Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The case against reality

Over the past year I've dipped into and out of Donald Hoffman's ideas several times, looking back at Geffer's article in Granta Magazine, Hoffman's TED talk, and sections of his 2019 book "The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes." Mainly for my future reference (I forget things, and use my MindBlog posts to go back and look them up), I'm attempting to put down the bare bones of his arguments with a selection of clips from these various sources.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world...If they were not, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now?...This hunch is wrong. On the contrary, our perceptions of snakes and apples, and even of space and time, do not reveal objective reality...It is a theorem of evolution by natural selection that wallops our hunches.
Does natural selection really favor seeing reality as it is? Fortunately, we don't have to wave our hands and guess; evolution is a mathematically precise theory. We can use the equations of evolution to check this out. We can have various organisms in artificial worlds compete and see which survive and which thrive, which sensory systems are more fit. A key notion in those equations is fitness...Fitness is not the same thing as reality as it is, and it's fitness, and not reality as it is, that figures centrally in the equations of evolution... we have run hundreds of thousands of evolutionary game simulations with lots of different randomly chosen worlds and organisms that compete for resources in those worlds. Some of the organisms see all of the reality, others see just part of the reality, and some see none of the reality, only fitness. Who wins? ...perception of reality goes extinct. In almost every simulation, organisms that see none of reality but are just tuned to fitness drive to extinction all the organisms that perceive reality as it is. So the bottom line is, evolution does not favor veridical, or accurate perceptions. Those perceptions of reality go extinct. Fitness beats truth (This is the "FBT theorem").
A metaphor can help our intuitions. Suppose you’re writing an email, and the icon for its file is blue, rectangular, and in the center of your desktop. Does this mean that the file itself is blue, rectangular, and in the center of your computer? Of course not...The purpose of a desktop interface is not to show you the “truth” of the computer—where “truth," in this metaphor, refers to circuits, voltages, and layers of software. Rather, the purpose of an interface is to hide the “truth” and to show simple graphics that help you perform useful tasks such as crafting emails and editing photos. If you had to toggle voltages to craft an email, your friends would never hear from you. That is what evolution has done. It has endowed us with senses that hide the truth and display the simple icons we need to survive long enough to raise offspring... Perception is not a window on objective reality. It is an interface that hides objective reality behind a veil of helpful icons...Evolution has shaped our senses to keep us alive. We have to take them seriously: if you see a speeding Maserati, don’t leap in front of it; if you see a moldy apple, don’t eat it. But it is a mistake of logic to assume that if we must take our senses seriously then we are required—or even entitled—to take them literally.
We used to think that the Earth is flat because it looks that way. Then we thought that the Earth is the unmoving center of reality because it looks that way. We were wrong. We had misinterpreted our perceptions. Now we believe that spacetime and objects are the nature of reality as it is. The theory of evolution is telling us that once again, we're wrong. We're misinterpreting the content of our perceptual experiences. There's something that exists when you don't look, but it's not spacetime and physical objects. It's...hard for us to let go of spacetime and objects...we're blind to our own blindnesses...By peering through the lens of a telescope we discovered that the Earth is not the unmoving center of reality, and by peering through the lens of the theory of evolution we discovered that spacetime and objects are not the nature of reality. When I have a perceptual experience that I describe as a red tomato, I am interacting with reality, but that reality is not a red tomato and is nothing like a red tomato...And here's the kicker: When I have a perceptual experience that I describe as a brain, or neurons, I am interacting with reality, but that reality is not a brain or neurons and is nothing like a brain or neurons. And that reality, whatever it is, is the real source of cause and effect in the world -- not brains, not neurons. Brains and neurons have no causal powers. They cause none of our perceptual experiences, and none of our behavior. Brains and neurons are a species-specific set of symbols, a hack.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Plasticity during our development of mapping time on to space.

A previous mindblog post has pointed to work showing how culture shapes our spatial conceptions of time. Starr and Srinivasan now address the development of spatial representations of time in three dimension in children from different cultures.:
Across cultures, people frequently communicate about time in terms of space. English speakers in the United States, for example, might “look forward” to the future or gesture toward the left when talking about the past. As shown by these examples, different dimensions of space are used to represent different temporal concepts. Here, we explored how cultural factors and individual differences shape the development of two types of spatiotemporal representations in 6- to 15-year-old children: the horizontal/vertical mental timeline (in which past and future events are placed on a horizontal or vertical line that is external to the body) and the sagittal mental timeline (in which events are placed on a line that runs through the front-back axis of the body). We tested children in India because the prevalence of both horizontal and vertical calendars there provided a unique opportunity to investigate how calendar orientation and writing direction might each influence the development of the horizontal/vertical mental timeline. Our results suggest that the horizontal/vertical mental timeline and the sagittal mental timeline are constructed in parallel throughout childhood and become increasingly aligned with culturally-conventional orientations. Additionally, we show that experience with calendars may influence the orientation of children's horizontal/vertical mental timelines, and that individual differences in children's attitudes toward the past and future may influence the orientation of their sagittal mental timelines. Taken together, our results demonstrate that children are sensitive to both cultural and personal factors when building mental models of time.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Measuring happiness in small steps.

