So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan?  A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers.  Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy.  Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases.  Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit).  Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake.  Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents  suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake).   Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.

 

The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us.  Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible.  We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world.  Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways.  Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.

 

Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all.  It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events.  Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views.  The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations.  Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.

 

History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies.  In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures.  All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods.  How else could they make sense of such tragedies?  This seems to be how we are put together.

 

A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children.  They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish.   They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression.  This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.

 

In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs.  What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall).  But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events.  So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment?  Bering suggests that:

 

“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”

 

So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.

 

“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”

 

When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.”  We desperately need to understand.  Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.

 

“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”

 

The implications of this understanding are profound.  We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time.  We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility.  As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.

 

References:

 

Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=signs-signs-everywhere-signs-seeing-2011-03-13&print=true

 

Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262

 

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Narrative Fallacy

13 March 2011

Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things.  We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures.  We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet.  Our feats have been wondrous.  We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space.  We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind.  We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter.  This list could go on and on.  We are very capable and very smart beings.

 

Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible.  Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable.  I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week.  I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.

 

It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years.  Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct.  What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it.  But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”

 

We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology.  The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years.  What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.

 

Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes.  These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment.  We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force.  Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years.  I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control.  And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.

 

Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today.  Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments.  Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did.  As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.

 

We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world.  Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.”  All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be.  We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.

 

It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is.  Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior.  And how about bad behavior and acts of nature?  Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism.  One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy.  I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent.  Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us!  If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness.  I could go and on about our silly inclinations.  We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence.  In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion.  We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts.  Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances.   We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story.  This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.

 

Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind.  For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly.  We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails.  Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting.  Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up.  Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness.  Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence?  I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.

 

I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination.  Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of  them.  This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories.  At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms).  I’m guessing that it will be informative.

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We all love a good story.  Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out.  It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature.  It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.   This latter tendency troubles me.  Why?  Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.

 

This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  Understanding this is paramount!

 

I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog.  I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs.  And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based.  I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain.  This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view.  I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity.  But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.

 

I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality.  Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us.  Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth.  Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.

 

Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs.  We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own.  I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature.  But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”

 

We as a species are better than that.  We know how to over come these inclinations.  We have the technology to do so.  It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively.  It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature).  It necessitates the scientific method.  It requires open peer review and repeated analyses.  It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle.  It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.

 

I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests.  Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.

 

My positions are not based on ideology!  They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.

 

Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference.  My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking.  This is a huge and critical difference.  Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one.  Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality.  Enough is enough!

 

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Several times over the last couple weeks I have been asked about brainwaves and other measures of the brain. For example, what differentiates a CAT Scan from an EEG, MRI, fMRI, and a PET Scan? And what about those beta, alpha, theta, and delta brain waves?  What are they all about? What do these technologies really measure and what can we infer from them?

 

Before I address these questions, it is important to understand that the brain is an incredibly complicated electrochemical organ composed of an estimated 100 billion neurons (brain cells) interconnected by 100 trillion synapses. Brain activity occurs through a complex interplay of electrical activity within each cell and chemical activity across the synapses (minute gaps between neurons). Once a neuron fires it sends an electrical signal the length of the cell where it releases specific chemicals (called neurotransmitters) into the gap between itself and neighboring neurons. Those neurotransmitters may traverse the gap and attach to neighboring cells’ dendrites (nerve firing receptors), and perhaps trigger a continuation of the signal (via electrical responding) within those adjacent neurons. Every thought we have, every sight we see, everything we feel, taste, and smell occurs through this chain of events.

 

Obviously, the complexity of this series of events are beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to understand this basic and fundamental fact before one can hope to differentiate the various brain measures. It is also important to understand that there are a number of biological systems that service this neuronal network (e.g., glial cells, veins, and arteries). The glial cells in particular are referred to as “housekeeping” cells protecting, supporting, providing nutrition for, and facilitating communication among the neurons. These cells are the most abundant cells in the brain, but they are not considered to be neurons (MedicineNet, 2004).

 

At a basic level, brain activity can be measured by the apparent electrical conductivity going on among the neurons. This is what an Electroencephalography (EEG) measures.  A series of electrodes are placed on the scalp where they detect and measure this electrical activity.  EEGs have been used for years for diagnostic purposes primarily for epilepsy. Formerly, this technique had been used for measuring the impact of strokes and tumors. This function has been replaced by more sophisticated technologies that image the brain (CAT and MRI Scans).

