Friday, June 08, 2012

Authors@Google - Jonah Lehrer: The Science of Creativity

Delayed flight, so I'm killing time with videos and Facebook and stuff. I wish I felt creative, I'd do some writing. But I'm too tired, so I watched Jonah Lehrer talk about the science of creativity instead - in support of his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Jonah Lehrer on the Science of Creativity

Filmed live from Google London on Thursday 27th April, 2012.

Authors@ Presents...Jonah Lehrer's 'Imagine: How Creativity Works'

Acclaimed science writer Jonah Lehrer regularly contributes to the New Yorker, New Scientist, The Wall Street Journal and Wired magazine. His latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, looks at the science of creativity (where does it come from? How can we harness it? Are only certain people 'creative'?) and puts forward ideas on how to maximise your creativity.


Canine Empathy: Your Dog Really Does Care If You Are Unhappy

From Psychology Today . . . was there ever any doubt? Anyone who has lived a dog for any length of time knows that they can feel when we are don't doing well. often, they will stay close and be extra affectionate.

Canine Empathy: Your Dog Really Does Care if You Are Unhappy

New research shows that dogs respond to their owner's unhappiness. Published onJune 7, 2012 by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. in Canine Corner

People often report that it seems as if their dogs are reading their emotional state and responding in much the same way that a human would, providing sympathy and comfort, or joining in their joy. For example an acquaintance named Deborah told me that she had just gotten off of the phone after learning that her sister's husband had died and was sitting on the sofa wiping tears from her eyes and trying to deal with her sadness. She said, "At that moment Angus [her Golden retriever] came over to me and laid his head on my knee and began to whimper. A moment later he quietly walked away, and then returned with one of his favorite toys and gently put it in my lap, and gently licked my hand. I knew he was trying to comfort me. I believe that he was feeling my pain and hoping that the toy which made him happy might also help me to feel better.."

Such incidents involving pet dogs appear to be quite common and at face value they seem to show that dogs are showing empathy for their owners. Generally speaking empathy can be defined as the ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand and even share their emotions and feelings. Although dog owners seem to be quite sure that their dogs have empathy for their feelings, if you make that suggestion to a group of psychologists are behavioral biologists it is more apt to start an argument rather than to bring out nods of agreement.

Read the whole post.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Gone Traveling

IOC will be quiet for the next week and a half while I wonder around central Europe with my friend, Tom. I'll post when I can, but regular blogging will resume around June 18.

Documentary - Derrida: The Abstract Philosopher and the Everyday Man

This is a cool 2002 documentary on Jacques Derrida, one the most infamous 20th century philosophers. As usual, this goodness comes from Open Culture.

Derrida - A 2002 Documentary on the Abstract Philosopher and the Everyday Man

June 7th, 2012

“I once saw Jacques Derrida,” Sam Anderson remembers in New York magazine, “the reigning high priest of French theory, a man so intimidatingly abstract I imagined he pooped exegeses, shuffle out of a lecture hall and load his papers not (as I’d expected) into a rickshaw pulled by grad students or onto the shoulders of cynical chain-smoking French angels but into the trunk of a bright-red Daewoo sedan — a car as terminally lame as any my family had ever owned, and which he then proceeded to drive slowly across a parking lot indistinguishable from the anti-intellectual parking lots of my youth.” Whether Derrida visibly jiggles open the door of this very same Daewoo in the documentary that bears his name I have yet to determine, but the film goes on to offer a wealth of such stolidly quotidian moments. Derrida butters toast. He describes his mother’s kidney stones. He admits to staying in his pajamas all day if he doesn’t have to leave the house.

Faced with the split between Derrida the eminence of high-flown ideas and Derrida the man of bathrobes and economy cars, directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman choose to oscillate. We see the hyperverbal, faintly ethereal philosopher take calls in his tastefully light-flooded concrete-and-bamboo study, grant respectful television interviews, meet breathless young exegetes-to-be (“Listening to you speak elucidated your texts just so much for me!”), and travel to South Africa to lecture on the theme of forgiveness. We hear selections from Derrida’s writings intoned over shots of city streets and the man himself strolling them, pipe in mouth. We watch, through a regression of monitors, Derrida watching Derrida watching a tape of Derrida and his wife refusing to divulge the emotional details of their first meeting. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ambient compositions score these conventionally cinematic moments as well as those… less so: Derrida getting a haircut, for instance, or speaking of his great wish to know more of Hegel and Heidegger’s sex lives. Any number of books and interviews can presumably teach you about Derrida’s oft-referenced techniques of deconstruction, but none of them so entertainingly examine the territory where the philosopher’s ideas end and his real world begins.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

World Science Festival - Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative

Here is another fun discussion from the recent World Science Festival - this one looks at the science of narrative, or why we tell stories. And if we do anything well as humans, we tell stories, to ourselves, to our friends and family, and to the culture as a whole.

Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative

Jay Allison, Paul Bloom, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Gottschall, Joyce Carol Oates, Keith Oatley, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre

Stories have existed in many forms—cave paintings, parables, poems, tall tales, myths—throughout history and across almost all human cultures. But is storytelling essential to survival? Join a spirited discussion seeking to explain the uniquely human gift of narrative—from how neurons alight when we hear a tale, to the role of storytelling in cognitive development, to the art of storytelling itself, which informs a greater understanding of who we are as a species.

Freedomain Radio - The Bomb in the Brain: The True Roots of Human Violence

This is an excellent series of five videos from Freedomain Radio (main website) on the cultural origins of violence in child abuse and neglect.
The physical, emotional and medical effects of child abuse. You cannot understand or oppose the violence of the world without understanding its true source...
All five episodes are in the embedded video player, but for those who may be interested in a specific episode, here is the breakdown of the playlist.