I find this Brook's self help essay - that I came across while browsing the news during this morning's coffee - to be a nice brief tonic. His basic message is that small steps are more likely to make you happier than hard-to-achieve lifelong goals. I pass on his three summary nostrums here and recommend that you scan his list of brief essays on "How to build a life" in the Atlantic Magazine.  

1. Live in “day-tight compartments.”

The scientific literature is clear that goals can bring a lot of happiness when they are short term, achievable, and leading us toward ultimate success—in other words, when achieving them indicates that we are making progress...set an end goal, then break it into manageable steps: one year, one month, one week, one day.
2. Focus on the journey.
...see major goals not as the only way to achieve happiness but as points of navigation that set a direction for your lifelong journey. That way, when storms arise and new opportunities present themselves, you can set a new goal and gracefully let go of your old one, thereby avoiding disappointment and missed opportunities.
3. Set intrinsic goals.
Extrinsic goals — money, power, and prestige — can be the hardest to achieve because they are inherently zero-sum: In the pursuit of scarce resources, we crowd one another out. By contrast, intrinsic goals—based on love and personal growth—are positive-sum, and thus more likely to lead to success: My efforts to love and grow as a person are not crowded by your efforts; on the contrary, they can be complementary...they are the goals most associated with happiness...intrinsic goals are akin to what the writer David Brooks calls “eulogy virtues”: the things you would want people to remember you for at the end of your life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Brain mechanism by which testosterone reduces generosity

 Interesting work from Jianxin Ou et al.:

Significance
Testosterone is associated with aggressive behavior in both animals and humans. Here, we establish a link between increased testosterone and selfishness in economic decision making and identify the neural mechanisms through which testosterone reduces generosity in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-participant study. We find that testosterone induces more selfish choices, particularly when distant others are concerned. Moreover, it disrupts the representation of other-regarding value in local activity and functional connectivity involving the temporoparietal junction and subcortical regions involved in reward processing. Our study provides causal evidence for a testosterone-mediated neurohormonal link between generosity and the valuation system.
Abstract
Recent evidence has linked testosterone, a major sex hormone, to selfishness in economic decision-making. Here, we aimed to investigate the neural mechanisms through which testosterone reduces generosity by combining functional MRI with pharmacological manipulation among healthy young males in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subject design. After testosterone or placebo gel administration, participants performed a social discounting task in which they chose between selfish options (benefiting only the participant) and generous options (providing also some benefit to another person at a particular social distance). At the behavioral level, testosterone reduced generosity compared to the placebo. At the neural level (n = 60), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) encoded the other-regarding value of the generous option during generous choices, and this effect was attenuated by testosterone, suggesting that testosterone reduced the consideration of other’s welfare as underpinned by TPJ activity. Moreover, TPJ activity more strongly reflected individual differences in generosity in the placebo than the testosterone group. Furthermore, testosterone weakened the relation between the other-regarding value of generous decisions and connectivity between the TPJ and a region extending from the insula into the striatum. Together, these findings suggest that a network encompassing both cortical and subcortical components underpins the effects of testosterone on social preferences.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Four distinct patterns of aging - what is your 'ageotype'?

An interesting piece from Lanese describs work showing how aging unfolds at different rates in different tissues:
The research team behind the study sorted 43 people into aging categories, or "ageotypes," based on biological samples collected over the course of two years. The samples included blood, inflammatory substances, microbes, genetic material, proteins and by-products of metabolic processes. By tracking how the samples changed over time, the team identified about 600 so-called markers of aging — values that predict the functional capacity of a tissue and essentially estimate its "biological age."
So far, the team has identified four distinct ageotypes: Immune, kidney, liver and metabolic. Some people fit squarely in one category, but others may meet the criteria for all four, depending on how their biological systems hold up with age.

Expanding the study will surely reveal more than four categories. One of the study participants was clearly a cardiovascular ager, whose cardiac muscle was accumulating damage at a greater rate than other parts of their body. 

This reminds me of Atul Gawande's great description of how complex systems wear down and crash:

...complex systems—power plants, say—have to survive and function despite having thousands of critical components. Engineers therefore design these machines with multiple layers of redundancy: with backup systems, and backup systems for the backup systems. The backups may not be as efficient as the first-line components, but they allow the machine to keep going even as damage accumulates...within the parameters established by our genes, that’s exactly how human beings appear to work. We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth. The DNA in our cells is frequently damaged under routine conditions, but our cells have a number of DNA repair systems. If a key gene is permanently damaged, there are usually extra copies of the gene nearby. And, if the entire cell dies, other cells can fill in.
Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Points on having a self and free will.

 A recent podcast by Sam Harris summarizing his ideas on the question of whether we have free will motivates me to do a further summary here…

There is a broad consensus among many disciplines that our experience of having a self or “I” is an illusion (see for example my lecture “The I-Illusion” and subsequent web lectures).  This self illusion is what has the experience of ‘free will,’ of being free to make choices. Having a self is other side of the coin of having free will.