 

EEGs are relatively inexpensive but valid measures of brain activity. This technology was used in the research I discussed in my last post (The Effect of Low SES on Brain Development), but they can also detect brain death.  When someone refers to brain waves, they are referencing the brain activity measured via EEG.  Various states of arousal are associated with specific patterns of electrical activity that when measured denote specific wave patters.  Those wave patterns are widely known as Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta as shown in the image on the right along with the associated arousal states.

 

These universal brain wave states reflect neuronal activity levels associated with cognitive and bodily activity levels.  If you are sleeping yet not dreaming, your brain’s activity level is likely to be represented by high amplitude low frequency Delta waves.  At the other extreme, an awake and alert state is likely to be indicated by high frequency Beta waves.  These states are not mutually exclusive and any may coexist at any time based on arousal levels.

 

Much pseudoscience focuses on selling strategies to accomplish “preferred” brain wave states, with little actual data to substantiate claims.  Proceed with caution in this realm.

CAT Scan of Brain

 

Whereas the output of an EEG is a series of wavy lines, newer technologies actually allow us to image the brain itself or at least proxies of activity.  A computerized axial tomography scan, a CAT or CT scan, is an x-ray procedure that combines multiple x-ray images with the aid of a computer to generate cross-sectional views of the internal organs and structures of the body. The image at right is a CAT Scan from Cedars-Sinai.

Imagine the body as a loaf of bread and you are looking at one end of the loaf. As you remove each slice of bread, you can see the entire surface of that slice from the crust to the center. The body is seen on CT scan slices in a similar fashion from the skin to the central part of the body being examined. When these levels are further “added” together, a three-dimensional picture of an organ or abnormal body structure can be obtained” (MedicineNet.com, 2011).

MRI Image of Brain

 

Although CT technology is helpful to look at the structure of the brain and to identify pathologies, it is just a snap shot in time, giving no information about the processes going on within the structure itself.  This is also the case for MRI Scans.  Non-invasive Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnets, radio frequency pulses, and a computer to produce very detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures without ionizing radiation (x-rays).  MRIs provide higher resolution images than x-ray, ultrasound or CAT scans (RadiologyInfo.org).

fMRI Images

 

But, if you want to know what is going on in the recesses of the brain you need a functional MRI (fMRI) or a PET scan.  The fMRI uses the same technology as an MRI but rather than creating a structural image of the tissue itself, the fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain in order to identify, in real-time, specific locations of brain activity associated with thoughts, external stimuli, or activity.   Changes in blood flow captured on a computer, help scientists understand how the brain works.  The image above and to the right are fMRI scans showing brain activity in empathy-generating centers of the limbic system in normal individuals (left) and in psychopathic individuals (right) when they are exposed to violent images (Credit: Department of Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Heidelberg).

Composite fMRI Images

 

The image on the left shows areas of brain activity associated with being in passionate love (“Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American. Graphic by James W. Lewis, West Virginia University).

 

The current state of the art is this fMRI technology because of its superior resolution relative to a PET Scan that formerly comprised the only imaging technology that also indicated brain activity.

 

PET Scans or Positron Emission Tomography, is a metabolic imaging tool that is based on molecular biology. PET scan images detail biochemical changes in the body’s tissues, as it traces the body’s metabolic activity. Unlike the newer fMRI technology, PET scans necessitate injections of radioactive material into the body.  Since brain activity involves an increase in blood flow, more blood and radioactive material is reflected in the subsequent images.  The differences between PET and fMRI scans can be seen by comparing the PET scan image below and the fMRI images above.  The PET Scan below was published by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.  They discovered a key mechanism in the brains of people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) dementia. The study is the first to document decreases in the neurotransmitter dopamine in those with the condition, and may lead to new, more effective therapies (see HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered).

This article spans the current brain measuring, imaging, and mapping technologies.  Each approach has specific applications and unique advantages and disadvantages.  The major advantages of MRI technology include the resolution of its images and the fact that use does not involve x-rays or any radioactive dyes or contrasting agents.  However, because MRI machines use 12 to 35 ton magnets, individuals with ferrous metal implants are necessarily excluded from MRI scans for obvious reasons.  There are other devices out there with variations on the MRI theme, each serving very unique imaging niches.  I won’t go into those here.

