Archive for February, 2013

Insight

February 27, 2013

According to Costa, the author of The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, what will save us all is the ability of the human mind to achieve insight. She writes of insight as it it is a new discovery. The notion of insight and an “aha” moment in solving problems goes back to the Gestalt psychologists at least. What is new is the identification cognitive structures involved in achieving insight.

Costa stresses that insight is a biological capability that we all have. She cites an article1 that describes an experiment in which the cognitive structures were identified. Nineteen experimental participants were asked to solve word problems while the activity in their brains was monitored. Three words were presented, such as pine, crab, and sauce, to each participant. The task was to think of another word that could be combined with each of these words to make three new words. For example, a solution to these words would be “apple,” to produce “pineapple,” “crabapple,” and “applesauce.” The participants did many of these problems and brain activity was tracked to identify and differences that signaled an insightful answer. When insight was used the anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus (aSTG) became highly excited producing a sudden burst of gamma oscillatory activity. This occurred 300 milliseconds in advance of solving the problem. They also discovered that the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACG), which is responsible for relaying signals between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, appears to suppress irrelevant thoughts prior to invoking insight. The notion is that insightful thinking is more vulnerable to external interference than is nonsightful processing necessitating greater suppression of external thoughts. When insight is achieved, the problem solver is confident of her insight. Insight is cognitively taxing. Increased electrical activity takes place in the left posterior M/STG, the anterior cingulate, the right posterior M/STG, and the amygdala. Costa argues that insight is the brain’s special weapon against complexity. A simplifying insight eliminates the complexity.

Insight and creativity are closely related. I would suggest that insight is a special type of creativity, one aimed and solving a particular problem. Insight is creative, but creativity also includes literature, fine art, music, and dance to name just a few activities.

1 Kouinios, J.K., Frymiare, J.L., Bowden, e.M., Fleck, J.I., Subramanaiam,K, Parrish, T.B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2006). The Prepared Mind: Neural Activity Prior to Problem Presentaion Predicts Subsequent Solution by Sudden Insight. Psychological Science, 17:882, DOI:10.111/j.1467-9280.2006.01798.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Advertisements

Extreme Economics

February 24, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the supermeme Extreme Economics. According to Costa (p. 138) “The economics supermeme occurs when simple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, become the litmus test for determining the value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions.

The reason that extreme economics is so dangerous is that profit can prevent or retard technological solutions. (p.140) That’s because broad systemic solutions that benefit humankind don’t always fit accepted economic models. And when they don’t, progress is inhibited.

The emphasis on short-term returns can preclude a technological solution that in the long term would be both more profitable and beneficial. Extreme economics has increased educational costs and resulted in an inefficient delivering of medical and pharmaceutical services. Wherever one looks, college athletics, for example, one finds the adverse effects of extreme economics. I have read that Alan Greenspan, a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve had the phrase, “Greed is good,” posted in his office. I shall remind the reader that greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Moreover, Greenspan’s policies and lack of action helped lay the groundwork for the economic crisis. Sometimes I think the world has become one enormous whorehouse.

It is actually somewhat worse than Costa portrays. Research has indicated that the predominant model in economics is obsolete. Humans cannot be entirely rational because our information processing limitations allow us only to process only a minute amount of data bearing on a decision. Behavioral economics has indicted that the decisions humans make are not always in accordance with the rational paradigm. Yet the majority of economists, and unfortunately those in key positions, still cling to an obsolete model.

There have been a number of healthymemory blog posts bearing on this issue. See the following healthymemory blog posts: “Thinking Fast and Slow,” “Happy Labor Day: Why Are We Working so Hard?” “Why With All This Technology, Are We Working so Hard?” and “Gross National Happiness.” This last post discussed a substitute metric to the Gross National Product (GNP), one that is much more directly related to human needs and human happiness. Another metric that has been proposed as a replacement to the GNP and is discussed in the same healthymemory blog post is the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Relevant and effective metrics would be valuable in addressing the world’s economic problems.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Silo Thinking

February 20, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the supermeme Silo Thinking. According to Costa, “…silo thinking: compartmentalized thinking and behaviors that prohibit the collaboration needed to address complex problems.

