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What do you mean: ‘hardwired’?

In a previous post I talked about some research which was (mistakenly, I think, and so do the original researchers) presented as revealing ‘hardwired racism’ in the brain. Whatever that research means about racism, or, however weirdly, what racists think it means, that started me thinking about what ‘hardwired’ might really mean. Here’s an online definition:

hard-wire (härdwr); tr.v. hard-wired, hard-wir•ing, hard-wires
1. To connect (electronic components, for example) by electrical wires or cables.
2. To implement (a capability) through logic circuitry that is permanently connected within a computer and therefore not subject to change by programming.
3. To determine or put into effect by physiological or neurological mechanisms; make automatic or innate: “It may be that certain orders of anxiety are hard-wired in us” (Armand Schwerner).
http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hard-wired

The first meaning is almost literal, though ‘hard’ metaphorically implies more permanence than just ‘wiring’ as a verb by itself; the second meaning is metaphorical, in that there are unlikely to be any actual wires involved, but still factually follows on from the first. Even here, some of the ‘wiring’ could actually be logic programming, but programming which isn’t accessible to change. So it’s ‘harder’ programming than the ‘firmware’ in your camera, which can be changed, but is left unchanged in normal use, and the software I’m using to write this (though strictly speaking Windows and Word are firmware, from the description I’ve just given).

The third meaning here is completely metaphorical, and it’s always necessary with metaphors to be very careful to work out where the metaphorical meaning stops. Metaphors are innately dodgy and misleading, as Terry Pratchett has Carrot Ironfoundersson point out: “…Going Up in the World is a metaphor, which I have been learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative” (Pratchett, 1989, p183).

Also there are two different meanings under 3): a) to put into effect by physiological mechanisms, and b) to make automatic or innate. I don’t see that b) follows from a) and I’ll argue that through below.

I think there are two kinds of hardwiring that neuroscientists and psychologists talk about. One kind derives from the basic physiology of certain sensory and mental processes, and is likely to be shared with other animals, because that’s just the way these things have evolved to work. Basic visual processes in humans are like this, as is the link between brain activity, the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, the release of adrenaline/epinephrine into the blood, and at least some of the effects of that release. It is easy to see how some of these basic mechanisms could be evolutionarily modified from a basic plan from species to species. Since Pavlov’s day, we’ve been learning more and more about the physiology and neuroscience of eating and satiety, and probably all mammals share some of the same basic processes, but it would make sense if it were balanced differently for continuous eaters like pandas and shrews, the complex feeding patterns of grass-eaters, or opportunistic omnivores like humans, and we have a hard-wired explanation of obesity built round this*. That roughly corresponds to 3a), and does certainly contain some automatic and innate mechanisms.

The other idea about hardwiring is sociobiological and is evolutionarily vaguer. Certain patterns of behaviour are more likely to lead to the production of reproductively successful offspring, and so are naturally selected. This only works in Darwinian terms if that pattern of behaviour is innate and automatic, such that it can be genetically transmitted and maintained. Other patterns of behaviour which are equally advantageous could be passed on culturally, and might well be selected and maintained, but here we’re talking about memes and behaviour that isn’t innate and automatic, that it can still evolve by a process of cultural selection. So how can you tell which is which? In some cases, like the excellence of traditional music, the evolutionary success of the book, and the story of the rat bone in the restaurant meal, it’s pretty clear that this is memeic (is that the right word?) evolution, but in others, like altruism, reciprocity, and male promiscuity** it seems to me that it could logically go either way. Sometimes the argument seems to me to be circular: how do we know it’s naturally selected? Because it’s a common feature of human behaviour? Why is it a common feature of human behaviour? Because it’s been naturally selected! I think this logic applies almost as well to using books instead of clay tablets as it does to behaviour in prisoner’s dilemma games.

More convincing supporting evidence might come from studies that show similar social/psychological processes in non-human mammals to those in humans, especially those which can be neatly fitted into evolutionary advantage arguments. Patterns of behaviour which can be described as reciprocity, cheating, and grudge-bearing, as discussed by Dawkins (1981) would be an example. What doesn’t count as supporting evidence is fantasies of the lifestyle of pre-human or early human hunter gatherers, where ‘hardwired’ gender differences are held to derive from the habits of cavemen going out hunting mammoths (and having a bit on the side, as shown by the well-known principle that ‘what happens on the hunt stays on the hunt’), while the cavewomen (cavegirls?) stayed home, gathering berries and digging roots – and caveyouths demonstrated their breeding fitness by rites of passage which involved wrestling with dinosaurs, probably.

There is a useful discussion by Thomas Martin of the background to the hardwired metaphor and what it might mean for human nature from an anarchist point of view here: http://www.socialanarchism.org/mod/magazine/display/128/index.php. It’s worth reading the first part for a summary of where the idea in sociobiology/psychology comes from and then, as he points out in the intro (below), the implications that might have for our understanding of the nature of human nature:

In these first years of the new century anarchism, as a philosophy and as an ongoing praxis, is faced with a number of disconcerting adjustments. Chief among these is the growing evidence that we, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature. It does exist; it has biological roots; and while it does enjoy a large measure of free will, its most basic drives and emotions are indeed hard-wired. The Left has long resisted and denied these facts, on the grounds that they might justify discrimination based on heredity, or that they militate against the possibility of radical social reform, or both. I hope to demonstrate that these fears are groundless.
Martin (2006: intro)

There are some bits of Martin’s account I disagree with strongly, especially the idea that genes might ‘want’ to do anything, which he raises later, and you might not want to get into the anarchist thinking at the end, but it does discuss some of the problems that this idea gives to psychologists – and recognises that we may have to accept some inbuilt, evolutionarily selected, forms of behaviour.

But even if you accept that some aspects of our psychology are, metaphorically, hardwired, that doesn’t mean that they’re rigidly fixed. One of the most clearly hardwired bits of our behaviour is the ability to see yellow. In our retinas, we don’t have receptors for all the different colours of light. All we have are cells which are most responsive to red light, to green light, and blue light. So we can’t detect yellow light as such. Pure yellow light that falls on the retina stimulates both the red sensitive cells and the green sensitive cells to roughly the same degree, and when we get this ‘equal red, equal green’ signal, we see it as yellow. But we get the same signal if equal amounts of red and green light fall on the retina at the same time, which is why the television screen, which only shows red, green or blue light, can show us what appears to be a bright clear yellow. Now, we know about the ‘wiring’ of this. We can identify the colour sensitive cells, and we can even track the signals through to where they are combined in the brain to generate a ‘yellow’ channel. This goes beyond vague metaphorical hardwiring: if nerves be wires, then we know what the wires are. We can also trace the evolutionary background to this ability by comparing our visual system and retina with that of other mammals. But, although hardwired, this isn’t a fixed, rigid system. Old-fashioned incandescent room lighting is much yellower than sunlight, but when we are in an incandescently lit room we don’t see the yellow bias, and we see the range of colours that we might see in sunlight. Our responses to the signals from our retina are substantially shifted to compensate for the changed colour of light – without realising it. You can see how big the shift is by taking a photo with a camera in incandescent light (with ‘auto white balance’ turned off). It looks distinctly yellowish, where to us the scene looks as though it was illuminated by white light. As we get older, the fluid in our eye becomes tinged with yellow – so the whole world becomes yellower as you get older – but we’re not aware of this. The only place it shows up is where older people find difficulty in making out white letters on a yellow background, or vice versa.