  1.   Thumbnail 18:53 The Bomb in the Brain Part 1 - The True Roots of Human Violence by stefbot  
  2.   Thumbnail 1:10:04 The Bomb in the Brain Part 2 - The Freedomain Radio Interview with Dr Felitti by stefbot
  3.   Thumbnail 35:19 The Bomb in the Brain Part 3 - The Biology of Violence: The Effects of Child Abuse by stefbot
  4.   Thumbnail 33:23 The Bomb in the Brain Part 4 - The Death of Reason - The Effects of Child Abuse by stefbot 
  5.   Thumbnail 16:51 The Bomb in the Brain Part 5 - A Postscript and Prescription by stefbot

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Occupy Consciousness: Essays on the Global Insurrection

The Evolver Social Movement has made available for free download an anthology of essays by leading figures on the "Occupy" movement, its meaning, and it's future. The e-book anthology, OCCUPY CONSCIOUSNESS: Essays on the Global Insurrection, was edited by Evolver Director Daniel Pinchbeck and Reality Sandwich Associate Editor Mitch Mignano, and offers a variety of viewpoints on the nascent rebellion from writers such as Charles Eisenstein, Doug Rushkoff, David Graeber, Starhawk, and Russell Brand (yes, THAT Russell Brand).

"Occupy Consciousness" Yours to Download

OCCUPY CONSCIOUSNESS: Essays on the Global Insurrection: A New E-Book Anthology from the Evolver Social Movement

“Is this movement’s implicit goal to re-engage our humanity? To reach beyond the political, the national and other illusory, temporary concepts and into our true, spiritual nature?” – Russell Brand

The Evolver Social Movement is proud to present "OCCUPY CONSCIOUSNESS: Essays on the Global Insurrection." This E Book anthology, edited by Evolver Director Daniel Pinchbeck and Reality Sandwich Associate Editor Mitch Mignano, offers a variety of viewpoints on the nascent rebellion from writers such as Doug Rushkoff, David Graeber, Starhawk, and Russell Brand. Together these pieces offer an essential perspective on the true significance of Occupy – not a protest movement essentially, but a harbinger of a new way of being.

“Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” - David Graeber.

Despite being subject to ridicule from the mainstream and intense suppression from police and government forces in the US and abroad, Occupy has shifted the discourse around critical social, political, and economic issues, breaking the silence around the collusion between government, corporate, and financial interests. The movement points a way forward to a new form of activism designed to build a truly cooperative culture, integrating the lessons of past movements for human liberation, such as nonviolent direct action and the tools for consensus decision-making.

"The transition we are called to make goes far beyond incremental policy changes within the current system, positive though such changes might be. We are called to re- imagine and re-create our world around fundamentally new organizing principles. The old world is essentially on life support in any case. Our choice really is to participate consciously in the birth of the new era, or to have it forcibly and painfully delivered to us." - David Nicol

This anthology is available as a free gift from the E+SM – but in exchange, we ask that you consider making a one-time or repeat contribution to our non-profit initiative, which organizes 40+ local chapters engaged in consciousness raising and transformational practices, issues publications such as this one – and, with your help, will do much more.

Cover art by Joseph Shipp 


All in the Mind - Behind the Shock Machine: Did Stanley Milgram Go Too Far?

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures is an infamous series of fascinating, although morally questionable (and ethically prohibited today), social psychology experiments orchestrated by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

The studies were designed to (and succeeded in) assess the willingness of student study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to engage in behaviors that conflicted with their personal morals (i.e., administer electric painful shock to other subjects).

Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

The entry at Wikipedia offers a pretty through discussion of the research and the controversy. For more in-depth understanding, here is Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford Prison Experiment) talking about the Milgram material at the bottom.

Behind the Shock Machine

Broadcast: Sunday 3 June 2012 
In 1961 psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on one of the most controversial, yet fascinating psychological experiments ever conducted. They were said to show that we are all capable of evil, in certain circumstances. Many of the participants are still traumatised by the experience. We present a panel discussion about the lessons and ethics of the Milgram experiments called 'Behind the Shock Machine – Did Science go Too Far?'.


  • Gina Perry
  • Justin Oakley, Associate Professor, Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics, Monash University (Australia)





Presenter: Lynne Malcolm
Researcher: Harry Greenwood

* * * * * * *

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

[2007] Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

Description: Perhaps no one comprehends the roots of depravity and cruelty better than Philip Zimbardo. He is renowned for such research as the Stanford Prison Experiment, which demonstrated how, in the right circumstances, ordinary people can swiftly become amoral monsters. Evil is not so much inherent in individuals, Zimbardo showed, but emerges dependably when a sequence of dehumanizing and stressful circumstances unfolds. It is no wonder then, that Zimbardo has lent both his expertise and moral outrage to the case of U.S. reservists who perpetrated the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

Zimbardo's latest book, The Lucifer Effect, attempts to understand -how good people do evil deeds." His talk outlines his involvement as expert witness for the defense team of one of the military police officers responsible at Abu Ghraib, and also provides a rich history of psychological research into the kind of behavior transformations evident in Iraq. First, Zimbardo presents a slideshow of Abu Ghraib abominations, including some digital photos that were not widely distributed by the media. Then he digs deep into the archives for a horrifically illustrated tour of experiments that make a persuasive case that certain, predictable situations corrupt people into wielding power in a destructive way.

He describes Stanley Milgram's 1963 Yale-based research demonstrating that people will behave sadistically when confronted by -an authority in a lab coat." A vast majority of the subjects delivered what they were told were dangerous electric shocks to a learner in another room, to the point of apparently killing the other person. Researchers skeptical of his results replicated them. This time, professors demanded that students shock real puppies standing on electrified grills. Zimbardo's own prison experiment turned an ordinary group of young men into power-hungry -guards," humiliating equally ordinary -prisoners" in the basement of Stanford's psychology building. The descent into barbarity was so rapid that Zimbardo had to cancel the experiment after a few days.

