Posts Tagged ‘Einstein’

Is There a Biology Behind the Cultural Crisis?

September 19, 2018

The title of this post is the title of a section in an insightful book by Antonio Damaisio titled “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. The title of this chapter is “On the Human Condition Now.”
The answer to the title is “yes,” so if that satisfies your curiosity you can stop reading now.

The physiological rationale and primary content of basic homeostasis is the life of an individual organism within its borders. Basic homeostasis is a somewhat parochial affair, focused on the temple that human subjectivity has designed and erected—the self. It can be extended to the family and the small group. It can be extended further out to larger groups on the basis of circumstances and negotiations in which prospects of general benefits and power are well balanced. But homeostasis, as found in each of our individual organisms is not spontaneously concerned with very large groups, especially heterogeneous groups, let alone with cultures or civilizations as a whole. Conflicts and struggles for power among social groups are integral components of cultures. Sometimes the conflict may even result from the application of an affect-motivated solution to a prior problem. There are blatant exceptions to the rules that govern homeostasis of a natural, individual organism such as malignant conceit and autoimmune diseases; unchecked, they not only fight other parts of the organism to which they belong, but can actually achieve organism destruction.

In the last years of his life, Sigmund Freud saw the bestiality of Nazism as confirming his doubts that culture could ever tame the nefarious death wish that he believed was present in each of us. Earlier Freud had begun to articulate his reasons in the collection of texts known as “Civilization and Its Discontents,” but nowhere are his arguments better expressed than in his correspondence with Albert Einstein. Einstein wrote to Freud in 1932 seeking his advice on how to prevent the deadly conflagration he saw coming, following on the heels of World War I. In his reply Freud described the human forces at play. He had no good advice to offer, no help, no solution. I’m so sorry. The main reason for his pessimism, it should be noted, was the flawed condition of the human. He blamed human beings.

And Damaisio concludes, “The protracted negotiating process required for governance efforts is necessarily embedded in the biology of affect and its accommodations with reason. There is no exit from that condition.”

Here is the conclusion to this chapter. “The strategic pursuit of happiness, just like the spontaneous variety, is predicated on feelings. The motives behind the pursuit—the maladies of life and their pleasurable counterweights—could not have been envisioned without feelings. Thanks to the confrontation with pain and the recognition of desire, it came to be that feelings good and bad, focused on the intellect, gave it purpose, and helped create new ways of regulating life. Feelings and expanded intellect made a powerful alchemy. They freed humans to attempt homeostasis by cultural means, instead of remaining captive to their basic biological devices. Humans were well into this new effort when, in humble caves, they sang and invented flutes and, I imagine, seduced and consoled others as needed. Likewise when they incarnated Moses taking God’s commandments on a mountain; when, in the name of Buddha, they conceived Nirvana; when under the guise of Confucius, they came up with ethics percepts; and when in the roles of Plato and Aristotle and Epicurus, they began explaining to fellow Athenians within earshot how good life could be lived. Their job was never finished.

A life not felt would have needed no cure. A life felt but not examined would not have been curable. Feelings launched and have helped navigate a thousand intellectual ships.”

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Non-living to Living

September 11, 2018

The title of this post is the first part of a chapter titled Non-living to Living and Neurons to mind in Michael Gazzaniga’s outstanding book, “The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind.” Before going further we need to discuss some physics. Quantum physics was created when it was discovered that electromagnetic radiation and matter can be conceived in two states: particle or waves. Quantum mechanics refers to very small matter. These two levels of description are needed to capture physical matter. Quantum mechanics requires probabilities.

These two levels of physics are difficult for many physicists to accept. Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” To which another physicist responded, “Stop telling God what to think!” Einstein spent the remainder of his career trying to develop a grand unifying theory and failed. There still are physicists trying to develop a unifying theory. However, at this point it is increasingly becoming obvious that two levels of explanation are required. The idea of complementarity, that the two levels of explanation complement each other, captures this reality nicely.

Howard Pattee is a Stanford-educated physicist who moved into theoretical biology during his career at SUNY Binghamton. Patee feels that philosophers have approached the mind/brain divide from the wrong end of evolution. Over the course of his life, Pattee has come to the startling conclusion: duality is a necessary and inherent property of any entity capable of evolving.

