Loneliness is the common ground of terror and extremism

Nabeelah Jaffer writes:

A few years ago I discovered that my friend Tom was a white supremacist. This put me in a strange position: I am a Muslim and the daughter of immigrants. I am a member of one of the so-called invading groups that Tom fears and resents. He broadcasts his views from his social media accounts, which are a catalogue of aggrieved far-Right anger. One post warns ‘the Muslim invaders to keep their filthy hands off our women’. Another features a montage of black faces above the headline: ‘This is the white race after “diversity”.’ Underpinning this is a desperate resentment of ‘liberal Leftie attempts to control free speech’.

Tom has never mentioned any of these ideas to me; on the contrary, in person he is consistently warm and friendly. He vents his convictions only online, and it seems unlikely that he would ever translate them into violent actions. And yet much the same was once said of Thomas Mair, the 52-year-old from Birstall, a village in northern England, who spent time helping elderly neighbours tend to their gardens, and who in 2016 murdered the pro-immigration MP Jo Cox, while shouting: ‘This is for Britain!’ His actions were found to have been inspired by white supremacist ideology.

James Baldwin was right to say that ideas are dangerous. Ideas force people to confront the gap between their ideals and their manifestation in the world, prompting action. Ideas can prompt change for better or for worse – and often both at the same time. But attempts to create change are always charged with danger: to act in new ways is to erode old limits on our behaviour. In the forging of new territory – and the sense of danger that accompanies it – actions that might once have been deemed excessive can come to seem not merely necessary but normal. [Continue reading…]

A theory of reality as more than the sum of its parts

Natalie Wolchover writes:

In his 1890 opus, The Principles of Psychology, William James invoked Romeo and Juliet to illustrate what makes conscious beings so different from the particles that make them up.

“Romeo wants Juliet as the filings want the magnet; and if no obstacles intervene he moves towards her by as straight a line as they,” James wrote. “But Romeo and Juliet, if a wall be built between them, do not remain idiotically pressing their faces against its opposite sides like the magnet and the filings. … Romeo soon finds a circuitous way, by scaling the wall or otherwise, of touching Juliet’s lips directly.”

Erik Hoel, a 29-year-old theoretical neuroscientist and writer, quoted the passage in a recent essay in which he laid out his new mathematical explanation of how consciousness and agency arise. The existence of agents — beings with intentions and goal-oriented behavior — has long seemed profoundly at odds with the reductionist assumption that all behavior arises from mechanistic interactions between particles. Agency doesn’t exist among the atoms, and so reductionism suggests agents don’t exist at all: that Romeo’s desires and psychological states are not the real causes of his actions, but merely approximate the unknowably complicated causes and effects between the atoms in his brain and surroundings.

Hoel’s theory, called “causal emergence,” roundly rejects this reductionist assumption.

“Causal emergence is a way of claiming that your agent description is really real,” said Hoel, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University who first proposed the idea with Larissa Albantakis and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “If you just say something like, ‘Oh, my atoms made me do it’ — well, that might not be true. And it might be provably not true.”

Using the mathematical language of information theory, Hoel and his collaborators claim to show that new causes — things that produce effects — can emerge at macroscopic scales. They say coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system (such as the psychological state of a brain) can have more causal power over the system’s future than a more detailed, fine-grained description of the system possibly could. Macroscopic states, such as desires or beliefs, “are not just shorthand for the real causes,” explained Simon DeDeo, an information theorist and cognitive scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and the Santa Fe Institute who is not involved in the work, “but it’s actually a description of the real causes, and a more fine-grained description would actually miss those causes.” [Continue reading…]

The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just learned it was a fraud

Brian Resnick writes:

The Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most famous and compelling psychological studies of all time, told us a tantalizingly simple story about human nature.

