RSSCategory: Neuroscience

Why PZ is not a believer

October 15, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Why PZ is not a believer

PZ Myers has offered eight fairly solid reasons for not believing in god. Here is number 8:

There are always better explanations for unexplained phenomena than god: fraud and faulty sensory perception cover most of the bases, but mostly, if I see a Madonna appear in a field to bless me, the first thing I’d suspect is brain damage. We have clumsy, sputtering, inefficient brains that are better designed for spotting rutabagas and triggering rutting behavior at the sight of a curvy buttock than they are for doing math or interpreting the abstract nature of the universe. It is a struggle to be rational and objective, and failures are not evidence for an alternative reality. Heck, we can be fooled rather easily by mere stage magicians; we don’t need to invent something as elaborate as a god to explain apparent anomalies.

I would tweak this eighth response. I don’t think most believers have a generally malfunctioning ability to perceive, and I wouldn’t attribute their willingness to believe to fraud, at least not fraud in any traditional use of that word (where intent to deceive is key).

Rather, I suspect that the elaborate hyper-sensitive cognitive machinery that allows us to detect potential allies and facilitates the formation of social bonds with them is rigged to dim the perceptual abilities of 90% of us, based on perceived threats to social relationships we value. Thus, as I see it, the perceptual machinery isn’t completely broken. Rather, it dims only when competing social cravings slap the “toxic” label on evidence that seems to be inconvenient to the formation or maintenance of a social group. This cognitive function dims our abilities to see and hear based on whether the things we might see or hear could damage treasured social relationships. It seems as though some sort of rough and ready mini-brain screens the world for our bigger better brain (at least in 90% of us). That mini rough and ready brain functions as a paranoid secretary who won’t let calls come through to the boss because the secretary is over-protective.

I discuss the connections between social cravings and inability to appreciate evidence, as well as some of the science that guides me in my views, in a series of posts I titled “Mending Fences.”

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Real life mind meld

August 17, 2010 | By | Reply More
Real life mind meld

Michael Balter reports that scientists are honing in on the real-life mechanism that allows two minds to meld during conversation:

Scientists have traditionally considered talking and listening to be two independent processes. The idea is that speech is produced in some parts of the brain, including a region known as Broca’s area, and understood in others, including a region known as Wernicke’s area. But recent studies suggest that there’s actually much more overlap. For example, partners in a conversation will unconsciously begin imitating each other, adopting similar grammatical structures, speaking rates, and even bodily postures.

This overlap helps people establish a “common ground” during conversation and may even help them predict what the other is going to say next . . . Some researchers think that so-called mirror neurons, which fire when one individual observes the actions of another, might be involved in these interactions.

The scientists conducting the study argue that the experiments they’ve conducted demonstrate that listeners are active participants to successful conversations.

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Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

April 13, 2010 | By | Reply More
Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

Within a tradition that extends backwards at least to David Hume, many people insist that science is utterly incapable of telling us what we ought to value, and that science is thus unable to weigh in on moral issues. This position has often been referred to as the naturalistic fallacy–the claim that what is “moral” can be defined in terms of natural properties.

In this highly-engaging and wide-ranging TED talk, Sam Harris argues that this is a dangerous illusion, because whether humans are experiencing “well being,” and whether communities “flourish” clearly depend on facts. He argues that questions of values reduce to facts about the brain functions and specific social circumstances of human beings. Science is thus relevant to values, and as we move further into the future this will be ever more obvious.

Harris paused to make it clear that he is not claiming that science will necessarily provide answers to all values questions. He is not claiming that those trying to decide whether to have a second child, for example, will turn to science. On the other hand, meting out corporal punishment on children (which is still allowed by the laws of many southern states) raises a factual question: Whether inflicting pain, violence and embarrassment encourages positive emotional development. He also points to the wearing of burkas under threat of physical punishment as a practice that can can be factually analyzed as not likely to improve well being.

Harris doesn’t offer a single recipe for a “right” or a “correct” way to run a society. Rather, he suggests that the moral state space consists of many peaks and valleys; there might be many right answers, in addition to many wrong answers. This multiplicity of approaches doesn’t mean that there aren’t factual truths about the better and worse ways of achieving social well-being, however.

He repeatedly makes the point that science has a lot to say about morality, and there is no good reason to be non-judgmental when the facts scientifically show that a particular practice leads to social dysfunction. In many human disciplines, some of the people weighing in are so ill-informed that their opinions shouldn’t count at all — not every person has a right to a wide audience on the topic of string theory. The same thing goes for moral expertise. Those who insist that the best thing to do when their young daughter is raped is to kill her out of shame lack moral expertise. Those who would behead their son because he is gay in order to keep him from going to hell do not have moral opinions that should count.

There are right and wrong answers regarding questions of human flourishing (this can increasingly be fleshed out in terms of brain function) and “morality” relates to a specific domain of facts.

It is possible for individuals and even whole culture, to care about the wrong thing. It’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that lead to needless human suffering. Just admitting this will transform our discussion about morality.

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Desiring God

December 29, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More
Desiring God

At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse points out how odd it is that the God of the Bible allegedly desires certain things (e.g., he likes sacrifices). But, as Ebonmuse explains, it should strike us as odd that the creator of the universe would have desires:

The belief that God wants and desires certain things is a common thread in monotheism. But when you think about it, this is a profoundly strange belief. Most theists don’t recognize this, but that’s because the analogy between God and human beings masks the strangeness of it.

After all, we all understand how, and why, human beings come to hold certain desires. We have instinctual physiological drives, installed in us by evolution, for basic things like food, sex and companionship. We have more complex desires as a result of culture, upbringing and past experience for things that we think will add to our happiness or help fulfill the more basic desires. Every one of us has gone through a long, complex and contingent process of development that shaped our likes and dislikes.

But God, so we’re told, is eternal and unchanging. He is pure reason, pure mind, pure spirit – no physical needs to fulfill, no past history, none of the contingent events that make human nature what it is. So how is it that he has, just like us, a complex nature with specific likes and dislikes?

The post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek , but Ebonmuse makes a serious point that theists really should confront, but they never actually do confront it. Instead, they concoct “souls” and “spirits.”

I would spin the issue this way. All desires, many of which stem from emotions, are associated with bodies. Without a body, there cannot be any emotion and thus there cannot be any form of craving or desire. There isn’t a jot of evidence that there has ever been any thought in the absence of a body. Further, there is no such thing as free-standing self-sufficient meaning; there is no such thing as meaning independent of a physical body; all meaning is embodied. I know that many believers would find my conclusions to be disturbing, but this is the direction I am turned when I rely upon the (expansive) scientific view of what it means to be a human animal (and see this entire category).

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Stats on a tiny chunk of brain

December 26, 2009 | By | Reply More
Stats on a tiny chunk of brain

Rustyny offers a few astounding facts regarding a chunk of your brain the size of a grain of sand.

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Hungry Ghosts

November 14, 2009 | By | Reply More
Hungry Ghosts

I recently came out of an emotional bad spell – emerging from it felt a lot like hitting the surface after you’ve been underwater just a little too long. This spell of anxiety/fear/depression/whatever it was taught me more than usual because it happened smack dab after I had a really awesome year business wise. I was on a high. Things were so good I had to go buy a suit so I could go to Las Vegas and get an award for being so awesome. That is important to note not because getting an award is important (but it is kind of cool, right?) but because of what happened after the award.

Intellectually I knew that all the activity I had in the funnel would end, and I’d be back in building mode. I knew it and even tried to prepare myself for the letdown. My business is cyclical – I know that. And I like building mode. Building mode is how one gets to closing mode. I just had a run of especially good fortune and my building mode was a distant memory, which I knew was not such a great thing for me. In the midst of my crazy happy frenetic good luck mode, I tried to prepare for what would come after the constant activity of balancing all the stuff in the hopper died down. I know how I can be – I get squirrley sometimes, so I tried to prepare.

There is a saying: “Trying lets us fail with honor.” I failed. I’m not sure I had any honor, either.

“I woke up one morning and I was scared. Not just a little scared, either. I was in full-on panic mode. I remember thinking, “Dammit, Lisa, this is exactly what you worked to prevent.” Yep it sure was. In my defense, I had a crazy end of September/October. We had family in from out of town (stressful), my Mom had spine surgery (surprisingly stressful), the foster greyhound we rescued need to be carried up and down our stairs in order to go outside (it takes both of us – constantly coordinating schedules is stressful), I bought a car (consumerism is, for me, fraught with drama, tension and guilt – stressful, but I sure like the car) and Ginger decided to feng shui our bedroom. Not only was I going through something hard, I had to do it with our bed facing a new and opposite wall. Things like that do bad things to me. I spent an entire sleepless night focused on whether the bed facing the other direction was symbolic of me never closing another deal. During that mental wrestling match I started doubting my employ-ability (I only have one suit!!) and by morning I had tearfully decided my only option was to make this thing work or I’d end up living in a paper box. I went to bed scared, I woke up panicked and I think Ginger wanted to throttle me (I wanted to throttle me).

[more . . . ]

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Timing your blinks

October 6, 2009 | By | Reply More
Timing your blinks

According to this post at Mind Hacks, Blinking is apparently synchronized to important events you are experiencing. “Blinks seems to be controlled so they occur at the start and end of meaning actions.” Therefore, the blinks of the members of a movie audience tend to be synchronized.

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Excuse me . . . my mortality is showing: meditations on life and death

September 28, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More
Excuse me . . . my mortality is showing: meditations on life and death

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans wear clothing when it’s warm outside? Are they really covering up for sexual propriety—because of shame? Or could it be that they are wearing clothes to cover up their animal-ness– their mortality? I’m intrigued by this issue, as you can tell from my previous writings, including my posts about “terror management theory,” and nipples.

This issue came to mind again recently when I found a website that allows you to completely undress people. The site has nothing to do with sex, I can assure you, but it has a powerful set of images that raise interesting questions about human nakedness. To get the full experience, go to the website and select an image of a fully clothed person. These are absolutely ordinary looking people, as you will see. Then click on the images of any of these men or women and watch their clothes disappear.

If you are like me, when their clothing disappears, this will not cause you to any think sexual thoughts. If you are like me, you will find yourself thinking that these people looked more “attractive” with their clothes on. For me, the effect is dramatic and immediate, and it reminded me of a comment by Sigmund Freud (I wasn’t able to dig out the quote), something to the effect that we are constantly and intensely attracted to the idea of sex (duh!), but that sex organs themselves often look rather strange to our eyes–sex organs are not necessarily sexy. I think the same thing can be said for our entire bodies. Nakedness isn’t the same thing as sexuality or else nudist colonies would tend to be orgies (which, from what I’ve read, they are not). Rather, sexual feelings are triggered by the way we use our bodies. We do many things that are sexual, and most of these things take some effort. Simply being naked is not an effective way to be sexy.

In America, people constantly confound nudity with sexuality. I admit that the media presents us with many ravishing image of sexy naked people, but the sexiness of such images is not due to the mere nakedness. There’s always a lot more going on than mere nakedness. Consider also, that when people actually mate, they often bring the lights down low, further hiding their bodies.

Then why do Westerners cover up with clothing to be “proper”? I suspect that anxiety about death (not so much anxiety about sex) contributes to our widespread practice of hiding those naturally furry parts of our bodies—those parts associated with critically “animal” functions relating to reproduction and excretion of body wastes.

[More . . .]

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Depression as an adaptation

August 30, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Depression as an adaptation

According to the latest edition of Scientific American Mind, new research suggests that depression is not necessarily a a disease or aberration. In many cases, having a depression might increase your chances of survival.

[D]epression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits.

The researchers go out of their way to acknowledge that depression is a terrible problem for many people who should seek out help. Nonetheless, they also suggest that the mode of thinking characteristic of many bouts of depression is focused, highly analytical and systematic:

Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted . . . [D]epression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving. Therapies should try to encourage depressive rumination rather than try to stop it, and they should focus on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression . . . [D]epression . . . seems . . . like the vertebrate eye—an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.

For further reference: I first rand in to this idea that many bouts of depression might be useful in a book called Why We Get Sick, by Randolf Nesse.

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