Friday, February 28, 2020

Optimism and longevity.

I want to point to recent articles relevant to an issue most of us mull about: "Is my glass half empty or half full?" Jane Brody describes a number of studies linking greater optimism to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments and to fostering “exceptional" longevity, defined as living to 85 and beyond. And Susan Shain does a self-help piece, citing numerous studies on how to be more optimistic. Finally, Parker-Pope, in the NYTimes Well section summarizes her recipe:  

Spend time with optimistic people. Optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious.  

Reframe negative situations. When something bad happens, ask yourself if there is a potential upside. A setback at work can be an opportunity to rethink your goals. By mindfully looking for a positive, we retrain our brains, and optimism will come more naturally.  

Minimize your exposure to negative news. Don’t bury your head in the sand, but when bad news hits, educate yourself and then turn it off. We don’t need to expose ourselves to a 24-7 bad news cycle just because it’s there.

Start a gratitude practice. Try writing a nightly journal documenting three good things from your day. Or start meals with a family conversation about how you dealt with a daily challenge.

Try meditation. A daily meditation practice is a great way to ease your mind and shift yourself into more positive thoughts.  

Adopt a mantra. When times get tough, fall back on a mantra that can put you in the right frame of mind. “I’ve got this!” or “Accept what you can’t change” can help you get through tough times.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A magic mushroom nose spray for psychedelic microdosing?

Rich Haridy does an interesting article in New Atlas. A few clips:
Alongside the rapidly progressing psychedelic science movement, with researchers rigorously exploring the medical and therapeutic uses of previously taboo psychoactive compounds, is a growing grassroots movement to decriminalize some of these substances...The movement ostensibly started with the passing of a ballot initiative in the City and County of Denver back in March. The publicly voted initiative essentially decriminalized the personal use and possession of magic mushrooms...The long game here is looking toward the 2020 US elections and getting a variety of measures on state ballots...Predicting a wave of psychedelic legalization over the coming decade, Oregon-based start-up Silo Wellness has reportedly developed a magic mushroom nasal spray focused on delivering exact, controlled psychedelic microdoses via an easy inhaler...The product is currently being developed in Jamaica, one of the only countries in the world where magic mushrooms are completely legal.
The science is certainly still out over whether psychedelic microdosing confers real benefits or whether the technique is a glorified placebo, akin to psychedelic homeopathy. As scientists work to clinically verify the effects, and safety, of sustained tiny psychedelic drug doses, there is debate over how much of a dose actually constitutes a microdose.
...there is little agreement in the psychedelic community over whether the movement should push for broad legalization, or a more limited decriminalization...Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling psychedelic science book How To Change Your Mind, summed up these divisions in an influential New York Times op-ed earlier in 2019 titled “Not So Fast on Psychedelic Mushrooms”.
Pollan’s general argument is that while psilocybin seems to be traveling a similar path to legalization as cannabis traversed, we should be clear in understanding they are two very different substances. He supports decriminalization of some psychedelic drugs, and enthusiastically promotes the growing medical and therapeutic uses being researched, but is concerned recreational legalization of psychedelics could be dangerous to unleash into a culture dominated by capitalist sentiment.
“I see cannabis being promoted and pushed to people, as capitalism will do,” Pollan said at an event in Melbourne in July. “When I come home from this trip on Monday and I cross through Bay Ridge from the airport to Berkeley, I’ll see three or four billboards for companies that can deliver cannabis to my home in two hours, and I just don’t think we know enough to legalize these [psychedelic] drugs.”
“We should take lessons from cultures that have been using psychedelics for thousands of years,” he said in July. “They’re always used in a very careful cultural container. They’re never used casually, people don’t take them alone, there’s always an elder involved and there’s always an intention involved … We haven’t devised that proper container and I think we need to do that before we legalize it.”

Monday, February 24, 2020

The role of memory suppression in resilience after trauma.

