You know why movies seem to be continuous motion even though they're really just static images being shown at 48 frames per second — persistence of vision, right? Well, there's a great article on the Grand Illusions site about how that explanation is 'simple to understand', 'elegant', even 'poetic'... and also fundamentally incorrect.
Apparently psychologists have known for almost as long as film has been around that the explanation was bunk, but somehow film historians find it too compelling an explanation to give it up. Somehow, the image that images persist... persists.
Bristol University researchers have found that mice exposed to bacteria naturally found in soil produced more serotonin. (Thanks to Aileen for the link!)
Along the lines of a study on the effects of advertising that I mentioned earlier, a forthcoming University of Kent study suggests that people are more influenced by conspiracy theories than they think they are, and that this hidden influence may actually contribute to the tenacity of such theories:
After reading internet-based conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana, research participants agreed more strongly with statements such as ‘there was an official campaign by MI6 to assassinate Diana, sanctioned by elements of the establishment’. When asked how much they would have agreed with those statements prior to reading the conspiracy theories, they ‘revised’ their prior attitudes so that they were closer to their current attitudes – this made it appear as though their attitudes had changed less than they actually had.
...Our findings suggest that conspiracy theories may actually have a ‘hidden impact’, meaning that they powerfully influence people’s attitudes whilst people do not know it; outwardly they may deny the extent to which they have been influenced but in truth they tend to endorse the new information and pass it on to others.’
(Link via Cognitive Daily.)
Via Mind Hacks, this quote from A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham sums up my wonder at the physical basis of the brain better than anything I've ever read:
"The highest activities of consciousness have their origins in physical occurrences of the brain, just as the loveliest melodies are not too sublime to be expressed by notes."
Squinting reduces the amount of peripheral light coming into the eye so that a greater percentage of light comes from the center of the visual field... It's wrong to to say that "'squinting squishes the eyeball slightly to correct for a focus point that misses the mark.' Although the lens does change shape, this is a reflex muscle action that can accompany (but is not the result of) squinting."
Interesting comment from this article on why humans are so good at recognizing music:
The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John's "Benny and the Jets."
"Nobody else's piano sounds quite like that," he said, referring to John. "Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important."
(Thanks to Janie for the link!)
Remember the future depicted in the movie Minority Report, where every last inch of real estate is covered by advertisements that demand your attention by any means possible? I couldn't help think about that as I flew home on US Airways after Thanksgiving. First there was the TV screens, which after the safety take-off script started extolling the virtues of their Skymall shopping opportunities. Then there was the flight attendant who, having just given me potential life-saving information about the flotation abilities of my seat cushion, came through the cabin explaining how we could have a free flight if we just signed up for their co-branded credit card. Finally, just as I thought the barrage was over, I brought my tray table down only to find it was painted with yet more advertising. Good thing I've developed a strong stomach to all this advertising, because even their barf bag had ads printed on it!
It seems like everywhere there's a captive audience nowadays you'll find it stuffed full of advertising. Movie theaters have finally branched out from advertising movies and concessions to full-on TV-style ads, Wal-Mart has their Checkout TV (designed to "entertain shoppers as well as inform them about new products"), my local Longs pharmacy even has a flat-panel TV showing continuous infomercials. These ads are always delivered with the pleasant-sounding lie that they're for our benefit. If that's the case, why do they always make me feel like the airline, theater or store I'm patronizing has just punched me in the stomach?
I've tried looking past my gut reaction and thinking about the situation rationally, but oddly enough when I do that I become even more convinced that, at least most of the time, advertising is a direct form of violence. I don't mean violence in the most limited physical definition — I don't get a bloody nose from the Trix Rabbit. But consider the following points:
While we like to think we make all our own choices based on the information we have at hand, in fact we humans are highly susceptible to manipulation. (In fact, there's good evidence that people who think they're not easily manipulated are the most susceptible.)
Sometimes manipulations are to our long-term benefit. Education is all about changing how someone thinks; so is love. Sometimes we'll seek out ways to manipulate ourselves directly, be it by throwing out all our cigarettes so we won't be tempted to smoke or by getting drunk at a party to get over our shyness and meet someone new. Other times we won't recognize the benefit of a manipulation until much later, like the addict who denies he has a problem until his friends intervene and force him to go into detox.
That said, commercial advertising is at best neutral about whether its message actually improves our lives. Advertisers often claim they just inform the public about products they want (if only they knew it), but their main job is to install a need for their product regardless of whether the need was there beforehand. And since creating a need where one didn't already exist takes more repetition than simply informing someone about a solution to an existing problem, most advertising we see is designed to create new needs.
People are naturally resistant to having new needs installed in them. Sure it feels good when we scratch that itch by buying their product, but at some level we also know that it's the ads that made us itch in the first place. Because of this, the techniques used by advertisers are subtle and deliberately designed to manipulate our desires without our knowledge or consent.
In other words, most advertising is a deliberately deceptive manipulation of our person and our mental state, without our consent or regard for our interests. I can't see any way how that's not a form of violence. And they've been doing it all our lives, from the first toy we couldn't live without to the makeup, gadgets and junk food we crave today.
I suspect if you were punched in the stomach every day since you were a toddler, you'd think it was normal. You wouldn't like it, and no doubt you'd complain about the ones who punched especially hard or always punched you right as you were sitting down to dinner. But but somehow it'd still be seen as a price of living, nothing that could be done about it.
Only there is something we can do about it. The next time your flight attendant runs down the aisles with credit card applications shouting Who wants a roundtrip flight, absolutely free?!?, stop him and very politely explain how horrible you think it is that his company treats paying customers that way. Do the same with your local stores, and write letters to the company heads. Then take your business to those that don't have such distain for their customers.
There's no way a corporate policy of "Service with a smile and a punch in the belly" would fly. Why should advertising be given a free pass?
After 10 weeks, subjects taking sham pills said their pain decreased an average of 1.50 points on the 10-point scale. After 8 weeks, those receiving fake acupuncture reported a drop of 2.64 points. In other words, not receiving acupuncture reduces pain more than not taking drugs.
Kaptchuk says that the rituals of medicine explain the difference: Performing acupuncture is more elaborate than prescribing medicine. Other rituals that may make patients feel better include "white coats, and stethoscopes that you don't necessarily use, pictures on the wall, the way you reassure a patient, and the secretaries that sign you in." Careful manipulation of such rituals could make all types of treatment more effective, Kaptchuk suggests.
(Thanks to Jill for the link!)
Radio Lab had a great hour production called Where Am I?, all about how mind and body collaborate to determine where you and all your assorted parts are in space and how that can sometimes get out of whack. Audio is available for streaming and download, and well worth the listen.
It reminds me of the "That's my hand!" illusion, where you can give someone the uncanny feeling that an obviously-plastic severed rubber hand is actually their own by simply hiding their real hand from view and then simultaneously touching each hand in the same spot at the same time. After about 20 seconds of such touching the illusion kicks in, and is a wonderfully eerie feeling. They have a station for trying this out at the SF Exploratorium, but my first introduction to it was from reading a recent study where scientists induced the illusion while the subject was being scanned by an MRI. What they found was that the illusion corresponds with activity in the premotor cortex, a part of the brain that receives input both visual and touch information, implying that we build our idea of where different parts of our body is in space by correlating our own sense of touch with what we can detect with our other senses. (They also have a more recent study showing that it's not just vision combined with touch — you can get the same effect bindfolded by making the subject think she's touching her left hand with her right when actually she's touching the rubber hand.)
Economics professors at Cornell and Indiana U. have found a possible correlation between watching TV before the age of three and autism. The evidence looks even more circumstantial than the study linking early TV viewing to ADHD, but still interesting: really what they've found is a correlation between diagnosis of autism and the number of rainy days in a particular county for a given period, which is known to correlate with hours kids spend watching TV. I wonder if they also looked at birth month and whether that has an effect — if it did that might imply a critical period of only a few months. (Thanks to Andrea for the link.)
The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky's first book since Society of Mind almost 20 years ago, is slated to be released September 5th 2006. (I remember talking with him about this book back in 1994 — it's been a long time coming!)
You can also read a draft of the book on his website...
Living in California as I do, I have a lot of friends who have ideas about the physical world that on their face seem ludicrous to a scientifically-minded materialist like myself. For example, people I love and respect think that some people have the ability to heal by adjusting a patient's "energies" without touching him, others think that spells and witchcraft have power beyond the psychological, and even more think there's some "guy" up in heaven that controls what happens here on Earth and that 2000 years ago His son rose from the dead. Since I respect these friends a great deal I've been looking for common ground, and have started playing a game with myself where I try to translate these beliefs into a form that a philosophically-minded but skeptical materialist like myself can accept.
I mean translate literally — I look for meanings of the words my believer friends use that make the belief plausible in my own world-view while compromising their actual beliefs as little as possible. There are some limits to the game — no amount of translation is going to make the claim that one can change the weather just with one's mind any more palatable to me. But there is a surprising amount of room to maneuver. For example, I've heard some describe the energy manipulated by reiki practitioners as "electricity," but when pressed it's clear that's just a metaphor for something else — they don't actually mean that this energy can be measured with a voltmeter any more than a physicist talking about an electrical "current" thinks you could steer a boat down a river of the stuff. The goal of my private game then is to answer the question, "a metaphor for what?"
The fun part of this game is that when I'm being honest with myself I rapidly wind up at logical impasses in my own philosophy as well. My latest conundrum has to do with belief in some sort of soul, a "thing" that is a fundamental part of and unique to every living being (or at least every person), and that persists after that person has died. So the game is to come up with something that is (a) something fundamental to the identity of an individual person and yet (b) still exists after the body has turned to dust. As I cast about for things in my own world-view that might fit the bill (including things like "the patterns of memories left in surviving friends and family" and "the combination of genes and upbringing one leaves in one's own children") I started to recognize that the idea of a soul is an answer to a basic philosophical question left unanswered by materialism, namely "when we see an object at two points in time, what features are necessary such that we recognize the two viewings as the being of the same object?" I've always heard this called the Granddad's Axe problem:
I've got my Granddad's old axe. I've replaced the handle twice, and the head three times, but it's still my Granddad's old axe...
We can certainly accept that Granddad's axe is still the same axe even if we paint it or sharpen it, and might even accept it's the "same" axe after we've replaced both the head and the handle if we use it in the same way, it evokes the same memories of Granddad that it did before, etc. What about people? It's been said that every molecule in a person's body is replaced after a decade or two, and certainly I'm very different in both appearance and thinking than I was when I was 12. Am I still the same person I was then, even with all those changes? If so, why do we connect the atoms that made up that child then with the person sitting here typing this now? And if not, is there some 12-year-old boy living today who, based on similarity to that boy of 24 years ago, is more deserving of the title?
Materialism (or my understanding of it at least) doesn't offer any answers to these questions, nor does it feel the need to do so. The philosophy simply suggests that there are patterns that exist in the world at different points in time, that they follow certain rules, and that any vocabulary that accurately describes those patterns is equally valid (though potentially more or less practical and comprehensible). Unfortunately, just calling such a pattern "soul" doesn't get us any further — that just amounts to saying "yes, you are the same person as you were when you were 12, and we'll call the thing that binds those two defined entities together your soul."
We all know that talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is dangerous (OK, except for that guy in the SUV that cut you off this morning). Cognitive Daily has nice summaries of a couple recent studies suggesting that talking on hands-free cellphones while driving is also dangerous due to the higher cognitive load, and furthermore that talking to a passenger sitting in the car may be no better.
There's a fascinating article in this month's Seed Magazine called The Reinvention of the Self, describing the latest studies showing that we aren't actually born with all the brain cells we'll ever have, how stress and depression seem to keep new neurons from growing, and how antidepressants seem to encourage the growth of new neurons.
While not the main thrust of the article, it highlights what I think is a pretty basic philosophical issue for our age:
Gould’s research inevitably conjures up comparisons to societal problems. And while Gould, like all rigorous bench scientists, prefers to focus on the strictly scientific aspects of her data—she is wary of having it twisted for political purposes—she is also acutely aware of the potential implications of her research.
“Poverty is stress,” she says, with more than a little passion in her voice. “One thing that always strikes me is that when you ask Americans why the poor are poor, they always say it’s because they don’t work hard enough, or don’t want to do better. They act like poverty is a character issue.”
Gould’s work implies that the symptoms of poverty are not simply states of mind; they actually warp the mind. Because neurons are designed to reflect their circumstances, not to rise above them, the monotonous stress of living in a slum literally limits the brain.
The more we peel back the curtains that hide how the mind works, the more we're forced to face age-old questions about what free will and responsibility mean when you can see the clockworks ticking towards their inevitable action.
(Thanks to XThread for the link!)
One of my favorite psych studies is one where a subject who had had his left and right brain hemispheres severed was asked to point (with either his left or his right hand) to one of four given pictures that matches a test picture. Unbeknownst to the subject, his right eye is shown one test picture (say, of a chicken claw) and their left eye is shown a different one (say, a snow scene). When asked to point with his right hand to the matching picture he picked a chicken, when asked to point with his left he picked the snow shovel. The fascinating part is when the subject was asked to verbally explain why he picked the snow shovel. Language is mostly generated in the left hemisphere (which controls the right hand), the half that didn't pick the shovel. Rather than look confused, he invariably came up with explanations for why he picked what he did — explanations that the experimenter knew were incorrect like "oh, you need the shovel to clean up the chicken coop."
One hundred and twenty participants were shown 15 pairs of female faces (taken from here). For each pair they had to say which of the two faces they found more attractive, and on a fraction of trials they had to say why they’d made that choice, in which case the photo of the face they’d selected was slid across the table to them so they could look at it while they explained their choice. Crucially, on a minority of these trials, the researchers used sleight of hand to surreptitiously pass the participant the photo of the face they had just rejected, rather than the one they’d chosen.
Bizarrely, only about a quarter of these trick trials were noticed by participants, despite the fact the two faces in a pair often bore little resemblance to one another. Even stranger was the way the participants then went on to justify choosing the face on the card they were holding, even though it was actually the face they’d rejected. It’s not that participants weren’t paying attention to the face they’d been passed – the justifications they gave often related to features specific to this face, not the one they’d actually chosen. Independent raters who compared participants’ verbal explanations for choices they had made (non-trick trials), with their explanations for the choices they hadn’t made (trick trials), found no differences in amount of emotional engagement, degree of detail given, or confidence.
As I've said before: Man is not a rational creature. Man is a rationalizing creature.
I heard Ray Kurzweil speak last night at the Long Now seminar. A friend who also attended says it was essentially the exact same talk he'd heard him give five years ago (ironic considering how fast things are supposed to be changing nowadays), but this was my first time hearing him in person. I must say it's rare where a talk makes me alternate between thinking"Well, that's completely bogus!" and "OK, that makes sense..." so many times.
Where I think he's got it right:
People are inherently bad at extrapolating exponential trends, and we are currently experiencing technological exponential growth. This is especially true in the information and communication technologies, namely information processing, sensing and pattern-recognition, and human-to-human communications.
Reading between the lines of his talk, information technologies are bootstrapping technologies: once you have them, they make inventing the next stage easier, faster and cheaper.
The combination of biotech, new biological sensors and the ability to simulate complex processes are going to seriously challenge how we currently think of ourselves as individuals and even what it means to be human.
Where I think he's got it wrong:
As I mentioned a few days ago, I think some of his exponential curves are the result of our natural tendency to gloss over things that happened in the past and focus on recent developments. (A less generous assessment would say he just did it to make his curve work out, but this isn't limited to Ray's charts; in fact, he showed the same graph with points plotted from other lists of momentous inventions drawn from various encyclopedia.) This is not to say there aren't several exponential growth curves in play at the moment, but I don't think this is a trend that has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.
It's an old saw that people overestimate what will be possible in five years and underestimate what will be possible in 20 years. I think his predictions of ubiquitous augmented reality, computers distributed throughout one's clothing, and head-up display contact lenses (or direct-to retina/optic nerve) will all happen at some point, but not in the next 5 years.
Ray talks about the creation of artificial intelligences as if some day in the near future we'll invent HAL and start talking to it. Ever since Alan Turing described the Turing Test, people have described artificial intelligences in terms of ability to generate and understand language, ability to make human-like decisions, ability to show and understand emotion — in other words, the ability to relate to humans. I see no reason to think the first AIs will think or communicate like us at all, nor do I think they will exist at human scale.
In fact, I would say several species of human-made hyper-intelligences already walk among us: we call them corporations, nation-states, philosophical or political movements, and civilizations. Their neurons are the people, documents and cognitive artifacts that make up the whole. Their synapses are the communication and social networks that run between these individuals. The specific structure of the intelligence is set by its laws, traditions and culture.
The dual of the idea that groups of people, documents and cognitive artifacts can be a single intelligence is the idea that my own human intelligence, as an individual, is actually made up of more than just what I can think when I'm lying naked and alone. As Edwin Hutchins points out in Cognition in the Wild, human intelligence is not just the product of what's inside our skull but stems from the combination of our brains, our culture, and tools such as the paper we write on and the skill of writing itself. I expect by the time a machine with no human in the loop has passed the Turing Test, the continuing augmentation of humans will have long-since forced us to recognize that the test wasn't all that good a criterion for intelligence in the first place.
Even though our knowledge and our information technologies are improving exponentially in many fields, there are some parts of human knowledge that are not growing at this incredible rate. Notably, our understanding of existential questions about the purpose of life, what we as humans value, and the meaning of free will and have not kept apace with technology — even though in many cases new technology and new understandings about the world have pulled the rug out of our previous answers. These questions will become especially important as we start fundamentally modifying our biology and finally unravel the mysteries of the mind itself.
Rawhide commented on my previous post that he was surprised there was much doubt about the placebo effect's existence. It turns out there've been some serious questions raised about whether the placebo effect is actually just a myth after a 2001 New England Journal of Medicine article that analyzed 114 placebo-using medical studies and found that, on the average, the placebo effect was minimal if it exists at all.
Dylan Evans (a frequent contributor to the MindHacks blog) has a 2003 book called Placebo: The Belief Effect that argues that the placebo effect only helps with some kinds of conditions — namely pain, swelling, stomach ulcers, depression, and anxiety — and that by lumping everything into one average the meta-study washes out the few places where placebos actually work. He also suggests that placebos probably work by triggering the release of endorphins, which affect the same kinds of symptoms. Given the recent study it looks like he hit the nail on the head on that one.
You can find a nice summary of his idea in this short paper, which also includes a nice history of the discovery and our understanding of the placebo effect.
Update 8/30/05: typo fix
The Economist has a short article on how researchers have observed that people's brains emit more endorphins when given a placebo and told it will counteract pain. The article starts with this:
The placebo effect, long considered nothing more than psychological suggestibility, does now appear to be genuine.
It's hard for me to imagine the worldview necessary for that sentence to make any sense. If you believe (as I do) that the mind is fully implemented by our biology then you wouldn't at all be surprised that there's a biological cause for the observed decrease in subjective pain. On the other hand, if you still put Descartes before the horse and believe in a kind of soul or other mind/body dualism then the idea that a non-physical "psychological suggestibility" isn't genuine (even though it stops the equally non-physical pain) is ludicrous.
It seems to me that The Economist and probably a majority of Westerners want to walk a middle road, accepting only the physical, observable, and scientific world as "genuine" while at the same time refusing to accept that a direct corollary of that belief is that our own minds must be a part of that physical, observable world. It's no wonder we have such difficulty dealing with issues like mental illness in this culture...
Intelligent Design has two key arguments:
The first argument has been addressed by a number of people, but it seems like the second argument has been largely dismissed since (just like Creationism or the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory) it doesn't have predictive power and thus is a gut-feel rhetorical argument rather than a scientific theory. I think it should be dismissed on those grounds when it comes to science classes, but what surprises me is how silly the rhetorical argument is as well.
Consider: Intelligent Design claims that life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligence, even though:
Given these rhetorical holes, I have to wonder whether the real reason Intelligent Design proponents feel something so complex must have been designed by an intelligence is because emotionally they've already assumed the reverse, namely that any system able to produce something so complex must in its own right be intelligent.
If so, then in a way Intelligent Design proponents are correct: there is an intelligence that designed life. That intelligence is the distributed system of naturally occurring patterns of reproduction, natural selection and genetic drift that we call evolution.
The L.A. Times and AP report that autism cases are decreasing in California — the rate peaked in 2002 and has been dropping since. Autism rose 273% in California between 1987 and 1998. (The full report on doesn't seem to have been posted on the Department of Developmental Services website yet.)
I've always believed that a healthy society encourages free and open debate among its citizens, and am a strong supporter of technology and trends that support free and independent speech. At its heart is a belief in the Darwinism of ideas — that out of a cacophony of voices somehow the the good ideas will beat out idiocy and lies. Between the incredibly polarized US politics and the rising prominence of Islamic and Christian fanaticism, the past few years have seriously tested my faith in this belief. The myth of the Internet and the free speech movement in general is that by allowing many voices to flourish the good ideas and behaviors will push out the bad — that the best way to fight the harmful effects of "bad" speech is not through censorship but through still more speech. I think it's important to question that assumption from time to time, especially for those like myself that design technology to make communication even more frictionless.
My recent thinking has been shaped in part by two editorials. One is the recent op-ed in the NYT in which John Tierney calls on the media to show a little restraint in reporting on suicide bombings to "give the public a more realistic view of the world's dangers." To this, security expert Bruce Shneier responds that reports on suicide bombings may make us feel more insecure than we should, but that
...the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure.
The second editorial is Mark Danner's chilling analysis of the political positioning that led up to the Iraq war, based on the recently leaked secret Downing Street memo. One quote from that piece that's relevant is by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister:
Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.
I'm now starting to see speech as a duality, made up of information on the one hand and emotion on the other. Information is communication for the head — the factual, objective component of what is being communicated that speaks to the analytical parts of our minds. Emotion is the punch that goes right to our guts — the difference between a logical but dry speech and a rousing call to arms. All communication has aspects of both. While a particular speech, document or medium may emphasize one more than the other, human-to-human communication necessarily is encoded in ways that speak to both our heads and our hearts simultaneously.
Both information and emotion are used to convince, seduce, cajole and manipulate others, either to their benefit or detriment. It's beneficial to society and to the people being convinced when parents raise their child to be a responsible and caring adult, when religion convinces a criminal to lead an honest life and when a book inspires someone to go out and follow his dreams. It's detrimental to society and the person being manipulated when a con artist bilks a widow out of her life savings, an advertiser fosters the addictions of new potential customer and a politician lies to hide the fact that he's working against the voters' best interest.
On the whole I still believe the myth about many voices favoring good ideas when it comes to the information part of speech — just look to The Pajamahidin of bloggers who fact-check a news story to death as soon as it hits the Net. My fear is that a plethora of voices does not have the same filtering effect when it comes to the emotional impact of society's various conversations, and if anything has a magnifying effect on powerful, wrong ideas.
Assuming I'm correct, I can see two possible reasons the emotional speech that is most healthy for society doesn't rise to the top. The first is that, at least in the US, our primary emotion these days is fear. Terrorism is the obvious fear, of course, but that also functions as a proxy for all sorts of other fears: fear of losing our jobs, our investments and our retirement; fear of a housing bubble, or that we'll never be able to afford a house at all; fear that the world has shifted in fundamental ways, that our old ways of thinking are becoming obsolete and that we'll never be able to adapt. Our natural human response to fear is to emphasize our connection and similarity to those most like ourselves — to speak as one voice rather than question what is said by members of own tribe. Fear is also a strong and infectious emotion, and tends to overwhelm less primal ones. The net result is that the communication that is rising to the top varies in informational content, but speaks with one voice when it comes to emotional content. It's "Social Security is going bankrupt! Boogah boogah!" versus "The Republicans are trying to dismantle Social Security! Boogah Boogah!".
The second reason is more subtle: our society is very bad at recognizing or even admitting the role emotion plays in determining our beliefs and behaviors. We cling to the myth that man is a rational creature, the truth is that man is a rationalizing creature. But because our society values rational response over emotional reaction, when we do get carried away by our emotions us we rationalize excuses for our behavior rather than take a step back and examine how we're being manipulated.
I agree with Shneier that the solution is not censorship, even self-censorship. Any system that relies on individuals to police their own ideas is doomed to fall to the first idiot with a strong belief in a stupid idea, or more likely to someone with something to gain by gaming the system. What we need is a better way to defend ourselves, as individuals, from this kind of manipulation. Educating ourselves in how manipulation works is a good first step, but to avoid just fooling ourselves that education itself needs to be both informational and emotional in nature. I don't know whether such a thing would look more like logic, religion, psychology, self-help, yoga or stand-up comedy, but I know we could certainly use more of it.
Update 7/26/05: Eric Nehrlich weighs in that emotional speech may have a natural tendency to die out due to "emotional speech exhaustion." I think that's true at the individual level (certainly I've become much less emotional by politics in the past year). I have to wonder whether emotional exhaustion can be directly applied when looking at a culture as a whole though, given that there are always new young hot-headed 20-year-olds to replace the burned-out 30-something activists that preceded them. Certainly society goes in cycles with regard to polarization and emotional thinking, but when looking at patterns over years or decades I expect that's much more due to demographics, economics and insecurity than one generation becoming worn out by the previous generation's passion.
BBC Radio Four's Science Frontiers has a nice show this week about neuroprosthetics, including interviews with Micuel Nicolelis at Duke and folks at the Donoghue Lab at Brown. Streaming audio is here for another day or so. (Link by way of Mind Hacks.)
(by way of Boing Boing) O'Reilly has just released Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using your Brain in the World — from a quick browse of the accompanying blog, I can already see this is a book I'm going to have to get a copy of...
Also from the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting, by way of PRNewsWire:
Novel Imaging Method Shows Abnormal Brain Anatomy in Children with ADHD (embargoed until 9 a.m. CT, Nov. 29)
Researchers at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York have discovered that children with h Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have abnormalities in the anatomy of their brains. Previously, ADHD was suspected to be a chemical imbalance, but this study shows physical abnormalities in the fiber pathways in three areas of the brain that regulate attention, impulsive behavior, motor activity and inhibition. A second study found that stimulant medications usually prescribed for ADHD actually correct some of these structural abnormalities. The studies will be presented by Manzar Ashtari, Ph.D.
A new study presented yesterday at the Radiological Society of North America yesterday showed differences in brain patterns when people are lying vs. when they're telling the truth. It's a small study (just 9 subjects) and it's not clear that fMRI would be any more reliable than a polygraph, but it's an indication of what's down the road...
Changes were detected in the frontal, temporal and limbic lobes — it's not clear to me how many of those changes might be detectable by the near-infrared spectral imaging I blogged about earlier, but if possible that might address some of the cost issues associated with fMRI...
Just got back from the 7th IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers. As always, the subjects spanned several fields including augmented reality, machine perception, biosensors, fashion design and ergonomics, human-computer interaction, textiles, and systems. I'll post a link to a full trip report in a few days, but here are a few highlights:
Implantables (keynote): it's always nice when a keynote can do a conference one better, and that was certainly the case this year. Dr. Michael Okun, co-director of the University of Florida Movement Disorders Center, discussed and showed videos from his work on surgical treatment of Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders using deep brain stimulator therapy (DBS). Okun and his colleague probe deep inside a fully awake patient's brain with a micrometer lead and start "listening" to individual neuron firings to tell what part of the brain they're probing. The target is the part of the brain that controls motion for the body part experiencing tremors — a spot about the size of a small pea. Then they insert a deep-brain lead attached to an embedded pacemaker-like device that sits in the chest. The device emits electrical pulses that change the pattern with which the neurons fire, and within seconds the patient's tremor stops. The videos he showed were almost like magic; you can literally turn on and off a person's tremor using a remote control.
Even more thought-provoking is that when you move the deep-brain lead you can affect not just other motor functions but also cognition and emotions. Some of the videos he showed were of patients with slightly misplaced electrodes (placed by other labs). Depending on where the electrode has been placed, activation can induce face twitches, contralateral (one-sided) smiling, giggling and laughter, crying attacks, manic attacks, euphoria, severe depression, fear or anxiety. Some patients would cry while experiencing a sudden overwhelming feeling of sadness, while others would go into a fit of uncontrollable sobbing but have no feeling of sadness at all. To see all these effects induced with what looks like a normal TV remote is rather amazing, as is the thought that Okun thinks such techniques might one day be used to treat affective disorders, severe depression, or possibly even conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Memory Glasses: Last year Rich DeVaul presented a poster on some preliminary work showing that he could successfully cue people's memory by displaying subliminals on a head-up display. The idea is that such a system might be used as a "zero attention memory aid," designed to help a person remember names, facts or conversations without the additional cognitive load usually required. This year he presented a more complete study that bears out his hypothesis: subjects did about 1.5 times better on a match-names-to-faces recall test when they had subliminal cuing with names than when they didn't have cuing. Even more intriguing, when subjects were given an incorrect subliminal cue (a name that matches a different face), they still did slightly better at remembering the correct name, presumably because the subliminal primed the memorization process as a whole even if it didn't prime the specific name. This secondary effect was not quite statistically significant (p = 0.06) but if real it might mean that the subliminal only needs to be related to an event to have a positive effect. For example, you might better remember a conversation with your boss just by having a subliminal flashback of an image of what he was wearing at the time.
Sociometer: The real structure of a business isn't the official organization chart but the informal network of who communicates with whom. In the late 1980s Olivetti and Xerox PARC used their active badge technology to explore some aspects of these networks, but Tanzeem Choudhury is taking it several steps further with active badges that can not only map out who talks to whom (using infrared beacons) but also the style of turn-taking that is used in a conversation (using microphones). Through this she's able to, for example, determine who has more social prestige in a group by who modifies his or her speech patterns to match the other person in a conversation.
The Village Voice has a nice summary of the Transvision 2003 USA Conference, sponsored by the World Transhumanist Association. Founded in 1998, the organization anticipates the day when technology will have the ability to halt aging and alter "limitations on human and artificial intelligence, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth." As the name implies, they look forward to the day when technology allows us to move beyond what we now consider "human," becoming first transitional humans and finally "posthuman." They also anticipate several bumps in the road, both in terms of real dangers from the technology itself and a backlash against what some might see as an unnatural or downright immoral use of technology to "play God." Thus this conference, which brings together Transhumanists, professional bioethicists, anti-technology activists, and critical social theorists of science and technology.
I think these guys are pointing in the right direction, but they're pointing way, way far out down the road. For example, here is their view on what a posthuman can become:
As a posthuman you would be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as we are to other primates. Your body would be resistant to disease and immune to aging, giving you unlimited youth and vigor. You would have control over your own desires, moods, and mental states, giving you the option of never feeling tired, bored, or irritated about petty things; you could instead choose to experience intense pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, focused serenity, or some other state of consciousness that currently human brains may not even be able to access.
Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads [see "What is uploading?"], or they could be the result of making many partial but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, mood drugs, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.
I tend to be a techno-optimist when it comes to my own fields of intelligence augmentation and wearable computing, as well as those I know less about such as genetic engineering and psychoactive drugs. Many years from now (sadly, probably a generation or two after I am already dead) I expect some of the things the Transhumanists predict will come to pass. However, there are a few fundamental issues that we will have to face along this road before we ever get to the point on the horizon that they look towards.
First, we will hit a crisis of values. Biology can make us stronger, healthier and longer-lived. Artificial intelligence can make us better able to solve problems and reach goals we set for ourselves. Psychology and psychiatry can help us better understand and change of our moods, emotions and motivations. But none of these sciences can tell us whether being long-lived is good or bad, whether the goals we choose to achieve are the "right" goals, or whether the (presumably happy and contented) moods we choose to feel are in any way more appropriate than how we feel today. These questions can only be answered by liberal arts such as religion, ethics and philosophy, not science, not logic, not pure reason. (Being rationalists, I suspect the Transhumanists would be upset by that assertion, but no matter. Others with a different set of philosophical tools will come to answer these issues.)
Second, long before technology brings us the first transhuman it will by necessity bring us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. These findings will likely have wide-reaching repercussions in how society operates. For example, we may discover that our personality, intelligence, and our very choices are determined solely by the chemistry of our brain, leaving no room for an atomic, immutable soul or indeed any identity that continues throughout time. Such issues are already being taken on by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. They are also seeping into practical questions over the use of Prozac, the acceptability of the insanity defense plea, the regulation of and treatment for addictive drugs, and the concept of justice and "reform" of criminals. If the Transhumanists are right, these battles will be nothing compared to the turmoil over issues of identity, free will and responsibility that are yet to come.
Finally, we will have to accept that transhumans may be very unlike humans now, not only in ability but in morals and values. The Transhumanists believe "progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values." What happens when I change myself so much that my deepest values themselves change? And what if, in my new transhuman state, I decide that intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be and the true purpose of life is to sit around doped-up on happy drugs all day? Would you, inferior normal human that you are, decide that perhaps given my choices I'm not so superior after all? The question of value is paramount in deciding what even qualifies as transhuman or posthuman. It is, I suspect, something of a Göedel statement for the Transhumanist philosophy.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— George Bernard Shaw