Upon reflection, one realizes that the origins of life are typically glossed over. True this was an important event, but how could inanimate matter become animate matter capable of reproducing and evolving? Patee asked this question that motivated his thinking for decades. He asked “How is it possible for us to distinguish the living from the lifeless if we can describe both conceptually by the motion of inorganic corpuscles?” Gazzaniga writes, “Patee saw the logic of the question, but he also saw that evoking the same laws to describe both animate and inanimate matter was not a good enough explanation. In fact, it was no explanation at all. There had to be more to the story.” So, just as in physics, two levels of explanation are required. Patty proposes that the gap between quantum and classical physical behavior is inherent in the distinction between inanimate and living matter.

Gazziniga writes, “There you have it. Pattee proposes that the gap resulted from a process equivalent to quantum measurement that began with self-replication at the origin of life with the cell as the simplest agent…The gap between subjective feeling and objective neural beings didn’t come about with the appearance of brains. It was already there when the first cell started living. Two complementary modes of behavior, two levels of description are inherent in life itself, were present at the origin of life, have been conserved by evolution, and continue to be necessary for differentiating subjective experience from the event itself. This is a mind-boggling idea.”

How to Hack Your Unconscious…to Boost Your Memory and Learn Better

August 5, 2018

This post is based on a feature article with the same title as this post by Emma Young in the 28 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist. Much of the learning process goes on deep in the mind. If you could improve the unconscious processing and retrieval of memories, you could game the system. Here are the top tips to improve how you recall facts.

If you’re learning facts such as foreign phrases or historical dates, giving our study a boost could be as simple as taking a break. Lila Davachi of New York University found that breaks help to consolidate memories, improving recall later. But for a time out to work, brain cells different to those used during the learning period need to be activated. So, try not to think about what you have just been working on.

It is even better to sleep on it. It is well established that the brain processes memories during sleep, but it will do this more effectively if you leave the optimum time between learning and sleeping. Christoph Nissen at the University of Bern found that a group of 16 and 17 year olds performed best on tests of factual memory if they studied the material mid-afternoon, but they acquired skills involving movements faster if they practiced in the evening. So it appears that the “critical window” between learning and sleep is shorter for movement-related learning that for other types of memory. It isn’t clear whether adults can benefit as much as teenagers from these windows. Nissan says, “There is evidence that adolescents have a higher capacity to learn—and they sleep better.” Moreover, after about age 60 adults generally learn better in the morning.

Bjorn Rasch of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland is investigating another way to boost learning during sleep. He has conducted studies showing that adult language learners remember more when played recordings of foreign words while sleeping. He says, “The literature on targeted memory reactivation is growing rapidly. Most findings are positive.” But it is important that the words are played during non-REM, slow-wave sleep, when factual memories are consolidated. And the volume of the recordings should not be so loud that it disrupts. You could also try using scents to cue learning in sleeping brain. Rasch has found a boost to memory in people who smelled roses while learning a task and then again during slow wave sleep.

Perhaps the most surprising effect is the placebo effect. Yes, there is a placebo effect in memory. In this study volunteers who had to answer multiple-choice questions did significantly better if told that the correct answer would be flashed subliminally just before the question. They were not. The improved performance was all the result of the placebo effect. The researchers think it worked by reducing performance anxiety and priming people for success. However, HM still wants to find successful replications of this experiment.

HM would be remiss if he did not mention that there is an entire category of posts titled Mnemonic Techniques. Included here are classical techniques and techniques develop for remembering numbers. There are also posts here titled “Moonwalking with Einstein,” and “How to Become a Memory Grandmaster’ that describe what can be done with these techniques as well as professional memory competitions.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect Writ Large

April 29, 2018

Readers of the Healthymemory blog should be familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect from previous posts. The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes the phenomenon of people thinking they know much more about a topic than they actually know, compared to the knowledgeable individual who is painfully aware of how much he still doesn’t know about the topic in question.

In the blog post “The Antithesis of the Enlightenment” HM wondered how people would rate the following statement by David Deutsch,
“Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”
HM’s own response was, “HM would say that this is an empirical question so we don’t know yet.”

