Thursday, December 15, 2011

Neuroscience: Programming the Machine

While we have seen a lot of discussion about whether we can effectively model the brain as a computer, there's plenty of evidence that brains do act like "black boxes": present a particular input and you will get a related output. How the input relates to the output may vary, but the two do seem related.

In this article from The Telegraph, we learn that an external stimuli applied to the head can produce a tic in the body that the owner of the body did not will, either consciously or unconsciously. This phenomenon is interpreted as evidence that we have no free will--if someone else can push a button and cause us to jump or dance, then we cannot have control over our own bodies. Extend this to our seemingly autonomic reaction to the verbal stimulus of an insult or a tear-jerker movie, and we do seem to devolve into the feared state of automaton.

I think this view lacks a critical dimension, namely time.

As I see it, yes, an input does produce an output, and perhaps even reliably so. But not necessarily the same every time, and certainly not the same for every person. The author quotes Professor Patrick Haggard of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience:

"If you see a light go green, it may mean press the accelerator; but there are lots of situations where it doesn't mean that: if the car in front hasn't moved, for example. The same stimulus sometimes makes me press the accelerator, but sometimes the horn. We are not one output-one input beings; we have to cope with a messy world of inputs, an enormous range of outputs. I think the term 'free will' refers to the complexity of that arrangement."

This seems to me to capture the heart of the issue. We condition our responses based on context. But how do we do that?

Here's where time comes into the picture, in my view. We *learn*, by trying, failing, trying, erring, trying, succeeding. Over time, we develop the black box mechanism that determines our outputs for a given input. We get programmed.

I would contend that we can reclaim free will, in part, by coming to recognize the time dimension and choosing how we become programmed. We can adjust our understanding of a situation, thus tapping a different pathway through our brains, producing a different reaction that might have otherwise occurred.

We do this by mindfully attending to the input-output process of our daily lives, by evaluating how we feel about the relation and the outcome of that relation, and by reinforcing, replacing or redefining the significance we assign to the input to modify the resulting output. Time provides us with our own personal psychology lab, if we will choose to use it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Science and Naivete

In this blog post on the Scientific American site, writer and former chemist Cassie Rodenberg asks if we would take a risk-free version of psylocibin, "magic mushrooms", as a "mystical experience", or maybe just for the fun of it. Setting aside for the moment the different perception my generation might have on the question, I was struck by her questions about the potential ramifications:

Would we still be ourselves then? Would this be a new, improved me or an artificial version? Would my mom still be herself if she lost her narrow Southern view of religion? I’m not so sure.

My first reaction to this was "What do you mean? and How do you know?" I'm not posing a deep philosophical argument about the self and how it develops. I'm simply talking about the rigidity of abstracting these questions suggest. Do you think you have developed without outside influence up until now? Do you think your reading, interpersonal experiences, diet, medical treatments, etc, had not an "artificial" effect on your existing "self"? Do you think your mom has not changed at all from what you imagine her to be based on your child's perceptions of her?

My second reaction was "How ironic that the author responds to the potential for increased "openness" by exhibiting a certain closed-mindedness about the self and what shapes personality."

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Knowledge increases power

This article from Physorg reports on research about the effects of hypothetical questions. Juries often hear hypothetical questions before they are selected, and Sarah Moore, University of Alberta Business researcher, found that these questions can plant a bias. Jurors told ahead of time that they might hear such questions and not to let them influence opinions are far less likely to absorb the intended bias.

Thomas Hobbes said "scientia potentia est" = Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more likely you can develop your own opinion rather than adopting an opinion someone else would like you to have.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Who, exactly, made Sarah Grunfeld feel bad?

You might have heard about the recent Jewish scandal that wasn't wherein a professor at York University has been criticized for how he chose to illustrate a point that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable opinions in public discourse:

Reaching for an example, he settled on one that seemed beyond dispute.

"All Jews should be sterilized" is an opinion that is simply not acceptable, he noted.
A student in the class, Sarah Grunfeld, took umbrage at this "outrageous" idea (only the quoted part, apparently, not the part about how this is not an acceptable view...) and slapped the professor with a complaint of anti-Semitism.

She, and the B'nai Brith, are persisting in demanding sanctions, even though they have been told that a) Prof Johnston is Jewish, and b) IT WAS AN EXAMPLE OF AN UNACCEPTABLE OPINION!

Sadly her poor attention, flawed half-baked perception and unthinking irrational reaction are all reminiscent of the very prejudices that she claims to have suffered. She contends that her reaction was triggered by generations of inaccurate and unfair insults against Jews. So she adopts the loathsome behavior of her perceived oppressors and treats her professor to an inaccurate perception and an unfair complaint.

Rather than taking responsibility for her reaction to her own erroneous perception of his statement (um, maybe texting while listening to the lecture?), Ms. Grunfeld blames the professor for her dismay. According to the National Post article:
in a statement released wednesday evening [Grunfeld said] that it was Prof. Johnston's fault if she got the wrong impression and complaining that the university has failed to discipline him.
Alas, we have all done this at one point or another--heard with half a brain and reacted as if what we *think* we heard can "cause" us to feel pain. Some people believe that if you say something they find objectionable, it's your fault if they feel angry. Others think that if a person hears something they think is objectionable and they feel anger or shame or dismay, they produced their own reaction and could have reacted differently if they chose. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:
Remember no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I might amend that to "without your direct complicity via misplaced attribution of where your feelings come from!"

