an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Bayesian probability, sans maths (mostly)

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Bayesian stuff – it gets more complicated, apparently

Okay time to get back to sciency stuff, to try to get my head around things I should know more about. Bayesian statistics and probability have been brought to the periphery of my attention many times over the years, but my current slow reading of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow has challenged me to master it once and for all (and then doubtless to forget about it forevermore).

I’ve started a couple of pieces on this topic in the past week or so, and abandoned them along with all hope of making sense of what is no doubt a doddle for the cognoscenti, so I clearly need to keep it simple for my own sake. The reason I’m interested is because critics and analysts of both scientific research and political policy-making often complain that Bayesian reasoning is insufficiently utilised, to the detriment of such activities. I can’t pretend that I’ll be able to help out though!

So Thomas Bayes was an 18th century English statistician who left a theorem behind in his unpublished papers, apparently underestimating its significance. The person most responsible for utilising and popularising Bayes’ work was the French polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace. The theorem, or rule, is captured mathematically thusly:

{\displaystyle P(A\mid B)={\frac {P(B\mid A)P(A)}{P(B)}}}

where A and B are events, and P(B), that is, the probability of event B, is not equal to zero. In statistics, the probability of an event’s occurrence ranges from 0 to 1 – meaning zero probability to total certainty.

I do, at least, understand the above equation, which, wordwise, means that the probability of A occurring, given that B has occurred, is equal to the probability of B occurring, given that A has occurred, multiplied by the probability of A’s occurrence, all divided by the probability of B’s occurrence. However, after tackling a few video mini-lectures on the topic I’ve decided to give up and focus on Kahneman’s largely non-mathematical treatment with regard to decision-making. The theorem, or rule, presents, as Kahneman puts it, ‘the logic of how people should change their mind in the light of evidence’. Here’s how Kahneman first describes it:

Bayes’ rule specifies how prior beliefs… should be combined with the diagnosticity of the evidence, the degree to which it favours the hypothesis over the alternative.

D Kahneman, Thinking fast and slow, p154

In the most simple example – if you believe that there’s a 65% chance of rain tomorrow, you really need to believe that there’s a 35% chance of no rain tomorrow, rather than any alternative figure. That seems logical enough, but take this example re US Presidential elections:

… if you believe there’s a 30% chance that candidate x will be elected President, and an 80% chance that he’ll be re-elected if he wins first time, then you must believe that the chances that he will be elected twice in a row are 24%.

This is also logical, but not obvious to a surprisingly large percentage of people. What appears to ‘throw’ people is a story, a causal narrative. They imagine a candidate winning, somewhat against the odds, then proving her worth in office and winning easily next time round – this story deceives them into defying logic and imagining that the chance of her winning twice in a row is greater than that of winning first time around – which is a logical impossibility. Kahneman places this kind of irrationalism within the frame of system 1 v system 2 thinking – roughly equivalent to intuition v concentrated reasoning. His solution to the problem of this kind of suasion-by-story is to step back and take greater stock of the ‘diagnosticity’ of what you already know, or what you have predicted, and how it affects any further related predictions. We’re apparently very bad at this.

There are many examples throughout the book of failure to reason effectively from information about base rates, often described as ‘base-rate neglect’. A base rate is a statistical fact which should be taken into account when considering a further probability. For example, when given information about the character of a a fictional person T, information that was deliberately designed to suggest he was stereotypical of a librarian, research participants gave the person a much higher probability of being a librarian rather than a farmer, even though they knew, or should have known, that the number of persons employed as farmers was higher by a large factor than those employed as librarians (the base rate of librarians in the workforce). Of course the degree to which the base rate was made salient to participants affected their predictions.

Here’s a delicious example of the application, or failure to apply, Bayes’ rule:

A cab was involved in a hit-and-run at night. Two cab companies, Green Cabs and Blue Cabs, operate in the city. You’re given the following data:

– 85% of the cabs in the city are Green, 15% are Blue.

– A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colours 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.

What is the probability that the car involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?

D Kahneman, Thinking fast and slow, p166

It’s an artificial scenario, granted, but if we accept the accuracy of those probabilities, we can say this: given that the base rate of Blue cars is 15%, and the probability of the witness identifying the car accurately is 80%, we have this figure for the dividend – (.15/.85) x (.8/.2) =.706. Dividing this by the range of probabilities plus the dividend (1.706) gives approximately 41%.

So how close were the research participants to this figure? Most participants ignored the statistical data – the base rates – and gave the figure of 80%. They were more convinced by the witness. However, when the problem was framed differently, by providing causal rather than statistical data, participants’ guesses were more accurate. Here’s the alternative presentation of the scenario:

You’re given the following data:

– the two companies operate the same number of cabs, but Green cabs are involved in 85% of accidents

– the information about the witness is the same as previously presented

The mathematical result is the same, but this time the guesses were much closer to the correct figure. The difference lay in the framing. Green cabs cause accidents. That was the fact that jumped out, whereas in the first scenario, the fact that most clearly jumped out was that the witness identified the offending car as Blue. The statistical data in scenario 1 was largely ignored. In the second scenario, the witness’s identification of the Blue car moderated the tendency to blame the Green cars, whereas in scenario 1 there was no ‘story’ about Green cars causing accidents and the blame shifted almost entirely to the Blue cars, based on the witness’s story. Kahneman named his chapter about this tendency ‘Causes trump statistics’.

So there are causal and statistical base rates, and the lesson is that in much of our intuitive understanding of probability, we simply pay far more attention to causal base rates, largely to our detriment. Also, our causal inferences tend to be stereotyped, so that only if we are faced with surprising causal rates, in particular cases and not presented statistically, are we liable to adjust our probabilistic assessments. Kahneman presents some striking illustrations of this in the research literature. Causal information creates bias in other areas of behaviour assessment too, of course, as in the phenomenon of regression to the mean, but that’s for another day, perhaps.

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2019 at 2:52 pm

discussing mental health and illness

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Canto: I’ve been told I’m on the autism spectrum, by someone who’s not on it, presumably, but who’s also not an expert on such things, but I’m not sure who is.

Jacinta: Well of course we’re all on the autism spectrum, it depends on your location on it, I suppose, if you need to worry. ‘You’re sick’ is one of the oldest lines of abuse, but I’m reminded of a passage in The moral landscape, which I’m currently rereading. He describes a funny-but-not-so-funny piece of research by one D L Rosenhan:

… in which he and seven confederates had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals in five different states in an effort to determine whether mental health professionals could detect the presence of the sane among the mentally ill. In order to get committed, each researcher complained of hearing a voice repeating the words ’empty’, ‘hollow and ‘thud’. Beyond that, each behaved perfectly normally. Upon winning admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudo-patients stopped complaining of their symptoms and immediately sought to convince the doctors, nurses and staff that they felt fine and were fit to be released. This proved surprisingly difficult. While these genuinely sane patients wanted to leave the hospital, repeatedly declared that they experienced no symptoms, and became ‘paragons of cooperation’, their average length of hospitalisation was 19 days (ranging from 7 to 52 days), during which they were bombarded with an astounding range of powerful drugs (which they discreetly deposited in the toilet. None were pronounced healthy. Each was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia ‘in remission’ (with the exception of one who received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Interestingly, while the doctors, nurses and staff were apparently blind to the presence of normal people on the ward, actual mental patients frequently remarked on the obvious sanity of the researchers, saying things like ‘You’re not crazy – you’re a journalist’.

S. Harris, The moral landscape, p142

Canto: Well, that’s a fascinating story, but let’s get skeptical. Has that study been replicated? We know how rarely that happens. And there are quite a few other questions worth asking. Wouldn’t most of the staff etc have been primed to assume these patients had a genuine mental illness? And surely only a small percentage would have had the authority to make a decision either way. Who exactly had them committed, what was the process, and what was the relationship between those doing the diagnosis and those engaging in treatment and daily care? Was there any fudging on the part of the pseudo-patients (who were apparently also the researchers) in order to prove their point (which presumably was that mental illness can be easily shammed)? And wouldn’t you expect other patients, many of whom wouldn’t believe in their own mental problems, to be supportive of the sanity of those around them?

Jacinta: Okay, those are some valid points, but are you prepared to accept that a lot of these mental conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (the name speaks volumes), attention deficit disorder, narcissistic whatever disorder and so on, are a little flakey around the edges?

Canto: Maybe, but with solid centres I’m sure. Depression is probably the most common of those mental conditions, and too much skepticism on that count could obviously lead to disaster. Take the case of South Korea, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There appears to be a nationwide skepticism about mental health issues there, which clashes with high stress levels to create a crisis of care. Professional help is rarely sought and isn’t widely available. It raises the question of the value of skepticism in some areas.

Jacinta: I wonder if the rapid advances in neurophysiology can help us here. Mental health is all about the brain. In the above quote, the pseudo-patients were mostly diagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s surprising. In my naïveté I would’ve thought there was a neurological test for schizophrenia by now.

Canto: Well, the experiment described in The moral landscape dates from the early seventies, but currently there’s still no diagnostic test for schizophrenia based on the brain itself, it’s all about such symptoms as specific delusions and hallucinations, which could still be shammed I suppose, if anyone wanted to. But what about borderline personality disorder – I was told recently that it’s very real, in spite of the name.

Jacinta: Well, there appears to be a mystery about the causes, and a general confusion about the symptoms, which seem to be rather wide-ranging – though I suppose if a patient displays several of them you can safely conclude that she’s stark staring bonkers.

Canto: Yes that’s a thing about mental illness, quite seriously. You don’t need to be an expert to notice when people are behaving in a way that’s detrimental to themselves and others, especially if it’s a sharp deviation from previous behaviour. And if it’s a slow descent, as quite often depression can be, it’s harder to pick from that person’s standard lugubrious personality, so to speak. And in the end, maybe the labelling isn’t so important as the help and the treatment. But then, people love a label – they want to know precisely what’s wrong with them.

Jacinta: I suppose the difficulty with mental illness and labelling, as opposed to labelling other more ‘physical’ illnesses or injuries, is the near-ineffable complexity of the brain. For example, I notice that among the symptoms of borderline personality disorder are apparent behaviours that don’t really cohere in any way. This site places the symptom of uncertainty and indecisiveness along with extreme risk-taking and impulsiveness, and then there is fear of abandonment, and other odd behaviours which seem to head in different directions, seeming to have one thing alone in common – being extreme or abnormal.

Canto: Yes, again, behaviour that tends to harm the self or others.

Jacinta: At the moment, I think there are still too few connections between neurology and psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness, though it’s a matter of enormous complexity. I had thought, for example, that the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine was essential to our understanding of schizophrenia, but more recent research has found that the neurochemistry of the condition involves many other factors, including glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine and serotonin. There’s so much more work to be done. But we also need to be very aware of the social and cultural conditions that tip people over the edge into mental illness. Changes in the way our brain is functioning might be seen as proximal causes of an increase in depression and suicide, but it’s more likely that the ultimate causes have to do with the stresses that particular organisations, societies and cultures impose upon us.

Written by stewart henderson

June 30, 2019 at 12:45 pm

Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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Consider this passage from The moral landscape, by Sam Harris:

As we better understand the brain, we will increasingly understand all of the forces – kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, etc – that allow friends and strangers to collaborate successfully on the common projects of civilisation…

These are indeed, and surely, the forces, or traits, we should want in order to have the best social lives. And they involve a richly interactive relationship between the social milieu – the village, the tribe, the family, the state – and the individual brain, or person. They are also, IMHO, the sorts of traits we would hope to find in our best people – for example, our political leaders, regardless of which political faction they represent.

Now consider those traits in respect of one Donald Trump. It should be obvious to any reasoning observer that he is deficient in all of them. And I mean deficient to a jaw-dropping, head-scratching degree. So there are two questions worth posing here.

  1. How could a person, so obviously deficient in all of the traits we would consider vital to the project of civilisation, have been created in a country that prides itself on being a leader of the free, democratic, civilised world?
  2. How could such a person rise to become the President of that country – which, whether or not you agree with its self-description of its own moral worth, is undoubtedly the world’s most economically and militarily powerful nation, and a world-wide promoter of democracy (in theory if not always in practice)?

I feel for Harris, whose book was published in 2010, well before anyone really had an inkling of what was to come. In The moral landscape he argues for objective moral values, or moral realism, but you don’t have to agree with his general philosophical position to acknowledge that the advancement of civilisation is largely dependent on the above-quoted traits. But of course, not everyone acknowledges this, or has ever given a thought to the matter. It’s probably true that most people, in the USA and elsewhere, don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the advancement of civilisation.

So the general answer to question one is easy enough, even if the answer in any particular case requires detailed knowledge. I don’t have such knowledge of the family background, childhood and even pre-natal influences that formed Trump’s profoundly problematic character, but reasonable inferences can be made, I think. For example, one of Trump’s most obvious traits is his complete disregard for the truth. To give one trivial example among thousands, he recently described Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, as ‘nasty’, in a televised interview. In another televised interview, very shortly afterwards, he denied saying what he was clearly recorded as saying. This regular pattern of bare-faced lying, without any concern about being found out, confronted by his behaviour, or suffering consequences, says something. It says that he has rarely if ever been ‘corrected’ for breaking this commandment, and, very likely, has been rewarded for it from earliest childhood – this reward being likely in the form of amusement, acclamation, and encouragement in this practice. Since, as we know, Trump was a millionaire before he was old enough to pronounce the word, the son of a self-possessed, single-minded property shark, who bestowed on the child a thousand indications of his own importance, it’s more than likely that he grew up in a bubble-world in which self-interest and duplicity were constantly encouraged and rewarded, a world of extreme materialism, devoid of any intellectual stimulation. This is the classic ‘spoilt child’ I’ve already referred to. Often, when a child like this has to stand up on his own feet, his penchant for lying, his contempt for the law and his endless attention-seeking will get him into legal trouble, but Trump appears to have stayed under the wing of his father for much longer than average. His father bailed him out time and time again when he engaged in dumb business deals, until he learned a little more of the slyness of white-collar crime (including learning how to steal from his father). His father’s cronies in the crooked business and legal world would also have taught him much.

Trump is surely a clear-cut case of stunted moral development, the darling child who was encouraged, either directly or though observation of the perverse world of white-collar crime that surrounded him, to listen to no advice but his own, to have devotees rather than friends, and to study and master every possible form of exploitation available to him. Over time, he also realised that his habit of self-aggrandisement could be turned to advantage, and that it would continue to win people, in ever greater numbers, if effectively directed. Very little of this, of course, was the result of what psychologists describe as system 2 thinking – and it would be fascinating to study Trump’s brain for signs of activity in the prefrontal cortex – it was more about highly developed intuitions about what he could get away with, and who he could impress with his bluster.

Now, I admit, all of this is somewhat speculative. Given Trump’s current fame, there will doubtless be detailed biographies written about his childhood and formative years, if they haven’t been written already. My point here is that, given the environment of absurd and dodgy wealth to be found in small pockets of US society, and given the ‘greed is good’ mantra that many Americans (and of course non-Americans) swallow like the proverbial kool-aid, it isn’t so surprising that white-collar crime isn’t dealt with remotely adequately, and that characters like Trump dot the landscape, like pus-oozing pimples on human skin. In fact there are plenty of people, rich and poor alike, who would argue that tax evasion shouldn’t even be a crime… while also arguing that the USA, unlike every other western democracy, can’t afford universal medicare.

So that’s a rough-and-ready answer to question one. Question two has actually been addressed in a number of previous posts, but I’ll address it a little differently here.

The USA is, I think, overly obsessed with the individual. It’s a hotbed of libertarianism, an ideology entirely based on the myth of individualism and ‘individual freedom’, and it’s no surprise that Superman, Batman and most other super-heroes were American products. It’s probable that a sizeable section of Trump’s base see him in ‘superhero’ terms, someone not cut in the mould of Washington politicians, someone larger than life, someone almost from outer space in that he talks and acts differently from normal human beings let alone politicians. This makes him exciting and enlivening – like a comic book. And they’re happy to go along for the ride regardless of whether their lives are improved.

I must admit, though, that I’m mystified when I hear Trump supporters still saying ‘he’s done so much for our country’, when it’s fairly clear to me that, apart from cruelly mistreating asylum-seekers, he’s done little other than tweet insults and inanities and cheat at golf. The massive neglect of every aspect of federal government under his ‘watch’ will take decades to repair, and the question of whether the USA will ever recover from the tragi-comedy of this presidency is hard to answer.

But as to how Trump was ever allowed to become President, it’s all about a dangerously flawed political system, one that has too few safeguards against the simplistic populism that the ancient Greek philosophers railed against 2500 years ago. Unabashed elitists, they were deeply concerned that ‘the mob’ would be persuaded by a charismatic blowhard who promised everything and delivered nothing – or, worse than nothing, disaster. They were concerned because they witnessed it in their lifetime.

The USA today is sadly lacking in those safeguards. It probably thought the safeguards were adequate, until Trump came along. For example, it was expected – among gentlemen, so to speak – that successful candidates would present their tax returns, refuse to turn the Presidency to their own profit, support their own intelligence services and justice department, treat long-time allies as allies and long-time adversaries as adversaries, and, in short, display at least some of the qualities I’ve quoted from Harris at the top of this post.

The safeguards, however, need to go much further than this, IMHO. The power of the Presidency needs to be sharply curtailed. A more distributed, collaborative and accountable system needs to be developed, a team-based system (having far more women in leadership positions would help with this), not a system which separates the President/King and his courtiers/administration from congress/parliament. Pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers, power to select unelected officials to high office, power to appoint people to the judiciary – all of these need to be reined in drastically.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in the near future – and I still believe blood will flow before Trump is heaved out of office. But I do hope that the silver lining to the cloud of this presidency is that, in the long term, a less partisan, less individual-based federal system will be the outcome of this Dark Age.

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

Deep brain stimulation, depression and ways of thinking

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I read in a recent New Scientist that some progress has been made in using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to find associations between electrical brain activity and ‘mood’ or mood changes. This appears to mean that there’s an electrical ‘signal’ for happiness, sadness, anxiety, frustration, and any other emotion we can give a name to. And to paraphrase Karl Marx, the point is not to understand the brain, but to change it – at least for those who suffer depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and a host of other debilitating disorders. So that we can all be happy clapping productive people…

So what is DBS and where is it heading? Apparently, electrodes can be implanted in specific brain regions to monitor, and in some cases actually change, ‘negative’ electrical activity. I use scare quotes here not to indicate opposition, but to highlight the obvious, that one person’s negativity may not be another’s, and that eliminating the negative also means eliminating the positive, as one means nothing without the other. Similar to the point that loving everyone means loving no-one. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself with these ethical matters. Here’s a simple overview of DBS from the Mayo Clinic:

Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of your brain. These electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses. Or, the electrical impulses can affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain.
The amount of stimulation in deep brain stimulation is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in your upper chest. A wire that travels under your skin connects this device to the electrodes in your brain.

The most recent research translated neural signals into the mood variations of seven epilepsy sufferers who were fitted with implanted electrodes. The participants filled out periodic questionnaires about their mood, and clear matches were supposedly found between those self-reports and patterns of brain signals. Based on this knowledge, a decoder was built that would recognise particular signal patterns related to particular moods. It was successful in detecting mood 75% of the time. Brain patterns varied between participants, but were confined mainly to the limbic system, a network essential to triggering swings of emotion. 

I’m not sure if I should be overly impressed with a sample size of seven and a 75% success rate, but I do think that this research is on the right track, and there will be increasingly successful pinpointing of brain activity in relation to mood in the future, as well as other improvements, for example in the use of electrodes. Currently there’s an issue around the damaging long-term effects of implants, and non-invasive systems are being developed that can stimulate the brain from outside the skull. And of course there’s that next step, modulating those mood swings to ‘fix’ them, or to head them off at the pass.

All of this raises vital questions in relation to causes and treatments. If we focus on that most difficult but pervasive condition, depression, which so many people I know are medicating themselves against, it would seem that a brain-stimulation ‘cure’ would be less damaging than any course of anti-depressants, but it completely bypasses the question of why so many people are apparently suffering from this condition these days. Johann Hari has written a bestseller on depression, Lost Connections, which I haven’t read though I’ve just obtained a copy, and I’ve heard his long-form interview on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. So I’ll probably revisit this issue more than once.

The medical establishment is more interested in treatment than in causes, and generally investigates causes only so as to refine treatments, but severe depression has proved difficult to treat other than with drugs which may have severe side-effects when used long-term. Clinicians have used terms such as treatment-resistant depression (TRD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) to characterise these conditions, which are on the rise worldwide, particularly in the more affluent nations. 

DBS first came to prominence as a promising treatment for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia (which causes muscles to contract uncontrollably). It has since been used for more psycho-neurological ailments such as OCD, Tourette syndrome and severe, treatment-resistant addiction, with modest but statistically significant benefits. It has even shown promise in the treatment of some forms of dementia. Side-effects have been mostly confined to surgical procedures.

Clearly this type of treatment will improve with better targeting and increased knowledge of brain regions and their interactions, and in the case of MDD, which can be overwhelmingly debilitating, it offers much hope of a better life. But the question remains – why is depression increasing, and why in those countries that appear to offer a richer and more stimulating environment for their citizens? 

Hari’s title, Lost Connections, more than hints at his view of this, and in a recent conversation it was suggested to me that, in more subsistence societies, most people are too busy struggling to survive and keep their families alive and well to have the time to be depressed. This might seem a slap in the face to MDD sufferers (and I might add that the person making that suggestion is on anti-depressants), but surely there’s a grain of truth to it. I’ve often had travellers say to me ‘you should visit x, the people there have so little, yet they’re so happy and relaxed’. Is this a matter of ignorance being bliss? I recall, as a fifteen-year-old in one of the world’s most affluent and educated countries, wagging school and reading one of my brother’s economics textbooks – he was at university – and trying to get my head around the laws of supply and demand. It occurred to me that this might take years – but what about the other subjects that gripped me when I read about them? Astronomy, physics, ancient history, music, subjects that often had little to do with each other but which you could spend your whole lifetime immersed in. Not to mention other childhood ambitions that hadn’t been let go, to be a great sport star, or rock star, or latter-day Casanova…

This sense, cultivated in advanced societies, that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, can easily overwhelm when you’re faced with so many choices, and so many gaps in skill and knowledge between what you are and what you’d like to be, that it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll feel flat, crushed by the weight of your own delirious hopes and expectations. This might be called a mood-swing, a symptom of depression, or even of bipolar disorder. All effort to climb that mighty mountain seems fruitless. The very thought of it sends you back to bed.

Such moods have overtaken me many times, but I’ve never called myself depressed, at least not in a clinical sense, and never sought medical advice or taken anti-depressant medication. I’ve occasionally been pressured to do so, because misery likes company, but I have a kind of basic stoicism which knows these moods will pass and that I should ‘rise above myself and grasp the world’ – a quote said to be from Archimedes, which is the new subtitle of my blog. 

The point here is that I think I have a sense of where all this depression is coming from, and it’s not just about a lack of connection. Nor is it, surely, all about low serotonin levels, or receptor malfunctions or other purely chemical causes. It’s so much more complicated than that. That’s to say it’s about all of these things but also about failure, the gap between the ideal and the real, the gap – in advanced countries – between the privileged rich and the disadvantaged poor, disillusionment, stress, grief, selfishness, the hope deferred that makes the heart sick…

So – back to DBS. Presumably this and other treatments have the same measure of success, which might be described as ‘improved functionality within the wider world’. Being able to hold down a job, hold a conversation, hold on to your partner, hold a baby without dropping it, etc. Of course, this is a worthwhile aim of any treatment, but what is actually happening to the brain under such a treatment? Neurologists might one day be able to describe this effectively in terms of dopamine levels and electrical activity, and the stimulation or becalming of regions of the nucleus accumbens and so forth, but on the level of thinking, dreaming, wondering, all those terms studiously avoided, or just ignored, by neurology (all for understandable reasons), what is happening? We don’t know. Treatment seems essentially a matter of dealing with functionality in the external world, and letting that inner world take care of itself. Is that the right approach? Something gained, but something lost? I really don’t know. 

Written by stewart henderson

December 18, 2018 at 2:27 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

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He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm