter social norms than the wheat-farming West.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Stable isotopes in hair reveal dietary divergence related to socioeconomic status and health

From Ehleringer et al.:
Carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in hair sampled from 65 communities across the central and intermountain regions of the United States and more intensively throughout 29 ZIP codes in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah, revealed a dietary divergence related to socioeconomic status as measured by cost of living, household income, and adjusted gross income. Corn-fed, animal-derived proteins were more common in the diets of lower socioeconomic status populations than were plant-derived proteins, with individual estimates of animal-derived protein diets as high as 75%; United States towns and cities averaged 57%. Similar patterns were seen across the socioeconomic status spectrum in the Salt Lake Valley. It is likely that corn-fed animal proteins were associated with concentrated animal-feeding operations, a common practice for industrial animal production in the United States today. Given recent studies highlighting the negative impacts of animal-derived proteins in our diets, hair carbon isotope ratios could provide an approach for scaling assessments of animal-sourced foods and health risks in communities across the United States.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Gaze deflection reveals how gaze cueing is tuned to extract the mind behind the eyes

Here is a fascinating bit from Colombatto et al.:  

We report an empirical study of gaze deflection—a common experience in which you turn to look in a different direction when someone “catches” you staring at them. We show that gaze cueing (the automatic orienting of attention to locations at which others are looking) is far weaker for such displays, even when the actual eye and head movements are identical to more typical intentional gazes. This demonstrates how gaze cueing is driven by the perception of minds, not eyes, and it serves as a case study of both how social dynamics can shape visual attention in a sophisticated manner and how vision science can contribute to our understanding of common social phenomena.
Suppose you are surreptitiously looking at someone, and then when they catch you staring at them, you immediately turn away. This is a social phenomenon that almost everyone experiences occasionally. In such experiences—which we will call gaze deflection—the “deflected” gaze is not directed at anything in particular but simply away from the other person. As such, this is a rare instance where we may turn to look in a direction without intending to look there specifically. Here we show that gaze cues are markedly less effective at orienting an observer’s attention when they are seen as deflected in this way—even controlling for low-level visual properties. We conclude that gaze cueing is a sophisticated mental phenomenon: It is not merely driven by perceived eye or head motions but is rather well tuned to extract the “mind” behind the eyes.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Effects of lockdown on human sleep and chronotype during the COVID-19 pandemic

An open source article in Current Biology from Leone et al., the summary:
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many countries imposing a lockdown, which in turn reduces sunlight exposure and alters daily social schedules. Since these are the main entrainment factors for biological rhythms, we hypothesized that the lockdown may have affected sleep and circadian rhythms. We indeed show that participants slept longer and later during lockdown weekdays, and exhibited lower levels of social jetlag. While this may seem to be an overall improvement of sleep conditions, chronotype was also delayed under the lockdown. This signature of a weaker light–dark cycle should be monitored attentively since it may progressively cause disruptive effects on sleep and circadian rhythms, affecting human performance and health.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A model shows herd immunity to COVID can be achieved at a population-wide infection rate of ~40%

I pass on the editor's summary and the abstract for a open source article by Britton et al.:  

Heterogeneity and herd immunity
In response to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), some politicians have been keen to exploit the idea of achieving herd immunity. Countering this possibility are estimates derived from work on historical vaccination studies, which suggest that herd immunity may only be achieved at an unacceptable cost of lives. Because human populations are far from homogeneous, Britton et al. show that by introducing age and activity heterogeneities into population models for SARS-CoV-2, herd immunity can be achieved at a population-wide infection rate of ∼40%, considerably lower than previous estimates. This shift is because transmission and immunity are concentrated among the most active members of a population, who are often younger and less vulnerable. If nonpharmaceutical interventions are very strict, no herd immunity is achieved, and infections will then resurge if they are eased too quickly.
Despite various levels of preventive measures, in 2020, many countries have suffered severely from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus. Using a model, we show that population heterogeneity can affect disease-induced immunity considerably because the proportion of infected individuals in groups with the highest contact rates is greater than that in groups with low contact rates. We estimate that if R0 = 2.5 in an age-structured community with mixing rates fitted to social activity, then the disease-induced herd immunity level can be ~43%, which is substantially less than the classical herd immunity level of 60% obtained through homogeneous immunization of the population. Our estimates should be interpreted as an illustration of how population heterogeneity affects herd immunity rather than as an exact value or even a best estimate.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Philanthropy—or tax-exempt lobbying?

I pass on this piece by Brad Wible from the Editors' Choice section of the current issue of Science Magazine:
Major corporations appear to fund their charitable foundations in part to cater to politicians who are important to the firm's profitability. Integrating corporate tax returns, lobbying data, and data on U.S. congressional committee assignments, Bertrand et al. show that donations from a given corporate-funded foundation to charities in a particular congressional representative's district, or for which a congressional representative is a board member, ebb and flow according to whether the representative sits on a committee that is of interest to the corporation. The patterns parallel spending by political action committees (PACs). Around 7% of charitable giving (∼$1.2 billion annually) appears to be politically motivated, amounting to about 2.5 times the annual PAC spending and one-third of the total federal lobbying spending—and it is tax exempt and thus subsidized by taxpayers.
Am. Econ. Rev. 110, 2065 (2020).

