2011 October 19 Wednesday
Brain Regions Correlate With Facebook Socializing

Are these findings on online socializing regions of the brain really reporting brain defects of online addicts or superior mutations that adapt one to the massive online environment in which more socializing takes place? Some areas of brain grey matter are bigger in people with large Facebook friend lists.

Scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust have found a direct link between the number of 'Facebook friends' a person has and the size of particular brain regions. In a study published today, researchers at University College London (UCL) also showed that the more Facebook friends a person has, the more 'real-world' friends they are likely to have.

However, the researchers are keen to stress that they have found a correlation and not a cause: in other words, it is not possible from the data to say whether having more Facebook friends makes the regions of the brain larger or whether some people are 'hard-wired' to have more friends.

So what's the direction of the arrow of causation? I'm guessing it is from brain region size to number of friends. But some volunteers could be plunged into big friend networks and agree to spend hours every day conversing on Facebook to see if they grow more gray matter.

I'd like to see the size of Facebook friend lists and levels of activity in Facebook correlated with IQ and its main two sub-components.More grey matter could just be boosting verbal skills. But maybe it is boosting enjoyment of interacting and having friends or alters behavior in some other way that either attracts one to others or others to oneself.

Professor Rees and colleagues at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging studied brain scans of 125 university students – all active Facebook users – and compared them against the size of the students' network of friends, both online and in the real world. Their findings, which they replicated in a further group of 40 students, are published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Professor Rees and colleagues found a strong connection between the number of Facebook friends an individual had and the amount of grey matter in several regions of the brain. Grey matter is the brain tissue where the processing is done. One of these regions was the amygdala, a region associated with processing memory and emotional responses. A study published recently showed that the volume of grey matter in this area is larger in people with a larger network of real world friends – today's study shows that the same is true for people with a larger network of online friends.

What would be especially interesting: Do people with big friend networks initiate most of the friending? (and why does my browser thing friending isn't a legal verb?)

But here's where it gets even more interesting: Some people have larger brain regions that boost their online networks without boosting their real life networks. Are these people who can't handle large doses of other humans in real life but can handle text from other humans online?

The size of three other regions – the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex – also correlated with online social networks, but did not appear to correlate with real-world networks.

The superior temporal sulcus plays a role in our ability to perceive a moving object as biological, and structural defects in this region have been identified in some children with autism. The entorhinal cortex, meanwhile, has been linked to memory and navigation – including navigating through online social networks. Finally, the middle temporal gyrus has been shown to activate in response to the gaze of others and so is implicated in perception of social cues.

Dr Ryota Kanai, first author of the study added: "We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have – both 'real' and 'virtual'. The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time – this will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains."

Then there's my standard question about all cognitive differences caused by innate differences that probably have a large genetic component: Once it becomes possible to do offspring genetic engineering and choose genetic variants for one's kids will parents elect to make their kids more inclined to form more online or offline or both kinds of relationships?

Will some heavily future-oriented parents figure it is best to just boost the he right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex in order to adapt their kids to online life? I'm thinking that'll be a mistake because by the time the babies born in 2020 reach their teen years online life will happen mostly with full res video feeds into implanted brain jacks. We'll see real faces (or at least really good simulations acting as agents for real humans) and we'll need in-person style social skills to deal with this much richer online environment.

By Randall Parker    2011 October 19 09:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2011 May 08 Sunday
Simon Baron-Cohen Wants To Treat Empathy Deficiency

Narcissists, each of you may believe you are the greatest being on the face of the planet and a gift to the rest of us that we fail to appreciate. But Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen wants to help you develop more empathy.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale -- these people have "zero degrees of empathy."

But rather than labeling them as evil, Baron-Cohen says they should be seen as sick, or "disabled," and we should seek to understand why they have such an empathy deficiency and help them replace it.

So naturally I'm picturing some narcissists thinking that Baron-Cohen needs to learn how to love and worship and serve them.

I know I have some psychopathic readers who are aware they are fortunate not to be burdened by the mind-clouding weakness of empathy. What do you think of Baron-Cohen's views? Does he fail to appreciate the advantages of a psychopathic CEO who will fire inefficient people and allow the firm to flourish? Does he not realize that psychopaths can serve useful purposes?

Also, hey high functioning autistics: He researches you too as directory of the Cambridge Autism Research Center. Does he have views at odds with those autistics who do not think they are defective?

Baron-Cohen has a new book about to come out about brain research on empathy entitled (at least in America) The Science of Evil. I haven't read it but it sounds interesting.

My take: while a lack of empathy combined with some other traits can cause humans to harm and kill others it would be a mistake to believe that we should make everyone equally empathetic and much more empathetic. Too often empathy causes people to enable others to be lazy, destructive, and irresponsible. The tendency to experience very strong emotional desires, of any form, clouds the mind and blocks development of needed understanding.

By Randall Parker    2011 May 08 11:38 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (27)
2011 January 26 Wednesday
Psychopaths Like Brain Injured With Low Empathy

Some day neurosurgeons could offer to turn you into a psychopath if you so desired.

People diagnosed as psychopathic have difficulty showing empathy, just like patients who have suffered frontal head injury. This has been shown in a new study from the University of Haifa. “Our findings show that people who have psychopathic symptoms behave as though they are suffering frontal brain damage,” said Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, who conducted the study.

At the risk of stating the obvious: If an injury to a specific part of the brain reduces empathy then empathy is a product of that part of the brain.

Do you think of psychopathy as a disorder?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that finds expression in extreme anti-social behavior and intentional harm to others, including a lack of compassion and empathy.

My guess is psychopathy is not a disorder but, rather, a trait that exists due to selective pressures. In other words, psychopathy increased reproductive fitness.

Not all psychopaths lack the ability to comprehend emotions felt by others. It isn't that they lack the ability to model the emotions of others. Rather, their emotional reaction to their own modeling of others is different than it is in most people. This is, by the way, why I fear future artificial intelligences. I do not expect they will have behavior-restraining empathy.

An existing explanation for such behavior suggests inability to comprehend the existence of emotions in others. However, the fact that many psychopaths act with sophistication and deceit with intention to harm others, indicates that they actually have a good grasp of the mental capacity of others - and are even capable of using that knowledge in order to cause them harm.

Adrian Raine has previously found that psychopaths can be divided into successful and failed (i.e. jailed) types. The successful ones do not have an asymmetry in the hippocampus that the unsuccessful ones have.

By Randall Parker    2011 January 26 11:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2010 December 26 Sunday
Big Amygdala Means Bigger Social Network

Does a person with a long Facebook friend list have a bigger amygdala on average? Do the people voted most popular in high school also have big amygdalas? Researchers find a positive correlation between amygdala size on a brain scan and the size and complexity of one's social network.

"We know that primates who live in larger social groups have a larger amygdala, even when controlling for overall brain size and body size," says Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, who led the study. "We considered a single primate species, humans, and found that the amygdala volume positively correlated with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans."

The researchers also performed an exploratory analysis of all the subcortical structures within the brain and found no compelling evidence of a similar relationship between any other subcortical structure and the social life of humans. The volume of the amygdala was not related to other social variables in the life of humans such as life support or social satisfaction.

