Monthly Archives: August 2008

Unconscious thought and an aritcle on the Unseen Mind

I’m back! I’ve just read a perspective over at Science that made me think of Blink.  I have mentioned Blink before. It’s even linked over in the sidebar. It’s a book I like to think about. Some have denigrated it as anti-intellectualism, but I disagree. In fact, I think the mistake is revealing.

An MRI of a human brain: how much is below the threshold of self consciousness

I will explain. The subject of Blink is intuition and unconscious thought. It turns out we have a lot of unconscious processing going on all of the time. The world we ‘see’ is a necessarily greatly filtered. If you had to deal consciously with facts like the number of spokes in every bicycle wheel that passed you or the color of the shoelaces on each stranger’s feet, or the smell of every room you entered, it is doubtful you could stay sane.

Our brains have mechanisms for dealing with these stimuli (‘inconsequential’ sights, sounds and smells). The filter is very effective, but not perfect. That is to say, sometimes it ignores things that are consequential, and other times it flags trivial things as important.

The point of Blink is that we can train these parts of our brain (the parts of which we are not consciously aware) to make them more effective. People do it all of the time. Sports coaches often can read subtle cues about an athlete’s movement that the average person couldn’t notice. And they may not even be able to express consciously exactly what it was that they noticed. But by being ale to see, they can help the athlete refine their skill anyway.

Intellectuals think that this is counter to rational thought. It’s a cop-out, they say, to rely on unconscious parts of your brain. People who see Blink as anti-intellectual have the notion that reasonable, intelligent people don’t have to resort to such mystical clap-trap to solve problems. Thinkers, they suppose, will rely on their conscious rhetoric and careful analysis just like they always have. But this misses the point. It only reveals that these intellectuals see a false division between their rational selves and their more intuitive unconscious faculties.

The truth is that nobody can avoid relying on these parts of their brain. We rely on unconscious parts of our brain whether we like it or not. The part of us that is our ‘self’ is not just the part that is narrating the internal monologue. It is an indefensible claim that the whole of our body including these lower parts of our consciousness is only present to get our higher cognitive faculties to meetings. The unconscious is as much a part of the whole as the conscious.

The part of me that is ‘me’ is more than the narrator of my internal monologue. Buddhists, who (arguably) have made the longest running investigation of consciousness, have known this for a long time. Science is finding it, too: “Studies such as that by Galdi et al. are documenting how the adaptive unconscious works and people’s limited introspective access to it. As these studies become more widely known, people might realize that … their conscious thoughts and feelings are but a small part of the workings of their minds.”


Some people are more Flexible than others

I’m still in Germany and I’m having a great time. Writing the dissertation is a slow, but steady process. I think I’m done processing the data for which I worked so hard last month. It lines up nicely.

I read an interesting article in Newsweek on Monday that I wanted to share with you all. The notion was that scientists (Frank et. al. 2007 ) found evidence that there is a genetic link to a person’s ability to learn from mistakes. I honestly don’t know how controversial that is. It seems pretty common-sense to me. Some people will be more able than others to discern when they have made a mistake, and upon realizing this, some people will be more able than others to change their own behavior.

If anything, the controversial issue (and the thing that is the subtle beauty of the proposition) is that this in not trained. It seems intuitive to think that if someone doesn’t learn from their mistakes, they could be trained to do so. This result, if true, suggests that the degree of trainability is, itself, variable.

I imagine this has implications for parents everywhere. Take a child who is less capable of intuiting that a repeated mistake will have repeatable consequences. That child should be reared differently than one who immediately modifies behaviors in after making a mistake. A child who responds immediately might be allowed to make some mistakes so that he will learn limits on his own before mistakes are life-threatening. On the other hand, such mistakes will be less useful experiences for the child with this newly identified genetic condition.

But what about the subtle implications? This also suggests that the degree of “habit plasticity” is variable among the population. It suggests that there are outliers on both sides: people who need external structure and limits to survive, and people who will immediately adapt their behavior to the social structure around them. Furthermore, I would venture to guess that this won’t correlate with intelligence or other personality traits (e.g. introversion/extroversion). In fact, it is more like a meta-trait.

Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has 4 dimensions along which a person will score somewhere on a continuum. People who score any given way on the test will tend to have certain preferred modes of living. What this new result suggests is that, for some people, this preference is more fixed than others.

If nothing else, it’s a caveat on any predictions based on most psychological tests.


