The Human Mind

Book review: The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition, by Gregory Hickok.

This book criticizes hype from scientists and the media about embodied cognition, mirror neurons, and the differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Popular accounts of these ideas contain a little bit of truth, but most versions either explain very little or provide misleading explanations.

A good deal of our cognition is embodied in the sense that it’s heavily dependent on sensory and motor activity. But we have many high-level thoughts that don’t fit this model well, such as those we generate when we don’t have sensory or motor interactions that are worth our attention (often misleading called a “resting state”).

Humans probably have mirror neurons. They have some value in helping us imitate others. But that doesn’t mean they have much affect on our ability to understand what we’re imitating. Our ability to understand a dog wagging its tail isn’t impaired by our inability to wag our tails. Parrots’ ability to imitate our speech isn’t very effective at helping them understand it.

Mirror neurons have also been used to promote the “broken mirror theory” of autism (with the suggestion that a malfunction related to mirror neurons impairs empathy). Hickok shows that the intense world hypothesis (which I’ve blogged about before) is more consistent with the available evidence.

The book clarified my understanding of the brain a bit. But most of it seems unimportant. I had sort of accepted mild versions of the mirror neuron and left-brain, right brain hype, but doing so didn’t have any obvious effects on my other beliefs or my actions. It was only at the book’s end (discussing autism) that I could see how the hype might matter.

Most of the ideas that he criticizes don’t do much harm, because they wouldn’t pay much rent if true. Identifying which neurons do what has negligible effect on how I model a person’s mind unless I’m doing something unusual like brain surgery.

One small part of the recent (June 2015) CFAR workshop caused a significant improvement in how I interact with people. I’ve become more spontaneous about interacting with people.

For several years I’ve suspected that I ought to learn how to do improv-style exercises, but standard improv classes felt ineffective. I’ve since figured out that their implied obligation for me to come up with something to say caused some sort of negative association with attempts at spontaneity when I failed to think of anything to say. That negative reaction was a large obstacle to learning new habits.

Deeply ingrained habits seem to cause some part of my subconscious mind that searches for ideas or generates words to decide that it can’t come up with anything worthy of conscious attention. That leaves me in a state that I roughly describe as a blank mind (i.e. either no verbal content at the conscious level, or I generate not-very-useful meta-thoughts reacting to the lack of appropriate words).

Since I much more frequently regret failing to say something than I regret mistakenly saying something hastily that I should have known not to say, it seems like I’ve got one or more subconscious filters that has consistently erred in being too cautious about generating speech. I tried introspecting for ways to simply tell that filter to be less cautious, but I accomplished nothing that way.

I also tried paying attention to signs that I’d filtered something out (pauses in my flow of words seem to be reliable indicators) in hopes that I could sometimes identify the discarded thoughts. I hoped to reward myself for noticing the ideas as the filter started to discard them, and train the filter to learn that I value conscious access to those ideas. Yet I never seem to detect those ideas, so that strategy failed.

What finally worked was that I practiced informal versions of improv exercises in which I rewarded myself [*] for saying silly things (alone or in a practice session with Robert) without putting myself in a situation where I felt an immediate obligation to say anything unusual.

In a few weeks I could tell that I was more confident in social contexts and more able to come up with things to say.

I feel less introverted, in the sense that a given amount of conversation tires me less than it used to. Blogging also seems to require a bit less energy.

I feel somewhat less anxiety (and relatedly, less distraction from background noise), maybe due to my increased social confidence.

I may have become slightly more creative in a variety of contexts.

I hypothesize that the filtering module was rather attached to a feeling of identity along the lines of “Peter is a person who is cautious about what he says” long after the consciously accessible parts of my mind decided I should weaken that identity. Actually trying out a different identity was more important to altering some beliefs that were deeply buried in my subconscious than was conscious choice about what to believe.

I wonder what other subconscious attachments to an identity are constraining me?

Something still seems missing from my social interactions: I still tend to feel passive and become just a spectator. That seems like a promising candidate for an area where I ought to alter some subconscious beliefs. But I find it harder to focus on a comfortable vision for an alternative identity: aiming to be a leader in a group conversation feels uncomfortable in a way that aiming to be spontaneous/creative never felt.

Thanks to John Salvatier and Anna Salamon for the advice that helped me accomplish this.

[*] – I only know how to do very weak self-rewards (telling myself to be happy), but that was all I needed.

I use Beeminder occasionally. The site’s emails normally suffice to bug me into accomplishing whatever I’ve committed to doing. But I only use it for a few tasks for which my motivation is marginal. Most of the times that I consider using Beeminder, I either figure out how to motivate myself properly, or (more often) decide that my goal isn’t important.

The real value of Beeminder is that if I want to compel future-me to do something, I can’t give up by using the excuse that future-me is lazy or unreliable. Instead, I find myself wondering why I’m unwilling to risk $X to make myself likely to complete the task. That typically causes me to notice legitimate doubts about how highly I value the result.

Book review: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.

This book provides clear and well-organized instructions on how to become more charismatic.

It does not make the process sound easy. My experience with some of her suggestions (gratitude journalling and meditation) seems typical of her ideas – they took a good deal of attention, and probably caused gradual improvements in my life, but the effects were subtle enough to leave lots of uncertainty about how effective they were.

Many parts of the book talk as if more charisma is clearly better, but occasionally she talks about downsides such as being convincing even when you’re wrong. The chapter that distinguishes four types of charisma (focus, kindness, visionary, and authority) helped me clarify what I want and don’t want from charisma. Yet I still feel a good deal of conflict about how much charisma I want, due to doubts about whether I can separate the good from the bad. I’ve had some bad experiences in with feeling and sounding confident about investments in specific stocks has caused me to lose money by holding those stocks too long. I don’t think I can increase my visionary or authority charisma without repeating that kind of mistake unless I can somehow avoid talking about investments when I turn on those types of charisma.

I’ve been trying the exercises that are designed to boost self-compassion, but my doubts about the effort required for good charisma and about the desirability of being charismatic have limited the energy I’m willing to put into it.

Book review: Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking, by Ralph L. Keeney.

This book argues for focusing on values (goals/objectives) when making decisions, as opposed to the more usual alternative-focused decisionmaking.

The basic idea seems good. Alternative-focused thinking draws our attention away from our values and discourages us from creatively generating new possibilities to choose from. It tends to have us frame decisions as responses to problems, which leads us to associate decisions with undesirable emotions, when we could view decisions as opportunities.

A good deal of the book describes examples of good decisionmaking, but those rarely provide insight into how to avoid common mistakes or to do unusually well.

Occasionally the book switches to some dull math, without clear explanations of what benefit the rigor provides.

The book also includes good descriptions of how to measure the things that matter, but How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard does that much better.

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.