The study took paid participants and assigned them to be “inmates” or “guards” in a mock prison at Stanford University. Soon after the experiment began, the “guards” began mistreating the “prisoners,” implying evil is brought out by circumstance. The authors, in their conclusions, suggested innocent people, thrown into a situation where they have power over others, will begin to abuse that power. And people who are put into a situation where they are powerless will be driven to submission, even madness.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been included in many, many introductory psychology textbooks and is often cited uncritically. It’s the subject of movies, documentaries, books, television shows, and congressional testimony.

But its findings were wrong. Very wrong. And not just due to its questionable ethics or lack of concrete data — but because of deceit.

A new exposé based on previously unpublished recordings of Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychologist who ran the study, and interviews with his participants, offers convincing evidence that the guards in the experiment were coached to be cruel. It also shows that the experiment’s most memorable moment — of a prisoner descending into a screaming fit, proclaiming, “I’m burning up inside!” — was the result of the prisoner acting. “I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” one of the guards told reporter Ben Blum. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do.”

The findings have long been subject to scrutiny — many think of them as more of a dramatic demonstration, a sort-of academic reality show, than a serious bit of science. But these new revelations incited an immediate response. “We must stop celebrating this work,” personality psychologist Simine Vazire tweeted, in response to the article. “It’s anti-scientific. Get it out of textbooks.” Many other psychologists have expressed similar sentiments.

Many of the classic show-stopping experiments have lately turned out to be wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. Yet many introductory psychological textbooks have yet to be updated. And it’s high time that we teach the next generation of students to understand them this way. [Continue reading…]

The spiritual part of our brains — religion not required

Ephrat Livni writes:

Scientists seek to quantify everything—even the ineffable. And so the human search for meaning recently took a physical turn as Columbia and Yale University researchers isolated the place in our brains that processes spiritual experiences.

In a new study, published in Cerebral Cortex (paywall) on May 29, neuroscientists explain how they generated “personally relevant” spiritual experiences in a diverse group of subjects and scanned their brains while these experiences were happening. The results indicate that there is a “neurobiological home” for spirituality. When we feel a sense of connection with something greater than the self—whether transcendence involves communion with God, nature, or humanity—a certain part of the brain appears to activate.

The study suggests that there is universal, cognitive basis for spirituality, as opposed to a cultural grounding for such states. This new discovery, researchers say, could help improve mental health treatment down the line.

Previous studies have examined the brain activity of Buddhist monks or Catholic nuns, say—people who are already spiritually inclined and familiar with the practice of cultivating transcendent states. But this research analyzed subjects from different backgrounds with varying degrees of religiosity, and totally different individual notions of what constitutes a spiritual experience. [Continue reading…]

It’s not my fault, my brain implant made me do it

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Probes that can transmit electricity inside the skull raise questions about personal autonomy and responsibility.
Hellerhoff, CC BY-SA

By Laura Y. Cabrera, Michigan State University and Jennifer Carter-Johnson, Michigan State University

Mr. B loves Johnny Cash, except when he doesn’t. Mr. X has watched his doctors morph into Italian chefs right before his eyes.

The link between the two? Both Mr. B and Mr. X received deep brain stimulation (DBS), a procedure involving an implant that sends electric impulses to specific targets in the brain to alter neural activity. While brain implants aim to treat neural dysfunction, cases like these demonstrate that they may influence an individual’s perception of the world and behavior in undesired ways.

Mr. B received DBS as treatment for his severe obsessive compulsive disorder. He’d never been a music lover until, under DBS, he developed a distinct and entirely new music preference for Johnny Cash. When the device was turned off, the preference disappeared.

Mr. X, an epilepsy patient, received DBS as part of an investigation to locate the origin of his seizures. During DBS, he hallucinated that doctors became chefs with aprons before the stimulation ended and the scene faded.

In both of these real-world cases, DBS clearly triggered the changed perception. And that introduces a host of thorny questions. As neurotechnologies like this become more common, the behaviors of people with DBS and other kinds of brain implants might challenge current societal views on responsibility.

