Archive for the 'cognitive science' Category

Why you should be skeptical of “genes”

July 16, 2009

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley is a one-woman wrecking crew. Maybe you read her crushing attack on bad evolutionary psychology?

Now she’s telling us about a new finding that high school kids get better grades if they are physically attractive (girls), well groomed (boys especially) or have an “attractive” personality (girls). Note to my lefties: sex and class bias are almost certainly in play here.

Here’s the paper, which I need to dip into at some point.

Begley says the beauty bonus is well known. The other findings are new. One explanation might be that “attractive” kids get more positive feedback from a young age, which makes them better learners. Keep that point firmly in mind.

In Begley’s uppercut, she notes that some researchers (this guy) are still hoping to link individual genes to IQ.

When scientists link a gene to a trait, they seldom know exactly what the heck the gene actually does. So let’s say they link gene X to IQ. Based on what’s known about the beauty premium, and now on how personality can boost kids’ GPA through mechanisms unrelated to actual brainpower, what if gene X is in fact producing a shapelier nose, or prettier eyes, or a sunny personality, and not, for instance, making synapses denser or brain neurons more efficient or causing some other effect that increases intelligence? How much do you want to bet that it will be hailed as a true IQ gene with all that entails (discrimination against those who have the wrong form being the most obvious), when in fact all it does is give people traits that society chooses to reward with (unmerited) higher grades and the resulting greater success in the work force?

In behavioral psychology, researchers like to compare traits of twins raised in the same home versus twins raised in separate homes to try to assess the “heritability” of traits such as IQ. In other words, if you hold the environment constant (as much as possible) and still see variation in a trait, you can attribute more of that variation to genetic factors, as expressed in the shared environment. Or that’s my understanding, anyway.

Begley’s point is that maybe the genes underlying the heritability of IQ are ones that give you, say, pretty eyes that make teachers pay more attention to you.

I think Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a book about this kind of thing.

See also: Newsweek | The Gene Puzzle


Why pressuring yourself can backfire

July 7, 2009

If you’ve ever wondered why self-deception is so effective, here’s the always-interesting Benedict Carey in the NYTimes:

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

One study asked subjects to evaluate the behavior of a fictional black student, Donald [not my friend David], whose behavior was ambiguous.  Donald passed up on a handicapped parking space, cut off another driver for a regular space, and then chose not to donate change to someone collecting for charity — a heart fund. Some readers were instructed to suppress “bad” racial stereotypes as they read a description.

These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Bottom line: Distractions are good. So is situationism.

The road to self-lovability

July 6, 2009

*PR science blogging alert*

Psychological Science is quickly becoming my favorite journal.

Allow me to — gasp! — quote the latest press release:

Psychologists Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee from the University of Waterloo, and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick, found that individuals with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive self-statements.

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement–but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The idea is that for people with low self-esteem (as measured, I’m guessing, by numerical responses to statements such as “I am a capable person”), telling themselves how great they are sets up contradictory thoughts, because, you know, their entire world view depends on how ungreat they are. To admit to greatness would entail drastic changes in their way of being.

Like a psychologist tells the BBC:

“If you’re not close to your parents, don’t have many friends, are unemployed and are unhappy with your appearance, it might be hard to have high self-esteem.”

A good therapist teaches you to find the upside to your down traits, and then to isolate the negative world view that’s twisting the expression of that upside, e.g., “I would communicate my feelings honestly to friends and loved ones, but a) my feelings don’t matter and b) I would be rejected anyway.”

Seeing the upside — a desire for honest communication — gives you a foundation for making (incrementally) better decisions. Then you can seize on any improved outcome as signs of your newfound potency.

Or in other words, it’s like Bill Murray said: “baby steps.” Even with 20 pounds of explosives strapped to your torso.

Update: Did I accidentally kill Robert McNamara? 

If ever there was a guy who needed to calibrate his self-love, it was Robert McNamara, the much-vilified defense secretary who was forever tarnished by his role in the Vietnam War. This weekend I re-watched The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary in which McNamara very nearly breaks down with regret for his mistakes. Today I learn that McNamara has died. By Jenny McCarthy’s logic, I am partially responsible for the death. I regret my involvement.

Adaptationism gets no rest in latest sleep research

June 16, 2009

From an interesting Time article:

According to new research presented last week at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Seattle, adequate sleep may underpin our ability to understand complex emotions properly in waking life. “Sleep essentially is resetting the magnetic north of your emotional compass,” says Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

The adaptationism:

“If you’re walking through the jungle and you’re tired, it might benefit you more to be hypersensitive to negative things,” he says. The idea is that with little mental energy to spare, you’re emotionally more attuned to things that are likely to be the most threatening in the immediate moment. Inversely, when you’re well rested, you may be more sensitive to positive emotions, which could benefit long-term survival, he suggests [such as “finding a wife”].

The cognitive psychology:

Walker suggests that one function of REM sleep – dreaming, in particular – is to allow the brain to sift through that day’s events, process any negative emotion attached to them, then strip it away from the memories. He likens the process to applying a “nocturnal soothing balm.” REM sleep, he says, “tries to ameliorate the sharp emotional chips and dents that life gives you along the way.”

The threat:

“If you don’t let go of the emotion, what results is a constant state of anxiety,” he says.

I let myself sleep in this morning. I’m feeling pretty good about that.

David Brooks has my attention

June 2, 2009

The theme of my 2009 is paying attention to what I’m paying attention to.

It turns out David Brooks predicted my year back in December:

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

See also the excellent New York magazine article, “In Defense of Distraction.”

David Foster Wallace was concerned about how we construct meaning in real time. Driving home his point for me was the Kid Rock video, “Warrior,” which I watched a couple times in the theatre waiting for a movie to start.

Jonah Lehrer’s been sniffing around this subject, too. I’ll have to read his New Yorker piece on self-control.

Nicholas Kristof has my (old) number

June 2, 2009

In my early 20s, you couldn’t get me to swig from somebody else’s drink. You also couldn’t get me to call myself a liberal.

Nicholas Kristof connects the dots: “People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.”

Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily

See also: Conservatives are more easily disgusted.

Cop shootings and implicit racism

June 1, 2009

I wanted to find something this morning to say about the murder of George Tiller, the abortion doc, but when I went to Tapped, The American Prospect‘s group blog, what I first stumbled on that caught my attention was this:


Over the weekend, there’s been a minor uproar over New York Rep. Charlie Rangel‘s remarks about President Obama‘s visit to New York. When a reporter asked Rangel what Obama should do when he visits the city, Rangel replied, “Make certain he doesn’t run around in East Harlem without identification.”

The remark was a reference to the killing of police officer Omar J. Edwards by fellow officer Andrew Dutton. Edwards was in plainclothes, and chasing after someone who was breaking into his car. He had his weapon out. Three other plainclothes officers arrived and yelled for them to stop. One, Dutton, shot Edwards three times as he turned around.

The posting, by Adam Serwer, was forceful but even-handed, and it linked to a NYTimes story, “On Diverse Force, Blacks Still Face Special Peril.” And in that piece I read too many quotes like this:

“We tend to pretend in the police force that we don’t see race, we don’t see ethnicity, but we do,” said Senator Adams, the [black] former police captain. “One of my cops once said that if he sees a non-uniformed black man with a gun, he takes precautions for himself; if he sees a white guy with a gun, he takes precautions for both because he knows it could be a fellow cop.”

Obviously, the broader concern is how the internalized prejudices of cops — be they black, Latino or white — affect what they do in the field. Which meant I had to revisit Sally Lehrman’s great Sci Am article, “The Implicit Prejudice,” about psychological tools for uncovering our cognitive biases, including racial ones.

We may intend to be fair, she [social scientist Mahzarin Banaji] explained, but underneath our awareness, our minds automatically make connections and ignore contradictory information. Sure enough, in a paper quiz, the [media] executives [meeting with Banaji] readily associated positive words with their parent firm, Time Warner, but they found it harder to link them to their top competitor, the Walt Disney Company. To their chagrin, they discovered the same tenden-cy to pair positive terms with faces that have European features and negative ones with faces that have African features.

Read the whole thing. There’s a series of implicit association tests (IATs) you can take online:

Maybe the NYC police force could start having recruits take these tests, if that’s not something they do already. Better: make them run a mile flat out, have them take a bump of meth — or shoot their guns in the air, whatever — and have them take the tests a second time. The Times story talked about cops undergoing “training” but didn’t give detail. Anybody know, or seen a link?

MMA’s newest badass rebirths karate

May 29, 2009

Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida:


Is he a truth serum? A puzzle box? The Wayne Gretzsky of mixed martial arts? Unclear. We know he’s an unbeaten 31-year-old mixed martial artist (as of tomorrow) who cut his teeth on Shotokan karate and dismantled Rashad Evans last Saturday night to take the UFC’s light heavyweight championship. We know he darts in and out of range to punish fighters without taking damage himself [links to video below]. And we know he’s already being spoken of in the same breath as Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva and George St. Pierre.

Here’s Jake Rossen, MMA’s smartest writer:

Lyoto Machida made history Saturday night by becoming the first mixed martial artist to win a major title by wielding an art perceived as primitive and nearing extinction. He didn’t outwrestle Rashad Evans, he didn’t submit him and he didn’t gorilla-press him. He feinted, floated out of the way of hammering strikes and applied the principles of Shotokan karate he established while still in diapers to send Evans down and thinking of his sleep number.