HM was answering on two levels. The Dunning-Kruger Effect states that the more knowledgeable one is, the more uncertain one is of his knowledge. This is certainly true for HM. Since graduating from high school, his learning has informed him of how much more he does not know. He expects this to continue to the end of his lifetime. Moreover, even within his supposed areas of expertise, there is a limit to what he can know and grasp. Much of what HM knows and believes is based on what true experts know. Moreover, HM thinks one should never be certain. Any belief can be overturned with better data or better arguments.

Homo sapiens is constrained by limitations in attentional processing in short term memory. Long-term memory is malleable, and changes over time. So human physiology constrains cognitive abilities. As Daniel Goleman described in his book, Emotional Intelligence, we have a nervous system adapted to performance to the world of early humans were dangers were omnipresent. This can still be seen in the daily violence reported in the news, and in our propensity for warfare, even when it is realized that todays weapons could make homo sapiens extinct.

In the general area of science, there seems to be overconfidence in how much we know. At the turn of the 19th century, some prominent physical scientists apparently thought that virtually everything was known. By 1905 Einstein published his special theory of relativity, to be followed ten years later by his general theory of relativity. And by the mid-twenties quantum physics came on the horizon. We can never know what might be just around the corner.

Unfortunately, science is often viewed as competing with the concept of God, without appreciating how limited current science is. Specific religious beliefs are not required for a belief in God. There are more parsimonious accounts available for all religions, and one of the tenets of science is to accept the most parsimonious explanation. Nevertheless, if someone finds comfort in a religion, that person should not be denied that comfort. The exception to this is when the individual tries to impose his religious beliefs or laws that come from those religious beliefs onto others.  Judge not, that ye be not judged should always be remembered. Live your religious beliefs, but let others live their own beliefs whether they are religious or not. Unfortunately some churches are heavily involved in politics, and wield an unhealthy political influence. Moreover, they are tax-exempt. Any church that is engaged in or that encourages their congregations to vote or work in a political area, should have their tax-exemptions revoked.

The mathematician Blaise Pascal made what HM regards as a compelling justification for a belief in God. Although he made his justification in a different context, the basic form of the argument holds. His argument was in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. He argued that the benefits of believing needed to be weighed against the costs of not- believing. If someone does not believe, and God does exist, then the consequences could be frightening. However, if you believe, and God does not exist, you would never know. And during one’s lifetime one would have the comfort in believing in a just and merciful God. As HM never is certain about anything, this logic compels him to believe in God. And that belief is comforting, even should it be wrong.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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.

I Am Not a Scientist, but

May 7, 2017

This post is based largely on the book, “NOT A SCIENTIST:  How Politicians, Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science” by Dave Levitan.  In October of 1980 while campaigning against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan addressed some environmental concerns in his speech.  He said, “I have flown twice over Mt. St. Helens out on our West Coast.  I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out here has probably released more sulfur dioxide  into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last 10 years if automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.”  Someone who was a scientist and represented the Environmental Projection Agency told the New York Times that although the volcano spewed as much as 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per day on average, all human sources in the United States produced about 81,000 tons per day.  Globally at the time, the total would have been over 300,000 tons of sulfur activities from human sources each day.  The massive eruption of Mountain St. Helens alone released about 1.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide.  Ten years worth of sulfur dioxide emission from “things that people are so concerned about,” was equal  to more than 200 million tons from the United States alone.

Should you be at a speech where a politician says, “I am not a scientist,” then yell out, “THEN SHUT UP!”

Now the GOP has a strained relationship with science.  Former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has said that the GOP needs to “stop being the stupid party.”  South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham issued the challenge:  “To my friends on the right who deny the science, tell me why. “

Democrats are not immune to criticism.  In 2014 President Barack Obama said that 2014 was the planet’s warmest year ever and repeated this statement several times in 2015.   This was the estimate provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)  had an estimate of 38%.   NOAA climate scientist Deke Arndt explained it this way:  This may seem pedantic, but it’s an important point:  there is a warmest year on record.  One of the 135 years in that history is the warmest.  2014 is clearly, and by a very large margin, the most likely warmest year.  Not only is its central estimate relatively distant from (warmer than) the prior record, but even accounting for known uncertainties, and their known shapes, it still emerges as easily the most likely warmest of the year.”

It would have been better for Obama to provide both estimates, but he is also not a scientist.  He is a lawyer and a politician so he presents the number that better makes his case.  But too many people in the general public would not be impressed by either the 48% of the 38% estimates.  These are probabilistic estimates and they want certainty.  They are certain in their beliefs, why can’t these scientists be certain?