The recipe for behavior change isn't complicated. -All evil begins with a big lie," says Zimbardo, whether it's a claim to be following the word of God, or the need to stamp out political opposition. A seemingly insignificant step follows, with successive small actions, presented as essential by an apparently just authority figure. The situation presents others complying with the same rules, perhaps protesting, but following along all the same. If the victims are anonymous or dehumanized somehow, all the better. And exiting the situation is extremely difficult.

Abu Ghraib fit this type of situation to a T, says Zimbardo. The guards, never trained for their work helping military interrogators, worked 12-hour shifts, 40 days without a break, in chaotic, filthy conditions, facing 1,000 foreign prisoners, and hostile fire from the neighborhood. They operated in extreme stress, under orders to impose fear on their prisoners. Zimbardo believes the outcome was perfectly predictable, and while never absolving these soldiers of personal responsibility, believes justice won't be done until -the people who created the situation go on trial as well: George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George Bush."

About the Speaker(s): Philip Zimbardo began at Stanford University in 1968, having taught previously at Yale, New York University, and Columbia University. He continues teaching graduate students at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, and at the Naval Post Graduate School (Monterey).

He has received numerous honors, including most recently, the Havel Foundation Prize for his lifetime of research on the human condition. Among his more than 300 professional publications and 50 books is the oldest current textbook in psychology, Psychology and Life, now in its 18th Edition, and Core Concepts in Psychology, in its 5th Edition.

Zimbardo has also been a social-political activist, challenging U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as the American Correctional System. Zimbardo has served as elected President of the Western Psychological Association (twice), President of the American Psychological Association, the Chair of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, representing 63 scientific, math and technical associations (with 1.5 million members), and now is Chair of the Western Psychological Foundation.Host(s): Dean for Student Life, Technology and Culture Forum

Credit: MIT World -- special events and lectures


Monday, June 04, 2012

Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies

From the American Journal of Political Science, (Volume 56, Issue 1, pages 34–51, January 2012), an article the rejects the notion that personality traits determine or shape political ideologies. This article proposes that political ideologies may be genetically driven - i.e., we're born to be conservative of liberal, which is not to say (in my opinion) that we are stuck with these proclivities.

Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies

  1. Brad Verhulst1,
  2. Lindon J. Eaves2,
  3. Peter K. Hatemi3,4
Article first published online: 16 DEC 2011
DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00568.x
American Journal of Political Science

American Journal of Political Science

Volume 56, Issue 1, pages 34–51, January 2012


The assumption in the personality and politics literature is that a person's personality motivates them to develop certain political attitudes later in life. This assumption is founded on the simple correlation between the two constructs and the observation that personality traits are genetically influenced and develop in infancy, whereas political preferences develop later in life. Work in psychology, behavioral genetics, and recently political science, however, has demonstrated that political preferences also develop in childhood and are equally influenced by genetic factors. These findings cast doubt on the assumed causal relationship between personality and politics. Here we test the causal relationship between personality traits and political attitudes using a direction of causation structural model on a genetically informative sample. The results suggest that personality traits do not cause people to develop political attitudes; rather, the correlation between the two is a function of an innate common underlying genetic factor.
The field of political science is witnessing a renaissance in the exploration of the relationship between personality traits and political preferences (Gerber et al. 2010; Jost et al. 2003; Mondak and Halperin 2008; Mondak et al. 2010). The belief that personality traits are innate, genetically influenced, and develop in infancy (Bouchard et al. 1990; Eaves et al. 1999; Eysenck 1967; Loehlin 1992; McRae et al. 2000), whereas political attitudes develop in adulthood, has led to the assumption that personality traits cause the subsequent development of political attitudes. Recent scholarship, however, has demonstrated that political attitudes develop much earlier than previously suspected (Block and Block 2006; Hess and Torney 1967), the precursors of which are present prior to a child's first year in school (Persson 2010) and are also influenced by genetic factors (Alford, Funk, and Hibbing 2005; Eaves, Eysenck, and Martin 1989; Hatemi et al. 2010; Martin et al. 1986). Furthermore, the relationship between personality traits and political attitudes has been found to be largely a function of latent shared genetic influences (Eaves and Eysenck 1974; Verhulst, Hatemi, and Martin 2010). These findings cast doubt on the critical foundations necessary for the assumed causal structure expounded throughout the extant literature (e.g., Gerber et al. 2010; Mondak et al. 2010). In light of these empirical inconsistencies, it is important to reconsider this basic assumption to gain a more accurate understanding of the complex interplay between an individual's disposition and their political attitudes.
The recent introduction of behavioral genetic models plays a pivotal role in expanding our understanding of the nature of the relationship between personality traits and political attitudes. These models allow us to examine whether the relationship is best accounted for by common genetic or environmental influences shared between the two phenotypes (e.g., Verhulst, Hatemi, and Martin 2010) or whether a causal relationship exists between personality and political attitudes (e.g., Heath et al. 1993). To test the assumed causal relationship between personality traits and political attitudes, we first highlight the critical findings that both underscore and challenge the causal assumption. In doing so, we evaluate recent evidence which has identified genetic sources of variance on attitudes and personality. Then, using a series of behavioral genetic analyses on data collected from a large sample of twins (5,748 pairs), we partition the covariation between personality traits and political attitudes into environmental and genetic sources that are shared between the two traits. Finally, we conduct a direction of causation analysis which explores a variety of scenarios that may underlie the established association between personality traits and political attitudes (Duffy and Martin 1994; Heath et al. 1993; Neale and Cardon, 1992). These types of analyses allow us to empirically test the assumption that personality traits cause people to develop attitudes or if other possible avenues exist for the relationship between attitudes and personality. Specifically, we compare how the data fit four possible causative models: the assumed causal structure, a reverse causal structure where attitudes cause personality traits, a reciprocal causal structure where personality traits and political attitudes both have a causal influence on each other, and a correlational structure where a latent set of genes influences both personality traits and political attitudes.
Read the whole article - it's free access.