Some thoughts on removing fluoride, if you don’t want fluoride


Against any good sense, I have been reading some… alternative… news sources. It’s good for the mind to explore other points of view. I’m not afraid of madness. Indeed, I would prefer to flirt with insanity than be comfortably ignorant.

In any case, if you have not heard, some people think fluoridating water pollutes our body’s essential purity. The purity of our essence, in essence. I think that’s rather silly, myself. Our bodies are quite capable of handling a lot of junk (see my post on mercury) so I’m not worried. But still, if you want to cut down on fluoride intake, that seems like something we should be able to do.

Fluoride reacts with glass at low pH, so I got to thinking about how one might put drinking water in a glass pitcher with a drop of citrus juice and let it sit for a while. Maybe that would lower the concentration. Or maybe if you added a bit of calcium carbonate (chalk, or Tums brand antacid) that would cut it down.

It turns out that the calcium thing has been tried in order to remove fluoride from wastewater streams… I wonder why there is a lot of fluoride in wastewater at such high levels that it needs to be removed. Probably it’s being recovered for industrial purposes. In any case. It only works at high concentrations according to X. Fan et. al.

They looked at using a bunch of different materials like quartz, calcite, and apatite to see how much and how fast fluoride would attach itself. If you want to remove something from water, it’s a lot easier if it will attach itself to a solid – then you just let it settle out.

According to that paper, my glass idea was not so hot. Glass is a lot like quartz, and quartz doesn’t adsorb much fluoride at all at low concentrations. Drinking water has about 2 parts per million of fluoride. At that concentration, hydroxy apatite (a kind of rock) is much better. At pH 6 (a droop or two of lemon juice should do it) a bit of hydroxy apatite sand will remove 90% of fluoride.

There are commercial products that use activated alumina to remove fluoride, but that seems like overkill and it ends up putting aluminum into the water, which might be just as bad. Probably neither are really bad, but if you want to remove something because of superstition, it seems like you might not want to put something else in to be superstitious about.

Apatite is a mineral you can dig up or buy pure from a chemical supplier for ~$1 per gram. Don’t go blaming me if you end up drinking hydroxyapatite slurry and it makes you sick. I’m not recommending anything. I would wash and filter anything I was going to try along these lines. And I certainly would make sure I didn’t drink mineral slurry. But, honestly, I don’t mind the fluoride.


Addendum as of 10-12-2008: It looks like reverse-osmosis filtration is really the way to go for this.  Reverse osmosis filtration removes basically everything and is a lot cheaper than bottled water (which probably has exactly the same crap you are trying to remove).

German engineering, incomprehensible bells


As you might have heard, I am in Germany. I like it a lot. The people here are helpful. And tolerant of my ignorance. I appreciate all of this. For the most part, German Engineering is everything I had heard and more. The trains and trams are on time and easy to navigate. The dorm room in which I am staying is nicely equipped and clearly designed to be very easy to clean – one could practically hose it out if need be. This is entirely unlike the dorm rooms I cut my teeth on in the states.

Those hexagonal beasts had so many nooks an crannies it was nearly impossible to get them clean. It was ridiculous. And two people in there! Three in some cases! Unbelievable. And expensive! almost three times the price of this little place I have rented for the month, even after the terrible exchange rate.

Yes, I will be here through August, but I’ll update as best I can.

Some fun lapses in German Engineering Sense: hotel shower faucet with a long metal handle (think kitchen faucet). It’s at elbow level, so is almost impossible to bump it when showering. Then try to reposition it quickly and brace yourself! You’re about to be scalded or frozen. Same hotel: both the room and building doors open inward and require a key to exit. The fire hazard is terrifying!

The other thing I’m not so fond of here is the bells. There’s a bell tower across the square form my room, and at totally random times (as best I can tell) it rings continuously for several minutes at a time. It’s like somebody just tells Quasimodo, “3:47? Sure, kid, knock yourself out. Good a time as any.”

I like bells as much as the next guy, but I’m thinking maybe ring it 4 times at 4 o’clock? That’s nice. Ring it off the hook for 5 min at 3:47? I don’t know. I thought that maybe it was a special occasion. Glockeläutentag or something. But no, it’s just how it works here.


Addendum: today, the noon bell actually corresponded to noon, amazingly. What was great was that a dog down in the square below my window started to howl and didn’t stop until the bells did. It pretty much summed up my feelings.