Here is my one paragraph paraphrase of points that Sam Harris’ makes in his ‘Waking Up’ App, and book of that title, as well as his recent podcast:

We all are concatenations of previous causes with the most recent proximal cause rising from this subconscious mist.  What we take to be our 'self' or 'I' is actually the archive of our past actions and experiences, stored in long term declarative and procedural memory systems from which thoughts and actions of the present instant  seem to rise from nowhere - 'we' don't 'choose' them, they just seem to appear.  Having morality doesn't require free will, it is accomplished by having a historical coltlective record of what actions do or don't work out well, with respect to holding society together and passing on our genes. Thinking that 2 + 2 = 5 or killing other humans have bad consequences.  It is from this history of actions and expectations in our brain that the moral choices of the moment arise, again as if from nowhere.

Still, most of us, even if granting the above, can’t imagine losing our feeling of having a self, it seems too useful, we couldn’t get along without it.  This problem is addressed at the end of my “I-Illusion” talk with text based on points Wegner makes at the end of his classic 2002 book “The Illusion of Conscious Will” : 

…..the important point is that we have the experience of having free will, and it must be there for something, even if it is not an adequate theory of behavior causation....perhaps we have conscious will because it helps us to appreciate and remember what we are doing, the experience of will marks our actions for us, its embodied quality our actions from those of other agents in our environment.

We have evolved emotions of anger, sadness, fear, happiness related to survival. We can think of the emotion of agency, or conscious will, as the same sort of evolved emotion, obviously a useful capability in sorting out our physical and social world. 

The authorship emotion, an emotion that authenticates the action's owner as the self, is something we would miss if it were gone... it would not be very satisfying to go through life causing things, making discoveries, helping people, whatever.. if we had no personal recognition of those achievements.

And, this view doesn't really need to conflict with notions of responsibility and morality, because what people intend and consciously will is a basis for how the moral rightness or wrongness of an act judged. This is why mental competence is an issue in criminal trials.

So, just as in theater, art, used car sales ...and in the scientific analysis of conscious will..how things seem is more important than what they are. It seems to us that we have selves, have conscious will, have minds, are agents. While it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion, it is incorrect to call the illusion a trivial one, its invention has an obvious evolutionary rationale (along with long list of cognitive biases we seem to be hardwired with). Illusions piled on top of apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology, social life, and our dominance as a species on this planet.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Passion matters but not equally everywhere.

From Li et al.:  

Significance

In three large-scale datasets representing adolescents from 59 societies across the globe, we find evidence of a systematic cultural variation in the relationship between passion and achievement. In individualistic societies, passion better predicts achievement and explains more variance in achievement outcomes. In collectivistic societies, passion still positively predicts achievement, but it is a much less powerful predictor. There, parents’ support predicts achievement as much as passion. One implication of these findings is that if admission officers, recruiters, and managers rely on only one model of motivation, a Western independent one, they may risk passing over and mismanaging talented students and employees who increasingly come from sociocultural contexts where a more interdependent model of motivation is common and effective.
Abstract
How to identify the students and employees most likely to achieve is a challenge in every field. American academic and lay theories alike highlight the importance of passion for strong achievement. Based on a Western independent model of motivation, passionate individuals—those who have a strong interest, demonstrate deep enjoyment, and express confidence in what they are doing—are considered future achievers. Those with less passion are thought to have less potential and are often passed over for admission or employment. As academic institutions and corporations in the increasingly multicultural world seek to acquire talent from across the globe, can they assume that passion is an equally strong predictor of achievement across cultural contexts? We address this question with three representative samples totaling 1.2 million students in 59 societies and provide empirical evidence of a systematic, cross-cultural variation in the importance of passion in predicting achievement. In individualistic societies where independent models of motivation are prevalent, relative to collectivistic societies where interdependent models of motivation are more common, passion predicts a larger gain (0.32 vs. 0.21 SD) and explains more variance in achievement (37% vs. 16%). In contrast, in collectivistic societies, parental support predicts achievement over and above passion. These findings suggest that in addition to passion, achievement may be fueled by striving to realize connectedness and meet family expectations. Findings highlight the risk of overweighting passion in admission and employment decisions and the need to understand and develop measures for the multiple sources and forms of motivation that support achievement.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Hierarchical dynamics as a macroscopic organizing principle of the human brain

Raut, Snyder, and Raichle do a open source description of general principles describing the functional organization of brain activity timescales that vary according to anatomical hierarchy:  

Significance

Accumulating evidence suggests that, during task performance, information is encoded at shorter timescales in primary sensory regions as compared to longer timescales in higher-order cortical regions. These encoding timescales correlate with the timescales of activity within these regions. Here, we test the hypothesis that a hierarchy of activity timescales represents a general organizing principle of brain function. Using functional imaging of the human brain in the eyes-open resting state, we find that the timescales of ongoing activity are hierarchically organized as gradients across the entire cerebral cortex. Further, whole-brain coverage permitted examination of subcortical structures, which exhibited hierarchical timescale gradients parallel to cerebral cortex. Altogether, our results support the existence of hierarchical gradients that globally organize human brain dynamics.
Abstract
Multimodal evidence suggests that brain regions accumulate information over timescales that vary according to anatomical hierarchy. Thus, these experimentally defined “temporal receptive windows” are longest in cortical regions that are distant from sensory input. Interestingly, spontaneous activity in these regions also plays out over relatively slow timescales (i.e., exhibits slower temporal autocorrelation decay). These findings raise the possibility that hierarchical timescales represent an intrinsic organizing principle of brain function. Here, using resting-state functional MRI, we show that the timescale of ongoing dynamics follows hierarchical spatial gradients throughout human cerebral cortex. These intrinsic timescale gradients give rise to systematic frequency differences among large-scale cortical networks and predict individual-specific features of functional connectivity. Whole-brain coverage permitted us to further investigate the large-scale organization of subcortical dynamics. We show that cortical timescale gradients are topographically mirrored in striatum, thalamus, and cerebellum. Finally, timescales in the hippocampus followed a posterior-to-anterior gradient, corresponding to the longitudinal axis of increasing representational scale. Thus, hierarchical dynamics emerge as a global organizing principle of mammalian brains.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

