Category Archives: psychology

The Louder You Sound, the Better

A recent study by the University of Washington has confirmed what most rational people suspected for long: a measured rhetoric and a credible argument are no match for a boisterous remark. If you want to convince people, you just need to yell more than your adversary while looking more confident and free of doubt. This explains, among other things, why a seemingly endless stream of lunatics has managed to get millions of followers throughout the ages: if you’re crazy enough, you’ll be able to give your sweeping statements the fervor, passion and conviction only nutjobs are capable of.

The authors used twitter for their research. They originally intended to track economics pundits, but realized economic predictions had no deadlines and thus were hard to track. Instead, they used sports: they followed a number of different sports pundits and looked at the nature of their predictions, how confident they sounded (by looking at the kind of words they used) and the accuracy of their predictions.

Here’s the shocking result: predicting the outcome of every single game in the playoffs right will get you, on average, 3% more followers. Being loud and boisterous will get you 20%. So there. Stop bothering with the arguments and yell.

Sonic Super Villain

Sonic Super Villain (Photo credit: samlavi)

(Another interesting side not is that both aficionados and professionals scored lower than pure, dumb chance in their predictions. That is: if you want to know the result of the next match, it’s better to listen to a die.)

This research has finally given the motivation I needed to change the tone of this blog. From now on, I will CAPITALIZE WHAT I BELIEVE and end every post with a HELL YEAH! If people disagree with me I’ll tell them to SHUT THEIR PIE-HOLE because THEY DON’T KNOW SHIT. When I popularize science, I will make sure to say OUR THEORIES ARE RIGHT AND EVERYTHING ELSE IS BULLSHIT and, when I touch on politics, I’ll show my contempt for those LIBERAL PIECES OF CRAP.

Oh, and let me tell you, IF YOU DON’T THINK THIS IS A GOOD IDEA THEN SCREW YOU BECAUSE WHAT THE HECK DO YOU KNOW, YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?

Maybe I’ll add some grammar mistakes too, for good measure.

It shows passion.

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Why Do We Kiss?

My wife has bursts of inspiration. The latest one came yesterday when, all of a sudden and without much to do with whatever it was we were talking about, she burst out: “why do people kiss?” At the beginning I stared at her, unsure of what she meant. Then she elaborated.

“It’s pretty gross if you think of it. Why would we want to stuff our tongue in some other person’s mouth? What’s the point?”

I then decided I’d do some research and write a post about it. And here we are.

One could of course answer we kiss because it’s pleasurable, but that’s not much of an answer. After all, why is kissing pleasurable? Why kissing and not poking your knee, for instance? Sex is pleasurable because it leads to reproduction. So what’s the purpose of kissing? What lead evolution to make us want to exchange saliva with another human being? Why does it turn us on? That’s what I set out to answer.

Xena kissing Gabrielle on the episode "Th...

Xena kissing Gabrielle on the episode “The Quest”, during Season 2. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It didn’t take long to find the scientific explanation (which is probably closer to a wild guess) for the phenomenon. Apparently, kissing brings us physically closer to the other person, which allows us to inhale their pheromones more easily. We can then gauge these pheromones and decide whether they are a good match for us. And how do we decide? Apparently, it all has to do with the immune system. We tend to select for mates that have the opposite kind of immune system to ours, so that our offspring will have a more complete set. Therefore, when there is “chemistry” between two people, all that’s really happening is their immune systems fit like a puzzle. How our body uses pheromones to decode this information, I have no idea, but it seems logical that different immune systems would lead to the production of different kinds of pheromones.

There’s another explanation for kissing that I personally find disgusting. In primitive societies, it would be customary for mothers to chew their baby’s food and then give it to their child from their mouths. Yes, just like a kiss. This mother-child bond would then transfer to the adult age, where the grown-up person would associate the exchange of fluids with the pleasure of receiving nourishment from their mother.

