Archive for December, 2016

Happy New Years 2017: Some Suggested Resolutions

December 31, 2016

If you are not actively building growth mindsets, being mindful, or engaging in meditation, start doing them.  The advice from the beginning of this blog has been to grow your mind continually as long as you live.  Even if the term growth mindset was not used, growth mindsets were what was implied.  What also became clear in Carol Dweck’s, “Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success” was that growth mindsets are key to effective interpersonal relationships, parenting, coaching, and business, virtually in every aspect of living.  In addition this cognitive practice will produce a cognitive reserve, which is the best means of warding off dementia and Alzheimer’s.  Enter “Growth Mindsets” into the search box of the healthy memory blog to find posts relevant to this topic.  However, it is hoped that all posts in this blog contribute to cognitive growth

Mindfulness provides a means of effectively dealing with life, better health, better interpersonal relations, and effective focus and control of attention.  Attention is key to learning, so it is also key to an effective growth mindset.  A central part of mindfulness is meditation.  Regular readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that attention is key to getting information into long term memory.  Very often when we cannot remember something, it is because we did not adequately attend to it in the first place.  Concentration and the ability to focus is central to effective thinking. Our attentional resources are both limited and precious, so we cannot afford not to use them efficiently.  Meditation helps us to control our attentional resources.  They are especially important to controlling the executive functioning of our brains.  Before responding in any situation it is important to remember the acronym STOP, which stands for
S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.
T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.
O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.
Effective cognitive functioning also fosters good interpersonal relations.

The healthy memory blog post “An Update to the Relaxation Response Update” will provide more information on how to induce the relaxation response.  To learn about the medical benefits of the relaxation response see the post “The Relaxation Response Update.”

If you are already engaging in these practices, congratulations, and use the occasion of this new year to rededicate yourself to their practice.  I am going to do this myself.  Have a happy and fulfilling new year.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Regarding that New Year’s Eve Hangover

December 30, 2016

This post is based largely on an article by Richard Webb titled “Hung over:  What science says about why you feel so rough in the 7 December 2016 issue of the New Scientist.

First of all, alcohol is not the reason you feel so bad.  The onset of a hangover means that the blood’s concentration of ethanol is zero.  Moreover, there probably isn’t just one cause for all the hangover symptoms.  It could be the impact on sleep quality of forcing your body to break down a large amount of fluid substance.

Dehydration is a side effect.  The pounding head and mouth probably result from alcohol’s suppression of the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin.  This increases the desire to urinate.  During the hangover vasopressin  snaps back to a higher level than normal, but there does not appear to be a correlation between that or any other drink-induced hormonal imbalance and the severity of the hangover.

The delayed onset of a hangover means that the metabolic products of ethanol are prime suspects.  A study in Japan found that people with inactive genes for making enzymes that break down acetaldehyde, a highly reactive by-product of ethanol, experienced a hangover after fewer drinks.  However, an earlier Scandinavian study showed that acetaldehyde concentration were generally low when a hangover was most severe suggesting that its effects are indirect or delayed.  Perhaps it is acetate, which occurs further down the line as a product of acetaldehyde breakdown.

A recent study of the urine of a group of hung-over Dutch students found that ethanol concentration  was correlated with severity of symptoms that include sleepiness, sweating, concentration problems, nausea, thirst, and to a lesser extent, confusion headache, weakness and regret.  However, the same correlations were not present in a self-described hangover-immune group that had drunk a similar amount.  These people also had less alcohol in their urine.

So it seems the the ability to rapidly metabolize alcohol is more important than the amount consumed in determining hangover severity.   But this does not explain why we can have a severe hangover when we hardly drank anything, and at other times when we have drunk heavily experience only a mild hangover.

Some think that congeners, chemicals produced during fermentation, other than ethanol, that give each drink a distinctive aroma and taste, play a role.  According to a study that compared hangover severity in bourbon and vodka, dark spirits are worse than clear ones in inducing severe hangovers.  On the other hand, research in Japan found that higher levels of congeners of whiskies might inhibit the breakdown of ethanol and at least delay the onset of hangovers.

It should be clear that in all these studies there are uncontrolled confounding variables.

The advice offered by HM is to not drink so much.  There is no cure and there is unlikely that one will be developed.  Excessive alcohol consumption does not foster a healthy memory.

Read the below list of a 2011 survey of 1410 hung-over Dutch students. This is the order of frequency of hangover symptoms that should serve as a reminder to be cautious:  Fatigue, thirst, drowsiness, sleepiness, headache, dry mouth, nausea, weakness, reduced alertness, concentration problems, apathy, increase reaction time, reduced, appetite, clumsiness, agitation, vertigo, memory problems, gastrointestinal complaints, dizziness, stomach pain, tremor, problems with balance, restlessness, shivering, sweating, disorientation, auto sensitivity, photosensitivity, blunted emotions, muscle pain, loss of taste, regret, confusion, guilt, gastritis, impulsivity, hot/cold flashes, vomiting, pounding heart, depression, palpitations, tinnitus, nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movement), anger, respiratory problems, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.

And whatever you do, do not drink and drive.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Did Corporate PR Initiate the Post-Fact Era?

