Wednesday Round Up #45

Adding is favoured over subtracting in problem solving

Consider the Lego structure depicted in Figure 1, in which a figurine is placed under a roof supported by a single pillar at one corner. How would you change this structure so that you could put a masonry brick on top of it without crushing the figurine, bearing in mind that each block added costs 10 cents? If you are like most participants in a study reported by Adams et al.1 in Nature, you would add pillars to better support the roof. But a simpler (and cheaper) solution would be to remove the existing pillar, and let the roof simply rest on the base. Across a series of similar experiments, the authors observe that people consistently consider changes that add components over those that subtract them — a tendency that has broad implications for everyday decision-making…

Adams et al. demonstrated that the reason their participants offered so few subtractive solutions is not because they didn’t recognize the value of those solutions, but because they failed to consider them. Indeed, when instructions explicitly mentioned the possibility of subtractive solutions, or when participants had more opportunity to think or practise, the likelihood of offering subtractive solutions increased. It thus seems that people are prone to apply a ‘what can we add here?’ heuristic (a default strategy to simplify and speed up decision-making). This heuristic can be overcome by exerting extra cognitive effort to consider other, less-intuitive solutions…

These perceived disadvantages of subtractive solutions might encourage people to routinely seek out additive ones. This is consistent with Adams and colleagues’ suggestion that frequent previous exposure to additive solutions has made them more cognitively accessible, and thus more likely to be considered. However, in addition, we posit that previous experience could lead people to assume that they are actually expected to add rather than subtract. As a result, the study’s participants might be generalizing from past experiences and instinctively assume that they should add features, only revisiting this assumption after further reflection or explicit prompting. Similarly, members of a university community might implicitly assume that the incoming president wants them to formulate new initiatives, not criticize existing ones.

Less is more: Why our brains struggle to subtract

The enigmatic origins of the human brain

After his observations of brain imprints preserved in fossil cranial specimens from Olduvai (Tanzania) (2), paleoanthropologist Phillip V. Tobias stated that “hominid evolution attained a new level of organization…with the emergence of the genus Homo.” There have since been debates on whether humanlike brain organization emerged concomitantly with the appearance of the genus Homo. On page 165 of this issue, Ponce de León et al. (3) challenge this view by suggesting that Homo in Dmanisi (foothills of the Georgian Caucasus) 1.85 to 1.77 million years (Ma) ago showed a primitive organization of the brain.

A Great Tree Has Fallen: The Passing of Marshall Sahlins

His 1972 book, Stone Age Economics, established him as one of American anthropology’s most significant theorists; he argued that hunter-gatherers were not some primitive undeveloped representation of human potential but were in fact the original affluent society. Sahlins challenged anthropologists who used western economic models to study nonmarket economies, eventually insisting that materialism was nothing but a form of idealism. In the years that followed he wrote books cutting through the codes of history, culture, kinship, and mythos, frequently revealing culture at the core of what was otherwise was conceived in some other way; all this presented with frequent surges of brilliance.

Marshall Sahlins greatest political contribution grew from his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. Concerned about the lies being propagated by the US government, in 1965 he traveled on his own to Vietnam and used his ethnographic sensibilities to see what he could learn firsthand. His trip cumulated in his seminal political essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.” His political opposition to the war and academic critiques led him to establish the first anti-war teach-in, held on the University of Michigan campus in March 1965. In the months that followed, hundreds of similar teach-ins on college campuses sprung up across the US, and this rapidly became an important tool for mobilizing American campuses against the war.

Emotion and Prediction Online Workshop

Recently, a possible unifying account of cognition (and perhaps emotion) has begun to emerge within computational neuroscience. According to the so-called predictive processing framework the brain is constantly attempting to minimize the discrepancy between its sensory expectations and its actual incoming sensory signals. This framework offers an architecture in which distinct functions can be explained at their different time-scales by the same computational principles, and where distinct theories can find a common language, which brings fruitful modelling advantages. As such it is quickly becoming an attractive way of carrying out theoretical and experimental research in cognitive science.

More recently this framework has most recently begun to serve as the architectural basis for an exciting and very promising new account of feelings, emotions and moods. This workshop will bring together philosophers and cognitive scientists working on predictive processing and emotion in order to promote an interdisciplinary dialogue about the nature of emotion in predictive system like us.

You can access all the videos from the Emotion and Prediction workshop here.

Watch, for example, Emotion as Interoceptive Active Inference:

The problem with prediction

Almost 400 years ago, with the dictum ‘I think, therefore I am,’ René Descartes claimed that cognition was the foundation of the human condition. Today, prediction has taken its place. As the cognitive scientist Anil Seth put it: ‘I predict (myself) therefore I am.’

Somehow, the logic we find animating our bodies is the same one transforming our body politic. The prediction engine – the conceptual tool used by today’s leading brain scientists to understand the deepest essence of our humanity – is also the one wielded by today’s most powerful corporations and governments. How did this happen and what does it mean? …

The strength of this association between predictive economics and brain sciences matters, because – if we aren’t careful – it can encourage us to reduce our fellow humans to mere pieces of machinery. Our brains were never computer processors, as useful as it might have been to imagine them that way every now and then. Nor are they literally prediction engines now and, should it come to pass, they will not be quantum computers. Our bodies aren’t empires that shuttle around sentrymen, nor are they corporations that need to make good on their investments. We aren’t fundamentally consumers to be tricked, enemies to be tracked, or subjects to be predicted and controlled. Whether the arena be scientific research or corporate intelligence, it becomes all too easy for us to slip into adversarial and exploitative framings of the human; as Galison wrote, ‘the associations of cybernetics (and the cyborg) with weapons, oppositional tactics, and the black-box conception of human nature do not so simply melt away.’

How we see ourselves matters. As the feminist scholar Donna Haraway explained, science and technology are ‘human achievements in interaction with the world. But the construction of a natural economy according to capitalist relations, and its appropriation for purposes of reproducing domination, is deep.’ Human beings aren’t pieces of technology, no matter how sophisticated. But by talking about ourselves as such, we acquiesce to the corporations and governments that decide to treat us this way.

Ian Fleming Explains How to Write a Thriller

It must surely be more stimulating to the reader’s senses if, instead of writing “He made a hurried meal off the Plat du Jour—excellent cottage pie and vegetables, followed by home-made trifle” (I think this is a fair English menu without burlesque) you write “Being instinctively mistrustful of all Plats du Jour, he ordered four fried eggs cooked on both sides, hot buttered toast and a large cup of black coffee.” No difference in price here, but the following points should be noted: firstly, we all prefer breakfast foods to the sort of food one usually gets at luncheon and dinner; secondly, this is an independent character who knows what he wants and gets it; thirdly, four fried eggs has the sound of a real man’s meal and, in our imagination, a large cup of black coffee sits well on our taste buds after the rich, buttery sound of the fried eggs and the hot buttered toast.

Brain wifi: Instead of a code encrypted in the wiring of our neurons, could consciousness reside in the brain’s electromagnetic field?

Watching those wiggly lines march across the EEG screen gave me the germ of a different idea, something that didn’t boil down to pure neuronal computation or information-processing. Every time a neuron fires, along with the matter-based signal that travels down its wire-like nerve fibre, it also projects a tiny electromagnetic (EM) pulse into the surrounding space, rather like the signal from your phone when you send a text. So when my son heard the door close, as well as triggering the firing of billions of nerves, its slamming would have projected billions of tiny pulses of electromagnetic energy into his brain. These pulses flow into each other to generate a kind of pool of EM energy that’s called an electromagnetic field – something that neurobiologists have neglected when probing the nature of consciousness…

The unity of EM fields is apparent whenever you use wifi. Perhaps you’re streaming a radio documentary about Katumuwa’s stele on your phone while another family member is watching a movie, and another is listening to streamed music. Remarkably, all this information, whether movies, pictures, messages or music, is instantly available to be downloaded from any point in the vicinity of your router. This is because – unlike the information encoded in discrete units of matter such as computer gates or neurons – EM field information is encoded as immaterial waves that travel at the speed of light from their source to their receiver. Between source and receiver, all those waves encoding different messages overlap and intermingle to become a single EM field of physically bound information with as much unity as a single photon or electron, and which can be downloaded from any point in the field. The field, and everything encoded in it, is everywhere. While watching my son’s EEG marching across the screen, I wondered what it was like to be his brain’s EM field pulsing with physically bound information correlating with all of his sense perceptions. I guessed it would feel a lot like him.

What The Past Three Months Have Been Like For QAnon Believers

Q seems to have disappeared for now. Whoever they are, they’ve largely abandoned their base after riling them up for years — and have not posted new “Q drops” since 2020. But the people who believe in Q are wrestling with whether to keep on believing or to abandon a cause that, for some, became core to their identities. Some might be deprogramming themselves, while others are cherry-picking the parts of the movement they want to hold on to. But the people I spoke to say their feelings have changed drastically from when they were following the inauguration to when Biden’s stimulus checks were being sent out. Vanderbilt has been using the weeks after QAnon’s disintegration to read more, learn more, talk to more people, and question absolutely everything she’s ever known. “It’s kind of a little bit of a do-over,” she said after the inauguration. “I’m going to learn the world again.”

