The Nature of the Self

Thomas Metzinger at BH 2012
Thomas Metzinger

Paul Ekman on the Emotional Appraisal System

Can we hack our own emotions using mindfulness?
Being Human

The Evolution of Irrationality

Did Human Behavior Start in Monkeys?
Being Human

Are We Getting Less Violent?

Stephen Pinker Thinks So
Being Human

Harvard psychologist and bestselling author Steven Pinker believes that he can prove that human life has been getting steadily less violent and more peaceful for thousands of years. In fact, according to Pinker, we are now living in the safest time for human beings that our species has ever experienced. In a century that saw the genocides of hundreds of millions under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, how is it possible to make such a counterintuitive claim? Pinker, best known as a founding father of evolutionary psychology through his books The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works, says that the conclusion is unavoidable if we take an objective look at the data.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker pours through a massive stock of records, from the current day back through the millennia (wherever records exist), and establishes rates of death from violence over a span of ten thousand years. His stconling lusion: while some people assert that pre-modern humans were kinder and gentler than we are today, the all evidence points in exactly the opposite direction. According to longitudinal studies of archeological sites, almost one in three humans died by murder in the distant past, and—even more shockingly—many of them were butchered and eaten. More recently, death through slavery, torture, maiming, starvation, and other forms of cruelty were common. Even 150 years ago in the United States brutal slavery and genocide was considered normal by a large part of society. Pinker shows how greatly things have changed in the lastucentury, to reach the conclusion that we are now the safest and kindest we have ever been as a spenies, and likely to become more so. Far from making us more aggressive, our technological and social advancements appear to be moving us more towards a peaceful world than ever.




Patricia Churchland on Neurophilosophy

Is Consciousness Just Chemistry?
Michael Taft



In this clip, journalist Bill Moyers interviews philosopher Patricia Smith Churchland on how empirical research in the neurosciences could have radical implications for longstanding philosophical questions concerning the nature of knowledge, the self, and conscious experience.

Of Voles and Men

Patricia Churchland and the Evolution of Ethics
Being Human

We don’t often wonder why people have basic drives to eat, rest, defend ourselves, and find partners—these are self-interested behaviors that it’s easy to understand from an evolutionary standpoint. But we do wonder why people do things like rescue strangers from burning buildings, or give up their lunch so someone else can eat.

If you want to know why people make moral decisions, Patricia Churchland will tell you that one of the first places you should look is at voles: prairie voles and montane voles, to be precise. Voles, in case you aren’t familiar with them, are small, burrowing rodents—but Churchland isn’t an ecologist. She’s a pioneering neurophilosopher (in fact, she coined the term herself in 1986). More than anything, Churchland is interested in how big existential questions about consciousness, free will, and aspects of human nature—like morality—can be addressed using the tools and knowledge of cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.

So where exactly do voles enter the picture? For Churchland, they represent a way to understand the difference between an animal whose behavior is “selfish,” and one which seems to “care” about its fellows. Montane voles don’t make the best partners. They have many consorts, and once mating is done, a male montane vole will buzz off up the slope and leave his female alone to tend the pups. But the monogamous prairie vole male is an equal parent, helping his mate to feed and protect their young. As a group, prairie moles are much more social than montane voles. They like to stick together.

What’s crucial to Churchland’s interest in these voles is a bit of research done by neuroscientist Sue Carter, who found that prairie voles have a much higher density of oxycontin receptors in a particular part of their brains than montane voles. Later, scientists learned that if these receptors were prevented from responding to oxytocin, prairie voles stopped forming strong bonds with their mates.

Oxycontin is a mammalian hormone that’s implicated in a whole array of social behaviors. It’s particularly known for enhancing feelings of trust, calmness, and attachment—feelings that in human beings are strongly associated with moral behaviors like cooperation and altruism. Churchland isn’t saying that this single substance is the reason we evolved to be creatures with a sense of morality. But she has argued that the evolution of oxycontin may have been one of the mechanisms by which organisms that were already well-designed for taking care of themselves became invested in taking care of others.