Monday, August 17, 2020

Our default-mode network contains nine subnetworks serving different cognitive tasks.

Our brains are organized into large networks that can be identified during brain scanning. The default mode network, which has been the subject of many MindBlog posts (try the Blog's search function in the left column), engages a large number of inwardly directed cognitive functions such as mind-wandering, autobiographical and social thinking, memory, and reward. Gordon et al. now do resting-state functional connectivity studies distinguishing nine subnetworks with different specializations:

The human brain is organized into large networks. One important brain network is the Default network, which enables cognitive functions such as social thinking, memory, and reward. In group-averaged data, this network emerges as a unitary whole, despite its involvement in multiple cognitive functions. Here, we tested whether Default networks found in individual humans, rather than group-average networks, contain organized substructure. In individuals, we consistently found nine subnetworks within the Default network. These subnetworks matched brain activity patterns during cognitive tasks. Some subnetworks resembled brain circuits involved in specific Default functions. Others linked Default network to other large networks. In summary, this study describes a set of brain circuits within the Default networks of individual humans.
The human brain is organized into large-scale networks identifiable using resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC). These functional networks correspond with broad cognitive domains; for example, the Default-mode network (DMN) is engaged during internally oriented cognition. However, functional networks may contain hierarchical substructures corresponding with more specific cognitive functions. Here, we used individual-specific precision RSFC to test whether network substructures could be identified in 10 healthy human brains. Across all subjects and networks, individualized network subdivisions were more valid—more internally homogeneous and better matching spatial patterns of task activation—than canonical networks. These measures of validity were maximized at a hierarchical scale that contained ∼83 subnetworks across the brain. At this scale, nine DMN subnetworks exhibited topographical similarity across subjects, suggesting that this approach identifies homologous neurobiological circuits across individuals. Some DMN subnetworks matched known features of brain organization corresponding with cognitive functions. Other subnetworks represented separate streams by which DMN couples with other canonical large-scale networks, including language and control networks. Together, this work provides a detailed organizational framework for studying the DMN in individual humans.

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Neurobiology of Social Distance

Bzdok and Dunbar (open source) do a definitive review of evidence that psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationship is crucial for survival. Dunbar is well known for his demonstration of the correlation between the size of social groups and the brain size of their members, which places the natural size of groups of humans at ~150 (roughly the size of human hunter gatherer groups whose isolation has permitted them to survive into the modern era. The number of friends and family relationships we can manage at any given time is limited by our cognitive constraints to ~150). Their summary:
From babies to the elderly, psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationships is crucial for survival.
Insufficient social stimulation affects reasoning and memory performance, hormone homeostasis, brain grey/white matter connectivity and function, as well as resilience to physical and mental disease.
Feelings of loneliness can spread through a social network, causing negatively skewed social perception, escalating morbidity and mortality, and, in older people, precipitating the onset of dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease).

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Placebos without deception reduce self-report and neural measures of emotional distress

Interesting work from Guevarra et al. (open source):
Several recent studies suggest that placebos administered without deception (i.e., non-deceptive placebos) can help people manage a variety of highly distressing clinical disorders and nonclinical impairments. However, whether non-deceptive placebos represent genuine psychobiological effects is unknown. Here we address this issue by demonstrating across two experiments that during a highly arousing negative picture viewing task, non-deceptive placebos reduce both a self-report and neural measure of emotional distress, the late positive potential. These results show that non-deceptive placebo effects are not merely a product of response bias. Additionally, they provide insight into the neural time course of non-deceptive placebo effects on emotional distress and the psychological mechanisms that explain how they function.
Here is a description from their text of the EEG signals measured:
The LPP is an electroencephalogram (EEG) derived event-related brain potential (ERP) response that measures millisecond changes in the neural activity involved in emotional processing. The early-time window of the LPP (400–1000 ms) indexes attention allocation34; the sustained time window (1000–6000 ms) indexes conscious appraisals and meaning-making mechanisms involved in emotion processing34,35 and is consistently downregulated by cognitive emotion regulation strategies. Consistent with its role in immediate attentional orienting responses to emotional stimuli and later appraisal processes, neural sources of the LPP include both the amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex41. Thus, the LPP is ideally suited to help examine the neural mechanisms and time course of non-deceptive placebo effects on emotional distress.
And, conditions presented to participants:
In both experiments, we randomly assigned participants to either a non-deceptive placebo group or a control group. Participants in the non-deceptive placebo group read about placebo effects and were then asked to inhale a nasal spray consisting of saline solution. They were told that the nasal spray was a placebo that contained no active ingredients, but would help reduce their negative emotional reactions to viewing distressing images if they believed it would. Participants in the control group read about the neural processes underlying the experience of pain and were also asked to inhale the same saline solution spray; however, they were told that the purpose of the nasal spray was to improve the clarity of the physiological readings we were recording in the study. The articles were matched for narrative structure, emotional content, and length

