Archive for the 'Psychology' Category
March 4th, 2014 by Wil
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.
February 26th, 2014 by Wil
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. 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.
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.
February 16th, 2014 by Wil
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.
February 14th, 2014 by Wil
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.
February 3rd, 2014 by Wil
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.
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.
January 26th, 2014 by Wil
This is serendipitous. Recently, I wrote, “If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of complex networks (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex.”
Today I come across an interesting New Yorker (December 23, 2013) article on the possibility of plant intelligence. At one point it states:
The hypothesis that intelligent behavior in plants may be an emergent property of cell exchanging signals in a network might sound far-fetched, yet the way that intelligence emerges from a network of neurons may not be very different. Most neuroscientists agree that, while brains considered as whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t seem to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling levers—may apply equally well to our brains.
Now the article doesn’t allude to my essential point: that complex networks like brains (and according to this article, plants) may birth not only intelligence (whatever that is) but consciousness (whatever that is.) But the article does seem to imply that we are starting to break down these barriers between different forms of life. (You might recall a recent link I posted arguing that the very barrier between living and non living is false.)
To be clear about a possible confusion arising from my initial quote in the first paragraph; I was suggesting that non living things like storms might have some form of consciousness. I’m aware that plants are living things.
January 21st, 2014 by Wil
There’s an observation about consciousness that I’ve seen made in various texts including “The Mind’s I” and it goes something like this: If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of networks with a certain complexity (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex. Computers might be one example. So could ant colonies. (Ants themselves are alive but the colony as a unit is not.) But so could things such as ocean waves or electrical storms. Such phenomenon do “exchange information” via complex patterns of “signals” that I freely confess I don’t really understand.
This seems baffling. How could an electrical storm be conscious, even for an instant? Does it suddenly come to being in the sky and think to itself, “I am Bob Weinburger the electrical storm.”
That ridiculous of course. No self respecting electrical storm would name itself Bob. But it’s ridiculous in other ways. How could consciousness simply arise out of nothing?
I was thinking about this today and I realized I was making consciousness more complex than it has to be. I am conscious right now (at least I think I am; various philosophies might argue that perception is an illusion.) This means I’m aware of my world, I recall recent and distant events, I have plans for the future, I have my internal dialogue, etc. But there’s a big difference between me—a person conscious for over 4 decades—and an electrical storm possibly conscious for a moment. I am loaded down with memories, intuitions, knowledge and categorizations about the world etc. Much of my conscious experience is really about juggling data. But if I could strip all that away, what would I be left with? By this I mean, if I took away my ability to use language, my ability to really be aware of my thoughts, to define the world around me, to even be aware there’s a difference between me and the world around me, to even have an urge to break the world up into objects, what am I left with? I’m not exactly sure—it’s probably impossible for our minds to fathom—but it might be a simple enough state. And a state that I could believe an electrical storm could achieve, if only for a moment. It’s like being a really dumb baby I suppose.
Here’s some other recent thoughts prompted by “The Mind’s I.”
UPDATE: Jan 22, 2014
I have to state that a certain thought crosses my mind here. This form of consciousness I argue storms might achieve sounds not unlike the ego-less, formless mental state people seek via meditation and whatnot. And I think Buddhism does argue that in some sense, everything is conscious. One can conceive of consciousness as a kind of property of the universe, like gravity, that permeates everything. Our mental networks, (e.g. brains) have the additional component of memory and thus we are able to form selves and identities.
I’m not saying I sign off on any of these ideas but they are interesting to ruminate on.
December 28th, 2013 by Wil
There is an absolutely terrific article about one man’s battle with debilitating anxiety over at the Atlantic Monthly web site. Not only is it an example of thoroughly engaging long form journalism, it has a hilarious account of being struck by gastrointestinal bowel issues while staying on the Kennedy estate.
Deep in the article, the author raises the possibility that anxiety—some anxiety—is good.
An influential study conducted 100 years ago by two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, laid the foundation for the idea that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance: too much anxiety, obviously, and performance is impaired, but too little anxiety also impairs performance. “Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” David Barlow, the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, has written.
The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted. And we would all achieve that idyllic state long sought after in our fast-paced society of whiling away our lives under a shade tree. This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.
I’ve seen this point made before and it makes intuitive sense. If we, as a species evolving through time, were unconcerned with worry we never would have survived. And even in the present day we need some level of alertness to get things done. This is the advantage experienced by the college student who waits until the last minute to write a term paper; the resulting anxiety of the moment sharpens his or her thinking.
The article continues:
Historical evidence suggests that anxiety can be allied to artistic and creative genius. The literary gifts of Emily Dickinson, for example, were inextricably bound up with her reclusiveness, which some say was a product of anxiety. (She was completely housebound after age 40.) Franz Kafka yoked his neurotic sensibility to his artistic sensibility; Woody Allen has done the same. Jerome Kagan, an eminent Harvard psychologist who has spent more than 50 years studying human temperament, argues that T. S. Eliot’s anxiety and “high reactive” physiology helped make him a great poet. Eliot was, Kagan observes, a “shy, cautious, sensitive child”—but because he also had a supportive family, good schooling, and “unusual verbal abilities,” Eliot was able to “exploit his temperamental preference for an introverted, solitary life.”