December 28, 2016

This post is based on an article published in the Washington Post by Ari Rabit-Havt titled “Big business taught politicians a better way to lie.”  The article begins, “Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes recently told WAMU’s Diane Reahm that ‘there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.’”  Rabin-Havt continues, “She’s right and that’s the problem.  We now disagree not just on our political philosophies, but on whether the facts are true.  In this world, Hughes’s  observation is the last self-evident truth:  Facts are a thing of the past. …Americans may find it impossible to debate politics clearly because of a lack of agreement on basic matters of fact; that was certainly the case during this year’s election.  And no one has taken more advantage of this than Trump…”

Rabin-Havt does not credit Trump for creating this world.  He says that this is a result of a decades-long strategy devised by a number of public affairs practitioners who recognized that lies were the most potent weapon in the fight against progress and that Trump emulated some of these disinformation techniques gleaned from big business during his campaign.

Sixty-three years ago the tobacco industry had a problem, namely the compelling evidence of the severe damage smoking did to one’s health.  John Hill, the founder of the Public Relations conglomerate Hill & Knowlton, recommended that they form a public relations institute, to argue that their products were safe.  Together with the tobacco executives Hill created public relations operation veiled as a scientific institute, to argue that their products were safe.  They created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, a sham organization designed to spread corporate propaganda to mislead the media, policymakers and the public at large.

Rather than trying to convince the majority of Americans that cigarettes did not cause cancer, they sought to muddy the waters and create a second truth.  One truth emanated from the bulk of  the scientific community and the other from a cadre of people primarily in the employment of the tobacco industry.

Although their efforts to muddy the waters were successful for a time, truth eventually prevailed.  So it appears that Hughes’ statements and Rabin-Havt’s conclusion are a bit overstated.  Nevertheless, they are real.  And this same scene is being repeated regarding global warming.  The clear consensus is that global warming is real and the consequences a dangerous.  Unfortunately, this is portrayed on networks that include both Fox and the PBS New hours by having one representative of each position on their shows.  Although this appears to be even-handed, what is lost on the general public is that the overwhelming consensus is that global warming is real.

There is a more realistic position is that global warming is occurring, but how quickly it is occurring is debatable.  This is not arguing that it is not occurring or that it is, as Trump said, a hoax introduced by China.  Here one needs to outline both the probability of the risks of different models and the costs of delaying different remedies.
With respect to the problem global warming, it is clear what the motivation is and by whom to either deny or to downplay global warming.  And these industries have big bucks to fund questionable research.  It is interesting that certain critiques of global warming contend that scientists finding evidence of global warming are motivated by the money they receive from research grants.  Comparing the funding of these researchers against the funding of big oil is like comparing some guy in his back yard burning leaves with the Chicago fire.  But these people cannot think in terms of truth, rather they think in terms of beliefs and how to argue their beliefs.

There has been a larger victim of these science efforts funded by special interests is a general loss of confidence in science and the establishment.  Both Brexit and Trump are examples of his loss of confidence in the establishment.

Rabin-Havt’s article also mentions Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels” critique to the Affordable Care Act.  The acceptance of this critique indicates there is virtually no limit to the stink of fecal material people will swallow.  And Sarah Palin’s being a candidate for the Vice-President of the United States is an indication of the pathetic state of American politics.

The situation has worsened with the alt-Right movement (see the Healthymemory blog post, “Sick Memory).  This has become a profitable industry.   At least with the examples of bad science done by businesses for their financial industry, they actually conducted research.  One of the reasons that the alt-Right industry is so profitable is that it requires no research.  Just think of something and post it.  Build upon other lies to create even more fantastic lies.

All of the efforts are bad for our memories and contribute to the Stupidity Pandemic discussed in the previous post.  It calls for critical thinking using System 2 attentional processing.  Truth is our only hope.  It needs to be constantly sought.  Beliefs need to be periodically reconsidered for flaws and needs for correction.  Facts, true facts, need to be considered.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Daniel Kahneman and the Stupidity Pandemic

December 26, 2016

In case you haven’t noticed there is a stupidity pandemic.  It’s a pandemic because it rages throughout the world.  Perhaps the most conspicuous example are the religious wars.  These wars are several centuries out of date.  Terrorism is a religious war being largely fought within the Islamic faith with some terrorists groups targeting the west.  Then there is Brexit, a phenomenon that was not predicted by professional politicians.  In general there is lack of faith in what is called the “establishment” and in bodies of knowledge such as science.

In the United States there is the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  When Trump began his campaign it was regarded as a joke and was quite funny.  It is still a joke, but one that is no longer funny.  If every vote had counted in the United States, the Trump problem would not exist.  But an archaic and stupid institution called the electoral college elected Trump, therefore nullifying the will of the majority of US citizens.

So what has Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman have to do with this?  His two process theory of human cognition provides a means of understanding this pandemic.  System 1 refers to our normal mode of cognition.  It is very fast and allows for fluent conversations and skilled performance.  It is the default mode of cognition.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds to what we colloquially call thinking.  System 2 requires attention and mental effort.  One of the jobs of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors.  However, this requires mental effort and thinking.

Experiments have been run where statements are presented to the research participant.  The brain is monitored.  When a statement conflicts with a participant’s individual beliefs, a signature is reported from the brain.  The question is whether this statement will be ignored, or whether the participant engages in deeper thought to reconsider this statement.  There is a cognitive cost here and the simplest reaction is to ignore the statement and regard it as a mistaken belief.