How about another global conspiracy theory?..... Multinational mega-corporations are a global oligarchy maintaining world peace.

I pass on this great clip from Mark Manson's weekly newletter:
Watch any cheesy Hollywood action flick from the 90s or early 2000s and the villain is likely some mega-billionaire who’s about to destroy half a nation and all the baby seals along with it because it’ll add a few more percentage points to his bottom line.
Peruse any conspiracy theory forum or YouTube channel (note: please don’t actually do this) and you’ll come across dozens of half-baked theories about how governments are secretly controlled by the Big Evil Corporation and all these people are being killed on purpose so that Bill Gates can like, add a third wing to his mansion… or something.
(Sidenote: If I ever start another business, I’m totally going to call it “Big Evil Corporation.”)
But what if I told you these same too-big-to-fail companies might be the best thing happening for global peace? The idea is not as crazy as you think.
Some version of this idea was first proposed in 1995 by the economist Thomas Friedman in what he initially called “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict.” The theory was simple: two countries with McDonald’s restaurants had, until then, never gone to war with one another and Friedman aruged that they would rarely, if ever, go to war in the future.
His reasoning was that two countries that enjoy the fruits of globalized, American-exported schlop would never jeopardize such luxuries by opting to kill each other instead.
Unfortunately for Friedman, it only took a few years for two ethnic groups to discover that they hated each other way more than they liked Big Macs, as the Bosnia and Serbia war quickly put an end to that theory.
But like any good human, Friedman learned from his mistakes and updated his theory in 2005 to the new and improved “Dell Theory of Conflict.” The Dell Theory says that any two countries who share supply chains for major industries with one another would never go to war, as the economic disruption would make any conflict too costly to pursue.
Unlike its cheap McDonald’s cousin, The Dell Theory of Conflict seems to have some legs to it. It explains why India and Pakistan keep backing down from each other, why China always says it’s going to invade Taiwan but never does, and why the US really has only seemed interested in invading countries that don’t have anything interesting to sell them.
People rarely believe this, but we live in the most peaceful period of human history. The world has not experienced a large-scale war between two major powers in over 50 years. Wars have been declining for so long and have become so rare that foreign policy experts have come to refer to the last fifty years as “The Long Peace.”
Last year, I wrote that a company like Apple is likely more responsible for peace between the US and China than any US president. Neither country wants to fuck with a $2 trillion dollar cash cow in both their backyards.
We’ve more recently seen this with the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies who were once at each other’s throats came together and shared research and manufacturing capacity because they all realized that a world in enforced lockdowns isn’t good for anybody.
Hell, you want to get into conspiracies? Blackrock, the largest financial asset management in the world, with over $8 trillion dollars in assets, and tentacles in every industry and almost every country, has allegedly picked up the phone before and politely asked various groups and countries to knock it off and start selling to each other. And, well, I guess there’s something to that?
Economic self-interest may be soulless. But perhaps by removing people’s group affinities and emotional biases from the equation, at scale, it does make for a better, safer world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Traces of psychedelics make you feel good, but so does placebo.

From Bal√°zs Szigeti et al.:
Microdosing is the practice of regularly using low doses of psychedelic drugs. Anecdotal reports suggest that microdosing enhances well-being and cognition; however, such accounts are potentially biased by the placebo effect. This study used a ‘self-blinding’ citizen science initiative, where participants were given online instructions on how to incorporate placebo control into their microdosing routine without clinical supervision. The study was completed by 191 participants, making it the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to-date. All psychological outcomes improved significantly from baseline to after the 4 weeks long dose period for the microdose group; however, the placebo group also improved and no significant between-groups differences were observed. Acute (emotional state, drug intensity, mood, energy, and creativity) and post-acute (anxiety) scales showed small, but significant microdose vs. placebo differences; however, these results can be explained by participants breaking blind. The findings suggest that anecdotal benefits of microdosing can be explained by the placebo effect.
Further descriptions and discussions of this work are offered by Cameron and by O'Grady.

Monday, March 15, 2021

You should probably end a conversation sooner than you think.

From Mastroianni et al.