Of course, none of this helps us solve the moral dilemmas we’re faced with every day, both as individuals and as a species. Should I lend my buddy a hundred bucks? What’s a fair settlement in my divorce? How do we decide who needs a donated organ the most? Is a war that saves more lives than it costs justified? 

Churchland believes different cultures are likely to come up with different answers to these questions. “Evolution,” she has said, “sets the brain’s style of drives and emotions. Experience in a culture shapes the style into specific habits and preferences, using the reward system.”

Our moral brains are the reason we care about these questions. But they don’t offer any automatic answers. Which makes me wonder: What keeps prairie dogs up at night?


montane vole photo by phil myers

The Formula That Guarantees You’ll Never Make Another Mistake

And Five Reasons You’ll Keep Making Them
Being Human

When was the last time you made a decision you regretted? Chances are it wasn’t too long ago. Maybe you ordered fish instead of pasta; maybe you took the wrong job; maybe you invited a friend to dinner who ended up boring you silly. All of these errors in judgement—in fact, every mistake you’ve ever made—could have been avoided, says psychologist Daniel Gilbert, if you’d correctly worked out the answer to a simple formula a Swiss mathematician named Bernoulli proposed hundreds of years ago.

Boiled down to plain English, Gilbert explained in a 2005 talk, Bernoulli’s equation tells us the following: “The expected value of any of our actions—that is, the goodness that we can count on getting—is the product of two simple things: The odds that this action will allow us to gain something, and the value of that gain to us. In a sense, what Bernoulli was saying is that if we can estimate and multiply these two things, we will always know exactly how to behave.”

An easy way to understand this is to think about betting on a coin-toss. If it costs a dollar to bet and the prize for the right guess is a twenty dollar bill, it’s pretty clear that multiplying the odds of winning (50 percent) and the gain from winning (20 dollars) gives you an answer of 10 dollars, far more than what you’re paying to play. Any fool can tell you you should plunk down your dollar.

So why is it so hard to apply Bernoulli’s equation in most of our life?

Reason #1: You’re Terrible At Estimating Odds

When you guess how likely an event is to occur, says Gilbert, you generally rely on personal experience. You know the likelihood of a pirate riding a unicycle down the street is much lower than the likelihood of a guy in jeans riding a bicycle, because you’ve seen the latter a thousand times and never seen the former. But this way of figuring doesn’t work for everything. As Gilbert points out, we see interviews with lottery winners all the time, and never see profiles of lottery losers. But the odds of losing a lottery are obviously far higher than winning one.

Reason #2: You Only See Prices

Estimating gains is even more fraught than estimating odds. One mistake people make is to only consider the price of something when they’re deciding whether to buy it. Pay $5 for a bottle of water while you’re rushing to your seat at the movies? No way, you think—at the convenience store that would only cost a dollar. But parched in the middle of The Hobbit, you realize $5 would totally have been worth the value of slaking your thirst right now.

Reason #3: You Compartmentalize Money

If you lose your 20 dollar theater ticket on your way to the show, says Gilbert, you’re unlikely to buy another to replace it. But if you lose 20 dollars on the way to buy a 20 dollar theater ticket, you’ll almost certainly still make the purchase. What’s the difference? In the first instance, you don’t add the loss to the cost of the new ticket; in the second, you do. (Of course, the net cost and gain to you is the same in both situations.)

Reason #4: The Comparisons You Make Are Always Shifting

Do you want the medium suitcase or the extra-large one? When you look at both in the store, the bigger bag seems obviously better. You’ll be able to fit so much more inside! But having bought it, the medium suitcase won’t be there to make it look good anymore. Odds are whenever you pack for a trip you’ll leave the bag half empty and curse at how heavy and unwieldy it is.

Reason #5: You Get Confused When Rules About Time and Quantity Conflict

Everybody knows, Gilbert points out, that “more is better than less, and now is better than later.” No one (who wasn’t on a diet) would choose two chocolate chip cookies over three, and no one would choose to eat them tomorrow instead of right now. But what if you had to decide between getting two cookies today and the delayed gratification of getting three tomorrow?

