Tag Archives: cognitive

Goodbye, Facebook – Addendum

As with many thoughts, another reason has become clear to me as to why I discontinued Facebook many weeks ago now.

Simply put, I feel like it was preventing change in my life. To constantly be confronted by news updates of everyone you have “friended” has the disorienting feeling of holding you in the past. I suppose this is mostly for the acquaintances that you met years ago, but noting what they’re doing now recreates memories you formed when you met them. There’s nothing wrong with this during moments of reminiscing or nostalgia, but as we know, Facebook has a habit of being “in your face” on a daily basis. I’m sure that Google + has got it right by allowing you to have sophisticated circles of those that fall on different parts of your value scale, but this is time and effort I also don’t wish to waste. Perhaps Facebook also gives you a wealth of control over your newsfeed, but again, with the rules that keep changing and the effort required, a pensive moment with a cup of coffee watching squirrels run about on the lawn is much more appealing.

This is really an extension of my previous post about the healthy need to forget. Forecasting where you’d like your life to head, is ironically another form of memory formation. In terms of cognitive resources, therefore, it is bad idea to drain them by repeatedly exposing yourself to people from your past, particularly if they’re not good friends or family. If you want to evolve on a personal level, don’t overload your brain with the mundane and trivial.

Creativity, in some ways, is the very essence of change. If you want things to be different, you have to create difference. It starts with creating ideas – ideas for hobbies, or ideas for life. With creation, we lead with the mind, and follow with the body (I suppose we can create without thinking, but without mindful thinking it’s hard to imagine assigning purpose to our own lives). Ideas help us to see skills (behavioral sets) that we need to strive towards our goals (our initial ideas). The repetition of those skills then become a part of our procedural memory (such as how we swing our golf clubs, cast our fishing rods, work our clay, or bake our cakes). Personal growth, in other words, requires a healthy cognitive bank. If we’re holding ourselves in the past, and spending too much time giving into our addiction to reading unimportant posts, we lose our creativity.

I know you can argue that social media can bolster creativity by sharing ideas, but I would wager that most of us aren’t being creative.

I’m done waxing philosophical, now. But for these reasons, I am happier that I no longer use Facebook.

-I-

Here’s my original post.

Goodbye, Facebook

It is with a heavy heart, but a free spirit, that I have decided to say “Goodbye!” to Facebook. I have enjoyed many of the advantages of using the behemoth webpage/social media system, such as sharing jokes and commentary with friends, engaging in fun/tedious web-debates with my nearest and dearest, and seeing entertaining posts and links that I would’ve never stumbled across otherwise.

Yet given these fun aspects of Facebook time, I always felt that it was never good for me, and I could never figure out why.

I am aware that there are now many social media experiments taking place, and the reason for this is that nobody ever really knew the implications of this kind of mass sharing. These websites were always destined to be “a hit” with the public (provided that they got in early, established their brand, and offered something fun and novel).

I personally feel like Facebook hijacked my brain. Accessing the program was always in my fingertips, even though the thought of logging-on hadn’t consciously entered my mind. When opening a new browser window, there are countless times I have caught myself typing ‘fa’ into the address line before I’ve even really thought about what I’m doing.

This started to bother me.

Facebook has become an integral part of my procedural memory – the same memory that has refined how you pick up a hot drink, or brush your teeth, is now facilitating my exposure to the program. And the worst part is that this has happened because I have done it so many times before, and my brain is simply helping me to repeat the past.

I also feel that using Facebook has affected the way that I read online articles. I am plagued by a terrible attention span, and I have often wondered if I would meet the criteria for adult ADHD. Reading is very often not only an act to be informed, but a means of self discipline. As it is not uncommon to want to share interesting things that you have read, or more likely to comment or joke about something in the news, the fact that you can instantly share and comment instantly interrupts the reading experience. My brain becomes conflicted – to comment on this interesting line, or finish reading the article first? If I do challenge the impulse, it will be there nagging me for the remaining paragraphs, like suppressing the need to pee while driving until you arrive at the next rest area. I like to read, and I like to understand what I read, and so Facebook needs to go.

It has also been widely acknowledged that for a healthy brain it is important to forget things. Now, obviously, it also very important to remember things, but there is an abundance of material that you have been exposed to since day one that can happily disintegrate and float around in the recesses of the mind. By re-exposing yourself to many of the people you have met throughout the course of your life, you are forcing your brain to build upon old memories and re-collections. Biologically, this can be very demanding. Perhaps even contribute to fatigue, and result in your inability to focus on arguably more important endeavors, such as current relationships and hobbies. I’m not convinced the brain has evolved to keep healthy tabs on somebody you might’ve known in your early school days, especially in the milieu of everyone you have met since.

These are the main reasons that I am done with the website. But, I also don’t like being told that my profile is only ‘67% Complete’ (Facebook, you’re just 33% too nosy), I don’t like agonizing over whether a comment I posted was appropriate, and I don’t like that I seem to have a mild dependence on friends and family validating my sense of humor and worldviews.

I was thinking that my departure from Facebook might only be for the time being, but after re-reading everything I’ve just written here, not a Damn chance.

How biological and psychological perspectives on psychopathy shape public opinion

It is commonly known that when a psychopath is on the stand, the prosecution is going to push for a jail term based upon the idea that the defendant is sane. The defense, on the other hand, will no doubt argue that their client is insane, and so should therefore be sent to a psychiatric institution.

In order to determine if the defendant is a psychopath, very often a test called the psychopathy checklist – revised (PCL-R) will be administered. This test has to be conducted by a trained psychologist who has the time to get familiar with the defendant and their history. However, it has been shown that psychologists hired by the prosecution and the defense can come up with different verdicts that tend to favor their own arguments. If the test determines that the defendant is a psychopath then they have essentially just been tarred and feathered and will meet the full wrath of the law with no sympathy. If the test shows otherwise, that label of psychopath will not be applied, and the defendant is likely to meet some leniency.

Numerous points can be made here, but the point I would like to make is  that the use of the psychological test (the PCL-R), if it determines that the defendant is a psychopath, seems to convince the jury of the worst, and they are likely to reflect this in their judgment. However, a recent article on NPR pointed out that judges tends to be lenient when the biological basis for psychopathy is pointed out. It is indeed true that the neurobiology of the psychopath is different; this has been indicated on the tissue level and the genetic level.

This seems to suggest that a judge can be told that a psychological test has determined the defendant is a psychopath and so causes the worst possible outcome, yet if an explanation is given on the tissue, cellular, or genetic level, they can be swayed back towards leniency. It’s as if biological explanations destroy the facade of an individual and look to the minute building blocks of life (which we have no/limited control over), but the minute psychology appears, the individual is back and suddenly accountable for their actions.

This is one problem with juries when it comes to trying psychopaths. If the level of scientific analysis focuses on the individual, the jury will see the individual, whereas if the level of analysis on the molecular biological level, the jury will see cells and genes (which have a life of their own). I, personally, think it is irresponsible to allow a jury to have to reconcile these differences during the trial, especially if they have no scientific understanding.

**I would like to point out that not all psychologists work at the level of the organism, of course, and even if they do they are likely to be aware of cellular/genetic implications of their work.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

Author, Seeing Red

Neurological models behind (anti)social behavior

Neurobiologists have put forward two neurological models that can be used to understand the development of social behavior; the Violence Inhibition Mechanism, and the Somatic Marker Hypothesis.

The Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM)

The VIM was first proposed by R.J.R Blair in 1995 in his article A cognitive developmental approach to morality: Investigating the psychopath. The VIM proposes that individuals (and other organisms capable of empathy) experience stress cues from others, including sad and frightened faces, and these are filtered/processed through the VIM before the  individual’s stress response is activated. Our sense of morality also causes an emotional experience based upon the observance of these stress cues, and the VIM again processes behavioral outcomes before they arise.

In his book The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, Blair states that the observance of another’s suffering acts as a form of punishment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of engaging in behavior that caused the suffering (the psychological definition of punishment, unlike reinforcement, is something that results in the decrease of the behavior in question). Empathy, then, creates an emotional experience that should dissuade a person from engaging in acts that cause the suffering of others. If it was violence that resulted in the suffering, the VIM should prevent a repeat of this violence.

This model seems contingent on an observer empathizing with the victim, rather than the aggressor. While empathizing with the victim does seem the most honorable and obvious, if the benefits and pleasure obtained by the aggressor seem desirable, the aggressor’s behavior could reinforce the behavior in question.