Significance

Social connection is essential to physical and psychological well-being, and conversation is the primary means by which it is achieved. And yet, scientists know little about it—about how it starts, how it unfolds, or how it ends. Our studies attempted to remedy this deficit, and their results were surprising: conversations almost never end when anyone wants them to! At a moment in history when billions of people have been forced to curtail their normal social activities and to reimagine this one, a scientific understanding of conversation could hardly be timelier.
Abstract
Do conversations end when people want them to? Surprisingly, behavioral science provides no answer to this fundamental question about the most ubiquitous of all human social activities. In two studies of 932 conversations, we asked conversants to report when they had wanted a conversation to end and to estimate when their partner (who was an intimate in Study 1 and a stranger in Study 2) had wanted it to end. Results showed that conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to and rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to and that the average discrepancy between desired and actual durations was roughly half the duration of the conversation. Conversants had little idea when their partners wanted to end and underestimated how discrepant their partners’ desires were from their own. These studies suggest that ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other. As a result, most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Turn your living room into a Neuro Lab for marketing research....

MindBlog gets quite a few jaw-dropping emails. I'll spare you the email responding to a MindBlog post on a model of societal collapse that suggested I reference an article that was a cover for a gun and ammunitions sale site. But in the "can you believe this??" category I have to pass on two fragments of text in today's email from "StreamPulse Neuro" - on recent advances in neuromarketing research:
Austin, TX, March 8, 2021 - The StreamPulse™ in-home division of MediaScience®, the leading neuromarketing research authority, has joined forces with Shimmer®, an innovative, medical grade-manufacturer of neurometric measurement equipment, to co-develop and launch STREAMPULSE NEURO™....The NeuroLynQ@Home Sensor Kit is easy to use. Each participant simply attaches the NeuroLynQ sensor with a wristband, a PPG sensor to their index finger and two GSR electrodes to their middle and ring fingers. A Bluetooth dongle, inserted into a USB port on their computer, transmits data in real-time from the NeuroLynQ@Home sensor to the researcher’s network for analysis. Results are easy to interpret, and quickly ready to review.
If you're in the mood to be really creeped out, have a look at: Media Science LabsHark Connect, and Shimmer Research.  Perhaps you can offer to be a shill!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Changing basic personality traits with a smartphone App?

A group of Swiss researchers has taken direct aim at trying to modify, in a digital intervention experiment with ~1,500 participants, the basic OCEAN personality traits : openness,conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. They developed the smartphone App PEACH (PErsonality coACH), which provides scalable communication capabilities using a digital agent that mimics a conversation with a human. The PEACH app also includes digital journaling, reminders of individual goals, video clips, opportunities for self-reflection and feedback on progress. Weekly core topics and small interventions aim to address and activate the desired changes and thus the development of personality traits. Their results challenge the commonn view that personality traits relatively stable and unchangeable. Here is the Stieger et al.abstract:
Personality traits predict important life outcomes, such as success in love and work life, well-being, health, and longevity. Given these positive relations to important outcomes, economists, policy makers, and scientists have proposed intervening to change personality traits to promote positive life outcomes. However, nonclinical interventions to change personality traits are lacking so far in large-scale naturalistic populations. This study (n = 1,523) examined the effects of a 3-mo digital personality change intervention using a randomized controlled trial and the smartphone application PEACH (PErsonality coACH). Participants who received the intervention showed greater self-reported changes compared to participants in the waitlist control group who had to wait 1 mo before receiving the intervention. Self-reported changes aligned with intended goals for change and were significant for those desiring to increase on a trait (d = 0.52) and for those desiring to decrease on a trait (d = −0.58). Observers such as friends, family members, or intimate partners also detected significant personality changes in the desired direction for those desiring to increase on a trait (d = 0.35). Observer-reported changes for those desiring to decrease on a trait were not significant (d = −0.22). Moreover, self- and observer-reported changes persisted until 3 mo after the end of the intervention. This work provides the strongest evidence to date that normal personality traits can be changed through intervention in nonclinical samples.
Also, from the text of the article:
....most participants wanted to decrease in neuroticism (26.7%), increase in conscientiousness (26.1%), or increase in extraversion (24.6%). Other change goals were chosen less often. Of all participants, 7.4% wanted to increase in openness, 6.4% decrease in agreeableness, 4.1% increase in agreeableness, 2.6% decrease in conscientiousness, 1.8% decrease in openness, and 0.2% decrease in extraversion
Their conclusion:
Taken together, this research shows that people can actively change their personality traits in desired directions with the help of a digital intervention. The findings provide a challenge for the common misperception that because personality traits are relatively stable, they are therefore unchangeable. Provided that policy makers acknowledge the beneficial effects of personality interventions for the individual and the society as a whole, this digital intervention approach could easily be used as a low-cost and low-threshold prevention tool for a large number of people.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Evidence for an influence of meditation on immune-related pathways?

I pass on the abstract, below, and also the entire text of a study by Chaix et al.:

Highlights

• We explored the methylome of trained meditators vs untrained controls in PBMCs. 
• No significant basal difference in methylation profiles was observed between groups. 
• Meditators showed 61 Differentially Methylated Sites after a meditation practice day. 
• These DMS were enriched in genes associated with immune cell processes and ageing. 
• Controls showed no significant DMS after a leisure-based control intervention. 
Abstract
The human methylome is dynamically influenced by psychological stress. However, its responsiveness to stress management remains underexplored. Meditation practice has been shown to significantly reduce stress level, among other beneficial neurophysiological outcomes. Here, we evaluated the impact of a day of intensive meditation practice (t2−t1 = 8 h) on the methylome of peripheral blood mononuclear cells in experienced meditators (n = 17). In parallel, we assessed the influence of a day of leisure activities in the same environment on the methylome of matched control subjects with no meditation experience (n = 17). DNA methylation profiles were analyzed using the Illumina 450 K beadchip array. We fitted for each methylation site a linear model for multi-level experiments which adjusts the variation between t1 and t2 for baseline differences. No significant baseline differences in methylation profiles was detected between groups. In the meditation group, we identified 61 differentially methylated sites (DMS) after the intervention. These DMS were enriched in genes mostly associated with immune cell metabolism and ageing and in binding sites for several transcription factors involved in immune response and inflammation, among other functions. In the control group, no significant change in methylation level was observed after the day of leisure activities. These results suggest that a short meditation intervention in trained subjects may rapidly influence the epigenome at sites of potential relevance for immune function and provide a better understanding of the dynamics of the human methylome over short time windows.
These are clearly very initial findings that need followup to determine the relationship between the fast epigenetic changes caused by the daylong meditative and previously reported long lasting effects of the practice. There need to be randomized controlled studies with larger sample sizes, active control groups, long-term follow-ups, etc.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

The echo chamber effect on social media

From Cinelli et al.:  

Significance

We explore the key differences between the main social media platforms and how they are likely to influence information spreading and the formation of echo chambers. To assess the different dynamics, we perform a comparative analysis on more than 100 million pieces of content concerning controversial topics (e.g., gun control, vaccination, abortion) from Gab, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. The analysis focuses on two main dimensions: 1) homophily in the interaction networks and 2) bias in the information diffusion toward like-minded peers. Our results show that the aggregation in homophilic clusters of users dominates online dynamics. However, a direct comparison of news consumption on Facebook and Reddit shows higher segregation on Facebook.
Abstract
Social media may limit the exposure to diverse perspectives and favor the formation of groups of like-minded users framing and reinforcing a shared narrative, that is, echo chambers. However, the interaction paradigms among users and feed algorithms greatly vary across social media platforms. This paper explores the key differences between the main social media platforms and how they are likely to influence information spreading and echo chambers’ formation. We perform a comparative analysis of more than 100 million pieces of content concerning several controversial topics (e.g., gun control, vaccination, abortion) from Gab, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. We quantify echo chambers over social media by two main ingredients: 1) homophily in the interaction networks and 2) bias in the information diffusion toward like-minded peers. Our results show that the aggregation of users in homophilic clusters dominate online interactions on Facebook and Twitter. We conclude the paper by directly comparing news consumption on Facebook and Reddit, finding higher segregation on Facebook.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Sexiest birds on the planet - Manakins have the best moves

Elizabeth Pennisi describes reports from a recent virtual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology on the genetic underpinnings of the elaborate plumage and dance displays of Ecuador's club winged manakin, products of sexual selection:
For a glimpse of the power of sexual selection, the dance of the golden-collared manakin is hard to beat. They court with their flashy plumage, loud wing clapping, and acrobatic leaps and twists to gain the fussy female's favor. (As biologists have understood since Charles Darwin, such exhibitionism evolves when females choose to mate with males that have the most extravagant appearances and displays—a proxy for fitness.) Now, by studying the genomes of the golden-collared manakin (Manacus vitellinus) and its relatives, researchers are exploring the genes that drive these elaborate behaviors and traits. With four manakin genomes, and two already published, researchers are now able to describe the genetic underpinnings behind some of the birds' displays. In addition, by mapping traits and genes onto the manakin family tree, researchers are beginning to trace the stepwise genetic changes that led to the most elaborate displays and determine whether sexual selection works differently from natural selection.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during COVID-19

From Giuntella et al:  

Significance

COVID-19 has affected daily life in unprecedented ways. Drawing on a longitudinal dataset of college students before and during the pandemic, we document dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep, time use, and mental health. We show that biometric and time-use data are critical for understanding the mental health impacts of COVID-19, as the pandemic has tightened the link between lifestyle behaviors and depression. Our findings also suggest a puzzle: Disruptions to physical activity and mental health are strongly associated, but restoration of physical activity through a short-term intervention does not help improve mental health. These results highlight the large impact of COVID-19 on both lifestyle and well-being and offer directions for interventions aimed at restoring mental health.
Abstract
Using a longitudinal dataset linking biometric and survey data from several cohorts of young adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic (N=682), we document large disruptions to physical activity, sleep, time use, and mental health. At the onset of the pandemic, average steps decline from 10,000 to 4,600 steps per day, sleep increases by 25 to 30 min per night, time spent socializing declines by over half to less than 30 min, and screen time more than doubles to over 5 h per day. Over the course of the pandemic from March to July 2020 the proportion of participants at risk for clinical depression ranges from 46% to 61%, up to a 90% increase in depression rates compared to the same population just prior to the pandemic. Our analyses suggest that disruption to physical activity is a leading risk factor for depression during the pandemic. However, restoration of those habits through a short-term intervention does not meaningfully improve mental well-being.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

A graphic of the coming collapse of our marine ecosystems.