Trump’s  victory was a victory for System 1 processing.  System 1 appeals to fears, emotions, bigotry, and so forth.  Trump is a genius at connecting with and exploiting the System 1 processes of people.  Trump himself rarely uses System 2 processing.  He does not read books, does not think he needs to attend briefings because he knows everything already.  His gut, his System 1 processing, tells him what is true.  However, Trump does not care what is true.  It is whatever he believes at the moment, and this does change from moment to moment.  This is one of the reasons he is such an effective liar.  He does not care what is true.  It is whatever is expedient for the moment.  When confronted with his lies, he denies the truth.  His promise to make America great again was predicated on the lie that the United States is not regarded throughout the world as a great country.  Enemies dislike the politics of Americans, but nevertheless respect its greatness.

Totalitarian countries have exploited the big lie, and so does Trump.  See the healthy memory blog “Sick Memory.”  Lying has become a profitable industry.  Dana Milbank had an interesting column in the 21 December 2016 Washington Post title “Hoping that he didn’t really mean it.”  Milbank pointed out that many areas of the country that went for Trump will suffer deeply from cuts in government spending that will occur if Trump acts on his promises.  The title of Milbank’s article provides the explanation of how these voters reconcile their vote with the adverse effects that will affect them personally.
It is clear that these people did not employ System 2 processing when they voted.  There is justification for believing that these people rarely engaging in System 2 processing.  Like Trump, they go with their gut feelings.  Unfortunately, there is some question if such people will ever realize that they have screwed themselves.  Trump can continue to exploit their fears and bigotry to keep them in line.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Game Theory Guide to a Happy Family Holiday

December 21, 2016

This post is taken from a piece by Paul Raebun and Kevin Zollman titled “No more drama:  The game theory guide to a happy family holiday” in the 17 December 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  This piece asks the question how do we encourage our families to behave themselves in a way that reflects how, deep down, they truly love each other?  The answer, turn to game theory, the science of strategic thinking.

If there needs to be a decision of who will host,  you can draw straws.  If there are three choices you can use a Borda count:  Each person ranks their preferences, the numbers are added, and the host with the lowest score wins.

What about the question as to who is going to bring which dish.  As the authors note many people have delicious alternatives they would love to provide, but no one wants to hurt someone’s feelings, so those under appreciated dishes are lightly touched.  So frames can be switched regarding the dishes.  For example, seize on a change of time or venue.  Then say, for instance, “Since we’re at Dad’s house this year, let’s change dishes.”

It is  recommended that political discussion be off limits, so the squabble will probably be over who gets the last roast potatoes or the final sliver of something else.  To keep bickering to a minimum, game theorists recommend using I cut, you pick.  If there are two people hankering after the last of the yule log, one slices and the other chooses.

A common problem is that there is too much food and people are begged to take home leftovers. Everyone brings way too much food because of the incentives.  There’s no real penalty for bringing an excessive amount, but somebody might be offended if they bring too little.  So change the incentives.  Give a prize to the cook whose dish is totally gone, or make the guest with the most leftovers host next time.  Now it’s not a measure of love, it’s a game.

What about unruly children misbehaving?  To stop their misbehavior, there needs to be a credible threat.  A simple warning might not be credible.  However, a threat to make the children do the dishes will likely be credible and effective.

What to do about a guest who does not pitch in and help out?  You can put empirical expectations to make him work.  Make a point of having someone clean up around him so can see them doing it.  He just might feel obliged to pitch in.

What about arguments as to what game to play?  Propose an auction by having the opposing camps  bargain by offering to do chores.  Whoever makes the best offer—finish washing the dishes and tidy up the kitchen—gets to pick.

Don’t forget the ultimatum game.  How should two kids with a small box of chocolates divvy up the candy?  Ask one to keep some for herself and offer the rest to the other.  If the second party should regard the offer as unfair, then neither one gets any of the chocolates.

The authors, Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman have both written and are splitting credit for their book, “The Game Theorists Guide to Parenting.”  Perhaps this might be a Christmas gift for someone.

Super-you: Fine-tune Your Life by Making Goals Into Habits

December 20, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.   The title of this post is identical to the title of a piece by Julia Brown.  At the beginning of the article she writes , “your environment controls you, as do habits that you don’t even know you have.  But realize what’s really pulling your strings, and you can work out how to manipulate yourself for the better.

Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California and her colleagues have shown how almost half of the behaviors we adopt in any given situation are habitual.  That is an automated action learned by repetition until we do it without thinking.  In Kahneman’s terms these are System 1 processes that include eating, napping, watching TV, and exercising.

We work this way because we have to.  If every act we perform required us to be deeply involved in thought, our species never would have evolved.

Brown writes that identifying how your unconscious is working provides you with ways to fine-tune your behavior.  If you want to change habits, look at where and how you enact them.  If you want to stop smoking, avoid places where you are likely to light up, or move your cigarettes out of sight.  If you want to start eating more healthily, stop meeting friends for lunch as a burger restaurant.

Val Curtis, who studies behavior change at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has used these insights to develop ways to encourage hand washing with soap in India and to modify the tendency for mothers in Indonesia to feed their children unhealthy snacks.  She says we can all prime ourselves in similar ways.  So if you think you ought to do some exercise but don’t feel like it, put you running gear on anyway, and wait and see what happens.  You let your running gear control your behavior and it takes you for a run.

