Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Your brain is not a computer

Haven't you realized yet that the human brain did not evolve in order to understand itself? Do you really think that this organ, evolved to solve problems related to survival on the Pleistocene savanna, can figure out the workings of most complex thing in the Universe? A little humility, please, neuroscientists.

"Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences.
This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).
This is inspirational, I suppose, because it means that each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time. It is also depressing, because it makes the task of the neuroscientist daunting almost beyond imagination. For any given experience, orderly change could involve a thousand neurons, a million neurons or even the entire brain, with the pattern of change different in every brain."

Monday, May 30, 2016

Scientists find that you don't know what you believe. Freud is not surprised.

"Seriously, it's taken you experimental scientists and moral philosophers a hundred years to catch up with me? Try reading a book once in a while. I wrote a lot of them -- mostly about how difficult it is know the contents of our own minds."

"It is well established that people sometimes think they have beliefs that they don’t really have. For example, if offered a choice between several identical items, people tend to choose the one on the right. But when asked why they chose it, they confabulate a reason, saying they thought the item was a nicer colour or better quality. Similarly, if a person performs an action in response to an earlier (and now forgotten) hypnotic suggestion, they will confabulate a reason for performing it. What seems to be happening is that the subjects engage in unconscious self-interpretation. They don’t know the real explanation of their action (a bias towards the right, hypnotic suggestion), so they infer some plausible reason and ascribe it to themselves. They are not aware that they are interpreting, however, and make their reports as if they were directly aware of their reasons.
Many other studies support this explanation. For example, if people are instructed to nod their heads while listening to a tape (in order, they are told, to test the headphones), they express more agreement with what they hear than if they are asked to shake their heads. And if they are required to choose between two items they previously rated as equally desirable, they subsequently say that they prefer the one they had chosen. Again, it seems, they are unconsciously interpreting their own behaviour, taking their nodding to indicate agreement and their choice to reveal a preference.
The ISA theory has some startling consequences. One is that (with limited exceptions), we do not have conscious thoughts or make conscious decisions. For, if we did, we would be aware of them directly, not through interpretation. The conscious events we undergo are all sensory states of some kind, and what we take to be conscious thoughts and decisions are really sensory images – in particular, episodes of inner speech. These images might express thoughts, but they need to be interpreted.
Another consequence is that we might be sincerely mistaken about our own beliefs. Return to my question about racial stereotypes. I guess you said you think they are false. But if the ISA theory is correct, you can’t be sure you think that. Studies show that people who sincerely say that racial stereotypes are false often continue to behave as if they are true when not paying attention to what they are doing. Such behaviour is usually said to manifest an implicit bias, which conflicts with the person’s explicit beliefs. But the ISA theory offers a simpler explanation. People think that the stereotypes are true but also that it is not acceptable to admit this and therefore say they are false. Moreover, they say this to themselves too, in inner speech, and mistakenly interpret themselves as believing it. They are hypocrites but not conscious hypocrites. Maybe we all are."

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ambulances -- Philip Larkin

Closed like confessionals, they thread
Loud noons of cities, giving back
None of the glances they absorb.
Light glossy grey, arms on a plaque,
They come to rest at any kerb:
All streets in time are visited.

Then children strewn on steps or road,
Or women coming from the shops
Past smells of different dinners, see
A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed,

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress;

For borne away in deadened air
May go the sudden shut of loss
Round something nearly at an end,
And what cohered in it across
The years, the unique random blend
Of families and fashions, there

At last begin to loosen. Far
From the exchange of love to lie
Unreachable inside a room
The traffic parts to let go by
Brings closer what is left to come,
And dulls to distance all we are.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Times of Your Life -- Paul Anka (1975)

Brilliant of Mad Men to use this song in the trailer for the series' final episode:

Did you realize that they were tapping into our nostalgia not for Paul Anka but for this 1977 Kodak commercial?

Good morning, yesterday
You wake up and time has slipped away
And suddenly it's hard to find
The memories you left behind
Remember, do you remember?

The laughter and the tears
The shadows of misty yesteryears
The good times and the bad you've seen
And all the others in between
Remember, do you remember
The times of your life? (do you remember?)

Reach out for the joy and the sorrow
Put them away in your mind
The mem'ries are time that you borrow
To spend when you get to tomorrow

Here comes the setting sun (comes the setting sun)
The seasons are passing one by one
So gather moments while you may
Collect the dreams you dream today
Remember, will you remember
The times of your life?

Gather moments while you may
Collect the dreams you dream today
Remember, will you remember
The times of your life?

Of your life
Of your life
Do you remember, baby
Do you remember the times of your life?


Do you remember, baby
Do you remember the times of your life?


Friday, May 27, 2016

Structural MRI studies reveal little difference in brains of autistic versus healthy normals

Those are some seriously enlarged ventricles. But most people with schizophrenia don't have brain scans that look like that. Always remember that brain scans are NEVER diagnostic in mental health -- that person on the right could have schizophrenia, or autism, or chronic alcoholism, or dementia, or be perfectly healthy.

"A new paper threatens to turn the world of autism neuroscience upside down. Its title is Anatomical Abnormalities in Autism?, and it claims that, well, there aren’t very many.
Published in Cerebral Cortex by Israeli researchers Shlomi Haar and colleagues, the new research reports that there are virtually no differences in brain anatomy between people with autism and those without.
What makes Haar et al.’s essentially negative claims so powerful is that their study had a huge sample size: they included structural MRI scans from 539 people diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 573 controls. This makes the paper an order of magnitude bigger than a typical structural MRI anatomy study in this field. The age range was 6 to 35.
What did they find? Well… not much. First off, the ASD group had no differences in overall brain size (intracranial volume). Nor were there any group differences in the volumes of most brain areas; the only significant finding here was an increased ventricle volume in the ASD group, but even this had a small effect size (d = 0.34). Enlarged ventricles is not specific to ASD by any means – the same thing has been reported in schizophrenia, dementia, and many other brain disorders.
I think this is an important paper and one that the autism field will need to take very seriously. There are hundreds of studies claiming to have found differences in brain structure in autism, many with small sample sizes, and Haar et al’s failure to replicate almost any of these claims, is sobering. It’s important to remember, however, that this paper only considered brain anatomy. It doesn’t contradict studies looking at brain function, nor does it relate to microanatomy or neuropathology (i.e. microscope work.)
As far as it goes, though, it’s a bit of an earthquake – and I’m not sure how much of the field is left standing."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

What really went down at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

"And here is one of the Hiroshima Gas Company and the Honkawa Elementary School. I think the latter really emphasizes the horror of “strategic” bombing, where burning elementary schools become acceptable as “collateral damage.” The famous dome at the upper right hand corner of the photo was directly underneath the explosion; the school was about 800 feet from there."

Scientific American blog

"Some iconic black and white photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wellerstein notes, show the cities after bodies and rubble have been cleared and make them look like “abandoned cities on the moon.” He displays color photos that depict a messier reality. I urge you to check out his illustrated column, but here is the coda, which makes a point worth pondering on this somber anniversary. Bold type is in the original:
There are two ways you can go wrong in making sense of the scale of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The first is to see the bombs as instant vaporizers, to see the bombs as Everything Killers that just zap cities out of existence. This isn’t the case. They kill by crushing and burning and irradiating. They don’t turn you to dust.  They don’t freeze you and turn you into a stop-motion skeleton, like in The Day AfterFor some, death was instantaneous, but for a lot of others, it was a much more protracted affair.
The other way to misunderstand it is to downplay it. Ah, a number of large buildings survived! It’s not so bad, then, right? Maybe the whole nuke thing has been exaggerated! Well, unless you are, you know, not in one of those buildings, and even if you are, it’s a pretty awful thing. Yes, you can approximate the city-wide effects of early atomic bombs with a fleet of conventional bombers dropping napalm — which personally I consider just as much a weapon of mass destruction as anything else... But being napalmed is not exactly a walk in the park for those being bombed, either.
So what’s the right view? An ugly, troublesome, disturbing one; right between those extremes. The atomic bomb was a weapon used to inflict tremendous human suffering. (This is true whether you think its use was justified or not.) If an atomic bomb were to go off over your city, the damage would be horrifying, the death toll staggering. But it’s a level of destruction that people should try to appreciate for what it is — a realistic possibility, not a clean science-fiction ending or a blow to be shrugged off.    
A final point. As Wellerstein would be the first to acknowledge, the photos he displays do not really capture the ugliness of the atomic bombings, because they do not show the victims, dead and alive. You can find photographs of horribly disfigured casualties online. But the best way to appreciate the suffering caused by the atomic bombs is to read John Hersey’s classic work of journalism Hiroshima, published in 1946."

See also: Memoir by Survivor of Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another

How would this country change if 90% of the population attended private elementary and secondary schools (instead of the 10% today)?

Excerpt from On Liberty (1869), Ch. V: Applications

John Stuart Mill

WERE THE DUTY OF ENFORCING universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labour which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education. If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. Unless, indeed, when society in general is in so backward a state that it could not or would not provide for itself any proper institutions of education, unless the government undertook the task; then, indeed, the government may, as the less of two great evils, take upon itself the business of schools and universities, as it may that of joint-stock companies, when private enterprise, in a shape fitted for undertaking great works of industry does not exist in the country. But in general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.