Making sense of conspiracy theorists as the world gets more bizarre

But there was something that the mainstream media, in its hubris, failed to notice about David Icke: a growing number of people were feeling more aligned to him than to his tormentors. These were people who also, for their own reasons, felt ridiculed and shut out of the culture. And so when Icke re-emerged with his paedophile lizard theory he immediately began selling out concert halls across the world. It was an incredibly surprising and, I suspect, spiteful story born from injury: conspiracy theory as grievance storytelling. And it was a dangerous theory, with its appeals to paranoia and delusion.

When sceptics are asked to explain why people succumb to conspiracy theories, they tend to say they offer a strange comfort – they allow people to make sense of a chaotic world. But I think there’s another, more often ignored reason. You get renaissances of conspiracy theories when the powerful behave in conspiratorial ways. The mystery is why the theorists are never happy with the actual evidence, and instead behave like amateur sleuths inside some magical parallel world where metaphors are facts. In that world, the deaths at David Koresh’s church in Waco were caused not by government overreach but by the Illuminati’s Satanic desire for blood sacrifice. Why they invariably slap a layer of fiction on top of an already fascinating truth had long been a puzzle to me, and to many others, too: a question I’ve been asked over and over is whether I think Alex Jones knows he’s lying when he tells his millions of listeners that, for instance, the Sandy Hook school shootings were “a giant hoax”…

At first, I felt sad for him, wondering if he was embarrassed that a thing like that had come out in court. But I kept thinking about it and, honestly, it answers a lot of questions. High-scoring narcissists are prone to paranoia and black-and-white thinking. Through their eyes everyone is either wonderful or else they’re the enemy. (Often the wonderful person commits some minor transgression and instantly becomes the enemy; if you’ve been close to a narcissist you’ll probably recognise that “love-bomb, devalue, discard” relationship arc.) And narcissists need to feel like they’re the smartest person in the room – hence, I suspect, their reaching for conspiracy theories with their obnoxiously counterintuitive, superficially complex worldviews.

With David Icke and Alex Jones the movement had found its stars. So now all it needed was a better distribution system. Unfortunately the one it got turned out to massively exacerbate our proclivity for paranoia and black-and-white thinking – social media algorithms.

Biocultural strategies among herders for coping with a cold, rapidly changing environment

Check out this online poster – it comes across as a combination of powerpoint, Prezi, and conference poster, optimized for presentation at an online event. And a fun topic too!

How We Record Audio At The Tiny Desk
Accessible overview of how the recordings at Tiny Desk turn out amazing, with a focus on how the music gets captured through the effective use of mics.

How Fit Can You Get From Just Walking?

“I think walking is probably the single most underutilized tool in health and wellness,” says nutrition coach and personal trainer Jeremy Fernandes. According to Fernandes, the reason we rarely hear about walking as a major fitness tool—in the same conversations as stuff like yoga or expensive spinning bikes—is that people aren’t emotionally prepared for fitness to be easy. “Most people want to believe that working out and fat loss needs to be hard. If you need impossibly crushing workouts to get in better shape, then you’re not responsible when you fail,” he says. “But a basic program performed consistently—even a half-assed effort done consistently—can bring you a really long way, much further than going hardcore once in a while.”

Wednesday Round Up #44

Octomom: Deep-sea octopus guards her eggs for over four years
Amazing footage of an amazing mother

The Empty Brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: Your brain is not a computer.

If the IP metaphor is so silly, why is it so sticky? What is stopping us from brushing it aside, just as we might brush aside a branch that was blocking our path? Is there a way to understand human intelligence without leaning on a flimsy intellectual crutch? And what price have we paid for leaning so heavily on this particular crutch for so long? The IP metaphor, after all, has been guiding the writing and thinking of a large number of researchers in multiple fields for decades. At what cost?

In a classroom exercise I have conducted many times over the years, I begin by recruiting a student to draw a detailed picture of a dollar bill – ‘as detailed as possible’, I say – on the blackboard in front of the room. When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task. When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences.

Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings…

Perhaps you will object to this demonstration. Jinny had seen dollar bills before, but she hadn’t made a deliberate effort to ‘memorise’ the details. Had she done so, you might argue, she could presumably have drawn the second image without the bill being present. Even in this case, though, no image of the dollar bill has in any sense been ‘stored’ in Jinny’s brain. She has simply become better prepared to draw it accurately, just as, through practice, a pianist becomes more skilled in playing a concerto without somehow inhaling a copy of the sheet music.

Sausage of Science Podcast 119 – Survival of the Friendliest with Dr. Brian Hare

Dr. Brian Hare is a professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and a core member of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience. He chats with Chris and Cara about his new book “Survival of the Friendliest” and what we can learn from puppies about our own evolution and bipartisanship.

Study Links Genes With Function Across the Human Brain

Led by Bratislav Misic, a researcher at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University, a group of scientists performed machine learning analysis of two Open Science datasets: the gene expression atlas from the Allen Human Brain Atlas and the functional association map from Neurosynth. This allowed them to find associations between gene expression patterns and functional brain tasks such as memory, attention, and mood.

Interestingly, the team found a clear genetic signal that separated cognitive processes, like attention, from more affective processes, like fear. This separation can be traced to gene expression in specific cell types and molecular pathways, offering key insights for future research into psychiatric disorders.

Cognition, for example, was linked more to the gene signatures of inhibitory or excitatory neurons. Affective processes, however, were linked to support cells such as microglia and astrocytes, supporting a theory that inflammation of these cells is a risk factor in mental illness. The genetic signature related to affect was centred on a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex, which has been shown to be vulnerable in mental illness.

Here is the abstract for the original article:
Mapping gene transcription and neurocognition across human neocortex

Regulation of gene expression drives protein interactions that govern synaptic wiring and neuronal activity. The resulting coordinated activity among neuronal populations supports complex psychological processes, yet how gene expression shapes cognition and emotion remains unknown. Here, we directly bridge the microscale and macroscale by mapping gene expression patterns to functional activation patterns across the cortical sheet. Applying unsupervised learning to the Allen Human Brain Atlas and Neurosynth databases, we identify a ventromedial–dorsolateral gradient of gene assemblies that separate affective and perceptual domains. This topographic molecular-psychological signature reflects the hierarchical organization of the neocortex, including systematic variations in cell type, myeloarchitecture, laminar differentiation and intrinsic network affiliation. In addition, this molecular-psychological signature strengthens over neurodevelopment and can be replicated in two independent repositories. Collectively, our results reveal spatially covarying transcriptomic and cognitive architectures, highlighting the influence that molecular mechanisms exert on psychological processes.

Why Your ‘True Self’ Is An Illusion

Strohminger, now an assistant professor at the Wharton School, found the premise fascinating because if a bank robber could leave his body and end up in Willis’, it implied that he wasn’t fused to his body in the first place. There was some separate essence of him that was picked up and transported. Further, she noticed that in soul switches, people “would only bring over some of their traits,” she said. “It seemed selective. I wondered if there was any pattern there.”

Her curiosity ultimately led her to an experiment. She and her colleague, Shaun Nichols, asked people a question: If you went into another body, which of your traits would most likely come with you? Above other personality quirks, memories, and preferences, people consistently said that they would retain traits related to their morality.

This work is just one of many demonstrations over the years of a psychological notion called the “true self.” The true self is different from the self, which is made up of a blurry combination of your physical appearance, your intelligence, your memories, and your habits, all which change through time. The true self is what people believe is their essence. It’s the core of what makes you you; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore.

Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World

Video talk/conversation with Zakiyyah Iman Jackson. “Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World is part of NYU Press’s Sexual Cultures series. It argues that key African American, African, and Caribbean literary and visual texts generate conceptions of being and materiality that creatively disrupt a human-animal distinction that persistently reproduces the racial logics and orders of Western thought. These texts move beyond a critique of bestialization to generate new possibilities for rethinking ontology: our being, fleshly materiality, and the nature of what exists and what we can claim to know about existence. Jackson argues that the texts and artistic practices featured in Becoming Human generate alternative possibilities for reimaging (human) being because they neither rely on animal abjection to define the human, nor reestablish “human recognition” within liberal humanism as an antidote to racialization. Ultimately, Becoming Human reveals the pernicious peculiarity of reigning foundational conceptions of “the human” rooted in Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism and expressed in current multiculturalist alternatives. What emerges from this questioning is a generative, unruly sense of being/knowing/feeling existence.”

