Monday, January 25, 2021

A broad approach to understanding emotions - Semantic Space Theory

I recently offered a 14-installment series of posts covering the ideas in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. It's content centered around the debate of essentialist versus constructivist views of how we generate emotional behaviors, with Barrett presenting overwhelming data supporting the constructivist view. Cowen and Keltner now offer a alternative perspective, "semantic space theory" that encompases and expands beyond the more rigid definitions of essentialist basic emotion theory (BET, that claims that emotional feelings associated with specific cognitive appraisals and behaviors are biologically prepared and modified by experience) and constructivism (which takes certain valence/arousal responses to be biologically prepared, while specific emotions involve valence and arousal but are artifacts of language). From Cowen and Keltner:
Although these perspectives diverge on what emotions are, they converge in assuming that emotions solve a biological dilemma: that our brains are adapted for survival and reproduction, but our daily decisions are often many steps removed from these goals. This makes the evolutionary calculus of daily life – risk-taking, courtship, and tribal politics – immensely complex. The cognitive priors that enable our brains to approximate this calculus are, in most any theory of emotion, at the root of emotional behavior.
Cowen and Keltner expand beyond the entrenched disagreements between essentialist and constructivist approaches to offer a more expansive and encyclopedic approach - semantic (def. meaning in language) space theory. Here is their description:
Our approach formalizes the study of emotion in the investigation of representational state spaces capturing systematic variation in emotion-related response (including experience and expression, as well as associated physiology, cognition, and motivation). We integrate computational studies of emotional experience, facial–bodily expression, and vocalization to visualize what one might think of as an emerging taxonomy of emotion. Next, we discuss how the brain represents these experiences in distinct configurations of activity across the default mode network and subcortical areas. Building upon these advances, we synthesize literatures on nonhuman emotion-like behavior and nervous system response, highlighting emerging evidence that emotional behaviors differentiated within a fine-grained taxonomy have animal homologies and evolved neural mechanisms. The implication of these developments is clear: moving beyond traditional models to a broad taxonomy of emotion (Figure 1) will provide for a richer, more comprehensive science of emotion.
The Figure 1 referenced is a real doozy. On request, I can send motivated readers a PDF of the whole article text. Here is the legend of Fig. 1 "Semantic Spaces of Experience and Expression" which contains links to many cloud based interactive maps showing an awesome amount of data. The actual six panel figure (A though F referred to in the legend) is too large to display in this post. Clicking the links below to go through the cloud based interactive graphics is interesting. One could spend a fair number of hours browsing the variety of emotional forms presented.
(A) The semantic space framework. A semantic space is described by (i) its dimensionality, or the number of distinct meanings of experiences or expressions within the space; (ii) the conceptualization of these meanings in terms of mental states, intentions, or appraisals; and (iii) the distribution of experiences or expressions within the space, capturing clusters or blends of states. (B) Semantic space of facial–bodily and vocal expression. A total of 3523 expressions are lettered, positioned, and colored according to 28 distinct emotions that people reliably attribute to them (28 in facial expression [42] and 24 in vocal expression [25]). Within the space are gradients in expression between emotions traditionally thought of as discrete, such as fear and surprise. To explore these expressions, see the interactive maps (face: https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/face28/map.html, voice: https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/vocs/map.html). (C) Semantic space of emotion evoked by 2185 brief videos. At least 27 distinct affective states are reliably captured in reports of emotional experience evoked by video, best conceptualized in terms of emotion concepts such as fear [26]. Again, gradients bridge emotion concepts traditionally thought of as discrete, such as fear and surprise. Interactive map: https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/emogifs/map.html. (D) Semantic space of emotional experience evoked by 1841 music samples in multiple cultures [36]. Music samples are positioned and colored according to 13 emotions with which they are reliably associated in both the USA and China. Within the space, we find gradients among these states. The similarities in affective response across cultures were most reliably revealed in the use of specific emotion concepts (e.g., desire and fear). Interactive map: https://s3.amazonaws.com/musicemo/map.html. (E) Semantic space of emotion conveyed by prosody in 2519 lexically identical speech samples. Across the USA and India, at least 12 kinds of emotion are preserved in the recognition of mental states from speech prosody, most reliably revealed in the use of emotion concepts [28]. Interactive map: https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/venec/map.html. (F) Emotional expression in Ancient American art [58]. Ancient American sculpture was found to portray at least five distinct kinds of facial expression that accord, in terms of the emotions they communicate to westerners, with western expectations for the emotions that might unfold in the eight contexts portrayed. Colors of individual faces (letters) are weighted averages of colors assigned to each kind of perceived facial expression. Eight example sculptures are shown. (To explore all 63 sculptures, see online map: https://s3.amazonaws.com/precolumbian/map.html.)
This post is already much too long, so I only mention section headings of the text following Fig. 1, with fragments of text:
Semantic Spaces of Emotion
Semantic spaces of emotion are defined by three properties (Figure 1A). The first is their dimensionality: how many different kinds of emotion are distinguished within the space? The second is the distribution of states within the space: are there discrete boundaries between emotion categories, or is there overlap? The third is the conceptualization of emotion: what concepts most precisely capture people’s implicit or explicit differentiation of subjective experiences and expressive behaviors?
Emotional experience and expression is high dimensional, categorical, and often blended
People reliably distinguish at least 27 distinct subjective experiences associated with video [26], 24 distinct emotions in nonverbal vocalizations [25,28], and 28 distinct emotions in the face and body (Figure 1B,C) [42]. These findings were observed using both traditional rating methods and open-ended free response. The specific numbers here matter less than the more general point that emotion is at least four times more complex than that represented in studies of six emotions. This finding, replicated across response systems of emotion, is not anticipated by BET, and stands in contrast to assumptions of low dimensionality – that emotion is largely reducible to valence and arousal – found in constructivist accounts
Extensions of an emergent taxonomy: patterns of brain response and mammalizn behavior...The primacy of specific emotions in neural response patterning.
This section discusses data on the brain representation of emotion.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The paradox of pleasurable fear.