Lawyers, philosophers and ethicists have labored to define the conditions under which individuals are to be judged legally and morally responsible for their actions. The brain is generally regarded as the center of control, rational thinking and emotion – it orchestrates people’s actions and behaviors. As such, the brain is key to agency, autonomy and responsibility.

Where does responsibility lie if a person acts under the influence of their brain implant? As a neuroethicist and a legal expert, we suggest that society should start grappling with these questions now, before they must be decided in a court of law.

[Read more…]

A revolution in our sense of self

Nick Chater writes:

At the climax of Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train as it moves out of a station on the edge of Moscow. But did she really want to die? Had the ennui of Russian aristocratic life and the fear of losing her lover, Vronsky, become so intolerable that death seemed the only escape? Or was her final act mere capriciousness, a theatrical gesture of despair, not seriously imagined even moments before the opportunity arose?

We ask such questions, but can they possibly have answers? If Tolstoy says that Anna has dark hair, then Anna has dark hair. But if Tolstoy doesn’t tell us why Anna jumped to her death, then Anna’s motives are surely a void. We can attempt to fill this void with our own interpretations and debate their plausibility. But there is no hidden truth about what Anna really wanted, because, of course, Anna is a fictional character.

Suppose instead that Anna were a historical figure and Tolstoy’s masterpiece a journalistic reconstruction. Now Anna’s motivation becomes a matter of history, rather than a literary interpretation. Yet our method of inquiry remains the same: the very same text would now be viewed as providing (perhaps unreliable) clues about the mental state of a real person, not a fictional character. Historians, rather than literary scholars, might debate competing interpretations.

Now imagine that we could ask Anna herself. Suppose the great train slammed on its brakes just in time. Anna, apparently mortally injured, is conveyed in anonymity to a Moscow hospital and, against the odds, pulls through. We catch up with Anna convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium. But, as likely as not, Anna will be as unsure as anyone else about her true motivations. After all, she too has to engage in a process of interpretation as she attempts to account for her behaviour. To be sure, she may have “data” unavailable to an outsider – she may, for example, remember the despairing words “Vronsky has left me forever” running through her mind as she approached the edge of the platform. However, any such advantage may be more than outweighed by the distorting lens of self-perception. In truth, autobiography always deserves a measure of scepticism.

There are two opposing conclusions that one might draw from this vignette. One is that our minds have dark and unfathomable “hidden depths”. From this viewpoint, we cannot expect people to look reliably within themselves and compile a complete and true account of their beliefs and motives. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have long debated how best to plumb the deep waters of human motivation. Word associations, the interpretation of dreams, hours of intensive psychotherapy, behavioural experiments, physiological recordings and brain imaging have been popular options.

I believe, though, that our reflections should lead us to a different conclusion: that the interpretation of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictional characters. If Tolstoy’s novel had been reportage, and Anna a living, breathing member of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy, then, of course, there would be a truth about whether Anna was born on a Tuesday. But, I argue, there would still be no truths about the real Anna’s motives. No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain scanning can recover a person’s “true motives”, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. [Continue reading…]

Why Denmark dominates the World Happiness Report rankings year after year

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Okay, we get it, you’re happy – no need to rub it in.

By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College

The new World Happiness Report again ranks Denmark among the top three happiest of 155 countries surveyed – a distinction that the country has earned for seven consecutive years.

The U.S., on the other hand, ranked 18th in this year’s World Happiness Report, a four-spot drop from last year’s report.

Denmark’s place among the world’s happiest countries is consistent with many other national surveys of happiness (or, as psychologists call it, “subjective well-being”).

Scientists like to study and argue about how to measure things. But when it comes to happiness, a general consensus seems to have emerged.

Depending on the scope and purpose of the research, happiness is often measured using objective indicators (data on crime, income, civic engagement and health) and subjective methods, such as asking people how frequently they experience positive and negative emotions.