World Science Festival - Madness Redefined: Creativity, Intelligence and the Dark Side of the Mind

Here is another interesting panel discussion from the World Science Festival - Madness Redefined: Creativity, Intelligence and the Dark Side of the Mind.
The notion of a “tortured genius” or “mad scientist” may be more than a romantic aberration. Mounting studies have established that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia correlate with high creativity and intelligence. Join leading researchers as they examine the shifting spectrum between brilliance and madness. The panelists: Cynthia McFadden, James Fallon, Kay Redfield Jamison, Susan McKeown, and Elyn Saks.

Video streaming by Ustream

The Perfected Self - Skinner's Unlikely Comeback

Over at The Atlantic, David H. Freedman writes about the return of B.F. Skinner, the godfather of behavioral psychology. Back in the 1930s, Skinner, a Harvard psychologist, developed his theory of “operant conditioning,” which helped to dethrone the reign of Freudian psychoanalysis by the 1950s and 1960s, when interest in behavior modification techniques soared in the United States.

Although the emerging cognitive science movement dismissed behavioral analysis, some of his techniques (modifying thoughts instead of behaviors) have been integrated into more contemporary models such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT). His behavior modification model is still widely used in a variety of learning situations

The current resurgence in interest in Skinner's behavioral analysis arose in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of some excellent results working with autism. The studies established that "behavior analysis, unlike any other treatment, was effective in helping children with autism communicate, learn, and refrain from violent behavior, to the extent that some patients shed their diagnosis."

Since then, researchers have sought new challenges for which to apply behavioral analysis, and with the obesity rate soaring past 1 in 3, they found a target behavior on which to work.

The Perfected Self

B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control. But Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will.

By David H. Freedman

Frederik Broden 

My younger brother Dan gradually put on weight over a decade, reaching 230 pounds two years ago, at the age of 50. Given his 5-foot-6 frame, that put him 45 pounds above the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s threshold of obesity. Accompanying this dubious milestone were a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and multiple indicators of creeping heart disease, all of which left him on a regimen of drugs aimed at lowering his newly significant risks of becoming seriously ill and of dying at an unnecessarily early age.

He’d be in good company: a 2007 study by The Journal of the American Medical Association found that each year, 160,000 Americans die early for reasons related to obesity, accounting for more than one in 20 deaths. The costs are not just bodily. Other studies have found that a person 70 or more pounds overweight racks up extra lifetime medical costs of as much as $30,000, a figure that varies with race and gender. And we seem to be just warming up: cardiologists who have looked at current childhood obesity rates and other health indicators predict a steep rise in heart disease over the next few decades, while a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projected that two-thirds of the populations of some industrialized nations will be obese within 10 years.
Dan had always been a gregarious, confident, life-of-the-party sort of guy, but as his weight went up, he seemed to be winding down. Then, on a family visit to Washington, D.C., early last year, he and I dropped in on the National Gallery of Art, where 10 minutes of walking left him so sore in one leg that I had to find him a wheelchair. That evening, I decided to say the obvious: He was fast heading to incapacity and an early grave. He had a family to think of. He needed to get into some sort of weight-loss program. “Got any suggestions?” he retorted. As it happened, I did.

Today, my brother weighs 165 pounds—what he weighed at age 23—and his doctor has taken him off all his medications. He has his vigor back, and a brisk three-mile walk is a breeze for him.
Sorry if this sounds like a commercial for a miracle weight-loss program. But in fact my brother did it with plain old diet and exercise, by counting calories and walking. He had no surgery, took no supplements or pills, ate no unusual foods, had no dietary restrictions, embarked on no extreme exercise regimen. He will need to work his whole life to keep the weight off, but he shows every sign of being on the right track. He has changed his eating and exercise habits, and insists he enjoys the new ones more than the old.

In short, Dan seems a lot like many of the people in the National Weight-Control Registry, the research database of those who, despite the popular wisdom that avoiding weight regain is a Herculean task, have kept off a minimum of 30 pounds for at least a year. Most of us know someone who lost weight years ago and has kept it off, and we all see celebrities who claim to have slimmed down for good using plain old diet and exercise, from Bill Clinton to Drew Carey to Jennifer Hudson. But we keep hearing that the vast majority of us—98 percent is a figure that gets thrown about—can’t expect to do the same.

Alcoholics don’t seem to face such dismal prospects, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and similar multistep programs, which are widely regarded as effective treatments. With obesity, we’re apparently at a loss for a clear answer. Fads like the Atkins diet slowly fade in popularity after dieters watch the weight return. We’re left with the impression that the techniques needed to permanently lose weight don’t exist, or apply to only a tiny percentage of the population, who must be freaks of willpower or the beneficiaries of exotic genes. Scientists and journalists have lined up in recent years to pronounce the diet-and-exercise regimen a nearly lost cause—a view argued in no fewer than three cover stories and another major article in The New York Times Magazine over the past 10 years, and in a cover story in this magazine two years ago.

All of which is odd, because weight-loss experts have been in fairly strong agreement for some time that a particular type of diet-and-exercise program can produce modest, long-term weight loss for most people. But this program tends to be based in clinics operated by relatively high-priced professionals, and requires a significant time commitment from participants—it would be as if the only way to get treated for alcoholism were to check into the Betty Ford Center. The problem is not that we don’t know of a weight-control approach that works; it’s that what works has historically been expensive and inconvenient.

