Tag Archives: brain

Extremely cynical: the Politics of Fear

I have tried to avoid making the topic of the Big Upshot political. I’ve skirted the line with that recent post about Ukraine and Russia. I admit that. For the most part, I just don’t think that I can do a lot of good in the political sphere. I could write inflammatory, poorly-researched posts about surface issues, but there are lots of those already. I could write well-researched, well thought-out, powerful analyses, but I suspect nobody would read them. So, instead, I try to focus on the humor of science and the humor of living around science.


But this was just too much. ScienceNow at Science Magzine (Arguably the most prestigious publication on the map) posted a piece called “The Politics of Fear.” Not too long ago, The Jester talked about our culture of Fear and Consumption.His opinion is that the fear-memes of that kind prey on our natural responses to scary, threatening things. Evidently, it is more than just speculation. The article over at ScienceNow sums up an article by Okley et. al. called “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits.” The article correlates genetics, fear responses and political decisions.

The implication is that some people have a more pronounced fear response – they are easier to scare and upset. And this correlates with the person for whom they vote. People who are threatened easily (“Are you threatening me?!”) probably are easier to influence with lies and scary pronouncements in paid TV commercials. Evidently, this is so much the case that they will vote against their own selfish interest.

I’m afraid that I have a hard time not reading this with a very cynical eye. The implication is that it is hopeless to try to have a good political debate (in my naivete, I thought I would see one this election). This scientific result implies that inflammatory, poorly-researched diatribes will win consistently over well-researched, well thought-out, powerful analyses. They will excite different kinds of brains, and I’ll let you guess which are more strongly represented in the general population.

Sorry for the cynicism today. I miss my girl.


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.”


myths, conspiracies and a little about the scary side of science

From the Berkeley Language Center – Speech Archive SA 0269: Huxley, Aldous. The Ultimate Revolution, March 20, 1962:

“We are in process of developing a whole series of techniques which will enable the controlling oligarchy… to get people actually to love their servitude… There seems to be a general movement in the direction of this kind of ultimate revolution, this method of control by which people can be made to enjoy a state of affairs which by any decent standard they ought not to enjoy.”

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932. Here are a few things in fairly recent news:

FDA Panel Backs Implant To Counter Depression – washingtonpost.com

CDC: Antidepressants most prescribed drugs in U.S. – CNN.com

Understanding individual human mobility patterns – Nature

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that people need to ‘conspire’. The memes of consumerism, quick fix, and the drive to power are going to have their effects irrespective of the existence of some shadowy cabal. But it’s hard not to see the parallels between Huxley’s Brave New World and the world we are all creating.


Are our fates determined by our genes? I doubt it. It’s not that simple even for worms.

I have done some work with the C. Elegans model organism. They are fun little bugs, and the PETA doesn’t get all up-in-arms when you shoot their brain with a laser. Here are some fun C. Elegans Facts:

wikimedia commons: adult caenorhabditis elegans

They are about 1 mm long at maturity
They are transparent
They have about 300 nerves
Their genome was sequenced in 1998
They can hunt down food on a plate
They have forms of memory and learning

Here are some things I have noticed: When illuminated with a blue laser, they panic and squirm all over the place. When you use a UV laser to blow up a portion of their outer cuitcle, they practically turn inside-out due to internal pressure. Some of the strains available through the WormBank have single nerve cells that express fluorescent protein, so that not only do their brains glow, but only the part you might be interested in glows.

Why are these critters cool? Well, despite being really small, they share a lot of biochemistry with humans. Their neurons function in the same way and the cellular processes that allow the worm to grow from an egg into a larva and from a larva into an adult are all analogous on a cellular level to changes in human development. But if you do an experiment on a worm, you can see what happens in a few days instead of months (rats) years (monkeys) or decades (humans). Also, there are some ethical constraints with humans that don’t apply to worms.

Here’s a new fact just released in Nature: they seem to have a sleep-like state. “Lethargus is a Caenorhabditis elegans sleep-like state” by Raizen et. al. “Conserved effects on sleep-like behaviour of homologous genes in C. elegans and Drosophila suggest a common genetic regulation of sleep-like states in arthropods and nematodes. Our results indicate that C. elegans is a suitable model system for the study of sleep regulation.”

They sleep, they eat, they learn (sort-of), they have lots of sex with themselves (they are hermaphrodites) and they make eggs. And they do it all in 3 days. And despite the fact that we know the fate of every cell in its body from birth to death – where it comes from, what it becomes and where it goes – we still don’t know how it manages most of its behavior.

I’d like to point out that this leaves very little hope for a reductionist perspective on psychology.  We know every connection of every nerve in this worm’s body and the thing is still a mystery. I wrote a post recently about how foolish it is to make sweeping assertions about genetic differences. Just to reiterate the big upshot: even in the simplest case, our understanding of the causes-and-effects that make up psychology is limited.  To think that a human being is perfectly predictable is… well… just plain dumb.