Wednesday Round Up #21

How the Awful Stuff Won

The distinction between the religious fanatics and the click-chasers collapses still further as Phelps-Roper explains that, because Westboro’s fanatical conception of predestination held that God alone had the power to grant someone faith, the church refused to preach in a way that might persuade anyone to join it. “In light of this,” she writes, “our goal was not to convert, but rather to preach to as many people as possible, using all the means that God had put at our disposal.” Effectively, this is the same message that Marantz got from Emerson Spartz, the twenty-seven-year-old publisher of shareable and disposable mini-content across dozens of sites with names like Memestache and OMGFacts: “The ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

Race Conscious Medicine: A Reality Check – From race-based to race-conscious medicine: how anti-racist uprisings call us to act. A Perspective in The Lancet, from Jessica P Cerdeña, Marie V Plaisime, and Jennifer Tsai.

The primacy of behavioral research for understanding the brain
Abstract:

Understanding the brain requires us to answer both what the brain does, and how it does it. Using
a series of examples, I make the case that behavior is often more useful than neuroscientific measurements for answering the first question. Moreover, I show that even for “how” questions that pertain to neural mechanism, a well-crafted behavioral paradigm can offer deeper insight and stronger constraints on computational and mechanistic models than do many highly challenging (and very expensive) neural studies. I conclude that behavioral, rather than neuroscientific research, is essential for understanding the brain, contrary to the opinion of prominent funding bodies and scientific journals, who erroneously place neural data on a pedestal and consider behavior to be subsidiary.

A richer view of aura

Auras are widely viewed as a hallmark of migraine, but they remain an enigmatic phenomenon. Research has focused on suppressing the debilitating pain of migraine headaches. How the short-term neurological features of auras relate to headaches and other aspects of migraine remains uncertain. Some researchers think that auras cause headaches; others posit that they are just another aspect of a multifaceted syndrome.

A major challenge of pinning down auras is their inconsistency. They regularly affect only around 20–40% of people with migraine, and for many of them, not every headache has an accompanying aura. Also, many people experience auras without getting headaches. This pattern, in addition to the fact that auras are subjective experiences that occur sporadically and unpredictably, have made them frustratingly difficult to study — investigating auras often requires invention.

Charles saw in P.V.’s record-keeping an opportunity to delve into the precise nature of one person’s experience, and to gain clues to the wider nature of auras. Charles and his colleagues systematically analysed P.V.’s illustrations1 and learnt, among other things, how his auras varied from episode to episode; how intervals of normal vision could occur in the middle of an aura; and how auras sometimes began, only to quickly abort. All of this now needs to be fitted into a theory of what exactly happens in the brain during an aura.

Why we need to get better at critiquing psychiatric diagnosis

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Wednesday Round Up #20

Laziness Does Not Exist

I’ve been a psychology professor since 2012. In the past six years, I’ve witnessed students of all ages procrastinate on papers, skip presentation days, miss assignments, and let due dates fly by. I’ve seen promising prospective grad students fail to get applications in on time; I’ve watched PhD candidates take months or years revising a single dissertation draft; I once had a student who enrolled in the same class of mine two semesters in a row, and never turned in anything either time.

I don’t think laziness was ever at fault.

Ever.

In fact, I don’t believe that laziness exists.

The Eleventh Word
This is a lovely essay.

It was, perhaps, his eleventh word. He had dog and ball and duck and bubble and mama and (mysteriously in our lesbian household) dada and nana (for banana) and vroom vroom (for cars) and hah-hah (for hot) and (the root of so many of our evils) what’s dat? What’s dat? What’s dat?

And then, there it was: fish.

It should have been a tragic moment for me. I, of all people, should have sensed the danger in it. I had just spent the last ten years of my life working on a book called Why Fish Don’t Exist, arguing that the word “fish” is symptomatic of our human inability to see the world as expansively as it is. In short, scientists recently discovered that many of the creatures we typically think of as “fish” are in fact more closely related to us than to each other. And when you accept this fact you will see that the category of “fish” is a bum category—an act of gerrymandering we perform over nature to make it line up with our intuition. But it’s a lie, this category of “fish,” a mistake, a meaningless group that hides incredible nuance and complexity.