And the more I think about someone spitting chewed-up food in my mouth, the more I feel like puking.

Two small children kissing.

Two small children kissing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This latest theory explains the curious fact that not all humans kiss. In fact, 10% of human population does not kiss: it’s just not a custom in their societies. This points to kissing being more cultural than instinctive.

Finally and as a curious anecdote that I can personally confirm, kissing in Asia does not have the cultural significance it does in the west. Parents rarely kiss their children (at least not after they come of age) and kissing is mainly restricted to the sexual area. It is usual for girls to practice kissing with their roommates when they’re in their 20s and get their first boyfriend, since they haven’t had the occasion of doing it with their families. In Manchuria it used to be customary for mothers to perform oral sex on their babies, which was not considered a sexual act. Kissing in public, however, was frowned upon.

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Don’t Think about Sex

We live in an age that’s obsessed about sex. We sell things with sex, we talk about it incessantly and it’s present in almost every movie. Porn is readily available on-line and anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of curiosity has seen a fair share of it.

So why does this happen? Why weren’t we so obsessed before? How have we turned into this debauc

hed society?

Or have we?

As I was reading “The Antidote”, a pretty fun book on negative thinking, I came across a sentence about sex: the more you try not to think about it, the more aroused you become. This happens for the same reason that someone forbidding you to laugh makes things even more hilarious; if I tell you “don’t think of a polar bear” you will instantly, well, do what you just did. Could our current obsession with sex be related to that?

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex and Christianity

So I started wondering about what the Christian obsession with vilifying sex has done to us. By telling us that even thinking about it is sinful, Christianity has spurred precisely what it was trying to avoid. Of course, the more you think about it, the guiltier you feel and the harder you try, thus making you think more about it. (It is also possible this was a clever marketing trick: force people into sinning and watch them come to church in spades).

Then I thought about how Catholic priests must be doing in that area and I understood a lot of stuff.

So we could see this craze about sex as being created precisely because of the taboo about sex that has been the norm in society for the last century.

English: US Secretary Gutierrez meets with Chi...

Chinese Minister Bo Xilai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex and China

However, I think that blaming Christianity for this is a little unfair. I live in China, were Christianity has a testimonial presence, and the taboo about sex is as great as in the West. Not surprisingly, the debauchery happening behind the scenes is pretty shocking too. Every month we see as scandal involving some government official and a bunch of young ladies. Most actresses in the country are known to have reached fame through borderline prostitution. In fact, some of them do prostitution: a couple of famous actresses are actually known to charge one million dollars per session. Bo Xilai, recently convicted for corruption, was one of the customers. The minister of transportation slept with the whole cast of the TV show “Dream of a red mansion”; after that, all of these actresses went on to have extremely successful careers. The minister himself ended up in jail for corruption, being responsible for the high-speed train crash that killed hundreds of people some years ago.

I don’t know if the same is true for Japan, but if it was it would explain a lot.

Buddhism

Buddhism (Photo credit: shapour bahrami)

Sex and Buddhism

One of the things that shocked me when visiting monasteries in Thailand was that women were not allowed to wear “provocative” clothes, with the argument that they would be distracting to the monks. I don’t know about you, but I have done maybe 100 hours of meditation in my whole life and I have no problem not getting distracted by a woman in a tank-top. You’d think that those monks, who supposedly are way closer to enlightenment, would have even less trouble not caring. Even if they did, couldn’t they make their arousal the subject of their meditation, just like they make pain? I suspect this idea that women shouldn’t mix with men in temples or that provocative clothes shouldn’t be worn around monks are based on ancient prejudices, rather than in logic. Crap, if you’re in such control of your emotions you don’t even fear death, a woman wearing a short skirt hardly seems like a challenge.

This image shows the coding region in a segmen...