A study by Anderson et al. finds an inverted U-shaped relationship between fear and enjoyment, consistent with the theory that the pursuit of pleasurable fear is a form of play. Fear and enjoyment can coexist in frightening leisure activities that become enjoyable when they offer forms of arousal dynamics that are “just right.”. Here is their abstract:
Haunted attractions are illustrative examples of recreational fear in which people voluntarily seek out frightening experiences in pursuit of enjoyment. We present findings from a field study at a haunted-house attraction where visitors between the ages of 12 and 57 years (N = 110) were equipped with heart rate monitors, video-recorded at peak scare points during the attraction, and asked to report on their experience. Our results show that enjoyment has an inverted-U-shaped relationship with fear across repeated self-reported measures. Moreover, results from physiological data demonstrate that the experience of being frightened is a linear function of large-scale heart rate fluctuations, whereas there is an inverted-U-shaped relationship between participant enjoyment and small-scale heart rate fluctuations. These results suggest that enjoyment is related to forms of arousal dynamics that are “just right.” These findings shed light on how fear and enjoyment can coexist in recreational horror.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Most People are Good

You really should read Mark Manson's newsletter for this week. As usual, it makes three main points, I will pass on only a few chunks: 

1. One bad apple spoils the barrel.

People who are online all day, every day, likely believe humanity is one giant festering shitpool, while people who actually, you know, go outside and do things probably think most people are A-OK...Data scientists at Stanford recently found that 74% of the conflicts on Reddit were instigated by only 1% of the users...This dynamic isn’t new with the internet... Research finds that 1% of people are convicted of 63% of the violent crimes, and 3% of doctors are responsible for roughly half of medical malpractice cases. Similarly, it’s suspected that only a small minority of men commit the majority of sexual assaults and a new paper suggests that between 5% and 20% of people account for most overt acts of racism...Most people are good. It’s just the bad ones you hear about all the time. This is true and has likely always been true...What has changed is our level of exposure.
2. The Exposure Effect.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 1 out of every 100 people is a raging asshole capable of ruining your day and causing you to lose faith in humanity. Twenty or thirty years ago, you would only be exposed to ten or twenty people each day, so you would go days without being exposed to a raging piece of shit...Now think, how many people are you exposed to on a daily basis on the internet? On social media? Via 24-hour news?...suddenly, you’re repeatedly and constantly exposed to the awfulness of humans multiple times per day, if not dozens...Yet, in reality, nothing fundamental about human society has changed. Only our awareness of each other has.
3. Never Forget: Most People Are Good.
...the number one rule of the internet is: manage your exposure. This is why step one of my Attention Diet is to block and unfollow anybody and everybody who is toxic online. This is why I have written tens of thousands of words urging people to read/watch less news..By cutting out that 1% you save yourself from 74% of the bullshit...once you do this, you start to remember something you have long forgotten: most people are good. You simply don’t hear from them very often...Whether it’s about news, politics, online business, scientific research or pop culture, there is often a “silent majority” of decent, relatively intelligent, well-meaning people lurking, waiting, feeling just as exasperated and freaked out as you are...And if we continue to forget that we are here, eventually we won’t be.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Data-driven solutions to U.S. polarization