And “fish” is just one glaring example of this thing we do all the time—group things together that do not belong under one label in the name of maintaining our convenience, comfort, power. My book, in large part, is a plea to approach the world with more doubt—more doubt in our categories, more doubt in our words, more curiosity about the organisms pinned beneath our language. The reward, as I promise in the book, is a more expansive world, “a wilder place,” where nothing is what it seems, where “each and every dandelion is reverberating with possibility.”

And so, as the word “fish” rolled off my son’s tongue for the very first time, I should have felt that hot burst of fricative air as a puncturing of his innocence—sheeesh.

Behave

In 2014, Milkman published a study of a self-control strategy she calls “temptation bundling.” The idea is to link a want (in the study, listening to audio versions of page-turners such as the Hunger Games books) with a popular should (working out at the campus fitness center). If getting on a treadmill were the only way to hear the next chapter in the novel, would you be more likely to get off the couch and go to the gym?

The results were promising: Participants who had access to the audiobooks only at the gym made 51 percent more gym visits than those in the control group. (Another cohort that was encouraged, but not required, to restrict their listening to workout times had 29 percent more visits than the control group) …

When Milkman explained the temptation-bundling study and other research on the Freakonomics Radio podcast last year (listen to the show here), it struck a chord with listeners: Hundreds sent emails, sharing examples of their own “bundles.” While most involved household chores or exercise, some included more serious problems such as bouts with depression.

For more from Katherine Milkman, see her TedX talk Why we fail and how we stand up afterwards

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Wednesday Round Up #19

The Consciousness and Metacognition YouTube Channel

Here’s one, a general overview of why understanding the brain can be useful to different people, from researchers to social workers.
Introduction to Brain and Consciousness 0.1 – Understanding Mental Health at Different Levels:

How to Write an Essay: A Guide for Anthropologists

There are two things you must know intimately before you start: your audience and your core point. Know these things and the rest will be far easier. Once you have locked down those two core elements, there’s a basic formula that you can master for almost any essay.

What Strength Really Means When You’re Sick

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Manipulating student evaluations: the Downey Sales School method

Student evaluations are biased? Yes, yes, they are. Research has repeatedly shown that students’ evaluations of teaching quality show a range of biases. For example, Anne BoringKellie Ottoboni and Philip B. Stark argue on the LSE’s Impact blog that:

Student evaluations of teaching (SET) are strongly associated with the gender of the instructor. Female instructors receive lower scores than male instructors. SET are also significantly correlated with students’ grade expectations: students who expect to get higher grades give higher SET, on average. But SET are not strongly associated with learning outcomes.

Even given their limitations and outright unfairness, universities are not likely to give up student evaluations soon.

So I offer you another alternative: How I manipulate student evaluation scores. Using techniques I first learned while a door-to-door salesman as an undergraduate, here are tried and tested techniques for improving your evaluations, from the keyboard of a 25+ year university veteran. Buckle up — this may sound cynical — but I hope to persuade you that my goals and methods are not only ethical, but actually might improve your teaching. 

Photo by Aldiyar Seitkassymov on Pexels.com
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Wednesday Round Up #18

This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic

There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it.

This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries… This kind of behavior, alternating between being super infectious and fairly noninfectious, is exactly what k captures, and what focusing solely on R hides.

Few people knew female birds had unique songs—until women started studying them

Recent findings have shown that female song is widespread, and it is likely that the ancestor of all songbirds had female song. Now, rather than asking why males originally evolved song, the question has become why both sexes originally evolved song, and why females have lost song in some species.

In a recently published study, we reviewed 20 years of research on female bird song and found that the key people driving this recent paradigm shift were women. If fewer women had entered this field, we believe that it likely would have taken much longer to reach this new understanding of how bird song originally evolved. We see this example as a powerful demonstration of why it’s important to increase diversity in all fields of science.

