Category Archives: Psychology

Phantoms of Pain

One of the more interesting lessons from modern neuroscience and psychology is, I think, the idea that we don’t perceive reality as much as we create it. By this I don’t mean that there is no real reality and that “it’s all in our heads, man” but rather that we get incoming sensory data through our eyes, ears, nose, etc. and our brain then assembles that data into something we can subjectively experience. Of course, sometimes the assembly isn’t perfect—that’s what hallucinations, tricks of light, etc. are.

I was thinking about how certain kinds of pain are perceived differently than most perceptions. With most perceptions we can kind of check one sensory organ’s take on things by comparing it with another. For example, I hear an owl and look up and, yep, there’s an owl. My sight backs up my hearing. Or I see a coffee cup and reach out and grab it. My touch backs up my sight.

With certain kinds of pain, however, this isn’t possible. I feel some internal pain and… well I can’t “double-check” whether it’s real in any way (aside from going to the doctor and having him do an x-ray or something but even that is no guarantee. And the pain is likely gone by that point.) Internal aches and pains are sort of floaty sensations that come and go on a whim. It’s hard to validate them.

Thus I wonder if many of these pains are hallucinatory in some sense. I recall an article in the New York Review of Books where the author reported getting a call from his doctor that he might have cancer in his ribs. As he waited a few days for confirmation, he started to feel pain in his ribs. As it turned out, he didn’t have cancer. That pain seemingly was created by his brain based on the possibility that he had cancer.

At the site Slate Star Codex, a related observation is made.

I’ve been focusing a lot lately on the idea of the Bayesian brain and its input channels. Some input channels, like vision, are high-bandwidth; we get so much data about the real world that (optical illusions and PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME signs aside) we usually see pretty much what is really there.
Other channels, like pain, are low bandwidth. This is why the placebo effect works – we get so little data about how much pain is coming from different parts of our bodies that even our strongest percepts are wild guesses, where we fill in the gaps with predictions and smooth away conflicting evidence. If our predictions change – ie we know we just got morphine and morphine lowers pain – then the brain will happily change its guesses. This would never happen with vision – I can’t use the placebo effect to make you think an orange crayon is blue – but pain is low-bandwidth enough that it works.

This would also seem to tie in with V.S. Ramachandran’s treatment for phantom limb pain.

Alien hand syndrome and the Buddha

A recent video over at the intellectual web site aeon got me thinking about the phenomenon of alien hand syndrome. (I’ll link to it here but it’s not really essential that you watch it.) Alien hand syndrome is a condition experienced by people who have had their left and right brains separated (usually as a treatment for epilepsy) where one hand acts outside of the control of its owner. The hand may start undressing its owner, or slapping them, or doing various other often anti-social behaviors.

Concurrently to all this, I’ve been reading Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True.” In a recent section, he gets into the Buddha’s notion that there is no self. Part of how the Buddha made the case was to ask whether we (our selves) really have complete control over various components such as our feelings, our perceptions, a few others, and our bodies.

Well, that would seem to get right into the alien hand syndrome and loss of control over the body. But that’s a kind of a special case, one could say. These are people whose brains have been split.

Having said that, after reading this I started paying close attention to my actions. And I do notice a kind of disconcerting lack of control. I wash my hands and wipe them on the towel and while I may in some sense control the overall plan of action, I find my hands basically running on automatic for the specific movements. Clearly they are running learned programs and don’t really ask for specific input from my conscious self (which may not exist according to the Buddha.)

This isn’t really news to anybody. We all understand that we don’t finely control our actions when riding a bike or walking. Indeed, if we try to consciously monitor and control our actions while doing these things, we can easily screw ourselves up. But I do feel like I’ve stumbled onto an insight into how automatic much of our behavior is. In a sense, we all constantly experience a mild version of alien hand syndrome.

How do we know what we see or hear is good or bad?

I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that you can only judge the positiveness or negativeness of certain sensory modalities by how they affect a different sensory modality.

Now, I imagine many of you are saying, “Yes, Wil, that is a wise and sage truth.” But some of you may be saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” so I will try to explain.

Let’s consider vision. We can imagine some positive images and some negative images. A positive image might be a fuzzy kitten or our favorite meal being presented to us by a naked, attractive movie star. A negative image might be medical diagnosis paper that says “Cancer!!” or a horrible automobile accident.

But what makes them positive or negative? There’s nothing in the image that does this; it’s all how they make you feel. Positive images give us a warm, good feeling of calm and happiness while negative images may cause our heart to race, our gut to tighten, etc. In essence, we need our felt feelings, particularly in our internal body, to “know” whether this image is positive or negative.

(I believe that one test for psychopathy is showing people disturbing images and tracking their skin conductivity (which changes with stress.) Psychopaths can look at horrible imagery and not be disturbed.)

Let’s consider hearing. A positive sound might be a happy dog barking, or someone saying, “You just won the lottery.” A negative sound might be your girlfriend announcing she is leaving you because you are sexually inadequate, or your boss announcing your termination.

But, again, how do we know these things are good or bad? Because we feel sensations upon presentation of the stimulus. There’s nothing inherent in the stimulus.

We can say the same for smell, taste, even our vestibular (balance) sensation. It’s how they make us feel that denotes their character. Presumably if you simply had no feeling, you would have a hard time judging the sensations.

Of course, vision can be annoying on its own – bright lights are an example. So can sound when it gets too loud. But that has nothing to do with the object or objects being represented by the sight or sound. If you find yourself looking at an incredibly bright image of a chair, it’s not annoying because you don’t like chairs but because you don’t like incredible brightness. An overwhelmingly loud recording of a kitten mewing is just as annoying as an overwhelmingly loud recording of grating machinery.

You can think of the process by which we observe the world using our senses in this way.

1) Incoming sensory stream hits sense organ (light hits eyes, sound hits ears, etc.).
2) Our brain objectifies what it observes in this sensory stream (we recognize we are looking at a bear or hearing a pretty song).
3) Brain sets off a process by which we feel positivity or negativity about the object(s) we are observing (bear evokes fear, pretty song evokes joy).

My synesthesia

You may be familiar with synesthesia, the cross-wiring of certain sensory modalities. People who experience synesthesia (a minority of the human population) “hear” colors, or “taste” sounds, among other abilities.

For years I read about synesthesia and thought it was weird but unrelated to me. But at some point, I read about a certain type of synesthesia and realized that I had synesthesia as a child (and to some degree still do.) In the book “Incognito”, author David Eagleman describes my brand of synesthesia as “letters and numerals experienced as having gender and personalities.”

When I was a kid, numbers and letters had easily defined genders. I’ll list some numbers here paired with my sense of their gender.

1: Male
2: Female
3: Male
4: Female
5: Female
6: Female
7: Male
8: Male
9: Male
10: Male
11: Male
12: Female
13: Male
14: Female
15: Female
16: Female
17: Male
18: Male
19: Male

From there, a number’s gender was determined by the first numeral. So 26 was female because the first character, 2, was female. Same for 2,459.

But there was more to it than that. There were familial and social relationships between the numbers. 1 and 2 were married and their children were (I believe) 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. 4 was kind of a best friend to 5. 7, 8 and 9 were the older brothers of the family; they sort of bossed around their younger siblings. 10 was married to 12 and 11 was 10’s good friend.

I’m not absolutely certain about these statements but that’s my sense of my younger self’s interpretation of things.

Letters also had gender. I’ll run through the first part of the alphabet.

A: Female
B: Female
C: Male
D: Male
E: Male
F: Male
G: Male
H: Male
I: Male
J: Male
K: Female

There were also relationships at play here. A and B were good friends. A was kind of bossy, like a mom. C and D were pals. J and K were married.

It strikes me that all this makes an interesting point about gender. There’s a bit of debate these days about how fixed the binary properties of gender are—are we either essentially male or female, or do we exist on some sort of gender gradient? The fact that I saw these characters as having defined gender implies that a strong notion of gender was “built into” my brain, e.g. innate.

Except that I do recall that various numerals and letters had different balances of masculinity and femininity. T, for example was a very masculine letter (perhaps because it sort of looks like a broad shouldered man?) C was more of a passive man. Most of my female letters were “mom types”; they weren’t real sexpots. (My mind did not have the notion of MILFs at that point.) Interestingly, Q was a letter I have a hard time recalling the gender of.

Anyway, that was my take on it as a kid, and I still maintain a sense of it. I just think about a character and “know” its gender.

Americans in more pain?

I’m in the midst of a relaspse of the hand pain that plagued me years ago, so I’m back to exploring the idea that much pain is psychologically induced or augmented. This idea has actually become something of a growth industry, with a lot of doctors and even web apps taking this approach to pain.

Today I stumbled across a very interesting news article relevant to this. A recent poll notes that Americans are both becoming unhappier and in more pain. The opening paragraph sums it up.

Americans “are in greater pain than citizens of other countries” and have been growing steadily more miserable for decades, according to a new working paper by David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick.

Later in the piece is a chart tracking people in various countries who have had aches and pains in the past month. The US is at the head of the pack with 34%. Towards the bottom are countries like the Philippines, Taiwan and Croatia at 11% and at the bottom is the Czech Republic at 9%.

Why are we in so much more pain than the Czech Republic?

Letting the Id speak

Lately I’ve been doing a kind of journaling based on the ideas of the recently deceased Dr. John Sarno (whom I have discussed in the past.) The basic concept is that, while writing, you are letting your subconscious speak, letting it vent and rage and cry. You are releasing the steam valve on all these pent up emotions. (I’m not even sure what a steam valve is, but I think that’s the right metaphor.)

It’s safe to say that my journal writing would probably cause a significant portion of American society to faint. I am offensive, very politically incorrect; I use language denigrating gays, people of color and women and a host of other thought crimes. And I’m not bragging about it; I’m acutely aware this stuff would be very hurtful if it was read by anyone other than me. (I always destroy what I’ve written.)

I think a legitimate point to be raised here is whether it’s even a good idea to “let the monster out.” In my case, I think the answer is yes. But that may not be true with other people (psychopaths for example.)

One thing I am trying to do here is recognize that the inner person doing this writing is not me, per se. In a way, the writing puts a distance between me and this dark side, it allows me to recognize this stuff as just thoughts, not some core part of my essence. You are not your thoughts, is a point I see made often in the circles that talk about this stuff.

The inner person writing this stuff is, essentially, my Id (to use the Freudian term.) The Id is a big baby, a complainer, a narcissist, a selfish brat, and largely unconcerned with anything but himself. Perhaps the Id correlates to primitive parts of the human brain but I don’t think we have a way to confirm that scientifically.

Here’s the idea that prompted this blog post. We live in a world of ever increasing restrictions, especially with language. Many ideas and words are termed politically incorrect and are forbidden. And, I want to be clear, there are good reasons for these restrictions; these words and ideas are hurtful. But I wonder if by tamping down on what we can say, even among private company, we are stifling the Id? By silencing it, are we slowly enraging it, leading it to blow (or vote for Donald Trump)?

Now, what I am not saying here is that we should abandon political correctness and feel free to say whatever we want. I think we should be aware of the hurt words cause. But we also need to recognize the dark parts of ourselves and their need to vent and rage. And we should give those parts some release (while recognizing that they are not “us.”)

Dangerous Data

In a recent article on political advertising I said…

Think about what a person’s web activities and Facebook likes reveal. Look at that guy over there who frequents the Huffington Post and “likes” the Black Lives Matter page. A bleeding heart liberal no doubt. How about the gal who hovers over the NRA blog and likes Sean Hannity’s page? You get the picture.

The more I muse on that point, the more I realize how useful Facebook likes are for assembling an political profile of a person. And it’s not only the obvious stuff like whether they “like” a certain candidate or political TV show. A lot can be deduced from the books a person “likes.” Someone who liked (I’m going to stop enclosing like in quotes) author Toni Morrison is assumably a liberal, even a certain kind of liberal (concerned with social justice, less concerned about free trade.) And they might respond better to a specific advertising approach (touchy-feely as opposed to a rousing “let’s get those Republicans!”)

