Sunday, April 22, 2012


What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty Has Benefits By JOHN TIERNEY Published: February 13, 2012 Get Science News From The New York Times » Those are the kinds of questions used to measure novelty-seeking, a personality trait long associated with trouble. As researchers analyzed its genetic roots and relations to the brain’s dopamine system, they linked this trait with problems like attention deficit disorder, compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behavior. Now, though, after extensively tracking novelty-seekers, researchers are seeing the upside. In the right combination with other traits, it’s a crucial predictor of well-being. “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” says C. Robert Cloninger, the psychiatrist who developed personality tests for measuring this trait. The problems with novelty-seeking showed up in his early research in the 1990s; the advantages have become apparent after he and his colleagues tested and tracked thousands of people in the United States, Israel and Finland. “It can lead to antisocial behavior,” he says, “but if you combine this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence and a sense that it’s not all about you, then you get the kind of creativity that benefits society as a whole.” Fans of this trait are calling it “neophilia” and pointing to genetic evidence of its importance as humans migrated throughout the world. In her survey of the recent research, “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change,” the journalist Winifred Gallagher argues that neophilia has always been the quintessential human survival skill, whether adapting to climate change on the ancestral African savanna or coping with the latest digital toy from Silicon Valley. “Nothing reveals your personality more succinctly than your characteristic emotional reaction to novelty and change over time and across many situations,” Ms. Gallagher says. “It’s also the most important behavioral difference among individuals.” Drawing on the work of Dr. Cloninger and other personality researchers, she classifies people as neophobes, neophiles and, at the most extreme, neophiliacs. (To classify yourself, you can take a quiz on the Well blog.) “Although we’re a neophilic species,” Ms. Gallagher says, “as individuals we differ in our reactions to novelty, because a population’s survival is enhanced by some adventurers who explore for new resources and worriers who are attuned to the risks involved.” The adventurous neophiliacs are more likely to possess a “migration gene,” a DNA mutation that occurred about 50,000 years ago, as humans were dispersing from Africa around the world, according to Robert Moyzis, a biochemist at the University of California, Irvine. The mutations are more prevalent in the most far-flung populations, like Indian tribes in South America descended from the neophiliacs who crossed the Bering Strait. These genetic variations affect the brain’s regulation of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the processing of rewards and new stimuli (and drugs like cocaine). The variations have been linked to faster reaction times, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a higher penchant for novelty-seeking and risk-taking. But genes, as usual, are only part of the story. Researchers have found that people’s tendency for novelty-seeking also depends on their upbringing, on the local culture and on their stage of life. By some estimates, the urge for novelty drops by half between the ages of 20 and 60. Dr. Cloninger, a professor of psychiatry and genetics at Washington University in St. Louis, tracked people using a personality test he developed two decades ago, the Temperament and Character Inventory. By administering the test periodically and chronicling changes in people’s lives over more than a decade, he and colleagues looked for the crucial combination of traits in people who flourished over the years — the ones who reported the best health, most friends, fewest emotional problems and greatest satisfaction with life. What was the secret to their happy temperament and character? A trio of traits. They scored high in novelty-seeking as well in persistence and “self-transcendence.” Persistence, the stick-to-it virtue promoted by strong-willed Victorians, may sound like the opposite of novelty-seeking, but the two traits can coexist and balance each other. “People with persistence tend to be achievers because they’ll keep working at something even when there’s no immediate reward,” Dr. Cloninger says. “They’ll think, ‘I didn’t win this time, but next time I will.’ But what if conditions have changed? Then you’re better off trying something new. To succeed, you want to be able to regulate your impulses while also having the imagination to see what the future would be like if you tried something new.” The other trait in the trio, self-transcendence, gives people a larger perspective. “It’s the capacity to get lost in the moment doing what you love to do, to feel a connection to nature and humanity and the universe,” Dr. Cloninger says. “It’s sometimes found in disorganized people who are immature and do a lot of wishful thinking and daydreaming, but when it’s combined with persistence and novelty-seeking, it leads to personal growth and enables you to balance your needs with those of the people around you.” In some ways, this is the best of all possible worlds for novelty seekers. Never have there so many new things to sample, especially in the United States, a nation of immigrants, which Ms. Gallagher ranks as the most neophilic society in history. In pre-industrial cultures, curiosity was sometimes considered a vice, and people didn’t expect constant stimulation. The English word “boredom” didn’t come into popular use until the 19th century. Today, it’s the ultimate insult — borrrring — among teenagers perpetually scanning screens for something new. Their neophilia may be an essential skill, just as it was for hunter-gatherers evolving on the savanna, but it can also be problematic. The urge for novelty, like the primal urge to consume fat, can lead you astray. “We now consume about 100,000 words each day from various media, which is a whopping 350 percent increase, measured in bytes, over what we handled back in 1980,” Ms. Gallagher says. “Neophilia spurs us to adjust and explore and create technology and art, but at the extreme it can fuel a chronic restlessness and distraction.” She and Dr. Cloninger both advise neophiles to be selective in their targets. “Don’t go wide and shallow into useless trivia,” Ms. Gallagher says. “Use your neophilia to go deep into subjects that are important to you.” That’s a traditional bit of advice, but to some dopamine-charged neophiliacs, it may qualify as news

