Archive for the 'Psychology' Category
December 1st, 2013 by Wil
I’ve spent quite a bit of time here arguing that technologically enabled fast paced communication (e.g. email, twitter, texting, facebook etc.) has had the effect of making us easily distractible, constantly searching for the next “hit” of information. But this op-ed piece by the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” makes an good point: being easily distracted was our natural state for a long time.
Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food.
It was only after we achieved levels of relative peace and security that we could focus in on things. It would not surprise me if the distracting presence of the interweb completely rolls back tens of thousands of years of human progress within a generation
October 29th, 2013 by Wil
I’m a great fan of situations where people try to make the world a better place only to find their efforts backfire. It really gives me a chortle!
The new New Yorker (October 21st, 2013) has a piece on its “Financial Page” which stands as a good example. As we all know, there’s been a rising disparity in the amount of money corporations pay their average worker compared with what they pay their C.E.O.. Modern C.E.O.s earn about 270 times what the average worker earns! As a result, the S.E.C. has put in place various laws making this disparity public. The idea being that company boards would respond to public outcry and shame over the pay rates.
However, things haven’t worked out as planned. These transparency laws illuminate not only to the public what C.E.O.’s are making, they also illuminate to the boards of companies what their competitors’ C.E.O.s are making, thus generating a bidding war! There are several reasons for this, but this one gets at the psychology behind it all.
…Elson said, “If you pay below average, it makes it look as if you’d hired a below-average C.E.O. and what board wants that?”
We tend to be uneasy about bargaining in situations where the stakes are very high; do you want the guy doing your neurosurgery, or running your company, to be offering discounts? Better, in the event that something goes wrong, to be able to tell yourself you spent all you could. And overspending is always easier when you’re spending someone else’s money.
In essence, board members are thinking, “This guy probably isn’t worth 100 million a year… but what if I’m wrong?”
This reminds me of a study which argued that people enjoy more expensive wine because it’s more expensive.
…researchers at Stanford and Caltech have demonstrated that people’s brains experience more pleasure when they think they are drinking a $45 wine instead of a $5 bottle – even when it’s the same stuff.
October 27th, 2013 by Wil
In some quarters that seems to be the perception. Life is getting uglier and more unstable, global violence more pandemic etc. In “How to Create a Mind,” Ray Kurzweil’s new book, Kurzweil notes that…
…a Gallup poll released on May 4, 2011, revealed that only “44 percent of Americans believe that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents.”
Why is this? Kurzweil offers an interesting explanation, one that mirrors arguments I’ve made. There’s just a lot of information flying around overwhelming people. Kurzweil writes:
A primary reason people believe that life is getting worse is because our information about the problems of the world has steadily improved. If there is a battle today somewhere on the planet, we experience it almost as if we were there. During World War II, tens of thousands of people might perish in battle, and if the public could see it at all it was a grainy newsreel in a theater weeks later. During World War I a small elite could read about the progress of the conflict in a newspaper (without pictures). During the 19th century there was almost no access to news in a timely fashion for anyone.
In short, people were blessedly ignorant.
Interestingly, neither Kurzweil nor America’s other great mind – myself – are the first to comment on this problem. In an article entitled “Only Disconnect” in the October 26 New Yorker, the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer is quoted. In 1924, he said…
A tiny ball rolls toward you from very far away, expands into a close-up, and finally roars right over you. You can neither stop it nor escape it, but lie there chained, a helpless little doll swept away by the giant colossus in whose ambit it expires. Flight is impossible. Should the Chinese imbroglio be tactfully disembroiled, one is sure to be harried by an American boxing match… All the world-historical events on this planet—not only the current ones but also past events, whose love of life knows no shame—have only one desire: to set up a rendezvous wherever they suppose us to be present.
In 1924 people though the news was roaring over them! This guy’s head would have exploded if he saw Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow.
October 21st, 2013 by Wil
A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.
I’m continuing to read Ray Kuzweil’s “How To Create a Mind” and he gets into some related territory, even allowing for the possibility of multiple consciousnesses. There is strong evidence for some version of this possibility. For example, we have Mike Gazzaniga’s split brain patients. I described these patients in an earlier post.
These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.
His exact experiments have been described many times and I see no reason to repeat them here. (This Nature article covers the gist.) But what’s observed is that the two separate sections of brain really seem to process the world separately and be unaware of each other.
We can also consider half brain patients. These are people, as you might suspect, have half a brain (either because of a birth defect or a surgical procedure.) The term is often considered derogatory, but in fact patients with half a brain function quite well. But they beg the question, what is that missing half a brain (present in most people) doing?
And of course, we can consider the unconscious – the part of your brain regulating your heart, causing your legs to walk and, possibly, repressing your sexual attraction to your dog, your primal hatred of all life etc. (Sometimes these two types of unconscious are broken up into the terms “unconscious” and “subconscious.”) Is the unconscious in some way conscious, but cordoned off from what we consider our conscious experience to be?
In a sense, I’m alleging that there’s more than one “I” in our skull. There’s our standard consciousness, which has rich language functionality and subjective experience, though maybe even that can be split into separate “Is” as the split brain experiments show. Then there’s the unconscious—probably the domain of our fear and pleasure driven reptilian brain—which has no language functionality. And maybe the unconscious can also be split into multiple components, each of them independently (in some sense) conscious.
You of course might say, “But I only feel that main, traditional consciousness—the one that gets up for work in the morning and and watches late night television at night?” Correct – “you” do, but I’m saying there are many “yous” in your body. It might help to think of those classic horror films where a person has an evil conjoined twin growing out of their body. That twin has no real say about what you (the main consciousness) decides to do, but he sits there, growing out of your chest and stewing in his anger*.
* Why do I presume these unconscious units are filled with hatred and anger as opposed to affable joy? It’s just the way I see the world, I guess.
Of course I’m really saying, maybe that evil twin (the un/subconscious) does have some effect on your decisions. He’s the classic Freudian subconscious nag, spurring you to chose a wife who reminds you of your mother, or to fear the boss who reminds you of the uncle who molested you before you had memory.
The question is whether these additional consciousnesses are really conscious the way “we” are. I suspect no; their consciousness is more like that of a dog or a bug. And we – the top consciousness – are left hearing the cries and pleas of these tiny consciousnesses and using them to guide our path through life.
UPDATE: Another neurosis implying some possible separate consciousness in one body: Alien Hand Syndrome! After a stroke…
The patient complained of a feeling of “strangeness” in relationship to the goal-directed movements of the left hand and insisted that “someone else” was moving the left hand, and that she was not moving it herself. Goldstein reported that, as a result of this report, “she was regarded at first as a paranoiac.” When the left hand grasped an object, she could not voluntarily release it. The somatic sensibility of the left side was reported to be impaired, especially with aspects of sensation having to do with the orienting of the limb. Some spontaneous movements were noted to occur involving the left hand, such as wiping the face or rubbing the eyes; but these were relatively infrequent. Only with significant effort was she able to perform simple movements with the left arm in response to spoken command, but these movements were performed slowly and often incompletely even if these same movements had been involuntarily performed with relative ease before while in the abnormal ‘alien’ control mode.
October 8th, 2013 by Wil
I’m sure most people are, by now, sick of me repeating my belief that emotions are merely physical sensations felt in the body, often the viscera. (If you’re not, here’s a good, detailed rundown.) Basically, I see the process as a computational one. Your brain received some input, say, your girlfriend announcing that she’s been having an affair with your brother, and your brain/body outputs emotion in the form of felt changes in the body like a stomach ache, the tightening of the chest, involuntary gnashing of teeth etc.
I’ve been working on a score for a short horror film lately and am realizing how much of my job is to program the viewer’s brain to have an emotional response. So if character is walking towards a house with a killer in it, I use music to ratchet up the tension, to cause chills to run down the viewer’s spine (or some similar symptom of fear.) Am I succeeding at this? In some cases yes, in others no. It’s a delicate art, one I haven’t really figured out. It’s a matter of learning what specific musical “tools” cause what specific emotional reactions. With horror you end up working with a lot of dissonant chords and melodies, even getting into atonal music. (Atonal means there’s no clear main chord that the music can resolve to. This works perfectly for scenes of unresolved ambiguity.)
Ultimately, it would be nice to really map out the connections between music and emotions so that you could literally program people’s emotional by playing a piece of music. Then I could program unwilling victims to become my army of the night, to go forth and commit heinous acts in my name. And when the police arrived at my doorstep and I would merely blush and say, “What, me? I’m just sitting here playing the piano.”
October 3rd, 2013 by Wil
I’ve mentioned several times on this blog my belief that this culture of interruption we live in – an environment where we’re expected to drop everything when a phone call comes in, or attend to one panic stricken email after another – is to our detriment. We have, as I sagely put it in this post, gone from having deep attention spans to wide ones.
A lot of my observations of this dysfunction go back to my days working in office situations. In such places the modus operandi is to have pointless meetings that eat into everyone’s time and prevent them from accomplishing what they really need to. This is done to create the appearance of functionality. It never matters whether the people in the room really have the time or brainpower to contribute meaningful ideas. (I was always baffled by the practice of scheduling important meetings right after lunch when everyone is brain dead.)
Additionally, the corporate world seems to be driven by a practice of rushing from one disaster to the next. You’re working on one project deadline until a call or email comes in telling you to switch to an even more urgent deadline, until the next call, wash, rinse, repeat etc.
Frankly, I’ve never expected that the corporate world would change its ways on these matters. But this blog post on the topic indicates that in some quarters these issues are being addressed.
In a recent article, Technology: Finding Our Way Back from the Flatness, I addressed the issue of how the internet and other technology keeps us on insanely high alert, ultimately producing an effect where we attend to everything and we attend to nothing (deeply).
It is my theory that this high-alert state is producing a fatigue that’s detrimental not only to our psyches and relationships, but also to the quality of our professional output.
Sullivan and Thompson take the physiological issue a step further and declare that the alert-driven chemical hits to our brain may be producing actual addiction that keeps us in a negative cycle of interruption, costing the U.S. a cool $588 billion per year in productivity losses. To bring that down to a more personal level, when you let yourself get carried away by the high-alert cycle and give in to its constant interruptions, you lose 10 IQ points in each interruption moment (“the equivalent of not sleeping for thirty-six hours—or double the impact of smoking marijuana”), and it takes you about twenty-five minutes to fully return to your original project.
Some large companies like Intel have begun to fight this trend with Quiet Zones aimed at providing a more restful work environment, to increase productivity and literally cut their losses. The Quiet Zones are four-hour spans of time without meetings or technological connectivity.
I can only presume that it was my blog posts on this subject that led to the creation of these Quiet Zones.
October 2nd, 2013 by Wil
I continue to read David Cope’s “Computer Models of Creativity” which documents his process of creating computer software that can compose music. One point he makes is that context plays into how we respond to music. If we know a musician led a troubled, tragic life we imbue their music with a certain emotional resonance that might not really be there. Or, if we are told the music is about something meaningful, we hear meaning. Cope tells a story of composing a piece of music mainly as an exercise. He was then asked to compose a piece of music for a friend’s memorial service. Being short on time, he used the aforementioned composition. People at the memorial commented on the sadness and “funereal sense” the music provided, even though the music was written as an academic excercise.
In the book, Cope describes another contextual property of music: its uniqueness! He explains…
Since 1980, I have made extraordinary attempts to have Experiments in Musical Intelligence’s [his computer composition software] works performed. Unfortunately, my successes have been few. Performers rarely consider these works seriously. A friend of mine has noted the intimidating nature of the number of outputs possible from computer programs. Uniqueness, he feels, is an extremely important factor in human aesthetics. Knowing that my programs represent an almost infinite font of such works apparently renders them less interesting, no matter how beautiful and different from one another they may be. For many, knowing that I could restart my program at any time, and program a thousand more works, apparently lessens their interest in the one. … This sense of uniqueness is heightened by the fact that for human-created works at least, composers die.
Speaking to that last point, we see this all the time. Jimi Hendrix is alive and well and that 45 he recorded ten years back is worth X dollars. Suddenly he dies and it’s worth much more, even though it’s the same item it was a day previous.
And I think we all understand the general sense Cope is speaking of in that paragraph. It is why a handmade item is worth much more than a factory assembled item which may be of much sturdier construction. This is why people pay millions of dollars for a painting and 30 bucks tops for a poster.
But why does uniqueness drive value? Evolutionary psychology posits a general answer. Those who possess unique things are demonstrating their power and power is an aphrodisiac which increases your ability to pass on genes etc.
I wonder whether we are entering an age of computer produced art, music, film, fiction and what not, and whether that emergence of that age will deflate the market for creative products. I don’t simply ask whether we will pay less for the arts, but whether will we actually enjoy them less? Will knowing that the music we are listening to could have been created in a nanosecond by an artificial intelligence program (regardless of whether it actually was) deprive us of it’s pleasures?
In closing, I ask you to make note of my subtle yet dramatic use of italicization in this post.
September 14th, 2013 by Wil
A while back, I mentioned the girls of Le Roy, New York who, several years ago, began showing what appear to be—at least to the experts—symptoms of mass hysteria. The girls began experiencing Tourettes like body tics for which no environmental or biological cause could be found. This sort of thing is not that uncommon and has been reported throughout history.
The Atlantic has an interesting follow up on the story alleging that one women who experienced the symptoms effectively caught them off Facebook – she did not personally know any of the girls but “absorbed” their symptoms by reading about them. The article touches on two themes I often report on here. 1) The subconscious can cause bizarre, debilitating physical symptoms, and 2) We—society, humanity, etc.—are becoming overwhelmed with information. To wit…
Bartholomew said that mass hysteria spreads through sight and sound, and historically, one person would have to be in the same room as somebody exhibiting symptoms to be at risk of “catching” the illness. “Not anymore,” he says, noting that social media—“extensions of our eyes and ears”—speeds and extends the reach of mass hysteria. In a paper, he wrote, “Epidemic hysterias that in earlier periods were self-limited in geography now have free and wide access to the globe in seconds.” He says, “It’s a belief, that’s the power here, and the technology just amplifies the belief, and helps it spread more readily.”
Here’s a Dr. Drew episode featuring some of the girls.
September 12th, 2013 by Wil
Though it’s long, this Daily Beast article arguing that the Millennial generation is to the left of even the Democratic Party makes sense to me. Its core argument is that Millennials came of age in a decade of unending economic insecurity and, as a result, expect the hand of government to address this.
The article also makes an interesting point I can relate to psychology and brain science. (I’m sure everyone is excited by that.)
For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.
On one hand this is hardly news – it’s well known that a person’s (or generation’s) character is largely defined by the culture of their late teens to mid-twenties. I, for example, will always be defined by and partial to the music of Guns-n-Roses, Nirvana (even if I’m not a fan) and movies like “Die Hard” or “Pulp Fiction.” The article is simply carrying idea this over to politics, making the claim that political events that occur in your teen/twenty-something years have a stronger effect than political events that occur earlier or later. (This makes sense. Whenever I hear people older than me ranting about Reagan I think, “Jesus, get over it!”)
But there’s an interesting question here: Why? Why are our tastes and politics defined by experiences in our teens and twenties? I would argue it’s because that is a period when our brain is primed to most richly experience life. At that point our brains have become sharpened in the sense that we’ve learned much of what we need to become adults, but we still have an active emotional system (the somewhat controversial limbic system.) We are thinking and reasoning better than we ever have, but we are also enjoying the emotional depth of life in ways we will likely lose in coming years. Because of these brain changes, life is exciting and thus the events of those years – personal, cultural, historical and political events – have a pronounced effect on us. As a result, when we get older and jaded and tired, we don’t fully appreciate how the current teen/twentysomething generation is reacting to events.
September 9th, 2013 by Wil
Over the weekend I did a little music gig as a side man at a restaurant. In the crowd were these annoying twentysomethings who were loudly playing music on their phone while we were performing. On one hand, I found this very annoying and was wishing the restaurant staff would come out and torture these cretins to death (but to do it somewhere away from where we were playing so the cries of agony wouldn’t interrupt the music.) On the other hand, I suspect this sort of behavior is going to become more common.
As I’ve ranted about in the past, I think the advent of endless entertainment options is preventing people from being able to focus on one thing. It used to be that you could go to a restaurant and you can talk to friends or listen to the musicians. That was about it. (You could also eat of course.) Now you can surf the web, post on facebook, watch youtube videos, stream Spotify, look at monkey porn… the possibilities are endless! I suspect the generation raised in this madness is developing an attention span that is wide (in the sense that they can keep a lot of balls in the air) but not deep (e.g. they can’t really focus on the rich detail of any one thing.)
I’ve found myself guilty of this behavior. I try to pop on to soundcloud every other day or so to see what music my virtual friends are posting. The other day I had 5 minutes in between doing some cooking and found an interesting new piece a great jazz clarinetist I know had posted. But while I was listening to it my mind was counting down to when I had to be back in the kitchen. The piece was boring me. But I realized I wasn’t really listening to it; I was simply filling time with an activity. I refocused, listened to the music and found it quite interesting (not the greatest thing ever, but more engaging than when my mind was wandering.) My point being that even a brain as great as mine can be corrupted by this culture of wide-not-deep thinking. There can be no hope for anyone else.