Super-you: Train Your Brain to Beat the Inbuilt Fear Factory

December 18, 2016

HM has written in previous posts about how annoyed he is about people’s fears of terrorists attacks.  HM lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis where the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real.  The threat of terrorism pales in comparison.  The probability of an individual suffering a terrorist attack is extremely small.  And even the number of lives lost during 9/ll was minuscule compared to the loss if a nuclear warhead had exploded over Manhattan.  As a result of 9/ll many people stopped flying and got into their cars,  The annual death toll on the road was on average 1100 higher than in the five preceding years.

The New Scientist piece that inspired this post has the same title as this post and was written by Sally Adee.    She begins the article noting that evolution has given us an inbuilt fear factory.  But by engaging a different way of thinking we can stop panicking and assess the real risks.

Adee draws upon Kahneman’s Two Process concept of cognition.  System 1 is fast and the product of evolved biases shaped over many thousands of years.  This worked well.  If you saw a shadow in the grass and it was a lion and lived to tell the tale, you’d make sure to run the next time you saw a shadow in the grass.   This inbuilt fear factory is highly susceptible to immediate experience, vivid images and personal stories.  Security companies, political campaigns, tabloid newspapers and ad agencies prey on it.  Adee notes that System 1 is good at catastrophic risk, but less good at risks that build up slowly over time—thus our lassitude in the face of climate change or our expanding waistlines.

She advises that when your risk judgment is motivated by fear, stop and think:  what other, less obvious risks might I be missing?  This amounts to engaging the more rigorous, analytical System 2 outlined by Kahneman.  People who deal with probability and risk professionally, and have excelled at it use System 2 quite heavily.  Successful bookies, professional card players and weather forecasters are heavy users of their System 2 processes.  Risk consultant Dan Gardner notes that even though meteorologists get a bad rap, they tend to be highly calibrated, unlike most of us.  One can never be right all the time.  But one should be attempting to calibrating risk assessment with the objective world.

Andy Spicer, who studies organizational behavior at City University of London notes that part of the problem in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008 was that individuals were no longer accountable for their own actions.  “At banks, there was no direct relationship between what you did and the outcome.  That produced irrational decisions.

Gardner says, “there’s one feature you see over and over in people with good risk intelligence.  I think it wouldn’t be too grandiose to call it the universal train of risk intelligence—humility.”  The world is complex, so be humble about what you know an you’ll come out better.

HM would note that there is such a thing as risk intelligence and that it can be increased.  See the healthy memory blog post “Risk Intelligence.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Super-you: How to Harness Your Inner Braggert

December 16, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This inner braggart piece was written by Tiffany O’Callaghan.  She begins the article, “Think you’re saner, smarter and better-looking than average?  Well, so does everyone else.  Recognizing our delusions is the first step to doing better.  She asks, “Ever had the sense that everyone else is an idiot?  Have you seen how those jerks drive?  As Garrison Keillor tells it, all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.  This is not unique to Lake Wobegon.  When it comes to smarts, looks, charisma, and general psychological adjustment, there’s no denying that we’re a cut above the average person in the street.

O’Callaghan notes that viewing ourselves as above average applies across human ages, professions, and cultures, and to capabilities from driving to playing chess.  She notes that this does have advantages.  “People who are more impressed with themselves tend to make better first impressions, be generally happier and may even be more resilient in the fact of trauma.  Anthropologist Robert Trivers of Rutgers University says that high self-estimation might also let us get ahead by deceiving others.  He argues that once we’ve tricked ourselves, we don’t have to work so hard to trick others.

Confidence also helps in finding a romantic partner, which also increases the probability of reproduction.  Men appear to be worse offenders at overestimating their looks than women.  A study by Marcel Yoder and his team at the University of Illinois found that some men seem to suffer from a “frog prince” delusion:  They accurately asses other people’s lesser perception of them, while persisting in a more positive perception of themselves.

Problems come when we’re less aware of how others perceive us.  Those who are self-confident without being self-aware are likely to be seen as a jerk.  Yoder says, “It’s hard to come off as humble or modest when you’re clueless  about how other people see you.”  Moreover, we can make bad decisions on the basis of an inflated sense of expertise or understanding.

This is particularly dangerous in the political arena.  A “bias blind spot”, a belief that our world view is based on objective truth, while every else is a deluded fool can become problematic, especially as the echo chamber of social media exposes us to fewer contrary views (“Bias Blind Spot:  Structure, Measurement, and Consequences”, Scopelliti et al,  It can make opposing parties feel that the other side is too irrational to be reason with says Wenje Yan.

So the question is how can we preserve the goods while avoiding he downsides.  There are different strategies and training programs for overcoming our inbuilt biases.  Most begin by making people aware of them and how they can affect our decision making.  Psychologists have an exercise called perspective taking.  Irene Scopelliti says that the amounts to trying to see a dispute from the other person’s point of view.  She points out that acting when you’re all riled up—in a state of high emotion—exacerbates the problem by entrenching our bias.  She says, “ We know how o make unbiased decisions, but often emotion biases us, or we aren’t willing to put in the effort.  Nevertheless she maintains that practice can make us better.

Super-you: Use Your Better Instincts to Crush Your Inner Bigot

December 14, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This instincts piece is written by Caroline Williams.  HM does not like this use of the word “instincts.”  “Predisposing biases” would have been a more fortunate choice.  However, this article accounts for much of the ugliness prevalent throughout the world.  The quick explanation is that these people are in their default mode of feeling and thinking.  But this is a very low level of thinking.  It is System 1 processing using Kahmeman’s terms.