Today sees the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States, and seems an appropriate time to pass on in its entirety the following open source letter from Coleman to the editor of Science Magazine:

In their Policy Forum “Political sectarianism in America” (30 October 2020, p. 533), E. J. Finkel et al. summarize research on the multiple sources of the decades-long U.S. march to toxic polarization. However, the mitigation tactics they offer seem piecemeal and insufficient. To reverse a 50-year trajectory of runaway division (1), we need an evidence-based strategy tailored to structural change.

Research on how deeply divided societies change course (2) suggests that how leaders approach entrenched problems, especially early on in their tenure (3), can make the difference. Transformations are most likely to occur when leaders take office after a major political shock—like the COVID-19 pandemic or the 6 January storming of the Capitol by political extremists—has destabilized the status quo (4) and lead in a way that differs dramatically from the leadership that instigated the divisions (5). Moreover, in societies where distrust and suspicion reign (6), changes in political strategies are often best introduced with a public declaration of intention.

The Biden-Harris administration could apply such research by announcing a two-pronged strategy to defeat toxic division in America. First, given that many Americans feel left behind, the new leaders should begin by launching a listening tour during which they partner with local, trusted community groups to elicit grievances and proposed remedies (4). Research has shown that when members of disenfranchised groups feel heard by those in power, it can lead to constructive shifts in attitudes (7). Large-scale initiatives like these, when transparent and brought to completion, can begin healing (8).

Second, the new administration should seek to strengthen our national immune system. Research on international peace-building finds that many of the more sustainable initiatives helping communities transition out of intergroup strife come from within (9). These local initiatives (8) emerge in response to community challenges and manage to thrive under difficult circumstances. Today, there are thousands of bridge-building groups (10) across the United States that fit this bill, whose impact could be scaled up through federal funding, recognition, and coordination. They fight against the pathologies of hate and can help citizens build bipartisan alliances that take on the structural incentives that divide us. This is critical. We will never talk our way out of this division (11); we must aim for structural change (12).

References and Notes

 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A third visual pathway specialized for social perception.

Fourty years after Ungerleider and Mishkin proposed our current model of the primate cortex as using two major visual pathway along its ventral and dorsal surfaces that respectively specialize in computing the 'what' and 'where' content of visual stimuili, Pitcher and Ungerleider now summarize evidence that this picture has to be expanded to include a third pathway specialized for moving social visual perceptions, especially of faces. Here are their core points, following by a descriptive graphic from their article.
The two-visual pathway model of primate visual cortex needs to be updated. We propose the existence of a third visual pathway on the lateral brain surface that is anatomically segregated from the dorsal and ventral pathways.
The third pathway exists in human and non-human primates. In humans, the third pathway projects from early visual cortex into the superior temporal sulcus (STS). In macaques the third pathway projects from early visual cortex into the dorsal bank and fundus of the STS.
The third pathway has distinct functional properties. It selectively responds to moving faces and bodies. Visual field-mapping studies show that the third pathway responds to faces across the visual field to a greater extent than the ventral pathway.
The third pathway computes a range of higher sociocognitive functions based on dynamic social cues. These include facial expression recognition, eye gaze discrimination, the audiovisual integration of speech, and interpreting the actions and behaviors of other biological organisms.

 

ADDED NOTE: Leslie Ungerleider died as 2020 drew to a close. She was a towering figure in the neuroscience community. This obituary by Sabine Kastner in Neuron pays her a fitting tribute.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Endorsement of dominant masculinity best predicts 2016 and 2020 voting and candidate evaluations.

