Archive Page 2

Unconscious learning

I continue reading “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Early in the book the author Jaynes makes the extraordinary remark that “Consciousness is not neccesary for learning.” He backs this up with interesting studies that show people improving in different skill sets but not really knowing why or consciously directing their efforts.

This shouldn’t sound too crazy. As a kid you first get on a bike and travel a wobbly path down the driveway. You do this for several days and you’re less wobbly. You do it every day for a year and you’re even better. Your balance improves, you more smoothly push the pedals etc. But you didn’t really direct yourself to improve, you simply did. You unconsciously made various micro adjustments to your riding technique and it got better and better.

Of course, that previous paragraph isn’t quite right. When you get on the bike you do have some advice, usually from you screaming parents, that you are conscious of. And you may even conscioussly try different ideas as you work to improve (“what of I push down hard with lef while relaxing this one.”) It seems fair to say that you are somewhat conscious of learning but, nonetheless, a large part of it is unconsciouss. I am very unaware of exactly how I perform many of the tasks I perform daily. If someone had asked me a minute ago how many fingers I use to type I would have been in the dark. I probably would have guessed four, but I now notice that it’s mostly two.

In a way, the idea that learning is largely unconscious is encouraging. Basically, we just need to do something over and over and we will get better at it. But, the whole idea of conscious, directed learning is that we can find shortcuts to become better, faster and also not learn bad habits. Years ago, I read a pretty interesting article by jazz guitarist Tuck Andress about picking technique. He went into quite a lot of detail and I have, rather lackadaisically, been trying to apply his advice, or at least be more conscious about how I pick a guitar string. In that case I’m “consciously” trying to learn.

But the whole point with conscious learning is to try and get the skills into your subconscious. If you have to think about how to do a task, you will probably screw it up. (The Far Side once nailed this.)

All of this points to a more disturbing realization: that we don’t consciously control our actions and lives to the degree that we think. And I suspect Jaynes has more to say on that in later chapters.

Resetting the pain threshold

I’ve long discussed the topic of physical pain on this blog and I’ve touted the idea that our sense of pain is not a simple measurement system by which X amount of damage to the body results in a corollary amount of pain. I suspect, mood, anxiety and other aspects of psychology change how much pain we feel. A depressing new article alleging that Americans are facing greater pain toward the end of their lives offers some food for thought.

Reports of patients experiencing pain near the end of life increased 11 percent between 1998 and 2010, according to a new study published in theAnnals of Internal Medicine. Reports of depression and periodic confusion also increased 26 percent over this time.

“There were certainly reasons to think that things were getting better,” said Joanne Lynn, the author of the report and a palliative care clinician. “We were using hospice so much more, there was more use of narcotics and so much more attention to symptoms, there was reason to think we were doing better.”

Lynn sees two major possible explanations for her conclusion. Patients and family members could be expecting more from the care provided and have “reset their thresholds” over the 12 years in this study. Another is that the number of treatments have increased, allowing patients to live longer with the diseases that ultimately kill them.

This resetting of thresholds ties directly into my thoughts on the psychological aspects of pain. Having said that, it seems likely the second reason is a factor as well.

The mind of conspiracy theorists

I’ve started reading a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time: Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” (There’s a title that would not make it in today’s popular science writing market!) I’ve seen the book mentioned in various places for years, mainly for its stunning assertion that humans only became conscious fairly recently, like 3000 years ago. (I think that’s the number; I’m sure I’ll find out soon.)

I’ve read the first couple chapters and see that part of how Jaynes supports his argument is as one might suspect: by defining down what consciousness is, thus making the idea that we could live without it more palatable. That said, I think his definition of consciousness is perfectly valid. He points out something I think we’ve all noticed: the process of reasoning, often touted to be about extensive rumination and consideration (all done consciously of course), is really a sudden gut feeling that is then justified via logic. In chapter one, he states… (BTW, this chapter is online.)