 

An MRI costs on average between $1100 and $2700 (depending on geographical location, facility, and body area imaged), while a CAT Scan costs between $700 and $3000.  An fMRI costs up to $2000 per imaging hour.  PET scans run between $3000 to $7000.  These costs do explain in part why wide-spread use of these imaging technologies are not common in large research projects.  They also obviously contribute to the high costs of medical care. But, oh what wonders they offer in our efforts to understand the most complicated thing known to humankind.

 

References:

Brandt, R. (2007). What can Neuroscience tell us about evil. Technology Review. MIT

Brookhaven National Laboratory. (2004). HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered. Brookhaven National Laboratory News.

Cedars-Sinai. (2011). CT Brain with or without Contrast.

Fischetti, M. (2011). Passionate Love in the Brain, as Revealed by MRI Scans. Scientific American. “Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” February 2011 issue.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  (2008).  New Imaging Techniques That Show the Brain at Work: Brain Scans That Spy on the Senses.

MedicineNet.com. (2011). Computerized Axial Tomography.

MedicineNet.com. (2004). Definition of Glial Cell.

RadiologyInfo.org. (2010). MRI of the Head.

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It has long been known that children from homes at the lower end of the Socioeconomic spectrum do more poorly on intelligence and achievement tests than well off children.  These less fortunate children also tend to do more poorly in school, have increased learning and behavioral disorders, and increased drop out rates.  A great deal of effort has been directed toward understanding these differences, and mounting evidence points squarely at the effects of environmental deprivation.  You might think that this conclusion is a “no brainer,” but, for some time, it has not been so clear.  Some researchers have found evidence to implicate genetic factors for these differences.  Over the last several years more conclusive evidence is pointing at environmental rather than genetic determinates.

 

Last week I discussed some ground breaking evidence from behavioral geneticists that asserted that environmental determinates play a crucial role in mental ability scores, but only for Low Socioeconomic Status (LSES) children.  I noted that “For [LSES] children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability.  Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment.  While for [High SES (HSES)] children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores.  Environment still plays a role but much less so.  Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.

 

Questions have persisted for quite some time as to what factors influence these differences.  Research to date has implicated variables like parental attention, number of words spoken in the home, access to books, and familial stressors; however, the actual physiological or anatomical mechanisms (e.g., neurocognitive processes) that result in these discrepancies have remained elusive.  You see, many factors have been found to correlate with the underachievement of LSES children, but not until a study by UC Berkley Neuroscientists, did we have conclusive direct evidence of how these factors may actually produce neurological differences that play out in these cognitive, achievement, and behavioral gaps.

 

Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and School of Public Health report in a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that typically developing nine- and ten-year-olds who only differ in terms of SES,  have detectable differences in prefrontal cortext responsiveness.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is known to be involved in problem solving and creativity.

 

In a press release about this study it was noted (Sanders, 2008):

 

Children of high  SES show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (M. Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.

 

“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

 

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”

 

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”

 

These scientists suspect that “stressful environments” and “cognitive impoverishment” are responsible because in previous research on animals, these very factors have been shown to affect development of the prefrontal cortex. “UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance.   And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

 

These factors lead to important differences in brain functioning.  As the lead author noted in an interview:  “Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.” (Sanders, 2008)

 

One question that arose in my mind as I reviewed this paper was whether something other than SES was responsible for this effect. I asked Dr. Robert Knight this question:

 

The HSES and LSES kids differed in both prefrontal cortex response level and standard scores on intelligence test subtests [Intelligence data was also collected as part of the study. On multiple incidences LSES children obtained significantly lower subtest scores than HSES children.] Is it not possible that genetic traits (i.e., lower IQ) might be responsible for the lower prefrontal cortex activity level, not SES?

 

Dr. Knight referred this question to the led author, Dr. Mark Kishiyama, who responded in personal correspondence:

 

This study was designed to reveal the effects of poverty on brain function rather than to identify specific causes. While we cannot rule out the potential effects of genetic factors, on the basis of prior evidence, we proposed that the primary influences were environmental (e.g., stress and a cognitively impoverished environment). There is considerable evidence in both human and animal studies indicating that stress and environmental factors can contribute to disruptions in brain development. In addition, we believe that these effects can be reversed with early childhood interventions (see also Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

 

The implications of these findings are profoundly important and grim. If we accept these results and do nothing, then we all are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of poverty.  We know that there are important differences in how LSES and HSES children are raised.  Education, training, and intervention programs must focus on narrowing this gap.  I contend that parent education programs like Baby College administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone must must be closely examined and if shown to be effective, replicated on a broad scale.  I also contend that programs like Early Head Start and Head Start should focus their efforts on proven strategies that close these gaps.  This is essential in order to build a just society whereby we all get a more fair shot at rising up and contributing fully to society.