I've just done a slow read through a PNAS Perspective article authored by a collaborative of mainly European scientists on "The quiet crossing of ocean tipping points." The article describes how climate change in the ocean is clearly manifesting itself now with ocean deoxygenation and ocean acidification that will be irreversible for centuries to millennia.
Abrupt physical ocean changes due to marine heatwaves are expected with very high likelihood and high confidence concerning negative impacts on ecosystems. Increased heatwave occurrences are not reversible on short time scales and would persist from decades to centuries. The physical−chemical−biological ocean systems are at the verge of tipping into another state in many oceanic regions. Integrated over the world ocean, this adds up to a global issue of concern.

Here is a striking summary graphic that I want to pass on that shows candidates for high-probability high-impact marine tipping elements that concern warming, deoxygenation, and ocean acidification as well as their impacts. (Click to enlarge).

 

AND, I want to point you to a striking New York Times article that has amazing graphic animations showing the current dangerous weakening of the Gulf Stream that is generating a "cold blob" in the North Atlantic, threatening the normal warming effect of the Gulf Stream on the British Isles and northern Europe.


 

 

 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Wellness apps can't cure our digital dehumanization

Wortham describes the surge in the use of wellness Apps as we have shifted our entire lives indoors this past year and notes that they can't address the real problem of the alienation of 21st-century work as email, social media, and zoom are making us increasingly miserable. (see, for example, Newport's description of how in an attempt to work more effectively, we've accidentally deployed an inhumane way to collaborate (email) that causes verbal overload, and Bailenson's arguement that nonverbal overload is one of the root causes of the Zoom fatigue that is experienced by many of us.)

Wortham notes that the pandemic fatigue resulting from shifting our lives indoors and online, blurring even further the distinction between work and everything else, has resulted in a huge increase in the use of apps to help in coping with increased stresses:

Mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, Fabulous, Rootd and Liberate all surged over the past year, downloaded by people in search of reprieve from the crushing anxiety of the virus. Even the mere act of tapping Calm open has a narcotic effect: You can hear a thick, sonorous hum of crickets and see a picture of a serene mountain range and peaceful lake. Last April, as the world moved into a global lockdown, more than two million people paid $69.99 for an annual subscription to the app, which includes a selection of “daily calms,” or short talks on things like the beauty of mandalas and de-escalating conflict, breathing exercises and soundscapes with titles like “White Noise Ocean Surf” and “Wind in Pines.”
Wellness, the way our culture chooses to define it, has become synonymous with productivity and self-optimization. But wellness isn’t something that can be downloaded and consumed, even if the constellations of sun-drenched photos on your Instagram feed indicate otherwise.
Our attachment to our devices and what we see on them is often the cause of our angst...research suggests that our fixation on our smartphones contributes to headaches, bad posture, fatigue, depression and anxiety... Endlessly scrolling through Netflix and checking social media notifications is not just a byproduct of boredom; it’s a function of design intended to be so persuasive that it feels urgent and impossible to stop. Technology is doing more than capturing our attention — it’s extracting whatever data it can get from us and monetizing it. Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and professor emerita at Harvard, describes this as “surveillance capitalism,” the mining of private human experiences for raw behavioral data that can be sold to advertisers eager to anticipate trends in the marketplace.
Social media monetizes the urgency of wanting, and there are economic incentives for keeping us engaged, unhappy, seeking, convinced there’s something more to consume, something better to do, learn or buy. Buddhism teaches that there are no quick fixes, and apps like Calm are better at advertising relaxing services — and profiting from them — than they are at actually providing them in a meaningful way. Mindfulness is less about reducing stress and more about reducing dissatisfaction through direct investigation of our experience. But marketing stress reduction is more successful, and definitely more likely to win a download or corporate account.
We’re already isolated from our communities, and pandemic fatigue is pushing us even farther away from one another. Corporate wellness strategies mimic the most problematic parts of wellness culture, equating care with a Wi-Fi-connected bike rather than finding ways to work together and form new models of health and care-taking that don’t automatically ascribe our value to how much we can do. For many of us, work is not responsible for our freedom or even satisfaction: It shouldn’t dictate our well-being, either.


 

 

 

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Avoiding psychological biases that trick your brain.

The monthly Austin Rainbow Forum discussion group which I help organize meets on the first Sunday afternoon of each month, and I thought I would pass on background material for a talk and discussion March 7 by Paul McNamara titled "Avoiding psychological bias." I also want to point to an excellent article on cognitive biases and faulty heuristics by Ben Yagoda that appeared several years ago in The Atlantic. Here is McNamara's summary that I just sent out to the discussion group's email list: 

"How we look at the world and make decisions about the ways we live our lives can be profoundly affected by many of the psychological biases which we're all susceptible to. We'll discuss thirteen common types of bias, all beginning with the letter “c”. This presentation has been adapted from the The Center for Action and Contemplation’s podcast series Learning How to See. For those who are interested, here’s a link to the six episodes podcast series: https://cac.org/podcast/learning-how-to-see/ "

The thirteen biases are: 

1. Confirmation Bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resist information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks. 

2. Complexity Bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. 

3. Community bias: It is very hard to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. This is a form of social confirmation bias. 