Prosociality and Intelligence

Scientists show how social interaction and teamwork lead to human intelligence Sat Apr 21, 2012 18:14 from RSS 2.0 by Trinity College Dublin Scientists have discovered proof that the evolution of intelligence and larger brain sizes can be driven by cooperation and teamwork, shedding new light on the origins of what it means to be human. The study appears online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and was led by scientists at Trinity College Dublin: PhD student, Luke McNally and Assistant Professor Dr Andrew Jackson at the School of Natural Sciences in collaboration with Dr Sam Brown of the University of Edinburgh. The researchers constructed computer models of artificial organisms, endowed with artificial brains, which played each other in classic games, such as the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, that encapsulate human social interaction. They used 50 simple brains, each with up to 10 internal processing and 10 associated memory nodes. The brains were pitted against each other in these classic games. The game was treated as a competition, and just as real life favours successful individuals, so the best of these digital organisms which was defined as how high they scored in the games, less a penalty for the size of their brains were allowed to reproduce and populate the next generation of organisms. By allowing the brains of these digital organisms to evolve freely in their model the researchers were able to show that the transition to cooperative society leads to the strongest selection for bigger brains. Bigger brains essentially did better as cooperation increased. The social strategies that emerge spontaneously in these bigger, more intelligent brains show complex memory and decision making. Behaviours like forgiveness, patience, deceit and Machiavellian trickery all evolve within the game as individuals try to adapt to their social environment. “The strongest selection for larger, more intelligent brains, occurred when the social groups were first beginning to start cooperating, which then kicked off an evolutionary Machiavellian arms race of one individual trying to outsmart the other by investing in a larger brain. Our digital organisms typically start to evolve more complex ‘brains’ when their societies first begin to develop cooperation.” explained Dr Andrew Jackson. The idea that social interactions underlie the evolution of intelligence has been around since the mid-70s, but support for this hypothesis has come largely from correlative studies where large brains were observed in more social animals. The authors of the current research provide the first evidence that mechanistically links decision making in social interactions with the evolution of intelligence. This study highlights the utility of evolutionary models of artificial intelligence in answering fundamental biological questions about our own origins. “Our model differs in that we exploit the use of theoretical experimental evolution combined with artificial neural networks to actually prove that yes, there is an actual cause-and-effect link between needing a large brain to compete against and cooperate with your social group mates.” “Our extraordinary level of intelligence defines mankind and sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It has given us the arts, science and language, and above all else the ability to question our very existence and ponder the origins of what makes us unique both as individuals and as a species,” concluded PhD student and lead author Luke McNally.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Evolution of Altruism

from derek bownds Wilson's current explanation for altruism has returned to a hypothesis first proposed by Darwin.. that human generosity might have evolved as an emergent property not of the individual but of the group…While acts of altruism can be costly for the individual, Darwin argued that they helped sustain the colony, which made individuals within the colony more likely to survive. The idea is know as group selection, and it's an explanation that most evolutionary biologists now dismiss [inserted note: with the exception of David Sloan Wilson, not mentioned by Lehrer, but whose work is referenced in about 6 mindblog posts.], because the advantages of generosity are much less tangible than the benefits of selfishness. A tribe full of nice guys would be easy prey for a cheater, who would quickly spread his genes through the population. But Wilson believes that it may hold the key to understanding altruism. To make his case, he cites recent studies of "cooperating" microbes, plants, and even female lions. In all these studies, many of which have been conducted in the controlled conditions of the lab, clumps of cooperators thrive and replicate, while selfish groups wither and die. In a 2007 paper that he co-authored, he summarizes his new view in three terse sentences: "selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." Wilson's larger point is that, to the extent that altruism exists, is isn't an illusion. Instead, goodness might actually be an adaptive trait, allowing more cooperative groups to outcompete their conniving cousins. In a field defined by the cruel logic of natural selection, group selection appears to be the rare hint of virtue, the one biological force pushing back against the obvious advantages of greed and deceit. "I see human nature as hung in the balance between these two extremes," Wilson says. "If our behavior was driven entirely by group selection, then we'd be robotic cooperators, like ants. But, if individual-level selection was the only thing that mattered, then we'd be entirely selfish. What makes us human is that our history has been shaped by both forces. We're stuck in between."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Semantic and Pragmatic Meaning