 

References:

 

Kishiyama, M. M., Boyce, W. T., Jimenez, A. M., Perry, L. M., and Knight, R. T. (2009). Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 21:6, 1106-1115.

 

Sanders, R. (2008). EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids. UC Berkley Press Release.

 

Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D.  (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.

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Several of my latest posts addressed evidence that challenged some of my long held beliefs about the relative value of parenting style on child outcomes such as mental ability and happiness.   In Ten Best Parenting Tips: But does it really matter? I challenged a recently published study in Scientific American: MIND touting the “ten best” parenting tips.  The relationship between parent reported child outcomes and parenting behaviors was measured using a correlation coefficient.  The author did not, however, control for heredity.  It is well known that genes play out in the expression of personality type and a broad array of complex behaviors.  So why would it not play out in the happiness, health and functioning capacity of children?  If you don’t control for heritability is it not possible that well functioning adults might just pop out well functioning kids?  Well it certainly is!  And might we wrongly attribute parenting style for something actually under the influence of genes?  Yes indeed!

 

I then explored Does Parenting Style Really Matter? and suggested that the current research from behavioral genetics provides a great deal of evidence concluding that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the personality and intelligence outcomes of children.  Heredity (genes) accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remaining 40-50% of the variance (Pinker, 2002).

 

The major problem with the above referenced data has been the admitted narrowness with regard to the age and Social Economic Status (SES) of the participants.  For the most part, the studies on twins and adopted children were conducted on middle class families with little relative diversity.  On top of that, there is a dearth of research focusing on early childhood.  This narrowness limits the generalization of findings across different populations and across age levels.  Clearly, it is conceivable that parenting style will have varying levels of influence on child outcomes across the developmental lifespan.  Over-generalization may lead to faulty thinking and thus very dangerous policy decisions.

 

Throughout my training and subsequent professional development, as a psychologist, I have been exposed to data suggesting that there is a fairly strong positive correlation between Social Economic Status (SES) and mental ability.  The same is true with regard to academic achievement.  The underlying message had always been that environmental determinates were responsible for these correlations.  Again, the problem with this thinking is that the research upon which such beliefs were formed has largely lacked appropriate controls for heritability.  Correlation is not causation and all that jazz!

 

So what happens to the data when children across the SES spectrum are assessed using techniques that control for genes?  One particular study from 2003 suggested that “the heritability of cognitive ability in 7-year-old twins was only 10% in low-SES families but was 72% in high-SES families.”  (Tucker-Drob, Rhemtulla, Harden, Turkmeimer & Fask, 2011)  This suggests that the environment, including perhaps parenting style and experiential deprivation, play a much bigger role in hindering cognitive development in low SES children versus higher SES children.  Further research has found similar, although not so striking, SES differences.  Regardless, research within the field of behavioral genetics “suggests that the environment plays a substantial role in the expression of genetic variance in cognitive ability over the course of child development” (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).  Regardless, questions persist about the degree of influence SES plays in mental ability outcomes and about what point in time the shared environment might affect development.

 

In a new study just published in Psychological Science by Tucker-Drob, et al. (2011) the authors looked at the mental ability of 750 twins (25% identical, 35% same sex fraternal, and 40% opposite sex fraternal), at 10- and 24-months of age.  This sample closely represented US population statistics including a diverse cross section of children across the SES and racial spectrum.  And the results were quite different.

 

At ten months of age, the authors report that the shared environment (the home) played the dominate role in the variance of mental ability scores in all households – rich or poor.  There was very little apparent variation in mental ability attributable to heredity.  At 24-months however, things get a little more complicated.  For low SES children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability.  Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment.  While for high SES children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores.  Environment still plays a role but much less so.  Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.

 

Genes by SES

 

Looking at ability gains within individuals between the first assessment at ten months and the retest at 24 months, the high SES children made more gains than those from low SES homes.  The difference was modest; however, a child in poverty is likely, simply as a function of SES, to score one standard deviation below a very well to do child on the mental ability test.