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Personality dimensions are predicted by cell phone usage data

From Stachi et al.:  

Smartphones are sensor-rich computers that can easily be used to collect extensive records of behaviors, posing serious threats to individuals’ privacy. This study examines the extent to which individuals’ personality dimensions (assessed at broad domain and narrow facet levels) can be predicted from six classes of behavior: 1) communication and social behavior, 2) music consumption, 3) app usage, 4) mobility, 5) overall phone activity, and 6) day- and night-time activity, in a large sample. The cross-validated results show which Big Five personality dimensions are predictable and which specific patterns of behavior are indicative of which dimensions, revealing communication and social behavior as most predictive overall. Our results highlight the benefits and dangers posed by the widespread collection of smartphone data.
Smartphones enjoy high adoption rates around the globe. Rarely more than an arm’s length away, these sensor-rich devices can easily be repurposed to collect rich and extensive records of their users’ behaviors (e.g., location, communication, media consumption), posing serious threats to individual privacy. Here we examine the extent to which individuals’ Big Five personality dimensions can be predicted on the basis of six different classes of behavioral information collected via sensor and log data harvested from smartphones. Taking a machine-learning approach, we predict personality at broad domain and narrow facet levels based on behavioral data collected from 624 volunteers over 30 consecutive days (25,347,089 logging events). Our cross-validated results reveal that specific patterns in behaviors in the domains of 1) communication and social behavior, 2) music consumption, 3) app usage, 4) mobility, 5) overall phone activity, and 6) day- and night-time activity are distinctively predictive of the Big Five personality traits. The accuracy of these predictions is similar to that found for predictions based on digital footprints from social media platforms and demonstrates the possibility of obtaining information about individuals’ private traits from behavioral patterns passively collected from their smartphones. Overall, our results point to both the benefits (e.g., in research settings) and dangers (e.g., privacy implications, psychological targeting) presented by the widespread collection and modeling of behavioral data obtained from smartphones.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Conversational primes influence choices - a magic trick example

From Pailhès and Kuhn:

Past research demonstrates that unconscious primes can affect people’s decisions. However, these free choice priming paradigms present participants with very few alternatives. Magicians’ forcing techniques provide a powerful tool to investigate how natural implicit primes can unconsciously influence decisions with multiple alternatives. We used video and live performances of the mental priming force. This technique uses subtle nonverbal and verbal conversational primes to influence spectators to choose the three of diamonds. Our results show that a large number of participants chose the target card while reporting feeling free and in control of their choice. Even when they were influenced by the primes, participants typically failed to give the reason for their choice. These results show that naturally embedding primes within a person’s speech and gestures effectively influenced people’s decision making. This raises the possibility that this form of mind control could be used to effectively manipulate other mental processes.
From the text of the article:
Magic tricks provide a valuable tool to investigate psychological processes within a highly natural environment. Most magic principles rely on tightly structured action and language scripts, which allow researchers to investigate psychological processes (e.g., priming, attention, and perception) under controlled, yet realistic conditions. Forcing refers to conjuring techniques that allow magicians to covertly influence a spectator’s choice, and they provide unique tools to investigate how primes unconsciously influence people’s decisions when there is a broad range of alternatives (i.e., 52 playing cards). Many of these forces are commonly used within a magic performance context, but only a few have been empirically investigated. In this paper, we examine a forcing technique that relies on subtle conversational nonverbal and verbal primes: the mental priming force. This force was created by British illusionist Derren Brown, and uses subtle verbal and nonverbal primes to influence the spectator to think about the three of diamonds (see figure).

We recruited 90 participants (62 women) who were randomly allocated to the video or live performance groups. After watching the performance, participants were asked to write down the card they chose ...Overall, 17.8% of the participants chose the three of diamonds, 38.9% chose a three (all suits combined) and 33.3% chose a diamond (all numbers combined). The three of diamonds was the most commonly chosen card, closely followed by the three of hearts. To carry out statistical analyses, we compared these results to a condition in which participants were asked to choose a card after watching a video of the same performer and script without using any specific prime (0 out of 23 named the three of diamonds.)
Our results illustrate that the mental priming force significantly influenced participants’ choice among a large number of alternatives, and it works just as effectively when presented on video compared to when it is performed by a real person. Eighteen percent of our participants chose the target card, and most were oblivious to the force itself. Indeed, even though the force resulted in a ninefold increase chance of participants choosing the three of diamonds, participants reported that their choice was free and that they were in control of it. Investigating the way implicit cues unconsciously influence people’s thoughts provides important insights into the nature of human cognition.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Paradoxical Role of Social Capital in the Coronavirus Pandemic

