Monday, March 31, 2014

Mistakes were made (but not by me): book overview

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2007) Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.

This is an interesting book for educators to read. Some of the ways we go about justifying our decisions, whether good or bad, have implications for how we could approach understanding learning. After all, learning is one way we overturn some of our core beliefs, adopt new ways to understand and perhaps better ourselves and learn how to empathise with others.

Good examples from studies in psychology are used, although many of the studies reported involve the ubiquitous research participant, the American college student.

Topics covered include cognitive dissonance and why we indulge in self-justification. The reasons why we become enmeshed in vicious and virtuous circles are introduced and discussed. The pyramid of choice is also introduced as when a moral stance is initiated, two people who originally take on similar views, move to be far apart once they start to self-justify their moral choice.

Prejudice and biases, how we form them (indeed bias is one of the first things we use to make decisions through ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘na├»ve realism’) and how to counter are discussed in chapter 2.
The way our memory is ‘selective is the topic for chapter 3. Our memory is not a video recorder but filters the information to make sense. Hence, biases and stereotypes creep in and we are prone to suggestions and selective about what we chose to remember.  The perils of ‘imagination inflation’ are revealed through examples of people who genuinely believe that they survived concentration camps as a child or were abducted by aliens.

Chapters 4 to 7 continue the main theme, using examples from science and clinical diagnosis in chapter 4, law and order (including difficulties in overturning judgements even when alleged perpetrator is found innocent) in chapter 5, marriage and love in chapter 6 and war and peace in chapter 7. Chapter 8 discusses why it is so difficult for us to own up to mistakes and to change our beliefs, switch allegiances, move to a different way of seeing the world or to use other or new points of view. However, being able to recognise and then say ‘I made a mistake’ plus correct what our preconceptions have wrought is truly the mark of being a good person.

The books is pitched at an American audience as most of the examples, especially the political ones are drawn from American politics. There are comprehensive endnotes and an index but no list of references.
Overall, the book is worth a read as it brings up topics many of us would rather not face up to. A thought provoking book which draws on neuro psychology and contemporary examples to illustrate it's message. We need to be aware of our weaknesses and challenge our biases through careful, critical thought. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

The rational animal - book overview

The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think a book by D.T. Kendrick & V. Griskevicius (2013) published by Basic Books.

This book promotes an interesting concept within the discipline of evolutionary psychology. The core argument is that we have 7 personalities, driven by evolutionary ‘instinct’ sub-consciously driving the decisions we make and the ways we approach our lives.

The 7 subselves are:
Self-protection – the night watchman
Disease avoidance – the compulsive hypochondriac
Affliation – the team player
Status – the go-getter
Mate-acquisition – the swinging single
Mate-retention – the good spouse
Kin-care – the nurturing parent

The chapters than work through each subself and how our beliefs and perspectives are coloured by the way in which each subself organises the world. Each chapter has a snappy title and lays out the argument with contemporary and historical examples.

The last chapter recommends 3 lessons to cope with being a rational animal. These are:
Don’t assume other people are morons; rational self-interest is not in your self-interest; don’t leave home without consulting your other selves.

The book has notes for each chapter organised according to topics (which I really like), a comprehensive references section and index. Overall, an accessible but slightly over-hyped introduction to the concepts of evolutionary psychology. The book summarises some of the traits that have evolved through various socio-cultural and socio-material influences over the long history of humankind. Some of these traits are useful to our present lifestyles but other may impede or cause dissonance with current societal forces.

All in, an interesting read illustrating how emergent theories on evolutionary psychology is applied to explaining why and how humans react to various inputs and circumstances. There is a danger of the concepts in the book becoming enshrined in 'pop' psychology as although the authors provide compelling examples and conclusions make sense, the overall direction of the book seems to be to 'sell' the concept. So read with caution. However, the book is written in a clear, readable prose and provides a good introduction to precepts of evolutionary psychology.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The need to use findings from neuroscience with caution

Three books on why recent neuroscience discoveries need to be treated with caution.

First up, Kluge: the haphazard construction of the humanmind. An accessible 2008 book for laypeople by G. Marcus published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kluge promotes the idea that the development of the human brain through the process of natural evolution has produced a kluge. In engineering speak a kluge is a put together, sometimes inelegant, solution to a problem that works. So our brains have many quirks, making things like our memory system suspect (i.e. eyewitnesses cannot be relied on), our decision making systems fraught with bias and even the way we use language is filled with inconsistencies. The human body has several kluges arising from the evolutionary pathway from four legged mammal to two legged homo. So the brain is no exception.

The book is a short read of just over 150 pages. There are 8 chapters, with the first chapter providing a thought provoking overview of why the brain can be viewed as a kluge. The next 6 chapters cover a myriad of examples in support of the thesis including memory, belief systems, how we make choices, language development, our need to put pleasure before all else and the existence of ‘brain breakdowns’ in the form of mental illnesses and susceptibility to addictions.
Last chapter brings concepts together and recommends 13 ways to become better thinkers:
Whenever possible, consider alternative hypothesis; 
Reframe the question;
Remember always that correlation does not also equate to causation;
Check the size of the sample;
Anticipate own impulsiveness and precommit;
Don’t just set goals, make contingency plans;
Try not to make decisions when tired or stressed;
Weigh benefits against costs;
Imagine your decisions will be spot-checked;
Distance yourself;
Be aware of the vivid, personal and anecdotal;
Pick your spots;
Try to be rational.

