A transhumanist dictionary

George Dvorsky has published a guide to the terms and buzzwords of transhumanism – an optimistic movement that seeks to apply current and future scientific discoveries to extending human experience and abilities.

Transhumanists are interested in neuroscience as a way of improving on the natural human range, either through optimising the biological systems already present or extending them with technological interfaces.

They are variously treated with excitement, suspicion and amusement by mainstream scientists who tend to be conservative by nature.

However, the movement has attracted some leading lights in the sciences who are not put off by the sometimes science-fiction focus of the transhuman mission.

You may see lots of references to the Singularity, a key concept in transhumanist thought.

It’s exact meaning differs depending on the context, but one of the most influential definitions is from Ray Kurzweil who uses it to describe the notional point when computers will overtake the abilities of the human brain.

Needless to say, this puts the back up of many philosophers and cognitive scientists who believe that computers will never be able to fully emulate human intelligence or consciousness.

There’s plenty more of these thorny issues touched on by Dvorsky’s dictionary, so have a look through if you want to know what the dreamers of neuroscience are thinking about.

Link to ‘Must-know terms for the 21st Century intellectual: Redux’.

Mad love

Highlighting the striking parallels between our least understood and most exalted states of mind, Nietzsche commented that “there is always some madness in love”.

Perhaps the reason love has such a good reputation when compared to other forms of madness, is its effect on mood.

Euphoria, arousal, elation, talkativeness and flights of fancy can fill the mind in the most pleasurable way and it’s interesting that these are also core symptoms of mania – one end of the manic-depressive spectrum.

The defining feature of madness is delusion, however, where the affected person holds a fixed, unrealistic belief despite persuasive contrary evidence.

People in love are notorious for their unusual beliefs and, indeed, research has shown that we tend to hold unlikely and overly positive beliefs about our lovers.

Romance doesn’t even need a willing partner in some cases, as people who are diagnosed with de Clerambault’s syndrome hold the delusional belief that another person is in love with them, even if they’ve never met.

The original subject of de Clerambault’s seminal case study was a 53 year old woman who believed that King George V was in love with her and signalled his desires by moving the curtains of Buckingham Palace.

It seems madness and love are, in many ways, soul mates, and perhaps we should be grateful for their shared history.

Indeed, madness is at its most spectacular when shared, and the prospect of falling sanely in love with someone surely seems to miss the point.

The power of praise

There’s a fascinating article in The New York Magazine about the dramatic effects of different types of praise on a child’s success when tackling new challenges.

A team of researchers led by Prof Carole Dweck asked children to complete a series of short tests, and randomly divided into groups. Each child was given a single line of praise.

One group was praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”), while the others were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”). This simple difference had a startling effect.

Children who were praised for their effort were more likely to choose a harder test when given a choice, were less likely to become disheartened when given a test they were guaranteed to fail, and when finally given the original tests again, their marks improved.

In contrast, the children praised for their intelligence tended to choose an easier test if asked, were distressed by failure, and actually had worse marks after re-taking the original tests.

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized‚Äîit’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure).

The article is fascinating, although it seems the writer has somewhat overused the phrase ‘the inverse power of praise’ and might lead some people to think that praise itself has an ‘inverse effect’.

Praising children is incredibly important. Countless psychological studies have shown that excessive critical comments have a damaging effect on mental health.

This research just suggests that in terms of encouraging children to tackle challenges effectively, praising their effort seems more effective than praising their intelligence.

The article is a thorough look at the issues raised by this research, and how it is being applied in education.

Link to The New York Magazine article.

Extra Senses

A new five part series called ‘Extra Senses’ has just started on BBC Radio 4, looking into the science behind sensations beyond the ordinary touch, sight, smell and sound. Today’s show was on pain and features some excruciating sounds from a man eating a lightbulb (“the most painful part could be tomorrow morning”!) as well as interviews with neuroscientists who research the neurological basis and functions of pain. Next week the presenter, Graham Easton, looks at balance.

Link: Extra Senses (thanks to Harry for the tip)

Prescribe two, get one free

A new psychiatric journal called Clinical Schizophrenia is launching in April that will have a novel distribution policy.

If you’re in the top 70% of antipsychotic drug prescribers in America, you’ll get your copy free.

The journal is intending to publish prestigious studies on the treatment of schizophrenia.

So it not only acts as an incentive to prescribe drugs to patients, it also guarantees that the advertisers (i.e. drug companies) will reach the doctors spending the most money on medication.

Someone got a promotion for that idea I’m sure.

Stephen Pinker on The Colbert Report

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was a guest on the comedy show The Colbert Report where he talks about the brain, language and having bad hair days.

Pure Pedantry has embedded video of the interview if you want to catch the quickfire questions and cognitive one-liners.

For those not familiar with the format of the show, it is hosted by spoof conservative talk show host Stephen Colbert who often seems hilariously but unnervingly realistic.

Beauty and the average girl

Flickr user Pierre Tourigny has created a series of composite images from popular portrait rating website Hot or Not? that nicely demonstrates our bias for perceiving average faces as beautiful.

He’s made average images from a series of female faces but divided them up into the scoring categories, so there’s an average of faces rated 5 to 5.4, 5.5 to 5.9 and so on.

The average image of the highest rated faces, and an average of faces from all rating categories are shown on the left, although the whole range is on Tourigny’s Flickr page.

If you do have a look at the full series, you’ll notice that the overall average face seems more attractive than the composite face created from images rated in the average range (5-5.4).

Previously on Mind Hacks, we reported on research that suggested that faces created from the average of many others possibly seem more beautiful because they’re easier for the brain to process.

This may be because our brain does a similar averaging process to create a ‘face template’ which we use during face recognition.

Faces that deviate least from this template are easier to match and, therefore, tend to be seen as more attractive.

This, of course, is not the complete story as cultural ideas of what is considered beautiful and perhaps even specific ways in which a face could differ from the ‘template’ might also contribute to our subjective perception of beauty.

Link to Pierre Tourigny’s ‘Average Face Scale’.
Link to previous post on facial attractiveness perception on Mind Hacks.

Our memory is our coherence

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”

The legendary surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel on the existential importance of memory. Thanks Katerina!

Neurophilosophers in The New Yorker

The Feb 12th edition of The New Yorker has an extensive article on neurophilosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the article is available online, even to subscribers, but is worth checking out if you catch a copy in the library or on news stands as it’s an in-depth look into their work and theories.

The Churchlands are known for a radical approach to philosophy of mind called eliminative materialism that argues that we should reject the majority of psychological concepts we talk about in everyday language.

Everyday theories of the mind are known as folk psychology and includes concepts such as belief and intention.

They argue that neuroscience will not eventually produce better specified theories of (for example) belief, but that like the four humours theory of medicine, the concept of belief will eventually be rejected wholesale as science advances and that the concept as it currently stands is little more than a linguistic fiction.

Link to excellent Wikipedia article on eliminative materialism.

2007-02-09 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Three psychiatrists have started producing a regular, engaging and somewhat quixotic podcast called My Three Shrinks.

The Neurophilosopher investigates a new form of artificial limb that feeds back touch sensations.

Approximately 6 out of every 100 words are affected by repetitions, corrections or hesitations. Why does this happen? Mixing Memory is on the case.

Neuroscientist Read Montague discusses his current reads with American Scientist.

Pure Pedantry investigates why speed daters say that selective is hot.

The New York Times has an article on the psychology of the colour red.

Improve your presentation by slagging it off? Cognitive Daily looks at research suggesting that self-deprecating comments may improve audience ratings.

Drug breakthrough for fashionable new mental illness

Life-changing new drug Havidol (chemical name Avafynetyme HCl) has just been marketed for the widely under-recognised disorder Dysphoric Social Attention Consumption Deficit Anxiety Disorder (DSACDAD).

DSACDAD is a new diagnosis where sufferers experience symptoms such as “worrying about life, feeling tense, restless, or fatigued, being concerned about their weight, noticing signs of aging, feeling stress at work, home, or finding activities they used to enjoy, like shopping, challenging.”

The drug targets the recently discovered hedonine hormone to boost the brain’s reward system for when “feeling better is not enough”.

Havidol joins other next generation drugs Fukitol, Panexa, Progenitorivox and Proloxil as medications that not only affect the brain, but also purify the soul.

Link to Havidol website (via BoingBoing).
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on soul purifying pharmaceuticals.

A Whiter Shade of Searle

The Boston Globe has a brief interview with philosopher John Searle where he’s quizzed about his views on consciousness, computation and consensus.

Despite having a back catalogue stretching back to the 60s, prog rock band Procol Harum are popularly remembered as ‘the band who did A Whiter Shade of Pale’.

Similarly, despite his wide-ranging work, Searle is popularly remembered as the ‘guy who devised the Chinese room argument’.

Searle is the Procol Harum of philosophy, although, to be fair, his back catalogue is actually worth checking out.

In this interview with the Globe’s Ideas section, he touches on consciousness, free will, whether the mind can be described as computation, and why philosophers disagree so much.

IDEAS: You think that questions about the mind are at the core of philosophy today, don’t you?

SEARLE: Right. And that’s a big change. If you go back to the 17th century, and Descartes, skepticism — the question of how it is possible to have knowledge — was a live issue for philosophy…

IDEAS: Why the change?

SEARLE: We know too much. The sheer volume of knowledge has become overwhelming. We take basic findings from physics and chemistry about the universe for granted. Knowing much more about the real world than our ancestors did, we can’t take skepticism seriously in the old way. It also means that philosophy has to proceed on the basis of all that we know.

The universe consists of matter, and systems defined by causal relations. We know that. So we go on to ask: To what extent can we render our self-conception consistent with this knowledge? How can there be consciousness, free will, rationality, language, political organization, ethics, aesthetics, personal identity, moral responsibility? These are questions for the philosophy of mind.

Link Q&A with John Searle from The Boston Globe (via 3Q).

The psychology of risk and security

Security expert Bruce Schneier has written a remarkably insightful article on the psychology of security trade-offs and risk assessment.

He’s not a psychologist by trade, although has obviously spent a lot of time researching the various studies that are relevant to the sort of decision making we engage in when trying to estimate how risky something might be.

Errors or cognitive distortions are also discussed in detail, particularly with regard to how these might bias our reasoning to make certain things seem more or less risky, even if there’s no change in actual risk.

One crucial concept that Schneier talks about is that security is a feeling, generated by a complex interplay of innate and calculated responses.

Something similar has been discussed in the clinical literature, particularly in a theory of obsessive-compulsive disorder put forward by Henry Szechtman and Erik Woody [pdf].

Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is a disorder where people can feel they have to repetitively do certain actions – often some sort of checking or washing

Szechtman and Woody argue that most drives, such as hunger or sex, have a specific end point behaviour that leads to a feeling of goal satisfaction.

In contrast, the drive for safety has no specific action associated with it that ‘completes’ the desire (because you can always try and be more safe), and so they argue we’ve developed a feedback system (a ‘security feeling’) that signifies when we’ve done enough to be reasonably secure.

In OCD, this might go wrong. So even when the door is locked or you’ve washed your hands, the security feeling doesn’t kick in and you still have the strong desire to do it again.

Anxiety can make the feeling needed all the more, so when we’re anxious, we might need to check the door more, even though we specifically remember locking it.

It’s no surprise that OCD is an anxiety disorder and this may fuel the cycle.

Schneier isn’t discussing mental illness, but it’s interesting that this sort of approach can be widely applied as so much of our behaviour involves risk judgements.

Link to Bruce Schneier article ‘The Psychology of Security’.
pdf of paper ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder as a Disturbance of Security Motivation’.

Secret antipsychotic drug documents now online

Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has been in the news recently over sealed documents leaked to the New York Times which suggest that they covered-up the dangers of their popular antipsychotic drug olanzapine.

In particular, it has been alleged that Eli Lilly knew about the drug’s side-effects before they were widely known but deliberately tried to obscure this information and market to non-specialist doctors who would be less aware of the problems.

Mental health blog Furious Seasons has obtained the documents and today, made them available online so you can read them for yourself.

How the documents got leaked in the first place is still a mystery, and the US federal judge involved in related court cases has asked the New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who broke the story, to explain himself in court. Currently, the paper is refusing to co-operate.

In reply to the allegations made in the newspaper reports, Eli Lilly have said that “The Times failed to mention that these leaked documents are a tiny fraction of the more than 11 million pages of documents provided by Lilly as part of the litigation process. They do not accurately portray Lilly’s conduct”.

Link to copies of Eli Lilly documents.
Link 1 and Link 2 of previous Mind Hacks coverage on the story.
Link to Eli Lilly response to allegations.

Last call for the encephalon express

We will be hosting the 16th edition of the psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon, next Monday (12th), here on Mind Hacks.

If you have written a post or article about the mind, brain or behaviour for the web and want to share your hard work, you can submit a link here to have it featured.

Get your submissions in by Sunday to guarantee they’ll be included. Thanks!