But now that’s changing. Consider my brother, who has never been to a weight-loss clinic. His program has taken place entirely in his home, at his office, and when he’s out at restaurants or visiting friends and family—and it happens at his convenience, or even automatically, literally without his doing more than lifting a finger.

Early studies of a fast-expanding pool of electronic weight-loss aids suggest that, by allowing people like Dan to construct their own regimen on their phone and computer, these tools could be a key to reversing the obesity epidemic. Applied across the health-care spectrum—to improve senior care, fix sleep problems, and cure addiction, for example—these affordable, accessible tools could radically change the way we conceive of and administer health care, potentially saving the system billions of dollars in the process.

And the basic formula underlying Dan’s weight loss reaches well beyond health. Behavioral technology allows users to gradually and permanently alter all kinds of behavior, from reducing their energy use to controlling their spending. Now, with the help of our iPhones and a few Facebook friends, we can train ourselves to lead healthier, safer, eco-friendlier, more financially secure, and more productive lives.

Ironically, this high-tech behavioral revolution is rooted in the work of a mid-century psychologist once maligned as morally bankrupt, even fascist. But the rise of social media has reoriented our societal paranoias, and more and more people are incorporating his theories into their daily lives. As a result, psychology’s most misunderstood visionary may finally get his due.

In 1965, when Julie Vargas was a student in a graduate psychology class, her professor introduced the topic of B. F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist who, in the late 1930s, had developed a theory of “operant conditioning.” After the professor explained the evidently distasteful, outmoded process that became more popularly known as behavior modification, Vargas’s classmates began discussing the common knowledge that Skinner had used the harsh techniques on his daughter, leaving her mentally disturbed and institutionalized. Vargas raised her hand and stated that Skinner in fact had had two daughters, and that both were living perfectly normal lives. “I didn’t see any need to embarrass them by mentioning that I was one of those daughters,” she says.

Vargas is a retired education professor who today runs the B. F. Skinner Foundation out of a one-room office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a block away from Harvard Yard. The foundation’s purpose is largely archival, and Vargas spends three days a week poring over boxes and shelves full of lab notes, correspondence, and publications by her father, who died in 1990. A prim but engaging woman, Vargas can’t seem to help seething a bit about how her father’s work was perceived. She showed me a letter written in 1975 by the then wildly popular and influential pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who had been asked to comment on Skinner’s work for a documentary. “I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of his work,” Spock wrote, “but I know that it’s fascist and manipulative, and therefore I can’t approve of it.” 

Skinner’s reputation has hardly improved with time. I shared with Vargas a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article by a science reporter who passed along this assessment of “that famed rat researcher B. F. Skinner” and the behaviorists who followed him: “[They] thought homosexuality was a mental illness that could be cured, usually by giving electric shocks and other painful stimuli to try to create an aversion to homosexual thoughts.” 

Vargas could only shake her head. Skinner employed punishment in one early experiment—through a device that delivered a light rap to a rat’s paw—and was so disturbed that he never used it again, arguing passionately and publicly throughout the rest of his life against the use of punishment in school, at home, and in the workplace. And he never had anything to do with trying to change sexual orientation, or any other aspect of identity. Skinner sought to shape only consciously chosen, directly observable behavior, and only with rewards; the entirely un-Skinnerian therapy to which the reporter was alluding is a form of “classical,” or “Pavlovian,” conditioning that trains a subject to reflexively associate a pleasant stimulation with an unpleasant one. The field Skinner founded, known as “behavior analysis,” has overwhelmingly hewed to the example he set in these regards. (And, for the record, “that famed rat researcher” worked, except in his earliest experiments, almost exclusively with pigeons.) 

Spock and the Inquirer reporter are typical of Skinner’s critics in their ignorance of his work, yet Skinner’s theory was at its core so simple that it sounds purely commonsensical today: all organisms tend to do what the world around them rewards them for doing. When an organism is in some way prompted to perform a certain behavior, and that behavior is “reinforced”—with a pat on the back, nourishment, comfort, money—the organism is more likely to repeat the behavior. As anyone who has ever taught a dog to sit or a child to say “please” knows, if the cycle of behavior and reinforcement is repeated enough times, the behavior becomes habitual, though it might occasionally need a booster shot of reinforcement. 

Skinner himself worked mostly with animals, famously training pigeons to guide missiles by pecking on a video screen placed inside the nose cone. But his followers went on to demonstrate in thousands of human studies that gentle, punishment-free behavior-modification techniques could improve learning, modify destructive habits, and generally help people lead healthier, more satisfying, more productive lives. 

Behaviorism exploded in prominence in the 1950s and ’60s, both in academic circles and in the public consciousness. But many academics, not to mention the world’s growing supply of psychotherapists, had already staked their careers on the sort of probing of thoughts and emotions that behaviorism tends to downplay. The attacks began in the late 1950s. Noam Chomsky, then a rising star at MIT, and other thinkers in the soon-to-be-dominant field of cognitive science acknowledged that behavior modification worked on animals but claimed it did not work on people—that we’re too smart for that sort of thing. Then, seizing on Skinner’s loudly proclaimed conviction that communities should actively shape human behavior to promote social justice and harmony, they argued that if behavior modification were to work on humans, it would be a morally repugnant and even fascist method of forcing people to toe an official line. 

In 1971, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film A Clockwork Orange echoed this fear by centering on a government’s attempt to reduce criminal behavior via methods amounting to a brutal caricature of behavior modification: the “debilitating and will-sapping techniques of conditioning” that presaged “the full apparatus of totalitarianism,” as one character puts it. (The movie actually depicts Pavlovian, not Skinnerian, conditioning—a distinction lost on the public.) That same year, Time put Skinner on its cover, headlining its profile “Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?” The overheated charges stuck. By the mid-1970s, the behavior-analysis field had essentially gone underground, its remaining practitioners having moved from prominent universities to relatively obscure ones. 

