Wednesday Round Up #53

Excerpt from Jack Gilbert’s Poem “Moreover”

What we are given is taken away,
but we manage to keep it secretly.
We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation. We are gleaners who fill
the barn for the winter that comes on.

America Has a Drinking Problem

Still, cohesion would have been essential, and this is the core of Slingerland’s argument: Bonding is necessary to human society, and alcohol has been an essential means of our bonding. Compare us with our competitive, fractious chimpanzee cousins. Placing hundreds of unrelated chimps in close quarters for several hours would result in “blood and dismembered body parts,” Slingerland notes—not a party with dancing, and definitely not collaborative stone-lugging.

Human civilization requires “individual and collective creativity, intensive cooperation, a tolerance for strangers and crowds, and a degree of openness and trust that is entirely unmatched among our closest primate relatives.” It requires us not only to put up with one another, but to become allies and friends.

As to how alcohol assists with that process, Slingerland focuses mostly on its suppression of prefrontal-cortex activity, and how resulting disinhibition may allow us to reach a more playful, trusting, childlike state…

Sayette, for his part, has spent much of the past 20 years trying to get to the bottom of a related question: why social drinking can be so rewarding. In a 2012 study, he and Creswell divided 720 strangers into groups, then served some groups vodka cocktails and other groups nonalcoholic cocktails. Compared with people who were served nonalcoholic drinks, the drinkers appeared significantly happier, according to a range of objective measures. Maybe more important, they vibed with one another in distinctive ways. They experienced what Sayette calls “golden moments,” smiling genuinely and simultaneously at one another. Their conversations flowed more easily, and their happiness appeared infectious. Alcohol, in other words, helped them enjoy one another more.

Uri Hasson (Princeton) 2: Storytelling and Memories: How the Act of Storytelling Shapes our Minds

Uri Hasson explores how brain activity is shared between listeners of the same story, and how those shared neural responses are coupled to and shaped by the neural activity in the storyteller’s brain.

How does your brain change with each story that you hear? How can storytelling shape your memories? In this talk, Dr. Uri Hasson explores how brain activity is shared between listeners of the same story, and how those shared neural responses are coupled to and shaped by the neural activity in the storyteller’s brain.

The Brain-Changing Magic of New Experiences

After previous studies with animal subjects found that new experiences are beneficial for brain development, a group of researchers attempted a similar experiment in humans. They enlisted subjects in New York City and Miami and tracked GPS data on their phones, while texting them every other day to ask about their mood. The study was conducted pre-pandemic and published in Nature Neuroscience in May 2020.

“What we found was that for every person, on days when they displayed greater exploration, greater “roaming entropy”, they reported feeling happier. It’s as simple as that,” said co-author Dr. Aaron Heller of the University of Miami. His team then did a more nuanced analysis in which they collected how many new places their subjects visited. “The experience of novelty, or going to places you had never been before, actually seemed to have an even larger association with positive emotion on that day.”

Long-term gene–culture coevolution and the human evolutionary transition

It has been suggested that the human species may be undergoing an evolutionary transition in individuality (ETI). But there is disagreement about how to apply the ETI framework to our species, and whether culture is implicated as either cause or consequence. Long-term gene–culture coevolution (GCC) is also poorly understood. Some have argued that culture steers human evolution, while others proposed that genes hold culture on a leash. We review the literature and evidence on long-term GCC in humans and find a set of common themes.

First, culture appears to hold greater adaptive potential than genetic inheritance and is probably driving human evolution. The evolutionary impact of culture occurs mainly through culturally organized groups, which have come to dominate human affairs in recent millennia. Second, the role of culture appears to be growing, increasingly bypassing genetic evolution and weakening genetic adaptive potential. Taken together, these findings suggest that human long-term GCC is characterized by an evolutionary transition in inheritance (from genes to culture) which entails a transition in individuality (from genetic individual to cultural group). Thus, research on GCC should focus on the possibility of an ongoing transition in the human inheritance system.

Anthropology and the study of contradictions

Contradictions constitute one fundamental aspect of human life. Humans are steeped in contradictory thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. In this debate, five anthropologists adopt an individual-centered and phenomenological perspective on contradictions. How can one live with them? How to describe them from an anthropological point of view? Should we rethink our dear notion of the “social agent” through that of contradiction?

