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Social Neuroscience

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The 1990s were designated as the “decade of the brain”.  This spurred significant advances in basic brain research.  It also spawned a new discipline called cognitive sciences or cognitive neuroscience (a multidisciplinary approach to study brain function – yours truly was one of the early graduates of this fledgling field of study). A critical development out of this interdisciplinary approach was functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (commonly referred to as fMRI). fMRI has proved to be a very important tool in advancing our knowledge of the brain. With this tool, researchers have been able to peer into functioning brains. Over the last two decades, there has been prolific output from a multitude of labs across the country and the world. Beautiful, psychedelic pictures of brain slices color coded by intensity of activity has filled the pages of journals and popular press.

That the human brain is highly modular in function has been known for a while (thanks to studies involving individuals with lesions in very specific regions of the brain – check books by Oliver Sacks for fascinating stories).  fMRI further reinforced this fact and extended it in important ways by revealing more nuanced modularity in the brain.


Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC, Berkeley, has this to say in a recent article entitled – How the Brain Really Works  


For the last 20 years neuroscientists have shown us compelling pictures of brain areas “lighting up” when we see or hear, love or hate, plan or act. These studies were an important first step. But they also suggested a misleadingly simple view of how the brain works. They associated specific mental abilities with specific brain areas, in much the same way that phrenology, in the 19th century, claimed to associate psychological characteristics with skull shapes.”

Her insinuation is that this modern day phrenology is not sufficient to explain how the mind works. In fact, she goes on to cite some newer research that demonstrates multiple areas of the brain being engaged in certain activities. More importantly the pattern of activity changes depends on context and focus of attention. She writes


People often assume that knowing about the brain is all that you need to explain how the mind works, so that neuroscience will replace psychology. That may account for the curious popular enthusiasm for the phrenological “lighting up” studies. It is as if the very thought that something psychological is “in the brain” gives us a little explanatory frisson, even though we have known for at least a century that everything psychological is “in the brain” in some sense. But it would be just as accurate to say that knowing about the mind explains how the brain works.”

It turns out Gopnik is arguing for the importance of her own profession: Psychology, for brain research and making a case for why she should get a raise.


Joking apart, her arguments have important implications in a broader societal context. In a previous post, I wrote about neuroscience and the law.  There I warned about Neuromarketing. Now there is an established discipline called Neurocriminology. A psychiatry professor, Adrain Raine, has written a book called, the Anatomy of Violence. He has peered into the brains of murderers and found evidence for reduced functioning in certain brain areas compared to “normal” folks. The upshot is there is predisposition to violence in certain individuals and it can be picked up in brain scans. You can read his take in the article – Neurocriminology: Inside the Criminal Mind.  It tackles issues related to the implications of neurocriminological (that must be a new word) research for crime, punishment and the law. Very interesting. A interview with the author can also be heard on Fresh Air – Criminologist Believes Violent Behavior is Biological .  This is a must hear, Terri pins him down on his own contradictory beliefs vis-a-vis what his own research means.  Gazzaniga (cited in my previous blog- link above), has reviewed the book, and he offers this assessment


The belief that violent behavior can be explained—and needs to be understood—is certainly admirable. I join Mr. Raine in believing that it’s our duty to consider all of this research kind of interesting, even though it is going to take a long time to figure out how it all works. And I believe we can learn more about the biological mechanisms of violence, and that we may someday come up with interventions that help us predict with greater accuracy future antisocial behavior: Such knowledge would greatly enhance society’s ability to be more rational, even in such mundane procedures as parole hearings.

But we live in a layered world: There are the physical, the biological, the mental and the social layers, and each builds upon the last. At this point in history they interact in ways we don’t fully understand. Mr. Raine raises this issue, and urges us all to think hard about what steps we should take. When he suggests that we undertake action on the social level—the “top” layer—in order to prevent crime or prescribe individual interventions, I get off the train. In my view, someday, somehow, someone is going to figure out that the social layer simply can’t do all the things we ask of it.

Next stop, Social neuroscience?

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2013 at 3:55 am

Critical thinking.Anyone?

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“ . . . intelligence . . . is in plentiful supply . . . the scarce commodity is systematic training in critical thinking.” –Carl Sagan (requoted from How to become a Critical Thinker)

Recently, when browsing the Health pages of Google News, I was intrigued by the following headline in the sidebar – Couple Addicted to Coffee Enemas, Up to Four Times a Day! If you know anything about enemas, well, the obvious is easily imagined. It turns out this couple are participants in a reality show – My Strange Addiction on TLC. And it is in its fourth season!! Fourth !?! What’s on tap for this season? I quote from the article “….In its premiere of the first of eight new episodes on Feb. 13 at 10 p.m. ET, the show will also highlight Lisa, a middle-aged woman from Detroit who eats cat fur, grooming her pet with her own tongue. In subsequent episodes, a woman is addicted to bee stings and another one inhales more than 30 jars of vapor rub every week. In the season finale, a woman is addicted to drinking blood….”  Really!  The good news here is that there is not much collateral damage as these strange behaviors are restricted to the individuals or their families.

Which brings me to another topic – Preppers! Anybody watch Doomsday Preppers, the reality show on National Geographic channel, no less! A NYTimes article described the show thus “…is more or less a weekly invitation to laugh at lunatics tunneling into mountainsides to escape a Russian nuclear attack. ” Of course, there was a significant segment of the population obsessing over the ill-fated Mayan end-of-the world prediction. Now it gets a bit worrisome because we are talking about larger groups of people who could potentially influence others in their network to think like them and create panic. The potential for collateral damage is higher!

Which leads me to L.Ron Hubbard. I urge you to listen to this interview – Going Clear – on the Fresh Air Program hosted by NPRs Terri Gross. It gives you some great insights into the mind of Hubbard, Scientology, and its practitioners. Essentially, Hubbard’s fight with his own demons gave rise to this cult with no real basis for broad applicability of its tenets to create social good.

Which points to two modern day abusers of their reach and power, one peddles physical health and wellness, Dr.Mehmet Oz, and another peddles, spiritual health, Dr. Deepak Chopra. You can read about Oz’s shenanigans in the New Yorker article – The Operator – Is the most trusted doctor in America doing more harm than good?. From the article, it will be obvious that Oz is a cardiac surgeon with stellar credentials but also a man who gets carried away by his own success and succumbs to peddling advice (taking on a messianic persona) that is clearly outside of his expertise. Hence, the subtitle question. Clearly, lot of folks tune in to watch his show which means he ought to be more responsible. I came across Chopra’s book, back in the early 90s and kind of bought into his holistic medicine philosophy of curing patients, because it made sense. I sampled some of his writings over the years and quickly determined he was losing it. He has truly become, as one blog calls him, appropriately I might add, the King of Woo Woo. He is #72 on the Top 100 American Loons – a place well deserved. He was on KQED’s Forum program recently talking about his new book – SuperBrain . As usual with his gift of gab and condescending voice, he doles out a bunch of nonsense (which compelled me to write this). What is even more surprising, he has convinced academics from Harvard, CalTech, and other prestigious institutions to co-author books with him. This guy utters pure drivel. But then he has a huge following (I have watched him hold audiences in rapture and wondered why they cannot see through his blasphemy).

Which brings me to the main point of this note, the central importance and need for critical thinking in our lives. P.T.Barnum said there is a sucker born every minute. If you don’t want to be one of them, embrace critical thinking with earnest. Just in case someone needs it, there is a lovely primer on Critical Thinking (targeted for high school and college kids).

Written by asterix98

February 11, 2013 at 9:29 am

Are we all cheaters?

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We are all cheaters and liars: to a degree. At least, that is what Ariely would have us believe. The relevant article appeared a little over a week ago in the WSJ and is pompously titled – Why we lie? Ironically, the title itself is a bit of lie because Ariely makes no attempt to really settle the issue, as the title would lead us to believe. But the hook surely served the editor’s or Ariely’s purpose of attracting eyeballs.

That there is cheating among the populace is not entirely news. It runs the whole gamut from “very minor” to Wall Street style mega embezzlement. Collectively, corporations lose Millions (I think it is more like Billions) when employees help themselves to office supplies for personal use. There are others who misuse customer service provisions, such as the 30-day return policy, when the requirements for a particular item are short term. Such egregious behavior among the lay folk is rampant and the list of situations is pretty long.  This behavior cuts across socioeconomic and educational boundaries.

What is novel in Ariely’s research is that he and his collaborators have systematically catalogued how and to what extent people cheat. While the research is fascinating, the explanations provided for the underlying causes are, in my opinion, superficial or weak. For example, in the studies cited in the article, the basic task assigned to the subjects is to complete as many Math matrices as possible in a finite time. Reporting of number of matrices completed is based on an honor system. The amount of money offered is 50 cents per completed matrix. In this case, subjects cheat by over-reporting number of matrices completed. When the stakes are raised to $10 per matrix, cheating is reduced. The explanation offered is that the participant sense of integrity balances out his/her instinct to cheat. Alternatively, we could argue that a smaller prize may have been suggesting that the task is easy and so fewer solved matrices must imply poor cognitive ability – a blow to self esteem, higher monies must mean a difficult task and solving fewer means self-esteem intact. Tversky and Kahneman (fantastic research on judgment and decision making), I suspect, would have preferred to explain this as at least in part, a framing bias: the setup of the problem and instructions biases the subjects. I wonder what the behavior would be if subjects are paid a fixed amount no matter how many matrices they complete.

The answer to why we lie is unlikely to be a simple one. It must surely involve our sense of morality (already we are on a slippery slope here), sense of entitlement, situational demands (such as hiding uncomfortable truths from the dying), sense of fairness, cultural sensibilities, to name a few. I am pretty sure, the morality line for every individual, lies just to the right of her (meaning it moves with his/her own actions).  But ultimately the explanation must come from the underlying biology and evolutionary pressures and adaptations.  Paul Zak has written about the “moral molecule” –oxytocin and its central importance in building trusting relationships. A second book by Christopher Boehm tackles morality from a anthropologist’s viewpoint. An excellent review of both books can be found here – Kin and kindness. Both of these books are a step in that direction.

Update [07/09/12] – There is a very interesting review of Jay Magill’s book Sincerity in today’s WSJ. For those interested, I think this will complement the discussion here. The review also mentions Dan Ariely’s new book – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Written by asterix98

June 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

Sagan’s lectures on natural theology

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Ann Druyan’s introduction to  Carl Sagan’s – Varieties of Scientific Experience, is wonderful. Just like he does in the lectures proper, she challenges us to open our minds to critical thinking….”what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out….we are spiritually and culturally paralyzed, unable to face the vastness [of space], to embrace our lack of centrality and find our actual place in the fabric of nature…” Contemplate this image. The earth is but a pale blue dot afloat in the immensity of the universe…a small speck situated in a solar system within one of a hundred billion galaxies.

The book is a compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology. As Sagan notes, natural theology is “…everything about the world not supplied by revelation”.

The lectures are organized as chapters. It begins with a chapter titled Nature and Wonder: a reconnaissance of heaven. It is a beautiful tour of what is known about the cosmos. Sagan introduces us to the vastness of the universe and gives us a sense of scale and our relative position in the scheme of the universe. He also tackles superstition [a belief without evidence], and operationalizes the definition of religion [ “binding together from Latin] so essentially science and religion are after understanding the interconnectedness of things.

In the next chapter – The retreat from copernicus – loss of nerve – Sagan takes on creationism, the anthropic principle [interpreting the world in human metaphors], and also gives us a sense of what the lack of centrality for Earth in the cosmic order really means.

Organic universe is another brilliant discussion on the chemical makeup, universal laws and such.  We can see a sample of his wit here .”…so as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. Of course its a big universe, so He, She or It can be gainfully employed in other parts….”  I really like the notion of the  “God of Gaps”, ie., whatever we cannot explain is attributed to God.

The next lecture makes a case for why extraterrestrial intelligence may exist. Sagan also notes that whether it exists or not, it is still hugely informative because it says something about our loneliness. This is followed by a thorough debunking of “extraterrestrial folklore”, the claims of UFO sightings and visitations from aliens, that have been reported in the media over the years.

In the God hypothesis discussion, Sagan provides an operational definition of God, take us on a quick tour of the world religions and their claims and postulates. He then , with scintillating wit (there are many examples throughout), systematically deconstructs these ideas. He also put forth arguments on why God as an OmniX being is not internally consistent.

In the religious experience – he questions the efficacy of prayers, discusses the influence of hormones on human behavior, and coins a God molecule – “theotoxin” he says (tongue in cheek) “would be biasing the issue too strongly….”

In the next chapter, Crimes against creation, he is very concerned with the possibility of a nuclear winter, but in general, it can be interpreted as a general concern for the earth and its inhabitants. Elsewhere, he pleads, “… if you disagree with another human, let him live. There is nowhere in the hundred billion galaxies you will find another…”

The last chapter “Search” – anticipates the world is flat state of affairs. We started as hunter gatherers in small groups, have grown into nation states, now technology, communications, and transport have blurred those boundaries even further. In short, we have to think of ourselves as world citizens. Sagan urges us to think critically on all matters and have compassion for fellow world travelers.  He asks why there is no equivalent of a 11th commandment – thou shalt learn….

In short, if I have not already conveyed it, this compilation of Sagan’s Gifford lectures is pure cognitive pleasure. Well worthy of earning a prominent place on your bookshelves. There are others who, in recent times, have gone after organized religion, such as Dawkins or Harris, but their tone has been angry and sometimes, completely intolerant. Here, I see, Sagan, like an explosives expert, placing the bombs through beautiful, calm, cogent, and brilliant arguments, strategically on the edifice of organized religion. The image I am striving for here is the demolition of tall skyscrapers that crumble in a heap with little or no collateral damage.

Written by asterix98

May 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Of Gulags and Heavens

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I couldn’t help notice the irony in a couple of stories circulating in the media.

The first  is a book review – Escape from Camp 14 – which is the story of a man who escaped from one of the North Korean gulags.  A couple of weeks ago,  I had read the excerpt of his actual escape – Escape from a North Korean Prison. This account already gives us a glimpse of the dehumanizing conditions Shin Dong-hyuk endured and how he made good his escape over the freshly dead body of his friend (he was electrocuted on the fence when trying to escape). I thought this was cruel. Till I read the book review. Shin actually witnessed the beating death of a 6-yr old classmate, the reason: she had stolen a few kernels of corn. In his teen years, he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother. He was also punished for the misdeeds of his parents (North Korea believes in punishing the whole family for an individual’s violations).  I urge you to read both of these pieces to understand just how messed up North Korea is. To witness a completely brainwashed people whose self-image, actually never mind, one doesn’t exist, please watch this full length video from National Geographic. It is so tragic as to almost make you incredulous. Control over the individual’s mind is absolute. This is a nation of a little over 24 million people!!

The cover story in the latest issue of Time Magazine is entitled – Rethinking Heaven! In time for the Easter weekend, the article is a nice tour of how the notion of Heaven has evolved over the years in Christian thinking. Essentially, our conception of heaven has mirrored the dominant cultural sensibilities prevalent at any given period of time. Today, some in the church are advocating that Heaven is not a place up there in the clouds guarded by pearly gates. Rather, it  is to be achieved by being eco-friendly, and making a difference through active participation in improving the lot of the underprivileged. In other words, Heaven is a place that can be built on Terra Firma. This to me is a very promising trend.

But, surely what constitutes Heaven must be relative. To Shin, escaping from the Gulag and having the chance to be human for the first time must have been Heaven!

Written by asterix98

April 7, 2012 at 6:10 am


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I finally got around to listening to a really wonderful interview with Brian Greene on Fresh Air. 

Some of the themes discussed

  • String theory is science bordering on science fiction, but some science fiction does become science fact over time.
  • multiverse – multiple universes, our universe is one of many universe populating a grandiverse
  • Possibility of the same interview in another universe?
  • Universe is infinitely big, but matter can only arrange itself in a finite number of ways. (deck of cards example)
  • Assumes physics on earth holds everywhere in the cosmos (support : we can look out to billions of light years and it all seems to hold)
  • origin and evolution of cosmos – (a variation on the multiverse theme) inflationary cosmology. big bang theory. Does not tell us what happened at time zero. Repulsive gravity. many big bangs.creates many universes.does not rule out that the same laws hold in these other universes.

(My color commentary)

Seemingly crazy idea justified as working with the arcane math inaccessible to common folk(math is a sure footed guide to how the universe works). Visiting  these parallel universes possible through mathematical journeys.

Following this there is a really intriguing discussion on quantum mechanics and its ramifications.

  • quantum mechanics. not relevant to larger things but is important at the smallest scale
  • probability vs Newtonian determinism
  • QM says you can only predict the likelihood of where a particle will be. How do we go from probability to a definite outcome. Physicists do not understand this yet.
  • Hugh Everett postulated really two parallel universes (one particle here and one there).Every experience is based on particles. Every possible reality happens in its own universe.

The multiverse notion is highly controversial.Because there is no way to interact or prove multiverse existence.

A ginormous revolution if multiverse theory is  true. (following the trajectory of copernican revolution to discovery of  multiple galaxies and our sun being one of billions of like stars) leading to “fantastic upheaval of our understanding.”

There is also an excellent discussion of  the macro scale (theory of gravity) to microscale (quantum mechanics) and where the twain shall not meet necessitating string theory. The discussion sort of culminates with the grand unknown of all “What is time?”

All in all, highly recommended listening. Guaranteed 34 minutes of intense cognitive pleasure. (Terri Gross is a really fabulous interviewer too).

As I was listening to it, I couldn’t help thinking how theologians and charlatans (at least the eastern sort) must be licking their chops, falsely assuming that multiverse theory affords them some scientific fodder, to fit the fantasies of yore and recast them as very deep and prescient understanding of the nature of the grandiverse.  The Sai Baba like and Siddha believers, if they latch onto this, will go on a rampage treating this new enlightment as complete validation of their far out beliefs. I can also see the now spin doctor Deepak Chopra profiting even more from weaving this into his healing sermons.

I also couldn’t help thinking our personal lives span many universes depending on the role we play. Also, our mental universes, inspite of the same physical reality, are sufficiently different, that they may as well be independent universes.

At any rate, all of this thinking is as far out as the science itself.

I am reminded of three quotes I heard somewhere on the radio or read it someplace.

Time exists so that everything does not happen at once. Space exists so that everything does not happen to me.


Life is what happens when you are making other plans.

Written by asterix98

March 4, 2011 at 3:46 am

Book List

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I found these references in a WSJ article on cultural classics that teach us important life lessons( I picked two topics of interest to me but the article itself has more).

How to face death

Consolation in the face of death – Samuel Johnson

My last sigh – Luis Bunuel

The year of magical thinking – Joan Didion

How to fill  the God-shaped hole

Dialogues concerning natural religion – David Hume

If I get to read them I will update this post with some reviews.

I also came across a couple of other interesting forums

Onbeing.org – also a weekly show on public radio which deals with issues of  “faith and moral imagination”.

the stone –  a blog on NYtimes.com where contemporary thinkers from various disciplines write about philosophical issues.

This next one should be a fun read

Sleights of mind: What the Neuroscience of magic reveals about Our Everyday Descriptions  – Sptephen L Macknick, Susana Martinez- Conde and Sandra Blakeslee

Written by asterix98

December 26, 2010 at 6:30 am

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