OK, that’s unconscious, cognitive overriding of hardwiring – maybe by other systems which we might regard as being hardwired too. But here’s another example of how hardwiring can be modified and overridden by cultural and individual variation.  Our bodies have evolved to cope with ethanol, a naturally occurring poison which has a range of damaging effects. Our livers can remove it from the bloodstream and we have an enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, to support the breakdown of alcohol to less dangerous substances. I guess if you’re being picky, you could say that this is hard-moleculed rather than hardwired. But since we enjoy some of the toxic effects of alcohol, we found ways of supplying alcohol in sufficient quantity to temporarily overwhelm this system, and cultural patterns to encourage, reward and control this overdosing. And metabolism fights back, as it’s well designed to do, by increasing the amount of alcohol dehydrogenase in the system, but the determined drunk just ramps up the input. We quite quickly develop the technology to move from 5% alcohol to 15% to 80%, and also provided a cultural overlay which makes Bollinger and Laphroaig more expensive and more desirable than straight 13% and 40%. OK, there are genetic (hardwired) differences in people’s ability to metabolise alcohol, but it’s clear that cultural factors are important in the role alcohol plays in our lives.

*I’m not sure that this is quite the same as saying that individual differences in obesity are ‘genetically determined’. My first interpretation of the genetically determined explanation was that it must derive from rapid evolutionary change, so that, sometime, in the twentieth century, there was an environmental/cultural change such that fat people got much more sex than thin people, so fatness was rapidly selected for, rather like the way the colour of the peppered moth changed with pollution levels over the last two hundred years. In retrospect, I think I’d oversimplified things, but I’m still in favour of lots of sex for fat people.

**The gender difference here might be overplayed. Traditional wisdom sometimes has it otherwise: see Willie McTell’s Married Man’s a Fool (If He thinks His Wife loves No-one Else But Him) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiODT4nKbcc, evolving into the Ry Cooder version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXjmkTuYPZU. On the other hand, it’s traditionally well-known that All Men Are Bastards, but that probably covers more than just infidelity.

References
Martin, Thomas (2006) Anarchism and the Question of Human Nature Social Anarchism Issue 37
at http://www.socialanarchism.org/mod/magazine/display/128/index.php

Pratchett, Terry (1989) Guards! Guards! London: Corgi

Doctors encouraged to unnecessarily delay treatment to NHS patients in BMI Healthcare hospital

I’m interrupting normal service (a piece on what ‘hardwired’ might actually mean, and another on re-evaluating Milgram’s research, supported by some recent research, are on their way) because a recent news story appalled me, and I’m also a bit concerned that it hasn’t been more widely circulated.

The story was broken by The Independent on 21 July: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/private-hospital-told-doctors-to-delay-nhs-work-to-boost-profits-7962582.html

It reveals how the chief executive of a private-sector hospital doing NHS work devised a policy of artificially delaying treatment of NHS patients in the hope of coercing them into ‘converting’ to more profitable private patients.

Bernie Creaven, executive director of the private BMI Meriden Hospital, Coventry, had ordered an immediate four-week postponement of operations on NHS patients referred to the hospital, which will be extended to a minimum of eight weeks by September.
In a letter to the hospital’s consultants dated 13 July, seen by The Independent, Ms Creaven said the imposed delays were to discourage patients thinking of going private from opting for treatment on the NHS.
Private hospitals receive taxpayer money for treating NHS cases, but can make larger fees if the patients go directly to them for treatment.
“I believe time to access the system is the most critical factor for private patients converting to NHS patients,” she wrote. She added that “other aspects of differentiation” would be introduced over the next few weeks to make NHS treatment at the hospital relatively less attractive.

[…]

In her letter to consultants, Ms Creaven says: “Over the past few months I have had numerous discussions with consultants regarding the lack of differentiation between NHS and private patients and there is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lack of differentiation has had a negative effect on our private patient referrals.
“I now wish to implement with immediate effect a new rule which will mean that operations on NHS Choose and Book patients will not be able to take place until at least four weeks following their outpatient consultation. Also, in each subsequent month, I will extend this by another week until September and the time will be eight weeks from initial consultation. I believe that this time to access the system is probably the most critical factor for some private patients converting to NHS patients.”

Good grief.

Ben Goldacre, whose tweet about this was the first I saw of it, comments “If an individual Dr did what @BMIHealthcarePR did, wd get struck off, no?” I think it’s possible. Were medics involved?”. Well, yes, they were: the letter was to the hospital consultants. Maybe one of them was the whistleblower: perhaps that’s the one who shouldn’t be struck off. Let’s hope that BMI healthcare don’t lay them off instead.

People close to me pointed out that this is only the logical extension of the despicable ‘go private and jump the NHS queue’ practice which we’ve long been familiar with, which is true, but I think there’s a qualitative difference here. Treatment is being withheld for no other reason than to convert patients. Not because there aren’t beds, nor available staff, or even that higher-paying patients come first: the policy is to automatically deny necessary medical treatment, even if it could be easily provided: to stand by and say ‘even though you’re fully entitled to treatment, and the NHS will pay us fully for that treatment, we’ll not do anything for you for several weeks unless and until you pay extra’. It’s definitely not crossing over the line to deliberately inflicting damage on patients so you can benefit from treating them, but it seems to me to be getting horribly close to that line.

Note that MS Creavon promises that “other aspects of differentiation” will be applied, whch sounds dangerously threatening when you consider it’s an extension to unnecessarily denying treatment . Withholding analgesics? Less thoroughly cleaned wards? (oh, sorry: private enterprise has imposed that in NHS hospitals already).

As I said at the top, it’s also shocking how little the story’s been picked up, considering that dopey misreported stories about ‘hardwired racism‘ can run round the world in 24 hours. The only other mention I can find online about it (on 23 July) is a piece from Labour Left: http://www.labourleft.co.uk/bmi-nhs-treatment-scandal-lansley-protests-too-much-the-devils-in-the-detail/

They say that the Department of Health has put out a statement:

Minimum waiting times that do not take account of healthcare needs of patients are unacceptable. Decisions on treatments, including suitability for surgery, should be made by clinicians based on what is best for the patient. This applies regardless of whether a hospital is run by the NHS or the independent sector.
We will therefore be contacting BMI to ensure that NHS patients are not disadvantaged.