I suggest you read an insightful article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker with the title of this post. He begins with an interesting comparison of the King James Version of the Bible having the angels proclaiming "On earth peace, goodwill toward men" versus more militant Bibles that render the Greek phrase as "Peace on earth to men of goodwill" and asks "Is the happy news that of Heaven's dispensation of ever-increasing trust toward all people? Or is it a special favor restricted to those already possessed of good will toward us?" He goes on to examine:
...the relationship between the perniciousness of the plague and the presence or the absence of social capital in the places that suffer it. Are places that have high levels of social trust and strong institutions of civil society doing any better than those that don’t? Does good will toward men help fight the virus, or does it make no difference what the angels sing?
...the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.
It’s a paradox of place: people who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end. A striking study in Italy, for instance, found that places with high existing “civic capital” tended to “display greater mobility”—that is, people travelled around more—than places without it. But, “as soon as the threat of the virus became real, communities with high civic capital started to self-restrain and to internalize the risk of propagating the infection through social contacts.” Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers... We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.
In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded. In Donald Trump’s government, favor flows from the head of state only to men of good will, i.e., those whom he considers to be on his side. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction.
The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.
The disasters that have left America with far more COVID-19 deaths and a far higher per-capita infection rate than other rich countries have many causes and many lessons, acting, as they do, as an X-ray of our social inequality. But the seemingly unstoppable spread of the illness shows the cost, too, of actively looting our already diminished supply of social capital. Destroy our commonplace civilization, and the larger civilization around it will collapse, too. Where we struggle to create good will toward our fellow-citizens, illness rises and then abates. Where we encourage it only toward our kind, illness increases. It is a simple formula, though, by now, so much a matter of life and death that it would leave the angels, all of them, weeping to watch it.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Working memory capacity predicts individual differences in social-distancing compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic

Xie et al. suggest that non-compliance is associated with limitations in people's mental capacity to simultaneously retain multiple pieces of information in working memory (WM) for rational decision making that leads to social-distancing compliance.:

Before vaccination and other intervention measures become available, successful containment of an unknown infectious disease critically relies on people’s voluntary compliance with the recommended social-distancing guidelines. This involves a decision process of prioritizing the merits of social distancing over its costs, which may depend on one’s ability to compare multiple pieces of potentially conflicting information regarding social distancing in working memory. Our data support this hypothesis, highlighting the critical role of one’s working memory capacity in social-distancing compliance during the early stage of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. This observation reveals a core cognitive limitation in one’s response to a public health crisis and suggests a possible cognitive venue for the development of strategies to mitigate this challenge.
Noncompliance with social distancing during the early stage of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic poses a great challenge to the public health system. These noncompliance behaviors partly reflect people’s concerns for the inherent costs of social distancing while discounting its public health benefits. We propose that this oversight may be associated with the limitation in one’s mental capacity to simultaneously retain multiple pieces of information in working memory (WM) for rational decision making that leads to social-distancing compliance. We tested this hypothesis in 850 United States residents during the first 2 wk following the presidential declaration of national emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that participants’ social-distancing compliance at this initial stage could be predicted by individual differences in WM capacity, partly due to increased awareness of benefits over costs of social distancing among higher WM capacity individuals. Critically, the unique contribution of WM capacity to the individual differences in social-distancing compliance could not be explained by other psychological and socioeconomic factors (e.g., moods, personality, education, and income levels). Furthermore, the critical role of WM capacity in social-distancing compliance can be generalized to the compliance with another set of rules for social interactions, namely the fairness norm, in Western cultures. Collectively, our data reveal contributions of a core cognitive process underlying social-distancing compliance during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting a potential cognitive venue for developing strategies to mitigate a public health crisis.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

The coming de facto world government?

David J. Lynch does a fascinating description, which I strongly suggest that you read, of
How a little-known company kept Apple products on the market — and previewed a future less dependent on China...The little-known, Singapore-based company had to improvise when the coronavirus started spreading in China to make sure their operations didn't collapse. Its journey through the pandemic illuminates how globalization could evolve.
The main force for stability in the emerging world order may be the vast global network of buyers and suppliers that continually shifts its loci of operations as competing nation states flail about, imagining that they are running the show, while the distributed intelligence of smaller more local units of function, integrated by cloud-based systems analyzing supply and demand, is actually what matters. Lynch's article describes the remarkable ability of Singapore based Flex Ltd. (160,000 workers, 100 facilities in 30 different countries, annual revenue over $24 billion) to adapt to the sudden shut down of its China operations (50,000 workers) supplying Apple. (Flex has been making Mac Pros in an Austin TX plant since 2013 - the plant Trump claimed to have opened on a Nov. 2019 visit, proving he was bringing back high paying jobs to America.)
...as Flex’s evolution demonstrates, the pandemic did not — and likely will not — end globalization. Instead, it turbocharged trends that already were in motion when the virus first flared, including a diminishing reliance on China...Armed with data and facing a perilous world, more companies recalculated the balance between cost and resilience, between efficiency of production and certainty of delivery, and imagined a less-China-centric economy.
From a Flex command post in Milpitas, Calif., Lynn Torrel, the company’s chief procurement officer, monitors 16,000 suppliers and more than 1 million individual items using a data analytics tool called Pulse. Introduced in 2015, the cloud-based system gobbles data from 88 sources, providing a cohesive view of the multinational’s operation. Arrayed on a wall, 22 video screens provided near-real-time information on every .0005-cent screw and each integrated circuit costing hundreds of dollars...Each weekday on a 5:30 a.m. conference call, Torrel and the logistics team juggles priorities as the virus disrupts their tightly choreographed network.
The subsequent text describes the amazing flexibility and resilience of Flex's response to constantly shifting patterns of travel restrictions and country specific shutdowns and openings.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Conserved aspects of sex-biased brain development in humans and mice