Somatic Marker Hypothesis

The somatic marker hypothesis was proposed by Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error: Motion, Reason, and the Human Brain. This hypothesis is built on the idea that emotional states or feelings mark certain behaviors from experience (and presumably from witnessing the behavior of others), and this is crucial for understanding prosocial behavior and making good decisions.

When a person experiences arousal (positive or negative), the central nervous system becomes active, and communication between brain stem nuclei and the limbic system generate an internal emotional state. These emotional states become tagged to the memories of what the organism was experiencing at a specific time, and are thus re-created when the organism remembers the experience. This emotional re-creation allows us to learn from experience.

It has been argued that psychopaths, who seem to suffer from some kind of affective blunting, are unable to tag memories with or experience emotions that are common to most of us. As the psychopathic brain develops, therefore, the individual is unable to learn right and wrong like the rest of us, and can only approach the subject from an emotionless logical perspective. The brain areas involved in producing these crucial markers (incl. the amygdala, the orbitofrontal & ventromedial prefrontal cortices, and the cingulate) are often found to be dysfunctional or mal-developed in the antisocial brain.

Can knowledge acquisition fit an addiction model?

Can knowledge acquisition fall into an addiction model?

The thought of being addicted to knowledge appears somewhat ridiculous, after all, knowledge acquisition is seen as laudable and a necessity for a rich and fulfilling life. Knowledge is often heralded and even worshipped by cultures the world over; indeed knowledgeable individuals are valued and seem to command a certain level of respect. Knowing more about something than somebody else can even serve to boost one’s social status, and once we realize that we can never know everything, we mandate and support the use of academic professionals for the sake of finding out more truths; truths that we can lap-up, think about and discuss without doing the cognitive fieldwork. So even now we can begin to see the craving and the use and abuse of information. In short, we just cannot do without it.

Finding out something new can often be a thrilling experience, urging you on to build-upon this thrilling piece of new information, or seeking another hit of information to reward you with the same feeling as before. If humans can rapidly learn cues and contexts that predict the availability of addictive drugs (von de Goltz; Kiefer, 2009), what is to say they are not using the same cognitive machinery to learn where to obtain another hit of information? A friend, the Internet, a book, a library, or a professor, and this exchange can often take place quickly and efficiently in the comfort of one’s own home with the use of a phone, a computer or a television. Finding a source of knowledge is in fact rewarding in itself and will quickly become highly valued and used for future acts of knowledge acquisition.

Behavior that constitutes addiction is often known to be both impulsive and compulsive. Impulsivity is marked by rapid and unintended reactions to internal and external stimuli, without regard for negative consequences. Compulsive behavior is characterized by perseveration in the face of adversity (Koob, 2009). It is not hard to see how knowledge acquisition fits both of these behaviors. Reading news headlines, texting and responding to text messages, the sudden urge to see how an entertaining plotline continues at the point of a cliffhanger, the use of social internet sites to view a status update of friends (or enemies), and waiting by a phone in the anticipation of receiving important information all represent an impulsive need to know. And as our attention is directed at receiving this information we can easily become blind to the consequences. This can range from short term foibles like automobile accidents caused by using a phone or an animated conversation with a passenger, to the long term neglect of friends, family and pets if the behavior is not moderated.

Compulsive and impulsive behavior can be seen in the light of delayed reinforcement.  When we act to obtain reinforcement, there is always a delay between the action and the outcome, and thus to control the world successfully, animals must be able to use delayed reinforcement (Cardinal, 2001). How well we control our anxiety caused by the anticipation of knowledge is the difference between compulsive and impulsive behavior; the perceived reward remains the focus, but the time allowed by the individual to achieve their goal differs in accordance with their need. This is perhaps even analogous to the neuronal rewards for sex. Instant gratification by way of masturbation provides a reward for an impulsive appetite, whereas a compulsive appetite is not bound by the need of a quick fix, even though the means of achieving the goal may have developed into an unhealthy obsession. The need to know things instantly can invoke impulsive behavior, but by contrast scholastic behavior is rife with trials and tribulations, yet the anticipatory rewards contribute to the ongoing drive for worthwhile knowledge. Many scholars fight adversity every day for publication in prestigious journals and for validation among their peers, and the best way to do this is to present a new piece of knowledge or an original perspective on an existing idea and hope that it too hijacks the reward system of the right people and satisfies their need for knowledge gratification, or at least the needs of a potential market. Despite this immense adversity, tremendous efforts are made, regardless.