The Crow Whisperer

These stories of animal invasion—even the more menacing ones—were a balm, a necessary distraction from the horrors of the news. And yet something more profound seemed to be at stake. What if dive-bombing crows were not just a reflection of the pandemic’s disruption but a glimpse of a world where the boundaries between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom had blurred? As I began to imagine a post-pandemic world—one with a more equitable education system, health care for all, accessible public spaces, a less exploitative economy—I wondered whether there was also an opportunity to rethink the relationship between humans and the natural environment. After Adam and Dani told me about the crow whisperer, I considered whether she might be uniquely able to help me imagine what this new relationship could look like. At the very least, it would give me something to think about besides the plague.

The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make

Nearly 200 years ago, Dhaka muslin was the most valuable fabric on the planet. Then it was lost altogether. How did this happen? And can we bring it back?

Foundations of Cognitive Science
Get an entire course via YouTube by psychologist Michael Dawson

One example: Functional Analysis

The weird science of loneliness explains why lockdown sucked

Although the link between loneliness and poor health is well-established, scientists have only recently been able to take the first glimpses of what social isolation looks like in our brains. It’s a discovery that started with a failed experiment. As part of her PhD at Imperial College London, Gillian Matthews was trying to find out how drug addiction affected the connections between specific neurons in a part of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). Matthews divided the mice she was studying in two groups – one she injected with cocaine and the other with a saltwater solution – but no matter what she tried, she kept seeing that the DRN neuron connections were growing stronger in both groups of mice.

These new neural connections, Matthews realised, had little to do with drugs. Both groups of mice had been isolated for 24 hours before the start of the experiment. What Matthews was seeing was the effect that social isolation had on the brains she was studying. This accidental discovery opened up a new way of thinking about loneliness – if we could see the traces of social isolation in the brains of mice, it meant that loneliness didn’t just describe a state in the outside world, it could also point to something on the inside too.

Wednesday Round Up #43

How Whiteness Works: JAMA and the Refusals of White Supremacy

What makes this story worth telling is not the drama of an editorial shakeup at one of the world’s top medical journals. Rather, it’s the content of the podcast itself. Now, don’t get me wrong. If your goal is to understand what structural racism is and how it harms health, look elsewhere. The podcast’s errors are so naive or absurd—No physician is racist? No Black or Hispanic people experience discrimination because that would be illegal?—that it doesn’t merit a rebuttal. And if you know from experience the toll that racism takes, you may have decided early on not to listen. At best, it is a distraction, a theft of energy and time; at worst, a form of gaslighting.

Yet the podcast does serve a purpose—just not the one JAMA intended: it illustrates rather than illuminates the problem of structural racism in medicine. And not just in medicine: The conversation between Livingston and Katz succinctly presents some of the most common ways well-meaning white people (an oxymoron, if we understand whiteness properly) uphold white supremacy when talking about race. Moreover, because the podcast carried the imprimatur of the American Medical Association, it shows how white supremacy remains embedded in powerful institutions—even ones that profess liberal values of equal opportunity and health for all.

Magic and the Human Sciences: The Myth of Disenchantment
A book review in video format. Quite a book, it seems, and I quite liked the review format as well.

How Knowledge About Different Cultures Is Shaking the Foundations of Psychology

Consider which two of these objects go together: a panda, a monkey and a banana. Respondents from Western countries routinely select the monkey and the panda, because both objects are animals. This is indicative of an analytic thinking style, in which objects are largely perceived independently from their context.

In contrast, participants from Eastern countries will often select the monkey and the banana, because these objects belong in the same environment and share a relationship (monkeys eat bananas). This is a holistic thinking style, in which object and context are perceived to be interrelated…

This difference in self-construal has even been demonstrated at the brain level. In a brain-scanning study (fMRI), Chinese and American participants were shown different adjectives and were asked how well these traits represented themselves. They were also asked to think about how well they represented their mother (the mothers were not in the study), while being scanned.

In American participants, there was a clear difference in brain responses between thinking about the self and the mother in the “medial prefrontal cortex”, which is a region of the brain typically associated with self presentations. However, in Chinese participants there was little or no difference between self and mother, suggesting that the self-presentation shared a large overlap with the presentation of the close relative.

Why exercise won’t help you lose weight and what actually works

Your daily activity level has almost no bearing on the number of calories you burn and burning more energy doesn’t protect against getting fat, Herman Pontzer writes in his new book, “Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy.”

“Your brain is very, very, very good at matching how many calories you eat and how many calories you burn,” Pontzer, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, told TODAY.

“The person who has a sedentary lifestyle and the person who has the active lifestyle will burn the same number of calories.”

An Answer to Forgetting

Twenty-five years ago, marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” to describe a blind spot, at once subtle and glaring, in the way that he and his colleagues assessed overfishing. He wrote that “each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers,” thereby inadvertently erasing the loss that came before and setting an invisible backstop against rehabilitation. “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it,” Pauly would say many years later in a TED Talk delivered on the Galapagos Islands—a place still described as “pristine” in brochures, but where native species like giant tortoises and marine iguanas are critically endangered.

Pauly’s idea made instant sense to his peers, but it wasn’t until researcher Loren McClenachan discovered a box of old fishing photos in 2009 that the concept received empirical validation. While poring over a collection of unorganized photos dating back to the 1950s, she came across images of sport fishers in Keywest, Florida, posing with their day’s catch strung up on a board. Comparing the older photos with ones that she took herself at the same pier, McClenachan was able to determine that the mean fish size declined from nearly 20 kg to just over two. Even so, the shrinking fish hadn’t diminished the enthusiasm or the satisfaction of the fishers catching them.

Academics aren’t content creators, and it’s regressive to make them so
It’s framed negatively, but here’s the key idea for me, that we can think about how to use online learning in ways that creates learning, engagement, community, and more. That is part of what “content creation” means.

“Suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add). Universities turned from communities of learning and collaboration into B-grade content providers. This is the death march of higher education. Universities are not content providers. Somewhere along this unplanned journey we lost our way…

“We, as teachers in modern university settings, can think of ourselves as community figureheads and team leaders. The students are part of our community, our team, and we are there to manage them, coach them, guide them, to be mentors, to help teach them over a longer journey, and to corral them through this common goal of thought, understanding and mastery.”

Comcast Releases 2020 Network Performance Data, Highlighting COVID-19 Impact

The real point of this piece is the graph showing just how much video dominates. And even in the midst of covid, with remote work and learning, video conferencing didn’t make much of a dent in the dominant pattern.
“Surprisingly, despite increases in videoconferencing activity, entertainment activities continued to dominate network traffic, with video streaming accounting for 71 percent of all downstream traffic, and growing by 70 percent over 2019 levels.

Other key drivers of downstream traffic in 2020 were online gaming and the accompanying software downloads (10 percent), and web browsing (8 percent).

Despite growth in videoconferencing traffic, it still only accounted for less than 5 percent of overall network usage (included in the other category).”

‘Anumeric’ People: What Happens When a Language Has No Words for Numbers?

Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. In an experiment, a researcher will place nuts into a can one at a time, then remove them one by one. The person watching is asked to signal when all the nuts have been removed. Responses suggest that anumeric people have some trouble keeping track of how many nuts remain in the can, even if there are only four or five in total.

This and many other experiments have converged upon a simple conclusion: When people do not have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to someone like you or me. While only a small portion of the world’s languages are anumeric or nearly anumeric, they demonstrate that number words are not a human universal.

How to Debunk Misinformation about COVID, Vaccines and Masks

When misinformation circumvents blocking, fact-checking and response by online interlocutors—as it too often does—the last line of defense is real-world relationships: family, friends and office buddies. Enlisting in a science defense system requires a commitment to make health-promoting practices the norm in one’s community, a willingness to bookmark and turn to public health and fact-checking sites for knowledge about COVID and vaccination, a few premises about the nature and limits of scientific claims, a set of realistic goals, and a strategy for depoliticizing the science if the situation requires it.

Every layer in the model—blocking on platforms, fact-checking, online engagement and creation of a science-friendly community—has limitations. Each additional layer of defense, however, slows the advance of deceptions that, to appropriate a truism, will otherwise get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. And in the case of COVID-19, there are at least two areas where the benefits are so great that they are worthy of concentrated attention: masking and vaccination.

All Your Memories Are Stored by One Weird, Ancient Molecule

In a 2018 study published in the journal Cell, a team of researchers at the University of Utah, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, argue that Arc took its place in the brain as a result of a random chance encounter millions of years ago. Similar to how scientists say the mitochondria in our cells originated as bacteria that our ancient ancestors’ cells absorbed, the Arc protein seems to have started as a virus.

The researchers knew they were onto something when they captured an image of Arc that looked an awful lot like a viral capsid, the isohedral protein coat that encapsulates a virus’s genetic material for delivery to host cells during infection…

t turns out the Arc capsid encapsulated its own RNA. When they put the Arc capsids into a mouse brain cell culture, the capsids transferred their RNA to the mouse brain cells — just like viral infection does.

“We went into this line of research knowing that Arc was special in many ways, but when we discovered that Arc was able to mediate cell-to-cell transport of RNA, we were floored,” says the study’s lead author, postdoctoral fellow Elissa Pastuzyn, Ph.D., in a statement. “No other non-viral protein that we know of acts in this way.”