It is a pity that in our current political environment any scientist adding to the abundant evidence of brain differences between the sexes runs the risk of being "cancelled" as an unredeemable sexist by the "woke" intelligentsia. Mostly, however, work of the sort described by Liu et al. remains under or outside of their radar, and is consumed only by fellow scientists and the scientifically literate. I pass on their summary statements, and here is a link to a neat movie showing their data, which is also downloadable as an mp3 file. The caption to the video: "Movie of continuous coronal slices shows overlapping significant sex differences in human GMV (gray matter volume) - with male larger than female shown as cyan, and female greater than male shown as yellow.)


Sex differences in brain organization are theoretically important for our understanding of sex differences in human cognition and behavior. However, neurobiological sex differences have been easier to characterize in mice than in humans. Recent murine work has revealed a highly reproducible spatial patterning of gray matter volume (GMV) sex differences that is centered on systems for socioreproductive behavior and correlated with regional expression of sex chromosome genes. We integrate neuroimaging and transcriptomic data to establish that these same characteristics also apply to GMV sex differences in humans. These findings establish conserved aspects of sex-biased brain development in humans and mice, and update our understanding of the consistency, candidate causes, and potential functional corollaries of sex-biased brain anatomy in humans.
Humans display reproducible sex differences in cognition and behavior, which may partly reflect intrinsic sex differences in regional brain organization. However, the consistency, causes and consequences of sex differences in the human brain are poorly characterized and hotly debated. In contrast, recent studies in mice—a major model organism for studying neurobiological sex differences—have established: 1) highly consistent sex biases in regional gray matter volume (GMV) involving the cortex and classical subcortical foci, 2) a preponderance of regional GMV sex differences in brain circuits for social and reproductive behavior, and 3) a spatial coupling between regional GMV sex biases and brain expression of sex chromosome genes in adulthood. Here, we directly test translatability of rodent findings to humans. First, using two independent structural-neuroimaging datasets (n > 2,000), we find that the spatial map of sex-biased GMV in humans is highly reproducible (r > 0.8 within and across cohorts). Relative GMV is female biased in prefrontal and superior parietal cortices, and male biased in ventral occipitotemporal, and distributed subcortical regions. Second, through systematic comparison with functional neuroimaging meta-analyses, we establish a statistically significant concentration of human GMV sex differences within brain regions that subserve face processing. Finally, by imaging-transcriptomic analyses, we show that GMV sex differences in human adulthood are specifically and significantly coupled to regional expression of sex-chromosome (vs. autosomal) genes and enriched for distinct cell-type signatures. These findings establish conserved aspects of sex-biased brain development in humans and mice, and shed light on the consistency, candidate causes, and potential functional corollaries of sex-biased brain anatomy in humans.

Cats associated with early human farming long before their domestication

As the herd of Abyssinian cats in my has grown, now numbering two 12 year olds and two kittens, I've become more curious about the origins of this breed and of domestic cats in general. It turn out, as shown in recent work by Jrahcarz et al., that cats were predators feeding on rodents in grain stores in Neolithic farming settlements for at least a thousand years before their domestication as house cats.
Most of today’s domesticates began as farm animals, but cat domestication took a different path. Cats became commensal of humans somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, attracted to early farmers’ settlements by rodent pests. Cat remains from Poland dated to 4,200 to 2,300 y BCE are currently the earliest evidence for the migration of the Near Eastern wildcat to Central Europe. Tracking the possible synanthropic origin of that migration, we used stable isotopes to investigate the paleodiet. We found that the ecological balance was already changed due to the expansion of Neolithic farmlands. We conclude that among the Late Neolithic Near Eastern wildcats from Poland were free-living individuals, who preyed on rodent pests and shared ecological niches with native European wildcats.
As regards the origins of my Abyssianians, I have always passed on the story that all of the current registered purebreds derive from a male brought to England by a British solider in the late 19th century. A quick google look, however, shows their origins to be far from clear.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Robust evidence for bisexual orientation among men

