Category Archives: learning

New journal: Human Arenas

Linked here. The blurb:

The aim of this journal concerns the interdisciplinary study of higher psychological functions (as topic of a general theory of psyche from the perspective of cultural psychology) in human goal-oriented liminal phenomena in ordinary and extraordinary life conditions. The journal is organized around topics and arenas of human activity, rather than the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines. It will explore human arenas from the point of view of historical foundations, methodology, epistemology, and the intersection of disciplines. Human Arenas promotes an innovative mix of theoretical and empirical studies, as well as qualitative and quantitative approaches based on “small data,” that is, the analysis of crucial and meaningful data, rather than the inductive accumulation of large empirical “evidence.”

Topics of interest include:

·         Human arenas of movement (moving, changing, developing, crossing borders and horizons, utopia, crisis, resistance, schooling)

·         Human arenas of creation (imagining, fictionality, music, sensuality, drawing, dancing, playing, affectivating, anticipating, eating and cooking, loving, ambivalence)

·         Human arenas of regulation (religion, rituals, semiosis, constructing/destroying/deforming, killing, believing, caring, value, cultivating, dwelling, blocking/facilitating, inhibiting/promoting, coordinating collective action, ornamenting, voicing/silencing)

The journal itself is the arena for the development of theoretical foundations and empirical horizons of a general theory of human psyche, from a counter-hegemonic and peripheral perspective, meant to foster continuous dialogue with any kind of mainstream. The vision of the journal is to provide an interdisciplinary space for debate, in which psychology can learn from other disciplines, and other social and behavioral sciences (e.g. archeology, anthropology, biosemiotics, philosophy, medicine, natural sciences, ecology, humanomics, aesthetics, sociology, art, history, etc.) can learn from psychology. The journal will support the development of general formal models of human phenomena, also by reflecting upon processes of abduction, generalization and theorization.

how does music affect the brain?

The blurb:

“In this episode of Tech Effects, we explore the impact of music on the brain and body. From listening to music to performing it, WIRED’s Peter Rubin looks at how music can change our moods, why we get the chills, and how it can actually change pathways in our brains.”

For me the most interesting part was later in the video (10:20), how when we improvise we shut down the pre-frontal planning part of the brain and ‘just go with the flow,’ which is our most creative and innovation moments. This though does depend on having used the pre-frontal cortex in learning the techniques of music to get them so ingrained in memory that we are then free to play with what we’ve programmed.

Running on escalators

Ideally, automation would yield a Star Trek reality of increasing leisure and quality of choice and experience. Why isn’t this our experience? An article on Medium offers insight into why this is not occurring on any significant scale.

Evolved behavioral strategies explained by the prisoner’s dilemma damn the majority of humans to a constant doubling down. We exchange the ‘leisure dividend’ (free time) granted by automation for opportunities to outcompete others.

Apparently, the sort of reciprocal social learning that could lead us to make healthy choices with our leisure opportunities depends on us and our competitors being able to mutually track our outcomes across consecutive iterations of the ‘game’. That ‘traceability’ quickly breaks down with the complexity inherent in vast numbers of competitors. When we conclude that any viable competitor may use her leisure dividend to further optimize her competitive position, rather than to pause to enjoy her life, we tend to do the same. Each assumes the other will sprint ahead and so chooses to sprint ahead. Both forfeit the opportunity to savor the leisure dividend.

The prisoner’s dilemma shows that we (most humans) would rather be in a grueling neck-and-neck race toward an invisible, receding finish line than permit the possibility a competitor may increase her lead.

Any strategy that’s so endemic must have evolutionary roots. Thoughts?

The info processing (IP) metaphor of the brain is wrong

Psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor of Psychology Today, challenges anyone to show the brain processing information or data. The IP metaphor, he says, is so deeply embedded in thinking about thinking it prevents us from learning how the brain really works. Epstein also takes on popular luminaries including Ray Kurzweil and Henry Markram, seeing both exemplifying the extremes of wrongness we get into with the IP metaphor and the notion mental experience could persist outside the organic body.

The Empty Brain (Aeon article with audio)

Ultrasound stimulation to improve brain function

Earlier this year I attended a presentation by Dr. Jay Sanguinetti, UNM, on using ultrasound stimulation of the brain to improve factors related to attention and clear thinking. His team published an article recently in Frontiers in Neurology describing their research.

New free e-books from Frontiers in Science

See the selection here. Frontiers is a pioneer in open access science publishing. Of possible interest to this forum:

What Is the Role for Effective Pedagogy In Contemporary Higher Education?

Reaching to Grasp Cognition: Analyzing Motor Behavior to Investigate Social Interactions

Neural Computation in Embodied Closed-Loop Systems for the Generation of Complex Behavior: From Biology to Technology

Cellular Therapies: Past, Present and Future

Software Architectures for Humanoid Robotics

What are numbers, really?

The nature of math came up in our embodied cognition discussion. Here is a presentation by Dehaene on the topic followed by comments from The Reality Club: George Lakoff, Marc Hauser, Jaron Lanier, Rafael Núñez, Margaret Wertheim, Howard Gardner, Joseph Traub, Steven Pinker, Charles Simonyi. A few brief, edited Lakoff excerpts follow from that discussion. Note that this is a discussion from 1997, so a lot of confirming science has happened since then.

” [Dehaene] has made it clear that our capacity for number has evolved and that the very notion of number is shaped by specific neural systems in our brains. […] We understand the world through our cognitive models and those models are not mirrors of the world, but arise from the detailed peculiarities of our brains.”

“Mathematics is not ‘abstract’, but rather metaphorical, based on projections from sensory-motor areas that make use of ‘inferences’ performed in those areas. The metaphors are not arbitrary, but based on common experiences: putting things into piles, taking steps, turning around, coming close to objects so they appear larger, and so on.”

“Dehaene is right that this requires a nonplatonic philosophy of mathematics that is also not socially constructivist. Indeed, what is required is a special case of experientialist philosophy (or ’embodied realism’). […] Such a philosophy of mathematics is not relativist or socially constructivist, since it is embodied, that is, based on the shared characteristics of human brains and bodies as well as the shared aspects of our physical and interpersonal environments. […] On the other hand, such a philosophy of mathematics is not platonic or objectivist. Consider two simple examples. First, can sets contain themselves or not? This cannot be answered by looking at the mathematical universe. You can have it either way, choosing either the container metaphor or the graph metaphor, depending on your interests.”

“Dehaene is by no means alone is his implicit rejection of the Computer Program Theory. Distinguished figures in neuroscience have rejected it (e.g., Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Patricia Churchland). Even among computer scientists, connectionism presents a contrasting view. In our lab at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley, Jerome Feldman, I, and our co-workers working on a neural theory of language, have discovered results in the course of our work suggesting that the program-mind is not even a remotely good approximation to a real mind.”

Pinker of course also comments and takes issue with Lakoff’s depiction of him. Dehaene also responds to the comments at the end.

Informative neuroscience presentations at NYU Center for Mind, Brain & Consciousness

The NYU Center for Mind, Brain & Consciousness hosts presentations, including topical debates among leading neuroscience researchers. Many of the sessions are recorded for later viewing. The upcoming debate among Joseph LeDoux (Center for Neural Science, NYU), Yaïr Pinto (Psychology, University of Amsterdam), and Elizabeth Schechter (Philosophy, Washington University in St. Louis), will tackle the question, “Do Split-brain patients have two minds?” Previous topics addressed animal consciousness, hierarchical predictive coding and perception, AI ‘machinery,’ AI ethics, unconscious perception, research replication issues, neuroscience and art, explanatory power of mirror neurons, child vs adult learning, and brain-mapping initiatives.

Free Frontier e-books July 2018

Here‘s the link to their lineup of new free e-books. Maybe we could even use one of them for a book discussion? I’m inclined toward the one titled Insight and Intuition: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Their blurb for the latter:


In the field of intuition it is widely accepted that problem solving proceeds in a more or less graded fashion from problem formulation to problem solution as previously encoded information is activated by clues to coherence. The resulting pattern of activation differentially sensitizes a person to new information that is pertinent for the solution. Eventually, the continuous (and rapid) build-up of coherent information is sufficient to cross a threshold of awareness or noticing. Accordingly, implicitly acquired knowledge and experience play an important role because their content is assumed to be non-consciously and gradually activated in memory from clues in the environment that initiate an automatic spreading of activation. These assumptions are summarized in what has been known as the continuity model of intuition.

On the contrary, the current literature on insight problem solving favors a discontinuity model. Particularly, insight is linked to processes that restructure the mental representation of a problem. It is assumed that prior knowledge and inappropriate assumptions result in self-imposed constraints that establish a biased representation of the problem and thus prevent a solution. Consequently, a discontinuity model suggests the first intuitive apprehension of the problem to lead to an impasse and has to be overcome by relaxing these constraints to find a solution.

Until now, there has neither been theoretical discussion nor empirical investigation on the continuity/discontinuity distinction. Our open research questions include the following:

1. Are continuity/discontinuity different sides of the same coin distinguishing different stages within a continuous solution process, or do they stand for mutual exclusive processes?
2. If intuition is seen as “coherence building mechanism”, is it conceivable to describe the different stages within insight problem solving as coherence changing processes?
3. What are the underlying neuro-cognitive mechanisms that allow the search for coherence, respectively the change of coherence (representational change)? Both processes might go beyond a simple spreading activation account.
4. How does re-combination and the generation of new and novel solutions fit into the intuitive framework?
5. Could the application of Darwinian principles help to inform us about the underlying principles of both?

Homo deus

Power Valued Over Truth

Dear Ed and All,

“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”

The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.

Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.

Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.

Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.

Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).

An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.

My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.

A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.

A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther.  But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.

Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul

PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).