Foucault, Strauss and the Noble Lie of Modernity

Jean-Paul Sartre similarly saw Foucault as a conservative thinker, dubbing him the “last barricade of the bourgeoisie,” because he revealed Marxist pretensions to have objective knowledge of social contradictions and of a coming revolution against capitalism as merely a curious nineteenth-century variant of the Enlightenment’s misguided humanistic faith in ‘progress’. Foucault’s infamous critiques of ‘science’ (really, what he called the ‘sciences of man’, such as psychology) were only one expression of a larger critique of Marxism, liberalism, and other forms of post-Enlightenment politics.

Some on the contemporary left still understand Foucault as an enemy, recognizing him as of the principal exponents of ‘neoliberalism’. They note his importance to the transition of the French left away from Marxism and towards a vaguer, post-revolutionary political horizon less confident in the ability of authoritarian structures like disciplined socialist parties, unions, and the state to deliver emancipation, and less sure about the universal validity of human rights. Conservatives, however, in both France and the United States, have tended to see Foucault not as a grave-digger of the Marxist left and thus a potential ally for a renewal of a right no longer having to define itself in terms of anti-communism — but rather as a dangerous, reckless nihilist responsible for the rise of identity politics.

Why Did Memetics Fail? Comparative Case Study

Although the theory of memetics appeared highly promising at the beginning, it is no longer considered a scientific theory among contemporary evolutionary scholars. This study aims to compare the genealogy of memetics with the historically more successful gene-culture coevolution theory. This comparison is made in order to determine the constraints that emerged during the internal development of the memetics theory that could bias memeticists to work on the ontology of meme units as opposed to hypotheses testing, which was adopted by the gene-culture scholars. I trace this problem back to the diachronic development of memetics to its origin in the gene-centered anti-group-selectionist argument of George C. Williams and Richard Dawkins. The strict adoption of this argument predisposed memeticists with the a priori idea that there is no evolution without discrete units of selection, which in turn, made them dependent on the principal separation of biological and memetic fitness. This separation thus prevented memeticists from accepting an adaptationist view of culture which, on the contrary, allowed gene-culture theorists to attract more scientists to test the hypotheses, creating the historical success of the gene-culture coevolution theory.

Your Brain Chooses What to Let You See

Scientists have long known that our sensory processing must automatically screen out extraneous inputs — otherwise, we couldn’t experience the world as we do. When we look at our surroundings, for instance, our perceived field of view holds steady or moves smoothly with our gaze. But the eye is also constantly making small movements, or saccades; our visual system has to subtract that background jitter from what we see.

“Automatic suppressive types of mechanisms take place … through large swaths of the brain,” said Richard Krauzlis, a neuroscientist at the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. “Basically all over the place.”

And automatic background subtraction, it turns out, can also manifest in intriguing, unexpected ways. Take a counterintuitive finding that Tadin and his colleagues made in 2003: We’re good at perceiving the movements of small objects, but if those objects are simply made bigger, we find it much more difficult to detect their motion.

Recently in Nature Communications, Tadin’s team offered a tantalizing explanation for why this happens: The brain prioritizes the detection of objects that are more important for us to see, and those tend to be smaller. To a hawk hunting for its next meal, a mouse suddenly darting through a field matters more than the swaying motion of the grass and trees around it. As a result, Tadin and his team discovered, the brain suppresses information about the movement of the background — and as a side effect, it has more difficulty perceiving the movements of larger objects, because it treats them as a kind of background, too.

In a nation founded on whiteness, how to really discuss it?

“The more we associate people storming the Capitol and waving Confederate flags with white identity and white supremacy, with a capital W and a capital S, the more we’ll find that many white Americans are going to back away from this,” she says.

That avoidance is precisely the problem, says the Rev. Susan Chorley, a Boston-area pastor.

“This mess has been from the founding of this country. This mess has been in our soil. It’s in our soul,” Chorley says. “It’s everywhere, and we’ve never really completely decided that we will look at it.”

If white people want the future to be different, she says, they have to be willing to look at the past and the present — and talk about it as if the nation depended upon it. Which, many say, it does.

“I think it’s on us,” Chorley says. “We as white people need to be gathering up our white people.”

But getting white Americans to genuinely wrestle with these issues, Jardina says, will be a struggle.

“Are white people willing to confront and have a conversation about the extent to which white racial prejudice and white racism, and the desire to maintain white power in the United States, is part of our political process?” she asks. “I’d say that for the majority of white people, the answer is no, they’re not ready to have that conversation.”

Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?

In bivariate analyses, multiple historical factors were significantly associated with PSA in college including adverse childhood experiences and having experienced unwanted sexual contact before college (for women) and initiation of alcohol, marijuana, and sexual behaviors before age 18. Significant independent risk factors for college PSA included female gender, experiencing unwanted sexual contact before college, first oral sex before age 18, and “hooking up” (e.g., causual sex or sex outside a committed partnership) in high school.

Receipt of school-based sex education promoting refusal skills before age 18 was an independent protective factor; abstinence-only instruction was not. In the ethnographic interviews, students reported variable experiences with sex education before college; many reported it was awkward and poorly delivered.

A history of true civilisation is not one of monuments

Mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others: these are the kind of things that actually go to make civilisations. In which case, the true history of civilisation is only just starting to be written. It might begin with what archaeologists call ‘culture areas’ or ‘interaction spheres’, vast zones of cultural exchange and innovation that deserve a more prominent place in our account of civilisation. In the Middle East, they have deep roots that become visible towards the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 BCE. Thousands of years before the rise of cities (around 4000 BCE), village communities already shared basic notions of social order across the region known as the ‘fertile crescent’. Physical evidence left behind by common forms of domestic life, ritual and hospitality shows us this deep history of civilisation. It’s in some ways much more inspiring than monuments. The most important findings of modern archaeology might in fact be these vibrant and far-flung networks, where others expected to find only backward and isolated ‘tribes’.

Anthropomorphomania and the Rise of the Animal Mind: A Conversation

Povinelli and his coresearchers argue that only humans reason via higher-order, theory-like relational abstractions such as space, time, intentions, ghosts, god, and weight. The latter abstraction, weight (as it exists as a part of human psychology), can be easily brought to mind. Our higher-order theories of weight affect our behavior. For example, we understand that the felt perception of a heavy object (compared to the felt perception of a lighter object) is deeply connected to the heavier object’s relative usefulness for holding down a stack of papers, for throwing through an abandoned window, for hurling at an unwanted intruder, or for smashing open a thick wal-nut shell. Humans instinctually abstract from these disparate perceptual scenarios a theory of how weight functions in the world. While chimps and some other nonhuman animals can and do behave in goal-directed ways that afford them “success” in some of these sce-narios (e.g., successfully lifting heavy objects or successfully cracking nuts), animals are not successful in these tasks because they wield a higher-order concept of weight. Instead, the animal’s achieve their goals via mental processes operating at the level of first-order, percep-tual variables, without the necessity for, or dependency upon, higher- order theories. Animals—even impressively intelligent animals like chimpanzees, elephants, dogs, and crows—do not, necessarily, act the way they act and do the things they do for the same reasons as humans. Thus, crows can fly, but they will never build skyscrapers. Yes, they excel at vocally mimicking sounds from their environment (including human words), but they do not carry on conversations. They can be trained to drop stones into a beaker of water in order to retrieve a food reward, but they will never create and share fables.

How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction – Gabor Maté
An accurate portrayal of Maté’s views, with engaging illustrations

Culture: The Driving Force of Human Cognition

It is often, though sometimes only implicitly, assumed that biological/genetic evolution sets neural substrates, that neural substrates fix cognitive abilities, and that cognitive abilities determine the spectrum of cultural practices exhibited by a biological species. We label this view as the “bottom‐up‐only” view. In this paper we will show that such a “chain of dependence” is much looser than usually assumed, especially as far as recent periods (the last 800,000 years vs. the last 7 million years or more) are considered. We will provide evidence and arguments supporting the idea that cultural innovation may have direct and ascertainable effects both on the cognitive capabilities of populations of hominins (via what we call “cultural exaptation”) and on the neural substrates of the individuals in those populations (via what we call “cultural neural reuse”). Together, cultural exaptation and cultural neural reuse may give raise to a plausible general mechanism for cognitive evolution in which culture is the driving force, thus offering a “top‐down‐also” view of human evolution.

Cultural Exaptation and Cultural Neural Reuse: A Mechanism for the Emergence of Modern Culture and Behavior

On the basis of recent advancements in both neuroscience and archaeology, we propose a plausible biocultural mechanism at the basis of cultural evolution. The proposed mechanism, which relies on the notions of cultural exaptation and cultural neural reuse, may account for the asynchronous, discontinuous, and patchy emergence of innovations around the globe. Cultural exaptation refers to the reuse of previously devised cultural features for new purposes. Cultural neural reuse refers to cases in which exposure to cultural practices induces the formation, activation, and stabilization of new functional and/or structural brain networks during the individual lifespan. The invention of writing is interpreted as a case of cultural exaptation of previous devices to record information, in use since at least the Early Later Stone Age and the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (44,000 years before present). The measurable changes in brain structure and functioning caused by learning to read are proposed as an exemplar case of cultural neural reuse. It is argued that repeated cycles of cultural exaptation, development of appropriate strategies of cultural transmission, and ensuing cultural neural reuse represent the fundamental mechanism that has regulated the cultural evolution of our lineage. A general predictive model of when and under which circumstances the proposed mechanism should be expected to occur is proposed, and the relationship of our mechanism with gene-culture coevolutionary models is discussed.

Wednesday Round Up #42

This round up brings research papers, but first a taste of sublime.

Chasing the Sublime
The video features one of the better definitions of human agency I’ve heard – speaking to the power of choice, experience, love – as well as being a gorgeous short film itself about swimming and friendship.

“It’s the getting in that we find hard, not the being in. That step forward from the shoreline, Carrie calls it her Eeyore moment, when we stand on the water’s edge, warm and dry and regret what’s ahead. But we love the intensity… [and] we will continue to seek these discomforts, to get cold and too tired, to find and overcome fears, but simultaneously, to experience what feels like life’s biggest freedom, by the simplest of choices, sink or swim, float or flounder. To transform from ordinary to briefly extraordinary.”

Research Papers

From Urban Stress to Neurourbanism: How Should We Research City Well-Being?

Urbanicity has long been associated with stress, anxiety, and mental disorders. A new field of neurourbanism addresses these issues, applying neuroscience laboratory methods to tackle global urban problems and promote happier and healthier cities. Exploratory studies have trialed psychophysiological measurement beyond laboratories, capitalizing on the availability of biosensing technologies to capture geo-located physiological markers of emotional responses to urban environments.

This article reviews the emerging conceptual and methodological debates for urban stress research. City authorities increasingly favor new data-driven and technology-enabled approaches to governing smart cities, with the aim that governments will be enabled to pursue evidence-based urban well-being policies. Yet there are few signs that our cities are undergoing the transformative, structural changes necessary to promote well-being.

To face this urgent challenge and to interrogate the technological promises of our future cities, this article advances the conceptual framework of critical neurogeography and illustrates its application to a comparative international study of urban workers. It is argued that biosensing data can be used to elicit socially and politically relevant narrative data that centers on body–mind–environment relations but exceeds the individualistic and often behaviorist confines that have come to be associated with the quantifying technologies of the emerging field of neurourbanism.

On stress and subjectivity

This article offers a critical analysis of contemporary mainstream stress research, focusing particularly on the way subjectivity is conceptualized. The article shows in detail how researchers in areas from biology to sociology and psychology commonly split stress into two concepts, namely objective, environmental “stressors” and subjective responses. Simultaneously, most research also readily acknowledges that stressors are only stressors insofar as the individual perceives or appraises them to be so. At the heart of stress research today, this paper shows, is a situation wherein the binary between the “objective” stressor and the “subjective” response is dependent upon the very subjectivity that is parsed out and cast aside. This paper critically examines this divide and discusses some possible ways forward for exploring subjectivity vis-à-vis contemporary stress research, arguing for the need for entangled and critical interdisciplinary explorations of subjectivity and stress.

Brains that Fire Together Wire Together: Interbrain Plasticity Underlies Learning in Social Interactions

Social interactions are powerful determinants of learning. Yet the field of neuroplasticity is deeply rooted in probing changes occurring in synapses, brain structures, and networks within an individual brain. Here I synthesize disparate findings on network neuroplasticity and mechanisms of social interactions to propose a new approach for understanding interaction-based learning that focuses on the dynamics of interbrain coupling.

I argue that the facilitation effect of social interactions on learning may be explained by interbrain plasticity, defined here as the short- and long-term experience-dependent changes in interbrain coupling. The interbrain plasticity approach may radically change our understanding of how we learn in social interactions.

Genetic Causation in Complex Regulatory Systems: An Integrative Dynamic Perspective

The logic of genetic discovery has changed little over time, but the focus of biology is shifting from simple genotype–phenotype relationships to complex metabolic, physiological, developmental, and behavioral traits. In light of this, the traditional reductionist view of individual genes as privileged difference‐making causes of phenotypes is re‐examined. The scope and nature of genetic effects in complex regulatory systems, in which dynamics are driven by regulatory feedback and hierarchical interactions across levels of organization are considered.

This review argues that it is appropriate to treat genes as specific actual difference‐makers for the molecular regulation of gene expression. However, they are often neither stable, proportional, nor specific as causes of the overall dynamic behavior of regulatory networks. Dynamical models, properly formulated and validated, provide the tools to probe cause‐and‐effect relationships in complex biological systems, allowing to go beyond the limitations of genetic reductionism to gain an integrative understanding of the causal processes underlying complex phenotypes.

A Technical Critique of Some Parts of the Free Energy Principle

We summarize the original formulation of the free energy principle and highlight some technical issues. We discuss how these issues affect related results involving generalised coordinates and, where appropriate, mention consequences for and reveal, up to now unacknowledged, differences from newer formulations of the free energy principle. In particular, we reveal that various definitions of the “Markov blanket” proposed in different works are not equivalent. We show that crucial steps in the free energy argument, which involve rewriting the equations of motion of systems with Markov blankets, are not generally correct without additional (previously unstated) assumptions. We prove by counterexamples that the original free energy lemma, when taken at face value, is wrong.

We show further that this free energy lemma, when it does hold, implies the equality of variational density and ergodic conditional density. The interpretation in terms of Bayesian inference hinges on this point, and we hence conclude that it is not sufficiently justified. Additionally, we highlight that the variational densities presented in newer formulations of the free energy principle and lemma are parametrised by different variables than in older works, leading to a substantially different interpretation of the theory. Note that we only highlight some specific problems in the discussed publications. These problems do not rule out conclusively that the general ideas behind the free energy principle are worth pursuing.

A dynamical approach to the phenomenology of body memory: Past interactions can shape present capacities without neuroplasticity.

Body memory comprises the acquired dispositions that constitute an individual’s present capacities and experiences. Phenomenological accounts of body memory describe its effects using dynamical metaphors: it is conceived of as curvatures in an agent–environment relational field, leading to attracting and repelling forces that shape ongoing sensorimotor interaction. This relational perspective stands in tension with traditional cognitive science, which conceives of the underlying basis of memory in representational-internal terms: it is the encoding and storing of informational content via structural changes inside the brain.

We propose that this tension can be resolved by replacing the traditional approach with the dynamical approach to cognitive science. Specifically, we present three of our simulation models of embodied cognition that can help us to rethink the basis of several types of body memory. The upshot is that, at least in principle, there is no need to explain their basis in terms of content or to restrict their basis to neuroplasticity alone. Instead these models support the perspective developed by phenomenology: body memory is a relational property of a whole brain–body–environment system that emerges out of its history of interactions.

Systematic detection of brain protein-coding genes under positive selection during primate evolution and their roles in cognition

The human brain differs from that of other primates, but the genetic basis of these differences remains unclear. We investigated the evolutionary pressures acting on almost all human protein-coding genes (N = 11,667; 1:1 orthologs in primates) based on their divergence from those of early hominins, such as Neanderthals, and non-human primates. We confirm that genes encoding brain-related proteins are among the most strongly conserved protein-coding genes in the human genome. Combining our evolutionary pressure metrics for the protein-coding genome with recent data sets, we found that this conservation applied to genes functionally associated with the synapse and expressed in brain structures such as the prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum.

Conversely, several genes presenting signatures commonly associated with positive selection appear as causing brain diseases or conditions, such as micro/macrocephaly, Joubert syndrome, dyslexia, and autism. Among those, a number of DNA damage response genes associated with microcephaly in humans such as BRCA1, NHEJ1, TOP3A, and RNF168 show strong signs of positive selection and might have played a role in human brain size expansion during primate evolution. We also showed that cerebellum granule neurons express a set of genes also presenting signatures of positive selection and that may have contributed to the emergence of fine motor skills and social cognition in humans. This resource is available online and can be used to estimate evolutionary constraints acting on a set of genes and to explore their relative contributions to human traits.

*The above paper provides a counter-intuitive result, where most theories assume positive selection on genes for the brain. But this result highlights how much having a well-functioning brain is for being a reproductively successful human ancestor. Given the conservation, it also implies that getting this wrong early in life really matters – humans need a well-functioning brain as they develop, not just when they’re developed.

Back to Square One: from Embodied Experiences in Utero to Theories of Consciousness

This paper argues that consciousness science may be put on a fruitful track for its future evolution by endorsing a bottom-up developmental perspective. Specifically, we propose to go back to ‘square one’ and to examine the nature of subjective experiences as they emerge in early human life, in utero. We build upon the observation that current theories of consciousness tacitly endorse an adult-centric and vision-biased approach in tackling the
problem of subjective experiences.