It’s unfortunate that our institutions of higher learning are organized into academic departments. The following is from Costa’s book on page 135. “In his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E.O. Wilson explained that silos have a more insidious effect than preventing a few problems from being solved here and there. Wilson warned that “professional atomization” also works against unifying the cumulative knowledge, discoveries, and science we have at our disposal. Whether it’s black holes in outer space or the current global recession, Wilson argues that thinking in silos prevents us from leveraging the known laws in physics, music, chemistry, engineering, economics, and biology together to explain natural phenomena. In his view, the barricades that stand in the way of centuries of knowledge must be torn down in order for humanity to progress.” So these barricades need to be broken and we need to think and work in an interdisciplinary fashion looking how to leverage our respective disciplines. Educational programs need to break down these disciplinary walls. Often creative and insight are a matter of combining ideas from different areas.

My personal area of expertise is in human factors or engineering psychology. This field is concerned with the interactions between human beings and technology. This includes the design of devices and systems so that they are easy to use. The supporting materials, wizards, manuals, help files, to help people use technology. It is also concerned with the development of effective training systems are all part of human factors. Given the explosion of technology, you might be surprised to learn that this is a fairly small field. Whenever you experience using technology you should wonder why this field was not engaged in the development of the particular technology presenting the problem.

We also tend to place different aspects of our lives in independent silos. Consider religion and politics, for example. Consider the teachings of Jesus Christ. He told us to love one another, to turn the other cheek, and devoted himself to the sick and unfortunate. Many of the same people who hold Christian beliefs do not apply them to their political behavior. They will be against government programs and policies that are aimed at helping the poor. They will be against national health insurance. They will embrace policies that deal harshly with immigrants. And they will insist on arming themselves. I find these beliefs and behaviors contradictory, and I think we would all be better off if they voted for politicians that supported policies that were in consonance with their religious beliefs. All of us should examine our thinking and beliefs to identify silos and eliminate them.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Counterfeit Correlation

February 17, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the Counterfeit Correlation supermeme.

When 1,009 Americans were asked,”Do you believe that correlation implies causation, 62 % responded “yes.” This statistic is both depressing and informative. It’s depressing because such a large percentage of people believe it to be true. It’s informative in that in provides some insight into the current stagnation we are suffering. It is essential that, to the extent possible, there is a good correspondence between beliefs and facts. Confusing correlation with causation can lead to many incorrect facts.

Correlation refers to how to variables or factors vary together. A correlation coefficient is a numerical measure of this co-variation. It varies from -1.00 to 1.00. A correlation of 1.0 indicates that you can predict one variable perfectly if you know the other variable. More of one variable implies a corresponding increase in the other variable. A correlation of -1.0 also indicates that you can predict one variable perfectly if you know the other variable. But the relationship is inverse. That is, more of one variable predicts less of another variable. A correlation of 0.0 implies that there is no relationship between the two variables. In other words, they are independent. You can determine the variability accounted for between the two variables by squaring this correlation coefficient. So a correlation of 0.50 would account for 25% of the variance between the two variables.

Usually the only fact reported in the popular press when a correlation is reported is whether it is statistically significant. Statistical significance refers to the probability that the correlation is due to chance. So if you read that the correlation is statistically significant beyond the p<0.05 level, it means that there is only a 5% probability that the correlation is due to chance. One of the factors determining whether a correlation is statistically significant is the size of the sample on which the correlation was computed. For example, with a sample size of 20,000 a correlation of 0.02, which would account for only 0.04% of the variance, is statistically significant at the 0.05 level. Moreover, statistical significance does not imply practical significance. So do not be impressed when you hear that a study found a statistically significant relationship without knowing the exact value of the correlation coefficient.

