Archive: Psychology

David Brooks on the emotions of boys and men

It’s time for a new stereotype: Right-wingers don’t know science. But they still make propaganda from what they think they know. Exhibit #1 is from Mark Liberman at LanguageLog:
Mark Liberman, “David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist”, LanguageLog 12 Jun 2006.
—, “Are men emotional children?”, LanguageLog 24 Jun 2006.
David Brooks makes dubious use of neuroscience to argue that in order to increase reading among boys, they should be given Hemingway and the like, not Jane Austen.
In his first post Liberman looks at one paper, presumably representative, on the topic of sex differences in learning. The paper concludes that for pictures that aroused intense negative emotions, women’s memories were, in a group comparison, somewhat better than men’s.
Turhan Canli et al., “Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories”, PNAS 99.16 (6 Aug 2002).
Associated with that finding were differences in activation patterns in the brain. But those differences must be set against a background of community. The two sexes “share an extensive network of structures associated with attention, language, and motor control that are associated with emotional arousal”; and, as Liberman notes, if we could see the raw data we would likely find a great deal of variation among individuals.
Even more telling is a second post. Brooks’s source turns out to be Why gender matters by Leonard Sax. Sax grossly misinterprets a paper concerning responses to pictures of faces exhibiting various negative emotions.
Killgore, William D. S.; Oki, Mika; Yurgelun-Todd, Deborah A., "Sex-specific developmental changes in amygdala responses to affective faces," Neuroreport 12.2 (Feb 2001): 427-433.
He claims that “the locus [in male brains] of brain activity associated with negative emotion remains stuck in the the amygdala”. In girls responses to negative emotion are supposed to shift to cerebral cortex during adolescence, in boys they don’t. From Liberman’s careful examination it is apparent that the study by Killgore et al. proves very little. The samples are very small, and individual differences between members of the same sex come close to swamping supposed differences between the sexes. The paper certainly does not support the claims of Sax or Brooks.
Brooks admits to being scientifically illiterate. Sax has an M.D. He also has an agenda, which is to promote single-sex public schools. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), which seems to consist in Sax and an assistant, advertises his book prominently. The NASSPE has regional meetings every year. The Northeast Conference is co-sponsored with a charter-school outfit, Victory Schools, and a Transformation Life Coach who has founded the Academy For Leadership and Transformation (which seems to be nothing other than the Coach herself). It will set you back $325 plus $165 for accommodations.
Single-sex education may be a good thing, although memories of high-school gym, admittedly a special case, suggest that it has its drawbacks. But misinterpreting science is not. And even if the conclusions of the paper by Killgore et al. had been correctly stated, the inferences Brooks wants to draw from them are far from being justified.

LinkJune 25, 2006

Addicted to risk?

Psychology ·· More from March 2006
Becoming addicted to nicotine, opiates, and so on is risky behavior. But it may be that eliminating the propensity to addiction would also eliminate risk-taking in general.
Nicotine binds to receptors known as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). These receptors have five subunits, one of which is the beta2 subunit. Mice lacking this subunit exhibit “mild learning impairment”; they also do not learn to self-administer nicotine.
Nicotine receptors with the beta2 subunit are found throughout the brain. In particular they occur in the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is “strongly implicated in the response to natural rewards, such as food or sex”. Mice with beta2 subunits will self-administer nicotine and other addictive substances directly to the VTA. A group at the laboratory of Jean-Pierre Changeux has shown that in mice lacking the beta2 subunit, introducing that subunit directly into the VTA by means of a virus encoding it resulted in the formation of nAChRs containing that subunit.
The experiments by Maskos et al. and Kauer et al. are said to
firmly connect exploratory behavior with VTA cell function, as well as providing a causal link between a specific nAChR subunit and this behavior. It remains to be determined which human behaviors are analogous to exploratory behavior in the mouse.
For pictures, see “Nicotinic Receptors” at Chemistry of drugs and the brain, Emory University, last modified 11 Apr 2000; Bryan Grieg Fry, “Neurotoxins”, Venomdoc, s. d.
Champtiaux, N. & Changeux, J. P. 2004. Progess in Brain Research 145:235–251.
Kauer, Julie A. 2005. Nature 436:31.
Maskos, U. et al. 2005. Nature. 436:103–107.
Picciotto, M. R. et al. 1995. Nature 374:65–67.

