Monday, February 06, 2023

Openness to spiritual experiences...with caution

After a Protestant Christian upbringing (I was a teenage organist in an Austin Lutheran Church, and took a course from theologian Paul Tillich at Harvard), my adult materialistic scientific Deric has never been able to fathom how an intellectual like Ross Douthat could be a devout Catholic. My irrational faith is in a materialism that is open to spiritual experiences and insights, but also strives to explain them in materialistic terms (as I think near-death experiences have been). I think Douthat’s recent opinion piece in the NYTimes very lucid, although I take exception to one of his pronouncements, and I would recommend that you read it. Here are some clips:
...the dissolution of the old order of American religion — the decline of churches and denominations and the rise of deinstitutionalized spirituality — means that more and more religious lives are lived in between worldviews, in experimental territory where it’s a mistake to expect coherence, theological consistency, a definite set of prior assumptions or beliefs...I want to defend the rationality of this kind of spiritual experimentation and then to warn about its dangers.
Douthat then offers three examples experimental style: magical thinking, experimenting with psychedelics, and pantheistic art that blurs spiritual traditions. And he continues:
For the stringent materialist, everything I’ve just described is reasonable as long as it's understood to be playacting, experience hunting, artistic experimentation. Only when it becomes serious does it offend against rationality.
However, stringent materialism is itself a weird late-modern superstition, and the kind of experimentation I’m describing is actually far more rational than a life lived as though the universe is random and indifferent and human beings are gene-transmission machines with an illusion of self-consciousness.
So... put me in the camp of irrational believers in stringent materialism. And... by what authority does Mr. Douthat get to declare spiritual experimentation or superstition is "far more rational than life lived as though the universe is random, etc." Superstition is superstition; irrational is irrational. What criteria are Mr. Douthat using for his "far more rational" judgment. Are they utilitarian?... as in "X diminishes or enhances the well being of humans more than Y"? He should explicitly state them.

Friday, February 03, 2023

Cryptocurrency isn't going away - any more that Gold is...

...as long as cryptocurrency maintains a core of true believers in the block chain concept for guaranteeing trustworthiness. All currencies are useful as tokens for exchange only to the extent that humans believe in them. The point of this brief post is just to pass on links to two recent screeds by Desai and Krugman that make entertaining reading: 

Mihir A. Desai - The Crypto Collapse and the End of the Magical Thinking That Infected Capitalism  

Paul Krugman - Wonking Out: Give Me That Gold Time Religion 

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Market exposure and human morality

In the face of resurgent threats to place religion over the rest of civil society, and specious claims that we can't have a moral society without the (varying) moral injunctions of various religions, this recent article by Enke in Nature Human Behavior offers a nice explication of one of several other routes by which moral behaviors have evolved over time. Here is the abstract:
According to evolutionary theories, markets may foster an internalized and universalist prosociality because it supports market-based cooperation. This paper uses the cultural folklore of 943 pre-industrial ethnolinguistic groups to show that a society’s degree of market interactions, proxied by the presence of intercommunity trade and money, is associated with the cultural salience of (1) prosocial behaviour, (2) interpersonal trust, (3) universalist moral values and (4) moral emotions of guilt, shame and anger. To provide tentative evidence that a part of this correlation reflects a causal effect of market interactions, the analysis leverages both fine-grained geographic variation across neighbouring historical societies and plausibly exogenous variation in the presence of markets that arises through proximity to historical trade routes or the local degree of ecological diversity. The results suggest that the coevolutionary process involving markets and morality partly consists of economic markets shaping a moral system of a universalist and internalized prosociality.

Monday, January 30, 2023

How sleep shapes what we remember and forget.

I have found monitoring the quality of my sleep to be a fascinating and useful activity. I use both the Oura ring and Apple watch to monitor body temperature, body movement, heart rate, and heart rate variability, and then compare their different (but broadly similar) algorithmic estimates of deep sleep, REM sleep, non-REM sleep, and wake periods. I'm on the lookout for articles on sleep during my scans of journals' tables of contents, and have come upon this review by Sakai of what is happening in our sleep to be concise and useful. Below is a more general overview from edited and rearranged clips (The article goes into more electrophysiological and cellular details):

 
(image credit Dave Cutler)

...memory at the beginning of the consolidation process is very much anchored in hippocampal networks, and in the end of this process, it primarily resides in neocortical networks...New memories are rich with contextual clues such as the time, place, and sensory details of an experience...as memories get encoded in the cortex, many of those spatial and temporal details fade...forgetting—through weakening or loss of synapses—seems to play a key role in the process of memory consolidation, especially during sleep... What remains are the elements representing the essential core of the memory. When learning how to drive, for example, the movements needed to steer and brake are critical; the details of avoiding a specific car on a particular outing are not...sleep’s role in memory is not simply about passive storage. Rather..a more active process of consolidation that extracts key information and forms a generalized version of the overall memory that can later be accessed and applied to relevant situations.
Sleep in mammals has distinct phases as characterized by specific EEG patterns. These include brain-wide slow oscillations (less than 1 Hz in frequency), sharp-wave ripples (100-300 Hz) in the hippocampus, and spindles (10-15 Hz), which are related to the firing of neurons in the circuits connecting the thalamus and the cortex. Upon onset of sleep, the brain enters a non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) phase. During non-REM sleep, slow oscillations sweep across large regions of the brain, punctuated by swells of spindles and bursts of sharp wave-ripples. A period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep follows, with characteristic bursts of its namesake eye movements and low-amplitude theta oscillations around 4-8 Hz. The brain cycles through these phases throughout the sleep period, with slow-wave, non-REM sleep dominating the early hours and REM sleep the late hours.
There are...
...distinct roles of different stages of sleep in memory formation. Non-REM sleep has been shown to be very important for consolidation of declarative memories—those based on recall of information—while REM sleep seems to play a larger part in procedural or task-based memories...this may relate to the degree of synaptic change required. For declarative memories, most of the foundational learning has already taken place; remembering a new fact likely requires only small changes in synaptic strengths. By contrast, procedural memories require a massive amount of synaptic change...If you want to learn how to ride a bike, or how to play capoeira … it's not like learning a new name...I’s weeks, months, years of work. And so it seems like REM sleep is really, really necessary to do this long-term persistent synaptic change.”


Friday, January 27, 2023

MindBlog's 2010 recital and lecture in Istanbul

I've been meandering back over old MindBlog posts and found an orphaned .mov file that I've reposted to my YouTube channel, quite a bit of nostalgia. The guy turning my pages was my handler and guide during my 10 day visit to Istanbul. He is now a Turkish Airlines pilot. 

 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Evolution of Peace

I pass on the abstract of an article by Luke Glowacki that has been submitted to the network of Behavioral and Brain Science reviewers who might offer commentary on its arguments. Motivated readers can obtain a copy of the article from me.
Abstract: While some species have affiliative and even cooperative interactions between individuals of different social groups, humans are alone in having durable, positive-sum, interdependent relationships across unrelated social groups. Our capacity to have harmonious relationships that cross group boundaries is an important aspect of our species' success, allowing for the exchange of ideas, materials, and ultimately enabling cumulative cultural evolution. Knowledge about the conditions required for peaceful intergroup relationships is critical for understanding the success of our species and building a more peaceful world. How do humans create harmonious relationships across group boundaries and when did this capacity emerge in the human lineage? Answering these questions involves considering the costs and benefits of intergroup cooperation and aggression, for oneself, one's group, and one's neighbor. Taking a game theoretical perspective provides new insights into the difficulties of removing the threat of war and reveals an ironic logic to peace—the factors that enable peace also facilitate the increased scale and destructiveness of conflict. In what follows, I explore the conditions required for peace, why they are so difficult to achieve, and when we expect peace to have emerged in the human lineage. I argue that intergroup cooperation was an important component of human relationships and a selective force in our species history in the past 300 thousand years. But the preconditions for peace only emerged in the past 100 thousand years and likely coexisted with intermittent intergroup violence which would have also been an important and selective force in our species' history.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Our different styles of thinking.