Now even if you have an impressively large correlation coefficient that is statistically significant, that does not necessarily imply causality. There are spurious correlations and correlations that result from other related variables. For example, one study found a significant correlation between cell phone use and sleep. That is a large amounts of cell phone use were correlated with poorer quality sleep. However, it was also true that those who had high cell phone use consumed more caffeinated beverages, consumed more alcohol, woke up later, and showed higher levels of anxiety and agitation. It was found that taking away their cell phones made them more anxious, which exacerbated their condition.

There are both spurious correlations that are spurious on the face of it, and spurious correlations that seem reasonable. A good website for exploring these problems more thoroughly can be found at

http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/100/correlation_or_causation.htm

Establishing causation is a difficult problem that can require many years of research to establish. Ideally one wants to conduct controlled experiments in which the factors of interest are manipulated. This is not always possible, and correlational studies are clearly needed, but they must be interpreted with care. Often there is not enough time does not allow the definitive establishment of causation. In these cases, one needs to use the best information available, knowing that it might be wrong, and knowing that it might be changed and enhanced in the future.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Personalization of Blame Supermeme

February 13, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the personalization of blame supermeme.

Whenever there is a problem the immediate response is to try to find the individual or individuals who are responsible for the problem, and to blame that person or persons. The problem here is that the causes of most problems in our complex world are systemic. By blaming an individual or individuals the system problems can be overlooked and the problem will continue to occur.

One of the best examples is when there is an airplane crash and the crash is attributed to pilot error. All this does is to confirm that we humans are all fallible. So what’s new? The questions is why did the pilot commit the error, or series of errors. If the pilot was not alone, then the question goes to the crew level to ascertain why the crew did not respond appropriately. If the pilot was alone, reasonable questions follow. Was the pilot adequately trained? Was the pilot overly tired, or in poor health, and if so, why? Did the design of the flight deck contribute to the problem? These are the questions that need to be asked at the system level if future crashes are to be avoided.

A very serious problem is medical error. Again, the initial response is to blame a nurse or doctor. Doing this is counterproductive and makes it difficult to find the problem when everyone and the hospital itself is preoccupied with saving its respective keister. A 2000 Institute of Medicine report estimated that medical errors are estimated to result in about between 44,000 and 98,000 preventable deaths and 1,000,000 excess injuries each year in U.S. Hospitals. This is a virtual holocaust that occurs annually that exceeds highway deaths and most war deaths. These deaths and injuries are often due to communication problems, being it the failure to pass information, illegible writing, or failing to contact and involve the correct people. The failure to use simple checklists results in unnecessary deaths and injury (see the healthymemory blog post, “A Cognitive Safety Net”). There is much that can be done here, but the first step is not to look for someone to blame, but instead to look at the entire system and look for points of systemic failure.

Osama bin Laden has been the face of terrorism. But his killing, while being satisfying to many, has not led to the end of terrorism. There are many terrorist organizations and a variety of causes of terrorism. They must be understood and approached from a systemic perspective. Looking at terrorism in terms of a most wanted list is not going to be effective.

Obesity, pollution and global warming are major societal problems that can be blamed on ourselves. Although the argument can be made that these problems can be addressed at an individual level, individuals can stop overeating and stop polluting, these approaches will not be effective. First it must be recognized that we are fallible human beings. With respect to obesity, eating as much high caloric whenever it was available was a good adaptive mechanism that allowed our species to survive. Unfortunately, we are left with this evolutionary adaptive mechanism, which is not longer adaptive Unfortunately, will power is a resource that can easily be depleted. This ego depletion is a loss in will or mental energy and can be measured by glucose metabolism.1

So systemic approaches need to be applied. In the case of obesity, sizes of fast foods can be restricted. Unhealthy foods can be taxed. Healthy foods could be made easier to obtain (for example, replacing the junk food in most vending machines with healthy foods). Ultimately, I think the food industry needs to become more creative and make food and drink with fewer calories more palatable. I believe they have made progress in the beverage industry.

With respect to environmental pollution and global warming, possible solutions include heavy taxes on heavy vehicles, and higher gas taxes to pay for better public transportation. Tax credits can be given for environmental friendly vehicles. Incentives for both individuals and industry to more away from fossil fuels can be provided.

A major flaw in Costa’s book is her misunderstanding and consequent mis-characterization of B.F. Skinner and behavioral psychology, which has much to offer. It espouses an empirical approach in which facts and beliefs are strongly linked. Systemic approaches to behavioral modification to promote environmental friendly and personal healthy behaviors are quite possible.

1Baumeister, R.E., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Irrational Opposition Supermeme

February 10, 2013

In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa, she outlines five supermemes that lead to the stagnation and collapse of civilizations: Irrational Opposition, The Personalization of Blame, Counterfeit Correlation, Silo Thinking, and Extreme Economics. This healthymemory blog post will address the irrational opposition supermeme. According to Costa, Irrational Opposition Occurs when the act of rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, marginalizing, and resisting rational solutions becomes the accepted norm.   Again according to Costa, “When oppositional thinking and behavior is merely a meme, tenacity and evidence might be all that is required to allow rational solutions to prevail. But when opposition evolves into a supermeme, solutions to our greatest threats may be prevented from coming to fruition because the resources required to overcome the opposition may simply be too great.

The standing rule should be that if you oppose something, you need to propose an alternative solution, or justify why what you are opposing is not needed or that any adverse consequences are small or inconsequential. Take taxes, for example. The United States, or the colonies at that time, revolted against the British because of the taxes they were imposing were done without representation from the colonies. The proposed solution was a war that they won. Today many citizens and politicians are against taxes. Grover Norquist has made a career lobbying against taxes. Indeed he has encouraged politicians to sign pledges against raising taxes. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan the national debt of the United States has grown drastically, its infrastructure has deteriorated to an alarming extent, and the cost of a college education has risen to levels causing students to either forgo a higher education or to acquire ridiculous levels of debt. I do not believe I have ever heard Norquist queried regarding these matters. It is perfectly legitimate to be against taxes, but you most also address the consequences of being against taxes.

The typical justification given is that the person is against “big government.” For me “big government” is another supermeme. It’s something to be against, and presumably these individuals are for small or no government. But what does this mean? What is “Big Government?” Some would say that it is socialism. Again, this is a term used clearly in a pejorative sense that is not defined. There are many socialistic democracies that function quite successfully. If you are against “Big Government” you should define the services that should not be provided by government. These services would either be eliminated or provided by private companies. So who should provide the services, of defense, education, safeguarding food and drugs, safeguarding the financial markets, health services, special populations such as those who are physically or mentally challenged, veterans, and retirees, to name just a few. One can take the position that something is not the responsibility of government. So we could let the elderly without financial resources rot arguing that these people should have provided for themselves, it is not our responsibility. We shall just ignore the dying elderly we pass in the streets or have them arrested for vagrancy.

However, assuming that certain services are needed, a reasonable question is whether they can be better provided by government or the private sector. Many people have strong opinions regarding this, but here is the time to marry facts with beliefs. For me, if your opinion is based solely on your beliefs, I don’t want to hear it. You can wipe your keister with your opinion. So find your facts, first. Often there is no clear answer, but there is the option of doing controlled studies to pin the answer down. When we move from yelling our opinions without accurate facts, to justifying them with accurate facts, to doing controlled studies when the solution is in dispute, then we shall be deserving of the name homo sapiens. Clearly we are not there yet.

To understand why we are not there yet we can go to Daniel Kahneman‘s Two System View of Cognition. According to Kahneman, we have two systems for processing information. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through. So we need to engage System 2, but System 2 is effortful. Thinking is hard. Thinking through ramifications of being against something and trying to think of a solution is hard. Ideologues, those who have a set of strong beliefs, are usually happy. Give them a problem and they have a solution to it. But they live in a fools paradise, because their beliefs and reasoning are flawed.