Vescio and Schermerhorn carry out studies of several thousand individuals showing that men’s and women’s endorsement of hegemonic masculinity predicted support for Trump better than other suggested causes: antiestablishment, antielitist, and nativist populism, as well as to sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. I want to also point readers to the Thomas Edsall essay "White Riot", which makes some of the same points.

(I use the word 'dominant' rather than 'hegemonic' in the title of this post because hegemonic is frequently used in political discourse as a pejorative term, like other blanket terms such as hetero-normative.) 

Here is their significance statement and abstract, the  link above takes you to the whole text containing details of their studies and summary charts. .

Significance

Donald J. Trump’s history-making ascension from nonpolitician to president of the United States has been attributed to the antiestablishment, antielitist, and nativist populism of Trump voters, as well as to sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Based on the findings of seven studies involving 2,007 people, men’s and women’s endorsement of hegemonic masculinity predicted support for Trump over and beyond the aforementioned factors, even when controlling for political party affiliation. Results highlight the importance of looking beyond social identity–based conceptualizations of masculinity to fully consider how men’s and women’s endorsement of cultural ideologies about masculinity legitimate patriarchal forms of dominance and reify gender-, race-, and class-based hierarchies.
Abstract
This work examined whether the endorsement of the culturally idealized form of masculinity—hegemonic masculinity (HM)—accounted for unique variance in men’s and women’s support for Donald Trump across seven studies (n = 2,007). Consistent with our theoretical backdrop, in the days (Studies 1 and 2) and months (Studies 3 through 6) following the 2016 American presidential election, women’s and men’s endorsement of HM predicted voting for and evaluations of Trump, over and above political party affiliation, gender, race, and education. These effects held when controlling for respondents’ trust in the government, in contrast to a populist explanation of support for Trump. In addition, as conceptualized, HM was associated with less trust in the government (Study 3), more sexism (Study 4), more racism (Study 5), and more xenophobia (Study 6) but continued to predict unique variance in evaluations of Trump when controlling for each of these factors. Whereas HM predicted evaluations of Trump, across studies, social and prejudiced attitudes predicted evaluations of his democratic challengers: Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020. We replicate the findings of Studies 1 through 6 using a nationally representative sample of the United States (Study 7) 50 days prior to the 2020 presidential election. The findings highlight the importance of psychological examinations of masculinity as a cultural ideology to understand how men’s and women’s endorsement of HM legitimizes patriarchal dominance and reinforces gender, race, and class-based hierarchies via candidate support.

Friday, January 15, 2021

How oxytocin enhances male sexual activity

An article by Oti et al. in Current Biology makes me want to buy an oxytocin inhaler (just google oxytocin nasal spray). I'll pass on the highlights and a graphic summary (click to enlarge), and you can see the technical summary by clicking on the link to the article

 • Oxytocin receptors are expressed in spinal ejaculation generator (SEG) neurons 

• Oxytocin directly activates SEG neurons and influences male sexual function in rats

 • Release of oxytocin in the lumbar spinal cord is not limited to conventional synapses

 • Released oxytocin acts by diffusion—a localized volume transmission—in the cord

Thursday, January 14, 2021

How technology destroys bonding cultural narratives

I am on the mailing list of Mark Manson's weekly newsletter, find myself repeatedly annoyed by its arrogant tone and obscene prose, but then appreciate some episodes of his clear thinking, one of which describing his summary thoughts on culture I pass on here:
- A culture is defined by the shared values among a group of people. These values are represented and supported by shared narratives.
- Cultural narratives survive because they are repeated. The more they are repeated and believed, the more fundamental they become to the identity of the group.
- When cultural narratives cease to be repeated, they cease to be part of the culture, and the values they represent are dropped from the group’s identity and decision-making.
- In this way, culture frames the battles of economics and politics—as culture dictates what is valuable and important to the group and then politics and economics enact those values in the real world.
- Technology fundamentally alters culture because technology can unintentionally shape and determine what narratives are broadcast the furthest, loudest, and most frequently.
The whole problem with social media is that the narratives that spread the furthest and loudest on these platforms tend to be anti-establishment and contrarian. These are the narratives that get repeated the most often, and therefore these become the narratives that come to define our culture.
But these narratives are hollow. They tear down structures but build nothing back up in their place. They point out the flaws of our experts and institutions and disregard the many things they get right.
This is why we’ve seen so many grassroots protest movements around the world the past ten years with no real aim or policy ideas—from Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party all the way up to the shitlords and morons invading the US Capitol last week. The narrative is pure victimhood and destruction. There is no countervailing narrative for responsibility and creation.
This is the sense of growing nihilism that I wrote about in Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. The narratives that expose everything that is wrong in the world are repeated incessantly, while the narratives of everything that is right and going well struggle to find an interested audience. The result is a culture of fragility, where every group somehow simultaneously feels victimized and entitled to impose their narrative onto others.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