An interesting recent article by Joshua Rothman, the ideas editor of newyorker.com, notes several recent books that describe different styles of thinking. A few clips:
In “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions,” Temple Grandin identifies a continuum of thought styles that’s roughly divisible into three sections. On one end are verbal thinkers, who often solve problems by talking about them in their heads or, more generally, by proceeding in the linear, representational fashion typical of language. (Estimating the cost of a building project, a verbal thinker might price out all the components, then sum them using a spreadsheet—an ordered, symbol-based approach.) On the other end of the continuum are “object visualizers”: they come to conclusions through the use of concrete, photograph-like mental images, as Grandin does when she compares building plans in her mind. In between those poles, Grandin writes, is a second group of visual thinkers—“spatial visualizers,” who seem to combine language and image, thinking in terms of visual patterns and abstractions.
Grandin proposes imagining a church steeple. Verbal people, she finds, often make a hash of this task, conjuring something like “two vague lines in an inverted V,” almost as though they’ve never seen a steeple before. Object visualizers, by contrast, describe specific steeples that they’ve observed on actual churches: they “might as well be staring at a photograph or photorealistic drawing” in their minds. Meanwhile, the spatial visualizers picture a kind of perfect but abstract steeple—“a generic New England-style steeple, an image they piece together from churches they’ve seen.” They have noticed patterns among church steeples, and they imagine the pattern, rather than any particular instance of it.
The imagistic minds in “Visual Thinking” can seem glamorous compared with the verbal ones depicted in “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It,” by Ethan Kross. Kross is interested in what’s known as the phonological loop—a neural system, consisting of an “inner ear” and an “inner voice,” that serves as a “clearinghouse for everything related to words that occurs around us in the present.” If Grandin’s visual thinkers are attending Cirque du Soleil, then Kross’s verbal thinkers are stuck at an Off Broadway one-man show. It’s just one long monologue.
People with inner monologues, Kross reports, often spend “a considerable amount of time thinking about themselves, their minds gravitating toward their own experiences, emotions, desires, and needs.” This self-centeredness can spill over into our out-loud conversation. In the nineteen-eighties, the psychologist Bernard Rimé investigated what we’d now call venting—the compulsive sharing of negative thoughts with other people. Rimé found that bad experiences can inspire not only interior rumination but the urge to broadcast it. The more we share our unhappiness with others, the more we alienate them… Maybe it can pay to keep your thoughts to yourself.
Kross’s bottom line is that our inner voices are powerful tools that must be tamed. He ends his book with several dozen techniques for controlling our chatter. He advises trying “distanced self-talk”: by using “your name and the second-person ‘you’ to refer to yourself,” he writes, you can gain more command over your thinking. You might use your inner voice to pretend that you’re advising a friend about his problems; you might redirect your thoughts toward how universal your experiences are (It’s normal to feel this way), or contemplate how every new experience is a challenge you can overcome (I have to learn to trust my partner). The idea is to manage the voice that you use for self-management. Take advantage of the suppleness of dialogue. Don’t just rehearse the same old scripts; send some notes to the writers’ room.
If we can’t say exactly how we think, then how well do we know ourselves? In an essay titled “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that a layer of fiction is woven into what it is to be human. In a sense, fiction is flawed: it’s not true. But, when we open a novel, we don’t hurl it to the ground in disgust, declaring that it’s all made-up nonsense; we understand that being made up is actually the point. Fiction, Dennett writes, has a deliberately “indeterminate” status: it’s true, but only on its own terms. The same goes for our minds. We have all sorts of inner experiences, and we live through and describe them in different ways—telling one another about our dreams, recalling our thoughts, and so on. Are our descriptions and experiences true or fictionalized? Does it matter? It’s all part of the story.