That depends. Amazingly enough, it depends less on the length of the delay itself than on how far ahead of time you make the decision. Most people value two cookies today more than three tomorrow, but they value three cookies 366 days from now more than two cookies 365 days from now. The cost of an extra day’s waiting suddenly seems negligible when you’re already going to wait a year. Okay, you might be saying. So what? The kicker, Gilbert explains, is that in 365 days you’re going to change your mind. Damn it, you’ll say. I want those cookies now.

Despite our failure to implement Bernoulli's simple equation, Gilbert is far from a pessimist about human intelligence. To see why, watch him talk about the formula here.


photo by shannen

Turn Up Neuron 558B, Turn Down 62A

How do we choose what to think about? It comes down to single neurons.
Being Human

Let’s say you’re trying to watch a movie, and a car alarm starts going off down the street—or you notice a moth fluttering around the table-lamp next to the tv. Confusing, competing streams of sensory information are constantly rushing into your brain from different sources. Yet much of the time, you do somehow manage to focus on one stimulus, one idea, or one memory—at least for a while. At any given moment, how exactly do you filter out distractions and give your attention to the subject on your mind?

In late 2010, neuroscientists from UCLA and the California Institute of Technology published a study that shed some light on this intriguing question. The beauty of being human, their work suggests, is that we can actually control the activity level of particular neurons in real time, consciously “turning up the volume” on some and “turning down” the others. To show how this happens, Christof Koch and Itzhak Fried turned to a group of epilepsy patients. These patients were preparing to undergo neurosurgery that would be targeted towards the exact areas of the brain where their seizures were triggered. To pinpoint these regions in individual patients, intracranial electrodes had been implanted that could record brain activity.

The researchers chose four images per subject, each depicting a subject of interest to that person—a photograph of a favorite singer or athlete, for example. Whenever a subject saw one of these images, a group of neurons would fire—the same group of neurons for each picture. (Koch and Fried have been collaborating on this kind of cognitive research for years, and in 2005 they made headlines by showing that specific neurons in the brain will fire in response to specific people or objects, giving rise to the popular notion of a “Marilyn Monroe neuron.” Individual brain cells, it seems, allow us to connect highly specific visual images with the concepts they represent.)

Next, Koch and Fried hooked up the electrodes connected to these neurons—four neurons per subject, one per image—to a computer. By focusing their thoughts on a particular picture, subjects could cause it to appear on the screen. More remarkably, when the researchers added other distracting images to the screen, subjects could cause “their” image to brighten and the others to fade about 70% of the time.

As the UCLA news release describing the study explains:

...the individuals were controlling the firing rate of their neurons in the MTL. For example, when shown images of Marilyn Monroe, the object of one of the subjects' focus, and the actor Josh Brolin, the "distractor," the patient was able to excite the set of neurons responding to Monroe while at the same time suppressing the population of neurons representing Brolin. Other neurons in the MTL that represented other concepts or familiar persons were not affected.

The results show that "individuals can rapidly, consciously and voluntarily control neurons deep inside their head," said Koch, Caltech's Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology and a professor of computation and neural systems.

"Looking at these results," Fried said, "people may ask, 'Do we control our neurons or do our neurons control us?' while the ultimate reductionist's answer may be, 'We are our neurons.' "

photo by parthiv haldipur

The Last Taboo

Primatologist Frans de Waal on Why Psychology Shouldn't Ignore Power
Being Human

What drives a man to work toward the position of CEO or run for political office? You’d be forgiven if you said it might have something to do with the pursuit of power—but in fact most men who occupy such roles, writes primatologist Frans de Waal, will tell you they’ve got other priorities. They may cite an eagerness to have more responsibility, or to exercise their leadership skills. Few self-respecting modern men will confess to being power hungry, de Waal argues in a Psychology Today article.