How mice feel each other's pain or fear

The abstract from Smith et al, who show the brain basis of empathetic behaviors in mice that mirror those in humans:
Empathy is an essential component of social communication that involves experiencing others’ sensory and emotional states. We observed that a brief social interaction with a mouse experiencing pain or morphine analgesia resulted in the transfer of these experiences to its social partner. Optogenetic manipulations demonstrated that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and its projections to the nucleus accumbens (NAc) were selectively involved in the social transfer of both pain and analgesia. By contrast, the ACC→NAc circuit was not necessary for the social transfer of fear, which instead depended on ACC projections to the basolateral amygdala. These findings reveal that the ACC, a brain area strongly implicated in human empathic responses, mediates distinct forms of empathy in mice by influencing different downstream targets. 
Here is a summary graphic from a perspective by Klein and Gogolla (click to enlarge):

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Cults, cabals, white power, and Trumpism

The men of "all men are created equal" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence - white male property owners -  have remained the American ruling class for more than 200 years as voting rights have been extended to women and people of color who will soon account for more that half the population. The only means by which a white minority can maintain power is to suppress voting by minorities who are becoming majorities,  and to follow the scripts of Turkey, Poland, or Hungary in transitioning to an authoritarian rule that masquerades as democracy. (Fortunately Trump has been too inept to pull this off, but the next time we may not be so lucky.) 

The threatened white minority, particularly its fundamentalist christian faction that wants to impose a Taliban-like religious state,  forms the core constituency of the Trumpism cult (aka, the Republican party) and many of its members adhere to faith in fact challenged conspiracy theories that invoke hidden cabals actually running the show (QAnon, Pizzagate, the election theft conspiracy, etc.). 

Harari does a nice piece (you should read it) on the lure of cabal theories and their inherent falsehood. His core points:

The Structure - Cabal theories argue that underneath the myriad events we see on the surface lurks a sinister group... the basic structure remains the same: The group controls almost everything that happens, while simultaneously concealing this control. 

The Lure - Cabal theories are able to attract large followings in part because they offer a single, straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes...if I believe some kind of cabal theory, I enjoy the comforting feeling that I do understand everything... this offers me entree into an exclusive circle — the group of people who understand. It elevates me above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. I see what they overlook — or what they try to conceal.  

The Flaw - Cabal theories suffer from the same basic flaw: They assume that it is relatively easy to manipulate the world. A small group of people can understand, predict and control everything, from wars to technological revolutions to pandemics...Whether you’ve served on a school board or local council, or merely tried to organize a surprise birthday party for your mom, you probably know how difficult it is to control humans. You make a plan, and it backfires. You try to keep something a secret, and the next day everybody is talking about it. ...Global cabal theories ask us to believe that while it is very difficult to predict and control the actions of 1,000 or even 100 humans, it is surprisingly easy to secretly puppet master nearly eight billion. 

The Reality - There are, of course, many real conspiracies in the world. Individuals, corporations, organizations, churches, factions and governments are constantly hatching and pursuing various plots. But that is precisely what makes it so hard to predict and control the world in its entirety...Realizing that no single cabal can secretly control the entire world is not just accurate — it is also empowering. It means that you can identify the competing factions in our world, and ally yourself with some groups against others. That’s what real politics is all about.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Environmental noise degrades learning and memory

Sobering observations from Zhang et al on our hippocampus-related learning and memory:

Significance

The noise pollution accompanying industrialization is a risk factor to human health. Here, we show in a rodent model that even moderate-level noise at ∼65 dB SPL that has little effect on stress status can substantially impair hippocampus-related learning and memory by altering the plasticity of synaptic transmission. It is possible that because moderately loud noise does not affect peripheral hearing per se, the negative impacts of chronic exposure to such noise are currently not well characterized. Our results indicate the importance of more thoroughly defining these possibly hitherto unappreciated hazards of noise pollution in modern human environments.
Abstract
The neural mechanisms underlying the impacts of noise on nonauditory function, particularly learning and memory, remain largely unknown. Here, we demonstrate that rats exposed postnatally (between postnatal days 9 and 56) to structured noise delivered at a sound pressure level of ∼65 dB displayed significantly degraded hippocampus-related learning and memory abilities. Noise exposure also suppressed the induction of hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP). In parallel, the total or phosphorylated levels of certain LTP-related key signaling molecules in the synapses of the hippocampus were down-regulated. However, no significant changes in stress-related processes were found for the noise-exposed rats. These results in a rodent model indicate that even moderate-level noise with little effect on stress status can substantially impair hippocampus-related learning and memory by altering the plasticity of synaptic transmission. They support the importance of more thoroughly defining the unappreciated hazards of moderately loud noise in modern human environments.

Friday, January 08, 2021

A reality-challenged America of echo chambers and cults

Following the recent drama of a mob motivated by a fraudulent theory briefly taking over America's capitol building I want to pass on a number of interesting pieces relevant to these times in which the behaviors of followers of Trumpism, QAnon and Election fraud conspiracies seem to mirror those of Wokeness and Critical Race Theory. Cults of the right and left provide motivation and reassuring 'theories of everything' to explain society's ills. 

Farhad MKanjoo writes on how the sprawling online conspiracy network QAnon is at the center of Trump's attempt to overturn the election. 

 A PNAS journal club article and a brief review by Wright, "Shouting in a Political Echo Chamber," describe work by Wang et al. on a model showing how polarization emerges on social media during political campaigns

 Edsall, in a typically scholarly piece, reviews debate on whether the sociopathic role of social media in spreading and reinforcing broad acceptance of lies has wrecked free speech enough to require a rexamination of the right guaranteed by the first amendment. A debate has broken out over whether the once-sacrosanct constitutional protection of the First Amendment has become a threat to democracy.

 LaFrance gets even more cosmic in her Atlantic article titled "Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine" (if you have time for only one of these articles, I guess this is the one I would recommend). Having resisted the temptation to pass on clips from the articles referenced above (the post would get to long), I will go ahead with one clip from LaFrance, who says that Facebook

...took the concept of “community” and sapped it of all moral meaning. The rise of QAnon, for example, is one of the social web’s logical conclusions. That’s because Facebook—along with Google and YouTube—is perfect for amplifying and spreading disinformation at lightning speed to global audiences. Facebook is an agent of government propaganda, targeted harassment, terrorist recruitment, emotional manipulation, and genocide—a world-historic weapon that lives not underground, but in a Disneyland-inspired campus in Menlo Park, California.
The giants of the social web—Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram; Google and its subsidiary YouTube; and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—have achieved success by being dogmatically value-neutral in their pursuit of what I’ll call megascale. Somewhere along the way, Facebook decided that it needed not just a very large user base, but a tremendous one, unprecedented in size. That decision set Facebook on a path to escape velocity, to a tipping point where it can harm society just by existing.
Limitations to the Doomsday Machine comparison are obvious: Facebook cannot in an instant reduce a city to ruins the way a nuclear bomb can. And whereas the Doomsday Machine was conceived of as a world-ending device so as to forestall the end of the world, Facebook started because a semi-inebriated Harvard undergrad was bored one night. But the stakes are still life-and-death. Megascale is nearly the existential threat that megadeath is. No single machine should be able to control the fate of the world’s population—and that’s what both the Doomsday Machine and Facebook are built to do.

 

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Are we the cows of the future?

