The Human Mind

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.

A somewhat new hypothesis:

The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain.

Here’s a more extensive explanation.

This hypothesis connects many of the sensory peculiarities of autism with the attentional and social ones. Those had seemed like puzzling correlations to me until now.

However, it still leaves me wondering why the variations is sensory sensitivities seem much larger with autism. The researchers suggest an explanation involving increased plasticity, but I don’t see a strong connection between the Intense World hypothesis and that.

One implication (from this page):

According to the intense world perspective, however, warmth isn’t incompatible with autism. What looks like antisocial behavior results from being too affected by others’ emotions—the opposite of indifference.

Indeed, research on typical children and adults finds that too much distress can dampen ordinary empathy as well. When someone else’s pain becomes too unbearable to witness, even typical people withdraw and try to soothe themselves first rather than helping—exactly like autistic people. It’s just that autistic people become distressed more easily, and so their reactions appear atypical.

Book review: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio R. Damasio.

This book describes many aspects of human minds in ways that aren’t wrong, but the parts that seem novel don’t have important implications.

He devotes a sizable part of the book to describing how memory works, but I don’t understand memory any better than I did before.

His perspective often seems slightly confusing or wrong. The clearest example I noticed was his belief (in the context of pre-historic humans) that “it is inconceivable that concern [as expressed in special treatment of the dead] or interpretation could arise in the absence of a robust self”. There may be good reasons for considering it improbable that humans developed burial rituals before developing Damasio’s notion of self, but anyone who is familiar with Julian Jaynes (as Damasio is) ought to be able to imagine that (and stranger ideas).

He pays a lot of attention to the location in the brain of various mental processes (e.g. his somewhat surprising claim that the brainstem plays an important role in consciousness), but rarely suggests how we could draw any inferences from that about how normal minds behave.

The Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference attracted many interesting people.

There were lots of new devices to measure the usual things more easily or to integrate multiple kinds of data.

Airo is an ambitious attempt to detect a wide variety of things, including food via sensing metabolites.

TellSpec plans to detect food nutrients and allergens through Raman spectroscopy.

OMsignal has a t-shirt with embedded sensors.

The M1nd should enable users to find more connections and spurious correlations between electromagnetic fields and health.

Ios is becoming a more important platform for trendy tools. As an Android user who wants to stick to devices with a large screen and traditional keyboard, I feel a bit left out.

The Human Locomotome Project is an ambitious attempt to produce an accurate and easy to measure biomarker of aging, using accelerometer data from devices such as FitBit. They’re measuring something that was previously not well measured, but there doesn’t appear to be any easy way to tell whether that information is valuable.

The hug brigade that was at last year’s conference (led by Paul Grasshoff?) was missing this year.

Attempts to attract a critical mass to the QS Forum seem to be having little effect.

Book review: The Motivation Hacker, by Nick Winter.

This is a productivity book that might improve some peoples’ motivation.

It provides an entertaining summary (with clear examples) of how to use tools such as precommitment to accomplish an absurd number of goals.

But it mostly fails at explaining how to feel enthusiastic about doing so.

The section on Goal Picking Exercises exemplifies the problems I have with the book. The most realistic sounding exercise had me rank a bunch of goals by how much the goal excites me times the probability of success divided by the time required. I found that the variations in the last two terms overwhelmed the excitement term, leaving me with the advice that I should focus on the least exciting goals. (Modest changes to the arbitrary scale of excitement might change that conclusion).

Which leaves me wondering whether I should focus on goals that I’m likely to achieve soon but which I have trouble caring about, or whether I should focus on longer term goals such as mind uploading (where I might spend years on subgoals which turn out to be mistaken).

The author doesn’t seem to have gotten enough out of his experience to motivate me to imitate the way he picks goals.

Book review: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.

This book starts out seeming to belabor ideas that seem obvious to me, but before too long it offers counterintuitive approaches that I ought to try.

The approach that I find hardest to reconcile with my intuition is that self-forgiveness over giving into temptations helps increase willpower, while feeling guilt or shame about having failed reduces willpower, so what seems like an incentive to avoid temptation is likely to reduce our ability to resist the temptation.

Another important but counterintuitive claim is that trying to suppress thoughts about a temptation (e.g. candy) makes it harder to resist the temptation. Whereas accepting that part of my mind wants candy (while remembering that I ought to follow a rule of eating less candy) makes it easier for me to resist the candy.

A careless author could have failed to convince me this is plausible. But McGonigal points out the similarities to trying to follow an instruction to not think of white bears – how could I suppress thoughts of white bears of some part of my mind didn’t activate a concept of white bears to monitor my compliance with the instruction? Can I think of candy without attracting the attention of the candy-liking parts of my mind?

As a result of reading the book, I have started paying attention to whether the pleasure I feel when playing computer games lives up to the anticipation I feel when I’m tempted to start one. I haven’t been surprised to observe that I sometimes feel no pleasure after starting the game. But it now seems easier to remember those times of pleasureless playing, and I expect that is weakening my anticipation or rewards.

Book review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.

This book carefully describes the evolutionary origins of human moralizing, explains why tribal attitudes toward morality have both good and bad effects, and how people who want to avoid moral hostility can do so.

Parts of the book are arranged to describe the author’s transition from having standard delusions about morality being the result of the narratives we use to justify them and about why other people had alien-sounding ideologies. His description about how his study of psychology led him to overcome his delusions makes it hard for those who agree with him to feel very superior to those who disagree.

He hints at personal benefits from abandoning partisanship (“It felt good to be released from partisan anger.”), so he doesn’t rely on altruistic motives for people to accept his political advice.

One part of the book that surprised me was the comparison between human morality and human taste buds. Some ideologies are influenced a good deal by all 6 types of human moral intuitions. But the ideology that pervades most of academia only respect 3 types (care, liberty, and fairness). That creates a difficult communication gap between them and cultures that employ others such as sanctity in their moral system, much like people who only experience sweet and salty foods would have trouble imagining a desire for sourness in some foods.

He sometimes gives the impression of being more of a moral relativist than I’d like, but a careful reading of the book shows that there are a fair number of contexts in which he believes some moral tastes produce better results than others.

His advice could be interpreted as encouraging us to to replace our existing notions of “the enemy” with Manichaeans. Would his advice polarize societies into Manichaeans and non-Manichaeans? Maybe, but at least the non-Manichaeans would have a decent understanding of why Manichaeans disagreed with them.

The book also includes arguments that group selection played an important role in human evolution, and that an increase in cooperation (group-mindedness, somewhat like the cooperation among bees) had to evolve before language could become valuable enough to evolve. This is an interesting but speculative alternative to the common belief that language was the key development that differentiated humans from other apes.

Book review: The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One, by Satoshi Kanazawa.

This book is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, but not very well thought out.

The main idea is that intelligence (what IQ tests measure) is an adaptation for evolutionarily novel situations, and shouldn’t be positively correlated with cognitive abilities that are specialized for evolutionarily familiar problems. He defines “smart” so that it’s very different from intelligence. His notion of smart includes a good deal of common sense that is unconnected with IQ.

He only provides one example of an evolutionarily familiar skill which I assumed would be correlated with IQ but which isn’t: finding your way in situations such as woods where there’s some risk of getting lost.

He does make and test many odd predictions about high IQ people being more likely to engage in evolutionarily novel behavior, such as high IQ people going to bed later than low IQ people. But I’m a bit concerned at the large number of factors he controls for before showing associations (e.g. 19 factors for alcohol use). How hard would it be to try many combinations and only report results when he got conclusions that fit his prediction? On the other hand, he can’t be trying too hard to reject all evidence that conflicts with his predictions, since he occasionally reports evidence that conflicts with his predictions (e.g. tobacco use).

He reports that fertility is heritable, and finds that puzzling. He gives a kin selection based argument saying that someone with many siblings ought to put more effort into the siblings reproductive success and less into personally reproducing. But I see no puzzle – I expect people to have varying intuitions about whether the current abundance of food will last, and pursue different strategies, some of which will be better if food remains abundant, and others better if overpopulation produces a famine.

He’s eager to sound controversial, and his chapter titles will certainly offend some people. Sometimes those are backed up by genuinely unpopular claims, sometimes the substance is less interesting. E.g. the chapter title “Why Homosexuals Are More Intelligent than Heterosexuals” says there’s probably no connection between intelligence and homosexual desires, but there’s a connection between intelligence and how willing people are to act on those desires (yawn).

Here is some evidence against his main hypothesis.

Book review: Inside Jokes – Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams, Jr.

This book has the best explanation I’ve seen so far of why we experience humor. The simplistic summary is that it is a reward for detecting certain kinds of false assumptions. And after it initially evolved it has been adapted to additional purposes (signaling one’s wit), and exploited by professional comedians in the way that emotions which reward reproductive functions are exploited by pornography.

Some of the details of which false beliefs qualify as a source of humor and how diagnosing them to be false qualifies as a source of humor seem arbitrary enough that the theory falls well short of the kind of insight that tempts me to say “that’s obvious, why didn’t I think of that?”. And a few details seem suspicious – the claims that people are averse to being tickled and that one sensation tickling creates is that of being attacked don’t seem consistent with my experience.

They provide some clues about the precursors of humor in other species (including laughter, which apparently originated independently from humor as a “false alarm” signal), and give some hints about why the greater complexity of the human mind triggered a more complex version of humor than the poorly understood versions that probably exist in some other species.

The book has some entertaining sections, but the parts that dissect individual jokes are rather tedious. Also, don’t expect this book to be of much help at generating new and better humor – it does a good job of clarifying how to ruin a joke, but it also explains why we should expect creating good jokes to be hard.

Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

This book is an excellent introduction to the heuristics and biases literature, but only small parts of it will seem new to those who are familiar with the subject.

While the book mostly focuses on conditions where slow, logical thinking can do better than fast, intuitive thinking, I find it impressive that he was careful to consider the views of those who advocate intuitive thinking, and that he collaborated with a leading advocate of intuition to resolve many of their apparent disagreements (mainly by clarifying when each kind of thinking is likely to work well).

His style shows that he has applied some of the lessons of the research in his field to his own writing, such as by giving clear examples. (“Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular”).

He sounds mildly overconfident (and believes mild overconfidence can be ok), but occasionally provides examples of his own irrationality.

He has good advice for investors (e.g. reduce loss aversion via “broad framing” – think of a single loss as part of a large class of results that are on average profitable), and appropriate disdain for investment advisers. But he goes overboard when he treats the stock market as unpredictable. The stock market has some real regularities that could be exploited. Most investors fail to find them because they see many more regularities than are real, are overconfident about their ability to distinguish the real ones, and because it’s hard to distinguish valuable feedback (which often takes many years to get) from misleading feedback.

I wish I could find equally good book for overuse of logical analysis when I want the speed of intuition (e.g. “analysis paralysis”).