Why might Danes evaluate their lives more positively? As a psychologist and native of Denmark, I’ve looked into this question.

Yes, Danes have a stable government, low levels of public corruption, and access to high-quality education and health care. The country does have the the highest taxes in the world, but the vast majority of Danes happily pay: They believe higher taxes can create a better society.

Perhaps most importantly, however, they value a cultural construct called “hygge” (pronounced hʊɡə).

[Read more…]

Facebook is a company built around a misanthropic premise

Last August, John Lanchester wrote:

[Mark Zuckerberg] is very well aware of how people’s minds work and in particular of the social dynamics of popularity and status. The initial launch of Facebook was limited to people with a Harvard email address; the intention was to make access to the site seem exclusive and aspirational. (And also to control site traffic so that the servers never went down. Psychology and computer science, hand in hand.) Then it was extended to other elite campuses in the US. When it launched in the UK, it was limited to Oxbridge and the LSE. The idea was that people wanted to look at what other people like them were doing, to see their social networks, to compare, to boast and show off, to give full rein to every moment of longing and envy, to keep their noses pressed against the sweet-shop window of others’ lives.

This focus attracted the attention of Facebook’s first external investor, the now notorious Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Again, The Social Network gets it right: Thiel’s $500,000 investment in 2004 was crucial to the success of the company. But there was a particular reason Facebook caught Thiel’s eye, rooted in a byway of intellectual history. In the course of his studies at Stanford – he majored in philosophy – Thiel became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’.

Girard was a Christian, and his view of human nature is that it is fallen. We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare. We are homo mimeticus. ‘Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.’ Look around, ye petty, and compare. The reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ Thiel said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.’ We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.

The view of human nature implied by these ideas is pretty dark. If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want – if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations – then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves. For all the corporate uplift of its mission statement, Facebook is a company whose essential premise is misanthropic. [Continue reading…]

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We develop the capacity to reason before we can speak

The Verge reports:

One-year-old babies may not be able to speak, but they are able to think logically, according to new research that shows the earliest known foundation of our ability to reason.

Legendary psychologist Jean Piaget believed that we didn’t have logical reasoning abilities until we were seven, but scientists scanned the eyes of 48 babies and found that they’re able to reason through the process of elimination. The research was published today in the journal Science.

The type of reasoning in question, process of elimination, is formally called “disjunctive syllogism.” It goes like this: if only A or B can be true, and A is false, then B must be true. So, if the cup is either red or blue, and it is not red, then it is blue. Process of elimination isn’t necessarily the easiest form of reasoning, says Justin Halberda, a psychologist and child development expert at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in today’s study, but it’s a crucial one for higher thinking. “One of the central pieces that separates human reasoning from all other forms is to negate a premise — you see that if it’s not A, it’s something else,” he says. “That’s quite fancy stuff.” [Continue reading…]

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Facebook gave Russia everything it needed to help Trump become president, but we gave Facebook its power

By the admission of Facebook’s own VP of advertising, Rob Goldman, Russia’s goal of sowing division in America has been served “incredibly well” through its use of Facebook:

Is Facebook’s success in enlisting two billion members a testament to Mark Zuckerberg’s genius in creating the social media platform, or does this tell us more about the frail condition of the human mind?

To a significant degree, our attention is hardwired to be grabbed. We need the capacity to respond to unexpected triggers in our immediate environment in ways that ensure our physical survival.

But in a world where dire threats are not so commonplace, we have acquired the attention of domesticated herd animals whose waking state is occupied by foraging. It is our willingness to passively be fed that attaches us to our feed.

We have succumbed to a form of slavery in which our slave masters need apply no shackles because we have largely lost a sense of agency.

The fact that Facebook could give Russia the attention of so many million Americas was a consequence of the willingness (largely unconscious) of each of these individuals to freely give away their attention.

Until each of us reclaims the power to direct our own attention, we will continue casting out an open invitation to be led astray.