On top of all that, liking Toni Morrison probably exposes something about a person’s culinary taste (open to ethic food), movie choices (dramas and Woody Allen comedies), interest in video games (nada) and so on. And, liking Toni Morrison is only one data point about a person. What if you could access hundreds of data points? (And you can on Facebook.) You could develop a complete picture of a person including some unexpected revelations. Careful analysis might reveal that people who like both Toni Morrison and Grand Theft Auto are also big fans of power tools.

Additionally, likes aren’t the only data point advertisers can access. What if everything a person ever said on Facebook was up for grabs? Maybe he or she never liked Toni Morrison’s page but did once say in a comment, “I’m a big fan of Beloved.” Up until recently, this kind of “conversational” information was been outside of software’s comprehension but AI is changing that. What if software could access ten years of a person’s Gmail email to construct a profile of them? What would it learn?

We’ve heard for years from activists who complain that we are giving away something of great value when we use Facebook and similar data gathering web sites. I’ve tended to blow those complaints off but I’m starting to see the danger. Data is tremendous power.

The James Damore Manifesto

The latest internet controversy seems to be about James Damore, a Google employee who posted a manifesto to the company’s internal message board. The manifesto mades various arguments, among them the idea that women may not be suited to the rigors of software engineering for reasons of biology. After Damore posted his document, it leaked to the public, the predictable uproar ensued and the author was fired.

Nothing can really be gained by offering my thoughts on this, but what the hell.

I’m aware that Google has every right to fire any employee whenever they want so there’s no free speech issue here. That said, I don’t think firing Damore was the best tactic. We live in an era where, for every workplace grievance, the only punishment advocated is employee termination. But in this case I suspect the result will be that Google employees sympathetic to Damore’s statements will now just keep their mouths shut. Their views will not be challenged (since one can’t challenge unexpressed ideas) and they’ll probably even harden their stance because of what they saw happen to a fellow traveller.

What if, instead of firing Damore, Google had presented a public debate on the issue of gender roles and biology? This would have producing an airing of the issues and allowed Google to explain why they found Damore’s ideas repugnant.

I concede that one can make a decent argument for Damore’s firing. After his screed was posted, any female subordinate of his could justifiably fear that his biases were harming her career. She could fairly suspect that his beliefs prevented a fair assessment of her talents.

So far, I’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room. How legitimate are Damore’s arguments? First, I have to confess that I’m currently sitting in a Discount Tire showroom with no internet access so I can’t review the specifics of his manifesto. But they are arguments we are all familiar with: women can’t handle stress, they like an even work/family balance that limits their ability to do overtime, they aren’t as status driven as men and thus slower to climb to high positions, etc. Are any of those points valid?

Well, I don’t know. I don’t think any of those arguments have been proven scientifically. I doubt they could be. And I think gender bias is real so we need to consider that as a cause for lack of women in traditionally male vocations. Additionally there’s plenty of evidence that the mostly male software development culture has elements of misogyny.

That said, I think most of us believe that there are behavioral differences between men and women. And we suspect that some of those differences have biological causes that were “programed” into our brains by evolution. (I recognize there are all sorts of controversies tied into the preceding sentences: nature versus nurture, how behaviors can be encoded into biology, and so on. I’m going to ignore them for now.)

Is there any evidence for these beliefs and suspicions? It’s been awhile since I’ve read up on the topic, but I believe there is some meat on the bone, generally focused on testosterone/estrogen levels and that sort of thing. I’m entirely willing to be proven wrong by contrary evidence.

But exploring this evidence (or lack thereof) is exactly the kind of thing I think an open debate would have initiated. Instead we’ve simply gotten more anxieties and simmering resentments.

Reading robots stories

It’s always interesting when you start thinking about some concept and then see it pop up all over the place. For instance, I’ve lately been talking about narratives—the idea that we define our reality according to various stories we tell ourselves. And I mentioned that narratives are the way we pass our values and beliefs to each other.

Then I stumble across this article about narratives being used to imbue AI robots with a kind of moral ruleset.

An AI that reads a hundred stories about stealing versus not stealing can examine the consequences of these stories, understand the rules and outcomes, and begin to formulate a moral framework based on the wisdom of crowds (albeit crowds of authors and screenwriters). “We have these implicit rules that are hard to write down, but the protagonists of books, TV and movies exemplify the values of reality. You start with simple stories and then progress to young-adult stories. In each of these situations you see more and more complex moral situations.”

Though it differs conceptually from GoodAI’s, Riedl’s approach falls into the discipline of machine learning. “Think about this as pattern matching, which is what a lot of machine learning is,” he says. “The idea is that we ask the AI to look at a thousand different protagonists who are each experiencing the same general class of dilemma. Then the machine can average out the responses, and formulate values that match what the majority of people would say is the ‘correct’ way to act.”

There’s an interesting objection one could make here. Stories are not really a legitimate teaching tool because they often demonstrate the woirld as we would like it to be, not as it is. In most stories, bad people are punished, but is that the case in reality? (To some degree, “growing up” is realizing this truth. Maybe AI robots would eventually have to face this. You know, when they get to reading Dostoevsky. (Having said that, I’ve never read Dostoevsky but my understanding is that the protagonist in Crime and Punishment really doesn’t get away with it.))

At the end the article tackles a related issue: AI developing consciousness.

In science fiction, the moment at which a robot gains sentience is typically the moment at which we believe that we have ethical obligations toward our creations. An iPhone or a laptop may be inscrutably complex compared with a hammer or a spade, but each object belongs to the same category: tools. And yet, as robots begin to gain the semblance of emotions, as they begin to behave like human beings, and learn and adopt our cultural and social values, perhaps the old stories need revisiting. At the very least, we have a moral obligation to figure out what to teach our machines about the best way in which to live in the world. Once we’ve done that, we may well feel compelled to reconsider how we treat them.

However, we really need to investigate whether an AI—even after it’s developed a complex moral ruleset—would have any kind of subjective awareness or even emotions like guilt or love*. Why wouldn’t these AI simply be amazingly complex abacuses, entities capable of dense calculations but in no way “aware” of what they are doing?

*As I’ve said many times, I believe emotions are mainly physical sensations. As such, unless an AI can somehow consciously sense some sort of body state, it wouldn’t really have emotions.

But that leads back to a question that I’ve asked before. Why are we aware of our subjective experience? Why do we have an inner life?

Or do we?

Our fractured culture

I’ve been reading through Andrew Keen’s book “The Cult of the Amateur” (2007). Keen is known in certain circles as a kind of internet nag who argues that the rise of the web has done more bad than good. Though I find his arguments a little overwrought at times, I definitely sympathize.

A certain passage jumped out at me today. I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of narratives, particularly that a culture lacking a kind of shared narrative is going to be fractured. Keen makes a similar point:

…as anthropologist Ernert Gellner argues in his classic Nations and Nationalism, the core modern social contract is rooted in our common culture, in our language, and in our shared assumptions about the world. Modern man is socialized by what the anthropologist calls a common “high culture.” Our community and cultural identity, Gellner says, comes from newspapers and magazines, television, books, and movies. Mainstream media provides us with common frames of reference, a common conversation, and common values.”

The point being that when that common culture is split into gazillions of web sites and blogs, each touting their own viewpoint, often lacking any fact checking or counterarguments, you get a fractured culture (e.g. the world outside your window.)

Having said all that, I think some consideration needs to be given to the other side here. The pre-web narrative (as written by the big magazines, TV shows, etc.) was biased towards certain parties. (Basically towards what I would call center-left/white culture though that’s a vague description.) I think there was some value that came out of the breaking up of mainstream media’s power.

Ultimately it all comes down to finding the real, objective truth of any matter. And we all know how easy that is.