Minds in the 21st century.

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Arthur C. Clarke's 1 law.

At the present rate of progress, it is almost impossible to imagine any technical feat that cannot be achieved - if it can be achieved at all - within the next few hundred years.

Arthur C. Clarke, 1983.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vain Brains

- How your brain distorts and deceives.

by Cordelia Fine.
Amazon review (4 out 5 stars). http://www.amazon.com/review/R3JB65N0GP1QSC/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm


Selfknowledge is a dangerous thing, as Cordelia Fine brilliantly demonstrates in this witty book about the vain human brain.

A group of students are asked to read one of two (fabricated) scientific articles. The first article claims that an extroverted personality helps people to achieve academic success. The second article, handed out to just as many students, claims instead that introverts tend to be more academically successfully.
What happens? I.e. Someone has just offered the students a glitering selfconcept that says - hey, I am going to make it in the world ...
So, whichever personality trait the students thought was the key to success, they rated themselves more highly as possessing [p 12].

That is how reasoning works in vain human brains. Sure, human reasoning is a very powerful tool, but -in vain human brains- certainly not a tool used in a crusade for truth.
No, in vain brains, reasoning is there to save us from truth!?
In vain human brains reason is a lawyer (that works for you).Evidence that supports your case is quickyly accepted. Evidence that threatens reasons most important client (i.e. you), is subjected to gruelling cross-examination. Accuracy and plausibility all come under attack, and the case is soon won.
A victory for justice and truth - Not really, as the only lawyer working in the courtroom was working for you!
The only people who actually come close to the truth about themselves, with a balanced balanced self perception, who assign responsibility for success and failure evenhanded
- are the clinically depressed. Selfknowledge is indeed a dangerous thing!

It is all part of our ''Terror Management System''. In a healthy vain brain it is the ''protective shield designed to control the potential terror that results from awareness of the horrifying possibility that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in meaningless universe, destined only to die and decay''.


And when our vain brains are not busy editing history,then our feelings are busy changing what the world actually looks like:

The book gives us another wonderful experiment to illustrate the point: A charming stooge enters a room where a volunteer is waiting, sporting a T-shirt from the volunteers university, and offers cookies all around. Another stooge, from a rival university, arrives late, and snaps at the volunteer.
Next, the stooges will begin to play TV tennis. Obviously... the volunteers sentiments towards the stooge bias what they see. Balls that were actually out, but hit by the amiable stooge,were called in - and vice versa. No agenda being served - either consciously or unconsciously - yet attitudes towards the stooges powerfully influenced what volunteers actually saw [p 43].

And apparently all of these feelings are necessary. In the rare cases where the prefrontal cortex succeeds in holding the emotions in a tight leash this leads to depersonalisation episodes. Where life is flat and disturbingly unreal. Music doesnt move anymore, people (spouse,children) becomes distant actors etc. One patient thought she would rather be dead than continue living like this.
// Btw. And the Cotard delusion is even worse. Where depersonalisationl eaves the world distant and unreal - The depersonalisation patientsmay feel as if they were dead - the Cotard patients may actually believe that they are dead. //

So, in the end, it might be our feelings that gifts us with our sense of self. No matter how trivial, they let us know that we are still alive.
Depersonalisation suggest that when the brain turns down the volumen on the emotions, our sense of self begins to slip away.


And the brain has more distortions coming our way. Finished with editing history and using feelings to distort reality the vain brain believes all sorts of weird stuff.

I.e The brain likes the ''just world hypothesis'': Our perception of a person is very sensitive to what (we think) will happen to that person next. If good things happens - then the person probably deserves it, and must be a good person - and vice versa. This hypothesis then obviously allows all sorts of horrors to take place without anyone intervening. According to the ''just world world hypothesis'' victims have only themselves to blame [p 61].

And obviously the clergy are no better than anyone else.
In yet another lovely experiment, divinity students are asked to preparesome thoughts on the Biblical story about the Good Samaritan. The researchers then manipulate the urgency of the students mission by telling them that they are late for their speaking assignment in another building. When the students set off to the other building for their speech, they encounter in the alleyway a coughing, distressed man asking for help. Obviously ... the students offer help if they think they have time to do so. But.... If the theologians have little time preparing that all important speech about the Good Samaritan, they would litterally step over the victim as they hurried on their way. Apparently, the brain thinks it is much better to speak about good deeds than doing them.
Especially if that makes the vain brain look better. Immoral?
Then lets proceed to the Milgram experiment, where two-thirds of ordinary men and women will obediently electrocute fellow human being, because a scientist in a lab coat tells them to do so. Cordelia Fine notes that the (vain) brains of her readers obviously are among the one third who would never do such a thing ....
Concerning mad human beliefs, Cordelia Fine concisely notes,that there simply arent enough psychiatrists around to cope.So the definition of a delusion has to be that it must be somewhat rare.

Our natural urge - our default position - is to believe. Afterall, people speak the truth more often than not. It is therefore more efficient to assume that things are true, unless we have reason to think otherwise. The problem is of course, if your brain is distracted or under pressure, you will tend to believe statements that you would normally find rather dubious.
So, sure everyone knows that we should ''consider the counter evidence''and ''entertain alternative hypotheses'' - but, the problem is, again, that the vain brain thinks that it is doing just that ... without spending time on it .....
And the brain is stuffed with stereotypes, ''black men are aggressive'', ''men are more dedicated workers than women'' etc. Why? (Because) A bigoted brain is an efficient brain. A brain unburdened by egalitarian concerns can decide quickly and move quickly to the next thing on the to do list. Sure, the speed comes at cost - mostly to others - of accuracy, particular when the schemas dont reflect reality.But with no time, motivation or mental resources the brain thinks it is the best solution.
Sure, sometimes it leads to very bad results. Take the ''black men are aggressive'' stereotype. Framing the mind in this way can obviously be bad for peaceful black men. Fine mentions the situation after the 2005 London bombing - where it was not a good idea for Londoners of ethnic origin to run after buses. Surely, one unlucky, innocent brazilian was gunned down by police officers with ''framed minds''.


Only mum can make people do a good job. Apparently, the only time when people are really doing a good jobi s when they are thinking ''I must do well, so that I can tell mum about this and make her proud of me''. In this lovely experiment - researchers have volunteers write down the sort of goals they have with respect to their mothers. Months later, the researchers prime the mother schema in some of the volunteers by asking questions about their mother. The unprimed volunteers were instead asked questions about themselves. Next all volunteers were asked to take a test: Volunteers who wanted to make their mothers proud and had their mother schema activated outperformed all other groups. It all happened unconsciously obviously, but when the ''make mother proud'' schema were initiated the volunteers worked really hard on the test.
Self control is somewhat tricky for the human brain -try not thinking about white bears for the next 5 minutes - but, if you want to make mother proud, apparently you can do it [p 167].

June 20th 2010

Simon Laub
http://www.simonlaub.dk/ http://www.simonlaub.net/

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