Seems to me that rather than attending classes on social sciences, which are clearly beyond her ability to follow, Ms. Grunfeld might want to start with some classes on critical thinking and cognitive behavior, where she might learn that how she "feels" about what others say is not "their fault", but rather her responsibility and hers alone. She might also learn to pay attention in class and learn to check her perceptions before reaching out to smack somebody else for her foolish and faulty interpretations.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Accuracy? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Accuracy!

You gotta love journalists who can't resist making some interesting story just a *little bit* hotter for the reading public. Today's case in point: a report at GizMag about the discovery of a (pant pant) "planet made of diamond"! Now that would be news. We might even get a boost in the space budget if we could go after a "planet made of diamond", right?

Of course, the story itself tells a different story...

"With the planet likely to be made largely of oxygen and carbon, its high density means it is almost certainly crystalline, meaning that a large part of the planet may be similar to diamond." [Emphasis mine]

Oops. That's a lot of hedging, none of which made it into the headline.

Twas ever thus.

(edited to change "can" to "can't"--one of the banes of my existence is my uncanny ability to overlook the missing "n't"!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

File Under "Unintended Consequences"

This Physorg science article about the loss of beneficial bacteria also illuminates what I would consider a language problem. Early in the discovery and development history of antibiotics, researchers and doctors immediately comprehended that these medicines could save millions of lives by vanquishing what til then were unstoppable infections. In the time between the discovery of bacteria and the discovery of ways to kill bacteria, scientists focused on the ways bacteria threaten life at the expense of understanding how bacteria support life. The critical services bacteria perform for us, in our guts, in our soil, in our immune systems, etc., were unknown and unacknowledged. The medical profession has begun to recognize the negative consequences of trying to eradicate pathogens, such as "super-bugs" and rapidly evolving drug-resistant forms. This article describes another, less obvious but potentially more severe consequence--the permanent loss of strains of beneficial bacteria, which could contribute to the rising incidence of diabetes, bowel disease, asthma and obesity.

This qualifies as a language problem because due in part to the way bacteria were described in the previous century, the vast majority of people today equate "bacteria" with "bad". This has given rise to a huge and growing market in products that offer to eliminate "99.9%" of bacteria on inert surfaces as well as on our skin. People appear to believe that killing bacteria is a completely positive act, with no negative consequences. Marketing ignores, or perhaps hides, the broader definition of "bacteria" as including a spectrum of biota ranging from deadly in all cases to positive and critical for life in all case. This leads directly to the overuse of antibacterial products, since most people would agree that if killing bacteria is unequivocally "good", then killing MORE bacteria must be better. Unfortunately, it looks like killing bacteria may be the short road to killing ourselves....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Prepare for the Worst....

Great cartoon that kind of sums up why I practice general semantics and related thinking processes:

Try to prepare for your spontaneous reactions

I think this will become my new "elevator speech" about gs!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Being" a voter motivates more than a solicitation "to vote"

Thisreport from PhysOrg presents a twist on the GS dictum we avoid identifying someone as "being an X". The researcher in the report significantly improved voter turnout in participants asked if they would "be a voter", versus those who were simply asked if they were "going to vote". Apparently people found it more appealing to imagine themselves as "a voter", while they found the idea of having to *do* something, ie, vote, less appealing. Food for thought for those of us who might want to influence the behavior of others.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Quote and comment

Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
-T.S. Eliot, poet (1888-1965)
We typically think of information as the source of knowledge and knowledge as the source of wisdom. But inevitably, as we process one into the next, we reduce the complexity and variety of the source to distill the product. We discard information that seems irrelevant to the knowledge we desire, and dismiss knowledge that does not seem to support the wisdom we seek.

At any given moment, we necessarily ignore far more than we attend to. We overlook far more than we observe. In many cases, we do not suffer for the oversight. But Eliot understood the critical importance of asking what we might have lost in those unattended moments.

While we physically cannot attend to every single thing in our experience, it seems likely that we can benefit simply from considering, at any given moment, what we might have missed, and ask ourselves if knowing something different might change how we act or feel or what we think we have come to understand.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Imagine a World with No Time

If you have no words for a concept, does it "exist"? This story from Medical Express describes a tribe in the Amazon whose language has no vocabulary for time-related concepts--no yesterday, no age, no since, no longer, etc. While they are born, age, and die as all humans do, they do not talk or think about time the way most other cultures do:

For the Amondawa, time does not exist in the same way as it does for us. We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted, or talked about in the abstract. This doesn't mean that the Amondawa are 'people outside time', but they live in a world of events, rather than seeing events as being embedded in time.
Researchers attribute this difference in the language in part to the associated lack of numbers beyond four or five. If you don't have numbers, it's hard to quantify anything, including time.

What would it mean to think about your life, your family, your society, your activities, without thinking about the time something takes, the time your project is due, the sequence of a set of events, the numeric significance of age? What would a day be like if you didn't think of it as a day? How would you experience the company of your friends if you didn't think about time passing?

I think that psychology and neuroscience might suggest that if your native language includes words for time, you will have a hard time answering those questions. Language influence the connectivity in our brains. We think what we say, our language frames our thoughts, and vice versa. The older and more socially embedded the concept, the more fundamental it feels to us, and thus the greater the difficulty we will face if we try to step outside it or look past it and its implications.

You may never quite find a way to imagine a world with no time. But because you have language to think with, you now can at least imagine that the world might operate like that for someone. That's a step....

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Actions speak louder than words, they tell us, but words create the context in which action unfolds.

--Christopher Hume,