Going into the 20th century there were some scientists who thought that they knew about all that could be known.  Perhaps a few decimal points could be added, but not much more was needed.  But in 1905  Einstein published his special theory of relativity.  His general theory of relativity came in 1915.  Then subatomic physics presented a whole new ballgame.  Then the social sciences blossomed, molecular biology, epigenetic, and so forth.  There are way too many changes and new sciences to enumerate.  Anyone who is certain about anything is either a fool or a charlatan.

There is a chapter in “NOT A SCIENTIST”  called The Certain Uncertainty.  TOADS (Those who Oppose Action/Deniers/Skeptics) who always raise the issue that scientists are not certain about global warming.  They do not appreciate that scientists are never certain and they regard their uncertainty as there basis for being deniers, skeptics, and opposing action.  But there is a consensus not only that global warming is occurring, but that the consequences of being a denier and opposing action could be catastrophic.  The reality is that even if the risk of global warming were small or if the rate of global warming were pessimistic, the consequences are potentially so catastrophic that taking action still would be indicated.  But TOADS never hedge their bets, because they are certain.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Inside Knowledge: Why We Like to Know Useless Stuff

April 5, 2017

This blog post has the same title as a Feature article by Daniel Cossins in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist. The author notes that knowledge is more than just information.  “Even the nematode worm caenorhabditis elegant, the owner of one of the smallest brains we now, forages to maximize information about its environment, and so its chances of staying alive and reproducing.”  This is the typical analysis offered by scientists.  It seems like the entire point is for species to evolve and to reproduce.  However, evolution offers the hope that we can evolve into something better.  Homo sapiens as a whole is quite depressing.  We seem to be preoccupied with warfare and have developed weapons that can lead to our own extinction.  However, there are some members of our species who espouse transcendental values, which leads to the hope that we might become something better.

Cousins writes, “The precise details of how we first came to love knowledge may always elude us.  But it is easy to see how it would have spurred our success as individuals and as a species furnishing us with the tools—often literally, if you think of  cutting blades or fire—to survive and prosper.”

So the argument is that we are addicted to knowledge because it has served us so well in the past.  It still does today, in everyday life as well as the frontiers of technological progress.  The term infovores has be used to describe this propensity (enter “infovores” into the search block of the healthy memory blog).

Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton pointed out in a 1939 essay “The usefulness of useless knowledge,” radio communications and all that came with it wasn’t ultimately the inventions of Guglielmo Marconi.  It was down to James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, scientist who worked out the basics of electromagnetic waves with no practical objectives.”

The current director of IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay to a reissue of Flexner’s original.  He wrote, “The theory of general relativity is used every day in our GPS systems, but it was not the reason Einstein solved it.

The problem is that too many people reject science.  Some reject science on the basis of religious texts.  Others are fundamentally ignorant.  What is most depressing is the leader of the United States rejecting scientific research.  For this HM apologizes.  Although he did not win the popular vote; he was chosen by the electoral college, an anachronism that denies the sacred principle of one citizen, one vote.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Evolution Evolves: Beyond the Selfish Gene

October 23, 2016

The title of this post is identical to title of a short piece written by Kevin LeLand and and published in the 24 September 2016 issue of the “New Scientist.”   The cover of the issue notes that the theory of life needs an update.  The changes in the theory of evolution have been monumental.  In HM’s humble opinion, they are comparable to the changes between Newton and Einstein in physics.  Kevin Leland has provided a precise summary.

Gone is the radical notion of the selfish gene, which argues the goal of genes is to propagate themselves, and we are merely vehicles for that propagation.  Gone also is the nature vs. nurture issue.  Genes interact with the world.  They provide inputs, but perhaps for some exceptionally rare occasions, they are not deterministic.

Natural selection is not solely in charge as the way that an organism develops can influence the direction and rate of its own evolution and its fit to the environment.

Inheritance goes beyond genes and includes epigenetic, ecological, behavioral, and cultural inheritance.  Similar to, but different from, Lamarkian transmission, acquired characteristics can be passed to offspring and play diverse roles in evolution.

Phenotypic variation is not random.  Individuals develop in response to local conditions such that novel features they possess are typically well suited to their environment.