This image shows the coding region in a segment of eukaryotic DNA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex and Genetics

I know many people who haven’t been raised as Catholics, but they too seem to be obsessed about sex (though this obsession does seem to wane with age). Could it be that it’s just the way we’re programmed? After all, sex is the one thing our genes need us to do. The obsession, then, is thoroughly justified and will happen whatever you do. Of course, if you try not to think about it, the whole thing may get even worse.

What to Do, What to Do?

So what’s the healthy attitude towards sex? How should we approach it? Should we think about it all the time? Not think about it? Think about it but not attach to the thought? Write about it in our blog?

Fucked if I now.

(This post was inspired by livelysceptic’s recent series on sex).

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Genius or Moronic? The Enlightenment Machine

Last day I was reading this post by bloggingisaresponsibility and I had a crazy idea. I am so excited about it that I decided to write an article to gauge people’s opinions. It’s one of those things which is either genius or completely stupid. I’m still not sure which one.

Bloggingisaresponsibility’s post talked about a psychological approach to enlightenment. The idea is that enlightenment is a mental state that can be brought about by eliminating certain tendencies in the brain. By telling people to focus on a certain object, we override some of these tendencies and create a different experience: enlightenment.

What are these tendencies that get in the way? You may be familiar with the main culprit: it’s you. The belief in a self is precisely what precludes us from experiencing a unity between us and the rest of the world. Once we perceive this unity and the self evaporates, we instantly become less selfish (“selfish” without “self” is just “ish,” after all) and our worries fade away, since we don’t have a self attached to them.

Seen in this light, enlightenment can be seen as an impairment: the removal of a certain subroutine from our brain, in this case, the self. Why aren’t people born enlightened? Well, probably because going around without a self is not the best strategy for survival. The self or the illusion of one is crucial in self-preservation. The opposite would be not-self-preservation which sounds a lot like death. So when we practice meditation we are in fact training ourselves to cripple our brains: to avoid using certain functionality that came pre-installed. We are trying to get used of all this programming that, while successful for reproduction and survival, is not effective when trying to reach happiness.

Nirvana

Nirvana (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

Now, there are several ways of getting rid of this programming. Continuing with the computer software analogy, I’ll say we can either do it the “hardware” way or the “software” way. Changing the software is called “meditation”: it consists of training our neural net to react to stimuli differently, avoiding the circuitry of the self. It is a lengthy process requiring years of practice, but it is relatively safe. The “hardware” way is much more straightforward: remove the undesired areas. Done.

Of course, nobody likes having a piece of brain removed. Well, nobody I know. So surgery is probably not an option. But we have a next best thing: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS.) TMS is routinely used by neurologists to produce virtual lesions on patients. The way it works is the machine sends a magnetic pulse to a certain brain region, which becomes temporarily deactivated. This allows researchers to find out what happens if you remove certain parts of the brain, without having to actually wait for people to get injured. This is also how we recently found out that there’s a part of the brain associated with morality which, when deactivated, makes people utilitarians. Oh, and the risk involved with using TMS is very low: it can at most produce seizures in patients with some previous condition.

So I did some research and found out that researchers have already found candidate areas for where the self is located. We have a map. Therefore, all we have to do is configure our TMS to deactivate those areas and there you go! No self. Enlightenment with a button.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magneti...

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnetism to safely stimulate or inhibit parts of the brain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A unit costs around 25,000 dollars. I’m seriously tempted to buy one.

So why would this be so awesome? Well, for one, you’d be able to reach enlightenment without years of mediation. That’s something. Also, you wouldn’t have to take anyone’s word for it. For example, one of the things that keeps me from fully pursuing meditation is a lack of conviction. Yes, people keep telling you that you’ll reach Nirvana. But these people have spent their whole lives trying: of course they won’t tell you that it’s not worth the trouble! Can you imagine? “Spent my whole life doing eight hours of meditation per day. Reached Nirvana. Wasn’t as great as I thought.” Maybe some monks tell themselves they’ve reached Nirvana without having done so.