Vargas took me to Harvard to see one of the few signs that her father was once the luminary of its psychology department, or indeed that he was ever there: an odd, cluttered display of circuit boards, random machinery, and a photo of Skinner, placed next to a self-service café in the basement of the psychology building, a curiosity to be contemplated over a cappuccino. 

Skinner remains a staple of Psych 101 at most colleges, but typically only for a brief, often sneering mention, as if behaviorism was a strange, ugly fad. “He became a whipping boy for cognitive scientists,” says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, who has studied how his field views Skinner. “Psychology students were taught that his techniques didn’t work, that it was a bad direction for psychology to go in, and that he was a bad person, though he wasn’t. He just got kind of a bad rap.” It was a rap that the public bought wholesale, notes Christopher Bryan, a psychologist at UC San Diego. “There was a notion that there’s something icky about psychological techniques intended to manipulate people,” he says. 

It made little difference that holdout behaviorists continued to accumulate evidence that Skinner’s techniques helped tame all sorts of otherwise confounding behavioral problems, including nail-biting, narcotics addiction, child abuse, and, yes, criminal recidivism (no Clockwork Orange–style punishment involved). But the most stunning example was autism: studies in the late 1980s and early ’90s established that behavior analysis, unlike any other treatment, was effective in helping children with autism communicate, learn, and refrain from violent behavior, to the extent that some patients shed their diagnosis. The success with autism pumped money into the field of behavior analysis, leading many of its researchers to look for other big challenges. And by the beginning of the 21st century, there was widespread concern about an obesity epidemic. 

That Skinner’s theory could be successfully applied to obesity was no surprise. Decades earlier, when no one spoke of an obesity problem, Skinner had been writing about diet and exercise as an example of how behavior could be modified. In a 1957 paper in American Scientist, he cited a Harvard University study in which rats were conditioned to eat when they weren’t hungry, causing what Skinner called “behavioral obesity.” His followers did not have to reach far for the converse, speculating that an organism might be induced to willingly reduce food intake, were it rewarded for doing so. 

They were eventually proved right by Weight Watchers, which launched its “behavior modification plan” in the mid-1970s. The program’s close adherence to Skinner’s basic principles has consistently garnered some of the best long-term weight-loss results of any mass-market program. The key characteristic of Weight Watchers and other Skinnerian weight-loss programs is the support and encouragement they provide to help participants stick with them. (Much the same is true of AA, which is strikingly similar to a behavior-modification program.) Weight Watchers and the other programs do not claim to magically burn fat, or make appetite disappear, or blast abs. They aim to gradually establish healthful eating and moderate exercise as comfortable, rewarding routines of daily life rather than punishing battles of willpower and deprivation. 

The specifics may sound familiar: set modest goals (to encourage sustainable progress and frequent reinforcement); rigorously track food intake and weight (precise measurement is key to changing behavior, especially when it comes to eating, since a few bites a day can make the difference between weight loss and weight gain); obtain counseling or coaching (to diagnose what environmental factors are prompting or rewarding certain behaviors); turn to fellow participants for support (little is more reinforcing than encouragement from peers, who can also help with problem-solving); transition to less-calorie-dense foods (to avoid the powerful, immediate reinforcement provided by rich foods); and move your body more often, any way you like (to burn calories in a nonpunishing way). 

Study after study proves the effectiveness of this rough Skinnerian formula, which is the basis of the great majority of well-regarded weight-loss programs. “Willpower doesn’t work,” says Jean Harvey-Berino, a University of Vermont behavioral scientist who researches weight-loss methods. “What works heavily relies on Skinner—shaping behavior over time by giving feedback, and setting up environments where people aren’t stimulated to eat the wrong foods.” As the evidence continues to pile up, it’s getting harder to find weight-loss researchers who disagree, says Jennifer Shapiro, a psychologist specializing in weight loss and the scientific director at Santech, a San Diego health-technology firm. “More and more studies demonstrate the effectiveness of behavioral approaches based on Skinnerian reinforcement.” 

Not that Skinner ever gets much credit. The experts who run successful behavioral weight-loss programs, including Weight Watchers, seem at best vaguely aware of these techniques’ Skinnerian roots, or choose to downplay them. Instead, they frame their programs in the more fashionable terms of behavioral economics or social-cognitive theory, or offer the nontheoretical argument that they just plain work. But this would have been fine with Skinner, says Vargas. “He used to say that the ultimate worth of a science is in how much good it can do in the world.” 

So widely accepted is the long-term effectiveness of Skinnerian weight-loss programs that most well-regarded bariatric-surgery clinics require patients to follow such a program before surgery, in order to prove their ability to avoid regaining much or even most of the weight after—as more than one-fourth of bariatric patients eventually do, according to some studies. Even clinical programs for rapid weight loss rely on Skinner’s tenets. The 25-year-old Weight Management Program at the Miriam Hospital—one of Brown University’s teaching hospitals in Providence, Rhode Island, and the home of the National Weight-Control Registry—is a highly regarded program in which many of the patients are more than 200 pounds overweight. Typically, patients are started out on an Optifast diet, a physician-mediated program that replaces some or all meals with liquids and food bars in order to “give patients some distance from food,” as one psychologist there puts it. But the Miriam program’s goal is for its patients to gradually build healthy eating habits with ordinary food, and to add in daily walks. The program reports that about one-third of its patients keep all the weight off for two or more years. And that figure, which is some 16 times the success rate implied by the “98 percent gain it all back” statistic we keep hearing, turns out to be fairly typical of leading clinical weight-loss programs. 

But despite their relative success, Skinnerian weight-loss programs have not become the default treatment for obesity the way AA has for alcoholism. One reason, of course, is that most would-be weight-losers can’t afford these programs (insurance usually won’t cover them) or don’t have the time, patience, or motivation to commit to one. At up to $3,500, the six-month Miriam outpatient program is a relatively good deal, especially compared with Canyon Ranch, which offers a well-regarded residential program for about $1,200 a day. 