It is interesting that debate over whether genuinely bisexual men actually exist has continued for so long. In the current issue of PNAS Jabbour et al. appear to settle the issue:  

There has long been skepticism among both scientists and laypersons that male bisexual orientation exists. Skeptics have claimed that men who self-identify as bisexual are actually homosexual or heterosexual. (The existence of female bisexuality has been less controversial.) This controversy can be resolved using objective, genital responses of men to male and female erotic stimuli. We combined nearly all available data (from eight previous American, British, and Canadian studies) to form a dataset of more than 500 men, much larger than any previous individual study, and conducted rigorous statistical tests. Results provided compelling evidence that bisexual-identified men tend to show bisexual genital and subjective arousal patterns. Male sexual orientation is expressed on a continuum rather than dichotomously.
The question whether some men have a bisexual orientation—that is, whether they are substantially sexually aroused and attracted to both sexes—has remained controversial among both scientists and laypersons. Skeptics believe that male sexual orientation can only be homosexual or heterosexual, and that bisexual identification reflects nonsexual concerns, such as a desire to deemphasize homosexuality. Although most bisexual-identified men report that they are attracted to both men and women, self-report data cannot refute these claims. Patterns of physiological (genital) arousal to male and female erotic stimuli can provide compelling evidence for male sexual orientation. (In contrast, most women provide similar physiological responses to male and female stimuli.) We investigated whether men who self-report bisexual feelings tend to produce bisexual arousal patterns. Prior studies of this issue have been small, used potentially invalid statistical tests, and produced inconsistent findings. We combined nearly all previously published data (from eight previous studies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada), yielding a sample of 474 to 588 men (depending on analysis). All participants were cisgender males. Highly robust results showed that bisexual-identified men’s genital and subjective arousal patterns were more bisexual than were those who identified as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. These findings support the view that male sexual orientation contains a range, from heterosexuality, to bisexuality, to homosexuality.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Inflammaging and COVID-19

I pass on the first paragraph from a Science Perspectives article by Akbar and Gilroy, and suggest that you have a look at the whole article.
Aging is associated with increased morbidity arising from a range of tissue dysfunctions. A common denominator of age-associated frailty is increased baseline inflammation, called inflammaging, that is present in older individuals. Recent studies have shown that the presence of excessive inflammation can inhibit immunity in both animals and humans and that this can be prevented by blocking inflammatory processes. This finding has important implications for the immunity of older individuals who are infected with pathogens such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that induce overwhelming inflammation, which can be fatal, particularly in older people. Reducing inflammation may be a therapeutic strategy for enhancing immunity in older people.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Stepping backwards enhances cognitive control.

From Koch et al., some interesting work on the role of body locomotion in the recruitment of control processes.:
In the most fundamental and literal sense, approach refers to decreasing, and avoidance to increasing, the physical distance between the self and the outside world. In our view, body locomotion most purely taps into this fundamental nature of approach and avoidance. In everyday life, individuals typically approach desired stimuli by stepping forward and avoid aversive stimuli by stepping backward

...The idea that body locomotion may trigger approach and avoidance orientations has, so far, not been tested...we expected that stepping backward would increase the recruitment of cognitive control relative to stepping forward. To test this prediction, we gauged cognitive functioning by means of a Stroop task immediately after a participant stepped in one direction. The Stroop task requires naming the color in which stimulus words are printed while ignoring their semantic meaning, which is actually processed more automatically than the color. Cognitive control is required to override the tendency to respond to the semantic meaning and instead respond to the color.

...our study showed that stepping backward significantly enhanced cognitive performance compared to stepping forward or sideways. Considering the effect size, backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resources. Thus, whenever you encounter a difficult situation, stepping backward may boost your capability to deal with it effectively.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Are you holding your breath?

Note; This is a repeat of a post that I did on Jan. 28, 2008. Its theme led me to develop a lecture titled "Are you holding your breath - Structures of arousal and calm." which is posted on my dericbownds.net website.  The contents of the lecture are relevant to understanding the stress we are all feeling during the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

I notice - if I am maintaining awareness of my breathing - that the breathing frequently stops as I begin a skilled activity such as piano or computer keyboarding. At the same time I can begin to sense an array of unnecessary (and debilitating) pre-tensions in the muscle involved. If I just keep breathing and noticing those tensions, they begin to release. (Continuing to let awareness return to breathing when it drifts is a core technique of mindfulness meditation). Several sources note that attending to breathing can raise one's general level of restfulness relative to excitation, enhancing parasympathetic (restorative) over sympathetic (arousing) nervous system activities. These personal points make me feel like passing on some excerpts from a recent essay which basically agrees with these points: "Breathtaking New Technologies," by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft VP and Co-Founder and Director of Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group. It is a bit simplistic, but does point in a useful direction.
I believe that attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit and that we can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals...but... the way in which many of us interact with our personal technologies makes it impossible to use this extraordinary tool of attention to our advantage...the vast majority of people hold their breath especially when they first begin responding to email. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or over-breathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and carbon dioxide balance...breath holding can contribute significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen and CO2 balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.