Mary et al. report the neural differences that control the retrieval of traumatic memories in 102 individuals who were affected by the Paris terror attacks but who dealt with these memories in different ways: 55 developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 47 did not. The used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure how the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a core hub of the brain control system, regulated and suppressed memory activity during the reexperiencing of these intrusive memories. Their abstract:
In the aftermath of trauma, little is known about why the unwanted and unbidden recollection of traumatic memories persists in some individuals but not others. We implemented neutral and inoffensive intrusive memories in the laboratory in a group of 102 individuals exposed to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and 73 nonexposed individuals, who were not in Paris during the attacks. While reexperiencing these intrusive memories, nonexposed individuals and exposed individuals without posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could adaptively suppress memory activity, but exposed individuals with PTSD could not. These findings suggest that the capacity to suppress memory is central to positive posttraumatic adaptation. A generalized disruption of the memory control system could explain the maladaptive and unsuccessful suppression attempts often seen in PTSD, and this disruption should be targeted by specific treatments.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Imposter syndrome threatens diversity

I have experienced the 'Imposter Syndrome' since childhood, which motivates me to pass on this open source letter to Science Magazine in its entirety (click the link if you want to go to any of the references cited). :
As higher education institutions adopt admissions and hiring policies that promote diversity and inclusion, they must also implement policies to acknowledge and combat the feelings of self-doubt known as imposter syndrome. Those with imposter syndrome have an innate fear of being discovered as a fraud or non-deserving professional, despite their demonstrated talent and achievements (1). Imposter syndrome has been found to be more prevalent in high achievers (2, 3), women (3), and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities (4–7). If institutions and departments don't take steps to allay these fears, the science pipeline could suffer.
At an individual level, imposter syndrome can lead to psychological distress, emotional suffering, and serious mental health disorders, including chronic dysphoric stress, anxiety, depression, and drug abuse (8). In many cases, the phenomenon manifests as early as high school or college (9). Strikingly, in college students belonging to racial minorities, mental health problems have been better predicted by imposter feelings than by the stress associated with their minority status (10). By constantly downplaying their own accomplishments, those suffering from imposter syndrome may sabotage their own career (4). At the societal level, imposter syndrome may explain the higher drop-out rates of women and minorities from the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics pipeline (3, 11).
To effectively increase diversity, institutions must address imposter syndrome by increasing the visibility of the problem, providing access to mental health coaching, and implementing supportive organizational policies. Professors, principal investigators, and peers should encourage students and fellow scientists to focus on factual evidence regarding their academic performance and to set realistic expectations. Open discussions about imposter syndrome at the institutional level should put a name to these feelings and normalize them as common experiences rather than pathologizing them (3). Group peer mentoring can allow mentees to gradually transition into mentors, building their self-confidence as they become independent scientists (12). Institutions should provide training for mentors to help them recognize the negative consequences of the imposter syndrome. Finally, outreach programs to high schools should make students aware of imposter syndrome to help them identify and overcome it as they pursue their own education and careers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Winner of Dance your PhD 2019 contest - Social experiences in larval zebrafish and their brains

The videos of several of the contestants can be see at this link, where you will also find a description of the work and people behind the winner, a very creative visual treat, shown here:

Monday, February 17, 2020

MindBlog is starting its 15th year...

I’ve just realized that MindBlog, whose first post was on February 8, 2006, has just entered its 15th year. That first post, “Dangerous Ideas” looks like it could have been posted today. It summarized responses to an 'annual question' presented by , whose last question, "What is the last question?," was asked in 2018. Here is the 2006 post:

Dangerous Ideas....... is a website sponsored by the "Reality Club" (i.e. John Brockman, literary agent/impressario/socialite). Brockman has assembled a stable of scientists and other thinkers that he defines as a "third culture" that takes the place of traditional intellectuals in redefining who and what we are.... Each year a question is formulated for all to write on... In 2004 it was "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" The question for 2005 was "What is your dangerous idea?"

The responses organize themselves into several areas. Here are selected thumbnail summaries most directly relevant to human minds. I've not included cosmology and physics. Go to to read the essays

I. Nature of the human self or mind (by the way see my "I-Illusion" essay on my website):

Paulos - The self is a conceptual chimera
Shirky - Free will is going away
Nisbett - We are ignorant of our thinking processes
Horgan - We have no souls
Bloom - There are no souls, mind has a material basis.
Provine - This is all there is.
Anderson - Brains cannot become minds without bodies
Metzinger - Is being intellectually honest about the issue of free will compatible with preserving one's mental health?
Clark - Much of our behavior is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information
Turkle - Simulation will replace authenticity as computer simulation becomes fully naturalized.
Dawkins - A faulty person is no different from a faulty car. There is a mechanism determining behavior that needs to be fixed. The idea of responsibility is nonsense.
Smith - What we know may not change us. We will continue to conceive ourselves as centres of experience, self-knowing and free willing agents.

II. Natural explanations of culture

Sperber - Culture is natural.
Taylor - The human brain is a cultural artifact.
Hauser- There is a universal grammar of mental life.
Pinker - People differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.
Goodwin - Similar coordinating patterns underlie biological and cultural evolution.
Venter - Revealing the genetic basis of personality and behavior will create societal conflicts.

III. Fundamental changes in political, economic, social order

O'donnell - The state will disappear.
Ridley - Government is the problem not the solution.
Shermer - Where goods cross frontiers armies won't.
Harari -Democracy is on its way out.
Csikszentmihalyi- The free market myth is destroying culture.
Goleman - The internet undermines the quality of human interaction.
Harris - Science must destroy religion.
Porco - Confrontation between science and religion might end when role played by science in lives of people is the same played by religion today.
Bering - Science will never silence God
Fisher - Drugs such as antidepressants jeopardize feelings of attachment and love
Iacoboni - Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence - the Problem with Mirrors
Morton - Our planet is not in peril, just humans are.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Mindfulness as an antidote to the intrusions of artificial intelligence?

I want to point to a very interesting New Yorker Magazine article by Ian Parker describing the life and ideas of Yuval Harari, whose work has been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts. A series of five sequential MindBlog posts, starting on 12/31/18, presented an abstracted version of his book "21 Lessons for the 21st Century". Here are some clips from the article that especially caught my attention:
His proposition, often repeated, is that humanity faces three primary threats: nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption. Other issues that politicians commonly talk about—terrorism, migration, inequality, poverty—are lesser worries, if not distractions... Harari highlights the technological one...“Think about a situation where somebody in Beijing or San Francisco knows what every citizen in Israel is doing at every moment—all the most intimate details about every mayor, member of the Knesset, and officer in the Army, from the age of zero.” He added, “Those who will control the world in the twenty-first century are those who will control data.”
The aspect of a technological dystopia that most preoccupies him—losing mental autonomy to A.I.—can be at least partly countered, in his view, by citizens cultivating greater mindfulness. He collects examples of A.I. threats. He refers, for instance, to recent research suggesting that it’s possible to measure people’s blood pressure by processing video of their faces.
...his writing underscores the importance of equanimity. In a section of “Sapiens” titled “Know Thyself,” Harari describes how the serenity achieved through meditation can be “so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.” “21 Lessons” includes extended commentary on the life of the Buddha, who “taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying.” Harari continues, “You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind, but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you... ‘What should I do?’ ask people, and the Buddha advises, ‘Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ ”
According to Harari's book “Sapiens,” progress is basically an illusion; the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud,” and liberal humanism is a religion no more founded on reality than any other...In the schema of “Sapiens,” money is a “fiction,” as are corporations and nations. Harari uses “fiction” where another might say “social construct.” (He explained to me, “I would almost always go for the day-to-day word, even if the nuance of the professional word is a bit more accurate.”) Harari further proposes that fictions require believers, and exert power only as long as a “communal belief” in them persists. Every social construct, then, is a kind of religion: a declaration of universal human rights is not a manifesto, or a program, but the expression of a benign delusion; an activity like using money, or obeying a stoplight, is a collective fantasy, not a ritual.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Amazing technology - a total body PET scanner with 100ms resolution.

From Zhang et al. at UC Davis (check out the video, showing injection of 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose into a vein in the right leg):
A 194-cm-long total-body positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) scanner (uEXPLORER), has been constructed to offer a transformative platform for human radiotracer imaging in clinical research and healthcare. Its total-body coverage and exceptional sensitivity provide opportunities for innovative studies of physiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. The objective of this study is to develop a method to perform ultrahigh (100 ms) temporal resolution dynamic PET imaging by combining advanced dynamic image reconstruction paradigms with the uEXPLORER scanner. We aim to capture the fast dynamics of initial radiotracer distribution, as well as cardiac motion, in the human body. The results show that we can visualize radiotracer transport in the body on timescales of 100 ms and obtain motion-frozen images with superior image quality compared to conventional methods. The proposed method has applications in studying fast tracer dynamics, such as blood flow and the dynamic response to neural modulation, as well as performing real-time motion tracking (e.g., cardiac and respiratory motion, and gross body motion) without any external monitoring device (e.g., electrinjocardiogram, breathing belt, or optical trackers).

A few clips from their text:
This high temporal resolution tracer imaging technique opens up the opportunity for new applications, such as studying fast pharmacodynamics, using shorter-lived radionuclides (e.g., 82Rb, 13N, and 15O), and performing motion-frozen scans of the heart, lung, and gastrointestinal tract.
PET with high temporal resolution also has potential applications in the characterization of normal and abnormal brain function. Although functional MRI can detect changes associated with cerebral blood flow (CBF), our approach has the potential to directly measure the absolute value of CBF and cerebral metabolic rate of oxygen. The advantage of CBF as determined with diffusible tracers in PET is that it measures blood flow at the nutrient capillary level (not only in large vessels). During the stimulation, parameters derived within a window of a second may show better correlation with postsynaptic activity and less hemodynamic lag. Moreover, these methods could be used for localizing neural activity by correlating it with specific neurotransmitter activity. Furthermore, without the artifacts induced by cardiac and respiratory motion, ultrafast PET may allow analysis of metabolic processes within atherosclerotic plaques and evaluate their distribution and characteristics throughout the cardiovascular system. Finally, high temporal resolution PET together with the TB coverage allows dynamic tracer studies of brain–heart and brain–gut interactions.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Economic Inequality increases desire for a strong leader.

From Sprong et al., studies very relevant to the current political climate in the U.S., and worldwide:
Societal inequality has been found to harm the mental and physical health of its members and undermine overall social cohesion. Here, we tested the hypothesis that economic inequality is associated with a wish for a strong leader in a study involving 28 countries from five continents (Study 1, N = 6,112), a study involving an Australian community sample (Study 2, N = 515), and two experiments (Study 3a, N = 96; Study 3b, N = 296). We found correlational (Studies 1 and 2) and experimental (Studies 3a and 3b) evidence for our prediction that higher inequality enhances the wish for a strong leader. We also found that this relationship is mediated by perceptions of anomie, except in the case of objective inequality in Study 1. This suggests that societal inequality enhances the perception that society is breaking down (anomie) and that a strong leader is needed to restore order (even when that leader is willing to challenge democratic values).

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Resilient misinformation in a crisis

From Carey et al.:
Disease epidemics and outbreaks often generate conspiracy theories and misperceptions that mislead people about the risks they face and how best to protect themselves. We investigate the effectiveness of interventions aimed at combating false and unsupported information about the Zika epidemic and subsequent yellow fever outbreak in Brazil. Results from a nationally representative survey show that conspiracy theories and other misperceptions about Zika are widely believed. Moreover, results from three preregistered survey experiments suggest that efforts to counter misperceptions about diseases during epidemics and outbreaks may not always be effective. We find that corrective information not only fails to reduce targeted Zika misperceptions but also reduces the accuracy of other beliefs about the disease. In addition, although corrective information about the better-known threat from yellow fever was more effective, none of these corrections affected support for vector control policies or intentions to engage in preventive behavior.

Monday, February 03, 2020

How much are we misled by inauthentic internet content? Perhaps not much...

Bail et al. analyze data describing attitudes and online behaviors of Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 and find no evidence that interaction with Russian troll accounts (operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency, IRA) had a effect on political attitudes and behaviors. Their abstract:
There is widespread concern that Russia and other countries have launched social-media campaigns designed to increase political divisions in the United States. Though a growing number of studies analyze the strategy of such campaigns, it is not yet known how these efforts shaped the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans. We study this question using longitudinal data that describe the attitudes and online behaviors of 1,239 Republican and Democratic Twitter users from late 2017 merged with nonpublic data about the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) from Twitter. Using Bayesian regression tree models, we find no evidence that interaction with IRA accounts substantially impacted 6 distinctive measures of political attitudes and behaviors over a 1-mo period. We also find that interaction with IRA accounts were most common among respondents with strong ideological homophily within their Twitter network, high interest in politics, and high frequency of Twitter usage. Together, these findings suggest that Russian trolls might have failed to sow discord because they mostly interacted with those who were already highly polarized. We conclude by discussing several important limitations of our study—especially our inability to determine whether IRA accounts influenced the 2016 presidential election—as well as its implications for future research on social media influence campaigns, political polarization, and computational social science.