Anthropology will only matter if it evokes a purpose outside of itself

Seven elements that anthropology can provide: (1) Gap between Here & Elsewhere, (2) Question Universal Claims, (3) Border between Humanities & Social Sciences, (4) Addressing Rise of the Financiers, (5) Dispelling Savage Illusions, (6) Relations & Processes, not Essences

Top-down causation in psychiatric disorders: a clinical-philosophical inquiry

Psychiatry has long debated whether the causes of mental illness can be better explained by reductionist or pluralistic accounts. Although the former relies on commonsense scientific bottom-up causal models, the latter (which typically include environmental, psychological, and/or socio-cultural risk factors) requires top-down causal processes often viewed with skepticism, especially by neuroscientists. We begin with four clinical vignettes which illustrate self-interventions wherein high-order psychological processes (e.g. religious beliefs or deep interpersonal commitments) appear to causally impact the risk for or the course of psychiatric/behavioral disorders.

We then propose a model for how to understand this sort of top-down self-causation. Our model relies centrally on the concept of a control variable which, like a radio tuning dial, can implement a series of typically unknown physical processes to obtain the desired ends. We set this control variable in the context of an interventionist account of causation that assumes that a cause (C) produces an effect (E) when intervening on C (by manipulating it) is associated with a change in E. We extend this framework by arguing that certain psychological changes can result from individuals intervening on their own mental states and/or selection of environments. This in turn requires a conception of the self that contains mental capacities that are at least partially independent of one another. Although human beings cannot directly intervene on the neurobiological systems which instantiate risk for psychiatric illness, they can, via control variables at the psychological level, and/or by self-selection into protective environments, substantially alter their own risk.

Evaluating the Machine Learning Literature: A Primer and User’s Guide for Psychiatrists

“Mr. A,” a 24-year-old man, presents for evaluation of worsening depression. He describes a history of depression since adolescence, although he notes that he suffered a troubled childhood, including emotional neglect. He believes a recent breakup and having been denied a promotion precipitated this episode. “I’m sleeping all the time, and my body feels heavy,” he adds. He also reports increased appetite, weight gain, and “urges to cut, which I have not done in years.” However, he remains social and actively involved in several hobbies. He discontinued bupropion and escitalopram in the past because of “terrible headaches and irritability.” Initially, you consider starting lamotrigine. However, your office recently implemented a clinical decision support system that recommends a trial of phenelzine. The patient’s symptoms remit entirely on the medication suggested by the system. Curious as to how the system decided on this treatment, you download several papers on its development.

Cultural mosaics, social structure, and identity: The Acheulean threshold in Europe

The period between 600 and 400 ka is a critical phase for human evolution in Europe. The south and northwest saw a dramatic increase in sites, the spread of handaxe technology alongside bone and wooden tool manufacture, efficient hunting techniques, and the use of fire. Lithic assemblages show considerable variation, including the presence/absence of handaxes and tool morphology.

To explain this variation, we propose the Cultural Mosaic Model, which suggests that there is a range of expressions of the Acheulean, with local resources being instrumental in creating distinct material cultures with or without handaxes. We argue that if typologically and technologically distinct assemblage types are regionally distributed, chronologically separated, and persistent over time, then they are unlikely to be caused purely by raw material constraints or functional variation but rather reflect populations with different material cultures…

We suggest that group expression through material culture was an important stage in social development by promoting group cohesion, larger group size, better cooperation, improved knowledge transfer, and enabling populations to survive in larger foraging territories in northern Europe.

How did Neanderthals and other ancient humans learn to count?

In the light of these discoveries, D’Errico has developed a scenario to explain how number systems might have arisen through the very act of producing such artefacts. His hypothesis is one of only two published so far for the prehistoric origin of numbers.

It all started by accident, he suggests, as early hominins unintentionally left marks on bones while they were butchering animal carcasses. Later, the hominins made a cognitive leap when they realized that they could deliberately mark bones to produce abstract designs — such as those seen on an approximately 430,000-year-old shell found in Trinil, Indonesia6. At some point after that, another leap occurred: individual marks began to take on meaning, with some of them perhaps encoding numerical information. The Les Pradelles hyena bone is potentially the earliest known example of this type of mark-making, says D’Errico. He thinks that with further leaps, or what he dubs cultural exaptations, such notches eventually led to the invention of number signs such as 1, 2 and 3.

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.

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Round Up #53

  1. Thanks for some very thought provoking articles. And, of course, thanks for all of the time and effort involved in creating and sustaining Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Jason. Your comment means something. I was definitely wondering about whether to do the round ups for more than a year… Their impact has slowly picked up, and I’m still enjoying what I learn from putting them together. And I don’t have another project yet, so I’ll keep posting.

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