But more complex reasoning without consciousness is continually going on. Our minds work much faster than consciousness can keep up with. We commonly make general assertions based on our past experiences in an automatic way, and only as an afterthought are we sometimes able to retrieve any of the past experiences on which an assertion is based. How often we reach sound conclusions and are quite unable to justify them! Because reasoning is not conscious.

He then adds an interesting point.

And consider the kind of reasoning that we do about others’ feelings and character, or in reasoning out the motives of others from their actions. These are clearly the result of automatic inferences by our nervous systems in which consciousness is not only unnecessary, but, as we have seen in the performance of motor skills, would probably hinder the process.

This ties in with a lot of my thoughts about various conspiracy theories. I’m always amazed by people who believe that George Bush planned 9/11 or that various people are covering up Obama’s secret Kenyan and Muslim roots, or that thousands of medical professionals are keeping quiet about how vaccines cause autism. I’m amazed because these conspiracies would involve organized evil on the part of so many, with not much payoff. I guess I could understand why George Bush might have determined it was in his favor to affect a false flag operation, but why would the various minions who would be needed to enact it decide to go along? Perhaps the head of some pharmaceutical company would keep quiet about his poisonous vaccine, but why would the entry-level chemists who would certainly figure it out? What would their motivation be? I’ve discussed this with people who believe such theories and they don’t seem to see the issue. They freely accept evil as a payoff unto itself. As Jaynes says above, neither I nor the conspiracy theorists are using consciousness in our assessment of people’s character and motivations, we are using automatic inferences. (These inferences play a big part in the ideas of neuroscientist Antonio Damassio who I’m a big fan of.) These are not arguments of reason, but of differing instincts.

Having said that, I believe my automatic inferences are correct and those of people who disagree with me are wrong.

The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath

A great question that arose once I started reading about the brain and brain disorders is this: what is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? Both terms are thrown around in pop culture, generally to mean, “a person with really fucked up morals (or a lack of them.)” But these are two different terms—something must separate them, yes?

I researched this question on the web a few years ago and found very little useful information. Generally I got the impression that psychopaths were somehow worse than sociopaths, but exactly how was unclear.

I was discussing the topic with a friend recently and we looked it up again and found this article. It makes things a bit clearer, though not completely. One point.

Sociopathy, while severely the less understood of the two disorders, can be congenital or acquired. Psychopathy, meanwhile, is generally considered a confluence of genetic and chemical imbalances.

So, psychopaths are born psychopaths, not made that way. So, would serial killer Henry Lee Lucas who was raised in an environment of unbelievable neglect be a sociopath? Maybe, though I’ve always heard him described as a psychopath.

Another point of distinction:

Psychopaths lack the proper neurological frameworks to develop a sense of ethics and morality. Sociopaths interact with their social worlds in a meaningful way, but their moral compasses needed a massive tune-up yesterday.

while psychopathy and sociopathy both likely involve impaired cognitive function, the two differ in which circuits are affected. Psychopaths are fearless; sociopaths aren’t. Psychopaths don’t have a sense of right and wrong; sociopaths do.

So the main difference would seem to be that sociopaths understand what they are doing is wrong and they just don’t care, whereas psychopaths don’t really understand that they are in the wrong. This still seems a little vague but is clearer than it used to be in my mind.

A connection between stress and cancer?

If you know me, and I believe you do, you know I have an interest in mind/body medicine which argues that calming the mind can have beneficial effects on the body. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence making this case but not a great understanding on how this process could work. This article from the Harvard Medical School notes the following.

A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center finds that eliciting the relaxation response—a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer—produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.

A systems biology analysis of known interactions among the proteins produced by the affected genes revealed that pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria, were upregulated during the relaxation response. Pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB—known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer—were suppressed after relaxation response elicitation. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.

I read that and said, “Hold on! Cancer?” Many people have theorized about a connection between stress and cancer but until now I’ve never seen any real science to back this up. I’ll be interested to hear what more research brings.

Youtube autogenerated videos a blast against Spotify?