The unpalatable truth is that we are biased, prejudiced and racist.   We put people into mental boxes marked “us” and them”.  Implicitly we like, respect and trust people who are similar to us and feel uncomfortable around everyone else.  This tendency towards in-group favoritism is so ingrained that we often don’t realize we are doing it.  “It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different.

A study from 2000 found that just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala (Neuroreport 11(11):2351-5, September 2000 can be found at  HM readers should know that the amygdala is a key component of the brain’s fear circuitry.  But the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things and calls on other brain areas to pay attention.   Although we’re not automatically scared of people who are not like us, we are hardwired to flag them.  As Williams notes, “evolutionarily, that makes sense:  It paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by.”

When Susan Fiske of Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed quiet.  Apparently these volunteers seemed to process these homeless people as subhuman (Social cognitive ad affective neuroscience, 2007 Mar. 2(1) 45-51.)

Fiske says “The good news is that his hard-wired response can be overcome depending on context.”  In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy,   Fiske continues, “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there.”

What we put in “them” and “us” boxes is flexible.  Jay Van Bavel of New York University created in-groups including people from various races, participants still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race.  It seems that all you have to do to head off prejudice is to convince people that they are on the same team (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2012, 38, 12, 2012  1566-1578.

It appears that we are instinctively cooperative when we don’t have time to think about it.  Psychologist David Rand of Yale University asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or corporate with other players or a slightly lower, but shared, payoff.  When pressed to make a decision people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over.

Williams concludes her article thusly:  “So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all—If you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Super-you: We’re All Reading Each Others Minds, All the Time

December 13, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This mind reading piece is written by Gilead Amit.  As Amit notes,being able to predict what other people think is the secret sauce of culture and social connections.

According to psychologist Joseph Call we all possess a “theory of mind” that informs us every waking moment.  “When we get dressed in the morning, we’re constantly thinking about what other people think about us.”  He says that no other animal can match our ability to think about the minds of others and that this is the essential lubricant for social interactions that sets humans apart.  We humans are not unique in this ability, but our ability is superior to other species.

Artists need to imagine what their audiences will think of their characters.  A theory of mind is critical to compelling TV soaps, sculptures or books.  Some think William Shakespeare had a particularly well-developed theory of mind to create such rich, complex characters (See “Shakespeare:  Unleashing a tempest in the brain” by David Robson in the 15 April 2014 issue of the New Scientist).

Mind reading establishes society norms.  People not only respond to what we do, but to what we intend to do.  For example, if you hit someone with your car, the difference between a verdict of murder or manslaughter depends on your intent.

Psychologist Rory Devine notes that we can’t all read minds equally well.  Most of us have difficulty when attempting nested levels of mind reading.  For example, think of Sally hunting for her cake, but imagine where she might look if we take into account  what she thinks about how Andy’s mind works.  The more recursive steps we add, the more  difficult it becomes.  Call says, “When you go beyond five levels, people get really bad.  HM does not believe that he can get even close to four levels, much less five.

Obviously being a good mind reader is an important skill.  Children who are relatively proficient later report being less lonely and their teachers rate them as more sociable.

Devine says that that “the ability to read minds is something we might learn gradually from the guidance of others.”  This mind reading apparatus mostly develops before the age of 5, and the principal factor that determines its development is whether our families and friends talk much about the emotions and motivations of others.

Perhaps the first step is to think about what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes.  Devine and his colleagues showed that this learning can continue far beyond early childhood.  When they asked 9 and 10 year old children to read and discuss short vignettes about social situations, the children developed better mind reading skills than children in a control group.  It appears that we’re never too old to be a better mind reader.  Similar improvements have also been seen in people over the age of 60.

Super-You: You Have a Superstitious Mind—to Protect You

December 12, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there is a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This superstitious mind piece is written by Graham Lawton.  Lawton writes, “The vast majority of people are religious, which generally entails belief in a supernatural entity or three.”  Nevertheless, among the oceans of religiosity are archipelagos of non belief.  Conservative estimates are that half a billion people around the world are non-religious.

However, among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep.  Should you scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll likely find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.

Lawton writes that this is because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, make us very receptive to religious concepts.  Psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia says, “there are core intuitions that make supernatural beliefs easy for our brains.”

One of our cognitive abilities is known as theory of mind which enables us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts.  That’s certainly useful for a social species like us, but it also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own.  The idea that mind and body are distinct entities seems to come instinctively to us.  When teleology —the tendency to seek cause and effect everywhere and see purposes where there is none—it is obvious why the human brain is superstitious (See the healthymemory blog post (“Thinking 2.0).

Presumably these same thought processes underlie beliefs supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, spiritual healing, reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, lucky numbers and Ouija boards.  Three-quarters of Americans admit to holding at least one of ten common supernatural beliefs.

Lawton writes, “With all this supernatural equipment filling our heads, atheism and scientific materialism are hard work.  Overriding inbuilt thought patterns require deliberate and constant effort, plus a learned reference guide to what is factually correct and what is right and wrong.  Just like a dieter tempted by a doughnut, will power often fails us.”

Experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves skeptics.  Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of his own death, large numbers answer “yes”.  People who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are frequently attributed to paranormal phenomena.

Of course, it is impossible to prove that everyone falls prey to supernatural instincts.  The supernatural exerts a pull on us that is hard to resits.  It is likely that the belief that we are rational creatures is wishful thinking.