Perhaps most famously, Marcel Proust transmuted his neurotic sensibility into art. Proust’s father, Adrien, was a physician with a strong interest in nervous health and a co-author of an influential book called The Hygiene of the Neurasthenic. Marcel read his father’s book, as well as books by many of the other leading nerve doctors of his day, and incorporated their work into his; his fiction and nonfiction are “saturated with the vocabulary of nervous dysfunction,” as one historian has put it. For Proust, refinement of artistic sensibility was directly tied to a nervous disposition
But one can bring up a rebuttal here. So anxiety creates good art? So what? Is being an artistic virtuoso worth being a nervous wreck for your entire life? (For that matter is it worth being a good accountant, software engineer, sales rep or much of anything?) Robert Sapolsky has talked about how our fight or flight mechanism—originally used to protect us from attacking lions—is now used to make us worry about catching the subway on time. Shouldn’t we, in our modern, much safer society, be worrying less—much less?
I see the grand Catch-22 here. Worry too much and you’re miserable. Worry too little and you’re dead. However. I think society is tilted too far in favor of the former.
December 19th, 2013 by Wil
A while back I described John Searle’s Chinese Prisoner dilemma which purports to show that computers will never be able to understand meaning as humans do. He argues that computers can trade in the syntax of a statement but not the semantics. So you could present a computer with “2 + 2 = ?” and it would answer “4″, but it would not understand the meaning behind those symbols. (You can read the post for more info on Searle’s idea, or, you know, google it.)
It happens that the book I’m reading, “The Mind’s I” contains the original text of Searle’s argument and the authors’ rebuttal of it. But I’m more interested in some specific commentary on the nature of learning a language. The authors point out that to successfully learn a language you need to hear not the sounds but the meaning. For people who learn a new language…
The sounds of the second language pretty soon become “unheard”—you hear right through them, rather than hearing them… Of course you can make yourself hear a familiar language as pure uninterpreted sound if you try very hard… but you can’t have your cake and eat it too—you can’t hear the sounds both with and without their meanings. And so most of the time people hear mainly meaning.
I was a little perplexed by this point. I am very familiar with english and I don’t don’t think I could force myself to not hear the meaning behind a word. If I hear “dog” I immediately think of a cute, furry creature with a tail; I can’t just hear the phonemes as sounds devoid of meaning. However, I think the authors are really referring to languages we may be familiar with but not masters of: second and third languages. I should try this experiment with both French and German which I dabble in. As it is, I do have a sense that when I hear a foreign word there’s a weird transformation process. If I hear “hund” (German) I think, “hund” = “dog” = a furry canine type creature. I don’t literally think this of course, but I have to translate the word to the english word and then to the concept it represents. Clearly, to speak well, I need to eliminate the middle step and go right from the foreign word to the concept.
So, learning a language is really just getting to the point where the meaning of the word or phrase comes jumping into your consciousness immediately upon hearing/seeing it. This mental word processing needs to be automatic and unconscious. A bit like learning to ride a bike I suppose. At first you have to think about it: move this leg then that leg, holds hands this way, torque body for balance etc. But eventually you don’t think about it at all.
A point that “The Mind’s I” touches on is that we also have meaning for music, though its much harder to define. You might hear a piece of music and “think”, “This is Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’. Those boys were a crazy hard drinking band from the 70s who epitomized rock and roll excess. I lost my virginity to this song*.” Again, the processing of all this is unconscious. You don’t “do” it, you “experience” it. (And it should be noted that, unlike words, the information evoked when you hear Zep’s ‘Black Dog’ may be far different from mine.)
* I didn’t actually; in fact no music was playing when I lost my virginity. But you might have.
December 14th, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve found myself noticing a phenomenon I’ve probably mentioned here in the past: the way ideas seems to leap up out of the netherworlds of my mind into my conscious brain. This happens a lot while waking up. Some particular issue is bothering me, perhaps something work related or a problem with a song or piece of writing I’m working on, and the solution suddenly appears. I find I don’t “build” ideas in a step by step manner, but rather that they “pop up” often fully formed.
In Jonah Lehrer’s book “How We Decide” he advocated the “sleep on it” method of problem solving. Struggling with a problem is often ineffective he argued. You are better off taking a walk or doing something to distract your conscious mind. Let your subconscious work on the solution.
I’m reading “The Mind’s I” and it makes an interesting point related to all this.
Our conscious thoughts seem to come bubbling up from the subterranean caverns of our mind, images flood into our mind’s eye without our having any idea where they came from! Yet when we publish them, we expect that we—not our subconscious structures—will get credit for our thoughts. This dichotomy of the creative self into a conscious part and an unconscious part is one of the most disturbing aspects of trying to understand the mind. If—as was just asserted—our best ideas come burbling up as if from mysterious underground springs, then who really are we? Where does the creative spirit reside? Is it by an act of will that we create, or are we just automata made out of biological hardware, from birth until death fooling ourselves through idle chatter into thinking that we have “free will”? If we are fooling ourselves about these matters, then whom—or what—are we fooling?
Do we “deserve” credit for our accomplishments and ideas?