Jordan Breen reviews the tape:

Machida being technically dominant is nothing new, but it was the first time I took note of how glaring he made his opponent’s faults look. Upon opening up the library, I realized this was absolutely nothing new. It took him about two minutes to realize Thiago Silva didn’t tuck his chin or bring his hands back after engaging, which led directly to two brutal knockdowns and set the table for a first-round stoppage. Tito Ortiz’s reaction to Machida’s feints — an incredibly high guard, shielding his own face — made it easy for the karateka to smash up his legs and body, allowing for the brutal knee to the body that nearly ended the bout.

Here’s Machida quoted in ESPN:

“In my karate, there is a time which is called the Kyo, which means the fighter has no defense,” said Machida, 30, who improved to 15-0-0 and still hasn’t lost a round in UFC competition. “I study to make sure I attack right at the correct Kyo, and that’s what I did.”

Bloody Elbow contextualizes:

[A]ll good boxers know there is a time when an opponent can be attacked and they cannot defend, it is a moment when the mind is in reset mode so to speak, and in Shotokan there is a name for that moment. In boxing there is not. I remember training zanshin, and training how to measure and time a strike or counter strike not just based on physical moments, but by your opponent’s breathing, his eyes even would tell you when they are ‘blanked out’ or in ‘reset mode’ and can be attacked.

Maybe I’ll torrent Machida’s 4-DVD set:

First, the footwork translated from his karate background is extremely quick and efficient.  Each movement serves a purpose and no energy is wasted.  Second, like a good poker player, Machida offers no visual clues to what he will do next.  During several techniques, Machida takes great strides in stressing the importance of maintaining and returning to your base stance before, during, and after each technique.  By doing so, Machida masks his intent for as long as possible, reducing his opponent’s window to react in time.

But I’d better get started:

The problem with Shotokan Karate in MMA is that it is a style of fighting that takes a lifetime of training to master.  The use of fixed stances, kata, 5 step sparring etc… are training techniques designed to develop a fighter over millions of repetitions and decades of time. And, there are no shortcuts.

Hmm, is anybody else thinking brain downloads?

Post script on video: 

By now the UFC will have forced down most videos of the Machida-Evans fight [oops — they missed one], although if you poke around you might be able to download or torrent it.

Here’s Machida taking out Thiago Silva. (Listen for Joe Rogan talking about Machida’s “great package.”)

Here are highlights from Machida’s first 12 fights.

These highlights start off slow — the beginning shows him doing kata on the beach at sunset — but they include his 13th fight, against former l.h.w. champ Tito Ortiz.

Uncle Enzo was on to something

May 28, 2009

It always stuck in my head that in Snow Crash, when Uncle Enzo is trying to get the drop on Raven at the end, he opens his mouth to hear better.

That’s my random association from this Sci Am news story:

In the study, a specially designed robotic device stretched the mouths of volunteers slightly up, down or backward while they listened to a computer-generated continuum of speech verbalizations that sounded like “head” or “had,” or something in between. When the subjects’ mouths were stretched upward, closer to the position needed to say “head,” they were more likely to hear the sounds as “head,” especially with the more ambiguous output. If the subjects’ mouths were stretched downward, as if to say “had,” they were more likely to hear “had,” even when the sounds being generated were closer to “head.” Stretching subjects’ mouths backward had no effect, implying a position-specific response. Moreover, the timing of the stretch had to match that of the sounds exactly to get an effect: the stretch altered speech perception only when it mimicked realistic vocalizations.

Next experiment:

Ostry and his colleagues hope to help answer this question with follow-up work that inverts the experiment: instead of hearing a continuum of sound, subjects will endure a continuum of stretches to see if auditory input can influence what they feel. 

And that reminds me of Alexander technique.

What is the sound of one million neurons firing?

May 28, 2009

Here’s Nobel winner Gerald Edelman, from another great Discover Q&A:

Eugene Izhikevitch [a mathematician at the Neurosciences Institute] and I have made a model with a million simulated neurons and almost half a billion synapses, all connected through neuronal anatomy equivalent to that of a cat brain. What we find, to our delight, is that it has intrinsic activity. Up until now our BBDs had activity only when they confronted the world, when they saw input signals. In between signals, they went dark. But this damn thing now fires on its own continually. The second thing is, it has beta waves and gamma waves just like the regular cortex—what you would see if you did an electroencephalogram. Third of all, it has a rest state. That is, when you don’t stimulate it, the whole population of neurons stray back and forth, as has been described by scientists in human beings who aren’t thinking of anything.

In other words, our device has some lovely properties that are necessary to the idea of a conscious artifact. It has that property of indwelling activity. So the brain is already speaking to itself. That’s a very important concept for consciousness.

Thanks, Cosmic Variance