 

These findings suggest that for very young children, environment matters a great deal.  This is particularly true for infants rich or poor; but it becomes much more important for poor toddlers.  Poor kids are more vulnerable to the adversity associated with deprivation.  Many factors have been examined in order to explain this discrepancy.  The author of this current study wrote:

 

“…compared with higher-SES parents, lower-SES parents spend less time with their children (Guryan, Hurst, & Kearney, 2008), are less able to allocate time spent with children in accordance with their children’s developmental needs (Kalil, Ryan, & Corey, 2010), and are less sensitive in responding to their children’s signals (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; De Wolff & Ijzendoorn, 1997).”  (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).

 

One particularly illuminating study published by Hart and Risley in 1995 reported “that at age 3, children in professional families heard an average of 2153 words per hour, while children in working class families heard 1251 words per hour and children in welfare families heard only 616 words per hour.   In professional families, parents not only talked more but also used more different words and provided a greater richness of nouns, modifiers and verbs. Parents spent a lot of time and effort asking their children questions, affirming and expanding their responses and encouraging their children to listen and notice how words relate and refer in order to prepare their children for a culture focusing on ‘‘symbols and analytic problem solving’’ (see Hart and Risley, 44 p 133). On the other hand, parents on welfare spent less time talking while they more frequently initiated topics and used more imperatives and prohibitions. These parents were more concerned with established customs such as obedience, politeness and conformity. Working-class families showed a mixture of the two cultures using imperatives and prohibitives while using rich language to label, relate and discuss objects.” (Duursma, Augustyn, & Zuckerman, 2008)  The net effect is that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than do children of professionals by the time they reach their forth birthday.

 

The implications of these differences are profound.  Replication of this research is necessary, but we also need greater clarification of the environmental attributes that culminate in the mental ability discrepancies.  Should these SES differences stand up to the rigors of scientific scrutiny through replication it will be absolutely essential to invest further in early childhood programs.  Jonah Lehrer (2011)  likewise noted that: “Such statistics have led many researchers to highlight the importance of improving the early-childhood environments of poor children. Economists such as James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, have long advocated for increased investments in preschool education, but this latest study suggests that interventions need to begin even earlier. One possible model is the “Baby College” administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to equip brand-new parents with better parenting skills.”

 

These findings also reinforce the importance of programs such as Head Start and particularly Early Head Start.  It is concerning that these very programs are often the most vulnerable to budget cuts in difficult times.  I can’t help but wonder if we would prioritize early childhood development differently if the masses and our politicians were truly aware of these issues.  Perhaps we should learn more about this and help spread the word to friends, family, and our representatives.  Are we as a society really willing to passively submit to this self perpetuating cycle of poverty?

 

References:

 

Duursma, E., Augusta, M., & Zuckerman, B. (2008).  Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood.  Vol 93 No 7.

 

Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).

 

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

 

Lehrer, J. (2011).  Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter. Wall Street Journal.com.  1/22/11

 

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D.  (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.

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Schadenfreude

22 January 2011

As I think back about my childhood there are a few dark memories that elicit some shame.  The specifics of these rare events are vague in my mind, but I do recall my reaction and the subsequent feelings aroused deep within.  Part of my shame stemmed from the certainty that I alone was so inclined to find humor in the misfortune of others.  Come to find out, later in life, the Germans have a very specific word for my inappropriate reactions.  The word, Schadenfreude, has no English equivalent, but imagine my relief to learn that my strong compulsion to laugh when a playmate injured himself was not some deep seated character flaw.  I like to consider myself a sensitive and caring guy; generally, pretty empathetic.  That was true, I am told, even when I was a child.  But, on occasion, I really struggled with a deep and overpowering reflexive drive to heartily laugh when one particular friend of mine managed to hurt himself.  When anybody else got hurt I tended to writhe with a sick feeling in my knees.  Not so with this guy.  He was older than I and although I loved spending time with him, I also experienced a fair amount of envy in his presence.   I admired him for his confidence, competence, and he seemed to possess all the wondrous possessions of my dreams.  As I’ve come to learn more about schadenfreude, I now realize that this envy probably played out in the expression of this emotion.