Friday, January 20, 2023

A quick MindBlog riff on what a self is....

Spilling out what I was thinking at breakfast this morning, deciding to fire it off, probably incomprehensible to most readers, perhaps to attempt to clarify later (or delete!):

My self model or 'I' stands amongst my models of others, and during my early postnatal period I probably formed those other models prior to my own, a yet unknown self discovering and learning to predict the behavior of others to gain feeding and care, and only then composing my own self from parts of them. This is consonant with Graziano's take on consciousness as a perceptual construct ("Consciousness and the Social Brain"), also with Wegner's self as being the emotion of authorship ("The Illusion of Conscious Will") and with Metzenger's emotions as evolved virtual organs analogous to the hardware of the liver or kidney ("The Ego Tunnel"). Perhaps the closest we come to a 'real fundamental self' is the experience of occupancy of an expanded space (of non-dual consciousness) that feels to be the container for all of this.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Mindful attention enhances brain network control and uncouples past from the present

Zhou et al. (open source) do an interesting experiment on mindfulness and brain network control:  

Significance

Practicing mindfulness helps individuals regulate attention, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In recognizing these benefits, various schools, workplaces, and clinics are increasingly teaching mindfulness. How does mindful attention change brain function to support self-regulation? Addressing this question could inform how we teach mindfulness and whom we expect to benefit. We modeled the defining components of mindful experience using tools that probe the structure and function of the brain’s network. In a randomized controlled study of alcohol consumption, we found that a brain network’s dynamic shape predicts individuals’ future alcohol consumption and explains otherwise elusive components of mindful experience, such as being present. Our results provide new understanding of how mindful attention affects brain function.
Abstract
Mindful attention is characterized by acknowledging the present experience as a transient mental event. Early stages of mindfulness practice may require greater neural effort for later efficiency. Early effort may self-regulate behavior and focalize the present, but this understanding lacks a computational explanation. Here we used network control theory as a model of how external control inputs—operationalizing effort—distribute changes in neural activity evoked during mindful attention across the white matter network. We hypothesized that individuals with greater network controllability, thereby efficiently distributing control inputs, effectively self-regulate behavior. We further hypothesized that brain regions that utilize greater control input exhibit shorter intrinsic timescales of neural activity. Shorter timescales characterize quickly discontinuing past processing to focalize the present. We tested these hypotheses in a randomized controlled study that primed participants to either mindfully respond or naturally react to alcohol cues during fMRI and administered text reminders and measurements of alcohol consumption during 4 wk postscan. We found that participants with greater network controllability moderated alcohol consumption. Mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to one’s own natural reactions, reduced craving, but craving did not differ from the baseline group. Mindful regulation of alcohol cues, compared to the natural reactions of the baseline group, involved more-effortful control of neural dynamics across cognitive control and attention subnetworks. This effort persisted in the natural reactions of the mindful group compared to the baseline group. More-effortful neural states had shorter timescales than less effortful states, offering an explanation for how mindful attention promotes being present.

Monday, January 16, 2023

COVID-19 and brain aging

Over the Christmas and New Year's holidays I was hit first by a mild Covid infection that lasted only a few days (I've had all 5 vaccinations and immediately took Paxlovid on testing positive) and then five days later had a slightly longer Paxlovid-rebound infection. A transient brain fog seems to have cleared by now. This personal experience makes me especially attentive to articles like Welberg's note on Covid-19 and brain aging, which suggests that brain changes associated with Covid infection are most likely due to neuroinflammation resulting from the infection, not from the virus itself. Here is the abstract:
Severe COVID-19 has been associated with cognitive impairment and changes in the frontal cortex. In a study published in Nature Aging, Mavrikaki, Lee et al. performed RNA sequencing on frontal cortex samples from 21 individuals with severe COVID-19, 22 age- and sex-matched uninfected controls, and 9 uninfected people who had received intensive care or ventilator treatment. The authors found almost 7,000 differentially expressed genes (DEGs) in the patient samples compared to controls. Upregulated DEGs were enriched for genes involved in immune-related pathways, and downregulated DEGs were enriched for genes involved in synaptic activity, cognition and memory — a profile of transcriptional changes that resembles those previously observed in aging brains. Direct comparisons between frontal cortex samples from young and old individuals confirmed this overlap. Application of tumor necrosis factor, interferon-β or interferon-γ to cultured human primary neurons induced transcriptional changes similar to those seen in patients with severe COVID-19. As no SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in the patient samples, these data suggest that the transcriptomic changes in frontal cortex of patients with severe COVID-19 were due to neuroinflammatory processes rather than a direct effect of the virus.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Materialism meets transcendence