There is perhaps also a difference in the quality of this gratification. Information obtained by the need of a quick fix does not require much thought, whereas those who seek to satisfy their intellect’s engage in long bouts of sustained sensory stimulation to build up their cognitive machinery to better understand the world; the satisfaction gained from this is arguably a greater reward, such as an emotional “Eureka!” moment of discovery.

Dopamine could play a role in the addiction to learning. The mesolimbic pathway delivers dopamine into the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as planning, forecasting and working memory. Dopamine appears to play an integral role in cognition. Stimulation of the D1 receptor in the PFC is linked to increases in the amount of NMDA receptors and could possibly play a role in NMDA receptor processes in the PFC (Wolf ; Gao, 2008). Increased activity of NMDA receptors can in turn increase AMPA receptors, resulting in long term potentiation and the strengthening of the prefrontal synapse, something that could be vital for maintaining working memory and our natural capacities for problem solving and critical thinking. The study by Wolf et al. goes on to suggest that addictive drugs like cocaine, which block the re-uptake of dopamine, could enhance NMDA receptor activity, which could in turn facilitate the neuronal plasticity that focuses behaviors towards drug-seeking. If natural levels of dopamine are high or dopamine re-uptake is naturally low or inhibited, surely neuronal plasticity could focus on behaviors that utilize the prefrontal neurons, such as working memory and learning, albeit weaker than cocaine addiction? This could present a natural addiction to learning behavior, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

High concentrations of dopamine have been linked to increased levels of endorphins (an endogenous morphine-liked compound) in the mammalian brain (Neri et al., 2008). In rats, β-endorphin has been linked to memory consolidation and memory retrieval (Barros, 2003). Endorphins are well known for the feelings of euphoria produced when they bind to opioid receptors in the brain, and so if increases of dopamine result in increases of endorphins, there could easily be a desire for the organism to replicate the behavior that caused the good feelings. If high levels of dopamine are involved in strengthening synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex that are involved in cognition, and also producing higher levels of β-endorphin, which aids memory retrieval and memory consolidation, plus creating a mild euphoric feeling, it is not hard to see how the machinery involved in knowledge acquisition is tempting you to repeat this behavior.

I would like to suggest that the reward for learning has to be more than adaptive behavior that could promote the success of the organism. A neuronal reward system would encourage humans to learn and seek knowledge, which in turn would result in adaptive behavior, allowing for the successful cognitive evolution of the species. A biological system of addiction is perfect, as it gives the human a big push towards self-perpetuating beneficial learning behavior, even if misery and negative consequences are experienced along the way.

Paul Zak: Oxytocin and morality

I have to publish a link to this TED talk because it is awesome. Paul Zak has carried out numerous experiments that have explored the role of oxytocin in morality and social bonding. If you’re interested in how “brain chemicals” affect our behavior, then this is definitely worth checking out.

A dark side to the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R)?

Anyone interested in psychopaths and the history of the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist – Revised) should definitely take a look a look at this NPR interview with Dr. Robert Hare.

I don’t know why this surprised me, but it genuinely did. I have read a number of awesome things about the PCL-R, including seeing it noted as “The international gold-standard” for determining psychopathy. The PCL-R is often used in neurobiological studies when putting together an experimental group, to then see if there are statistically significant differences in the brain between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. As the article points out, the PCL-R has also predicted high rates of recidivism of violent criminals released on parole – so it’s good at predicting re-offending.

So what could be the problem?

It turns out that Dr. Hare was always worried about members of the criminal justice system using the test, not in the least because “branding” people a psychopath is a terribly serious thing to do that will effect the rest of that person’s life. Not only does psychopathy point to differences in the brain that are permanent, but there is currently no way to rehabilitate a psychopath (training them to become non-psychopathic). The article notes a man in prison in California, Robert Dixon, who has been branded a psychopath, and he is consequently having a hard time proving he isn’t a psychopath (if he isn’t a psychopath, this will be one hell of an uphill struggle, not in the least because psychopaths are known to be compulsive liars and prone to manipulating people). There are two points to realize here; firstly, if people believe you are truly a psychopath, then your cry for justice has just been silenced, and secondly, as you have just been silenced, you are open to be abused by mental health “experts” and the state.