Indeed, one basic yet overlooked aspect of current discussions on consciousness is that in humans, experiences and experiencing subjects first develop within another human body. Hence, this observation must be taken into account and incorporated by current theories of consciousness. We propose to zoom out from the classical conundrum of the relationship consciousness and its neural correlates. Rather we see consciousness necessarily related to experiences and from there to embodied experiencers.

Given that experiencers are subjects actively engaging with an environment in order to maintain self-organisation and self-preservation, consciousness cannot be addressed in isolation from self-consciousness. We make use of the ‘iceberg’ metaphor to argue that in order to understand the nature of the visible ‘tip’ of our conscious experiences one needs to go back to its pre-reflective and bodily roots. This is because the basis of the ‘experiential iceberg’ is conceptually and ontologically prior to its ‘tip’. Examining the primitive and prereflective basis of the iceberg may teach us something essential not only about its visible accessible side (i.e. the contents of conscious experiences that we can explicitly attend to and report), but also about its entire structure as a whole. We conclude with some implications of our hypothesis for future research for consciousness studies.

The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure

What is social pressure, and how could it be adaptive to conform to others’ expectations? Existing accounts highlight the importance of reputation and social sanctions. Yet, conformist behavior is multiply determined: sometimes, a person desires social regard, but at other times she feels obligated to behave a certain way, regardless of any reputational benefit—i.e. she feels a sense of should. We develop a formal model of this sense of should, beginning from a minimal set of biological premises: that the brain is predictive, that prediction error has a metabolic cost, and that metabolic costs are prospectively avoided.

It follows that unpredictable environments impose metabolic costs, and in social environments these costs can be reduced by conforming to others’ expectations. We elaborate on a sense of should’s benefits and subjective experience, its likely developmental trajectory, and its relation to embodied mental inference. From this individualistic metabolic strategy, the emergent dynamics unify social phenomenon ranging from status quo biases, to communication and motivated cognition. We offer new solutions to long-studied problems (e.g. altruistic behavior), and show how compliance with arbitrary social practices is compelled without explicit sanctions. Social pressure may provide a foundation in individuals on which societies can be built.

Neural circuits of social behaviors: innate yet flexible

Social behaviors, such as mating, fighting, and parenting, are fundamental for survival of any vertebrate species. All members of a species express social behaviors in a stereotypical and species-specific way without training because of developmentally hardwired neural circuits dedicated to these behaviors.

Despite being innate, social behaviors are flexible. The readiness to interact with a social target or engage in specific social acts can vary widely based on reproductive state, social experience, and many other internal and external factors. Such high flexibility gives vertebrates the ability to release the relevant behavior at the right moment and toward the right target. This maximizes reproductive success while minimizing the cost and risk associated with behavioral expression.

Decades of research have revealed the basic neural circuits underlying each innate social behavior. The neural mechanisms that support behavioral plasticity have also started to emerge. Here we provide an overview of these social behaviors and their underlying neural circuits and then discuss in detail recent findings regarding the neural processes that support the flexibility of innate social behaviors.

Artificial Intelligence is stupid and causal reasoning won’t fix it

Artificial Neural Networks have reached Grandmaster and even super-human performance across a variety of games: from those involving perfect-information (such as Go) to those involving imperfect-information (such as Starcraft). Such technological developments from AI-labs have ushered concomitant applications across the world of business – where an AI brand tag is fast becoming ubiquitous. A corollary of such widespread commercial deployment is that when AI gets things wrong – an autonomous vehicle crashes; a chatbot exhibits racist behaviour; automated credit scoring processes discriminate on gender etc. – there are often significant financial, legal and brand consequences and the incident becomes major news.

As Judea Pearl sees it, the underlying reason for such mistakes is that, ‘all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just curve fitting’. The key, Judea Pearl suggests, is to replace reasoning by association with causal-reasoning – the ability to infer causes from observed phenomena. It is a point that was echoed by Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis in a recent piece for the New York Times: ‘we need to stop building computer systems that merely get better and better at detecting statistical patterns in data sets – often using an approach known as Deep Learning – and start building computer systems that from the moment of their assembly innately grasp three basic concepts: time, space and causality’.

In this paper, foregrounding what in 1949 Gilbert Ryle termed a category mistake, I will offer an alternative explanation for AI errors: it is not so much that AI machinery cannot grasp causality, but that AI machinery – qua computation – cannot understand anything at all.

Beyond Correlation versus Causation: Multi-brain Neuroscience Needs Explanation

Recent advances in brain sciences have enabled the co-recording of multiple interacting brains (i.e., hyperscanning [1]). This technique has led to the discovery of inter-brain synchrony (IBS) between people involved in social and interactive scenarios. In a recent article, Novembre and Iannetti argued that studies using hyperscanning to understand social behaviors are crucial but limited to correlational analysis [2]. They further developed the idea that the causal role of IBS can only be apprehended through multi-brain stimulation (MBS).

Although we agree with Novembre and Iannetti that MBS is one of the most promising methods for investigating inter-brain coupling in the future, we disagree on their radical claim that it constitutes ‘the only validated empirical approach capable of teasing apart the mechanistic from the epiphenomenal interpretation of inter-brain synchrony’. In this Letter, we defend the idea that explaining IBS in terms of causal mechanisms is possible through adequate experimental designs and computational tools, with empirical approaches ranging from multi-brains (hyperscanning) to single-brain (classic social neuroscience) recordings, and even no-brain (i.e., in silico computational social neuroscience).

What nervous systems do: early evolution, input–output, and the skin brain thesis

Nervous systems are standardly interpreted as information processing input–output devices. They receive environmental information from their sensors as input, subsequently process or adjust this information, and use the result to control effectors, providing output. Through-conducting activity is here the key organizational feature of nervous systems. In this paper, we argue that this input–output interpretation is not the most fundamental feature of nervous system organization. Building on biological work on the early evolution of nervous systems, we provide an alternative proposal: the skin brain thesis (SBT).

The SBT postulates that early nervous systems evolved to organize a new multicellular effector: muscle tissue, the primary source of animal motility. Early nervous systems provided a new way of inducing and coordinating self-organized contractile activity across an extensive muscle surface underneath the skin. The main connectivity in such nervous systems runs across a spread out effector and is transverse to sensor-effector signaling. The SBT therefore constitutes a fundamental conceptual shift in understanding both nervous system operation and what nervous systems are. Nervous systems are foremost spatial organizers that turn large multi-cellular animal bodies into dynamic self-moving units. At the end, we briefly discuss some theoretical connections to central issues within the behavioral, cognitive and neurosciences.

Defiant hospitality: a grounded theory study of harm reduction psychotherapy

Harm reduction psychotherapy (HRP)is an approach to providing psychotherapy to people who use substances in which abstinence is considered neither a prerequisite to treatment nor its predominant mark of success. There is to date scant empirical research on this clinical approach despite its decades-long practice. Ourstudy aims to spur further investigations by asking:1) what are the basic building blocks of HRP; and (2) what theory might explain how its core strategies are unified?

Eight leading HRP proponents and practitioners participated in semi-structured interviews to explore the nature of their work and how they came to it. Through an analysis of the interviews guided by grounded theory, we propose an explanatory model of HRP as practiced in the U.S. In this model, practitioners, informed by an ethos of defiant hospitality, deploy a variety of therapeutic processes whose combined, complex effects are captured in the phrase making room, which conveys opening up space while simultaneously providing safe enclosure.

Making room is operationalized in processes comprising: inviting, meeting at, staying with, holding, reframing substance use, leveraging change from within, supporting agency, and signaling the limits. We discuss the model as deeply informed by its socio-historical roots within treatment spaces that participants experienced as failing to meet their clients’ needs. We also consider HRP’s implications for expanding the reach and capacity of addiction care for the majority of individuals with substance use disorders who may initially be unwilling or unable to abstain. Lastly, we describe its potential for furthering the field’s understanding of therapeutic practice with marginalized populations.

Communicating artificial neural networks develop efficient color-naming systems

Words categorize the semantic fields they refer to in ways that maximize communication accuracy while minimizing complexity. Focusing on the well-studied color domain, we show that artificial neural networks trained with deep-learning techniques to play a discrimination game develop communication systems whose distribution on the accuracy/complexity plane closely matches that of human languages. The observed variation among emergent color-naming systems is explained by different degrees of discriminative need, of the sort that might also characterize different human communities.

Like human languages, emergent systems show a preference for relatively low-complexity solutions, even at the cost of imperfect communication. We demonstrate next that the nature of the emergent systems crucially depends on communication being discrete (as is human word usage). When continuous message passing is allowed, emergent systems become more complex and eventually less efficient. Our study suggests that efficient semantic categorization is a general property of discrete communication systems, not limited to human language. It suggests moreover that it is exactly the discrete nature of such systems that, acting as a bottleneck, pushes them toward low complexity and optimal efficiency.