“We know how to get people to eat healthier and exercise,” says Steven Blair, an exercise and epidemiology researcher at the University of South Carolina. “The question is how to roll out the needed behavioral strategies to 50 million unfit adults in the U.S. Even if there were enough trained counselors to work with that many people, which there aren’t, the cost issues would be overwhelming.” 

And there’s another limitation. These programs work by sticking participants in a “Skinner box”—which was, literally, a closed glass box in which Skinner trained his animals; figuratively, it’s an environment that can be tightly controlled and in which behavior can be rigorously tracked, so as to ensure the dominance of the prompts and reinforcements that lead to a desired change. When a patient is “in the box”—that is, actively participating in a formal program—results are reliably good. The bigger challenge comes when people leave the program to plunge back into an environment rife with caloric temptation. 

Most programs try to provide remote monitoring and support, but inevitably, many patients let these looser ties dissolve, and then they gain back weight. That’s why these programs tend to report long-term success rates of only about 30 percent. This is a much bigger problem for mass-market programs like Weight Watchers, which don’t charge enough to offer individual coaching or frequent, intimate group meetings. Effective as it is for a highly affordable program, Weight Watchers places its clients in a Skinner box of gossamer walls. 

Sunday, June 03, 2012

World Science Festival - Quantum Biology and the Hidden Nature of Nature

This is one of the many cool panel discussions from the World Science Festival, held over the past four days (ends today, Sunday, June 3). For this roundtable on quantum biology and the hidden nature of nature, they brought together John Hockenberry (host and moderator), Paul Davies, Seth Lloyd, Thorsten Ritz for a lively conversation.

The actual introduction begins around 5 minutes in - at the beginning is the annoying song, "Strange Science."

Quantum Biology and the Hidden Nature of Nature

Can the spooky world of quantum physics explain bird navigation, photosynthesis and even our delicate sense of smell? Clues are mounting that the rules governing the subatomic realm may play an unexpectedly pivotal role in the visible world. Leading thinkers in the emerging field of quantum biology explored the hidden hand of quantum physics on the scales of everyday life.

Video streaming by Ustream

Free Will or No Free Will, Two Views

The issue of free will is a hot topic these days, and the building consensus in the materialist world of neuroscience is that free will is a comforting illusion. Among the recent authors who have tried to disabuse us of this notion that we have some semblance of control over our lives are Leonard Mlodinow, Daniel Kahneman, David Eagleman, Michael Gazzaniga, Sam Harris, Charles Duhigg, Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman, and Shankar Vendantam.That is a pretty serious list of brainpower.

A recent piece on the Huffington Post by Victor Stenger argues against free will, making reference to a couple of those heavyweight thinkers, while a recent article on NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture by philosopher Alva Noë argues that we have freedom in a different way than generally conceptualized ("We are not free because we are unconstrained. We are free because we are constrained."). He is arguing, essentially, that there are greater constraints on our freedom imposed by the environment and the situation than there are from any unconscious or preconscious programming, but it is exactly this reality that offers us moments of choice, to come to a fork in the road and take it (as Yogi Berra once suggested).

For me, the reality is somewhere in between. Yes, much of our emotional and even cognitive processing is done below the level of conscious awareness and, therefore, is less than freely chosen. And yes, the situation and environment place powerful limitations on our options for choosing - we are constrained by circumstances, situations, and even external expectations.   

And yet, as I pause to consider what words should come next, and in what order, and at what level of complexity, and with which references, I am mindful of the automatic nature of writing, that there are limited options for what should come next as a result of what has already been said, the thoughts I am trying to convey, the expectations for syntax and coherence. But I am free to completely ignore all of that and offer complete nonsense in the spirit of dada or surrealism, because woof smells consciousness.

As Noë points out, "it is only through traveling down well-worn pathways and doing just what is expected of you that you ever get to that fork in the road where it is possible for you to have a choice, where it is first a live possibility for you to do something original."

Free Will Is an Illusion

, Ph.D., Physicist, bestselling author, author of 'God and the Folly of Faith'

Posted 06/01/2012

Research in neuroscience has revealed a startling fact that revolutionizes much of what we humans have previously taken for granted about our interactions with the world outside our heads: Our consciousness is really not in charge of our behavior.

Laboratory experiments show that before we become aware of making a decision, our brains have already laid the groundwork for it. In a recent book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, physicist Leonard Mlodinow reviews a wide range of psychological experiments that demonstrate the dominant role the unconscious plays in our behavior. This recognition challenges fundamental assumptions about free will and the associated religious teachings about sin and redemption, as well as our judicial concepts of responsibility and punishment. If our brains are making our decisions for us subconsciously, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals or God punish sinners who aren't in full control of their decision-making processes?

Is free will an illusion? In his recent book titled Free Will, neuroscientist Sam Harris pulls no punches. He tells us in no uncertain terms: "Free will is an illusion." We don't exist as immaterial conscious controllers, but are instead entirely physical beings whose decisions and behaviors are the fully caused products of the brain and body.

Philosophers identify several different positions on the question of free will. Incompatibilists hold that free will is incompatible with determinism, the idea that our behavior is fully determined by antecedent causes such as fate, acts of God, or laws of nature. These split into two camps. Libertarians hold that we have free will since humans transcend cause and effect in ways that make us ultimately responsible. Determinists hold that we don't have free will because either determinism is true or indeterminism (randomness) doesn't give us control or responsibility. Both these groups are opposed by compatibilists, who argue that free will is compatible with determinism, or indeterminism for that matter.