One can argue that Pascal’s Wager does provide a rational justification for a belief in God.   See the healthymemory blog post  “God.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reading a Novel Affects the Connectivity in the Brain

December 11, 2016

This post is based on an article in BRAIN CONNECTIVITY, Volume 3, Number 6,
DOI:  10.1089/brain.2013.0166 titled “Short and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.”

This study used fMRI recording resting states both before and after reading a novel.   The novel was “Pompeii: A Novel” by Robert Fawcett.  Nineteen participants read this novel over a nine day period.  Resting-state  networks (RSNs) were assessed before and after reading on each of the nine days.  Baseline RSNs were taken five days before the experiment proper and for 5 days after the conclusion of the novel.

On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity  were centered on hubs in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri.  These hubs correspond to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a time course that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel.  Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in the bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for “embodied semantics.”  What the authors are referring to in embodied semantics is that the body is responding emotionally to the reading.

What HM finds most interesting about this study is that it provides data showing the
changes that take place in the brain as the result of reading.  This can be regarded as “cognitive exercise” that activates brain circuits and System 2 processing building a cognitive reserve decreasing the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Do We Sleep?

December 10, 2016

The question raised by the title of this post is highly relevant given that about one-third of our lives is spent sleeping.  A brief piece  titled “A bad night’s sleep messes with your brain’s memory connections in the In Brief Section of the August 27, 2016 Edition of the “New Scientist” provides a compelling answer.  The piece begins with the following sentence, “This is why you feel so awful after a bad night’s sleep—your brain is jammed with yesterday’s news.”

The research was done by Christoph Nissen and his team at the University Medical Center in Freiburg, Berman.  They examined the brains of 20 people after they’d slept well, and after a night of disruption.  They found that after a bad’s night sleep, people had higher levels of theta brainwaves, and it was easier to stimulate their brains using magnetic pulses (“Nature Communications.” DOI”10.1038/ncomms12455).

The findings support the theory that sleep serves to weaken memory connections, making way for new ones.  Nissan says that without this synaptic downscaling, the brain loses the capacity to for novel connections, impairing the encoding of novel memories.  The theory is that sleep evolved so that connections in the brain can be pruned down during slumber, making room for fresh memories to form the next day.

The idea that sleep is important to memory is not new.  And memory is certainly important enough that we need to devote about one-third of our lives supporting it. Of course, it is likely that memory is not the only capacity to benefit, but it is likely that other capacities that benefit are closely related to memory.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sleep-deprived Drivers are as Dangerous as Drunk Drivers

December 9, 2016

This post is based on an article by Ashley Halsey III titled “Sleep-deprived drivers have plenty in common with drunk drivers, on page A2 of the 7 December 2016 edition of the Washington Post.  Her article is based on a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released 6 December.   According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 35% of people get fewer than the needed seven hours of sleep, and 12% say that they sleep for five hours or less.

Previous research by the AAA Foundation found that 21% of fatal crashes involved a sleep-deprived driver.  This new report uses data from the National Motor Vehicle’s Crash Causation Survey to asses how much driving ability decreases based on the lack of sleep.  The executive director of the foundation, David Yang, says that the new research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk.  The report says that those who slept for less than 4 of the past 24 hours had an 11.5% higher risk of getting into a crash; drivers who slept 4-5 hours had a 4.3% higher risk; 5-7 hours had a 1.9% higher risk; and 6-7 hours had a 1.3% higher risk.  The following caveat is added to these results:  “The study may underestimate the risk of driving while sleep-deprived, because data on crashes that occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. were not available, and other studies have shown that the effects of sleep deprivation…are greatest during the morning hours.”

Tom Calcagni of AAA’s Mid-Atlantic Office said, “The crash risk associated with having slept less than 4 hours is comparable to the crash risk associated with a blood-alcohol content of roughly .12 to .15.  The legal limit is .08.

So add driving while being sleepy to the other activities you should not do while driving:  texting and talking on the phone regardless of whether your hands are free or not, and drunk driving.

The importance of sleep to health in general should not be underestimated.  Our brains are very active while we sleep, consolidating memories and cleaning up junk in the brain.  By failing to get enough sleep we are effectively damaging our brains.  This damage might eventually lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A High Risk But Viable Alternative to Kurzweil’s Singularity

December 7, 2016

Kurzweil’s Singularity consists of uploading the information in human biological brains into the silicon of computer hardware.  Kurzweil even regards this as possibly occurring during his own lifetime, so Kurzweil is doing everything possible to extend his life.  HM has previously indicated that this is highly unlikely because Kurzweil is ignoring the reality that silicon and biology differ.

The 29 October 2016 issue of the “New Scientist” has an article titled, “$100 million project to make intelligence-boosting implant.”  Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson launched the company Kernel earlier this year.  Johnson is working with Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California, who is looking at the hippocampus.  Healthy memory blog readers should know that the hippocampus is a key brain region involved in the retrieval of memories.  There is a hippocampus in each hemisphere, so we have two hippocampi.

Berger is working with people who already have electrical implants in their brains to treat epileptic seizures.  Instead of using these implants to stimulate the brain, his team has been harnessing them to record brain activity, to learn more about how our memory works.   Johnson says that once we know how a healthy brain functions, we should be able to mimic it.  The goal is to restore function in people with memory disorders by stimulating the same pattern of activity.  Berger has had enough success with animals that he has begun experiments with people.

Johnson says, “The idea is that if you have a loss of memory function, then you could build a prosthetic for the hippocampus that would help restore the circuitry and restore memory.”