Tweetorial on our new paper, “Dump the Dimorphism: Comprehensive synthesis of brain studies finds few male-female differences beyond size.”

6/ Men have bigger bodies and average 11% larger brains. But other M/F differences are a PRODUCT OF SIZE, NOT SEX.
7/ These include: 1) gray/white matter ratio is 6% higher in women; 2) inter- vs intrahemispheric connectivity ratio also higher F>M. But both ratios vary comparably WITHIN SEX, depending on head size.
8/ Meaning the difference between the avg. man and woman is also found between small- and large-headed men (ditto among women).

Paper itself: Dump the “dimorphism”: Comprehensive synthesis of human brain studies reveals few male-female differences beyond size

With the explosion of neuroimaging, differences between male and female brains have been exhaustively analyzed. Here we synthesize three decades of human MRI and postmortem data, emphasizing meta-analyses and other large studies, which collectively reveal few reliable sex/gender differences and a history of unreplicated claims. Males’ brains are larger than females’ from birth, stabilizing around 11% in adults. This size difference accounts for other reproducible findings: higher white/gray matter ratio, intra- versus interhemispheric connectivity, and regional cortical and subcortical volumes in males.

But when structural and lateralization differences are present independent of size, sex/gender explains only about 1% of total variance. Connectome differences and multivariate sex/gender prediction are largely based on brain size, and perform poorly across diverse populations. Task-based fMRI has especially failed to find reproducible activation differences between men and women in verbal, spatial or emotion processing due to high rates of false discovery. Overall, male/female brain differences appear trivial and population-specific. The human brain is not “sexually dimorphic.”

Determining the effects of training duration on the behavioral expression of habitual control in humans: a multi-laboratory investigation

It has been suggested that there are two distinct and parallel mechanisms for controlling instrumental behavior in mammals: goal-directed actions and habits. To gain an understanding of how these two systems interact to control behavior, it is essential to characterize the mechanisms by which the balance between these systems is influenced by experience. Studies in rodents have shown that the amount of training governs the relative expression of these two systems: behavior is goal-directed following moderate training, but the more extensively an instrumental action is trained, the more it becomes habitual.

It is less clear whether humans exhibit similar training effects on the expression of goal-directed and habitual behavior, as human studies have reported contradictory findings. To tackle these contradictory findings, we formed a consortium, where four laboratories undertook a pre-registered experimental induction of habits by manipulating the amount of training. There was no statistical evidence for a main effect of the amount of training on the formation and expression of habits. However, exploratory analyses suggest a moderating effect of the affective component of stress on the impact of training over habit expression. Participants who were lower in affective stress appeared to be initially goal-directed, but became habitual with increased training, whereas participants who were high in affective stress were already habitual even after moderate training, thereby manifesting insensitivity to overtraining effects. Our findings highlight the importance of the role of moderating variables such as individual differences in stress and anxiety when studying the experimental induction of habits in humans.

Wednesday Round Up #41

Ta-Nehisi Coates on words that don’t belong to everyone

Interview between Ian Tyndell and Kevin Mitchell

Fascinating and wide-ranging interview on psychology, behavioural genetics, & neuroscience with geneticist and neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell @WiringTheBrain and author of Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are

What Professors Can Learn from YouTubers

A short video summarizing some tricks for engaging educational videos and lectures that are inspired by YouTubers.

Sounding the Alarm for White America — and Maybe the Rest of Us

Conceptually, a distinction of these additional analyses is their focus on all Americans, which Case and Deaton intentionally do not pursue. This narrower framing seems mismatched with their recommendations for action. A key solution recommended in the book— universal health care—has encountered persistent resistance, in part because, as Case and Deaton note, many White people find these approaches unacceptable because they benefit Black people. This racial disjuncture would seem to put us in a corner. Fixing health care so that it is available, accessible, affordable, and of high quality would benefit more White people than Black people. As Nikole Hannah-Jones points out in her Pulitzer Prize–winning essay for the 1619 Project, the fight for Black rights resulted in universal benefits—for everyone.

Teaching Sensory Anthropology
From 2014 – and it still works well in getting students and teachers to think about how to teach about the sensorial as part of anthropology, particularly ethnography.

Small-scale sensory ethnography project

Total time: 40 minutes aprox, including activity guidelines, data gathering, and group discussion.

1. Split into small groups. Take a walk around the University campus. Record your surroundings and what you encounter. Each group should focus on a different sense where possible (smell, touch, sight…) and record the stimuli provided to this particular sense.

Note: Experiment with your recording methods! You can use photography, notes, audio recordings, material collection, video, drawing, collage, etc.). Feel free to use unconventional modes of representation for recording a specific type of sensory experience. You can use equipment from the media lab or improvise with whatever tools you have at hand (e.g. your phone or color pens) (15 minutes).

2. Each group should present findings and explain (15 minutes):

‘Useful Delusions’ Examines How Beliefs Can Be Powerful In Positive And Negative Ways

On the collective benefits of self-deception:

When we think about very large things in our lives, things like the nation state, for example, it’s difficult to conceive of these things as delusions. But of course, the nation really is a human invention. Nations exist because large numbers of people believe they exist, the people who live within the nation and people who live outside the nation. A nation really is a shared belief that we have agreed upon collectively. So this raises the question when we think about visiting a place like Arlington National Cemetery where the Americans who have lost their lives in combat are memorialized and remembered, the question that arises is why would people give their lives for something that is at its heart a human construction, a human invention?

Why would you be willing to sacrifice your life for something that has been invented by other human beings? And the answer, of course, is it lies in the brain’s very powerful need for connection with others, for feeling like we’re part of a larger group. And so our brains are designed in some ways to form tribes with others, to form connections with others, to stand by one another. And the willingness that we have to go into battle to die for one another is perhaps the highest example of ways in which our shared beliefs can produce things that, in fact are both wonderful and powerful.

A Scientist’s Pink Cast Leads To Discovery About How The Brain Responds To Disability

Daily scans of Dr. Nico Dosenbach’s brain showed that circuits controlling his immobilized arm disconnected from the body’s motor system within 48 hours.

But during the same period, his brain began to produce new signals seemingly meant to keep those circuits intact and ready to reconnect quickly with the unused limb.

Dosenbach, an assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, repeated the experiment on two colleagues (their casts were purple and blue) and got the same result. In all three people, the disconnected brain circuits quickly reconnected after the cast was removed.

The study, published online in the journal Neuron, shows that “within a few days, we can rearrange some of the most fundamental, most basic functional relationships of the brain,” Dosenbach says. It suggests it is possible to reverse brain changes caused by disuse of a limb after a stroke or brain injury.

The results of the study appear to support the use of something called constraint-induced movement therapy, or CIMT, which helps people – usually children — regain the use of a disabled arm or hand by constraining the other, healthy limb with a sling, splint or cast.

How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation

I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?

But Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

Shaun Gallagher: Action and Interaction. Reviewed by Horacio Banega

Gallagher lays out his Interaction Theory in chapter 5. That theory holds that intersubjective understanding takes place through embodied practices. Since intersubjetive understanding involves social cognition, it is where the problems social psychology deals with arise, among them bias in the perception of members who do not belong to our group of reference. In this chapter, Gallagher clears up misunderstandings regarding his critique of mindreading and the nature of mental states. His target is the classic notion that mental states are private internal events that others have no access to, or that the only access possible is through inference or simulation on the basis of our own mental states. If that is the basis for the theory of mindreading, Gallagher affirms that it is rarely needed in our daily interactions. The notion of the mind Gallagher defends is the notion of an embodied mind geared to action and enactively contextualized. This conceptualization is “non-orthodox” (99) and difficult to reconcile with the notion of mental states as private events.

The science of terrible men

The pioneers of social genetics were racists and eugenicists: should we give up on the science they founded altogether? …

This entire line of research uses statistical tools and scientific insights from Fisher and other proponents of eugenics, such as the Victorian-era scientist Francis Galton (who redefined the study of heredity as the study of similarity between relatives) and the early 20th-century mathematician Karl Pearson (who is the namesake of the Pearson correlation coefficient). And, by connecting genetic differences between people to socially valued life outcomes, this line of research also risks entrenching their ideologies about human inferiority and superiority.

‘The ketamine blew my mind’: can psychedelics cure addiction and depression?

His parents were evangelists; Grant’s father was a teacher and lay preacher, and his mother ran a nursery from home. They were also fosterers who, over the span of their marriage, gave a home to more than 200 children. “Growing up, love was never in short supply,” Grant says. What was in short supply was his parents’ attention. “They had a lot of commitments, they were very busy people,” he says. “I suppose what I realised in that therapy session was that I’d felt overlooked as a child and that had caused me pain.” Over the years, that pain crystallised, and alcohol became a crutch. “I could see it was the root of the negative emotions that drove my drinking, and a lot of other bad habits and behaviours.” He says it’s a realisation he might have taken years to come to with standard talking therapy. “It wasn’t even on my radar, so it blew my mind. To understand myself and my drinking, and why I behaved the way I did… With the ketamine therapy I got there in a few weeks. I feel free.”

Eight of Literature’s Most Powerful Inventions—and the Neuroscience Behind How They Work

The Serenity Elevator

This element of storytelling is a turning around of satire’s tools (including insinuation, parody and irony) so that instead of laughing at someone else, you smile at yourself. It was developed by the Greek sage Socrates in the 5th-century B.C. as a means of promoting tranquility—even in the face of excruciating physical pain. And such was its power that Socrates’ student Plato would claim that it allowed Socrates to peacefully endure the terrible agony of swallowing hemlock.

Don’t try that at home. But modern research has held up Plato’s claim that the invention can have analgesic effects—and more importantly, that it can convey your brain into the serene state of feeling like it’s floating above mortal cares. If Plato’s dialogues are bit outdated for your reading style, you can find newer versions in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Tina Fey’s “30 Rock.”

Wednesday Round Up #40

Neural prosthetics: understanding reach planning

First understanding the task to then be able to help people with paralysis have functional prosthetics.

What Popular Culture Misunderstands About Addiction

With medications perpetually excluded or diminished, what audiences see instead is that, in order to recover from opioid addiction, one must endure days of withdrawal, and then it’s off to group counseling, tough love, and a life of 12-step meetings. (To be clear, 12-step groups don’t consider themselves treatment; they’re nonprofessional, free-of-charge self-help groups, and indeed, that support helps many.) Usually, all this takes place at a posh “rehab” center, which the show BoJack Horseman effectively satirizes as quackery for the rich.

The ideal marker of “success” in this framework is total abstinence from all psychoactive substances, which can even extend to prescription drugs that are medically indicated. Caffeine and cigarettes, the socially acceptable signifiers of recovery, are of course perfectly acceptable (tobacco kills over 10 times more people than heroin). In The Sopranos, when Tony’s protégé Christopher (Michael Imperioli) checks into treatment after accidentally suffocating his fiancé’s dog while nodding out on heroin, the staff confiscate all of his Milky Ways and Snickers bars. Temperance is taken to extreme levels of abstemiousness, recalling a parody of a Beverly Hills rehab center in Arrested Development named Austerity, whose motto is “A Full-Service Way to Live Without.”

AnthroTools: An R Package for Cross-Cultural Ethnographic Data Analysis

As large-scale collaborative, cross-cultural ethnographic research becomes easier and easier to realize, certain ethnographic methods and analyses should be correspondingly more available, inviting, and accommodating. We have therefore created AnthroTools, a package for the free, open-source language R, with a variety of tools and functions suitable for both multi-factor free-list analysis and Bayesian cultural consensus modeling.

Free-list data elicitation is a simple technique for ethnographic research. However, especially for cross-cultural free-list data, background preparation is considerable and often requires specific software. In addition, although current cultural consensus analysis tools offer very sophisticated analyses, they also either require specialized software or have computationally taxing methods. AnthroTools expedites these techniques, rapidly performs diagnostics, and prepares data for further analysis. In this article, we briefly discuss what this package offers cross-cultural researchers and provide basic examples of some of its functions.

Epidemiology and Race – Conference Videos

Boston University’s School of Public Health recently hosted a public conversation on race and epidemiology. You can access Part 1 and Part 2 – each with great content – through the above link.

The Four Basic Truths of Macroeconomics

A fourth thing to know is that non-monetary shocks, if they are large enough, can also create recessions or depressions. Consider the oil price shock of 1973, the current pandemic, or bad harvests in earlier agrarian societies. Central banks can partially stabilize such shocks, but they cannot erase them.

I believe an overwhelming majority of macroeconomists would largely agree with these propositions, even if they might place the emphasis differently. And these four propositions are enough to elevate macroeconomics into the realm of the essential.

The Value of Truth

Interest in how knowledge is acquired and distributed in social groups has long been a substantive field of inquiry in the social sciences. But with notable exceptions—such as W. E. B. DuBois, John Dewey, Thomas Kuhn, and Michel Foucault—twentieth-century philosophers mostly focused on the individual: their central concern was how I know, not how we know. But that began to change near the end of the century, as feminist theorists such as Linda Alcoff and Black philosophers such as Charles Mills called attention to not only the social dimensions of knowledge but also its opposite, ignorance. In addition, and working largely independent of these traditions, analytic philosophers, led by Alvin Goldman, launched inquiries into questions of testimony (when should we trust what others tell us), group cognition, and disagreement between peers and experts.

The overall result has been a shift in philosophical attention toward questions of how groups of people decide they know things. This attention, not surprisingly, is now increasingly focused on how the digital and the political intersect to alter how we produce and consume information. This interest is on display in Cailin O’Conner and James Weatherall’s recent book The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (2019), as well as in C. Thi Nguyen’s work on the distinction between echo chambers (where members actively distrust “outside” sources) and epistemic bubbles (where members just lack relevant information). These examples highlight how philosophy can contribute to our most urgent cultural questions about how we come to believe what we think we know.

Discrimination Against the Mentally Ill by Medical Professionals

Before talking about the case that tops that, there is another tragic and preventable death in the same city but where the bias was towards mental illness and away from a medical problem. A young university student planning on going into medicine came out of a downtown Mosque one evening with his family. He spotted two young thugs harassing an old man and he went to the aid of the old man and chased the thugs. One of them turned around and shot the rescuer. When the paramedics arrived, they detected a small entry wound in his abdomen, little blood and decided he had been shot with a pellet or BB gun. It was a 22 and it severed two internal arteries.

The paramedics took there time and tried to convince the young man that he was alright even though he was demonstrating considerable distress. the distress they dismissed as his acting. He began flailing and they told him to stop and after wasting a half hour, they dragged him into the ambulance and restrained him. They decided to take him to the Emergency psychiatry unit rather than to the trauma centre which was much closer. He died by the time they got to the hospital, the paramedics were fired and are now being tried for neglecting to provide the necessities of life.

There’s a Better Way to Parent: Less Yelling, Less Praise

At one point in her new book, the NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff suggests that parents consider throwing out most of the toys they’ve bought for their kids. It’s an extreme piece of advice, but the way Doucleff frames it, it seems entirely sensible: “Kids spent two hundred thousand years without these items,” she writes.

Her deeply researched book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, contains many moments like this, in which an American child-rearing strategy comes away looking at best bizarre and at worst counterproductive. “Our culture often has things backward when it comes to kids,” she writes.

Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.

Clinical depression as the sports injury of academia

Academia is like an entire sports league, playing far below its potential

Imagine if a professional sports team invested time and money into recruiting the most talented players it could get, but didn’t hire a team doctor or physiotherapist. Imagine if getting injured was considered a sign of being unsuited for professional-level play, and that as a result players tried to hide their injuries and to avoid requesting treatment. Imagine if around 40% of the junior players, and an unknown but non-trivial proportion of the senior players, sustained injuries that impaired their performance. Players were sent links to websites containing tips about self-care for injury prevention, but to little effect.

The team would end up performing much worse than if the players had remained in good health. If all the other teams were like that too, then nobody would know what they were missing out on. The status quo of systemic and chronic injury would seem normal. That would be how things were, and how they always had been.

That Is Not How Your Brain Works

Myth number one is that specific parts of the human brain have specific psychological jobs. According to this myth, the brain is like a collection of puzzle pieces, each with a dedicated mental function. One puzzle piece is for vision, another is for memory, a third is for emotions, and so on. This view of the brain became popular in the 19th century, when it was called phrenology. Its practitioners believed they could discern your personality by measuring bumps on your skull. Phrenology was discredited by better data, but the general idea was never fully abandoned.2

Today, we know the brain isn’t divided into puzzle pieces with dedicated psychological functions. Instead, the human brain is a massive network of neurons.3 Most neurons have multiple jobs, not a single psychological purpose.4 For example, neurons in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex are regularly involved in memory, emotion, decision-making, pain, moral judgments, imagination, attention, and empathy.

What Darwin’s ‘Descent of Man’ got wrong on sex and race — and why it matters

The authors of a book marking the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man” discuss “a most interesting problem” — namely how the naturalist’s fundamental misconceptions on sex and race still shape society.

“Embodied cognitive science with Professor Tom Froese”

“What is the mind? Traditionally, cognitive science has approached this question in terms of the hypothesis of a physical symbol system: the mind/brain is a computer, and cognition is computation. More recent approaches to cognitive science have questioned the adequacy of this hypothesis and have begun to advance alternative frameworks that substantially broaden the basis of the mind, leading to the rise of embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive (4E) cognition. These approaches develop in different ways a shared core commitment to the claim that agent-environment interaction is a foundational part of cognition, rather than just a secondary product of cognition. Together these approaches are broadly known as embodied cognitive science.”