Wednesday, June 30, 2010

james and emotion

from frontal cortex

ever since Pac Man, video games have obeyed a few basic principles: A player sits down in front of a screen and presses a few buttons with his or her thumbs. Perhaps there's a joystick involved, or maybe the index finger has to do some work, too. But the body is essentially still. The only moving parts are the eyes and the fingers.
The Wii changed everything. Unlike every other game console, the Wii controller isn't built around a confusing alphabet of buttons. Instead, Nintendo uses some nifty bluetooth technology to translate our body movements directly onto the screen. When we swing our arms, a baseball bat moves. When we make a jabbing motion, Super Mario lands a punch. It doesn't matter if we're bowling or golfing or imitating Jimi on Guitar Hero: the video game console requires that our body is always moving. We might even break a sweat.
This physicality is the Wii's real innovation. It's also the reason why Microsoft is so heavily invested in Project Natal/Kinect which, like the Wii, requires users to move about the living room. While Nintendo and Microsoft argue that their wireless controllers make game play more intuitive - you no longer have to remember arcane sequences of buttons - their interfaces actually do something much more powerful: By involving our limbs in the on-screen action, the Wii and Kinect make video games much more emotional.
To understand how the Wii turns stupid arcade games into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by William James. In his 1884 article "What is an emotion?" James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body. Although our emotions feel ephemeral, they are rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our flesh. Typical of his work, James' evidence consisted of vivid examples stolen straight from real life, such as a person encountering a bear in the woods.
"What kind of an emotion of fear would be left," James wondered, "if the feeling of quickened heart beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose bumps nor of visceral stirrings, were present?" James' answer was simple: without the body there would be no fear, for an emotion begins as the perception of a bodily change. When it comes to the drama of feelings, our flesh is the main stage.
For most of the 20th century, James' theory of bodily emotions was ignored. It just seemed too implausible. But in the early 1980s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio realized that James was mostly right: Many of our emotions are preceded by changes in our physical body. Damasio came to this conclusion after studying neurological patients who, after suffering damage in their orbitoprefrontal cortex or somatosensory cortex, were unable to experience any emotion at all. Why not? The tight connection between the mind and body had been broken. Even though these patients could still feel their flesh--they weren't paraplegic--they could no longer use their body to generate feelings. And if you can't produce the bodily symptoms of an emotion--the swelling tear ducts of sadness, or the elevated heart rate of fear--then you can't feel the emotion. As Damasio notes, "The mind is embodied, not just embrained."
How might such a neurological process unfold? Let's say we are playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii. Unlike other game consoles, which leave us stranded on the couch, the Wii actually makes us move. If we want to kill off the Goomba, we need to run around, twirl the remote, and, once we've maneuvered close to the evil character, jump on top of him. We are no longer just twiddling our thumbs.
In order to prepare for all this combat, the brain automatically triggers a wave of changes in our "physical viscera," such as quickening our pulses, flooding our bloodstream with adrenaline, and contracting our intestines. While even stationary entertainment can lead to corporeal changes - that's why the pulse quickens when watching a Hitchcock movie - the physical activity involved in fighting off the Goomba, exaggerates these effects, because our active muscles need oxygenated blood. Although we might look a little foolish, the game has managed to excite our flesh, and that means our emotions aren't far behind.
All these bodily changes are then detected by the orbitofrontal cortex and somatosensory cortex, which connect them to the scary sensation (the Goomba) that is causing us to move in the first place. As Damasio puts it, "the essence of feeling an emotion is the experience of such [bodily] changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle." The resulting state of consciousness--an emulsion of thought and flesh, body, and mind--is our feeling of fear. It is an idea that has passed through the vessel of the body. We are suddenly terrified of a cartoon Shitake mushroom.
For decades, video game designers have been obsessed with visual realism, as if the eyeball was the key to our emotional brain. But accurate graphics have diminishing returns. At a certain point, we don't need more pixels - we need more physicality. For the first time, video games are taking advantage of their specific medium, exploiting the features that other entertainments (such as movies and novels) are missing. No other form of culture, after all, depends on the verb "to play". (We play video games - we don't watch or read them.) But here's the thing about playing: it's much more captivating when the play itself is a physical act, when we play not just with the mind but with the body.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Oxytocin: out-group aggression, social cues, and amygdalar action

By (Deric Bownds) on social cognition

Three recent papers are a reflection of the recent outpouring of work on oxytocin (a peptide hormone containing the 9 amino acids shown in the figure), which (from Miller's review):
...promotes social bonding in a wide range of animals, including humans. Sold on the Internet in a formulation called "Liquid Trust," the peptide hormone is marketed as a romance enhancer and sure ticket to business success. Australian therapists are trying it alongside counseling for couples with ailing marriages. And police and military forces reportedly are interested in its potential to elicit cooperation from crime suspects or enemy agents.
The hormone is now being found to have a prickly side, and is coming to be regarded as much more than just a touchy-feely "trust hormone." De Dreu et al., have designed experiments to demonstrate that oxytocin drives a "tend and defend" response in that it promotes in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups.

In another study on oxytocin, Gamer et al. add to studies that have shown that oxytocin decreases aversive reactions to negative social stimuli, and find that subjects given oxytocin, relative to subjects given placebo, are more likely to make eye movements toward the eye region when viewing images of human faces. They find that subregions of the amygdala are important in mediating this effect. Oxytocin:
...attenuated activation in lateral and dorsal regions of the anterior amygdala for fearful faces but enhanced activity for happy expressions, thus indicating a shift of the processing focus toward positive social stimuli. On the other hand, oxytocin increased the likelihood of reflexive gaze shifts toward the eye region irrespective of the depicted emotional expression. This gazing pattern was related to an increase of activity in the posterior amygdala and an enhanced functional coupling of this region to the superior colliculi. Thus, different behavioral effects of oxytocin seem to be closely related its specific modulatory influence on subregions within the human amygdala.
These finding have implications for understanding the role of oxytocin in normal social behavior as well as the possible therapeutic impact of oxytocin in brain disorders characterized by social dysfunction.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Books in the house are correlated with good outcomes for children

By Tyler Cowen on Education Marginal Revolution

A study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete. The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is "as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father." Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed on average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.
That's from Laura Miller.

The Homeless Man and his Radio Station

from Discover

We're defined in part by where we are, the places we go and what we do there. We adorn our homes with paraphernalia caught in the net of life - the photos, the books and pictures. But what happens when you're homeless? How do you define your space and identity when your home is a public place? To find out, Darrin Hodgetts and colleagues have conducted an unusual 'ethnographic' case study with 'Brett', a 44-year-old homeless man in Auckland.

The researchers gave Brett a camera, asked him to take photos representative of his life and then they conducted two in-depth interviews with him, using the photos as spring-boards for discussion.

The clearest finding to emerge was the way that Brett used a portable radio to insulate himself from the outside world - what the researchers called an 'audio cave'. 'I've got a sound bubble around me,' Brett said, 'and I can wander through the streets without paying attention to what's going on around me.' At the same time, by consistently listening to his favourite station George FM, Brett was able to develop a sense of belonging with the station's other listeners. This provided Brett with a 'fleeting sense of companionship and "we-ness",' the researchers said.

Brett is a self-confessed loner who avoids contact with other people where possible and who tries to conceal his homeless status. He told the researchers about the places he went that enabled him to do this, including a former gun emplacement with stunning views of the sea; Judges Bay where there are free showers and gas barbecues; and in the city centre, the church, bookshops and libraries. These places allow Brett to experience 'life as a "normal" person who has interest in books and reading, or simply escaping the city to sit and reflect,' the researchers said. By contrast, returning to photograph the public toilets on Pitt Street was an ordeal for Brett, reminding him of this time as a drug addict.

Brett referred to how other homeless people spend a lot of time sitting round talking and how it [homelessness] psychologically unhinges them. By contrast, the researchers said Brett had never 'lost himself' to the streets. '...[H]is memories, imagination, and daily practices, including his use of space, provide anchorage to an adaptive sense of self and belonging.'

Hodgetts D, Stolte O, Chamberlain K, Radley A, Groot S, & Nikora LW (2010). The mobile hermit and the city: Considering links between places, objects, and identities in social psychological research on homelessness. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 19531282
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