LinkMarch 31, 2006


It’s Friday the 13th. Outside, near-blizzard conditions. Bad luck for someone, whatever the date. —Long ago, when Hollywood ruled the entertainment world, movies would open in the downtown palaces and then, weeks or months later, they would be relegated to the second-run houses in the neighborhoods (the “nabes”). Philosophical Fortnights is something like that.
I’m unlikely to be the first to alert anyone to the current outrage or today’s sin against reason. Time and energy don’t allow it, not to mention a lack of expertise. Perhaps it’s not so bad that some weblogs should be slow. Weblog software is biased toward an evanescent present, to instantaneous response: but instantaneous responses are by and large stock responses, as I. A. Richards called them. Questions at talks are often stock questions: they’re what you would ask if someone were to argue for materialism or consequentialism. We know the moves after all. That’s part of being an academic philosopher, part of being an original philosopher too. It’s not surprising that those weblogs that consist mostly in links to news items sometimes content themselves with more-or-less long-winded equivalents of mmm or yuck. Good for rallying the troops, not so good for real thinking.
That, in any case, is my excuse for pulling together, belatedly, a few things that have accumulated over the last month or so.
A school for atheists
French, of course. Athéisme, l’homme majuscule is in pure form that secular humanism which Bill O’Reilly thinks is going to take over the country, along with George Soros and the ACLU. Citations, biographies, humor, the Song of Songs, even a section of atheist apologetics. I’m pleased to see them noticing Paul Léautaud, whose literary journal is among the best I know of. Among the (not very well sourced) citations: “La seule foi qui me reste—et encore!—c’est la foi dans les dictionnaires”, which is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s remark about grammar.
Atheism is enjoying a bit of a vogue in France, with help of Michel Onfray’s Traité d’athéologie (2246648017: Amazon.fr, Chapitre) and the Cours accéléré d'athéisme by Antonio Lopez Campillo and Juan Ignacio Ferrera (2930390042: Amazon.fr, Chapitre). Atheism seems to me on the whole a shallower position than theism. That isn’t a criticism but an observation: once you’ve said there’s no God, there isn’t much more to say. What remains is to develop an ethics that rigorously avoids any appeal to the supersensible.
Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, is the author of Aetiology, a weblog on disease and public health issues, with occasional remarks on academic life. One entry in her old weblog, “This view of life”, caught my eye. Smith is drawn to biology by the variety of life, by the endless supply of puzzles it presents. Smith starts from an essay in the New York Times (registration required) by Olivia Judson, author of Dr. Tatiana’s sex advice to all creation. In biology, says Judson,
small facts add up to big pictures. For although Mother Nature’s infinite variety seems incomprehensible at first, it is not. The forces of nature are not random; often, they are strongly predictable.
For example, if you were to discover a new species and you told me that the male is much bigger than the female, I would tell you what the mating system is likely to be: males fight each other for access to females. Or if you discover that the male’s testicles make up a large part of his weight, I can tell you that the females in his species consort with several males at a time.
Suppose you find that a particular bacterium lives exclusively in the gullets of leeches and helps them digest blood. Then I can tell you how that bacterium’s genome is likely to differ from those of its free-living cousins; among other changes, the genome will be smaller, and it will have lost sets of genes that are helpful for living free but useless for living inside another being.
Creationism, I should note, hasn’t a prayer of explaining any of these relations. What interests me more is Smith’s final paragraphs:
Elsewhere online, I was involved in a discussion about evolution with a number of people with a host of different beliefs, from atheist to a self-described fundamentalist Christian. One Christian (who actually happens to be in seminary) stated his view on the topic:
And for me, there is something deeply spiritual about that idea, of connectedness to all of the planet on some level. I don’t find that evolution challenges my spirit; rather, learning more about how nature interconnects allows me to find more footing with my own life and walk with God.
This feeling of interconnection is something any of us can experience, regardless of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof). To steal a quote from Darwin, there is grandeur in this view of life—and I’m happy I evolved.
The seminarian offers a gloss on the fact of interconnectedness: it is “spiritual”, in a Kantian way—suggestive of ends (and of nature’s being ordered to ends) but in no way demonstrating them. The relation to God intimated in interconnection is the Spinozan relation of being “part of nature”, in necessary relation to the whole; at least that seems to me a more natural conclusion than orthodox theism. You may hold as Leibniz did that all of nature is related and still set God apart from nature as its transcendent cause, wholly distinct from created things by virtue of being perfect. Interconnectedness is ambiguously suggestive of both.