I want to pass on the URL to a PBS series by Alan Lightman that I plan to start watching as soon as I can, based on the following description and review in Science Magazine:
In part 1, “The Stars & The Osprey,” Lightman undergoes functional magnetic resonance imaging and interviews neuroscientist Robert Desimone about how much neuroimaging can tell us about Lightman’s transcendental experience. He ultimately finds this approach unsatisfying and introduces viewers to the debate between mechanists, who believe that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are sufficient to explain life, and vitalists, who believe that living creatures are imbued with an additional spiritual quality not explainable by science.
Here, he interviews biologist and Nobel laureate Jack Szostak and the Dalai Lama as proponents of these two camps, respectively. Although the Dalai Lama expresses enthusiasm for scientific investigation, most scientists will likely resonate with Szostak’s declaration that “It’s not just atoms and molecules, it’s the organization…it’s no less wonderful or beautiful because we understand that there is a natural origin for [life].”
Part 2, “The Big & The Small,” begins with the familiar “powers of 10” view of the Universe, moving from the subatomic to the galactic. Lightman then queries what such explorations have to do with consciousness, conversing with BINA48, an extraordinary humanoid robot programmed by artificial intelligence with >100 hours of a real woman’s memories. Here, he speculates that BINAs of the future may achieve consciousness. He then probes this issue over Zoom with the Dalai Lama, whom viewers observe watching a movie of BINA48 conversing with the woman from whom BINA48 was programmed; this multilayered interaction is simultaneously disconcerting, comical, and wondrous. After additional interviews with a bioethicist, a rabbi, and others, Lightman ultimately concludes that we may be just atoms and molecules, but, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “The brain is wider than the sky.”
In part 3, “Homo Techno,” Lightman contemplates our inner world of perception, consciousness, and self-awareness. He meets Erik Sorto, who lost all movement from the neck down after being shot in the back. With electrodes implanted into his posterior parietal cortex and 2 years of training, Sorto learned to control the movement of a robotic arm by thought. This is an extraordinary achievement, and Lightman posits that it is an example of the beginning of our transition from Homo sapiens into Homo techno, part-human, part-machine entities that reflect the modification of human evolution by technological means. From an actual evolutionary biology standpoint, this is nonsensical, and it is unclear that Lightman even means to propose such an idea, but this section’s loose language will rankle some viewers.
At another point in the series’ final episode, Lightman finds himself dizzy from talk of neurons and galaxies and takes refuge in closely examining a single square inch of earth. His biophilia is obviously meaningful to him, and it would have been stimulating had the episode included interviews with an evolutionary biologist or naturalist, who might have helped to better articulate this facet of the human experience. The series closes, appropriately, with philosophical musings about the need for each of us to find meaning for ourselves.
A small problem at the outset is the inherent impossibility of conveying transcendence through description—the degree to which viewers relate to Lightman’s moment of enlightenment will depend on their own experiences and inclinations. Additionally, Lightman’s screen persona leaves something to be desired. There are, however, few people better qualified to explore these issues, and as the series progresses, his humanity shines through, bringing a welcome lightness to some potentially ponderous material.
Despite its focus on phenomena currently unexplainable by science, Searching is full of the joy and passion that can be found in the doing of science and succeeds in conveying how deeply meaningful science is to its practitioners. It is well worth your time and is especially recommended to families with kids curious about life and our world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Awe as a Pathway to Mental and Physical Health