The End of Art History

Karmel has, in fact, proven that a global history of abstraction is impossible. This is an important achievement, for it opens the way to constructive analysis. Today’s art world has an essentially different structure from Gombrich’s Eurocentric tradition or Clement Greenberg’s New York-centric era; we must now recognize that writing a global art history demands that we give up historical thinking.

The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease

Memory, it turns out, is one of the major factors mediating the dialogue between sensation and emotional experience. Our memories of past experience become encoded into triggers that act as switchers on the rail of psychoemotional response, directing the incoming train of present experience in the direction of one emotional destination or another.

Why the right wing has a massive advantage on Facebook
*A better title for this piece would be that Facebook recognizes that it’s a company who manipulates emotions, creates excessive engagement, and promotes knee-jerk responding. It’s their business model. They are literally now the Tabloid of the Internt.

“Right-wing populism is always more engaging,” a Facebook executive said in a recent interview with POLITICO reporters, when pressed why the pages of conservatives drive such high interactions. The person said the content speaks to “an incredibly strong, primitive emotion” by touching on such topics as “nation, protection, the other, anger, fear.”

“That was there in the [19]30’s. That’s not invented by social media — you just see those reflexes mirrored in social media, they’re not created by social media,” the executive added. “It’s why tabloids do better than the [Financial Times], and it’s also a human thing. People respond to engaging emotion much more than they do to, you know, dry coverage. …This wasn’t invented 15 years ago when Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.”

Your Brain Chooses What to Let You See

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.

Wednesday Round Up #17

How the Brain Creates a Timeline of the Past

They came up with equations to describe how the brain might in theory encode time indirectly. In their scheme, as sensory neurons fire in response to an unfolding event, the brain maps the temporal component of that activity to some intermediate representation of the experience — a Laplace transform, in mathematical terms. That representation allows the brain to preserve information about the event as a function of some variable it can encode rather than as a function of time (which it can’t). The brain can then map the intermediate representation back into other activity for a temporal experience — an inverse Laplace transform — to reconstruct a compressed record of what happened when.

Just a few months after Howard and Shankar started to flesh out their theory, other scientists independently uncovered neurons, dubbed “time cells,” that were “as close as we can possibly get to having that explicit record of the past,” Howard said. These cells were each tuned to certain points in a span of time, with some firing, say, one second after a stimulus and others after five seconds, essentially bridging time gaps between experiences.

The Simple Algorithm That Ants Use to Build Bridges

The cost, ecologists think, is that ants trapped in bridges aren’t available for other tasks, like foraging. At any time on a march, a colony might be maintaining 40 to 50 bridges, with as few as one and as many as 50 ants per bridge. In a 2015 paper, Garnier and his colleagues calculated that as much as 20 percent of the colony can be locked into bridges at a time. At this point, a shorter route just isn’t worth the extra ants it would take to create a longer bridge.

Except, of course, individual ants have no idea how many of their colony-mates are holding fast over a gap. And this is where the second rule kicks in. As individual ants run the “bridging” algorithm, they have a sensitivity to being stampeded. When traffic over their backs is above a certain level, they hold in place, but when it dips below some threshold — perhaps because too many other ants are now occupied in bridge-building themselves — the ant unfreezes and rejoins the march.

The Dying Russians

In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality. By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period; in Moscow, the dip was even greater, with death coming nearly eight years sooner.

In 2006 and 2007, Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist who teaches at Emory University and had lived in Russia during the height of the population decline in the early 1990s, set out to explore what she calls “the cultural context of the Russian mortality crisis.” Her method was a series of long unstructured interviews with average Muscovites—what amounted to immersing herself in a months-long conversation about what made life, for so many, no longer worth living. The explanation that Parsons believes she has found is in the title of her 2014 book, Dying Unneeded.

Is Freedom White?

In a political season of dog whistles, we must be attentive to how talk of American freedom has long been connected to the presumed right of whites to dominate everyone else.

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Alabama governor George Wallace’s most famous sentence fired through the frigid air on the coldest day anyone in the state could remember. His 1963 inaugural address—written by a Klansman, no less—served as the war cry for the massive, violent response to the nonviolent civil rights movements of the 1960s. Wallace’s brand of right-wing populism would reconfigure U.S. party politics, making him, as his biographer put it, the “invisible founding father” of modern conservatism. As so many pundits have pointed out, when Donald Trump talks about “domination” today, he is talking the language and politics of Wallace.

Yet Wallace’s famous speech was less about segregation than it was about freedom—white freedom. Other than its infamous applause line, the inaugural mentions “segregation” only one other time. In contrast, it invokes “freedom” twenty-four times—more times than Martin Luther King, Jr., used the word during his “I Have a Dream” address the following summer at the 1963 March on Washington. Freedom is this nation’s ill-defined but reflexive ideological commitment. Winding through the heart of that complex political idea, however, is a dark and visceral current of freedom as the unrestrained capacity to dominate.

The Tyranny of Fragility: How Alexis De Tocqueville Foretold the Rise of Victimhood Culture

Tocqueville’s writings illuminate a deep paradox arising from modern forms of democracy—as is evident in common misconceptions of his critique of the tyranny of the majority. For Tocqueville, the real tyrant in democracy is not so much the group as the individual; or rather individualism as we know it—entitled, selfish, envious, consumerist, insatiable—which arises when certain conditions of collectivist populism are in place. The erosion of extended kinship structures, religion and broader systems of ritual and meaning—which afford both a source of support and a sense of duty to others and to a project greater than oneself—are certainly partly to blame.

But Tocqueville also directs our attention to the most perverse level at which modern individuation operates: that of what becomes imaginable, desirable but ultimately unattainable in the democracy of the masses. You might call this the cognitive-affective dimension of democracy. Once a certain ideal of equality—however ill-defined as a normative goal—is in place, envy and upward social comparison become the norm. Since anyone can become more of anything or anyone at any time, something akin to entropy increases. In affective terms, social and psychological entropy become something we now call anxiety.

Talking Is Throwing Fictional Worlds at One Another

There’s an interesting paradox in Language Unlimited. You write that language is endlessly creative but also our cognition is constrained by the structure of language. What does that paradox say about human beings?

You’re right. There is a wee paradox in there. That’s a nice thing to pick up on. I think about it like even numbers. There’s an unlimited number of even numbers but obviously they’re limited, right? Because 3s and 7s aren’t in there. Language is like that. There’s an unlimited number of possible things we can say, of sentence structures, but not anything can be a sentence structure.

So you’re absolutely right. Language is unlimited, but it’s unlimited in a limited way.

What does that say about us as human beings? That’s a gigantic and fascinating question. It probably means our cognition is limited. There may be things that we can never solve because we don’t have the cognitive structures that will help to solve them.

LOL Something Matters

These lamentations continued unabated throughout 2017. Just two weeks ago, Facebook said it would no longer flag phony links with red-box warnings, since pointing to a lie only makes it stronger. The truth, this move implied, does more harm than good.

But there’s a problem with these stories about the end of facts. In the past few years, social scientists armed with better research methods have been revisiting some classic work on the science of post-truth. Based on their results, the most surprising and important revelations from this research—the real lol-nothing-matters stuff—now seem overstated. It may be that the internet does not divide us, that facts don’t make us dumber than we were before, and that debunking doesn’t really lead to further bunk.

In fact, it may be time that we gave up on the truth-y notion that we’re living in a post-truth age. In fact, it may be time that we debunked the whole idea.

The Final Five Percent

If traumatic brain injuries can impact the parts of the brain responsible for personality, judgment, and impulse control, maybe injury should be a mitigating factor in criminal trials — but one neuroscientist discovers that assigning crime a biological basis creates more issues than it solves.

7 Modern Life Habits That Can Be Incredibly Bad For Your Brain Health

“In our study, socializing was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance,” said Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and a lead author of the study with ISR psychologist Eugene Burnstein and psychologist Piotr Winkielman from the University of California, San Diego.

The lack of true personal interaction limits the brain’s opportunities to make better connections. It can also lead to loneliness and depression — mental conditions that contribute significantly to reduced brain health.