Evolution is much more rapid than previously viewed.  Developmental processes allow individuals to respond to environmental changes and mutations with coordinate changes in suites of traits.  The new view is organism-centered, with broader conceptions of evolutionary processes.  Individuals adjust to their environment as they develop and modify selection processes.  Additional phenomena explain macroevolutionary changes by increasing evolvability,  the ability to generate adaptive diversity.  They include plasticity and niche construction.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Physics Killed Free Will and Time’s Flow. We Need them Back

June 19, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of an important article by physicist Nicolas Gisin the May 20, 2016 edition of the “New Scientist.”  Descartes stated, “I THINK, therefore I am.  Most humans would agree with this statement.  After all, are we active agents free to influence our thoughts and decisions, or are we just passive laundry machines through which thoughts happen to pass?.

Gisin  notes that the ability to ask the question seems to require the first interpretation, yet modern science—in particular—modern physics—almost unanimously plumps for the second.  According to modern physics in a deterministic universe, where one thing leads inevitably  to the next, any conception we have of free will is an illusion.

Gist does not buy this.  He thinks that we are missing something fundamental to our formulation of science.   “And the solution of the problem of free will is linked to another glaring deficiency  of today’s physics—its insistence that time as we know it does not exist.”

Jules Lequyer, a French philosopher of the 19th century wrote, “Without free will, the certainty  of scientific truths would become illusory.”  We need free will to decide which arguments we find convincing, and which we dismiss, which is the essence of doing science.

Gisin  wrote, “What irony, then, that the search for scientific truth seemed to kill free will.  That started with Newton and his universal law of gravitation.  Derived from observations of the solar system bodies, it speaks of a cosmos that operates like clockwork and can be described by deterministic theories. Everything that happens today was set in motion yesterday, and indeed was determined in the initial conditions of the big bang; nothing truly new ever happens.

Gisin further writes, “Things became even more inscrutable with Einstein’s relativity, which showed that there was no unique definition of simultaneous events.  To square that with a deterministic universe, a picture known as the “block universe” emerged.  Here we dispense not just with free will, but also with a flowing time.  Past, present, and future are al frozen in one big icy block.  The present in which we are free to think and be—in which exercise free will—is just as illusory as free will itself.”

And, believe it or not, philosophers of science bend over backwards to explain why we think we have free will.  They argue that we are programmed to always make choices that correspond to a predetermined necessary future.  So the feeling that our choices are free is illusory.

This presumed reasoning is obviously nonsense and it is depressing to realize that so many intelligent people buy it.

Gisin is a quantum physicist and he argues that real numbers are not real at all.  He notes that most real numbers are never ending strings of digits that can contain an infinite amount of information.  He notes that they could encode the answers to all possible questions that can be formulated in any human language, but that a finite volume of space-time can only hold a finite amount of information.  So the position of a particle, or the value of any filed or quantum state in a fine volume, cannot be a real number.  Real numbers are non-physical monsters..

Gisin notes that free will chimes with the dominant “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum theory, made popular by Werner Heisenberg.  Making a measurement “collapses” the wave function describing a quantum system into one of a number of pre-ordained states.  Quantum theory is a random, non-deterministic theory, but it creates a determined world—and seems in no way incompatible with a common sense conception of free will.  So, God can play dice with the universe and win.  Quantum theory is frequently used in practical scientific and engineering problems.

Gisin also frees up the flow of time.  He notes that there is a time before a non-necessary event happens and there is a time after it happens, and these times are different.  This happening of a non-necessary event, like the result of a quantum measurement, is a true creation that can’t be captured by a mere evolution parameter.  He calls the sort of time this requires “creative time.”

Gisin concludes by stating that “creative time’ is extraordinarily poorly understood by today’s science, but that could change with future physics, such as quantum theories of gravity that might replace Einstein’s theories that spawned the block universe.  Time passes, and free will exists—any other way, science makes no sense.

Gisin is not the only physicist who advocates free will Roger Penrose (who healtymemory (HM) believes was on the dissertation committee of Stephen Hawking)  is a distinguished physicist, mathematician, and philosopher, who extols consciousness and the role of quantum effects in consciousness and free will.  Penrose’s book, “The Emperor’s New Mind goes into considerable detail on these topics.  He formulates the notion of Correct Quantum Gravity (CQG).  Although this book was written for the general public parts involve heavy sledding.  Nevertheless it is good to know that an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable scholar is on the same or similar train of thought.  Unfortunately, Roger is much further down these tracks than HM is.  Should healthy memory ever manage to make it further down these tracks, he will get back to you.

Outside of physics there have been many HM blog posts on consciousness and free will.  Even though we all have intimate experience with our own consciousness, there are still many who contend that this is epiphenomenal.  HM argues that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon with adaptive value.  It is essential  to effective interactions with the environment and for choosing courses of action.  Neuroscientists have stated that all mammals, some invertebrates such as the octopus, and many birds are conscious and there consciousness has adaptive value.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 Dead

May 16, 2016

The seventh cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is The Dead.  The stated purpose of this chapter is “”Why—and how—humans perceive the minds of the deceased so vividly is the subject of this chapter.”  There is no need for this explanation.  One would expect that the explanation of the living mind would be extended to individuals after they died.  Even people who do not believe in life after death would likely use expressions based on knowledge of the living individuals mind.  The real purpose of this chapter is to lay the groundwork for the final two seriously flawed chapters.

Much of the chapter discusses philosophy and the differences between monist and dualist philosophers.  This discussion is irrelevant as psychology and cognitive science are empirical enterprises.  The authors note, “Modern psychology generally refutes dualism as the mind can be measured though electoral and magnetic activity and relies heavily on physical brain structures.”  Unfortunately this statement ignores the research on how the mind influences the brain.  When I was a graduate student I was frustrated by the question of whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled.  Experimental psychologists would run experiments in which psychology students participated in experiments in which attempts were made to control some part of the autonomous nervous system, such as the heart.  As these experiments only lasted several hours, it is not surprising that students were unable to do this.  These psychologists ignored the Buddhists monks who were able to slow their heart rates to frightingly low rates.  Psychologists said ignored this saying that it was done with some trick.  True science consisted of using college students in limited experimental studies.  Psychologist found that  the “trick” involved many hours of meditation.  Recent brain imaging studies have illustrated striking effects of meditation on the brain.  The title of Sharon Begley’s new book, “Train Your Mind Change Your Brain” reflects the real truth (this book will eventually be reviewed in the healthy memory blog).

It should also be realized that for about half o the twentieth century American experimental psychologists could not speak of thinking.  This was not rigorous enough.  Finally, in the second half of the century the necessity of using cognitive activity was realized and the cognitive revolution began.  Psychologists seem to be self conscious about not being regarded as true scientists and feel a need to stress the rigor of their thinking.  Rigor is good, but not when it ignores relevant empirical evidence.  And there is more than ample evidence that the mind does act upon the brain.  Indeed that is where the future of cognitive psychology lies.

There its another problem that I shall term intellectual arrogance.  This was exhibited on the eve of the twentieth century when some physicists had concluded that just about all of physics had been developed, and that all that was need was some work to refine decimal points.  In just a few years Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which revolutionized physics.  Ten years later the general theory of relativity further revolutionizing the discipline.  Then came quantum mechanics that operated under different rules than Einstein’s physics.  The advances in physics both astronomical and sub-atomical have been, to repeat the term, astronomical.  Modern Physics is producing theories that would new-ager Shirley Maclaine to shame.

Compared to physics, psychology has taken just a few baby steps.  Moreover, I think psychology will prove to be more complicated than physics, so the relative distance that psychology as to go is likely more than astronomical.

So psychologists need to be guarded in their statements.  The Healthymemory Blog will try to disabuse some of the ideas advanced in the final two chapters of “The Mind Game.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Curiosity and a Healthy Memory

May 5, 2016

This post is based on and inspired by a piece by the excellent science writer Sharon Begley in the June 2016 issue of Mindful titled “Why So Curious?”  Albert Einstein wrote, “curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Samuel Johnson called curiosity “the first passion and the last.”  Thomas Hobbes called curiosity the lust of the mind.”  The founder of American Psychology, William James proposed in1899 that curiosity is “the impulse towards better cognition.  And better cognition implies a better mind and a healthy memory.

Cognitive scientists believe that the best way to understand curiosity is that it is the mental analogue of physical hunger.  The feeling that there is a growling hole in our store of knowledge drives the search for information.  This urge  to sate cognitive hunger  is associated with persistence and solving problems German and American researchers reported in a 2013 study in the Journal of Individual Differences.