Reading this open source review from Maria Monroy and Dacher Keltner leaves me feeling substantially more mellow! Their abstract, followed by a quote from Emerson, and then a summary graphic...
How do experiences in nature or in spiritual contemplation or in being moved by music or with psychedelics promote mental and physical health? Our proposal in this article is awe. To make this argument, we first review recent advances in the scientific study of awe, an emotion often considered ineffable and beyond measurement. Awe engages five processes—shifts in neurophysiology, a diminished focus on the self, increased prosocial relationality, greater social integration, and a heightened sense of meaning—that benefit well-being. We then apply this model to illuminate how experiences of awe that arise in nature, spirituality, music, collective movement, and psychedelics strengthen the mind and body.
and,
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental; to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
-from Emerson R. W. (1836). Nature. Reprinted in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Other Essays (2009). Dover.
Fig. 1. Model for awe as a pathway to mental and physical health. This model shows that awe experiences will lead to the mediators that will lead to better mental and physical-health outcomes. Note that the relationships between awe experiences and mediators, and mediators and outcomes have been empirically identified; the entire pathways have only recently begun to be tested. One-headed arrows suggest directional relationships, and two-headed arrows suggest bidirectionality. DMN = default-mode network; PTSD = posttraumatic stress disorder.

Monday, January 09, 2023

AI After Death: interactions with AI representations of the deceased

 I want to pass on to MindBlog readers the following excellent notes that Terry Allard made to guide a discussion at the Nov. 29, 2022 session of the Chaos & Complex Systems Discussion group at the Univ. of Wisconsin. 

Chaos & Complex Systems Discussion

AI After Death: interactions with AI representations of the deceased
November 29, 2022
Source material: Washington Post; Nov 12, 2022, by Caren Chesler: AI’s New Frontier
https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/11/12/artificial-intelligence-grief/ See also https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/augmented-eternity/overview/

AI companies have begun mining digital content and real world interview to create AI representations of people with whom their survivors can interact.

The digital representations are created from social media posts, email, electronic surveillance, voice recordings and sometimes actual interviews with the targets before they pass away.

The interaction can be made directly with visual, audio or text avatars.

  • The documentary, “Meeting You,” created a digitized re-creation of a recently lost child that the mother could see through a virtual reality headset.

  • Augmented Eternities (MIT Media Lab) This project uses a distributed machine intelligence network to enable its users to control their growing digital footprint, turn it into their digital representation, and share it as a part of a social network.

    Our digital identity has become so rich and intrinsic that without it, it may feel like a part of us is missing. The number of sensors we carry daily and the digital footprints we leave behind have given us enough granular patterns and data clusters that we can now use them for prediction and reasoning on behalf of an individual. We believe that by enabling our digital identity to perpetuate, we can significantly contribute to global expertise and enable a new form of an intergenerational collective intelligence.

    https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/augmented-eternity/overview/

  • Amazon unveiled a new feature it’s developing for Alexa, in which the virtual assistant can read aloud stories in a deceased loved one’s voice

  • Several entrepreneurs in the AI sphere, including James Vlahos of HereAfter AI and Eugenia Kuyda, who co-founded AI start-ups Luka and Replika, have turned their efforts toward virtual representations of people, using data from their digital footprint to craft an avatar or chatbot that can interact with family members after they’ve passed.

    HereAfter’s app takes users through an interview process before they’ve died, prompting them to recollect stories and memories that are then recorded. After they’ve passed, family members can ask questions, and the app responds in the deceased’s voice using the accumulated interview information, almost like it’s engaging in a conversation.

    Some Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does posthumous interaction benefit the survivors? Are there risks? Could it lead to someone wanting to remain in this virtual world of their loved one?

