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Are humans unique?

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We have all interacted with animals, seen them at zoos, marveled at them (watching Nat Geo documentaries). If you are like me, you may have wondered whether they are programmed automatons (“fixed action patterns”) or alternately have a “rich” inner life (don’t accuse me of anthropomorphism just yet). I have always held they view that while animals are well adapted to survive their niches, they are able to do more than execute programmed actions.  Also, along the way, I have tired of the notion that “man was made in the image of God”, in the sense that humans are unique and special, given our extraordinary “cognitive” capacities. But then we humans have succumbed to “confirmation bias” by only looking at evidence that confirms this view (as in the tremendous achievements ranging from agriculture to space research). But we also need to review our history of violence and catalog our behaviors collectively as a species (witness terrorism, territoriality, in group/out group, biases, etc.,) and it becomes quickly evident that our “mental” apparatus has a lot in common with other species.

Frans de Waal argues, that this is indeed in the case, in his essay “What I learned from tickling apes” that appears in the NYTimes. Well worth a read. As always, I find it informative to also peruse the reader comments .

attitudes, learning, and motivation

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As a parent of a teenager, one of my major concerns has to do with equipping my child with the right set of tools to navigate Life and be “successful”.  The yardstick of success, for most parents, is for their child to attend a prestigious or Ivy league school leading to a well paying industry or academic job. If it comes with tremendous fame and fortune, all the better. Nothing wrong with that per se.  But the hyper competitive environment prevalent in high schools today, chasing that yardstick, creates tremendous pressure on the kids. The situation is further exacerbated by Tiger moms and dads (everyone of whom uniformly believes their kid is a child prodigy or at the very least, super smart) orchestrating their child’s every experience and resume, with the purported goal of gaining them entry into the “top notch” colleges.

There is a bigger problem lurking with this game plan. Because parents think their children are prodigies, they think success is automatic. They do not anticipate that there could be setbacks. And when they happen, the parents, and more importantly, the kids, are not setup to deal with the situation. If they are not careful, it could lead to a download spiral of lost confidence, lowering of self esteem, and self doubt on the child’s part.

Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of Mathematics (supposedly identified as a “genius” at an young age) in a recent commentary wrote “This can be a hard lesson for the prodigies themselves. It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter. And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren’t Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn’t shine in Math Olympiad; didn’t go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you’re the best, you start to believe you’re the best.” His overall point is that geniuses are not the only successful people in the world. Hard work, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck are important ingredients for success.

Which brings me to the part about tools for navigating Life.

The first is about finding an internal compass that is directed by intrinsic motivation and not just about coming out ahead in the rat race. That this sets you up for success much better than goals that are externally motivated was made evident in a recent study of of West point graduates. The researchers found that cadets motivated by internal drives fared a lot better than those seeking external rewards. They write  ” ….The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success. “

The second is about enjoying what you do. Attitude – how you think and approach the task on hand is hugely important for success, one of the key messages in Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, recognize that education is more than academic schooling. Allison Gopnik illustrates this with a nice anecdote of  her interactions with her grandson. Finally, know that the path to success is not a straight line but is going to be potentially fraught with missed expectations and setbacks deriving from a variety of factors. When that happens, having a strong internal compass, is absolutely critical to staying motivated and maintaining focus on reaching goals.

Written by asterix98

July 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Space Hero

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My newest hero is Commander Chirs Hadfield.  What a man! I had never known or heard of him until about two days ago. I tuned in to one of my favorite radio shows, Fresh Air, and I caught Terri interviewing Commander Hadfield.  It was such a riveting interview. In it,the  Hadfield describes his space walk, tethered to the space ship, and orbiting the earth, with a glorious view of the earth on one side and the black quiet emptiness of space on the other,  at a breathtaking speed of about 17,500 miles per hour!  He is so brilliant, “lyrical”, and eloquent in describing his experiences as an astronaut.  I went back and listened to the whole interview again. You can find it   here .

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Brings Lessons From Space Down To Earth .

Ira Flatow also did an interview with him on Friday …

Chris Hadfield’s Lessons From Life in Orbit

and so did  Marco Weman

Astronaut Chris Hadfield shows childhood dreams can come true

All three interviews while similar have slightly different takes but well worth listening.

Here is a link to his  beautiful and moving rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” [18M+ hits ]

There is a lot more…on YouTube….tears in space, sleeping in space…etc., Entertaining and educational for kids and adults alike.

He is a complete package….astronaut, musician, scientist, guinea pig (NASA is studying bone density loss and recovery), author,  and a fantastic human being. A true role model…..I have ordered his book – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Can’t  wait to read what he has to say.

 

 

 

 

 

Written by asterix98

November 2, 2013 at 5:52 pm

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

Harry, Dumbledore and talking Gods

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About two thirds into the movie, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Voldemart uses the killing curse on Harry. In the next segment, Harry awakens in a brightly lit King’s Cross station. A powerful dialogue ensues between Harry and Dumbledore, as Harry is confronted with the choice of returning to finish the work he had started or move on. In the exchange, Dumbledore offers him some words of wisdom thus ….” Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic ….capable of both, inflicting injury and remedying it…….Do not pity the dead..Pity the living….Above all pity those living without love…” Towards the end of this interchange, Harry asks the question “Professor, is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?” Before disappearing into the brilliant white light,  Dumbledore responds, ” Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean it is not real?”

Harry’s questions highlight something interesting and unique about the human brain. The “real” part implies we perceive the external world through our senses. Perception here means we bring to bear some prior knowledge when interpreting the significance of the sensory input and translate it to an appropriate action (including do nothing). This is not the unique part. The “just happening inside my head” part is. We are probably the only life forms on the planet that can run “simulations” in the absence of sensory input from external stimuli. This extraordinary ability to simulate events (anticipate and plan a response) in our head confers enormous survival advantages – in my mind (no pun intended), a key ingredient that has led to our being at the apex of the food chain.  Neuroscientists would, generally, be very happy with Dumbledore’s response, but only with the first part because they do firmly believe mind is a product of physical processes. Harry’s questions then are trying to separate the real from the imagined. But the second part of Dumbledore’s response implies that they are really not distinct. Philosophers drool on this stuff and have orgies debating its ontological and epistemological aspects.

In the realm of the ordinary, real vs imagined is fairly well defined. Imagination is the engine of creativity and has benefitted society tremendously (from literature to technology). Wild imagination leads to fantasy , as in Indian films and Chinese martial art movies where the protagonists can violate all physical laws, including gravity, and perform astounding feats. Nevertheless,  it is still entertaining.  When the imagined becomes pathological, we label these excursions delusional, schizophrenic, paranoia and so on. These have an underlying neurological/psychological basis and are subject to treatment with therapy and medications .

In the realm of the Divine (notice I instinctively capitalized the D),  no such boundaries exist. Your beliefs can be fantastic defying any rational analysis, but they cannot be classified as symptomatic of something amiss. Let’s see how. Tanya Luhrmann, is an anthropologist at Stanford University. She was recently on the NPR program, Fresh Air. The topic was her book – When God Talks Back. She spent sometime with Evangelical Christians (Vineyard denomination) who believe in the notion of an intensely personal God. In fact, he talks back. To get a flavor of what the content of the interview was like, here are the opening remarks Luhrmann made

“.. I wanted to understand what people meant when they said that God spoke to them, that God had heard from them, and that they had heard what God wanted them to do. I was at – first became intrigued by this when I was doing a different project, and it was on religion and community, and I went over to the house of an evangelical woman. And she told me that if I wanted to understand, I should have a cup of coffee with God.

She had coffee with God all the time. She hung out with God. She chatted with God. She talked about God as if he were a person. And I was blown away. I was just so intrigued by what that meant and how she was able to do that.”

Please either listen to the interview or view the entire transcript by clicking on the links.

Here is another very interesting segment of the conversation..(reproduced verbatim from the transcript on NPR)

——————

GROSS: Will you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learn to do in prayer training classes?

LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.

The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.

And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation, and they’re seeking to represent God the way that God is represented in church – you know, in this kind of church, unconditionally loving, always wise, always responsive, always there. And then they’re trying to experience that God as talking back to them and to experience what God says as being really real, and not the creation of their own imaginations.

GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?

LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?

Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.

And so, you know, what I was fascinated by was that as, you know, people would enter the church, they’d be – you know, I don’t know what people are talking about. God doesn’t talk to me. And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form, imagination-rich kind of way.

And after, I don’t know, six months, they would start to say that they recognize God’s voice. Some people told me that they recognized God’s voice the way they recognize their mom’s voice on the phone.

GROSS: Because, I mean, so distinctly, like it had a different sound to it?

——————————-

Listening to this, would you say we could possibly continue this conversation in English? I hope you get my point about no boundaries existing in the realm of Gods. [I have to admit, I have nothing against the practitioners as long as there is no collateral damage from their beliefs].

Luhrmann found that the Vineyard practitioner’s needed about six months to “…start recognizing God’s voice.”  This is surprising. I thought God had a big booming voice like James Earl Jones, very distinct and instantly recognizable. So what gives? Actually, if we go back about fifty years, we may find an explanation.  Solomon Asch, a sociologist, demonstrated through experiments, that there is enormous pressure on individuals to conform. In Asch’s experiments, subjects could be manipulated into actually believing a line was longer or shorter than it actually was, through feedback from a peer group, even if their senses was providing contradictory information. Another example is Stanley Milgram’s famous role playing experiments, where the participants lost all sense of normal reality and made role playing their primary reality. The transformation of Vineyard initiates into recognizer’s of God voice must largely be due to this pressure to conform to beliefs and expectations of the VIneyard congregation. Clearly, the conversation with God is happening inside the head of the congregationers. It is imagined. In this case, conceding and answering Dumbledore’s rhetorical question in the affirmative, thankfully, has no serious societal consequences, at least for now.

(Disclaimer : Transcript contents belong to NPR/Fresh Air)

Written by asterix98

December 11, 2012 at 1:44 am

Elevatoring anyone?

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Almost all of us encounter traffic lights, not one but multiple times, during our daily commutes to work or the store. You may have also encountered, on an expressway, a series of traffic lights, that seem to be perfectly synchronized. Sometimes, it may feel like a shuttle bus where you hit red on every light.  When they do not interrupt your flow, you just cruise along else you cuss at them like they had an evil personality. Unless you are an engineering professional, you are unlikely to have stopped to think about how traffic lights actually work. In reality, traffic lights are a small part of an elaborate field of study called traffic engineering.  The video below offers a glimpse into that world.

If this piqued your interest, you can also read more about traffic light science here :  Science Daily- Traffic Lights.  For the formulation of traffic light design as a engineering logic problem, follow this link 

A few days ago, WSJ carried an article  – The Ups and Downs of Making Elevators Go– on elevators, something we may never have thought of as another mode of transportation. It profiles the life of Teresa Christy , an OTIS Fellow [OTIS is the famous elevator company and Fellow is usually the highest technical distinction in an organization].  She has spent the better part of a quarter century optimizing “elevator traffic and scheduling”. It is a great read (be sure to read the comments too, sometimes goofy but informative). The article also deals with cultural preferences in elevator design.  A short interview with Christy is also posted on NPRs marketplace.org site.

The fascinating interplay of science, technology, and culture, in something as  “mundane” as elevator design gave me my cognitive high for the day.

Written by asterix98

December 6, 2012 at 7:05 am

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