The parasympathetic nervous system governs our sense of hunger and satiety, flow of saliva and digestive enzymes, the relaxation response, and many aspects of healthy organ function. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing enables us to down regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which then causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant. Shallow breathing, breath holding and hyper-ventilating triggers the sympathetic nervous system, in a "fight or flight" response...Some breathing patterns favor our body's move toward parasympathetic functions and other breathing patterns favor a sympathetic nervous system response. Buteyko (breathing techniques developed by a Russian M.D.), Andy Weil's breathing exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, certain yoga breathing techniques, all have the potential to soothe us, and to help our bodies differentiate when fight or flight is really necessary and when we can rest and digest.

I've changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I'm using a computer, PDA or cell phone...I've discovered that the more consistently I tune in to healthy breathing patterns, the clearer it is to me when I'm hungry or not, the more easily I fall asleep and rest peacefully at night, and the more my outlook is consistently positive...I've come to believe that, within the next 5-7 years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of any fitness regime.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

“Design fiction” skirts reality to provoke discussion and debate

I want to suggest that readers have a look at David Adams Science and Culture essay in the June 16 issues of PNAS. Here is its beginning:
In October 2015, researchers presented an unusual paper at a computer science conference in London. The paper described the promising results of a pilot project in which a local community used surveillance drones to enforce car parking restrictions and to identify dog owners who failed to clean up after their pets. Controlled by four elderly retirees, the drones buzzed around the city and directed council officials on the ground.
The paper and its accompanying video generated lively discussion about the ethics and regulation of drone use among delegates at the CHI PLAY conference. But there was a catch: The paper, the video, and the pilot scheme were fictional, as the researchers admitted at the end of both the paper and the presentation.
The researchers had invented the scenario as a way to focus attention on how drone technology—a topic of study for some of the people in the room—could shape and change society. The team thought that presenting the idea as if it were real—for example, showing familiar street signs in the video warning drivers about a drone-controlled zone—would provoke discussion about a future in which such use of technology was considered mundane.
The practice is called design fiction. Originally used in product design, the approach is finding increasing use in scientific and medical fields as a way to explore the possible consequences of technological development. These projects are not so much experiments designed to test a hypothesis as they are orchestrated scenarios designed to provoke forward-thinking discussion and debate. From climate science and artificial intelligence to wearable technologies and healthcare, researchers are creating and sharing often dystopian tales about the near future. And they’re tracking people’s reactions to these scenarios to help reshape the way researchers conceive the technology they are developing.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Dynamic Views of MindBlog

In my review of old blog posts I've come across mention of a link I placed at the top right corner os this page...Dynamic Views of MindBlog, which disappeared at some point without my noticing it (was Blogger/Google trying to shut it down?, I dunno.), I've put it back in. If you click on the link you have the options of view Deric's MindBlo in Classic, Flipcard, Magazine, Mosaic, Sidebar, Snapshot, or Timeslide formats. Give it a try!

Followup on MindBlog's Istanbul lecture on our subjective "I"

Forgive me for inflicting my nostalgia trip on you as I do the following re-post from Oct. 18, 2010. 78 year old Deric is struck by the more grandiose professory gravitas of the 68 year old Deric.

A previous post has pointed to a web text version of the piano recital and lecture I gave at "Cognitive VII", an international cognitive neuroscience meeting held in Istanbul May 18-20 of this year. The organizers indicated they would send a video of the piano performance and lecture, and after a number of tries, I have finally received, and now posted,  a video. It is missing a short bit of audio just after the beginning, and unfortunately deletes the last part of the talk on emotions and the evolution of music.  Still, it gives you a taste of the setting.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Training internal resilience