  2. Could posthumous digital avatars have a therapeutic benefit for the grieving?

  3. Can digital avatars replace human interaction writ large?

  4. Can digital avatars learn and evolve on their own?

  5. Are digital avatars alive or could they be? How do we define sentience?

  6. Will “deep fakes” compromise trust in online person-to-person interactions?

  7. Can people download their identities into digital form and transcend (cheat) death?

 

Friday, January 06, 2023

Observing many researchers using the same data and hypothesis reveals a hidden universe of uncertainty

Wow, in an article with title of this post Breznau et al. show that different research teams presented independently with the same data and social science hypothesis reach opposing conclusions about what the data show.  

Significance

Will different researchers converge on similar findings when analyzing the same data? Seventy-three independent research teams used identical cross-country survey data to test a prominent social science hypothesis: that more immigration will reduce public support for government provision of social policies. Instead of convergence, teams’ results varied greatly, ranging from large negative to large positive effects of immigration on social policy support. The choices made by the research teams in designing their statistical tests explain very little of this variation; a hidden universe of uncertainty remains. Considering this variation, scientists, especially those working with the complexities of human societies and behavior, should exercise humility and strive to better account for the uncertainty in their work.
Abstract
This study explores how researchers’ analytical choices affect the reliability of scientific findings. Most discussions of reliability problems in science focus on systematic biases. We broaden the lens to emphasize the idiosyncrasy of conscious and unconscious decisions that researchers make during data analysis. We coordinated 161 researchers in 73 research teams and observed their research decisions as they used the same data to independently test the same prominent social science hypothesis: that greater immigration reduces support for social policies among the public. In this typical case of social science research, research teams reported both widely diverging numerical findings and substantive conclusions despite identical start conditions. Researchers’ expertise, prior beliefs, and expectations barely predict the wide variation in research outcomes. More than 95% of the total variance in numerical results remains unexplained even after qualitative coding of all identifiable decisions in each team’s workflow. This reveals a universe of uncertainty that remains hidden when considering a single study in isolation. The idiosyncratic nature of how researchers’ results and conclusions varied is a previously underappreciated explanation for why many scientific hypotheses remain contested. These results call for greater epistemic humility and clarity in reporting scientific findings.

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

A deep-learning model of prescient ideas demonstrates that they emerge from the periphery

 The abstract of a fascinating open source article from Vicinanza et al.:

Where do prescient ideas—those that initially challenge conventional assumptions but later achieve widespread acceptance—come from? Although their outcomes in the form of technical innovation are readily observed, the underlying ideas that eventually change the world are often obscured. Here we develop a novel method that uses deep learning to unearth the markers of prescient ideas from the language used by individuals and groups. Our language-based measure identifies prescient actors and documents that prevailing methods would fail to detect. Applying our model to corpora spanning the disparate worlds of politics, law, and business, we demonstrate that it reliably detects prescient ideas in each domain. Moreover, counter to many prevailing intuitions, prescient ideas emanate from each domain's periphery rather than its core. These findings suggest that the propensity to generate far-sighted ideas may be as much a property of contexts as of individuals.

Monday, January 02, 2023

Enlightenment, Habituation, and Renewal - Or, Mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes?

This New Year’s post is directed to the small number of MindBlog readers who might be sympathetic to some of my private random rants. Perhaps I should keep them to myself, but here goes…..

All enlightenment traditions - such as Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or other schools of meditative insight - have a common issue. How can the central canon or dogma of the way things are be renewed and kept fresh? The usual practice is to repeat a liturgy set down by gurus of a given tradition, but with each repetition by a particular vendor the gospel begins to loose its force. The transforming clarity of the initial enlightenment fades as the habituation and desensitization associated with all repetitive activities begins to set in. ‘Reset buttons’ that are temporarily effective can sometimes be found by turning to different vendors of the central message, who in this smartphone age can each package and deliver their respective theory or practice sessions in a sonorous and calming voices. This frequently is done in 10-30 min chunks that better accommodate our modern diminished attention spans, as well as in longer lectures from workshops or retreats. This approach can be seen in aggregator Apps such as Sam Harris’ “Waking Up,” which delivers the messages of many different teachers. (I wonder if generation Alpha,  born in this century, exists in even more transient states of tik-tok mind, twitter mind, or instagram mind that preclude even this level of engagement?)