Warns of the generalisation of neuroscience research, especially in politics, marketing and psychology / psychiatry (from studies of addition and brain diseases). In particular, explains how fMRI works. The images look very pretty but the colours refer to oxygen activity in a brain not actual ways in which neurones form connect or form connections. So, one needs to be very cautious about applying information from any form of brain imaging or brain activity measurement. We know too little about how the brain actually works but only have  guidelines to areas related to certain physical and cognitive activity. The role of neurotransmitters also not quantifiable through present means. As the brain works not only through neuro-activity but also through a whole host of bio-chemical triggers, dampeners etc. it is premature to use studies of the brain, to predict how someone reacts to stimuli through recording images of the brain.

The third book, The future of the brain: The promise and perils of tomorrow’s neuroscience (2006) by S. Rose. Covers the evolutionary development of the brain. Balances the emerging understandings we are deriving from recent neuroscience discoveries and cautions of how our learnings are still relatively new. This book melds some of the understandings I have gleaned from previous readings. The evolutionary development of the brain is summarised succinctly. Then aspects of neurophilosophy are discussed through chapters on becoming human, becoming a person and having a brain, being a mind. The prose is pitched at the level of a layperson with some understanding of neuroscience. The last chapters discuss the implications of current understandings are the need to be continually aware of the implications on social order and ethical and legal complications.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The problem of the soul: book overview and reflections

Owen Flanagan (2002) The problem of the soul: Two visions of the mind and how to reconcile them, published by Basic Books.

My meanders through neuroscience, neuropsychology, neurophilosophy and evolutionary psychology has led to some confusion as I wrestled with relativism, dualism, navitist, empirist etc. In short, exposure to a range of viewpoints and difficulty in weighing up the arguments from each perspective.

So, Flanagan’s book brings some relieve although no sure answers, and I accept there never will be. Life is a journey made exciting by meeting ongoing challenges. My present short term goal is to find some answers to whet my intellectual curiosity and to form a ‘to do’ list for my own learning. A bonus if some of this new learning merges with my academic work but I am not too fussed at this stage as all the new learning is challenging some of my belief systems and causing me to reassess things.

Back to Flanagan’s book, written in clear, accessible language. Some familiarity with how philosophical texts are laid out is helpful but the argument is signalled through the book and not obfuscated by dense text. The preface spells out the objective of the book and lays down foundation for understanding the two viewpoints – scientific and humanistic. Flanagan also used pertinent parts of his biography as a lapsed Catholic and academic, to illustrate important points through the book, modelling the good use of analogies to assist the reader to make their own meaning from the concepts explored in the book.

Flanagan introduces the ‘dualism’ way of understanding body and mind prevalent in Western thought and philosophy for two millennia. He argues that the scientific approach is now ascendant as the approach is starting to supply empirical explanations of how the brain works. Yet the humanistic and theological approaches also have some contributions.  The book discusses the ‘dualism’ between science with its logical, empirical study of the brain and how it works and the question of where then is the soul? If the brain is also the mind, then where is consciousness, free will and our identity? Does free will exist when we make decisions based on connections between our neural networks as triggered responses (neurotransmitters, hormones etc) and ‘conditioned’ responses? Does Ryle’s ‘ghost in the brain’ exist? Who and what are we as in ‘where is the I’ in the brain? 

Six chapters work through what makes us human covering the mind, free will, permanent persons, natural selves. The last chapter ‘ethics as human ecology’ discusses the implications of accepting the idea that science and the image of the mind in humanism and theology have common frameworks. In particular, the concept of freewill is possible regardless of whether accessibility to freewill is explained via scientific or humanistic / theological reasoning. However, the caveat is our brains are not designed to be rational due to its evolutionary development.

All in, a worthwhile read which is pitched at the right level for someone with sufficient curiosity and background to persist through the many concepts. I enjoyed the book as it provided a cogent discussion from the neuroscience and philosophical / religious points of view and provided sufficient space for the reader to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusions. After all, that is why we have a mind :) There is a need to be open to various viewpoints and to come to some resolution in one own's mind frame. Flanagan's book provides an example of writing that expands the reader's horizons without dogmatic flogging of one perspective. The book recommends respect for each approach towards understanding what makes us who we are. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

The brain and the meaning of life - book overview

Thagard, P. (2010). The brain and the meaning of life. Princeton University Press.

A prosaic book compared to the other books read so far this year in neurobiology, neurophilosophy and neuropsychology. As such, a pragmatic read for those who want to get to the knub of the matter and form a framework for their own understanding of the subject. Research from various disciplines are brought together to explain why we should abandon our concepts of soul, free will and immortality.  Alternatives are offered through recent findings in brain science to provide foundations for morality, reality and the meaning of life. This cartoon provides an apt illustration of how we 'overthink' when compared to our animal friends.

This book revolves around the theme of ‘why we live the lives we live’. It provides a good overview of how recent advances in neuroscience have changed the way the world is viewed. Importantly, the concept that individuals are made up of their physical brain and mind. Once the physical body dies, so does the brain and mind. So why are we here then? and what is our purpose in life?? Thagard argues that it is us that builds our reality, therefore  through our work, love and play, we express what we stand for and who we are.
The book is a good ‘textbook’ introduction to some of the complex ideas presented by other authors exampled by the Churchlands, see blog earlier this year. Thagard’s writing swings towards to academic but is made accessible through the use of analogies and examples.

There are extensive notes provided from each chapter, a glossary of neuroscience and philosophical terms, 15 pages of references covering the salient readings in the field and an index. Therefore, the book provides a good source for people seeking an introduction to the subject.