One of the questions posed by Yuval Harari in his writing on our possible futures is "What are we to do with all these humans who are, except for a small technocratic elite, no longer required as the means of production?" Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck College, University of London, does an essay on this issue, pointing out that our potential futures in the pastures of digital dictatorship — crowded conditions, mass surveillance, virtual reality — are already here. You should read her essay, and I passon just a few striking clips of text:
...Cows’ bodies have historically served as test subjects — laboratories of future bio-intervention and all sorts of reproductive technologies. Today cows crowd together in megafarms, overseen by digital systems, including facial- and hide-recognition systems. These new factories are air-conditioned sheds where digital machinery monitors and logs the herd’s every move, emission and production. Every mouthful of milk can be traced to its source.
And it goes beyond monitoring. In 2019 on the RusMoloko research farm near Moscow, virtual reality headsets were strapped onto cattle. The cows were led, through the digital animation that played before their eyes, to imagine they were wandering in bright summer fields, not bleak wintry ones. The innovation, which was apparently successful, is designed to ward off stress: The calmer the cow, the higher the milk yield.
A cow sporting VR goggles is comedic as much as it is tragic. There’s horror, too, in that it may foretell our own alienated futures. After all, how different is our experience? We submit to emotion trackers. We log into biofeedback machines. We sign up for tracking and tracing. We let advertisers’ eyes watch us constantly and mappers store our coordinates.
Could we, like cows, be played by the machinery, our emotions swayed under ever-sunny skies, without us even knowing that we are inside the matrix? Will the rejected, unemployed and redundant be deluded into thinking that the world is beautiful, a land of milk and honey, as they interact minimally in stripped-back care homes? We may soon graze in the new pastures of digital dictatorship, frolicking while bound.
Leslie then describes the ideas of German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno:
Against the insistence that nature should not be ravished by technology, he argues that perhaps technology could enable nature to get what “it wants” on this sad earth. And we are included in that “it.”...Nature, in truth, is not just something external on which we work, but also within us. We too are nature.
For someone associated with the abstruseness of avant-garde music and critical theory, Adorno was surprisingly sentimental when it came to animals — for which he felt a powerful affinity. It is with them that he finds something worthy of the name Utopia. He imagines a properly human existence of doing nothing, like a beast, resting, cloud gazing, mindlessly and placidly chewing cud.
To dream, as so many Utopians do, of boundless production of goods, of busy activity in the ideal society reflects, Adorno claimed, an ingrained mentality of production as an end in itself. To detach from our historical form adapted solely to production, to work against work itself, to do nothing in a true society in which we embrace nature and ourselves as natural might deliver us to freedom.
Rejecting the notion of nature as something that would protect us, give us solace, reveals us to be inextricably within and of nature. From there, we might begin to save ourselves — along with everything else.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Cuttlefish can pass the marshmellow test.

Cephalopod mullusks like octopuses or cuttlefishes show remarkable intelligence. My most engaged and soothing viewing experience during the pandemis has been watching "My Octopus Teacher" on Netflix. Now recent work pointed to by Greenwood shows that cuttlefish can pass the famous marshmellow test, forgoing immediate gratification if experience has shown that waiting produces a larger reward:
Decision-making, when humans and other animals choose between two options, is not always based on the absolute values of the options but can also depend on their relative values. The present study examines whether decision-making by cuttlefish is dependent on relative values learned from previous experience. Cuttlefish preferred a larger quantity when making a choice between one or two shrimps (1 versus 2) during a two-alternative forced choice. However, after cuttlefish were primed under conditions where they were given a small reward for choosing one shrimp in a no shrimp versus one shrimp test (0 versus 1) six times in a row, they chose one shrimp significantly more frequently in the 1 versus 2 test. This reversed preference for a smaller quantity was not due to satiation at the time of decision-making, as cuttlefish fed a small shrimp six times without any choice test prior to the experiment still preferred two shrimps significantly more often in a subsequent 1 versus 2 test. This suggests that the preference of one shrimp in the quantity comparison test occurs via a process of learned valuation. Foraging preference in cuttlefish thus depends on the relative value of previous prey choices.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The brains of friends have similar brain functional connectivities.

From Hyhon et al.

Significance

In what ways are we similar to our friends? Here, we characterized the social network of residents of a remote village, a subset of whom contributed personality and neuroimaging data. We demonstrate that similarity in individuals’ resting-state functional connectomes predicts individuals’ proximity in their real-world social network, even when controlling for demographic characteristics and self-reported personality traits. Our results suggest that patterns of functional brain activity during rest encode latent similarities (e.g., in terms of how people think and behave) that are associated with friendship. Taken together, integrating neuroimaging and social network analysis can offer novel insights into how the brain shapes or is shaped by the social networks that it inhabits.
Abstract
People often have the intuition that they are similar to their friends, yet evidence for homophily (being friends with similar others) based on self-reported personality is inconsistent. Functional connectomes—patterns of spontaneous synchronization across the brain—are stable within individuals and predict how people tend to think and behave. Thus, they may capture interindividual variability in latent traits that are particularly similar among friends but that might elude self-report. Here, we examined interpersonal similarity in functional connectivity at rest—that is, in the absence of external stimuli—and tested if functional connectome similarity is associated with proximity in a real-world social network. The social network of a remote village was reconstructed; a subset of residents underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging. Similarity in functional connectomes was positively related to social network proximity, particularly in the default mode network. Controlling for similarities in demographic and personality data (the Big Five personality traits) yielded similar results. Thus, functional connectomes may capture latent interpersonal similarities between friends that are not fully captured by commonly used demographic or personality measures. The localization of these results suggests how friends may be particularly similar to one another. Additionally, geographic proximity moderated the relationship between neural similarity and social network proximity, suggesting that such associations are particularly strong among people who live particularly close to one another. These findings suggest that social connectivity is reflected in signatures of brain functional connectivity, consistent with the common intuition that friends share similarities that go beyond, for example, demographic similarities.

Monday, January 04, 2021

The changing geography of social mobility in the United States

From Connor and Storper:
New evidence shows that intergenerational social mobility—the rate at which children born into poverty climb the income ladder—varies considerably across the United States. Is this current geography of opportunity something new or does it reflect a continuation of long-term trends? We answer this question by constructing data on the levels and determinants of social mobility across American regions over the 20th century. We find that the changing geography of opportunity-generating economic activity restructures the landscape of intergenerational mobility, but factors associated with specific regional structures of interpersonal and racial inequality that have “deep roots” generate persistence. This is evident in the sharp decline in social mobility in the Midwest as economic activity has shifted away from it and the consistently low levels of opportunity in the South even as economic activity has shifted toward it. We conclude that the long-term geography of social mobility can be understood through the deep roots and changing economic fortunes of places.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Commentaries on our times

I have accumulated a number of articles on our current political and social issues that I think offer interesting perspectives. I was about to delete them from my queue for MindBlog posts because I don't want to tilt MindBlog's content too far towards the social versus the biological drivers of our behaviors, but instead I'm noting several in this post, with a brief description of, or clip of text from, each: 

This brief Robert Reich article in The Guardian expands the idea of the broken window theory concerning law enforcement in poor communities to include America’s most powerful breaking windows with impunity, while a growing fraction of the population is becoming accepting of such rogue behaviors. 

And, a clip from David Brooks’ Annual Sidney awards article notes recent writing by Fukuyama and Burton:

This was a year when the very foundations of society seemed to be crumbling, and there were many fine essays about that. Francis Fukuyama wrote “Liberalism and Its Discontents” in American Purpose, which is the best single primer to the long-running debate about the liberal order.
“Classical liberalism can best be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity,” Fukuyama writes. It does this by “deliberately not specifying higher goals of human life.” It leaves people free to decide their own values, their own form of worship. Liberalism is thus perpetually unsatisfying to those trying to build a perfectly just or virtuous society because it is neutral about many ultimate concerns. There’s a void that often gets filled with consumerism...Fukuyama honestly faces the shortcomings of liberalism, and then makes the core point that the alternative to slow, deliberative liberalism is inevitably some form of violence.
Tara Isabella Burton takes the argument one level deeper in her essay “Postliberal Epistemology” in Comment. Liberalism, she argues, was based on a view of the human person now being rejected on left and right. A person, Enlightenment liberalism holds, is essentially rational and disembodied. If people use reason properly, they will come to the same logical results...For more and more millennials, in particular, she argues, this view is insufficient: “In rendering human rationality disembodied, it also renders human beings interchangeable, reproducible, not incarnations but instantiations of a vague generic.” Burton’s essay takes some work, but it profoundly captures the way so many young people on left and right feel alienated from and unseen by the structures of society.

Then, here are some more I liked…

Thomas Edsall's article, The Resentment That Never Sleeps notes that

...diminished status has become a source of rage on both the left and right, sharpened by divisions over economic security and insecurity, geography and, ultimately, values.
More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated...Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.
And, from polymath Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, a brief piece, What We Get Wrong About America’s Crisis of Democracy:
We are told again and again that American democracy is in peril and may even be on its deathbed....Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy...The interesting question is not what causes autocracy (not to mention the conspiratorial thinking that feeds it) but what has ever suspended it.