I would guess that over the past year or two I have listened to ~150 such lectures. As I see the same basic points reframed in many different ways, I begin to think “Y’know, it seems that the fundamental axioms of enlightenment that are expressible in language are being repetitively rediscovered throughout history and repeatedly archived.  I feel like their verbal messages are as ingrained in my consciousness as the language of the mathematical and chemical structures I have known most of my life.”

My flippant ‘mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes’ phrase in the title of this post is meaning to point to the fact that the market for vendors of enlightenment is a distinctive one. Existential angst, or worrying about value, purpose, and meaning seem most pressing to a relatively small number of highly urbanized and literate humans. I can’t imagine that my two Abyssinian cats, who I sometimes takes to be my best role models, spend a significant fraction of their time worrying about the meeting of it all, or pondering the subtleties of epistemology and ontology. 

So….what beyond words? A space or perspective that doesn’t contain them can only be pointed at by using them in the dualistic context of a sender and receiver. I can, for example, try to use words to give a crude voice to the mute homeostatic generative visceral organic axes of valence and arousal that underlie and generate everything that I am and experience right now: “Dude, get a grip, I (the visceral one) am the one who is actually running this show, deciding where it goes and whether it works or shuts down, the sooner the “I” you imagine yourself to be realizes this and lets go, the sooner some kind of sane space is attained. All of the surface behaviors acted out for others to see - the family man, the professor, the pianist - are shadow play shimmering on the surface of this basic organic substrate, like water insects skittering around on the surface of a pond. What is writing these words is just another one of the contents of consciousness flitting past. Just turn yourself around to look quickly for the writer…what do you see? What do you see as you imagine being first born into this world? The brief glimpses of expanded naive awareness sometimes elicited by questions such as these have the potential of permitting a scrubbing, refreshing, or renewal of consciousness in a way that permits more choice in selecting which prior individual selves and self habits rise to compose current self conscious life. 

Different iterations of these sentiments, different vendings of the sort mentioned in the first paragraph above, can be found in two previous MindBlog posts. One from Nov. 25:  

Perhaps an increasing number of people who engage techniques for facilitating non-dual awareness find themselves seeing and experiencing the "I" or self that feels threatened by our anxious times from a more useful perspective - an inclusive expanded awareness that includes the reporting "I" or self as just one of its many contents that include passing thoughts, perceptions, actions, and feelings.  A calm can be found in this expanded awareness that permits a  dis-association of the experienced breathing visceral center of gravity of our animal body from the emotional and linguistic veneer of politics and conflict. This does not remove the necessity of facing various societal dysfunctions, but offers the prospect of doing so without debilitating the organic physiological core from which everything we experience rises.  

And the other from Oct. 26, passing on a masterful exposition from James Low that I can not improve on.

If you want stability, if you want real peace, you already have that in the nature of awareness. But if you look to manifestation, to patterning of yourself, to thinking you could establish a stable personalty, to live a life in which you were happy all the time, or in which you were your own person, that way madness lies. To find our original face, to find the ground of our primordial being, we need to release our fixation on the dialogic movement of subject and object, and allow ourselves to be the space within which the movement of experience is occurring. Awareness means being aware that we are present without being something as such. This is a great mystery. When we look at phenomena the world, things exist as something. A car is not a cow, an apple is not an orange, compare and contrast, category allocation. That’s how our cognition, our conceptual elaboration functions to give a seemingly enduring structure to identifications. But awareness can’t be caught. It’s not a thing. You can’t pin a tail on the donkey, there is no donkey there. The mind is not an object for itself, it is self luminous awareness, but you can’t catch it. You can never know your mind but you can be your mind. We are awareness and that’s a very important distinction.