So, when you encounter the Irrational Opposition Supermeme, challenge it. Force the person to work through the ramifications and propose a solution. Force the engagement of System 2 processing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Beliefs vs. Facts and Knowledge

February 6, 2013

According to Rebecca Costa, civilizations collapse when beliefs do not keep up with facts and knowledge.1 Of course, the facts and knowledge must be accurate. Facts and knowledge change and grow. The rate of growth of facts and knowledge has become exponential, so it is quite difficult for beliefs to keep up. Moreover, we grow comfortable in our beliefs and are reluctant to change them. So the deadlock and stagnation many of us are experiencing is not surprising. Nevertheless, to achieve the ends of both a healthy memory and an advancing civilization it is important, to the extent possible, to try to keep our beliefs in correspondence with ever changing and developing facts and knowledge. We have to be like the great economist, John Maynard Keynes who said, when the facts change, I change my mind.

In science, tentative beliefs, called hypothesis, are tested by looking for facts and by designing experiments to determine the correct facts. The facts and knowledge in science are never certain and continually growing. Indeed, if there is no means of falsifying a belief, then it is not science. New facts lead to new knowledge and new beliefs. New knowledge identifies new problems that need to be addressed. Before the advent of science, beliefs changed slowly as facts and knowledge accumulated slowly. However, since the advent of science, finding new facts and knowledge has increased at an exponential rate. Unfortunately, beliefs are falling further and further behind .

For example, free markets are extolled. Although, there is no doubt regarding the benefits of free enterprise, the notion of a free market is an ideal. Free markets do not remain free in the real world. There are eight centuries of data proving this point.2 Markets are manipulated and monopolies are formed. Most of the world came close to a financial collapse due to ill behaving markets that were insufficiently regulated. Although it is true that regulation can be stifling if done improperly, it is almost a certainty that if they are unregulated, serious problems develop. Given the limited corrections that were implemented as a result of the previous market crisis, there is no reason to be confident that there is not a market collapse in the future.

Another example is global warming. There seems to be a scientific consensus that global warming is a serious problem. Now science is never certain. Facts and knowledge can be change. But the ramifications of global warming should not be ignored and considerations need to be given to how global warming could be mitigated or eliminated. Even in the unlikely event that the predictions of global warming are wrong, we would have erred on the side of caution. But it is easier to cling to the belief that there is no global warming, as it avoids the inconvenience and costs of taking action. Our situation is analogous to the Mayans who failed to deal with their conditions of drought.

Evolution is another belief widely held in the scientific community. Nevertheless, there are people who disagree with evolution and do not want it taught in the schools. They offer an alternative theory, creationism. It should be understood that a belief in God does not preclude one from believing in evolution. Nevertheless, some religious people do find the concept of evolution uncomfortable. Frankly, I think both creationism and evolution should be taught together in school because it provides an ideal means of explaining how science works. The first question to ask a creationist is whether creationism can be proven false, and if so, how. If it cannot be proven false, then it is not science. An evolutionist should also admit that evolution could be proven false. The evolutionist certainly can explain how the theory of evolution has been changing over the years, but the fundamental premise remains. I find it ironic that one of the proofs, a teleological proof, for the existence of God is the human eye. But when you examine the eye, it appears that the retina is designed backward. Before light hits the cones and rods it first goes through the neurological wiring from the eye to the brain. Although it is true that there are many beauties in nature, there are also many uglies. And there are millions and millions, perhaps billions of extinct species that did not survive. It was the humorist and sports maven Tony Kornheiser, I believe, who remarked, after he had experienced vomiting and diarrhea at the same time, what a perverse sense of humor God had when he designed the human body! One of the primary deficiencies we humans have is that we look for confirmations of our beliefs, but fail to look for disproofs of our beliefs.

1Costa, R.D. (2010).The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. Philadelphia: Vanguard Press.

2Reinhart, C.H. & Rogoff (2009). This Time is Different. Princeton University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.