– but point out, rightly, that as long as you have organisations whose only motive is profit supplying services for the public sector, this kind of thing will happen. Ms Creavon was operating in the best traditions of the private sector to maximise surplus value for her bosses and their shareholders (and probably for herself, too: it would be a step towards public accountability if we could see her management targets). That’s what these organisations were set up to do. As has been very obvious lately, the idea that the private sector can do things either more cheaply or better than the people who are working for the public good doesn’t work out in practice. What this case shows, though, is that the private sector is good at finding inhumane ways of exploiting people to maximise profit – and the poor old, much-maligned public sector probably isn’t up to controlling their abuses. As the NHS is increasingly privatised, expect to see more of this.

Psychologists worried about existential queries. What’s the point?

Story by John Hooper in The Guardian today (18 July) about Corigliano d’Otranto, a small town in southern Italy, which has appointed an (unpaid) municipal philosopher. The town mayor, Ada Fiore, is a philosophy teacher. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/17/corigliano-dotranto-italy-philosophical-town

Under Fiore’s mayorship, the council has put up ceramic plaques with quotations from the likes of Saint Augustine. It has given out postcards for distribution in bars and shops that ask existential questions, such as “Why were you born?”.

The municipal philosopher (hours 3-7 on Friday, €15 a session), Graziella Lupo, said that “Much of her work was about getting people to think clearly, listen to each other and formulate questions that bore on the subject in hand.” Right on, Graziella.

Dangerous stuff, which the head of the regional psychological professional body has roundly condemned.

Dr Giuseppe Luigi Palma said the use of a consulting philosopher was “not only misleading and confusing, but utterly perilous”. He said his organisation was ready to take “all the most appropriate actions to combat any offence that may be identified”.

What would be ‘all the most appropriate actions’ here? I guess trying the old ‘My next statement is a lie. My last statement was true’ trick on her won’t work – she’ll have seen that one before. Maybe giving out postcards saying ‘Have you ever wondered why you were born? Forget it, you don’t want to know: trust me, I’m a psychologist.’ Or could the population be infected with rampant reductionism?

If you do want to take the utterly perilous step of getting into existential queries, there is a discussion group: http://existentialquestions.hyperboards.com/ (though I think a lot of the questions there are metaphysical, rather than existential), which was linked to Existential Questions TV (http://existentialquestions.wordpress.com/tv/) – but ‘this channel has been deleted’. Worrying.

For myself, I think many existential questions can be answered by watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. (And although this is a perilous area where psychologists should fear to tread, I can give an explanation, based on Cox’s Transactional Stress model and the Yerkes-Dodson Law, why it isn’t a good idea for the Knight to challenge Death at chess. If you’re brave enough, email me).

Graziella Lupo is on Facebook. I haven’t friended her, but she gives some public information: among her favourite authors/books are Zygmunt Bauman (yes!), Martha Nussbaum and  Virginia Wolf, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
One of her favourite films is The Matrix – not a good choice, but perhaps it’s compulsory for philosophers. That’s backed up with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which I hope she’s recommending to the citizens of Corigliano d’Otranto.

Palma has a website: http://www.giuseppeluigipalma.com/, which is about his bid in the 2010 Puglia regional elections.

Lupo doesn’t seem impressed with Palma’s warnings:

“I don’t think the college of psychologists knows what a philosophical consultant is.” And being a philosophical consultant, she added: “Their criticism is in any case devoid of epistemological content.”

Can’t argue with that – at least, not without looking up ‘epistemological’.

ps As I’m coming near the end of 39 years of teaching psychology, the existential questions ‘what was that all about, then?’ and ‘was there any point?’ do crop up. ‘All the most appropriate action’ needs to be taken – writing blogs, calvados and singing, probably.

pps On the same page of The Guardian was the headline: “Chain of bicycle thieves sought by Paris police”. I bet that gave them a laugh. They got a completely irrelevant reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves into the piece, too.

Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

Or: are Daily Mail reporters hardwired to misrepresent psychology stories? Probably not.

This started out as a story about the Daily Mail misrepresenting some neuropsych research (why is that news?) but as I looked into it and thought about it, it involved some other issues.

The starting point is a Daily Mail story “Racism is hard-wired into our brains” about some research at New York University recently published in Nature Neuroscience (Kubota, Banaji & Phelps, 2012). I picked it up in The Guardian, initially in a letter to The Guardian from the three authors of the original journal article thanking The Guardian for a piece it had run in criticism of the Mail story, and making it clear that they did not say what the Mail said ‘scientists say’.

As I followed up the story, though, I found an account of how the original research is part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,  and (conversely) how lefty’s (sic) and the BBC only object to ‘hardwiring’ when it’s about race [not discussed in this post: I might get back to it later]. It also started me thinking about ‘hardwiring’ (a word which was widely used in reports of the research, though it wasn’t in the original press release) and what it means and implies. So, below is an account of the original misreporting, then stuff about the Jewish plot. A thoughtful (I hope) bit about the concept of hardwiring will make a future post.

OK, start with the research and the Mail story. Here’s the abstract for the original paper, titled The Neuroscience of Race:

Abstract: As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

This paper is at http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n7/full/nn.3136.html, but you need a subscription (or £22) to view the full paper. There’s a Nature News piece (essentially a press release)  How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? By Mo Costandi at http://www.nature.com/news/how-the-brain-views-race-1.10886 (Costandi, 2012), with quotes from Liz Phelps, one of the authors, where I think most of the later press stuff came from. The original paper is a review of other research which suggests that the regions of the brain involved in making decisions about the race of a person overlap with the regions of the brain involved in emotion: “there’s a network of brain regions that is consistently activated in neuroimaging studies of race processing. This network overlaps with the circuits involved in decision-making and emotion regulation, and includes the amygdala, fusiform face area (FFA), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” (Constandi, 2012)

Yes, so?

Well, there’s a background in “the implicit association task, which measures initial, evaluative responses. It involves asking people to pair concepts such as black and white with concepts like good and bad. What you find is that most white Americans take longer to make a response that pairs black with good and white with bad than vice versa. This reveals their implicit preferences” (Constandi, 2012). This is a pretty well-known finding in psychology now, and implicit association measures are used quite a lot (including studies I find very unconvincing about whether people present their ‘true selves’ online – but that should be another post). Phelps mentions a 2000 study which showed a link between this kind of implicit preference measure with the brain areas mentioned above. Constandi doesn’t reference it, but it must be a paper in J Cognitive Neuroscience titled Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation by Elizabeth Phelps & six others (Phelps & al, 2000):

Abstract: We used fMRI to explore the neural substrates involved in the unconscious evaluation of Black and White social groups. Specifically, we focused on the amygdala, a subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation. In Experiment 1, White American subjects observed faces of unfamiliar Black and White males. The strength of amygdala activation to Black-versus-White faces was correlated with two indirect (unconscious) measures of race evaluation (Implicit Association Test [IAT] and potentiated startle), but not with the direct (conscious) expression of race attitudes. In Experiment 2, these patterns were not obtained when the stimulus faces belonged to familiar and positively regarded Black and White individuals. Together, these results suggest that amygdala and behavioral responses to Black-versus-White faces in White subjects reflect cultural evaluations of social groups modified by individual experience.

As far as I can make out, the 2012 paper is reviewing a number of similar stories, which show that a) Whites may show (not consciously recognised) prejudice against Blacks, and b) emotion-relevant areas of the brain show activity when they’re doing that. Phelps suggests in the Constandi interview that some of this activity might be related to resolving (presumably unconscious) conflicts which arise when ‘right-thinking’ people feel stirrings of racial prejudice. This might fit with those good old 70s social psychology ideas of cognitive dissonance (someone must have done a fMRI study of cognitive dissonance, surely? I’d like to hear of it, if they have). So, overall, this looks like studies which sort-of, more-or-less, probably (remember that fMRI isn’t very precise, and there are a lot of calculations and assumptions that go into those nice coloured brain pictures) relate brain activity to psychological processes which we already have a pretty good knowledge of: interesting, but not very surprising.

But if it’s in the brain, it’s much more significant than if it’s in the behaviour, or so the Mail (and lots of others) think, so evidence about racism in the brain is more convincing than evidence from what we do. In the press release, Phelps points out that we already know that’s there’s lots of evidence of unintentional (or implicit) bias against African-Americans in US society. The way the research should process, she says, is: “We need to investigate how our implicit preferences are linked to the choices and decisions we make. We want to use this knowledge to reduce the unintended consequences of race bias — the things we do that aren’t consistent with our beliefs.” (Constandi, 2012). The title of the Nature News piece is How the Brain Sees Race, which doesn’t seem to reflect the piece well, but it gets worse when translated by the Daily Mail:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh (at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2164844/Racism-hardwired-human-brain–people-racists-knowing-it.html)

If you take the specific points made in the headline and subheads, and number them:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain (1) – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it (2)
Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions (3); Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes (4); Racism operates below the conscious level (5),
then four out of the five are not unreasonable (well, 3 is a bit dodgy: what do you mean by ‘judge’, here – and who decided that ‘judging’ was the most significant interaction between cultures?) – it’s just the big ‘hardwired’ headline that comes out of nowhere. 2 and 5 say the same thing, and are only slightly different from 4, but that’s just sloppy sub-editing. But ‘hardwired racism’ is what sticks in perceptions of the article: when I was searching for more information for this post, I found lots of repeats of the Mail headline in other newspapers and posts around the world, and it seems to have been preferred to the headline that Nature News used.

A bit further down, the Mail claims: “Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.” It then goes on with quite a lot of quotes from Phelps which aren’t the same as the ones in the Nature News piece (as I’ve noted previously, newspaper quotes about science stories are often taken straight from PR material, so credit to the Mail for doing that – though you’ll see below that they didn’t research the story completely), but were quotes from the original paper – which seem to fit with the story I’ve given above, and with the Nature News piece (she goes on a bit more about the social importance of research like this in these quotes than in the Nature News piece), and not with the beginning of the article. A couple of years ago, when I got one of my classes to review psychology stories in the press, they often found that the main story was reasonably accurate and informative, but the headline and opening often distorted the story considerably, and they noted that this happened quite a lot with the Mail.

What made this story interesting to me was that Elizabeth Phelps and the other authors took the trouble to repudiate the false message of the Mail story. They wrote to The Guardian in response to a Guardian article also criticising the Mail’s version. Maybe they wrote to the Mail too, but I can’t find any hint of that on the Mail’s page for the article. It’s worth giving their letter  in full:

As the authors of the recent Nature Neuroscience article on the neuroscience of race, we would like to express our gratitude for the Guardian’s critique of an article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain”. The Guardian’s response, by Richard Seymour (Comment is free, 27 June), is an accurate and responsible representation of the review article. Although the content of the Mail’s article consisted of quotes from the original piece, the paper did not contact the researchers for comment on the scientific conclusions. The sensational title that the Daily Mail selected not only misrepresents the science, but is also damaging for intergroup relations. By using the word “hardwired” the Mail title implies that racism is innate.
As the Guardian article accurately cites, race attitudes are largely culturally determined and shift over time. It is our opinion that the Daily Mail’s title was irresponsible and we applaud the Guardian’s efforts to stand with the scientists and accurately represent research.
Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Phelps  New York University

(this is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/02/mail-race-nature-neuroscience, and The Guardian article by Richard Seymour is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/what-racism-hardwired-headline-daily-mail

Right on, Jeni, Mahzarin and Liz.

The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ part starts here

In looking for material online about this research, I came across stuff which makes the Mail’s version look reasonable and balanced.

Here’s a blog headline and opening:

Jewish Scientist Nears Physical Cure For ‘White Racism.’ A Nanotechnology Lobotomy?

Time is running out for a white race already brainwashed into accepting, even welcoming their own fate.
‘Racism’ will be cured by future proceedures such as nano-tech operations to lobotomise areas of the brain as well as to alter DNA to ‘breed out’ the ability to discriminate within the white brain:
“Racism, says a leading Jewish scientist, “is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people (Ed: in the terms of political correctness this means whites) can be prejudiced without knowing it.” Says Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University. [I can’t find this quote from Phelps elsewhere: I think it’s probably constructed from the Mail headline]

I originally found this in the Our Weapon is Truth blog, posted on June 27, but then I found exactly the same stuff (including the missing double quote the third para) in Pragmatic Witness, posted on June 28, and Endzog, possibly the original source, posted on June 26. I wish my stuff was picked up and recirculated so quickly. The Weapon is Truth URL is http://beautifulnightmare-killumbus.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/jewish-scientist-nears-physical-cure.html – but you don’t have to go there: I read this stuff so you don’t have to.
I think the ‘wiping out the white race’ logic is that if we reduce white racism, then whites will inevitably be overwhelmed by other races (because the other races are innately superior?), or maybe ‘whiteness’ will be bred out of the world through miscegenation. The piece somewhat over-interprets Phelp’s quotes, I think:

In a sentence which betrays the plan to alter the human genome and the brain of individuals Dr Phelps says that “The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways, and the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.”

Sorry, run that by me again? I’m always striving for ‘fresh ways of thinking’ in myself and others – but I hadn’t thought of trying altering genomes or nano-surgery. Nano-surgery? Here’s how it will work:

Here is such an application in development. One day, created to mimic bacteria and attuned to eat away fixed portions of the brain before dissolving, it could be dispensed through a tablet to offending schoolchildren or thought-criminals like Emma West or having been genetically engineered to target Caucasians, perhaps even released into the water supply in short bursts:

(Emma West is the drunk-racist-abuse-on-tram person: I had to look that up)

Don’t worry guys: we haven’t discovered the hardwired centre of racism in the brain, the kind of tumour-attacking nanotechnology described in the video wouldn’t work for ‘eating away’ the racism centre (though if you could find a racism neurotransmitter, I can imagine that it might be possible to nanofocus on that), and I can’t begin to imagine how you could alter the human genome to affect any of this (to move some bits of the brain away from others?) even less what Kotaba & al’s research has got to do with that. The ‘white race’ (whatever that is) is still safe.

OK, these people are fruitcakes, and what they say doesn’t make sense – but the kind of thing the Mail headline writers do (thoughtlessly, maybe, when it comes to science stories) gives them something to lever against. So I wish the Mail would be more thoughtful (and accurate) in how it headlines psychology research.

On the other hand, there’s no guarding against delusion: who’d have thought that the National Cancer Institute’s syrupy cancer-busting nanotechnology promotion would have inspired fantasies of eating away schoolchildren’s brains?

References
Constandi, Mo (2012) How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? Nature News, 26 June 2012
At http://www.nature.com/news/how-the-brain-views-race-1.10886

Kubota, Jennifer T, Banaji, Mahzarin R & Phelps Elizabeth A (2012) The neuroscience of race Nature Neuroscience 15, 940–948
At http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n7/full/nn.3136.html

Phelps, Elizabeth A., O’Connor, Kevin J., Cunningham, William A., Funayama, E. Sumie, Gatenby, J. Christopher, Gore, John C. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. (2000) Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(5), 729–738
at http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/cunningham/pdf/phelps.jocn.2000.pdf

Phelps, Elizabeth A. & Thomas, Laura A. (2003) Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors Political Psychology 24(4), 747-758
At http://www.psych.nyu.edu/phelpslab/papers/03_PP_V24No4.pdf

You Are Not a Gadget: Jaron Lanier on Technology and Personhood

Saw Jaron Lanier on Newsnight last night, adding some sensible wider persepectives to a debate on ways of filtering internet porn, and was reminded of how interesting his ideas have been over the last twenty years or so.

Lanier is a virtual reality programmer and internet activist from way back. He looks like a dreadlocked Buddha (on Newsnight like a dreadlocked Buddha who has let himself go a bit), but that shouldn’t undermine his authority (actually, for me, it probably enhances it).

His recent (2010, 2011) book You Are Not a Gadget (here’s the book on Amazon.uk*)is a fascinating discussion of the social and philosophical implications of the particular ways we have chosen to structure computer systems. The basic idea is that particularly successful systems, like the World Wide Web, the mouse and windows interface, MIDI, and the UNIX operating system, both structure our reality and lock us in to those systems, pre-empting other ways of doing things (and therefore pre-empting other ways of thinking about things – and maybe pre-empting other ways of being) . The installed base/lock-in problem isn’t a new phenomenon which appeared with computing. Other examples are the qwerty typewriter/keyboard layout (did you know it was originally designed to slow down typing, but repeated attempts to introduce faster, easier-to-use systems have been complete failures – because too many people know how to do it the qwerty way?), and the steering wheel/two or three pedals way of controlling motor vehicles (actually, probably quite a good system, from what we know about multi-tasking, but probably the result of a few technological accidents 100+ years ago). These things aren’t just technology and design issues, though: they can have psychological and social implications, which is why I’m discussing his book here. One section is headed “Digital Reification: Lock-in Turns Philosophy into Reality”, which sums up the starting idea of the book well, I think.

Here’s Lanier’s opening statement about the book:

You Are Not a Gadget argues that certain specific, popular Internet designs of the moment – not the Internet as a whole – tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more orientated towards treating people as relays in a global brain. De-emphasising personhood, and the intrinsic value of an individual’s unique internal experience and creativity, leads to all sorts of maladies, many of which are explored in these pages. While the core argument might be described as “spiritual,” there are also profound political and economic implications.
p. x

And here’s something about the mechanisms of how it affects us:

The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people
When I work with experimental digital gadgets, like new variations on virtual reality, in a lab environment, I’m always reminded of how small changes in the details of the digital design can profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it. The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use the button can sometimes completely altered behaviour patterns.
For instance, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that changing the height of one’s avatar in immersive virtual reality transforms self-esteem and social self-perception. [Here’s the publications page at Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford: interesting stuff. Specific refs at ** below] Technologies are extensions of ourselves, and, like the avatars in Jeremy’s lab, our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets. It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.
One might ask, “If I am blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, how does that change who I am?” or “if the ‘hive mind’ is my audience, who am I?” Inventors of digital technologies are like stand-up comedians or neurosurgeons, in that our work resonates with the philosophical questions; unfortunately, we’ve proven to be poor philosophers lately.
When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an Internet service that is edited by vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.
Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.
“What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a passive formula, but the quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.
Pp. 4-5

Now, I guess I might disagree with Lanier in believing that a random crowd of humans does have a legitimate point of view, at least a legitimate artistic/aesthetic point of view, as I argued in talking about the evolutionary view of traditional music, and so I’d go for more of a dialectic between the social/individual, because “inspiring individual intelligence” also seems a good idea. Lanier isn’t a swivel-eyed individualist, though:

A happy surprise
The rise of the web was a rare instance when we learned new, positive information about human potential. Who would have guessed (at least at first) that millions of people would put so much effort into a project without the presence of advertising, commercial motive, threat of punishment, charismatic figures, identity politics, exploitation of the fear of death, or any of the other classic motivators of mankind. In vast numbers, people did something cooperatively solely because it was a good idea, and it was beautiful.
Some of the more wild-eyed eccentrics in the digital world and guessed it would happen – but even so it was a shock when it actually did come to pass. It turns out that even an optimistic, idealistic philosophy is realisable. Put a happy philosophy of life in software, and it might very well come true!
p14

It’s an interesting book. You might want to read it.

Lanier, Jaron (2010, 2011) You Are Not a Gadget: a manifesto Alfred Knopf, 2010; Penguin Books, 2011 (‘with updated material’)

*Remember that you shouldn’t really be buying stuff from Amazon UK unless you’re a citizen of Luxembourg, where they pay their taxes.

**Yee, N. & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290.

Yee, N. Bailenson, J.N. & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research, 36(2), 285-312. http://www.stanford.edu/~bailenso/papers/Proteus%20Implications.pdf

Here’s Nick Yee’s 2007 Doctoral Dissertation The Proteus Effect, which describes a range of similar effects: http://www.visuality.org/genderandtechnoculture/wmst320_readings/proteuseffect_Dissertation_Nick_Yee.pdf

Warning: if you read this post, your hard disk will be wiped and all the sweet fluffy kittens within a two mile radius will die horribly!!!!!!

This warning was issued by Microsoft* this morning… you know the rest.

BUT we should take these warnings seriously – because they are themselves viruses which are evolving and spreading through our systems and our minds.
Another post about some kind of evolution; I’ll stop after this one.

This post is a summary of a paper presented {sometime} at {some conference or other} that I went to. I think the 1998 IRISS conference in Bristol, but I’m not sure. I don’t know who presented it either. If anyone knows, please tell me, so I can credit them properly, because it was a great presentation.

Generally, people know that paedophiles aren’t harvesting baby pictures from Facebook, or watching YouTube videos doesn’t allow Russian gangsters access to your building society account – but the dreadful warnings keep coming. Why do these memes do so well?

Generally humans, because of sophisticated but fallible information transmission systems (talking and singing), are good vehicles for meme evolution. That’s how traditional music works, after all (see last post). The world of blogs and Twitter is a competitive memeocracy, after all, but there’s some information or aesthetic gain there. What makes the useless, stupid virus warnings viable? They are alive and well out there: I glimpse one passing through my patch of the Facebook jungle about once a month.

The case presented at the conference was: they’ve got access to mechanisms for rapid multiplication and transmission, so they can quickly reproduce themselves millions of times to allow for very high fatality rates (like oceanic fish); they have very low energy needs (copy and paste or a click on ‘share’ is all they need to survive) and (and this is the bit I liked) they have a mutation mechanism to provide the variation they need for evolution. Although the lowest-energy form of reproduction is to pass them on directly, people find it difficult to do that without changing something: removing new lines, changing the spelling, adding or removing exclamation marks…..

Compare these versions of the ‘Budweiser Frogs’ virus warning:

URGENT READ IMMEDIATELY. NOT A JOKE!! READ IMMEDIATELY AND PASS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW! Someone is sending out a very cute screensaver of the Budweiser Frogs. If you download it, you will lose everything! Your hard drive will crash and someone from the Internet will get your screen name and password! DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! It just went into circulation yesterday. Please distribute this message. This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people know about it. This information was announced yesterday morning from Microsoft. Please share it with everyone that might access the Internet. Once again, Pass This on Please!!!!!!

Subject: READ IMMEDIATLY AND PLEASE CIRCULATE
NO JOKE…
READ AND PASS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW Someone is sending out a very cute screensaver of the Budweiser Frogs.
If you download it, you will lose everything! Your hard drive will crash and someone from the Internet will get your screen name and password! DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!
It just went into circulation yesterday. Please distribute this message.This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people know about it. This information was announced yesterday morning from Microsoft. Please share it with everyone that might access the Internet.
Press the forward button on your email program and send this notice to EVERYONE you know.
Let’s keep our email safe for everyone

Both these examples from http://www.hoax-slayer.com/budweiser-frogs.html: thanks.

No, you may never have heard of the Budweiser frogs: it was a long time ago. But that’s the thing about these parasites; they can evolve and change their hosts. The same warning will appear linked to the Jimmy Carr sex tape, when it emerges.

It’s difficult to resist the tamper urge. I deliberately didn’t insert the missing space in the second example, but I did reformat it a bit to fit the layout of this blog. Of course. That’s what you do.

I guess/hope someone is studying these things systematically, but I couldn’t find anything in a quick search. Please let me know if you know of any research.

It’s not just the reproductive mechanism, of course: there’s information content as well, which is probably where they adapt, through random editing and evolve into currently viable forms.  These messages show who we’re afraid of: paedophiles, communists, Russian gangsters, your future employer, council snoopers – or just ’someone from the Internet’. In content, these warnings are related to urban folktales. One explanation for urban folktales is that they express our hidden fears. In this case, distrust of technology, and the uneasy feeling that people out there can reach out and fiddle with your computer without you knowing (Microsoft messes with my computer while I’m asleep: I got a warning from them this morning).

Urban folktales are very adaptable: stories like The Twopenny Lean, The Phantom Hitchhiker, The Holland Handkerchief, The Fatal Hairdo, The Rich Beggar go on from generation to generation and get changed according to social conditions and fashions. I first heard The Fatal Hairdo about a beehive hairdo (about 1960-65), but it only took that form for a few years before it moved on. If you don’t know about these, http://www.snopes.com/ is a good source, or a series of books by Jan Harold Brunvand. His homepage is at http://www.janbrunvand.com/

There must be must be some online versions by now: an email which mysteriously arrives with a request to pass it on to the sender’s mother, which turns out to have been sent (from an IP address that doesn’t exist) by someone who died just a year before, or a Facebook account which was mysteriously wiped at the exact moment the tsunami hit (yes, I know neither of these really make technical sense, but that’s not important: neither does The Fatal Hairdo). If anyone knows any of these, I’d love to hear them. I’ve heard the one about the real origin of the term ‘bug’. Snopes.com has a few examples of scams and warnings, but no real social media ones.

Of course, there’s always the one about video games rewiring our kid’s brains.

*Why never Apple? Is it because the folks at Apple are too cool to care about those kittens?

How does music evolve?

Two questions about music and evolution. How did humans evolve to be musical? (last post) How does music evolve? (below)

 Warning: this starts with interesting stuff about the psychology of music and evolutionary mechanisms applied to non-biological systems, but then drifts off into quite a lot about traditional music.

An experimental demonstration of how random sounds can evolve into something that seems quite musical by means of human selection. Here’s an intro to the project on Psypost: http://www.psypost.org/2012/06/on-the-origin-of-music-by-means-of-natural-selection-12336

It’s more fully written up in the paper: Evolution of music by public choice by MacCallum, Mauch, Burta, and Leroia of Imperial College London and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tsukuba, Japan at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/06/12/1203182109.full.pdf

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in 2012. Here’s their abstract:

Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms. Later, however, evolution slowed. Applying the Price equation, a general description of evolutionary processes, we found that this stasis was mostly attributable to a decrease in the fidelity of transmission. Our experiment shows how cultural dynamics can be explained in terms of competing evolutionary forces.

You can find examples of the evolved music at http://darwintunes.org/ where they’ve now got up to 3,500 generations, and you can also take part in the study. The ‘selective influence’ is just asking people to rate the clips – do they like them or not? The ‘sexual reproduction’ is done by splitting and mixing the clips with each other to simulate chromosome mixing (sex is good for mixing up genes), and the ‘mutation’ is introducing a bit of random variation. So that looks like a nice model of reproductive selection, and what comes out sounds more and more like music as you go down the generations. In fact, there may even be new species evolving: a tweet today says: “Amazing stuff on the main channel right now – a whole new phenotype has emerged – inter-loop chord changes and more!” (Yes, you can follow them on twitter at darwintunes).

Well, that’s fascinating and fun but as an old folky I thought ‘Duh!: I thought everyone knew that music evolved.’ A long established theory of the development of traditional music is one of evolution with variation provided by imperfect recall and bits of musical innovation, and selection provided by people’s preference for what they would like to hear and play again, or maybe just by what sticks in memory.

Here’s the definition from the International Folk Music Council (no, I didn’t know there was one of those, either) in 1954:

..folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been involved in the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are i) continuity which links the present with the past; ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or group; iii) selection by the community, which determines the form of forms in which the music survives. (Quoted in Lloyd 1975, p15)

Cecil Sharp said much the same kind of thing in 1920:

…the most typical qualities of the folk-song have been laboriously acquired during its journey down the ages, in the course of which its individual angles and irregularities have been rounded and smoothed away just as the pebble on the seashore has been rounded by the action of the waves; that the suggestions, unconsciously made by individual singers, have at every stage of the evolution of the folk-song been weighed and tested by the community, and accepted or rejected by their verdict; and the life history of the folk-song has been one of continuous growth and development, always tending to approximate the form which should be at once congenial to the taste of the community, and expressive of its feelings, aspirations, and ideals. (p. viii)

Sharp was looking it from the point of view of National Song. Lloyd, a Marxist, uses a different framework:

..the formulation is valuable for its clear suggestion of the vital dialectic of folksong creation, that is, the perpetual struggle for synthesis between the collective and individual, between tradition and innovation, between what is received from the community and what is supplied out of personal fantasy, in short, the blending of continuity and variation. (Lloyd, 1975, p16).

Gerould points out in The Ballad of Tradition (1932, 1957) that this process can also produce a range of equally admirable (in his terms: equally viable, for the evolutionary argument) variants. He does want to bring artistic judgement and ability into it:

the existence of many variants, both melodic and contextual, which are manifestly not due to haphazard, undirected substitution for what has been forgotten shows a widespread power of musical and poetic expression (p183)

…and I guess that’s fair enough. What Mississippi John Hurt or Harry Cox brought to the tradition is probably a step which goes beyond natural selection.

It also seems to me that the biological idea of hybrid vigour is shown when different musical traditions cross: what happened when Scotch-Irish ballads met African-derived music in the Appalachians*, or Toumani Daibaté (and others) combining the power of West African classical music with other traditions**.

A nice modern summary comes from the blogger The Irate Pirate in a post on his Wrath of the Grapevine blog (http://grapewrath.blogspot.co.uk/2009_03_01_archive.html, 2009)

Like most musics, I suppose, the more you listen to folk music the more you develop a taste for it. But part of the fascination that’s particular to folk music is that you’ll hear bits and pieces of one song that you could have sworn you heard in a completely different song. And you’d be right. Because folk music is an evolved music, and like humans & chimpanzees, there are uncanny similarities lurking just below the surface that point to some invisible, unknowable ancestral precedent. And, like all things subject to evolution by natural selection, the essential parts are maintained and the extraneous, inconsequential bits fall aside. What this means in terms of folk music, particularly these old traditional ballads, is that while a song may be quirky and seemingly obtuse, at some level (often a non-conscious, irrational level), the song is deeply meaningful and helps people to negotiate the trials and uncertainties of this muddled mortal existence.

And, of course, since folksong-evolution is an organic process in an oral tradition, sometimes bits and pieces get lost along the way and we’re left with only fragments (you could say this too is a product of natural selection: the part that remains is that which is most memorable). And since it is sung by people who weren’t professional musicians, it had to relate to things that everyday people could relate to, rather than abstruse musical concepts and the self-indulgent wankery that professional artists are susceptible to. The universal subjects are thus revealed: love, death, nature, heartbreak, childhood, remorse, dream/spiritual encounters, and leaving home. These themes can be found recurring in folk music and most great narrative art across time, from Homer to Shakespeare to Stan Brackage. It’s as if these subjects keep coming back because they’re the moments in our lives that stay with us, and we need songs & stories like these to help mark those moments and distill meaning from them.

So, the process that produced the Lowlands of Holland or the Leaves of Life is rather similar to the process that produced the cheetah or the kingfisher (and the warthog and the platypus, to be fair). It’s not surprising that traditional music is so good.

References
GeroulD, G.H. (1932, 1957) The Ballad of Tradition London: Galaxy, OUP

Lloyd, A.L. (1975) Folk Song in England St Albans: Paladin (orig. publ. Lawrence & Wishart, 1967

MacCallum, Robert M, Matthias Mauch, Austin Burt, & Armand M. Leroi (2012) Evolution of music by public choice, PNAS, no paper version yet
Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/06/12/1203182109.full.pdf

Sharpe, Cecil (1920) English Folk Songs, 2nd ed Novello; London

* Here’s Clarence Ashley doing CooCoo bird (music doesn’t start until 3.30):

**TD with the AfroCubism band:

..and playing Cantelowes:

How did humans evolve to be musical?

I just came across interesting stuff relating to two questions about music and evolution. How did humans evolve to be musical? and How does music evolve?

For this post: How did humans evolve to be musical?

There’s a paper by Geoffrey Miller (no relation) Evolution of human music through sexual selection (ftp://ftp.repec.org/RePEc/els/esrcls/draftfin.pdf), which works through the idea being musical and producing music might give the mating advantage, and so evolve through sexual selection.

One thing I like about this paper is that it carefully works through the mechanisms and criteria for thinking that of behaviour or characteristic can be evolutionarily selected, rather than just making up a sort-of convincing story that some characteristic could be a mating advantage and leaving it at that. It does give you a sort-of convincing story as well:

Consider Jimi Hendrix, for example. This rock guitarist extraordinaire died at the age of27 in 1970, overdosing on the drugs he used to fire his musical imagination. His music output, three studio albums and hundreds of live concerts, did him no survival favours. But he did have sexual liaisons with hundreds of groupies, maintained parallel longterm relationships with at least two women, and fathered at least three children in the U.S., Germany, and Sweden. Under ancestral conditions before birth control, he would have fathered many more. Hendrix’s genes for musical talent probably doubled their frequency in a single generation, through the power of attracting opposite-sex admirers. As Darwin realized, music’s aesthetic and emotional power, far from indicating a transcendental origin, point to a sexual-selection origin, where too much is neverenough. Our ancestral hominid-Hendrixes could never say, “OK, our music’s good enough, we can stop now”, because they were competing with all the hominid-Eric-Claptons, hominid-Jerry-Garcias, and hominid-John-Lennons. The aesthetic and emotional power of music is exactly what we would expect from sexual selection’s arms race to impress minds like ours.

…which is great, but he then goes on to carefully work through the mechanisms of selection to build up quite a convincing argument. He also points out that Darwin suggested much the same idea, though it wasn’t taken up in mainstream evolutionary thought.

It’s quite a long and detailed paper, but I think well worth reading, if only as an example of careful thought that I think is often missing in evolutionary psychology. There’s also a bit later on which I found fascinating about possible runaway effects in sexual selection – the kind of thing which leads to hyper exaggerated characteristics which don’t seem very adaptive, like the enormous antlers of the Irish elk or the peacock’s ludicrous tail. You may be able to think of human equivalents. Miller cites mathematical models for the effect, and notes: “Only when the courtship trait’s survival costs became very high might the runaway effect reach an asymptote.”

The power of the runaway theory is that it can explain the extremity of sexual selection’s outcomes: how species get caught up in an endless arms race between unfulfillable sexual demands and irresistible sexual displays. Most relevant for us, the preferences involved need not be cold-blooded assessments of a mate’s virtues, but can be deep emotions or lofty cognitions. Any psychological mechanism used in mate choice is vulnerable to this runaway effect, which makes not only the displays that it favors more extreme, but makes the emotions and cognitions themselves more compelling. Against the claim that evolution could never explain music’s power to emotionally move and spiritually inspire, the runaway theory says: any emotional or spiritual preferences that influence mate choice, no matter how extreme or subjectively overwhelming, are possible outcomes of sexual selection (cf. Dissanayake, 1992). If music that emotionally moves or spiritually inspires tended to sexually attract as well, over ancestral time, then sexual selection can explain music’s appeal at every level.

Although I’m usually very suspicious of evolutionary explanations of psychological phenomena (mainly because they often seem to me to be based on sloppy evolutionary theory), I think Miller makes a good case. There is one thing that worries me, though. The explanation is based on the mate selection, which is Miller says is primarily females selecting males. The peacock and Irish elk examples show characteristics developed in males than females. So this looks like an explanation for why human males develop musicality and the ability to produce music, while human females need only develop musicality – the ability to appreciate the music that males are producing to improve their chances of being selected. So where’s the explanation for women’s musical skills? Many of my favourite musicians, and most of my favourite singers, are women. Is this musical skill an epiphenomenon? Just a matter of gene leakage from the male-selected characteristic?

The other question is how does music evolve? See the next post for that.

Reference:
Miller, G. F. (2000). Evolution of human music through sexual selection. In N. L. Wallin, B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.), The Origins of Music, MIT Press.

Scientists find excuse for Comic Sans!*

Just found out about an interesting piece of research on the effects of making things difficult to read on learning:

Diemand-Yauman, Connor, Daniel M. Oppenheimer & Erikka B. Vaughan. (2011) Fortune favors the bold (and the italic): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118 (1),111-115
(at http://web.princeton.edu/sites/opplab/papers/diemand-yauman_oppenheimer_2010.pdf in a pre-print form)

Abstract: Previous research has shown that disfluency – the subjective experience of difficulty associated with cognitive operations – leads to deeper processing. Two studies explore the extent to which this deeper processing engendered by disfluency interventions can lead to improved memory performance. Study 1 found that information in hard-to-read fonts was better remembered than easier to read information in a controlled laboratory setting. Study 2 extended this finding to high school classrooms. The results suggest that superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes.

The lab study used Comic Sans and Bodoni Italic in a smaller size (12pt) and 60% grey compared with 16pt Arial in full black, and tested recall of fairly simple facts. The school study used teachers’ own existing learning materials – worksheets and PowerPoint slides – and used two classes for each teacher to give a per-teacher control (there was a good effort to make the study ecologically valid).  “The fonts of the learning material in the disfluent condition were either changed to Haettenschweiler [a heavy Gothicy font], Corsiva [light and flowing script-style] or Comic Sans italics [ugh], if the material was on PowerPoint, or were copied disfluently (by moving the paper up and down during copying) when electronic documents were unavailable.” I don’t quite understand the last bit – motion-smeary photocopies?

The children who had the disfluent presentations scored better in “exams”/”classroom tests” (I think these mean the same: no details of the tests are given ) in English (at various levels), Physics (at various levels) and History, but not in Chemistry. There weren’t significant differences between the disfluent fonts.

Diemand-Yauman & al conclude:

This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read. While disfluency appears to operate as a desirable difficulty, presumably engendering deeper processing strategies (c.f. Alter et al., 2007), the effect is driven by a surface feature that prima facie has nothing to do with semantic processing.

Interesting – and suggests that all the effort I put into my PowerPoints – allowing room for uncrowded text and reasonable point sizes, breaking lines for meaning, trying to find simple, clear, sentence structures….  – might be wasted or counterproductive. It’s worth noting that D-Y&Al were careful to avoid illegibility. They just wanted to add some slight difficulty, and they speculate that the disfluency effect might be U-shaped, and so interfere with learning at higher levels of disfluency.

I picked this up from an article by Matha Gill (a distant relative of Eric Gill, she points iout) in New Statesman. Thanks Martha. The article is headed How Comic Sans got useful. Useful maybe; acceptable, no. In particular, anyone who uses Comic Sans to suggest anything to do with children and their writing should have to read Finnegan’s Wake in condensed Haettenschweiler, or better still Wingdings – and take a test on the content.  That’s what I’d call disfluency.

*There is no excuse for Comic Sans

This is one of those cases, like  Rind, Tromovich & Bauserman (1998), discussed in Garrison & Kobor (2002) [this is a Schools of Thought reference], where science has come up with an unacceptable result.

References:
Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. (2007). Overcoming intuition: Metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136(4), 569–576.

Diemand-Yauman, Connor, Daniel M. Oppenheimer & Erikka B. Vaughan. (2011) Fortune favors the bold (and the italic): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118 (1),111-115

Garrison, Ellen & Kobor, Patricia (2002) Weathering a Political Storm: a contextual perspective on a psychological research controversy American Psychologist57 (3), 165-175

Rind, Bruce, Tromovich, Philip & Bauserman, Robert (1998) A Meta-analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples Psychological Bulletin, 124 (1), 22-53

it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are

it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae… it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place

Lots of people have seen this, and it’s fun – but what does it really show?

It’s not actually true that it’s ‘Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy’, as some versions have it, but a researcher at Cambridge University (Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit) has been thinking about it, and published a fascinating page taking the meme apart:

http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/Cmabrigde/

This has versions in many languages: Hebrew, Czech, Russian, Icelandic…. (he’d like to know if it works in Thai or Chinese). It does vary from language to language; it’s fine in French and Spanish (even I, with basic French and very little Spanish, can read it), but apparently not in Hebrew (no vowels) or Finnish (long complex words, and all those vowels can pile up a bit).

Davis has traced some previous research by Graham Rawlinson in 1976, and also shows that the ‘first and last letters’ thing doesn’t necessarily work, even in English, and goes on to take apart the standard version, relating to what we know about reading, to demonstrate that the usual example is quite carefully tailored to be easier than many other passages in English might be.

A fascinating bit of real-life, non-anglocentric research, and then applying standard theories about reading to a unconventional example. Would be the basis of a good theories-of-reading lecture, I think. I don’t teach cognitive psych any more, but it could be an idea for someone else. Thanks, Matt.

(….and also thanks to Bart van Leeuwen who posted the link in the middle of a fairly heated argument about proper spelling and punctuation on a photography discussion group – no, I can’t understand how that got started, either — well, actually, if you know what discussion groups are like sometimes, you can understand it.)

My typing is awful, and I make many mistakes, often reversing the order of letters if one is right-handed (-fingered, actually) and one left-handed. I’ve gone back through this post correcting those errors, as usual, but I need not hvae btoherd, raelly.