4. Complementary bias: If peope are nice to you, you’ll be open to what they see and have to say. If they aren’t nice to you, you won’t. 

5. Contact bias: If you lack contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. 

6. Conservative/Liberal bias: Conservatives and Liberals see the world differently. Liberals see through a “nurturing parent” window, and Conservatives see through a “strict father” window. Liberals value moral arguments based on justice and compassion; conservatives also place a high value on arguments based on purity, loyalty, authority, and tradition. Our brains like to see as our party sees, and we flock with those who see as we do. 

7. Consciousness bias: A person’s level of consciousness makes seeing some things possible and others impossible. Our brains see from a location.

8. Competency bias: We are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we are, so we may see less or more than we think. Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. 

9. Confidence Bias: We mistake confidence for competence, and we are all vulnerable to the lies of confident people. Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth. 

10. Conspiracy Bias: When we feel shame, we are vulnerable to stories that cast us as the victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy “other.” Our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim ... never the villain. 

11. Comfort/Complacency/Convenience Bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy and reject data that require us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves. 

12. Catastrophe/Normalcy Bias: Our brains notice sudden changes for the worse, but we easily miss slow and subtle changes over time. We think what is now normal always was and always will be. Our brains are wired for what feels normal. 

13. Cash Bias: It is very hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living. Our brains are wired to see within the framework of our economy, and we see what helps us make money.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Humans are animals - get over it. Let go of 'the purpose and meaning of it all'

Philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell does a piece discussing how relentlessly Western philosophy has strained to prove we are not squirrels:
...It’s almost as though the existence of animals, and their various similarities to humans, constituted insults. Like a squirrel, I have eyes and ears, scurry about on the ground and occasionally climb a tree...Our shared qualities — the fact that we are both hairy or that we have eyes or we poop, for example — are disconcerting if I am an immortal being created in the image of God and the squirrel just a physical organism, a bundle of instincts.
“The moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality,” writes Immanuel Kant in “Critique of Practical Reason.” In this assertion, at least, the Western intellectual tradition has been remarkably consistent...The connection of such ideas to the way we treat animals — for example, in our food chain — is too obvious to need repeating...Further trouble is caused when the distinctions between humans and animals are then used to draw distinctions among human beings...Some of us, in short, are animals — and some of us are better than that. This, it turns out, is a useful justification for colonialism, slavery and racism.
When we restrain or control ourselves, Plato argues, a rational being restrains an animal...In this view, each of us is both a beast and a person — and the point of human life is to constrain our desires with rationality and purify ourselves of animality. These sorts of systematic self-divisions come to be refigured in Cartesian dualism, which separates the mind from the body, or in Sigmund Freud’s distinction between id and ego, or in the neurological contrast between the functions of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
This dualistic view is a disaster, as was noted in my series of posts on Barrett's book on emotions. I like very much the views of Sam Harris' on the great questions of religion and philosophy (which animals can't ask) that seek to establish the purpose and meanign of our lives. Here are some fragments and edits from the "Mindfulness and meaning" lecture in his "Waking Up" app, in which he argues for abandoning the philosopher's search:
What does it all mean, what is the meaning of life? What is our purpose here? These are the great pseudo questions of religion and philosophy. We need not ask them. There is assumption of a massive void in our lives that must be filled by something if we do no have answers to these questions, as from myths, superstition, religion. This is an illusion, an imaginary problem, a pure confection of thought...image the cosmos, evolution of life, DNA, consciousness as it exists in wolves and eagles, but no humans. What you don’t have are all the existential doubts to wonder what does it all mean? No temptation towards teleological thinking, purpose driven thinking. You wouldn’t say a wolf is so important that the universe must have had a higher purpose in producing it. Nor would its beauty be diminished once you acknowledged there is no higher purpose that brought it into the world. The same is true in a world filled with anatomically modern human beings, 10,000 years ago before the advent of language or complex material culture, and conversations like we now have, before anyone could articulate a concern about what does it all mean. Imagine a world with those people. Where would the temptation to wonder about the purpose of it all come from? You, standing outside, wouldn't say 'there must be a higher purpose here'... the world is what it is. Everything is simply appearing on the basis of prior causes.
The meaning of life comes from finding good enough reasons to be deeply immersed in the present moment and people around you, not brooding over past and future. What there is to notice is the intrinsic freedom and openness of consciousness in each moment. Everything is simply appearing and you are the condition in which these things appear...The question of how to live a meaningful life is fairly simple to answer...in each moment we have an opportunity to connect with the contents of consciousness, with the sights, sounds, sensations, and ideas that constitute the actual character of our lives, or we can be lost in thought, that is, thinking without knowing that we are thinking, then we are fully at the mercy of whatever thoughts arise, and as you know, the character of so much of our thinking is unhappy, the mind becomes a sort of theater of doubts and anxiety and regret, and it only in this theater that one can get concerned about what it all means, and to get lost in the false questions of philosophy or religion. This moment does not, can not, and need not mean anything or have any purpose, one can only "think" otherwise. And, thinking seems to introduce a crisis of meaning. Mindfulness is the capacity to break this spell and actually connect with experience in the present moment. But it doesn't come naturally, as you may have noticed. So.... that's why we practice it