The Human Mind

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”).

Book review: Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired, and Sudden Savant, by Darold A. Treffert.

This book contains a fair amount of interesting information, but the writing style leaves much to be desired, and many parts disappointed me.

It describes savant syndrome (formerly known as “idiot savant”), where unusually good numeric or artistic skills coexist with some sort of mental disability (and usually prodigious memory).

Some people appear to have been born with savant skills, a few developed the skills in what appears to be a sudden insight. But the cases that seem to tell us the most about what is special about savants are the ones where the skills emerge after a brain injury. Savant skill seem to be often caused by a left brain dysfunction removing some inhibitions that prevented the right side of the brain from developing or displaying unusual skills.

This suggests that there may be some sense in which we all can potentially develop savant skills.

He doesn’t provide a good explanation of why the syndrome is defined so that savants with no disability fail to qualify. There seems to be some tendency for savant skills to coexist with some drawbacks (such as the drawbacks associated with autism), but the author denies that there’s any trade-off requiring that savant skill cause deficiencies in other areas.

Some of the weaker parts of the book claim some savants know things they couldn’t have learned, and attribute skills to genetic memory. I find it much more plausible that the savants learned their skills in ways that would look like an extreme form of normal learning, and that we just don’t know how to observe when and where they accomplished the learning.

As part of my efforts to improve my relationship skills, I read many of the posts on It’s a site oriented towards male geeks who want better dating skills, but it appears to be useful for a broader range of personal interactions, and is oriented toward geeks.

I ran into more trouble than I expected when I tried to follow this advice:

Make a list of every positive emotion you can think of. For each emotion write down a short headline to a story, moment, or experience, when you felt that emotion.

After much research, I decided that a large part of the problem was connected with Alexithymia. According to Wikipedia it is:

a state of deficiency in understanding, processing, or describing emotions.

  1. difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
  2. difficulty describing feelings to other people
  3. constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
  4. a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.

Talking about emotions is reportedly valuable in creating a feeling of closeness with another person, but when I try to think of stories I might tell about emotions, I often come up completely blank, or remember situations where the context suggests I felt something corresponding to an emotion, but for which I’m unable to find a memory of feelings. I think my mood is often best described as neutral, which I gather isn’t the case for most people.

from another paper:

Therefore, alexithymia is viewed as “blindfeel”, the emotional equivalent of blindsight. According to this thesis, alexithymia is a deficit in reaching the conscious awareness and in maintaining the voluntary control of emotions, rather than a disruption in the sensory/perceptual aspect of emotions.

One of the tests for Alexithymia suggests that it is associated with low interest in sex, although I can’t find much evidence on that subject. I certainly feel much less interest in sex than the average person.

I wonder if one of the reasons I don’t form many close relationships with people is that I don’t notice any reactions in me corresponding to what people call “love at first sight”. If I’ve ever felt even mild versions of that, I can’t recall them.

Alexithymia also seems to affect people’s reactions to music:

an apparent reduction in emotional responsiveness to music in the ASD group can be accounted for by the higher mean level of alexithymia in that group.

I don’t notice myself reacting to music by itself, but it does seem to manipulate my emotions when it’s part of a movie.

Alexithymia is clearly a separate phenomenon from Aspergers/autism, but it is reported to occur in 50% to 85% of autistic people. It could be responsible for a significant fraction of the problems autistics have relating to other people. In particular, autism by itself doesn’t seem to cause problems with eye contact:

only the degree of alexithymia, and not autism symptom severity, predicted eye fixation.

There don’t seem to be any good ideas for dealing with Alexithymia, although that might reflect how little research has been done so far rather than any inherent difficulty.

The most promising claim I’ve found is this:

So how did I “cure” myself? It’s a bit of a long story but I will give you some bits of it for now.

One of the things I did was to start to read about feelings. This might have started giving me the vocabulary.

Something else I did was I started taking time to think about my feelings. To reflect on them.

Then I also started to write about them in personal journals.

I’m starting to do this, but it clearly won’t produce clear results soon.

I’ve bought and used a dvd designed to teach people how to recognize emotions in faces. It’s got a lot of potentially useful information in it, but it leaves much to be desired – I’m fairly sure it’s mistaken to list lying as a detectable emotion (guilt or fear of detection are detectable, but the most rigorous studies seem to say that people rarely do much better than chance at detecting lies). I’m unsure whether I’m learning much from it.

Book review: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, by Thomas Metzinger.

This book describes aspects of consciousness in ways that are often, but not consistently, clear and informative. His ideas are not revolutionary, but will clarify our understanding.

I didn’t find his tunnel metaphor very helpful.

I like his claim that “conscious information is exactly that information that must be made available for every single one of your cognitive capacities at the same time”. That may be an exaggeration, but it describes an important function of consciousness.

He makes surprisingly clear and convincing arguments that there are degrees of consciousness, so that some other species probably have some but not all of what we think of as human consciousness. He gives interesting examples of ways that humans can be partially conscious, e.g. people with Cotard’s Syndrome can deny their own existence.

His discussion of ethical implications of neuroscience points out some important issues to consider, but I’m unimpressed with his conclusion that we shouldn’t create conscious machines. He relies on something resembling the Precautionary Principle that says we should never risk causing suffering in an artificial entity. As far as I can tell, the same reasoning would imply that having children is unethical because they might suffer.

Book review: Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines and How It Will Change Our Lives, by Miguel Nicolelis.

