Category Archives: brain

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still increasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

Darwinian domain-generality

Subtitle: The role of evolutionary psychology in the modularity debate. MA thesis (2017) by Michael Lundie, Georgia State University. The abstract:

“Evolutionary Psychology (EP) tends to be associated with a Massively Modular (MM) cognitive architecture. I argue that EP favors a non-MM cognitive architecture. The main point of dispute is whether central cognition, such as abstract reasoning, exhibits domain-general properties. Partisans of EP argue that domain-specific modules govern central cognition, for it is unclear how the cognitive mind could have evolved domain-generality. In response, I defend a distinction between exogenous and endogenous selection pressures, according to which exogenous pressures tend to select for domain-specificity, whereas the latter, endogenous pressures, select in favor of domain-generality. I draw on models from brain network theory to motivate this distinction, and also to establish that a domain-general, non-MM cognitive architecture is the more parsimonious adaptive solution to endogenous pressures.”

The geometry of space

Following up on this cogsci article, this new article in Nautilus supports the previous work about how spatial motor schemas extend into abstract conceptual mapping. Excerpts:

“We, unlike our computers, represent information in geometrical space.[…] The brain represents concepts in the same way that it represents space and your location, by using the same neural circuitry for the brain’s ‘inner GPS.’ […] The hippocampus’ place and grid cells, in other words, map not only physical space but conceptual space. It appears that our representation of objects and concepts is very tightly linked with our representation of space.”

“One of the ways these cognitive spaces can benefit our behavior is when we encounter something we have never seen before. Based on the features of the new object we can position it in our cognitive space. We can then use our old knowledge to infer how to behave in this novel situation. […] Cognitive spaces are a domain-general format for human thinking, an overarching framework.”

General and specific-domain contributions to creativity

From this article in Europe’s Journal of Psychology (2016).

“The general objective of this study was to reexamine two views of creativity, one positing that there is a general creative capacity or talent and the other that creativity is domain-specific.  […] Multiple regressions uncovered particular relationships consistent with the view that creativity has both general and domain-specific contributions. Limitations, such as the focus on one domain, and future directions are discussed.”

Also see comments.

Consciousness goes deeper than you think

We’ve investigated Damasio‘s various forms of consciousness, from proto to core to narrative, as well as Dehaene‘s 2 forms. This Scientific American article reiterates at least the 2 different kinds.

“Jonathan Schooler has established a clear distinction between conscious and meta-conscious processes. Whereas both types entail the qualities of experience, meta-conscious processes also entail what he called re-representation. […] Attention plays an important role is in re-representation; that is, the conscious knowledge of an experience, which underlies introspection. Subjects cannot report—not even to themselves—experiences that aren’t re-represented. Nothing, however, stops conscious experience from occurring without re-representation. […] Clearly, the assumption that consciousness is limited to re-represented mental contents under the focus of attention mistakenly conflates meta-consciousness with consciousness proper.”

The Political Mind

By George Lakoff.  A copy can be found at here. An excerpt:

“One can see in scripts the link between frames and narratives.
Narratives are frames that tell a story. They have semantic roles,
properties of the role, relations among roles, and scenarios. What
makes it a narrative-a story-and not just a mere frame? A narrative
has a point to it, a moral. It is about how you should live
your life-or how you shouldn’t. It has emotional content: events
that make you sad or angry or in awe” (250).

The Cognitive Bias Codex

Many (all?) cognitive biases are built-in features of the human attention-sensation-perception-memory-cognition chain of sense making processes. It would not be surprising to learn many of these biases have effects that are relevant to questions regarding how natural selection shaped humans for particular embodied functions in a particular environment. Much has been said and written about how the pre-modern environment evolution calibrated us to function within is in many respects quite different from our modern environment.

Living in the future’s past

I watched a good documentary last night titled, Living in the Future’s Past, a project organized, produced, and narrated by Jeff Bridges. It’s available through your Albuquerque Public Library account’s access to Hoopla Digital, Amazon Prime video, and other services. It lays out the modern dilemma of having a pre-neolithic brain in a Neolithic era and posits several questions that align closely with the theme of our current discussion . The film has commentary from diverse scientific experts, including Daniel Goldman (emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness). The upshot is a recurring suggestion our current brain functionality is capable of reframing our perspective and modulating our perceptions and behaviors around carefully constructed focal questions that get at what sort of future(s) we desire. I like this approach—so well in fact that I Had reserved some web domains months ago:,,, and These domains are not active yet. They will relate to the novel I’m writing and to a related non-fiction project. Edward is onto an important approach in looking to semantics (framing, etc.).

Also, on a short-term level, cultural evolution (including language and semantics) appears much more potent a driver than physiological evolution. Given that, I recently purchased a book by an author who goes into great depth on cultural evolution. The book is Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, by Cecelia Heyes. I may put it forward for a future discussion.

The Neural Basis of Human prosocial behavior

A new Frontiers in Science ebook here. The blurb:

With the rise of laboratory and field experimental economics, the famous prisoner’s dilemma, public good, dictator, ultimatum, and trust games have become the classical paradigms of studying prosocial behavior. Due to the increasing use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) with human subjects playing economic games, the neural basis of prosocial behavior has been uncovered by a large amount of neural imaging and stimulating research. A wide range of brain areas including, but not limited to the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, striatum and amygdale have been revealed highly correlated or causally related with prosocial behaviors.

A number of hypotheses such as empathy, altruism, reciprocity, inequality aversion, or guilt aversion preferences have been considered as motives promoting prosocial behavior. However, the neural bases of these different preferences have seldom been revealed and the mechanisms of how these preferences influence prosocial behavior have rarely been discussed. Moreover, since prosocial behavior may be due to the cooperative work of several brain areas (neural network), it is essential to integrate findings from difference disciplines including psychology, economics, neuroscience, and to nearly all the social and behavioral sciences.

The present Research Topic of Frontiers in Psychology aims to bring a collection of research revealing the neural basis of human prosocial behavior. Interdisciplinary research investigating brain areas influencing prosocial behaviors is highly encouraged. We believe sharing relevant brain imaging and stimulation findings can promote a better understanding of neural basis of prosocial behavior.