"This link between amygdala size and social network size and complexity was observed for both older and younger individuals and for both men and women," says Bradford C. Dickerson, MD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Research. "This link was specific to the amygdala, because social network size and complexity were not associated with the size of other brain structures." Dickerson is an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and co-led the study with Dr. Barrett.

This is the very same amygdala that when dysfunctional can cause fearlessness. So I wonder: Do people build up large social networks as a protection mechanism? Do they want lots of friends because back when our ancestors lived in paleolithic tribes one needed friends as allies for protection? Does a fearless person have fewer friends?

What I also wonder: Will prospective parents, empowered with the ability to genetically engineer their offspring, opt to give them really big amygdalas? Will future humans be super-socializers, maintainers of massive networks of social and business relationships?

Ask yourself: If you could give your present or future kids a greater ability and propensity to maintain social networks would you?

By Randall Parker    2010 December 26 09:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2010 August 03 Tuesday
Brain Structure Differences Between Cultures

Do brain structures develop differently in different cultures?

Where you grow up can have a big impact on the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and even how your brain works. In a report in a special section on Culture and Psychology in the July Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Denise C. Park from the University of Texas at Dallas and Chih-Mao Huang from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discuss ways in which brain structure and function may be influenced by culture.

There is evidence that the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures versus individualistic Western cultures affects both brain and behavior. East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning. For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants' eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our culture may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

Westerners have thicker frontal cortexes for reasoning whereas East Asians have thicker cortex areas for perception.

While numerous studies suggest that culture may affect neural function, there is also limited evidence for the effect of cultural experiences on brain structure. A recent study conducted by Park and Michael Chee of Duke/National University of Singapore showed evidence for thicker frontal cortex (areas involved in reasoning) in Westerners compared to East Asians, whereas East Asians had thicker cortex in perceptual areas.

Whether the cause is genetic or cultural (or possibly a mix of both) people with different brain structures are going to perceive reality differently.

What I want to know: When it becomes possible to choose between genetic variants that control some aspects of brain structure will people in different cultures on average choose brain structures that produce offspring who basically are better adapted for and more comfortable with a single culture? Will different human populations therefore drift further apart in how they conceptualize and process their environments?

It is possible that psychological differences around the world have been drastically understudied because most psychological research is still done in the United States and mostly on populations of unrepresentative university students.

Also see my previous posts Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English and Parts Of Brain Used For Math Differ For English, Chinese Speakers.

By Randall Parker    2010 August 03 10:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2010 April 12 Monday
Genetic Engineering Could End Racial Fears

Of course my more astute readers already knew the subject title to be true. Turns out children with the mutation that causes Williams Syndrome do not fear people based on their race. The conclusion is obvious: idealistic social engineers should become idealistic genetic engineers. Why use exhortation and teaching when gene therapy done on embryos can accomplish so much more?

Children with the genetic condition known as Williams syndrome have unusually friendly natures because they lack the sense of fear that the rest of us feel in many social situations. Now, a study reported in the April 13th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, suggests that children with Williams Syndrome are missing something else the rest of us have from a very tender age: the proclivity to stereotype others based on their race.

The findings support the notion that social fear is at the root of racial stereotypes. The researchers say the results might also aid in the development of interventions designed to reduce discriminatory attitudes and behavior towards vulnerable or marginalized groups of society.

"This is the first study to report the absence of racial stereotypes in any human population," said Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim/University of Heidelberg, who coauthored the paper with Andreia Santos and Christine Deruelle of the Mediterranean Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Marseille.

Take away the ability to feel fear and you won't feel fear? Who needs it? It is a pretty negative emotion. Isn't negativity destructive? (can some literalists please get indignant in the comments?)

Everyone can be friends.

"The unique hypersociable profile of individuals with Williams syndrome often leads them to consider that everybody in the world is their friend," Meyer-Lindenberg said. "In previous work, we have shown that processing of social threat is deficient in people with the syndrome. Based on this, we suspected that they would not show a particular preference for own-race versus other-race characters. The finding that racial stereotypes in children with Williams syndrome were completely absent was nevertheless surprising in its degree."

Of course we'll have to genetically re-engineer everyone so that everyone wants to be friends. Thrilled at the prospect of gaining so many friends I can't imagine many opposing the gene therapy treatment that'll erase their fears.

In all seriousness, I expect future political conflicts will be fought over what types of personalities and other cognitive qualities should be genetically engineered into offspring. As soon as it becomes possible to alter offspring cognitive tendencies and abilities at the embryonic stage a battle (quite possibly violent) will rage over what should be put in or taken out of future human brain designs.

We'll face the same problem with artificial intelligences. The stakes will be even higher for AI.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 12 10:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2009 December 01 Tuesday
Lonely People Reinforce Each Others' Feelings Of Loneliness

Lonely people intensify each others' feelings of loneliness and they become even more isolated as a consequence. Obviously what lonely people need are robot friends who tell them unlonely thoughts in response. Break the vicious cycle with artificial intelligence. Then the robots could connect up to social networks and connect the lonely people to happy chirpy people.

Loneliness, like a bad cold, can spread among groups of people, research at the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego and Harvard shows.

Using longitudinal data from a large-scale study that has been following health conditions for more than 60 years, a team of scholars found that lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others. Gradually over time, a group of lonely, disconnected people moves to the fringes of social networks.

“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, one member of the study team and one of the nation’s leading scholars of loneliness. “On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

Other members of the study team were James Fowler, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California-San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Medicine and Professor of Medical Sociology in the Harvard Medical School.

Before relationships are severed, people on the periphery transmit feelings of loneliness to their remaining friends, who also become lonely. "These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater," said Cacioppo, the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.

Or how about a drug or gene therapy that blocks that feeling of loneliness? Anyone reading this done a recreational drug that makes them feel happy and highly connected to the world? Now, if a drug could be found that does that without frying your synapses it might treat loneliness and make people more out-going. Think this would work?

In the future will more or fewer people feel lonely?

By Randall Parker    2009 December 01 04:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2009 August 23 Sunday
Pain Gene Variant Increases Social Rejection Pain

If someone rejects you and you feel pain rather than blame them you should blame your mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1).

UCLA psychologists have determined for the first time that a gene linked with physical pain sensitivity is associated with social pain sensitivity as well.
Their study indicates that variation in the mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1), often associated with physical pain, is related to how much social pain a person feels in response to social rejection. People with a rare form of the gene are more sensitive to rejection and experience more brain evidence of distress in response to rejection than those with the more common form.
The research was published Aug. 14 in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and will appear in the print version in the coming weeks.
The findings give weight to the common notion that rejection "hurts" by showing that a gene regulating the body's most potent painkillers — mu-opioids — is involved in socially painful experiences too, said study co-author Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA assistant professor of psychology and director of UCLA's Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.

Crushes and love gone bad can leave you hurt and rejected. Suppose you got the painful version of OPRM1. Swear off relationship entanglements and socializing to avoid running the risk of social pain? Or risk suffering in a quest for happiness and bliss in the perfect relationship?

Suppose you are a player Better to surreptitiously get a saliva or tissue sample from a new flame to genetically test. Then you can find out if they will take it poorly if you do not intend a permanent relationship.

In the study, researchers collected saliva samples from 122 participants to assess which form of the OPRM1 gene they had and then measured sensitivity to rejection in two ways. First, participants completed a survey that measured their self-reported sensitivity to rejection. They were asked, for example, how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I am very sensitive to any signs that a person might not want to talk to me."
Next, a subset of this group, 31 participants, was studied using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at UCLA's Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Center during a virtual ball-tossing game in which participants were ultimately socially excluded. Subjects were told that they would be connected over the Internet with two other players who were also in fMRI scanners and that they would all be playing the interactive ball-tossing game. In reality, however, participants were playing with a preset computer program, not other people. Initially, participants were included in the activity but were then excluded when the two other "players" stopped throwing the ball to them.
"What we found is that individuals with the rare form of the OPRM1 gene, who were shown in previous work to be more sensitive to physical pain, also reported higher levels of rejection sensitivity and showed greater activity in social pain–related regions of the brain — the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula — in response to being excluded," Eisenberger said.

I'm thinking that male pick-up artists will some day use genetic samples taken from their targets to figure out how best to play each woman. Will she be overly sensitive to being teased? Or will merciless teasing go over well? It is all in the genes.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 23 02:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 July 15 Wednesday
Brain Area For Social Cognition Present By Age 6

By age 6 brain areas for modeling others have shown up and begun functioning.

Social cognition—the ability to think about the minds and mental states of others—is essential for human beings. In the last decade, a group of regions has been discovered in the human brain that are specifically used for social cognition. A new study in the July/August 2009 issue of the journal Child Development investigates these brain regions for the first time in human children. The study has implications for children with autism.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University scanned the brains of 13 children ages 6 to 11 as they listened to children's stories. At the moment the plot of the stories revealed what a character wanted, believed, or knew, or presented the mental state of the character, the researchers observed increased activity in these specific brain regions. When the story turned to other topics—such as the physical world or the visual appearance of the characters—activity in these brain regions went back down.

Do people on the autistic spectrum have smaller brain areas dedicated to social cognition? Do adult Aspies have less brain area dedicated to reading others and modeling others? If so, do they have more brain area dedicated to path and reasoning?

By Randall Parker    2009 July 15 10:49 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 June 10 Wednesday
TV Watching Cuts Into Sleep Time?

TV is bad for your health.

According to the authors of the study, Mathias Basner, MD, MS, MSc, and David F. Dinges, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, they were surprised to find that watching television seemed to be the most important time cue for the beginning of the sleep period, rather than hours past sunset or other more biological factors. So, in fact, TV may make people stay up late, while alarm clocks make them get up early, potentially reducing sleep time below what is physiologically needed.

Sleeping less than 7-8 hours daily impairs alertness and is associated with increased obesity, morbidity and mortality. Despite this fact, up to 40 percent of Americans sleep for less than the recommended time per night.

"Given the relationship of short sleep duration to health risks, there is concern that many Americans are chronically under-sleeping due to lifestyle choices," said Dinges. Dr. Basner added that "According to our results, watching less television in the evening and postponing work start time in the morning appear to be the candidate behavioral changes for achieving additional sleep and reducing chronic sleep debt. While the timing of work may not be flexible, giving up some TV viewing in the evening should be possible to promote adequate sleep."

Since lack of sleep causes obesity and that leads to metabolic syndrome that television calling you from across the room is killing you. You might find it hard to resist the lure of the television. It is everywhere. Many are pulled in by the siren's song. But wait, I wrote this post to let you know there is a way to escape: you just have to move and then you will find yourself safely living in an Amish paradise.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 10 11:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 May 20 Wednesday
Brain Scans Can Detect People Persons?

People who like to engage more with other humans have more tissue in certain parts of their brains.

Cambridge University researchers have discovered that whether someone is a 'people-person' may depend on the structure of their brain: the greater the concentration of brain tissue in certain parts of the brain, the more likely they are to be a warm, sentimental person.

Why is it that some of us really enjoy the company of others while some people are detached and independent? In an effort to explore these questions, Maël Lebreton and colleagues from the Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with Oulu University, Finland, examined the relationship between personality and brain structure in 41 male volunteers.

The volunteers underwent a brain scan using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to rate themselves on items such as 'I make a warm personal connection with most people', or 'I like to please other people as much as I can'. The answers to the questionnaire provide an overall measure of emotional warmth and sociability called social reward dependence.

The researchers then analysed the relationship between social reward dependence and the concentration of grey matter (brain-cell containing tissue) in different brain regions. They found that the greater the concentration of tissue in the orbitofrontal cortex (the outer strip of the brain just above the eyes), and in the ventral striatum (a deep structure in the centre of the brain), the higher they tended to score on the social reward dependence measure. The research is published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.

Ten or twenty years from now this research will lead to the identification of genetic variants for personality types and then the ability to choose these genetic variants for their children.

Once people gain the ability to choose brain genes for their future children will they choose genes that make their kids more personable and socially adept?

On a similar note some small fraction of people excel at face recognition.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 19, 2009 – Some people say they never forget a face, a claim now bolstered by psychologists at Harvard University who've discovered a group they call "super-recognizers": those who can easily recognize someone they met in passing, even many years later.

The new study suggests that skill in facial recognition might vary widely among humans. Previous research has identified as much as 2 percent of the population as having "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by great difficulty in recognizing faces. For the first time, this new research shows that others excel in face recognition, indicating that the trait could be on a spectrum, with prosopagnosics on the low end and super-recognizers at the high end.

The research is published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and was led by Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, with co-authors Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Brad Duchaine of the University College London.

The research involved administering standardized face recognition tests. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests—higher than any of the normal control subjects.

So will people choose to give their offspring great skills at recognizing faces? Will future humans become more able to perform at face recognition?

By Randall Parker    2009 May 20 12:19 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2009 February 10 Tuesday
Mice Suggest Genetic Basis For Empathy

Empathy probably has a genetic basis.

MADISON — The ability to empathize with others is partially determined by genes, according to new research on mice from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).

In the study, a highly social strain of mice learned to associate a sound played in a specific cage with something negative simply by hearing a mouse in that cage respond with squeaks of distress. A genetically different mouse strain with fewer social tendencies did not learn any connection between the cues and the other mouse's distress, showing that the ability to identify and act on another's emotions may have a genetic basis. The new research will publish Wednesday, Feb. 11, in the Public Library of Science ONE journal at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004387.

Like humans, mice can automatically sense and respond to others' positive and negative emotions, such as excitement, fear or anger. Understanding empathy in mice may lead to important discoveries about the social interaction deficits seen in many human psychosocial disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, depression and addiction, the researchers say. For example, nonverbal social cues are frequently used to identify early signs of autism in very young children.

"The core of empathy is being able to have an emotional experience and share that experience with another," says UW-Madison graduate student Jules Panksepp, who led the work along with undergraduate QiLiang Chen. "We are basically trying to deconstruct empathy into smaller functional units that make it more accessible to biological research."

Here comes a question that is predictable for long time readers (at least those with the right genetic complement): Will people choose to make their genetically engineered offspring more or less empathetic than the average human is now?

By Randall Parker    2009 February 10 11:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2009 January 27 Tuesday
Genetically Inherited Places In Social Networks

One's place in social networks is at least partially genetically inherited.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. and SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Can't help being the life of the party? Maybe you were just born that way. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego have found that our place in a social network is influenced in part by our genes, according to new findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This is the first study to examine the inherited characteristics of social networks and to establish a genetic role in the formation and configuration of these networks.

The research was conducted by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who is professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, Christopher Dawes and James Fowler, both of UC San Diego.

"We were able to show that our particular location in vast social networks has a genetic basis," says Christakis. "In fact, the beautiful and complicated pattern of human connection depends on our genes to a significant measure."

Feel doomed to a life on the periphery? It could be your genetic fate. Does that make you any more reconciled to your lot in life?

My reaction to the next paragraph: of course if genes affect personality they'll affect structures of social networks. Think gregarious people are going to play the same roles as the painfully shy? Of course not.

While it might be expected that genes affect personality, these findings go further, and illustrate a genetic influence on the structure and formation of an individual's social group.

The researchers found that popularity, or the number of times an individual was named as a friend, and the likelihood that those friends know one another, were both strongly heritable. Additionally, location within the network, or the tendency to be at the center or on the edges of the group, was also genetically linked. However, the researchers were surprised to learn that the number of people named as a friend by an individual did not appear to be inherited.

The study included national data (from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health) for the social networks of 1,110 adolescent twins, both fraternal and identical. The researchers compared the social networks of the identical twins to those of the fraternal twins, and found greater similarity between the identical twins' social network structure than the fraternal twins' networks.

I like this idea: Behaviors that make people more alone and on the edge reduced their risk of dying from bubonic plague and other diseases. The selective pressures to boost human immune response have been very strong in the last few thousand years in urbanizing populations and in grain farming populations as these changes in lifestyle brought more people into close contact.

There may be an evolutionary explanation for this genetic influence and the tendency for some people to be at the center while others are at the edges of the group, according to the researchers. If a deadly germ is spreading through a community, individuals at the edges are least likely to be exposed. However, to gain access to important information about a food source, being in the center of the group has a distinct benefit.

"One of the things that the study tells us is that social networks are likely to be a fundamental part of our genetic heritage," says Fowler, associate professor of political science at UC San Diego. "It may be that natural selection is acting on not just things like whether or not we can resist the common cold, but also who it is that we are going to come into contact with."

Of course social networks are a product of our genetic heritage. Look at other animal species. The amount that they socialize and the nature of their social structures (more or less hierarchical, with males or females in charge, and other characteristics) vary by species. Humans are just another species that happens to be smarter. We still have a large number of social behaviors with obvious genetic causes such as sexual attraction and tendencies to form hierarchies.

This all reminds me of a new book by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. I'll be writing a review of it Real Soon Now. In the mean time, start reading the first installment of Michael Blowhard's interview of Greg about the book.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 27 12:09 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 January 13 Tuesday
Cell Phone Conversations Dangerous In Cars

Laboratory research shows that cellphone conversations are dangerous even if you do not hold the phone.

Laboratory experiments using simulators, real-world road studies and accident statistics all tell the same story: drivers talking on a cellphone are four times as likely to have an accident as drivers who are not. That’s the same level of risk posed by a driver who is legally drunk.

Why cellphone use behind the wheel is so risky isn’t entirely clear, but studies suggest several factors. No matter what the device, phone conversations appear to take a significant toll on attention and visual processing skills.

It may be that talking on the phone generates mental images that conflict with the spatial processing needed for safe driving. Eye-tracking studies show that while drivers continually look side to side, cellphone users tend to stare straight ahead.

The interesting thing about this story is that conversations with passengers and listening to the radio do not pose a risk. In fact, passengers are seen as reducing accident risk.

Technological advances are producing more and more effective ways to interrupt our minds and distract us. What I'd like to know: do people at work who do design work become less productive if they have activated cell phones? Do the phone interrupts come often enough to hobble design development? Do cell phones even reduce the amount of mental effort that people put into pondering problems while the are driving?

I've previously read that if you hear only one half of a conversation this is more disruptive to your thinking than if you hear both halves of a conversation. There's a natural flow in thinking that you can do if you can built a complete context. But when half the conversation is missing perhaps your mind puts too much effort into trying to figure out what the other half is. For this reason I oppose lifting bans on phone use in airplanes. I do not want to be mentally distracted by hearing half of phone conversations.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 13 11:41 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (43)
2008 October 29 Wednesday
Brain Scans Of Reactions To Faces Predict Election Winners

You might believe you have very sophisticated reasons for favoring one political candidate or the other. And that might even be true. But did those sophisticated reasons precede or follow your brain's reaction to the faces of the candidates? Brain scans of people viewing photos unknown politicians (and even their stated reactions to the pictures) can predict election outcomes.

PASADENA, Calif.-- Brain-imaging studies reveal that voting decisions are more associated with the brain's response to negative aspects of a politician's appearance than to positive ones, says a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Scripps College, Princeton University, and the University of Iowa. This appears to be particularly true when voters have little or no information about a politician aside from their physical appearance.

The research was published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (http://scan.oxfordjournals.org) on October 28.

In general elections some vote the straight party ticket. So their assessments of faces do not matter. But even the consistent partisan voters evaluate ideologically similar candidates in primaries (at least in electoral systems that have primaries). In those primaries the partisans probably vote on appearances just as the middle-of-the-roaders do in general elections.

You do not even need brain scans to predict election outcomes. Just show people pictures for a tenth of a second. We do not need to suffer thru listening to political commentators babbling for months. We can get the same results in seconds.

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, the researchers obtained high-resolution images of brain activation as volunteers made decisions about politicians based solely on their pictures.

The researchers conducted two independent studies using different groups of volunteers viewing the images of different politicians. Volunteers were shown pairs of photos, each with a politician coupled with their opponent in a real election in 2002, 2004, or 2006. Importantly, none of the study subjects were familiar with the politicians whose images they viewed.

In some experiments, the volunteers had to make character-trait judgments about the politicians--for example, which of the two politicians in the pair looked more competent to hold congressional office, or which looked more likely to physically threaten the volunteer. In other experiments, volunteers were asked to cast their vote for one politician in the pair; once again, their decisions were based only on the politicians' appearances.

The results correlated with actual election outcomes. For example, politicians who were thought to look the most physically threatening in the experiment were more likely to have actually lost their elections in real life. The correlation held true even when volunteers saw the politicians' pictures for less than one tenth of a second.

Importantly, the pictures of politicians who lost elections, both in the lab and in the real world, were associated with greater activation in key brain areas known to be important for processing emotion. This was true when volunteers simply voted and also when they closely examined the politicians' pictures for character traits. The studies suggest that negative evaluations based only on a politician's appearance have some effect on real election outcomes--and, specifically, may influence which candidate will lose an election. This influence appears to be more uniform than the influence exerted by positive evaluations based on appearance.

But we'll keep on having elections because most people don't want to admit they are using appearances to choose leaders.

My question: How accurate are people at reading character in faces? Do the politicians with more threatening faces really govern worse once in office? Do they have different personality types compared to those with less threatening faces?

By Randall Parker    2008 October 29 09:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 October 07 Tuesday
Narcissists Natural Leaders?

People are willing to take orders from the self-absorbed.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When a group is without a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups. Narcissism is a trait in which people are self-centered, exaggerate their talents and abilities, and lack empathy for others.

“Not only did narcissists rate themselves as leaders, which you would expect, but other group members also saw them as the people who really run the group,” said Amy Brunell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Newark.

What I wonder: Did narcissism evolve as a leadership trait? Do groups do better with a leader? Therefore did genes for narcissism get selected for to occur at low frequency so that groups will have some but not too many leaders?

Narcissists with a desire for power were more likely to become leaders of groups.

The first study involved 432 undergraduate students. They all completed assessments which measured various personality traits, including narcissism. They were then put in groups of four, and told to assume they were a committee of senior officers of the student union, and their task was to elect next year’s director. Each person in a group was given a profile of a different candidate for the position, and each was to argue for their particular candidate.

Following the discussion, they voted on the director, and then completed a questionnaire evaluating the leadership of themselves and the other group members.

Results showed that students who scored higher on one dimension of narcissism – the desire for power - were more likely to say they wanted to lead the group, were more likely to say they did lead the group discussion, and were more likely to be viewed as leaders by the other group members.

The other dimension of narcissism – the desire for attention – was not as strongly related to leadership roles in the groups.

So will future parents choose to give their offspring genes that code for desire for power and narcissism? Will future generations compete harder for leadership positions?

But do narcissists really make better leaders? Student groups were asked to imagine themselves shipwrecked on an uninhabited island with the ability to choose among items needed for survival. The groups led by narcissists did not make any better decisions.

This study went further, though, by seeing how well the narcissists performed as leaders. Researchers looked at the lists, prepared by each individual and group, of the 15 items that they thought would help them survive. They compared their lists to one prepared by an expert who has taught survival skills to the U.S military.

Results showed that narcissists did no better than others on selecting the items that would best help them survive. In addition, groups that overall scored highest on narcissism did no better than other groups on the task.

We need ways to select reluctant but talented people for leadership positions.

Update: My question: Are members of the US Congress, the British and Australian Parliaments, and other major elected figures more or less narcissistic on average than CEOs of large corporations? Does selection for business leaders do a better job of filtering out narcissists than elections do?

By Randall Parker    2008 October 07 11:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2008 September 18 Thursday
Political Orientation Tied To Biological Reaction To Threats

John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska Lincoln and John R. Alford of Rice University have made a name for themselves studying twins and political beliefs. They've found evidence of a genetic component for political leanings. In a new paper in Science working with several collaborators they find that those rightward leaning folks who favor a strong national defense react more strongly to threatening visual and sound stimuli. This is additional evidence for very innate cognitive differences as causes of political views.

Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals' experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

Just watching how much someone blinks in reaction to threatening stimuli will help you figure out their hidden political beliefs. All my professional interrogator readers please take note.

This study involved a group of 46 people who admitted to caring about political issues. Researchers showed participants threatening visual images -- pictures of a very large spider on a person's face, a dazed person with a bloody face and an open wound with maggots in it -- and their skin was monitored for electrical conductivity. Hibbing said skin conductance tests indicate emotion, arousal and attention. By using the skin conductance tests, the researchers are able to track a person's reactions to the threatening stimuli.

In another physiological measure, scientists tested the "orbicularis oculi startle blink response" to record the amplitude or intensity of blinks. They surprised subjects with a sudden, jarring noise and measured how hard they blinked in response to being startled.

In the comments of previous postings I've done on this general area some have argued that once we understand the genetic causes of political differences we'll become more tolerant of opposing viewpoints. I expect the opposite reaction. When people come to understand that it is not possible to persuade their opponents on many topics I expect people will become less tolerant of opposing views. There'll be a reduction in feelings of shared membership in a common identity. Each side will say its views make sense but that the opposing side has a genetic burden that prevents them from understanding the truth.

Hibbing at least holds out the possibility that greater knowledge about the biological causes of political differences will increase tolerance for those who differ. That's probably just his genes talking.

"And if political beliefs do run as deep as we suggest, it becomes easier to understand why political conflict is so persistent. It's not that those who disagree with us politically are being intentionally stubborn but rather that the world seems very different to them. Perhaps recognition of the deep physical nature of these differences will increase political tolerance and understanding," Hibbing concluded.

But Hibbing admits that even with these research results each side can rationalize why their side is right and the other side is wrong.

"Liberals will probably say conservatives are scaredy cats," while conservatives might call liberals naive, he says. "The more important point is that people differ".

Conservatives react more strongly to spiders than liberals?

"Those with the strongest eye or skin reactions to unexpected noises or threatening pictures such as a spider on a person's eyeball tended to endorse political positions that were interpreted as protective of social groups," said John Hibbing, professor of political science at UNL.

Some day a totalitarian government might strap its subjects into chairs, hook up sensors to their skin, and then show them frightening and disgusting pictures. Anyone who does not react correctly will be weeded out from the gene pool by sterilization or death.

When prospective parents (or state birthing units) start choosing genes for their kids will they choose genes that make them more or less likely to recognize threats in their environments? Will offspring genetic engineering make people more conservative or more left-leaning? Or what?

Update: Reacting to this paper Razib pictures a future where adoptive parents screen babies for compatible political leanings.

So it's complicated. But it's comprehensible. Does this matter for you? The physiological responses above are interesting, because it seems like you might be able to test at a very young age for them. If you are an adoptive parent perhaps you might want to screen your potential children for political compatibility. A few weeks ago I listened to a documentary about a woman in Argentina who had been kidnapped as an infant and adopted by a different family. In her particular circumstances here biological parents were left-wing activists killed by a military junta. Her adoptive family were associated with the right-wing junta. She did not find out about her origins until she was 18, but, she observed that she had always had political differences with the family in which she was raised and was active in left-wing politics as a teenager. Remember she was adopted as an infant!

Why stop with adoptions? The bigger screening will get done on embryos by parents conceiving via in vitro fertilization (IVF). In fact, the ability to screen for political compatibility will be one of the reasons why many more parents in the future opt for IVF and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

The ability to screen embryos for political leanings will make babies more like their parents and therefore make families more internally consistent. This will increase the mutual incomprehensibility between political factions. A liberal parent won't become more tolerant of conservatives in general as a result of the experience of raising a conservative son. Or a conservative father won't become more tolerant of liberals as a result of raising a surprisingly very radical daughter. There'll be fewer people in the political middle and fewer people with close friends and family members of opposing views. I see a politically more balkanized future.

Update II: John Hawks takes a very critical look at this paper. My reaction: Yes, the paper doesn't prove anything. But compelling evidence exists from twins studies for genetic influences on political views. That these differences might manifest in reactions to threats seems plausible given the very different reaction that conservatives have toward issues related to security and dangers.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 18 11:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2008 June 26 Thursday
Big Genetic Influence Seen Over Political Activity

Just forget about free will. If you are politically active you are just following the dictates of your genes.

Washington, DC—A groundbreaking new study finds that genes significantly affect variation in voter turnout, shedding new light on the reasons why people vote and participate in the political system.

The research, conducted by political scientists James H. Fowler, Christopher T. Dawes (of UC San Diego) and psychologist Laura A. Baker (of University of Southern California), appears in the May issue of the American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The article is available online at: www.apsanet.org/imgtest/APSRMay08Fowler_etal.pdf.

“Although we are not the first to suggest a link between genes and political participation,” note the authors, “this study is the first attempt to test the idea empirically.”  They do so by conducting three tests of the claim that part of the variation in political participation can be attributed to genetic factors.  The results suggest that individual genetic differences make up a large and significant portion of the variation in political participation, even after taking socialization and other environmental factors into account. They also suggest that, contrary to decades of conventional wisdom, family upbringing may have little or no effect on children’s future participatory behavior.

Relax, no need to teach the kids civic values. They either inherited the right genes or not.

Think you choose to vote? If so, your genes sure have you fooled.

In conducting their study, the authors examine the turnout patterns of identical and non-identical twins—including 396 twins in Los Angeles County and 806 twins in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.  Their findings suggest that 53% of the variation in turnout can be accounted for by genetic effects in the former, with similar outcomes in the latter.

Moreover, genetic-based differences extend to a broad class of acts of political participation, including donating to a campaign, contacting an official, running for office, and attending a rally.  According to Fowler, “we expected to find that genes played some role in political behavior, but we were quite surprised by the size of the effect and how widely it applies to all kinds of participation.”

Are people who have genes that cause them to vote reproducing faster or slower than people who do not carry these genes? Which group is winning the Darwinian struggle? Are people who vote more or less likely to make the babies?

By Randall Parker    2008 June 26 10:27 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2008 February 14 Thursday
5% Can Influence Movement Direction Of Crowds

Professor Jens Krause, a biology professor at University of Leeds, has found that only 5% of a moving crowd can influence the direction of the rest of the crowd.

Professor Krause, with PhD student John Dyer, conducted a series of experiments where groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. Within the group, a select few received more detailed information about where to walk. Participants were not allowed to communicate with one another but had to stay within arms length of another person.

The findings show that in all cases, the ‘informed individuals’ were followed by others in the crowd, forming a self-organising, snake-like structure. “We’ve all been in situations where we get swept along by the crowd,” says Professor Krause. “But what’s interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn’t realise they were being led by others.”

Other experiments in the study used groups of different sizes, with different ratios of ‘informed individuals’. The research findings show that as the number of people in a crowd increases, the number of informed individuals decreases. In large crowds of 200 or more, five per cent of the group is enough to influence the direction in which it travels. The research also looked at different scenarios for the location of the ‘informed individuals’ to determine whether where they were located had a bearing on the time it took for the crowd to follow.

Okay, we need to recruit people to form the core 5% that will lead the rest of Western societies in the direction of developing full body rejuvenation therapies. We can do this. We just need to start signaling to everyone else that we can do this. We don't need to convince everyone. We just to get a vanguard to say this is possible and worth doing. Then the crowd will follow.

By Randall Parker    2008 February 14 09:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2008 January 13 Sunday
Brain Scanner Detects Cultural Differences In Thinking

Remember that movie where Kevin Costner played a deep undercover Russian spy working as a US naval officer for Gene Hackman in the Pentagon? I'm thinking some day people pretending to be from a particular country will get identified by brain scans that will show that they don't think like people from that country. Known differences in styles of processing information between East Asians and Americans show up as different brain activation patterns when trying to solve the same problems.

Psychological research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects. Behavioral studies have shown that these cultural differences can influence memory and even perception. But are they reflected in brain activity patterns"

Could a mind get trained to be equally good at both methods of thinking? Or is there a trade-off in the mind where resources get allocated toward one style of thinking at the expense of the other style?

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch the brains of subjects while they solved problems that involved either relative or absolute determinations about shapes.

To find out, a team led by John Gabrieli, a professor at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, asked 10 East Asians recently arrived in the United States and 10 Americans to make quick perceptual judgments while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner--a technology that maps blood flow changes in the brain that correspond to mental operations.

The results are reported in the January issue of Psychological Science. Gabrieli's colleagues on the work were Trey Hedden, lead author of the paper and a research scientist at McGovern; Sarah Ketay and Arthur Aron of State University of New York at Stony Brook; and Hazel Rose Markus of Stanford University.

Subjects were shown a sequence of stimuli consisting of lines within squares and were asked to compare each stimulus with the previous one. In some trials, they judged whether the lines were the same length regardless of the surrounding squares (an absolute judgment of individual objects independent of context). In other trials, they decided whether the lines were in the same proportion to the squares, regardless of absolute size (a relative judgment of interdependent objects).

In previous behavioral studies of similar tasks, Americans were more accurate on absolute judgments, and East Asians on relative judgments. In the current study, the tasks were easy enough that there were no differences in performance between the two groups.

However, the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain's attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments.

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain's attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone,” says Hedden.

Do East Asians raised in America show American patterns of brain activation solving these sorts of problems? In other words, are the differences due to genetics or culture? If cultural, what about developmental environment causes one style of thinking or the other?

By Randall Parker    2008 January 13 11:18 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2005 October 10 Monday
Habitual Liar Brains Look Different On Scans

Adrian Raine and Yaling Yang have found that habitual liars have more white matter and less gray matter in their brains as compared to less lie-prone people.

The research – led by Yaling Yang and Adrian Raine, both of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences – is published in the October issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Consider what these numbers say about the make-up of a temporary employment pool in a major US city:

The subjects were taken from a sample of 108 volunteers pulled from Los Angeles’ temporary employment pool. A series of psychological tests and interviews placed 12 in the category of people who had a history of repeated lying (11 men, one woman); 16 who exhibited signs of antisocial personality disorder but not pathological lying (15 men, one woman); and 21 who were normal controls (15 men, six women).

At least a quarter of the temporary employees examined were pathological liars or had antisocial personalities.

“We looked for things like inconsistencies in their stories about occupation, education, crimes and family background,” said Raine, a psychology professor at USC and co-author of the study.

“Pathological liars can’t always tell truth from falsehood and contradict themselves in an interview. They are manipulative and they admit they prey on people. They are very brazen in terms of their manner, but very cool when talking about this.”

A significant portion of the human race are predatory liars and con artists. On top of that there are rapists, murders, and assorted other criminals and psychopaths as well. Think about that next time someone speaks about humanity and the human future in lofty terms.

The habitual liars had histories of conning other people.

Aside from having histories of conning others or using aliases, the habitual liars also admitted to malingering, or telling falsehoods to obtain sickness benefits, Raine said.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans found more white matter and less gray matter in the liars. So then are women better liars than men on average? Women also have a higher ratio of white matter to gray matter than men do.

After they were categorized, the researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging to explore structural brain differences between the groups. The liars had significantly more “white matter” and slightly less “gray matter” than those they were measured against, Raine said.

Specifically, liars had a 25.7 percent increase in prefrontal white matter compared to the antisocial controls and a 22 percent increase compared to the normal controls. Liars had a 14.2 percent decrease in prefrontal gray matter compared to normal controls.

The white matter probably helps in the formulation of deceptions.

More white matter – the wiring in the brain – may provide liars with the tools necessary to master the complex art of deceit, Raine said.

“Lying takes a lot of effort,” he said.

“It’s almost mind reading. You have to be able to understand the mindset of the other person. You also have to suppress your emotions or regulate them because you don’t want to appear nervous. There’s quite a lot to do there. You’ve got to suppress the truth.

“Our argument is that the more networking there is in the prefrontal cortex, the more the person has an upper hand in lying. Their verbal skills are higher. They’ve almost got a natural advantage.”

But in normal people, it’s the gray matter – or the brain cells connected by the white matter – that helps keep the impulse to lie in check.

Imagine genetically engineered people who are talented liars. Or imagine artificial intelligences which are geniuses at lying.

Pathological liars have a surplus of white matter, the study found, and a deficit of gray matter. That means they have more tools to lie coupled with fewer moral restraints than normal people, Raine said.

“They’ve got the equipment to lie, and they don’t have the disinhibition that the rest of us have in telling the big whoppers,” he said.

One of the reasons why I'm not particularly sanguine about our transhumanist future is that human ethical constraints are in large part a product of genetic coding. I do not buy the argument that rational self interest by itself provides enough basis to maintain a civilized society. Well, once biotechnology provides ways to enhance the ability to lie and the ability to feel less remorse or guilt won't some people opt to use this technology? Mightn't there even be a sort of mental arms race where people find it necessary to enhance their ability to deceive in order to protect themselves from other deceivers?

The ethical features of human cognition that were selected for to work in hunter gatherer groups and in small village life might get heavily selected against when humanity enters its transhumanist phase. I have a similar worry about altruistic punishment and I have a high expectation that the tendency to want to carry out altruistic punishment is coded for by genes as well. Also, I expect the desire to carry out altruistic punishment will be found to vary between individuals due to differences in gene sequences. Brain scans show that the brain rewards itself for carrying out altruistic punishment. Well, will all genetically engineered babies of the future be as likely to be coded for that desire as humans are today? The desire to carry out altruistic punishment might be essential to maintenance of a fair degree of cooperation within societies.

Adrian Raine has also previously found differences in the brains of psychopaths and normal people which are recognizable in brain scans.

Modest proposal: Require politicians running for offer to get brain scans and publish their gray matter to white matter ratio. If the public really wants more honest politicians (and I'm not entirely convinced that is the case) then the public could vote for candidates that have higher gray to white matter. Also, politicians should have to include any indications that they have brains shaped for psychopathy.

By Randall Parker    2005 October 10 03:12 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2005 June 09 Thursday
Babyfaced Politicians Lose Elections

Alexander Todorov, on the faculty of the Psychology Department at Princeton University, has found that when people are shown quick exposures to pictures of politicians they can rate them on perceived competence and that rating mirrors how those politicians did in elections for the US House of Representatives and US Senate.

Psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University had volunteers look at black-and-white photographs of House and Senate winners and losers from elections in 2000 and 2002, and the competing candidates prior to the 2004 contests. The faces had to be unknown to the participants; images of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., for example, were immediately eliminated.

``It was just on facial appearance, it could not be influenced by any other information,'' Todorov said in an interview.

The study found that the candidate perceived as more competent was the winner in 72 percent of the Senate races and 67 percent of the House races.

Democracy is flawed because humans are shallow and superficial. Maybe blind voters make better decisions. Anyone up for restricting the voting franchise to the blind only? Ugly talented candidates would fare much better. Think about it.

The degree of competence tracked with the size of electoral victories.

“Inferences of competence not only predicted the winner but also were linearly related to the margin of victory,” the scientists wrote.

This will obviously lead to political parties using groups to screen potential candiates for perceived competence. So expect politicians of the future to look more competent on average as a result of recruitment efforts to attract more competent looking candidates.

The more competent looking candidates also looked less babyfaced.

In the second paper, Leslie Zebrowitz, of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said that the results appeared to reflect the relative “baby-facedness” of the candidates.

Previous research has shown that people of any age who appear baby-faced, with a round face, large eyes, a small nose, a high forehead and a small chin, tend to be rated as less competent — though often as more trustworthy as well. “Although the study doesn’t tell us exactly what competence is — there are many kinds, including physical strength, social dominance and intellectual shrewdness.

Baby-faced people are perceived to be lacking in all these qualities,” Dr Zebrowitz said.

People do routinely "judge a book by its cover" in spite of countless adminitions not to. (have those admonitions helped at all?)

Despite the age-old admonition not to "judge a book by its cover," we routinely make important judgments about human traits based on instant, superficial impressions of peoples' faces. Such "blink of an eye" decision-making predicted the outcome of about 70 percent of recent U.S. Senate races, according to a new study in Science this week.

According to the study, candidates who looked "competent" prevailed in congressional elections more than two-thirds of the time. In a review of the study, Dr. Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychologist at Brandeis University, and Joann M. Montepare, explain that the outcomes of the political races were likely due to differences in the opponents' "babyfacedness."

"Although the study doesn't tell us exactly what competence is – there are many kinds, including physical strength, social dominance and intellectual shrewdness – babyfaced people are perceived to be lacking in all these qualities," said Zebrowitz, a pioneering research scientist in the field of facial impressions and author of "Reading Faces: Window to the Soul?"

What facial qualities make someone look more babyfaced and less competent? Zebrowitz says that both babies and babyfaced adults, regardless of sex or ethnicity, share such features as a round face, large eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin. Competency, on the other hand, is associated with facial maturity.

The babyfaced men might actually be the better choices in spite of the electorate's aversion to babyfaces in leaders.

In fact, studies by Zebrowitz and others have shown that babyfaced men are actually more intelligent, better educated, more assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking counterparts.

Research in the area of facial impressions has implications for political marketing, social decision-making and even the democratic process, Zebrowitz believes. "The data we have suggest that we're not necessarily electing better leaders – people who are actually more competent, though we are electing people who look the part."

Expect to see ambitious young business executives and politicians seeking out plastic surgeons to ask for modifications to make them look more competent.

By Randall Parker    2005 June 09 11:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2004 October 06 Wednesday
Cell Phones And Shopping Networks Problematic For Human Nature

Andrew Monk at the University of York and coworkers found that what makes the overhearing of cell phone conversations so annoying is that you can only hear one side of them.

We also feel an innate need to listen when we can only hear one side of a conversation, the researchers say. Even if it's no louder than a regular two-way exchange, the fact that we can only hear half means that we instinctively tune in, almost as if we're expecting to join in to complete the conversation.

If this idea is correct, the researchers reason, then mobile phone chatter should be no more annoying than overheard conversations where both people are present but only one voice is audible. When Monk and his team tested their theory on railway passengers in Britain, that's exactly what they found.

The article reports that ther are now silent carriages on British trains which only came about since the introduction of cell phones. Humans were never sufficiently irritated with each other's conversations to demand such carriages before cell phones came along.

This strikes me as yet another example of how modern communications technologies create environments that do not mesh well with how humans were evolved to relate to each other. It was unusual historically to find oneself able to listen to only one half of conversations. It was also unusual to be able to listen but not be able to join in on a conversation. The mind is wired up to listen to complete conversations (and even to ignore them as a whole) and finds it irritating to hear only half a conversation. I've certainly found myself annoyed at having to listen to people talk on phones. This result shows this reaction is not uncommon.

A cable arts channel occasionally shows a 1908 documentary "Moscow clad in snow" which shows what life was like outside in Moscow in the winter. One of the striking things about the film is the one horse sleighs moving in long lines along busy streets so slowly that people could talk to each other (not that one could tell from the film whether they did so) as they passed by. The sleighs were all open and the horses were moving at a speed that would allow casual exchanges. Compare that to cars today on the road. People rarely can speak to each other and events happen much more quickly. Technology has created unnatural ways for people to interact and "road rage" should not be an entirely surprising result.

Another example of unnatural interactions is with TV and movies and the idolization of stars and imagined relationships with people that most people will never meet. Imagined relationships are a part of the TV shopping channel experience that increases sales.

In order to determine if viewers developed close relationships with program hosts, the participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they agreed with statements like “The hosts are almost like friends you see everyday.”

Impulse shopping was measured by how participants rated their agreement with statements like “I decide what to buy after I watch television shopping programs.”

It’s not surprising that viewers develop close relationships with hosts, Lennon said. The shopping channels actively encourage viewers to feel close to the hosts.

“The hosts and guests on these shopping programs use a variety of conversational techniques that may encourage pseudo-interactive responses on the part of viewers,” she said.

“The hosts focus on similarities between the viewers and themselves, in order to facilitate a relationship.”

In addition the hosts invite viewers to contact them, and often provide e-mail and postal addresses, as well as telephone numbers to contact the hosts.

“Viewers develop attachments to their favorite hosts, and we find that this encourages viewers to buy more impulsively without considering whether they need the clothing they are buying,” Lennon said.

We can create changes in our environments orders of magnitude more rapidly than humans can evolve to adapt to those changes. Rules such as bans on cell phone use in many situations are natural responses to unnatural and problematic changes wrought by technological advances. It is not ignorant Luddism to support such rules. Humans need to regulate changes in their environments to keep down stress and maladaptive responses to technological changes.

By Randall Parker    2004 October 06 04:45 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2004 March 16 Tuesday
Brain Scans Show Abnormalities In Psychopaths

A USC professor used MRI brain scans, a battery of cognitive function tests, and criminal histories to compare normal people with psychopaths and also to compare psychopaths who manage to avoid getting caught with psychopaths who get arrested for committing crimes.

Adrian Raine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, focused his research on two parts of the brain: the hippocampus, a portion of the temporal lobe that regulates aggression and transfers information into memory; and the corpus callosum, a bridge of nerve fibers that connects the cerebral hemispheres.

One type of psychopath is adept at avoiding getting caught committing crimes but another type is not.

To explore the physical roots to psychopathic behavior, Raine and his colleagues recruited 91 men from Los Angeles’ temporary employment pool and gave them a battery of tests to assess cognitive ability, information processing skills and criminal history. They also were given MRIs, or brain scans.

In the study of the hippocampus, the research team expanded the scope of previous studies by comparing the brains of two groups for the first time: “successful” psychopaths - those who had committed crimes but had never been caught - and “unsuccessful” psychopaths - those who had been caught.

The hippocampus plays a critical role in regulating aggression and in learning which situations one should be afraid of - a process called contextual fear conditioning.

With psychopaths, contextual fear conditioning plays a part in learning the concept of what to do and what not to do, Raine said. It has been theorized that the disruption of the circuit linking the hippocampus with the prefrontal cortex could contribute to the impulsiveness, lack of control and emotional abnormalities observed in psychopaths.

“It is learning what is right and what is wrong in a certain situation,” he said.

The difference between successful psychopaths (those who avoid getting arrested) and unsuccessful psychopaths is that the more successful ones have a greater ability to learn fear of getting caught and to therefore guide their own behavior to minimize the chances of getting caught.

He tested the theory that psychopaths with hippocampal impairments could become insensitive to cues that predicted punishment and capture. As a result, he said, these “impaired’ psychopaths were more likely to be apprehended than psychopaths without that deficit.

Fewer than half of both the control subjects and the “successful” psychopaths had an asymmetrical hippocampus.

Ninety-four percent of the unsuccessful psychopaths had that same abnormality, with the right side of the hippocampus larger than the left.

The successful and unsuccessful psychopaths share in common a different form of faulty brain wiring that causes them to lack empathy and consideration for other people.

These findings were bolstered by the results of the second study, which focused on the corpus callosum.

The corpus callosum is a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, enabling them to work together to process information and regulate autonomic function. Raine explored its role in psychopathy for the first time.

“There’s faulty wiring going on in psychopaths. They’re wired differently than other people,” Raine said. “In a way, it’s literally true in this case.”

He found that the psychopaths’ corpus callosums were an average of 23 percent larger and 7 percent longer than the control groups’.

“The corpus callosum is bigger, but it’s also thinner. That suggests that it developed abnormally,” Raine said.

The rate that the psychopaths transmitted information from one hemisphere to the other through the corpus callosum also was abnormally high, Raine said.

But that didn’t mean things worked better.

With an increased corpus callosum came less remorse, fewer emotions and less social connectedness - the classic hallmarks of a psychopath, he said.

“These people don’t react. They don’t care,” Raine said. “Why that occurs, we don’t fully know, but we are beginning to get important clues from neuro-imaging research.”

When it comes possible to diagnose psychopaths should they be placed under greater sustained law enforcement scrutiny? The better adapted psychopaths who feel a great deal of fear of getting caught are currently getting away with many crimes. If we can identify who they are should they be treated differently?

Also, if a psychopath can be diagnosed in advance as extremely dangerous should it be permitted to lock such a person up in an institution before they rape or kill or do other harm to people? What if a person could be identified as a psychopath at the age of 14? Should such a person be removed from normal society?

Suppose it became possible to treat the brains of psychopaths to cause them to have greater empathy, greater remorse, and less impulsiveness. Should the government have the power to compel psychopaths to accept treatment that will change the wiring of their brains?

Also, if there is a genetic basis for psychopathy and it becomes possible to test for it then should people who have the genetic variations for psychopathic brain wiring be allowed to reproduce? Should they be allowed to reproduce if only they submit to genetic engineering of their developing offspring?

I predict that most of these hypothetical questions will become real questions that will be debated in many countries around the world. I also predict that most populations will support either preemptive restraint of psychopaths or forced treatment to change the brains of psychopaths to make them less dangerous.

By Randall Parker    2004 March 16 03:04 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (41)
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