I want to point to an interesting article by Eva Holland on relieving trauma, which is very relevant to the potential mental0health fallout from living through our current pandemic. Some clips describing a therapy called E.M.D.R., eye movement desensitization and reprocessing:
E.M.D.R. was developed in the late 1980s and greeted with much skepticism at first. “It sounded like yet another of the crazes that have always plagued psychiatry,” Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma expert, wrote in “The Body Keeps The Score.” But clinical trials and peer-reviewed studies that spoke to its efficacy piled up over the three decades since its invention, and Dr. van der Kolk and many others eventually adopted it as part of their therapeutic practice.
It works like this: A therapist prompts the patient to move their eyes back and forth, rhythmically, behind their eyelids. (Devices that beep or buzz help to encourage and regulate the eye movements.) At the same time, the therapist talks the patient through the traumatic event or events at issue, leading them through a series of questions about how their body is reacting to the discussion. It is a strange, and strangely physical, experience. The precise mechanisms at play are not fully understood, but the theory is that something about the eye motion, combined with the focused discussion, can lay the intrusive memories to rest.
E.M.D.R. taught me an important lesson: that internal resilience can be deliberately cultivated...I had never before thought of resilience as a muscle I could train and strengthen. The idea felt empowering.
In a reversal of this therapy, the therapist asks the client to recall four resources from their memories: a places where they have left safest and happiest, a nurturing figure, a protector, and a source of wisdom. The author reports:
As I held a vibrating pod in each hand, and as my eyes rolled back and forth behind my eyelids in time to their pulsing, following the vibrations from left to right and back again, I thought about my grandmother — my nurturing figure, who had died when I was 18. I pictured her at the open kitchen window of her suburban bungalow....The pods pulsed. My eyes moved from side to side. I felt loved and safe. To my surprise, I felt stronger, too. In the time since, I have sometimes called up those sensory memories of my grandmother when I’m upset, or when I feel in need of support. It always helps.
The article proceeds to discuss further techniques for cultivating resilience that do not involve paying a therapist.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

How we get stronger.

Gretchen Reynolds points to studies on weight lifting monkeys that show weight training initially prompts increases in muscle strength by increasing neural input to muscles via the reticulospinal tract. Only later do the muscles actually start to grow.

Significance Statement
We provide the first report of a strength training intervention in non-human primates. Our results indicate that strength training is associated with neural adaptations in intracortical and reticulospinal circuits, whilst corticospinal and motoneuronal adaptations are not dominant factors.
Following a program of resistance training, there are neural and muscular contributions to the gain in strength. Here, we measured changes in important central motor pathways during strength training in two female macaque monkeys. Animals were trained to pull a handle with one arm; weights could be added to increase load. On each day, motor evoked potentials in upper limb muscles were first measured after stimulation of the primary motor cortex (M1), corticospinal tract (CST) and reticulospinal tract (RST). Monkeys then completed 50 trials with weights progressively increased over 8-9 weeks (final weight ∼6kg, close to the animal’s body weight). Muscle responses to M1 and RST stimulation increased during strength training; there were no increases in CST responses. Changes persisted during a two-week washout period without weights. After a further three months of strength training, an experiment under anesthesia mapped potential responses to CST and RST stimulation in the cervical enlargement of the spinal cord. We distinguished the early axonal volley and later spinal synaptic field potentials, and used the slope of the relationship between these at different stimulus intensities as a measure of spinal input-output gain. Spinal gain was increased on the trained compared to the untrained side of the cord within the intermediate zone and motor nuclei for RST, but not CST, stimulation. We conclude that neural adaptations to strength training involve adaptations in the RST, as well as intracortical circuits within M1. By contrast, there appears to be little contribution from the CST.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mindblog does another anti-aging experiment.

This is a repeat of a MindBlog post done Oct. 10, 2010, encountered during an on-and-off review I'm doing of old blog posts. Five comments on the post can be seen by clicking the link to the original post. I'm halfway tempted, it now being roughly 10 years later, to repeat the experiment.

I find myself both spooked and sparked by my second foray into anti-aging chemistry (the first being the unsuccessful resveratrol dalliance described in a previous post.) A colleague pointed me to work of Bruce Ames and collaborators (also here) which has led to the marketing by Juvenon of a dietary supplement containing Acetyl L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, and the B-vitamin biotin. Experiments on rats show that these compounds reverse the age related decay in energy metabolism in mitochondria and also inhibit oxidative damage to mitochondrial lipids. So... the idea is that these supplements might energize and juice you up a bit.  The Juvenon supplement contains (per day) 600 mcg biotin, 2000 mg of acetyl-L-carnitine, and 800 mg of alpha lipoic acid.  I though $40 was a bit steep for a 30 day supply, and so I bought the equivalent supplements from Swanson Health Products for significantly less money.  I decided to take 600 mg of the carnitine/day, 1000 mg/day of the alpha lipoic acid,  and 1000 mcg/day of biotin,  half at breakfast, half at lunch (by the way, this is slightly less than 1% of the levels used in the rat experiments.) From the homework I have done so far, the levels of these supplements being taken have no documented adverse side effects.

The results?  Well.... sufficiently dramatic that I really can't credit that it is all a placebo effect,  because I go into any such experiment as an unbeliever... The first several days I felt a phase change, a  step up in energy level and kinetic energy that made me like a 20-something again, a bit incredulous, as in "whoa.. where did this come from."  With both brain and body feeling like an automobile engine running at 2,000 r.p.m. even when it was not in gear,  I cut the levels of the supplements by a half after three days.   After another three days of energy I didn't know what to do with,  generating what felt like excess brain and body "noise,"  I stopped the supplement,  deciding that my normal fairly robust daily routines (including daily gym work or swimming, running, or weights) apparently had all the energy they needed.

Any experiences or references from blog readers would be appreciated.