It is both appropriate and fair that people with memory disorders will be the first to try the device.  Johnson says, “The first potential superhumans are those who have deficits to start with.”  He then plans to develop the prosthesis to enhance memory and potentially other functions in healthy people.  His vision of the future is one in which it is normal for people to walk around with chips in their brains, providing them with a cognitive boost.

Johnson has put up $100 million of his own to go on developing such a device.  It will be as tiny and easy to implant as possible, while still being able to record or stimulate multiple neurons.  The research also involved working on ways to develop rules that underly patterns of activity that dictate normal brain function for an individual.

Johnson says “If we can mimic the natural function of the brain, then I posit the question, what can’t we do?”  Could we learn a thousand times faster?  Could we choose which memories to keep and which to get rid of?  Could we have a connection with our computers?”

Note that Johnson is asking questions and not making promises.  To be sure this is high risk research, but it is one that is based on viable approach, unlike Kurzweil’s proposal.  Johnson has identified necessary first steps on the way to a marriage between the brain and silicon.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Motivated Reasoning, Cognitive Dualism, and Scientific Curiosity

December 4, 2016

This post is based on a Feature Article by Dan Jones titled “Seeing reason:  How to change minds in a ‘post-fact’ world, in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Scientist.   The article notes that politicians spin and politicians lie and that that has always been the case, and to an extent it is a natural product of a free democratic culture.  But Jones goes on to note, “Even so we do appear  to have entered a new era of ‘post-truth politics’, where the strongest currency is what satirist Stephen Colbert had dubbed ‘truthiness’:  claims that feel right, even if they have no basis in fact, and which people want to believe because they fit their pre-existing attitudes.”

However, facts are important, as Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College notes, “We need to have discussions that are based on a common set of accepted facts, and when we don’t, it’s hard to have a useful democratic debate.”  As Jones writes, “In the real world of flesh-and-blood humans, reasoning often starts with established conclusions and works back to find “facts” that support what we already believe.  And if we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we find clever ways to dismiss them.”  Psychologists call this lawyerly tendency motivated reasoning.

A Pew Research Center survey released  before the US election showed that compared with Democrats, Republicans are less likely to believe that scientists know that climate change is occurring, that they understand its causes, or that they fully and accurately report their findings.  They are also more likely to believe that scientists’ research is driven by careerism and political views.  Many liberals think this is a product of scientific illiteracy, which if addressed would bring everyone around to the same position.  Unfortunately, research by Dan Kahan at Yale University has shown that, in contrast to liberals, among conservatives it is the most scientifically literate who are less likely to accept climate change.  Kahn says, “Polarisation over climate change isn’t due to a lack of capacity to understand the issues.  Those who are most proficient at making sense of scientific information are the most polarized.

Kahan attributes this apparent paradox to motivated reasoning, the better one is at handling scientific information, the better one is at confirming his own bias and writing off inconvenient truths. For climate-change deniers studies suggest that motivation is often the endorsement of free-market ideology, which includes objections to government regulation of business that is required to address climate change.  Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol says, “If I ask people four questions about the free market, I can predict attributes towards climate science with 60% accuracy.”

Jones writes, “But liberal smugness has no place here.  Consider gun control.  Liberals tend to want tighter gun laws, because, they argue, fewer guns would translate into fewer gun crimes.  Conservatives typically respond that with fewer guns in hand, criminals can attack the innocent with impunity.”

In spite by the best efforts of criminologists, the evidence on this issue is mixed.  Kahan has found that both liberals and conservatives react to statistical information about the effects of gun control in the same way:  they accept what fits in with the broad beliefs of their political group, and discount that which doesn’t.  Kahn writes, “The more numerate you are, the more distorted your perception of the data.”  Motivated reasoning is found on other contentious issues from the death penalty and drug legalization to fracking and immigration.

The UK’s Brexit both provides another compelling case study on the distorting power of motivated reasoning.  Researchers at the Online Privacy Foundation found that both Remainers and Brexiteers could accurately interpret statistical information when it came to assessing whether a new skin cream caused a rash, their numeracy skills abandoned them when looking at stats that undermined rationales for their views such as figures on whether immigration is linked to an increase or a decrease in crime.

It is not just a matter of political ideology.  Although the bogus link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella is often portrayed as a liberal obsession, it cuts across politics.  Nyhan says, “There’s no demographic factor that predicts who is most vulnerable to anti-vaccine claims.”

It should not be concluded that myth-busting is a waste of time.   Nyhan and Reifler found that during the 2014 midterm elections in the US fact-checking improved the accuracy of people’s beliefs even when it went against ingrained biases.  Both Democrats and Republicans updated their beliefs after having a claim debunked.

Emily Thomson of George Washington University found that misconceptions of issues like how much of the US debt China owns, whether there’s  a federal time limit for receiving welfare benefits, and who pays for Social Security could be fixed by a single corrective statement.

Unfortunately the bad news is that myth-busting loses its power on salient and controversial issues.  Nyhan says, “It’s most effective for topics that we’re least concerned about as a democracy.  Even the release of President Obama’s birth certificate had only a limited effect on people’s belief that he wasn’t born in this country.”  Thomson has found that even when corrections work, for example getting to accept that a congressman accused of taking campaign money from criminals did no such thing—the taint of the earlier claim often sticks to the innocent target.  This phenomenon is termed “belief echoes.”