 

So what is this schadenfreude response and where does it come from?  First, what is it?  The word itself is derived from schaden, which in German means adversity or harm and freude, which means joy.  Literally the term means deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune.  Although people rarely acknowledge this feeling, it is very common and probably as old as humankind.  It drives the infatuation people have with celebrities and politicians particularly when it comes to their foibles and faux pas.   It also drives the success of slap stick comedy and the humor derived from the ubiquitous home videos of men being unexpectedly struck  in the private parts.  Who has not seen and laughed at least one of these videos?  This response transcends all of human kind and it certainly keeps the tabloids and paparazzi in business.

 

Schadenfreude has of late become an area of scientific inquiry.  Little by little we are acquiring more and more information about this phenomena.  Studies of empathy using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) mapped out, in real time, active centers of the brain as individuals were exposed to another person’s pain. The fMRI detected activity in the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices.  These areas of the brain are associated with pain responses and the subsequent emotions.  Empathy is likely a brain-based response whereby the witness re-lives the negative emotions of pain without actually enduring the physical stimuli.  A surprising result of this research was that when some subjects (men in particular), witnessed unfortunate things happening to bad people, the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) tended to light up.  The NAcc is a collection of neurons within the striatum, which is thought to be a major reward center in the brain.  The striatum play important roles in our experiences of pleasure, laughter, reward, and even addiction and aggression.

 

We have learned even more from the work of neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi and his colleagues at Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences.  They asked 19 adult volunteers to read scenarios describing the successes and misfortunes of fictional characters and to report their feelings about these people as they were undergoing an fMRI. They discovered that reports of envy were associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (the same pain center noted above).  Envy, it seems, like empathy, is an unpleasant experience, processed in the same way as is physical pain. On the other hand, the feelings of pleasure associated with another’s misfortune were associated with increased activity in the striatum (pleasure center).  In contrast to empathy and envy, schadenfreude actually feels good.  Another person’s misfortune can trigger the same positive feelings as those associated with eating a great meal, hearing a really funny joke, or watching your team win the big game.

 

So, it seems, we are hard wired to feel schadenfreude.   There must have been some evolutionary advantage conferred to those who experienced this emotion.  Or perhaps, it may simply be secondary to some other traits that did offer selective advantages.  Emily Anthes (2010) in an article in Scientific American: MIND noted “from an evolutionary standpoint, schadenfreude makes a lot of sense.  The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for instance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill.”  There is a certain degree of social relativism at work here.  Another’s misfortune stands you in better relative position for limited resources and thus survival. That’s the evolutionary psychology angle.  Although the survival piece is certainly less relevant today, sexual selection and economic competition still are.

 

As it turns out, one is more likely to experience schadenfreude when one envies or harbors disdain for the victim of misfortune.  And lack of personal familiarity with the victim also seems to be at play.  Familiarity is most likely to elicit the empathy response.  So, I guess there is no need for me to feel shame for this particular dirty little secret.

 

Speaking of dirty little secrets, I only felt a modicum of shame about the pleasure I experienced upon learning of the downfalls of Senator Larry Craig and Pastor Ted Haggerd.  These self-righteous men publicly and vociferously professed the immorality of homosexuality while privately partaking in same gender sexual activity.  I’m guessing that hypocrisy like true evil holds a special schadenfreude spot in our NAcc.

 

For a humorous spin on this concept listen to the song on this subject from the racy Broadway play called Avenue Q.

References:

 

Anthes, E. (2010). Their Pain, Our Gain: Why Schadenfreude Is Best Enjoyed in Groups. Scientific American: MIND.

 

Gorman, J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Schadenfreude. New York Times

 

O’Connor, A. (2004). Brain Senses The Pain Of Someone Else’s ‘Ouch!’.  New York Times.

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 | Posted by | Categories: Neurology |

Tragedies like the events of January 8th in Tuscan shake the nation.  We grieve for the victims and struggle to make sense of it all.  The dialogue that has followed the event is not surprising.  People want and need to understand why a person would do such a thing.   These events are mind boggling and the human brain does not tolerate the ambiguity and senselessness of such acts.  We gain solace by filling in the blanks with assumptions about the gunman’s sanity or motives.

 

We respond by presuming that only a mad man could commit such heinous acts.  Or, we conclude that because the principle target was a politician, that his behavior must be ideologically driven.  These assumptions provide a framework within which the event is easier to comprehend.  The notion of insanity simplifies the situation: mental illness becomes the culprit.  The notion of it being a politically motivated act also allows us to point a finger.

 

In fact, however, we don’t know what brought this young man to make such a terrible choice.  The incomplete mosaic of the shooter’s life drawn from disparate snapshots by relative strangers suggests erratic behavior and disjointed thoughts.  Was he abusing substances or evidencing symptoms of psychosis?  As of right now we just don’t know.

 

We do know, however, that he and his family lived a reclusive life and that he struggled to exhibit sufficient adaptive skills to successfully navigate the worlds of work and college.  I suggest that although it may be easy to conclude that Loughner is deranged, it is important to remember that insanity is not a prerequisite for such atrocious behavior.  You may assume that only insane people would commit such crimes – but the reality is that ordinary people are capable of doing equally terrible things if their beliefs and their culture condone it or even honor it.

 

It is for example quite wrong to assume that the 9/11 terrorists were insane.  Their faith in their god and the teachings of their religious book as well as the value put on such beliefs by the narrow sect of their particular extremist culture made them heroes and martyrs, destined for eternal bliss.

 

There are other situations where the sanity line is a bit murkier.  Timothy McVeigh was apparently paranoid and quite capable of rationalizing his behavior by revising or cherry picking historical facts: but he too was highly motivated to act out his own form of justice for crimes that he believed were committed by the Federal Government (e.g., Waco, Ruby Ridge).  His perspective about right and wrong was different than most of ours, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him as insane.  We don’t understand or align with his thinking and thus conclude that he must be mentally ill.  The brutality of his behavior certainly bolsters such a conclusion.  But recall that he was a decorated soldier in the Gulf War.  He was a trained killer.  The enemy, at some point following his discharge from the Army, shifted from Saddam Hussein to the US Federal Government.  His beliefs justified his behavior in his eyes.

 

There are legitimate examples of heinous crimes committed by individuals with clear mental illness issues such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy.   Seung-Hui Cho (of Virginia Tech) also comes to mind.  Jared Loughner on the surface appears to be more in this category, but it is a presumption at this point.  There is no evidence that he was driven by a different set of moral imperatives spurred on by rancorous political hate speech.

 

Regardless, as many pundits have proclaimed, there is a fear that the vitriol that abounds in our political discourse may inspire and incite the Timothy McVeighs of the world.  Frankly, my first assumption was that the attack on Giffords was inspired by the very hate and fear emanating from the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.  Again, it is imprudent to draw such conclusions, but when someone has a differing political perspective and you target them as enemies of the state, destined to destroy America, then you have touched your toes on the line!  And when you incite hate and associate the opposing side with Hitler and Soviet Stalinists, then you have crossed the line.  Compound such rhetoric with images of violence and you have become grossly irresponsible.

 

I implore all US citizens to embrace civility and reject those that employ hatred to further their ideology.  We have all too real and tragic examples of the consequences of this behavior.  Lets devote our attention to civil dialogue about the issues that challenge our people and our planet.  The issues and we the people, deserve better!

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Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.

 

Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.

 

As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.

 

I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.

 

Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.

 

There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.

 

The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?

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As I read Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature I was, for lack of a better word, flabbergasted, about the extent of acrimony that seemingly persists regarding the nature versus nurture debate.  This parley, from my naive perspective, was over long ago.  Yet Pinker detailed the extensive history to which some intellectuals, even today, attack the notion of any genetic contribution to traits such as IQ, behavior, political views, religious views, and personality.

 

For me there is very little question about the impact of genes.  It is clear as day in my family.  My daughter for example is very much like me.  And I see the influence of genes nearly every day in my practice.  As a psychologist with a specialty in evaluating and treating difficult to manage children (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and ADHD), I often work with families who have an exceptionally strong willed and self directed child.  The children that have these latter traits, without Autistic like symptoms, are often classified as Oppositional Defiant.  Along with such independent mindedness, typically comes an explosive temperament and a highly sensitive and precocious level of personal dignity.   It is important to note that a vast majority of the time, the child is a proverbial chip off the ole-block: usually, the father was similarly quite difficult to manage as a youngster.

 

One with a nurture bias might suggest that my daughter and those oppositional children I see are simply products of their environment.  But here is what is interesting.  Often in the families I serve, there are other well behaved, well adjusted, and polite children.  To suggest that the environment uniquely and exclusively shaped the behavior and affect of the troubled child would suggest that there was a substantial level of differential parenting going on in the home.  This scenario is far too common to be a product of differentiated parenting style.  And thorough behavioral analysis almost always rules out this variable.  Socially, the parents are blamed for their bad kid, not because of their gene contribution, but because their alleged poor parenting practices.  Well, most often, poor parenting is not the cause of the problem!  And my daughter’s similarity to me unfolded despite my attempts to foster in her, her own unique identity and insufficient environmental influence.

 

The argument really is moot.  Genes do matter!  The evidence is substantial and it transcends the anecdotes I just shared.  Only those with an ideological position inconvenienced by this reality argue otherwise.  I actually prefer the idea that genes don’t matter.  It would give me greater capacity to affect change in homes given my behavior analytic skills.  It would also give me more hope that my daughter will not develop the same geeky interests that I have.  Too late!  She is a geology major.  Like me, she loves rocks.  It would also give me hope that she wont develop the same G/I ailments that have incapacitated me, my mother, and my grandfather. Again too late.  Sadly, the other day she had to buy some Tums.

 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that issues such as personality and IQ, for example, would have any genetic determinism.  It seems too limiting, too materialistic, and too deterministic.  People, I think, are more comfortable with the idea that they can affect change – that they can arrange outcomes, that the power is in our hands.  But the real power, it seems, is spread out – residing both in our hands and in our genes.  Environmental determinism, in fact, is more consistent with my political and social views, but no matter how inconvenient, I am compelled by evidence to soften my stance regarding this romantic notion.  How I wish that DNA did not enter the picture with regard to such issues.  Or do I?  Had it not, we wouldn’t be here to write/read such musings.  You’ve heard of the whole evolution by means of natural selection thing, haven’t you?

 

As it turns out, we are products of our genes and our environment.  No duh!  Debate over!  Right?  Nope!   I had assumed that it was commonly accepted that genes matter.  I had no idea that acknowledging this reality was in a sense sacrilegious to some.  Although Pinker made clear the debate, I suspected that perhaps this was an esoteric intellectual war of words limited to philosophical types with high brow notions about macro economic models and so on.  But, I became more aware of the lingering embers of environmental determinism as a result of a firestorm that erupted last week regarding an essay written by an environmental advocacy group spread about on Twitter and a subsequent article posted in the Huffington Post.  These articles essentially minimized genetic determinism in major health issues due to the failure of the Human Genome Project to isolate specific genes responsible for specific illnesses.  Out with the genes – in with the environment the proponents celebrated.   Environmental determinists pounced on the absence of evidence as if it were evidence of absence (Carmichael, 2010).  As it turns out, genes are really complex and diseases are influenced, it seems, by gene cohorts rather than any one specific gene.  I am less familiar with the research regarding genetic influence on disease but the tone of the banter reminded me of the debate about human nature detailed by Pinker.

 

I have discussed in several recent posts the impact of genes on important issues such as personality, adaptive functioning, and even political perspectives.  The psychologist Eric Turkheimer pulled together the unusually robust evidence from extensive studies of twins (fraternal and identical) reared together and apart as well as studies of adopted children relative to biological children and concluded that there are three important laws that help explain the development of personality characteristics and intelligence.   The three laws are as follows:

 

  1. All Human traits are heritable;
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes; and
  3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

 

These laws are best summarized based on current research from behavioral genetics as follows:

 

  1. Heredity accounts for about 50% of the variance in the adaptive functioning outcomes of children.
  2. The home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10%, and
  3. The child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%)  (Pinker, 2002).

 

Corresponding laws regarding the variants affecting diseases are perhaps unclear at this time.  But denial of genetic influence is much like the denial of the heliocentric theory of the solar system or the arguments put forth by Creationists and anti vaccine advocates.  They are guided by ideological notions that hang by a thin thread.  Something near and dear to the hearts of the proponents of exclusive environmental determinism is threatened by evidence.  The only recourse is denial.  Its an old and tired song and dance.  Genes matter – but not exclusively.  Environment matters – but not exclusively.  Get used to it.

 

References:

 

Carmichael, M. (2010). DNA, Denial, and the Rise of “Environmental Determinism”. Wild Type. http://marycarmichael.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/dna-denial-and-the-rise-of-environmental-determinism/#comments

 

Katz, D. (2010).  Is There a Genie in the Genome? The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/is-there-a-genie-in-the-g_b_792844.html

 

Latham, J., & Wilson, A. (2010). The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage? The Bioscience Resource Project Commentaries.  http://www.bioscienceresource.org/commentaries/article.php?id=46

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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