Buddhists always emphasize their religion is “experimental” because you can go and see for yourself. The catch is, you need to spend years training your mind before you can. After you spent so many years, you’re probably quite invested in the idea of enlightenment or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place. So, when deciding whether to start, I have to take their word for it. And I don’t like taking people’s word for stuff.

But this way, I wouldn’t have to! It’s the perfect shortcut. It fits perfectly with my scientifically-minded persona. Build a machine. Test it. Test it again. Tweak it. Test it. Reach enlightenment. There.

And then, all I need to do is sell it or rent it or give it away and the whole world can become enlightened. Can you imagine? A world of selfless, generous people? A world of happy people? A world of people full of empathy?

So, should I launch a Kickstarter campaign and start building the monster?

Or should I get myself checked?

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Blogger Bashing is Good for You

I probably shouldn’t be publishing this. I will probably regret it. But the thing is, recent research from the University of Maryland, USA, has shown that bashing bloggers in the comments has positive effects on health that are at least comparable to those of meditation.

The study was run on more than 300 volunteers from different socio-economic backgrounds and education. The volunteers were shown a number of different blogs on different topics, from atheism to knitting. They were then asked to leave different comments and divided into five groups.

One group (the control group) was told to leave whatever comments they wished. Researchers then found that the comments written by them seemed to follow a classical Gaussian distribution: most comments contained “moderate praise,” with few being “overwhelmingly positive” or “unmistakably negative.”

mappa_blog

(Photo credit: francescopozzi)

The rest of the students were divided into four groups, spanning “insulting,” “polite disagreement,” “mild praise” and “adulation.” The participants then commented on twenty blogs each, being free to choose their particular comment but sticking to the experiments’ guidelines.

After the experiment, researches took blood samples in order to determine the levels of serotonin and dopamine in each participant. They also gave them a written questionnaire on their feelings after the commenting. Their objective was to elucidate what type of commenting was the most conductive to well-being. Their results leave little room for doubt:

  1. The participants in the negative group showed the greatest level of dopamine and serotonin. The concentration of each hormone was exactly correlated with the meanness of the comment. Thus, “I think this is rubbish” seemed to cause less positive reactions than “fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you.” Death threats and yo mama jokes also rated high in happiness-producing outcomes.
    Participants in the negative group also reported feeling “exhilarated” and “a million bucks” after the experiment and inquired whether they would be needed for something similar any time soon.
  2. The participants in the positive side of the study showed reduced levels of activity after the experiment. Their responses to the test were unequivocal: most of them reported feeling “exhausted” and “devoid of will.” Naturally, their hormone levels showed a marked decrease from the norm. Some of the participants reportedly said they felt “as if their soul had been sucked out of them.”
  3. The researchers did a follow-up of the participants three months later. They found out that those in the negative group were three times less likely to have gotten sick; they also reported a much higher level of overall satisfaction with their lives. 65% of the people in the negative group stated they continued with the “blogger bashing” practice on a regular basis after the experiment, whereas those in the other group had drastically diminished their blog consumption habits.

The authors conclude “blogger bashing” should not be viewed as something to be avoided but, on the contrary, as a healthy pastime that can greatly help improve the quality of life not only of healthy people, but of patients who suffer depression or even chronic pain. They then go on to recommend several comments that seem to produce the best overall results. I will reproduce a sample here:

“The country spent lots of money on your education. Please give it back.”

“I think I lost 20 IQ points just reading this. Have the feeling the author had none left to lose.”

“Why a person like you is still allowed to have hands is completely beyond me.”

“I hope you get eaten by a mob of rabid dogs. Actually, I’m off to buy some.”

“You’re the perfect argument against the welfare system.”

“I think if you keep writing and practicing every day in a couple of years you may manage to spell “cow” correctly.”

“I wish I’d died young so I wouldn’t have had to read this.”

“I wish you’d died young so I wouldn’t have had to read this.”

“Some advice on how to become a better writer: stop writing.”