Graphical presentation of information can be more effective than verbal presentations, but this benefit requires that people be able to read graphs.  Many people have difficulty understanding graphs, so simple graphs have a higher likelihood of success.

Kahan calls the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time “cognitive dualism.”  Cognitive dualism was found in a recent Pew survey on climate change:  just 15% of conservative Republicans agreed that human activity was causing climate change, but 27% agreed that if we change our ways to limit carbon emissions it would make a big difference in tackling climate change.  This same dualism was found among US farmers.  A 2013 survey found that only a minority accepted climate change as a fact.  Yet a majority believed that some farmers would be driven out of business by climate change, and the rest will have to change current practices and buy more insurance against climate-induced crop failures.  By buying crops genetically engineered to cope with climate change and purchasing specialist insurance polices, many of them already have.

Kahan has discovered something interesting about people who seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure,  He calls this trait scientific curiosity.  He has devised a scale for measuring this trait.  He and his colleagues have found that, unlike scientific literacy, scientific curiosity is linked to greater acceptance of human-caused climate change, regardless of political orientation.  On many issues, from attitudes towards porn and the legislation of marijuana, to immigration and fracking,scientific curiosity makes both liberal and conservatives converge on views closer to the facts.

So exploiting cognitive dualism and fostering scientific curiosity appear to be the most promising avenues to pursue.  It is important to remember that it is scientific curiosity rather than scientific literacy that is important here.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

To Treat Chronic Pain, Look to the Brain Not Body

December 3, 2016

This post is taken from a Feature Article by Jessica Hamzelou, “Hurt Blocker:  To treat chronic pain, look to the brain not body” in the 26 November 2016 Issue of the New Scientist.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the root causes of chronic pain will require more than drugs to break the cycle.  The answer lies in how the brain processes pain.

As has been mentioned in previous posts, there are two pathways for pain.  One is from the actual physical injury, whereas there is a second pathway for emotion linked pain.  Recent research indicates that signals from psychological pain networks may take over when the problem becomes chronic.

People can be trained to more directly influence their own brain activity and, potentially, turn down the pain signal.  Neurofeedback can be provided by placing electrodes on participants’ scalps that provide a real-time display of the brain’s electrical activity.  People can learn to alter their brain activity to dial down their pain.  Initial research suggest that neurofeedback might be useful for people with fibromyalgia, as well as those with chronic pain resulting from spinal cord injuries and cancer.

Mindfulness meditation can achieve something similar.  The goal is to achieve a state of ‘detached observation,’ which can help cope with pain.  Studies have suggested that it improves  various types of chronic pain, including fibromyalgia and lower back pain.  A study of 17 people who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction found that, over time, meditators experienced increases in grey matter in regions of their brains involved in learning, memory, and emotion.  All of these influence pain perception.

The following is taken from a previous healthy memory blog post “Pain and the Second Dart:”
“A great way to return your mind to its “ground state,” neither overexcited nor torpid, simply alert and open, is to become aware of the natural rhythm of the breath as you inhale and exhale.  This is focused attention, prerequisite for the second state of mindfulness meditation:  insight.

Start by focusing on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving you body at the nostrils.  Remember, you are observing your breathing rather than controlling it.  Follow each inhalation and exhalation from the start to the finish.  Notice any slight gap between the in-breath and out-breath.

Don’t be hard on yourself if your mind wanders or you get distracted by a noise.  This is all perfectly normal.  Just remind yourself:  “That’s how the mind works,” and return to the breath.  With repetition, you will get better at noticing when you have lost focus and develop greater mindfulness of the present moment.

Now that you have quieted your mind, allow your attention to broaden.  Whenever a positive or negative feeling arises, make it the focus of your meditation, noticing the bodily sensations associated with it:  perhaps a tightness, the heart beating faster or slower, butterflies in the stomach, relaxed or tensed muscles.  Whatever it is, address the feeling with friendly, objective curiosity.  You could silently label whatever arises in the mind, for example:  “There is anxiety,” “There is calm,: There is joy,” “There is boredom.”   Remember, everything is on the table, nothing is beneath your attention.
If you experience an ache or a pain, stitch or any other kind of discomfort, treat it in exactly the same way.  Turn the spotlight of your attention on the sensation but don’t allow yourself to get caught up in it.  Imagine that on the in-breath you are gently breathing air into the location where the sensation is strongest, then expelling it on the out-breath.  You may notice that when you explore the sensation with friendly curiosity—not trying to change it in any way, neither clinging to it or repressing it—the feeling will start to fade of its own accord.  When it has gone, return your full attention to your breath.

Mindfulness instructors will sometimes talk about “surfing” the wave of an unpleasant sensation such as pain, anxiety, or craving.  Instead of allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the wave of feeling, you get up on your mental surfboard and ride it.  You experience it fully, but your mind remains detached, dignified, and balanced.  Knowing that the power of even the most fearsome wave eventually dissipates, you ride it out.

If a thought, emotion, or feeling becomes too strong or intrusive, you can always use the breath as a calm refuge, returning you whole attention to the breathing sensations at your nostrils.  Similarly if you feel you can’t cope with a pain such as stiffness in your legs, neck, or back, shift your posture accordingly.  But make your attention move to a mindful close rather than a reflex, and make the movement itself slow and deliberate.”
A previous healthy memory blog post, “Controlling Pain in Our Minds” explores this topic further and discusses the possibility of there being two different neural pathways processing the ‘two darts’.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.