A 2011 review of 200 individual studies concluded that “although intelligence is the strongest predictor of academic success, curiosity plus effort rival the influence of intelligence” scientists wrote  in Perspectives on Psychology Science.  They concluded that “a hungry mind is a core determinant of individual differences in academic achievement.”  There is much similarity here between curiosity and Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset.

The health memory blog post “Finally, Hope on the Prediction Front” provides a brief summary to Tetlock’s book “Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction.”   This was a very large study done for IARPA on research as to what makes for a good intelligence analyst.  Curiosity was a key factor.

This link between curiosity and learning might become even more important as we age.  In one recent study scientists had younger adults (average age 20) and older adults (average age 73)  read 60 trivia questions such was “what product is second, only to oil, in terms of the largest trade volumes in the world?” and “what was the first nation  go give women the right to vote?”  Everyone  rated how curious they were  about the answer.  Curiosity had a substantial effect on how likely the older (but not the younger) adults were to recall the answers a week later.  This was a 2015 study by Alan Castel and colleagues reported in “Psychology and Aging.”

A  1996 study of 2,153 70-ish men and women found that the more curious they were, in general, as well as when presented with questions, the more likely they were to be alive in five years.

So curiosity is central to a healthy memory and has a wide variety of benefits.

Einstein, Quantum Mechanics, and the Human Mind

May 17, 2014

This post was motivated by my reading of the Cover Story, State of Mind, by Matthew Chalmers in the 10 May 2014 issue of The New Scientist.  Einstein’s Theory of General  Relativity accounts for a large amount of the behavior of the physical world.  It is deterministic, predicting what follows what.  Quantum mechanics accounts for the physical behavior on a very small scale and accounts for subatomic behavior.  However, at this small scale, the behavior is not strictly determined.  It is probabilistic.  Moreover, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the location and the velocity cannot be determined at the same time.  One or the other can be measured, but the measurement itself produces change.  Einstein could not accept quantum physics.  He said that God does not play dice with the universe.  Yet quantum physics works quite well, and a fair amount of modern technology results from quantum physics.

In the quantum world objects exist in a fuzzy combination of states, and the very act of measuring them forces them to adopt a specific state.  Einstein spent the latter part of his career trying to reconcile his theory with quantum physics.  Einstein, with all his genius, failed to do so.  Many prominent physicists have continued Einstein’s quest, but all have failed to do so.

Now there is a theory that reconciles the two different theories, but it does not do so in the physical world, but rather in our minds.  It is called quantum bayesianism (QBism).  Thomas Bayes formulated a theorem named after him that computes how probability changes after new information is added.  There is a Bayesian approach to statistics that incorporates the concept of subjective probability.  This approach is quite popular with cognitive psychologists.  QBism states that quantum states are all in our minds.  They are just a mental tool that we use to understand our variable experience in the world.

This reminds me of an experience I had earlier in my life.  This was with a bright young physicist who had difficulty coming to grips with the concept that light could be regarded as waves, or as discrete particles of photons.  As a psychologist, this had never been a problem for me as I did not, and still not, think that we have direct contact with the physical world.  We learn about the physical world through our senses from which we build mental models of external reality.   I have since learned that the 18th century philosopher Kant held the same or a similar notion.  He thought that there is no direct experience of things, and that we construct in our minds models from sensory inputs.  In the case of light, wave theories are the best way to think about some phenomena, and particle theories are the best way to think about other phenomena   In the case of physics, Einstein provides the best models for thinking about the larger physical world, whereas quantum mechanics provides the best models for thinking about the subatomic world.
A good example of this categorical perception can be found in the processing of language.
There is a phoneme in both Korean and Japanese that falls half way between an r sound and an l sound.  This sound is quite clear to Koreans and Japanese, but I always hear either an r or an l.  Difficulty arises on their side when they are speaking and “ I love you” comes out as “I rove you.”
Perhaps with enough training I can overcome this faulty perception.  Certainly Japanese and Koreans who become fluent in English certainly do.

Returning to the world of physics, it is possible that some theoretical physicist will develop a means of reconciling the two theories.  And that theory might provide deeper insight into the discipline of physics, although it is highly doubtful that I shall be able to understand it.  In any case, this is not something for the rest of us to be concerned with as our minds shall  continue to construct mental models as they are needed.

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