Hare was also terrified to see that many people in the criminal justice system were not administering the PCL-R correctly (you have to be trained and you have to be a mental health expert). However, there were also differences in scores on the PCL-R when administered by a psychologist hired by the defense (scores were lower, thus less or non psychopathic), and psychologists hired by the prosecution (scores were higher, thus more psychopathic). This has prompted Hare to only want the test administered in scientific settings, where there is no immediate consequence on a person’s life.

Check out the NPR article for more information.

Ideology: Behavior protocol or excuse?

I am continually interested in how our beliefs shape our behavior, if indeed they do. This notion is especially important when considering extreme behaviors such as murder and pedophilia. While it is not uncommon to discover that mass murderers seem to have been “wrapped up” in some kind of sub-culture morality or extreme political/religious ideology, we also have to bear in mind that justifications for behavior come both before and after an act. If it comes before an act, was it ideology based (i.e. ideology governed the behavior), and if the justification comes after the act, is it an excuse (i.e. a rationalizing of the act – to oneself or the public)?

In terms of learning and repeating certain kinds of motor behavior, it seems obvious that certain repertoires get set into our brains (the cerebellum plays a key role in this). But how do beliefs manifest themselves as behavior? The obvious thing to do here would be to ask, “Okay, what is a belief?” – I’m going to work with the delightfully vague definition of “something I take to be true.” And what is truth? That’s an easy one. It’s something that provides me with reinforcement.

In an immediate way, we trust our senses and take the subsequent perception to be true because they facilitate our navigation and passage through our environment, providing us with very necessary information – if these senses fail us, then they are not being true (this happens even when there are no deficits/disorders/diseases hindering the transduction of environmental stimuli). But in a conceptual sense, knowing that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, firstly can be reinforcing because it promotes the positive feeling that I know something, and secondly, knowing this fact can facilitate the accumulation of more knowledge around it; everything we know about Dickens fits together and is facilitated by the fact that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. Clearly, our senses and our conceptions are not always right, which tells us something very important; learning requires us to shun the potential for reinforcement, and this can be very unsettling.

Ideology, therefore, is the stream of conceptions that has provided us with maximum amounts of reinforcement – more so than any other alternatives. This is clearly why we all have different “truths” about the world. So in terms of our beliefs governing our behavior, we are clearly expecting some kind of reinforcement upon the completion of the act; even suicide and the idea of suicide can seem highly rewarding in terms of how the individual sees their life, or how they would like to be remembered by others. The more planning and thought that goes into these acts, clearly increases the likelihood of the outcome. The more thought, the more anticipation of the reinforcer. The act becomes inevitable, at least for the individual, provided no one intervenes.  This anticipation, probably leads to a behavior protocol.

After the event, however, people still turn to ideology to justify it, and if this is the case, they probably never understood why they did what they did, or they were taking pleasure in toying with the media and the public (such as David Berkowitz telling the press that his neighbor’s dog was telling him to murder), or they felt telling the truth behind their motives would not be met with much sympathy or understanding. In the first instance, confusion, it is not hard to see that we do a lot without thinking – in fact, that’s a good thing because if we had to think through every little thing we do, such as preparing food, walking to and from the store, brushing one’s teeth, or picking up a hot drink, we would never get anything done. But this doesn’t really require ideology as an explanation, unless you want to get metaphysical. This lack of explanation could also apply to serial killers and serial rapists; they do what they do because the only way they get maximum exhilaration is by committing extreme acts and engaging in excessive drug and alcohol intake; ideology as an explanation is not required here. While there is this impulsive behavior, it must also be noted that many attacks are also highly planned, which takes us back to ideology motivating behavior.

It’s easy to see why psychopaths would throw ideology at the media; the public likes a good story and the fact that they are manipulating the public while remaining in the spotlight would no doubt assuage their ego; but as this is contrived nonsense, it is not an explanation of ideology explaining the act in question. Telling the truth about the thoughts and planning that went into a killing, is simply admitting that there was ideology before the killing.

Ideology has to be present before the act for it to be used as an excuse for the behavior. If ideology wasn’t there before the behavior, then you can’t make the behavior fit one. This is important because it tells you that the act was governed by impulses and the reptilian brain, rather than the use of the frontal lobe, which is involved in planning and forecasting. This difference can tell you something about the neurology of the individual, and tell you about the kind of person you are dealing with.