One point I’ve made before about music piracy: everyone drones on and on about pirate sites like Pirate Bay and what not, but there’s not as much discussion about the number one web site for free music: Youtube (owned by Google.) I haven’t downloaded music from a pirate site in years, but any time I want to hear some particular piece of music I check Youtube and, mostly, it’s there.

Is all this music on Youtube pirated (meaning, is it posted there without the consent of the rights holders)? Not entirely – most modern tunes have singles of which the videos are posted by the rights holders. (Though I was frustrated in my attempts to the see video for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” which I found once and then never again.) However, a lot of the music is uploaded by individuals who burn their CDs and make kludgy videos with the song. That basically is piracy though my understanding is that rights holders can bring these violations to Youtube’s attention and share in the ad revenue. (It should be understood that all these videos have ads in front of them.)

Youtube now seems to have a new trick up their sleeve: autogenerated videos. This was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who is a musician and has an in demand catalog going back decades. He discovered that Youtube had taken most of the songs from his catalog and created bare bones videos (basically just the album cover set to music.) He of course, was in no way notified and received no compensation. I looked around online and found someone with similar complaints:

I was surprised recently when I saw that several of my recordings had appeared as music videos on YouTube. All of the videos look the same: Each one, in addition to the audio of a song, includes an image of the album art and some text that provides the artist name and album title. The bare-bones descriptions that accompany the videos provide composer and copyright information and the statement “auto-generated by YouTube.”
,,,
I don’t really mind that these videos of my recordings exist, but not everyone will feel the way I do. Artists could have a number of legitimate objections to the videos. For example, if artists had created or intended to create videos of their own, these auto-generated videos would compete with the official videos. Artists might also object to the design aesthetic of the videos or the song selection.

But the biggest potential issues are copyright and compensation. Artists receive no royalties from these videos, and YouTube posts the videos without permission from the copyright owners. It’s strange that YouTube—which suspends users’ accounts and deletes videos if it detects copyright infringement or receives complaints from copyright holders—now trawls the internet for music and posts it without permission on an increasingly massive scale. Class-action suit, anyone?

I’m a little unclear how Youtube is getting access to the audio feed (e.g. the songs) to make the videos. It’s possible that if a musician places their music with a digital distributor (as I have) and that ditributor has some kind of deal in place with Youtube then Youtube has the legal cover they need.

Why would Youtube do this? I’m going to to take a guess that it’s for their recently announced Music Key service which is essentially a competitor for Spotify. The autogenerated videos are a tool to fill out the Youtube “jukebox”.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are all sorts of pirated movies on Youtube too.

Music nostalgia

As may or may not be known, I make a certain portion of my income playing in an early jazz duo that performs at senior homes and the like. It’s quite enjoyable, but I’m constantly aware of one point: the senior audience is always fading away, e.g dying, so eventually the market for the kind of music we play will be gone. If someone is 90 today, then the “music of their generation” is music of the 1920s and 1930s. In ten years or so you should expect that the demand for that music to be in serious decline.

Except, it’s not quite that simple. There have been several revivals of early jazz through the years and I think later generations appreciate it. Additionally, a lot of the hits from the 40s and 50s were actually recycled tunes from previous eras—those songs earned a second life.

Additionally, a new study makes some interesting points.

Weirdly enough, though, subjects also displayed a similar attachment – including a feeling of nostalgia — to music that was popular in the early 1980s, long before they were born.

“According to previous research, this would be the time when [the subject’s] parents’ preferences were established,” the researchers write. Their theory is that because of this attachment, parents listened to this music during their “child rearing years” contributing to their children’s musical education.

So, you not only like the music of your youth, you like the music of your parent’s youth. I can relate to this. My parents didn’t listen to much of any contemporary music when I was a kid but my Dad was a big fan of Broadway musicals. As a result I’m well versed in the music from “My Fair Lady” and “The Pajama Game” and those songs have a certain emotional resonance that few others do.

Nonetheless, I think I’ll eventually need to be getting better versed in the music from the 40s and 50s, which is fine with me.

What is money?