What exactly is determinism? Two centuries ago, French physicist Pierre Laplace pointed out that, according to Newtonian mechanics, the motion of every particle in the universe can in principle be predicted from the knowledge of its position, momentum, and the forces acting on it. This is the Newtonian world machine. Since, as far as physics is concerned, we are all just particles, then this would seem to make free will an illusion indeed.

However, we now can say with considerable confidence that the universe is not a Newtonian world machine. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics showed that, deep down, nature is fundamentally indeterministic. But does quantum indeterminacy play an important role in the brain, and thus open a way for free will? Probably not, and here's why.

The moving parts of the brain are heavy by microscopic standards and move around at relatively high speeds because the brain is hot. Furthermore, the distances involved are large by these same microscopic standards. It is easy to demonstrate quantitatively that quantum effects in the brain are not significant. So, even though libertarians are correct that determinism is false at the microphysical, quantum level, the brain is for all practical purposes a deterministic Newtonian machine, so we don't have free will as they define it.

Although the brain is likely deterministic when it comes to the control of behavior, there's plenty of "pseudo-randomness" (as opposed to "pure" quantum randomness) in the thermal motions of our brains and in the environment that feeds us data. It's possible that this can provide sufficient uncertainty to give us the "feeling" of free will. Or, perhaps uncertainty plays no direct role and it is simply our lack of awareness about what causes our decisions that we interpret as being exempt from the causal laws of nature. Either way, this means that ultimately we do not have libertarian free will, even though we might be under the impression we do.

But here's some consolation. Even though at the quantum level there is no rigid determinism, the compatibilists are correct in viewing the operations of the brain as causal processes. They also make another good point when they argue that even if our thoughts and actions are the product of unconscious processes, they are still our thoughts and actions. In other words, "we" are not just our conscious minds, but rather the sum of both conscious and unconscious processes. While others can influence us, no one has access to all the data that went into the calculation except our unique selves. Another brain operating according to the same decision algorithms as ours would not necessarily come up with the same final decision since the lifetime experiences leading up to that point would be different.

So, although we don't have libertarian free will, if a decision is not controlled by forces outside ourselves, natural or supernatural, but by forces internal to our bodies, then that decision is ours. If you and I are not just some immaterial consciousness (or soul) but rather our physical brains and bodies, then it is still "we" who make our decisions. And after all, that's what the brain evolved to do, whatever role consciousness might play. And, therefore, it is "we" who are responsible for those decisions.

And that's what it all boils down to. Who cares whether we call an action "free will" or not? Calling it "free will" (as compatibilists do) is too confusing, since it suggests some form of dualism, supernatural or not; so let's call it "autonomy." The issue is: what is the moral and legal responsibility of an autonomous person, and how should society deal with wrongdoing?

Obviously, we cannot have a functioning society if we do not protect ourselves from people who are dangerous to others because of whatever it is inside their brains and nervous systems that makes them dangerous. Still, given that we don't have libertarian free will that sets us above causal laws, it would seem that our largely retributive moral and justice systems need to be re-evaluated, and maybe even drastically revamped.

* * * * * * *

by Alva Noë

Chess pieces on a chess board.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for DAGOC

A few weeks ago we discussed the anxiety that science now teaches us that (in James Atlas's words) the "choices we make in day-to-day life are prompted by impulses lodged deep within the nervous system" and that, therefore, in some sense, we are not really the authors of our own actions, responses, choices. We are governed by a zombie within.

I return to this theme now. I suspect that Atlas, and the authors he was describing, have got it wrong. We are governed, but not by a neural zombie within. We are governed from without! 
The best way to find out what people will do is not to look into their hearts, or their brains; it's simply to understand the situation they are in. Social psychologists have shown this again and again. Who will be more likely to perform an altruistic action, the priest or the business person? Answer: The one who just found some money. (See, for example, Levin and Isen's "Further Studies on the Effects of Feeling Good on Helping" for support for claim.)

But we don't need experimental data to appreciate the basic point. Every time you drive through traffic, or try to cross a street, you exhibit your confidence that you know precisely when and where cars will stop. You put your life on the line.

The fact of the matter is, human beings are very predictable. Indeed, it is this very fact that helps us understand our freedom.

Life is a little bit like having climbed half-way up the mountain peak. You can go up. Or you can turn around and go back down. But either way, it's more mountain climbing.

A nice comparison is chess. Suppose we're playing. I attack one of your pieces. Now I'm in a position to know your next move. What? How can I possibly know that? Can I tell the future? Can I read your mind?

No need for any of that. I know your next move because, well, you only have one move. I've forced your move. You've got to defend your piece.

It's sort of paradoxical. Chess is a game of skill and we very rightly credit chess players for their smart play. And yet so much of the play is more or less determined, not by physics or neuroscience, but simply by the demands of the task itself. You've got to develop your pieces, as the chess folks say. You've got to respond to aggressive moves. You are constrained — your actions are predictable. You wouldn't be a good chess player, if you were not.

And yet — here's the crux — it is only through traveling down well-worn pathways and doing just what is expected of you that you ever get to that fork in the road where it is possible for you to have a choice, where it is first a live possibility for you to do something original. (Daniel Dennett makes this kind of observation in Freedom Evolves.)

We sometimes have the idea that freedom requires of us that we are, in a certain sense, the authors of our every move. The cleverness of the chess player, we imagine, consists in his calculating the best move among all the possible moves. But this is the wrong picture of the chess player. Chess players don't need to spend time and effort thinking about every possible move. There's usually only a few moves that are even relevant to the situation on the board, and anyway, very frequently, as we have already noticed, moves are forced. Good chess players let the game author their moves for them!

We are not free because we are unconstrained. We are free because we are constrained. I can explore the city by following its many streets and alley ways. In this way, I let the city guide me. What would the alternative look like?

In a way, freedom is not having to decide.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe.