Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Programming hunger

Last summer I had an experience that got me thinking about how much food we need to eat. I was in Paris with my Mom, and found that even though we were walking around most of the days, we only ate a couple meals per day. We had a breakfast, mostly of bread (you know the frogs and their bread) and then a regular meal in the afternoon. It was less than I would normally eat at home, yet I was never hungry.

The New Yorker blog has a post that connects to this, noting that why we get hungry is often unconnected to our need for energy.

More often than not, we eat because we want to eat—not because we need to. Recent studies show that our physical level of hunger, in fact, does not correlate strongly with how much hunger we say that we feel or how much food we go on to consume.

Even if you’ve had an unusually late or large breakfast, your body is used to its lunch slot and will begin to release certain chemicals, such as insulin in your blood and ghrelin in your stomach, in anticipation of your typical habits, whether or not you’re actually calorie-depleted.

This probably doesn’t surprise anyone, indeed I think we all observe this. You’re not hungry at all but a plate of fried chicken passes before you and whammo—pig out city!

The article states that we start to see part of our environment as cues to eat. We have a great snack on our favorite couch and we become conditioned—like Pavlov’s dogs—to associate that couch with snacking. We drive to the dentist and are reminded how there’s a great donut shop nearby and we start to crave donuts. I think this is partly why I experienced so little food craving in Paris—it is a city unfamiliar to me and I had not programmed in the environmental cues to stimulate hunger.

On a side note, I recall reading about a very ineffective campaign against drug use that was set up by some city. (I read about this a while back; can’t recall the location.) The government placed billboards in ghetto neighborhoods saying things like “Cocaine: It’s Evil” and showing a big pile of cocaine. Of course the result was rehabbing drug users saw these signs and thought, “Oh man I would love to snort a pile of coke like that right now!”

Was Rorschach Henry Lee Lucas?

The book I recently finished, “The Anatomy of Violence,” had quite a bit of discussion about the life of famed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas had a childhood designed to turn him into a serial killer. His mother was certainly a psychopath, a prostitute who beat her son mercilessly. (She was also one of his early victims, possibly his first.)

As I read about Lucas’s childhood, I was reminded of the scenes in the comic book Watchmen which showed the childhood of the fictional vigilante Rorschach. (I discussed him here.) Rorschach and Lucas’s upbringings were so similar I was curious as to whether the former was based on the latter. I don’t think author Alan Moore has ever commented, but a Google search reveals I’m not the only one to make the connection. This review of a Lucas biopic states…

The early part of the film shows you the upbringing of Henry. It would seem pretty basic except for his incredibly abusive mother that could almost resemble the angry mother Lois from Malcolm in the Middle except on rabies and alcohol. In fact some of the scenes with the mother and young Henry would almost resemble some of the same scenes with a young Rorschach and his mother from Watchmen.

Are we wiring ourselves to death?

The New Yorker notes that we are in the midst of a suicide epidemic. While I’m always wary of the term epidemic, it’s worth noting that American suicide rates rose about 30% from 1999 to 2010.

The article posits that suicide’s main sponsor—depression—is an illness, not a deficit or character weakness. While I agree with gist of that, one has to question, “Why then has this illness only recently increased so dramatically?”

I’m often arguing that technology has substantially changed our lives over the past 15+ years. I talk about my total frustration with the intrusions of modern media (endless email messages, Facebook alerts, the incessant fucking phone, etc.) Part of what is so annoying about all this stuff is that it gives you this sense of losing control over your life. You want to just lie down and take a nap, or sit in the yard and stare into space but there’s a half dozen electronic devices poised to ruin your reverie. I wonder if all this contributes to the rise in self-immolation.

Obviously this argument is so speculative is doesn’t even deserve the term “fanciful.” But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And there’s another way I think technology, particularly the web, has unsettled our psychology. In the pre-internet era, people could (somewhat) comfortably settle into various tribal distinctions, often but not exclusively based on the music they listened to. Punks, Metal-heads, hippies, hip-hoppers, yuppies etc. This allowed a certain sense of self-definition and self-worth. “I’m a cool, rebellious punk rock type!” one could think. But I think the web, for a variety of reasons has weakened these tribal self-definitions making us more like interchangeable members of the digital citizenry. And this has weakened our sense of ourselves… we find ourselves, in some hard to define way, asking ourselves “what am I?”

The anatomy of violence

I’ve just started reading a book called “The Anatomy of Violence.” It might have been better called “The Neuro-anatomy of Violence”; it’s basically about the differences in brain structure between violent criminals and lovable imps like the rest of us.

It refers a lot to the work of Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist I’ve mentioned often. Damasio has studied many patients who’ve had damage to their prefrontal cortex (essentially the parts of the brain near your eyeballs.) He’s observed that these people seem off—they have dulled emotional responses. Damasio has convincingly shown that damage to the prefrontal area of the brain inhibits emotional awareness.

Besides clinical patients, who else seems to lack emotion? Well, many criminals, especially psychopaths. The author of the book, Adrian Raine, did an extensive study of psychopaths and noted that their prefrontal cortex had an 11% reduction in brain matter. They lack the complexity of prefrontal wiring the rest of us have, which could certainly explain their anti-social behavior. Why this is so is unclear. It could be damage in the womb, it could be damage in early childhood, it could just be a fluke of genetics.

This opens up again an interesting conundrum philosopher Sam Harris has explored. We punish psychopathic criminals because they are bad people. But what if they are merely people lacking the necessary brain tools for moral reasoning? What if they are more like a person who has suffered a blow to the head, and less like an evil monster?

Eh, let’s kill them just to be safe.

Musicians: just go home and die!

A while back I discussed an interesting speech that examined the economics of the modern rock business. The crux of the speech was that, for various reasons, the bulk of profit made from selling music was going to fewer and fewer performers.

Today I find an interesting new report that mirrors this. It describes the current music business as a “superstar economy.” Lady Gaga and Kanye West reap gazillions while superior artists such as myself eat cat food. The article notes that the advent of this superstar economy is actually at odds with what seemed to be the promise of digitized music. If digital technology makes it cheaper to record and distribute music, the argument went, we should see profits spread to a wide spectrum of musicians who are no longer blocked from the public (as they were in the days when a big upfront investment was need to get an album out there.) But…

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure). The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue. This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

That second point is interesting. Basically, human beings can only keep track of so many music choices, so most of us just go for what everyone else is going for. “I don’t want to shift through millions of song files so I’ll just listen to this Beyonce record everyone is talking about.” The promise of a democratic marketplace ran up against the limitations of the human mind.

This is, of course, at odd with a mantra that was popular in the 1990s—that more choice was better for consumers. At a certain point buyers say, “enough choice – just pick something!”

Woody Allen

I’ve really felt no need to comment on the Woody Allen sexual molestation allegation, mainly because there seemed to be little that could be said—for or against him—that wasn’t being said. Yet, I’ve had a certain nagging sense that something was missing from the conversation and what it was dawned on me today.

There is, for certain groups, a certain incredulity at the allegations. “Not this man,” people seem to be saying. “Not Woody.” I think if, say, Axl Rose were facing these accusations, many people, including many fans, would not be so resistant to the possible truth of such charges.

So why not Woody Allen? Why is he presumed to be to protected from such things? I don’t think that it’s merely because he’s funny or intellectual. I think it’s because he’s philosophical. Even more, he’s a philosopher of morals. He’s a guy who has seemed to agonized over issues of right and wrong (on film, in writing) for several decades. How could someone like that, the thinking goes, commit a so obviously evil moral transgression?

I should be clear here: I don’t know what to think about the accusations. Part of me abides by the above logic. But part of me recognizes there’s always been something a little creepy about Woody. He’s always been focused on sex. Is that because of some deviant swellings in his soul?

I’m reminded of a case I’ve discussed before: Bob Brozman. Bob Brozman was an eclectic folk and world music guitar virtuoso. But he was more than a musician—he was a philosopher of music. He had deeply thought out ideas on how music worked and how it had developed throughout history. Almost a year ago now he killed himself, possibly because allegations of molestation going back years were about to be leveled.

Both cases, if they are true*, assault this notion of the child molester as an evil, deviant, unkempt villain. They force us to contemplate the minds of such people and even find some kind of sympathy for them if we presume them to be cursed with dark desires. (I’ve long supposed that child attraction is some strange mis-wiring of the brain.) Because Allen and Brozman both so neatly defy the stereotype of the pedophile, the accusations against them may force us to really examine the minds of such people.

* Even if we never find out the truth, these cases attack our general cartoonish portrayal of child molesters.

Electromagnetic Consciousness

In the realm of brain studies there’s a fairly reductionist view that argues that our consciousness and subjective experience is firmly rooted in our physical brains. The idea goes that we have these incredibly complex interactions between tens of billions of neurons and out of that arises our experience of being alive. Most authors I’ve read on the topic freely concede the exact nature of how consciousness arises from this is a mystery but it seems pretty clear that our self corresponds to our neural tissue. Simply consider that someone can have a brain stroke and they become a different person — they can no longer speak or form memories or control their anger. The soul seems to exist in physical form (or more accurately, it doesn’t exist at all.)

I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. But the book “The Mind’s I” has a thought experiment that does challenge this view. First let’s consider a brain in its ideal form. It’s sitting there, neurons firing, creating thoughts. Now let’s imagine an incredible surgery where you go in and separate apart every single neuron and place each one in its own chemical bath to keep it alive. (This is, or course, impossible.) You then attach electronic signaling/receiving devices so each neuron can communicate with whatever neurons to which it was “attached” (e.g. shared a synapse with) before. So, basically, even though the neurons are now separate, their signaling is exactly the same as it was in the whole brain. Can we still envision a mind rising out of all this?

Well, I dunno… maybe…

But it gets worse. Instead of putting little signaling/receiving devices on each neuron, attach little zappers that that simply fire different amounts of electricity. Now separate these neurons by hundreds of miles. Then fire of each of the zappers so that the neurons fire the exact way the would if the brain’s owner was thinking of a cat. (There’s no signaling going on, just neurons firing in the same order as if they were receiving signals.) Would some entity somewhere suddenly think of a cat?

It seems unlikely doesn’t it? But the individual neurons in all these cases are behaving exactly the same. So this would seem to dispel the possibility of a purely reductionist (e.g. it’s all in the tissue) model of consciousness.

I just stumbled on some general theories that address this issue. They are “Electromagnetic theories of consciousness.” (Link goes to wiki page about it.) The idea is that when you have a bunch of neurons in a brain they are, because of their electrical activity, creating an electromagnetic field. And somehow this field is consciousness. The field is not only created by the brain’s neurons, it affects them as well, so the field and brain effectively pass signals back and forth. The wiki page has details.

The starting point for McFadden and Pockett’s theory is the fact that every time a neuron fires to generate an action potential, and a postsynaptic potential in the next neuron down the line, it also generates a disturbance in the surrounding electromagnetic field. McFadden has proposed that the brain’s electromagnetic field creates a representation of the information in the neurons. Studies undertaken towards the end of the 20th century are argued to have shown that conscious experience correlates not with the number of neurons firing, but with the synchrony of that firing.[9] McFadden views the brain’s electromagnetic field as arising from the induced EM field of neurons. The synchronous firing of neurons is, in this theory, argued to amplify the influence of the brain’s EM field fluctuations to a much greater extent than would be possible with the unsynchronized firing of neurons.
McFadden thinks that the EM field could influence the brain in a number of ways. Redistribution of ions could modulate neuronal activity, given that voltage-gated ion channels are a key element in the progress of axon spikes. Neuronal firing is argued to be sensitive to the variation of as little as one millivolt across the cell membrane, or the involvement of a single extra ion channel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is similarly argued to have demonstrated that weak EM fields can influence brain activity.[citation needed]
McFadden proposes that the digital information from neurons is integrated to form a conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field in the brain. Consciousness is suggested to be the component of this field that is transmitted back to neurons, and communicates its state externally. Thoughts are viewed as electromagnetic representations of neuronal information, and the experience of free will in our choice of actions is argued to be our subjective experience of the cemi field acting on our neurons.

I’m not agreeing with this (frankly, I still don’t really understand what electromagnetic fields are) but it does address the problems with the reductionist view.

The downsides of mindfulness

I’ve read a bit about the practice called mindfulness which, for lack of a better description, is a kind of focused attention on your surroundings. But paying close attention to your sensory experiences of the moment you can, the argument goes, transcend a lot of your worries and break the limiting tether to your ego or self. I’ve made passable stabs at mindfulness, often at a park or in nature, and it can be quite refreshing—a sort of mental reset button.

Part of the idea of mindfulness is that you focus one a specific thing, say your breathing. If a disruptive thought comes in, say, “I have to do my taxes” (Shit! I DO have to do my taxes!!!), you recognize it and let it dissipate, then return your focus to the now. As you train your mind in this practice, you experience less disruptive thoughts.

I’ve wondered if there’s a potential downside to this. Much of creative thought is of the sort that pops in to your head your while you are thinking about something else. Wouldn’t mindfulness, with its focused approach (albeit a rather gentle focus), eliminate these moments of inspiration? The answer, according to this NY Times article, appears to be yes .

But one of the most surprising findings of recent mindfulness studies is that it could have unwanted side effects. Raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could, after all, prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies. In 2012, Jonathan Schooler, who runs a lab investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study titled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” In it, he found that having participants spend a brief period of time on an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering improved their subsequent performance on a test of creativity. In a follow-up study, he reported that physicists and writers alike came up with their most insightful ideas while spacing out.

“A third of the creative ideas they had during a two-week period came when their minds were wandering,” Schooler said. “And those ideas were more likely to be characterized as ‘aha’ insights that overcame an impasse.”

And that’s not all…

Another potential drawback to mindfulness has been identified by researchers at Georgetown University. In a study presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in November, they found that the higher adults scored on a measurement of mindfulness, the worse they performed on tests of implicit learning — the kind that underlies all sorts of acquired skills and habits but that occurs without conscious awareness. In the study, participants were shown a long sequence of items and repeatedly challenged to guess which one would come next. Although supposedly random, it contained a hidden pattern that made some items more likely to appear than others. The more mindful participants were worse at intuiting the correct answers.

“There’s so much our brain is doing when we’re not aware of it,” said the study’s leader, Chelsea Stillman, a doctoral candidate. “We know that being mindful is really good for a lot of explicit cognitive functions. But it might not be so useful when you want to form new habits.” Learning to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically or interpret the meaning of people’s facial expressions are three examples of knowledge we acquire through implicit learning — as if by osmosis, without our being able to describe how we did it. (Few of us can recite the rules of grammar, though most of us follow them when we speak.)

The solution is probably moderation in all things, including mindfulness.

Can recommendation engines really work?

I often comment here about the fact that the emergence of the internet has enabled the production of (and the cheapening of) content. By content I mean writing, music, video, art etc. It used to be that if you wanted to hear a song you had to either buy the cd it was on, or listen to the radio and hope you heard it. Nowadays most songs can be found on Spotify, youtube, pirate sites etc. Additionally there are gazillions of content creators, myself included, posting all kinds of content on various sites like soundcloud, youtube, Noise Trade (which is now offering free books) etc.

For content consumers (e.g. most of us) this is great. Lots of choice, lots of free or cheap stuff. But there’s an obvious problem. Most content is shit. It’s actually beyond shit—it’s utterly amateurish prattling devoid of nuance or refinement. (My work is an obvious exception.) And plenty of other content is not shit, but not all that great either. Only a small percentage of content really hits the mark. So how do you weed out the crap?

One idea is by having people rank content. This is how Amazon reviews, youtube “thumbs up and thumbs down” buttons, Facebook likes and similar concepts work. But they’re somewhat problematic. It turns out there’s a lot of people out there with no taste, so you really can’t trust their opinion on anything. How do I know the person doing the ranking is the kind of person I can trust?

Amazon has kind of gotten around this with their recommendation engine. It basically follows the logic that “this guy liked a lot of stuff you liked so you’ll like this new thing he said he likes.” It’s the obvious idea that like-minded people like the same stuff.

It kind of works, I guess. But I’m starting to wonder about another issue. All these processes assume that whether we will like something is fairly static. I see a movie on Sunday afternoon and like it. The presumption is that had I seen the movie on Thursday evening, or Tuesday morning I would have liked it just the same. But what if our liking something is more flexible? What if our mood before we examined the content affects whether we like it? What if whether we just ate a good meal affects our liking it? Then it matters less what some guy who has liked things we’ve liked thought. Maybe he liked it because he just ate a delicious Fettuccine alfredo?

And, I suspect there’s some truth to this supposition. Sometimes no music or TV, no matter how good, is going to keep my interest. And there are other times when anything seems pretty amusing. I may also like something simply because I like the person making the recommendation. There’s a lot of x-factors at work that are hard to weed out of the process.

You might say that I’m saying appreciating content is subjective (e.g. it depends on the person.) But I’m really saying it’s beyond subjective. The person I will be Saturday may not like stuff the person I am today likes.

Peeling the onion of consciousness

This post may reiterate some points I’ve made in other recent writings but it may also reveal the fundamental truth of all life and existence so I think some repetition can be forgiven.

I’ve been thinking again about this ethereal thing we call consciousness. I find myself musing on the question, “what can I be conscious of?” Obviously I can be conscious of things I see, hear, smell etc… all my sensory sensations (including subtle ones like vestibular/balance sensations and internal body states.) I can also be conscious of thoughts and ideas. This can be great thoughts such as the content of this blog, or more pedestrian musings like, “I need to buy toothpaste” or even thoughts that aren’t thoughts at all: just general sensations of being bored or wondering what Harrison Ford is up to. Even recognizing objects—seeing a car and being aware that it runs on gas and gets people around—is a thought-like mental activity. So too is simply being aware of the passage of time.

Let’s perform a thought experiment and remove some of these elements. Can I envision what it would like to not have my sensory data? Certainly; it’s easy enough to close one’s eyes, to blot out noise etc. I can’t absolutely turn off my sensory systems but I can envision the gist of what it would be like to do so. Can I also turn off my internal thoughts and my object recognition? This is much harder. It’s probably similar to what babies—new to the world and devoid of human knowledge— experience, though even they have intuitions and reflexes that require no learning. However, I think we’ve all had that feeling of just momentarily zoning out, of existing with not much going through your head. Maybe that’s similar to what stripping out this kind of thought awareness is like.

So, if I strip away all this “stuff” what am I left with? Consciousness with nothing to be conscious of. It’s possible there’s nothing at that point; you are essentially dead. But what if consciousness/self-awareness is, as some would argue, a kind of property of the universe, a bit like gravity*? It’s everywhere and when it interacts with a complex network like a brain, it results in a sense of self—an identity with an awareness of its past and its thoughts and whatnot. But the “self” is not really what’s aware; this consciousness field is. And this field is everywhere, in the same sense that forces like gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces are everywhere.

*Frankly, I’m describing something pretty close to the force from the Star Wars movies. Of course that concept was largely lifted from Asian philosophy.

I realize this is quite new-agey and almost impossible to prove, but it does nicely align itself with certain aspects of human spiritualism. Maybe what many spiritualists—shamans and monks of yore—experienced via drugs and meditation was a stripping away of the “content” of consciousness (sensations/thoughts etc.) and an arrival at the raw, empty experience. (This actually ties in with the experiences of Jill Bolte Taylor described here.)

At worst, I’ve got an interesting premise for a science fiction novel.

UPDATE: Feb 25 2014
I was never under the impression that I was originating this theory and I have to say it’s quite similar to Benjamin Libet’s “Conscious Mental Field Theory.” It’s described at this wiki page and includes the following quote from him about the idea.

The process by which the CMF arises from its contributing elements is not describable [sic]. It must simply be regarded as a new fundamental ‘‘given’’ phenomenon in nature, which is different from other fundamental ‘‘givens,’’ like gravity or electromagnetism.