“Some advice on how to become a better writer: stop breathing.”

“Your blog is the best reason I’ve heard for Internet censorship.”

They are actually compiling a list that they hope to make public at the end of the year in order to facilitate blogger-bashing for people who are not versed in expressing their hatred creatively (though, they emphasize “I wish you rot in hell” works also pretty well if you’re in a pinch.)

Leave your ideas below and I’ll let them know.

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The Truth about Zombies

I wonder if you’ve ever heard about zombies. The philosophical kind, that is. They don’t bite your brain or wobble their way through your garden. They don’t turn you into one of them after they chew your arm. They look and talk just like you. The laugh, cry and take care of their children. They talk passionately about baseball. They write philosophy blogs and lucubrate about the mysteries of consciousness. However, they are not aware of anything they do.

A philosophical zombie is, by definition, indistinguishable from a normal human. If you prick their finger, they will bleed and say “ouch!” and probably act mad at you. But they will feel no pain. If you show them your latest painting they will tell you it’s amazing. But they will not perceive it. Zombies are just like normal humans, but they lack qualia. They are unable to perceive color, sound or touch. They don’t have conscious experiences.

Brisbane Zombie Walk 2009

Brisbane Zombie Walk 2009 (Photo credit: yinyang)

Philosopher David Chalmers has made extensive use of zombies in order to attack the physicalist world-view. This world-view states there are only the laws of physics: there is nothing in the universe outside them.

For example, imagine there’s a God who creates the universe. He makes every single particle and places it in its appropriate position. He creates the rules for the movement and interactions of every particle. He then presses the “play” button and watches things unfold. If you’re a physicalist, you believe that’s all God needs to do in order to get conscious beings to appear. If you’re not, you believe that God had to add something else to the equation. That the laws of physics per se were not sufficient.

Here’s how Chalmers uses the zombies to attack physicalism. He argues:

  1. Zombies are conceivable.
  2. Everything that’s conceivable is possible.
  3. Zombies are possible.
  4. Therefore, physicalism is false.

That is: if we can conceive of a world where humans are exactly as us but have no consciousness, it follows that our physical make-up is not a sufficient condition for consciousness, ergo there must be something else and physicalism is false.

I am a physicalist, but I see some merit in Chalmers’s argument. He is right that, should it be possible for a being with my exact physical make-up and no consciousness to exist, physicalism would be denied. However, I do not believe such a thing to be a possibility. So I guess I have to deny that every conceivable thing is possible.

zombie

zombie (Photo credit: Irregular Shed)

I can conceive of a lot of stuff. I can conceive of a triangle the angles of which add up to 200º, but that does not make them possible. The human brain has great capacity for contradiction, which does not mean reality is populated by contradictory facts or that it could be. In the same sense, a lacking understanding of consciousness (because of our innate dualism) makes it conceivable for us that zombies could exist. But the fact is they couldn’t: any physical process that is exactly like me entails my perception. It is my perception.

To me, the idea of Chalmers zombies is fascinating because it raises a related question that has nothing to do with physicalism: I can definitely conceive of a being which looks externally like me and has the exact same behavior, but which is internally very different. The question is: is it possible for this being to not have a consciousness?

Answering this question correctly will be crucial when determining which kind of beings our computers will be in twenty years’ time, when the first of them manage to pass the Turing test. Should we treat them as conscious beings? Or as super-intelligent automats? Should they have rights?

I personally have no idea, but I would love to hear your opinion.

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The Science of Self-delusion

Common wisdom sees self-delusion as a flaw. One of the worse things you can say to a person is they are delusional, meaning they either don’t see reality as it is or they have a distorted view of themselves. However, the frontier between delusion and self-confidence is blurry at best. Let’s say you are an aspiring writer or artist. If you are like me, you probably live in constant self-doubt. You keep analyzing your work and wondering: is it good enough? Should anyone care? Every now and then, you will have the feeling that your efforts are futile, that you never had the talent or luck and that you should just stop wasting your time and devote yourself to some other form of entertainment.

Delusion

Delusion (Photo credit: FLASHFLOOD®)

Of course, from time to time you will see somebody else’s work that sucks much more than yours become an instant success and wonder: why not me? As it turns out, self-confidence is closely linked to both self-deception and success. Self-confidence is necessary to be able to sell yourself to your audience, to a magazine or simply to a fellow blog. It is necessary to have the guts to go to a publishing company and insist like a madman until they buy your book. It is essential, in fact, to your well-being and your sanity. But a crude look at the facts of your life or your persona will not help you to get there. In order to reach the blissful state of self-confidence, you first need to let go of truth. The mechanics of self-deception have been studied extensively by psychologists. A great summary of the current state of affairs can be found in Cordelia Fine’s A mind of its own, a book which explores the myriad ways in which humans deceive themselves and analyzes the reasons why we do so. The book reaches two important conclusions: first, the vast majority of humans lie to themselves. They think they are better drivers than average, better workers than average and better people than average. They justify their actions even when these are unjustifiable. They always find a mental scenario which depicts them as the hero in the story.

truth

truth (Photo credit: Erick-Pardus)

The second conclusion is a little more shocking: self-deception is actually necessary. As Fine bluntly puts it, there is a group of people who are capable of seeing themselves and their surroundings as they truly are. We call them “clinically depressed.” So lying to yourself is not such a bad idea. It actually seems fundamental for leading a healthy, happy life. For feeling confident that you are great at what you do, despite all evidence to the contrary. For believing you are a good person and the world would be worse off without you. We need our little everyday lies, because without them reality would be a harsh, brutal place that most people just wouldn’t be able to bear. Because staring at the facts in the face is something the majority of the population is just not prepared to do. And they probably shouldn’t. The self-deception theory explains many things. For example, in my limited existence I have found a lot more depressive atheists than religious people. This could happen because religion makes you happy, but it could also stem from the fact that religious people are obviously more capable of self-deception. I don’t think I need to explain why. It may also shed some light on the fact that so many scientists and mathematicians have struggled with similar ailments: by definition, people who search manically for the truth are good candidates at feeling the weight of reality upon their shoulders.

Reality

Reality (Photo credit: Beatnic)

So next time you’re looking in the mirror and telling yourself some hard truths, you may want to reconsider. Be kind to yourself. Believe in something magical. Because, no matter what they told you in school, being true to yourself doesn’t pay off. And, in the end, it’s just a matter of choice. You can choose lies and bliss. Or you can choose truth. And misery.

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Want to Get Rid of Bad Thoughts? Dump them in the Bin!

Garbage BinDavid Yerle just read an article that may change his life. Well, just a little.

Apparently, a group of psychologists in a university he forgot just found out writing your thoughts on a piece of paper and then tearing it apart and throwing it in the bin actually helps eliminate those thoughts in your brain.

If true, it’s quite a remarkable discovery. It makes sense, in a way. Our brain works like a neural network, so that ideas are built as complex nets of every instance of it in our lives. The tearing and dumping may serve to strengthen the link between the thought and the idea of it being discarded, thus weakening it considerably.

The applications could be many and varied. The first thing that comes to mind is writing the name of the ex-partner who dumped you in order to finally let go. Other uses could be to get over disappointments or failures, such as an exam or a project that didn’t come through. Letting go of all of these negative thoughts may help us focus on our current endeavors without a crippling fear of failure.

David Yerle wonders if things may work the other way round, too. Is it possible to reinforce thoughts by placing them somewhere we value? Can we maximize things such as self-confidence? Having your brain in an optimal configuration at all times would be a great asset for success.

David Yerle will keep an eye out for more such developments. Until then, he vows to write every single piece of crippling thought in a piece of paper and throw it in the bin. Whether it works or not, he’ll keep you posted.