This book presents some ambitious visions of how our lives will be changed by brain-machine and brain to brain (“mind meld”) interfaces, along with some good reasons to hope that we will adapt well to them and think of machines and other people as if they are parts of our body. Many people will have trouble accepting his broad notion of personal identity, but I doubt they will find good arguments against it.

But I wish I’d skipped most of the first half, which focuses on the history of neuroscience research, with too much attention to debates over the extent to which brain functions are decentralized.

He’s disappointingly vague about the obstacles that researchers face. He hints at problems with how safe and durable an interface can be, but doesn’t tell us how serious they are, whether progress is being made on them, etc. I also wanted more specific data about how much information could be communicated each way, how precisely robotic positioning can be controlled, and how much of a trend there is toward improving those.

Book review: Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World by Sharon Heller.

This book has lots of information about sensory overload and sensory integration problems, but left me confused about the extent to which I have the problems that the book describes and whether there are good solutions.

The book mostly focuses on problems of being overwhelmed by sensory input, but also says sensory numbness can be associated with the same kind of problems. Some of the symptoms discussed describe me rather well, but a majority do not. The book seems to suggest that almost any nonstandard reaction to stimuli might mean a person is sensory defensive, which makes me wonder whether many unrelated conditions have been lumped into one category.

Many reviewers seem pleased that the book tells them they’re not alone in the problems that they’re facing. But I kept having conflicting impressions about whether the people described in the book are like me.

The book lists many possible solutions to sensory problems, which are described as making up a “sensory diet” – more suggestions than the author could plausibly understand well enough to know whether they work. Many are supported by anecdotal evidence, some by evidence that appears to be moderately good science, and for some the evidence seems inconclusive. I believe that they are better than random guesses, but I don’t expect to get much out of them without a good deal of trial and error.

Auditory integration training sounds like the kind of help I’m looking for, and the book makes that and some similar programs sound promising. But the Wikipedia entry on AIT is rather discouraging, and the Wikipedia entry on Sensory integration therapy isn’t very encouraging.

The book reports some interesting claims about the benefits of natural full-spectrum light, such as a large decrease in cavities (see “The effects of lights of different spectra on caries incidence in the golden hamster” by I. M. Sharon, R. P. Feller, S. W. Burney). But how much of this becomes unimportant when we take vitamin D supplements?

I just tried a full-spectrum light (OttLite 15ED12R 15w) recommended by the book. It provides more illumination with 15 watts than the 20 watt fluorescent bulb I normally use, and it was immediately obvious that the book I was reading looked better because it was whiter. But it has a distracting hum. Shouldn’t a book like this be able to warn me of this drawback?

There isn’t a lot out there on the subject of sensory integration, and educated guesses are better than nothing.

Book review: Going Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness, by John McCrone.

This book improved my understanding of how various parts of the brain interact, and of how long it takes the brain to process and react to sensory data. But there were many times when I wondered whether it was worth finishing, and I wish I had given up before the last few chapters that focused on consciousness other than neuroscience.

Too much of the book is devoted to attacking naive versions of reductionism and computational models of the brain. His claim that “chaos theory electrified science” is wrong. It electrified some reports about science, but has done little to create better models or testable predictions.

It’s misleading for him to claim the difference between human and animal consciousness “is terribly simple. Animals are locked into the present tense.” There are many hints that animals have some thoughts about the future and past, and it’s hard enough to evaluate those thoughts that we need to be cautious about denying that they think like us. He suggests that language and grammar provide unique abilities to think about the future. But I’m fairly sure I can analyze the future without using language, using mostly visual processing to plan a route I’m going to kayak through some rapids, or to imagine an opponent’s next chess move. I expect animals have some abilities along those lines. Human language must provide some improved ability to think about the future, but I find it hard to specify those abilities.

Book review: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.

This book makes a strong case that pre-agricultural humans were very far from monogamous, much like Chimps and Bonobos. It’s often convincing, but sometimes biased by ideology.

Some of the evidence comes from the difficulty that humans have being monogamous now, and the under-reported satisfaction of cultures that encourage egalitarian sharing of mates (including WWII pilots). Some stronger evidence comes from the size of our genitalia, and the promiscuous, egalitarian sex and reported absence of rape and war in our closest living relatives (Bonobos – have they really been observed well enough that we should expect to have seen rape and war?).

The book is highly critical of the Victorian version of marriage, but is somewhat approving of marriage as an institution if it’s more like some non-English cultures where occasional sex outside of the marriage is considered to be fairly harmless.

They also claim there was little violence, because food was abundant and it was normally easier to move to unoccupied land than to fight over resources. They provide decent reasons not to trust arguments that supposedly demonstrate high levels of violence in primitive cultures, but they don’t convince me they’re any more objective than the people they criticize. The most questionable part of this section is their belief that the natural growth rate of pre-agricultural humans was unusually low. They have some plausible reasons for expecting a slower population growth rate than the 25 year doubling time that Malthus expected in the absence of resource constraints, but they don’t come close to providing a good argument that Malthus was off by the factor of 10,000 that would be needed to reconcile the estimated pre-agricultural population growth rates with an absence of resource constraints. I get the impression that they imagine our direct ancestors had no competition from other hominids.

The book’s back flap claims that it contains an explanation of why homosexuality hasn’t been selected out of our genes, but the closest to that I could find in the book was a theory involving bonding which would explain bisexuality but not homosexuality.