A new linguistic study of how individuals interpret various types of utterances sheds more light on how literal and contextual meaning are distinguished. The study, “A novel empirical paradigm for distinguishing between What is Said and What is Implicated,” to be published in the March 2012 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is authored by Ryan Doran, Gregory Ward, Meredith Larson, Yaron McNabb, and Rachel E. Baker, a team of linguists based at Northwestern University. A preprint version is available online at: Within linguistics and philosophy, two types of utterance meaning have traditionally been distinguished: semantic meaning, based on the literal meaning of the words themselves, and pragmatic meaning, based on how the sentence is used in a particular context. Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of empirical work exploring the line between these two types of meaning. However, few researchers have explored whether and under what conditions speakers can reliably isolate semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning. The new study by the Northwestern researchers does just this. Using a novel paradigm in which participants assume the point of view of a literal-minded third person, Literal Lucy, the researchers tested whether speakers were able to tease apart semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning. Participants read through short vignettes and determined whether sentences containing certain key phrases (e.g., gradable adjectives, cardinals, quantifiers) were literally still true even in contexts that favored a more natural, pragmatic interpretation. Their study found that speakers were in fact able to tease apart pragmatic elements of meaning from semantic ones but that the ability to do so is sensitive both to the particular type of phrase used in the sentence as well as the point of view a speaker adopts (e.g., his or her own, or that of a third party). By adopting a third-party perspective and relying upon their folk notion of interpreting literally, speakers were able to distinguish between semantic and pragmatic meaning more reliably. These findings have implications both for future research into the theoretical distinction between semantics and pragmatics and for the empirical investigation of this distinction. The fact that participants’ ability to distinguish semantic from pragmatic meaning was sensitive to the different types of phrases used in the experiment is not predicted by the theoretical literature classifying types of pragmatic meanings. This finding raises questions concerning the psychological validity of such classifications. For the empirical investigation of semantic and pragmatic meaning, the fact that, when interpreting from the perspective of Literal Lucy, speakers more frequently drew this distinction suggests that speakers need appropriate criteria to guide their judgments about an utterance’s meaning.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Substance abuse and alexithemia

In substance use disorders (SUD), alexithymia rates of up to 67% have been reported, but evaluations of therapy in alexithymic SUD patients are scarce. Group cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) was relatively successful in high-scoring alexithymic SUD patients, but alexithymia was associated with a lower attrition rate and with a larger Addiction Severity Index (ASI) alcohol composite score at follow-up.

From a clinical point of view the Authors of this study were interested in the predictive value of alexithymia at baseline on recovery. They hypothesized a negative relation of alexithymia with outcomes, which would be a strong argument for addressing alexithymia at intake and adjusting therapy for highly alexithymic patients. A total of 187 abstinent SUD inpatients were assessed at baseline by the Dutch version of the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) and the European ASI (EuropASI) at baseline and 3-month follow-up after an inpatient CBT as usual (CBT-TAU group) or CBT with shared decision making intervention (SDMI) (CBT-SDMI group).

All patients have been diagnosed according to the DSM-IV-TR as having 1 or more substance-related disorders. The mean score on the TAS-20 at baseline was 55.7 (SD = 11.3). According to the cutoff score, 36.9% were highly alexithymic and 33.2% were low scoring alexithymics. Highly alexithymic patients had fewer years of education [p =0.05] and were more often unemployed [p = 0.05] than low-scoring alexithymics.

Highscoring alexithymics showed more problems in the ‘work, income and education’ [p= 0.04] and ‘psychiatry’ domains [p<0.001]. The mean time of treatment (in days) for highly alexithymic patients (116.0, SD = 58.9) was not different from that for low scoring alexithymics [p = 0.26], and also the rate of completers was similar between high- (50.7%) and low-scoring alexithymics [p=0.41]. Fifty-four percent of the high-scoring, and 45.7% of the low-scoring alexithymics were abstinent at follow-up [p=0.41].

As concerns the Europ-ASI, differences between baseline high- and low-scoring alexithymic patients were found for the ‘work, income and education’ domain in the CBT-SDMI group, and for the ‘family and social relations’ and ‘drugs’ domains in the CBT-TAU group.

Overall, highly alexithymic patients improved on the EuropASI change scores at least equally well as low-scoring alexithymic patients, and alexithymia as a continuous score was predominantly positively associated with these change scores.

The results of this study show that highly alexithymic SUD patients can profit from CBT with or without SDMI, and that the degree of alexithymia is not negatively related to resulting outcomes. Limitations of this study were the absence of systematic urine or blood samples to confirm abstinence, and not having performed multimethod alexithymia assessments with an observer scale included.

However, in answering the question on whether a highly alexithymic SUD patient should be treated differently at the beginning of treatment, the Authors made use of the two extremes of categorical classification of alexithymia. As highly alexithymic SUD patients performed very well and alexithymia was associated with the treatment outcomes, CBT may be used in this population even if patients present alexithymic features at intervention entry.


values for auction

'“As culture changes, it affects our brains, and as our brains change, that affects our culture. You can’t separate the two,” Berns says. “We now have the means to start understanding this relationship, and that’s putting the relatively new field of cultural neuroscience onto the global stage.”

Monday, January 23, 2012


'Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the word “inscape” to denote intrin­sic form, the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and (what is more interesting) in objects in a state of relation to each other, and the word “instress” to denote the experiencing of the perception of inscape, the apperception of inscape.' Denise Levertov

Elbow the night will always win

Friday, January 20, 2012

Brain behaiviour and addiction

Harvard scientists have developed the fullest picture yet of how neurons in the brain interact to reinforce behaviors ranging from learning to drug use, a finding that might open the door to possible breakthroughs in the treatment of addiction.
The finding is the result of a year-long effort by a team of researchers led by associate professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Naoshige Uchida to examine a brain process known as reward prediction error. Thought to be a key component of learning, prediction error was long believed to be the product of dopamine neurons firing in response to an unexpected “reward,” thus reinforcing the behavior that led to the reward.
But Uchida and colleagues from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center report in the Jan. 18 issue of Nature that reward prediction error is actually the product of a complex interplay between two classes of neurons – one that relies on dopamine and an inhibitory class of neuron that uses the neurotransmitter GABA.
“Until now, no one knew how these GABA neurons were involved in the reward and punishment cycle,” Uchida said. “What we believe is happening is that they are inhibiting the dopamine neurons, so the two are working together to make the reward error computation.”
Before Uchida and his team could prove that GABA neurons are involved in the computation, however, they had to be sure what type of cells they were observing.
The challenge in studying either dopamine or GABA neurons is that the two cell types are intermingled in a relatively small area of the brain, making it difficult for researchers to definitively know which type they are observing. Ultimately, researchers developed an elegant solution to the problem.
Researchers genetically altered the neurons in two groups of mice – one for the dopamine neurons, the other for GABA neurons – to fire when hit by a pulse of laser light. Once researchers were certain they were measuring the correct type of neuron, they used electrodes to measure whether and when the neurons fired in response to expected and actual rewards.
The results, Uchida said, showed that while firing of dopamine neurons signaled reward prediction error, firing of GABA neurons signaled an expected reward. Taken together, GABA neurons help dopamine neurons calculate reward prediction error.
The finding is particularly important, Uchida said, because it sheds new light on how behaviors can be reinforced, either through normal brain function, or by damaging the way the two types of neurons interact.
“What happens with drug abuse is that many drugs, such as opioids and cannabinoids, target the GABA neurons,” he said. “What we are hypothesizing is that, by inhibiting those GABA neurons, you can lose this feedback cycle, so you keep getting reinforcing signals from the dopamine neurons.
“This is a new way of thinking about addiction in general,” Uchida continued. “Based on this theory, I believe you may be able to develop new theories or treatments for addiction.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Via zenhabits

‘Everything is practice.’ ~Pele
Post written by Leo Babauta.
When we learn a martial art, or ballet, or gymnastics, or soccer … we consciously practice movements in a deliberate way, repeatedly. By conscious, repeated practice, we become good at those movements.
Our entire lives are like this, but we’re often less conscious of the practice.
Each day, we repeat movements, thought patterns, ways of interacting with others … and in this repeated practice, we are becoming (or have already become) good at these things. If you constantly check Facebook or Twitter, that is practice, and you are forming that habit, though it’s usually not with too much awareness.
When you smoke, or eat junk food, or speak rudely to others, or put yourself down internally, this is something you are practicing to be good at. You may already be good at these things.
What if, instead, we practiced consciously, deliberately, and became good at the things we really want to be good at?
What if you first, above all skills, learned to be more aware of what you are practicing? What if constant conscious action is the skill you became good at?
If you could learn to take conscious action, you could learn to practice other things you want to be good at, rather than the ones you don’t.

What Are You Practicing?
Ask yourself these things throughout the day, to practice conscious action:
• Do I want to practice rushing through my morning, or can I wake a little earlier and simplify my morning routine so that I practice a slow, enjoyable morning ritual?
• Do I want to practice leaving dirty dishes out, or can I practice washing my bowl when I’m done with it?
• Do I want to practice leaving clothes strewn about, or papers lying on the counter, or can I take a few seconds to put them where they belong?
• Do I want to speak angrily to my kids or spouse, or can I speak to them with kindness and compassion?
• Do I want to practice complaining and self-pity, or can I practice gratitude?
• Do I want to practice rushing and being busy, or can I practice simplifying and going slowly?
• Do I want to practice eating fried foods, sugary foods, salty junk food snacks, fast foods … or can I practice eating whole foods, vegetables and fruits, nuts and beans and seeds?
• Do I want to practice surfing time-wasting sites, or can I practice clearing away distractions and creating?
• Do I want to practice watching mindless entertainment, or can I practice moving my body and exerting myself in activity?
• Do I want to practice smoking, or can I learn a healthier way to deal with stress?
• Do I want to practice shopping, or can I practice giving?
These are only examples … your life will show you what you’ve been practicing, and you can decide what you might rather practice instead. Or you might be completely happy with what you’ve been practicing.
Some ideas for creative practice from Ali Edwards.
How to Practice
The first step is always awareness. When you are conscious of what you are doing, you can decide whether this is an action or thought pattern you want to practice, or if there’s an alternative you’d rather be good at.
As you go through your day, practice this awareness. It’s the first skill, and it’s the most important one. Be aware, without feeling guilty or angry at yourself, of what you’re doing and thinking. You will forget to this, but remind yourself. You might wear a rubber band around your wrist, or carry a talisman, or make tally marks on a slip of paper each time you remember.
As you get good at conscious action, start to practice those actions and thought patterns you want to be good at. Start to notice the ones you’d really rather not be good at, and see if you can deliberately practice other actions and thought patterns.
As you consciously, deliberately repeat these things, you’ll get better at them. It takes a lot of repetition to get good at a skill, but you’ve got time.
Important Conclusions
You won’t be able to change all your habits at once, and I’m not implying that you should try. The habit you’re really changing is consciousness, and practice. Other habits will be difficult to change, especially if you’re trying to change all of them, but it’s OK if you mess up. Give yourself permission to make mistakes without guilt, and instead just deliberately practice again, and again.
If something is too hard, and you can’t get it right no matter how many times you practice, you can try it in smaller steps. If you can’t quit smoking, try not smoking once, and instead relieving stress through walking or doing some pushups or meditation or self-massage. If you can’t quit junk food, just replace one snack with a fruit, or add a tasty veggie to your dinner.
I’d like to emphasize that this isn’t about perfection. There is no perfect way of life, and you don’t need to strive to be perfect every moment of the day. I believe you’re already perfect. This is just about conscious action, which is a useful skill to have.
Remember that we become good at what we repeatedly do, and what we do repeatedly can be done consciously. It’s when we’re conscious that we are truly alive.
‘If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.’ ~Dalai Lama
- - [Technorati] Poemanias Technorati cosmos for Poemanias Wed, 09 Mar 2005 09:48:55 GMT 474652 2 3 Technorati v1.0 - Technorati logo 60 - Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium: "Poemanias" ... Via Poemanias , I've found this tribute site to Michael Donaghy, surely one of the best poets of the late 20th century in English. There's video, audio, and links to poems and transcripts of talks. I met Michael only briefly ...
Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium View Technorati Cosmos
Mon, 07 Mar 2005 21:39:33 GMT 2005-03-07 20:34:58 GMT
- Silliman's Blog: "Edward Farrelly" ... Amanda Drew Joseph Duemer Cliff Duffy Jilly Dybka E Martin Edmond kari edwards Stuart Eglin AnnMarie Eldon Scott Esposito Steve Evans F Roberta Fallon & Libby Rosof (Philly Artblog) Edward Farrelly Rona Fernandez Caterina Fake Ryan Fitzpatrick Jim Flanagan Flarf Debby Florence Juan Jose Flores Paul Ford William Fox Gina Franco Suzanne Frischkorn G Jeannine Hall Gailey C.P. ...
Silliman's Blog View Technorati Cosmos
Mon, 07 Mar 2005 15:48:43 GMT 2005-03-07 14:50:46 GMT