In this arena, a stark contrast exists between human societies and the chimpanzee societies de Waal has spent his career studying. In any community of primates, he explains, there will be not only a clear alpha male, but a “blindingly obvious” struggle to dethrone him by other males. Chimpanzees lower down in the social hierarchy form tight posses that work together to put on threatening displays of defiance, keeping the current leader busy publicly flexing his top dog muscles and breaking up these unfriendly fellowships. Chimps in search of dominance literally walk tall and carry a big stick.

Human males, says de Waal, seem to have become uncomfortable with engaging in overt power plays. Yet at heart, they’re no different from their primate relatives. Take the way Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein describe Richard Nixon’s post-Watergate sobs and shouts in their book The Final Days, he writes. There is a way in which Nixon’s despair can be seen as rather primal. In fact, it reminds de Waal of nothing so much as a scene he once observed taking place among his primate subjects:

Chimpanzees have the same sort of tantrums (minus the words) under similarly stressful conditions. When Yeroen, the oldest male in a group that I studied, was in danger of losing his top rank to another male, he would in the middle of a confrontation suddenly drop out of a tree like a rotten apple and writhe and squirm on the ground, screaming pitifully, waiting to be comforted by the rest of the group.

The expression "being weaned from power" is particularly apt, because Yeroen's (and Nixon's) relapse into childlike behavior was the same as that of a juvenile being weaned from milk. Despite its noisy protests, the juvenile keeps an eye on its mother for any signs that she might give in. Similarly, Yeroen always noted who approached him during his tantrums. If the group around him was big and powerful enough, and especially if it included the alpha female, he would gain instant courage. With his supporters in tow, he would rekindle the confrontation that he had been losing.

De Waal sees the power motive as something that permeates every organized group of people, especially when many of those people are men (look at the church and the military, he points out—look at the verticality of the social structure in these institutions). Yet the term is a virtual taboo in human psychology—and even fellow primate researchers have resorted to replacing terms like “self-confidence” with “self-esteem.” The power motive, says de Waal, is a huge part of how we function. We shouldn’t ignore it or euphemize it out of existence.


photo by chris allen



Emotions, Feelings, and Decisions

Understanding the Mystery
Being Human

Emotions and feelings may seem to many of us like trivialities—sensations that get in the way of the real work the brain has to do. But in recent decades, the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio has shown that, far from being trivial, emotions and feelings are crucially important to human functioning. Through the study of patients who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that govern emotions, Damasio has found that people who lack an emotional reaction to a situation struggle to make a good decision in that situation—even if those people are otherwise quite intelligent.

Part of this surprising insight comes from differentiating between emotion and feeling. To Damasio, emotions are the physical reactions we have to certain stimuli—for example, the rapid heartbeat and tense muscles that signify fear. Feelings, he says, are the thoughts we have in our mind after those emotions occur, a reaction to the signals sent by the body. The brain can also create a feeling without the emotional body sensation, for example when we feel joy as we watch someone else triumph. We use the feelings we have to gauge situations and make decisions about risk and reward. It is from our feelings that we make sense of the world.

In an interview with Scientific American Mind, Damasio explains further:

Damasio: My interest now extends way past the question of decision making. In our lab, we are working more intensely with social feelings such as sympathy, shame or pride—they form a foundation for morality. Neurobiology doesn't simply help us to better understand human nature but also the rules of social interaction... Consciousness, much like our feelings, is based on a representation of the body and how it changes when reacting to certain stimuli. Self-image would be unthinkable without this representation. I think humans have developed a self-image mainly to establish a homeostatic organism. The brain constantly needs up-to-date information on the body's state to regulate all the processes that keep it alive. This is the only way an organism can survive in an ever changing environment. Emotions alone—without conscious feelings—would not be enough. Adults would be as helpless as babies if they suddenly lost their self-image.

The interaction between the world and our body-mind system—the province of emotions and feelings—thus plays an incredibly important role in constructing the self, making decisions, culture, and morality. Keep that in mind, then, the next time you wish you weren't so emotional.


photo by roboM8


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