I was talking recently about the illusory reality of ideas, thoughts, beliefs… basically all non physical things. I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that paper money is a good example of this idea.

For example, think of a bag filled with hundreds of 20 dollar bills. People would lust for such a bag, in some cases people might kill for it. But in terms of the materials of such a pile of cash, it’s just some paper and ink – not much different from a pile of Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets. Why does money have this perception of value?

Well, obviously that’s a complex question… too complex to really get into here. We humans have agreed on the concept of money and that it can be used to purchase things and people’s efforts. But there’s something a little disquieting about providing a good or service and only getting some pieces of paper in return. Of course, in civilized society we are fairly confident that the value of our paper will be respected by others; we have faith that its value will be enforced by law.

Money is real in a material sense (the paper exists), but the value is unreal – it’s dependent on people agreeing on it. You could call it a cultural construct. To use my example from before, if everyone on earth died, the value of money would disappear.

Art is also a good example. When Picasso painted his first painting at a professional skill level it probably wasn’t worth much—he was an unknown loser (I think; I don’t know much about his history.) But somehow, 60+ years later that same painting is worth millions. Why? The materials (paper and dried paint) certainly didn’t change, they didn’t become any rarer in the world (probably the opposite happened.) What happened is everyone decided that Picasso was a genius and cubist paintings became a desired style etc. That value of paintings is in the ideas, not the material.

Weird.

Maybe salespeople are on to something

Freddie Deboer had a interesting post recently titled “Pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything.” His point—a rather obvious one—is that trying to convince people that they are wrong by talking down to them and treating them like shit will probably have the opposite effect. (This has been been affirmed in various studies that claim to measure such things.) As Deboer states…

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

It’s worth checking out the white privilege comic to get a feel for what Deboer is talking about.

I always had an embattled relationship with liberalism because of this sort of thing. While I agree with at least some of liberalism’s ideas, I find the attitude of so many of its proponents to be completely off-putting. This is partly because I came into political awareness while living in Olympia, Washington and Seattle—two enclaves I think even moderate liberals would agree are stifling in their progressive orthodoxy.

But what is it precisely that bugs me about this kind of “fucking educate yourselves” argumentation? I think one hears it and suspects that the person making the point is being disingenuous. Take the cartoonist described in DeBoer’s post. Is their point really that they want to make the world a better place by eliminating inequality, or is it that they want to buffer their self image and serve the needs of their ego by saying, “Look at me! Look how wonderfully progressive and right-minded I am!”?

Well, that’s really an impossible question to answer since I’m not a mind reader, and, frankly, I’m arguing that this cartoonist is not even themselves aware of their real intent. We really have no way of knowing another person’s intent (though I think we can take some reasonable guesses). But I will note this: there is a class of people who really are focused on getting people to do something. These people are called salespeople, and usually they are trying to get you to buy something. And they are almost never pedantic or assholes, if fact, they usually bend over backwards to be nice. They try to appear as your friend. (Sometimes they try to dissuade your dubiousness to the idea that they are your friend by explaining their self interest in what they are presenting as a win-win. “I’m not going to lie to you, Bob, I’ll get a healthy commission if you buy this car. But I honestly think you will look great driving off in it too.”)

Is my point that liberals (or anyone seeking to cause political change) should be a lot more like salespeople? Well, sort of. At least I think folks find people who don’t seem indentured to their own egos as more convincing than those who are.

Interestingly, I stumbled on a web post just the other day that touched on this point. It was titled, “You’re Wrong And I Can Help You.

The reason that I no longer want to act like I think I’m better/smarter than others is because I think it’s damaging my relationships. Previously, I’ve written about Power and Intimacy. I talk about how in relationships, power and intimacy are opposite: treating someone else (whether it’s a friendship, family, a partner, a colleague) as though you know better than them, distances you.

So even if you’re the smartest person you have met, or more insightful or more loving – whatever it is that makes you better than others – if you act on it while deep down thinking “you’re wrong and listening to me will help you,” think twice.

Rethinking The Fountainhead

A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.

This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)