Returning to Athéisme, under the rubric “Science” I find this:
De tout temps l’hommeThrough all age man has posed questions about nature, life, himself… His need of knowledge is immense and ever-increasing. No sooner is one question resolve than another, ten others, emerge.
Religion was the first attempt to provide answers to those question, most often in the form of certainties whose source is a divine Revelation (as in the great monotheisms).
The use of rationality and the progressive liberation of thought from the empire of religion have permitted metaphysics to erect explanatory theories, based, it is true, on logical reasoning but purely speculative because inaccessible to experiment.
In the century of the Enlightenment, the sciences, entering their modern epoch, became aware of the impossibility, by reason of the limits themselves of the human condition, to acquire knowledge beyond experience and so of the vanity of the quest for the absolute.
Science, by its methods, its rigor, its humility (it does not claim to give immutable answers or certainties), its concrete and experimentally verifiable results, gives answers which are almost universally accepted (almost, because there still are creationists!). As the domains covered by science grow ever broader, religions and metaphysics are regularly obliged to reposition themselves with respect to it.
Human curiosity and interest in our surroundings are such that questions not yet resolved by science will not soon be exhausted. Religion and metaphysics, which feed on human ignorance, still have grist for their mills. The stubborn criticism of the “revealed” truths of religion or of the reified, deified abstractions of metaphysics, is a combat which cannot be avoided if humanity is really to take in its hands its destiny and render the world more human.
s’est posé des questions sur la nature, sur la vie, sur lui-même… Son besoin de connaissance est immense et va croissant. Dès qu’une question est résolue, une autre, dix autres surgissent.
La religion, la première, a tenté d’apporter des réponses à ces questions, le plus souvent sous forme de certitudes puisées dans une Révélation divine (cas des grands monothéismes).
L’usage de rationalité et la libération progressive de la pensée de l’emprise des religions ont permis à la métaphysique d’échafauder des théories explicatives, certes basées sur un raisonnement logique mais purement spéculatif car inaccessible à l’expérimentation.
Au siècle des “Lumières”, les sciences qui entraient dans leur époque moderne, ont pris conscience de l’impossibilité, en raison des limites mêmes de la condition humaine, d’acquérir des connaissances au-delà de l’expérience et donc de la vanité de la quête de l’absolu.
La science, par ses méthodes, sa rigueur, son humilité (elle ne prétend pas donner des réponses immuables ou des certitudes), ses résultats concrets et vérifiables expérimentalement, donne des réponses qui sont quasi universellement admises (quasi, car il existe encore des créationnistes !). Les domaines couverts par la science sont de plus en plus larges, ce qui oblige les religions et la métaphysique à se repositionner régulièrement par rapport à elle.
La curiosité et l’intérêt de l’homme pour ce qui l’entoure sont tels que les questions qui ne sont pas encore résolues par la science ne sont pas prêtes de s’épuiser. La religion et la métaphysique, qui se nourrissent de l’ignorance des hommes, ont encore du grain à moudre. La critique obstinée des vérités “révélées” par les religions ou des abstractions réifiées, puis déifiées par la métaphysique, est un combat indispensable pour que l’homme puisse réellement prendre entre ses mains sa destinée et rendre le monde plus humain.
Manifestos tend to be heaps of unargued commonplaces. This one is no exception. The threefold division—religion, metaphysics, science—is straight from Auguste Comte. It’s as if the anthropology and history of science of the last sixty years had never existed. But let’s consider just one claim more closely: that “religion and metaphysics feed upon the ignorance of men”.
This is meant to be an objection. But the ground of the objection cannot be merely that religion and metaphysics address matters on which we are ignorant. Science does too. Nor can it be even that they take up questions that science does not, unless you take a hard positivist line and rule out such questions as meaningless. But ethics, for one, is not meaningless, even though at least part of its subject matter lies outside the range of questions science can address.
The objection isn’t really to disciplines that inquire into matters not (yet) addressed by science, but to the methods that religion and metaphysics use to answer them: revelation and speculation. Consider speculation—“raisonnement inaccessible à l’expérimentation”. It’s not easy to find a metaphysics that has no relation to experience; and I’m not sure what a metaphysical “experiment” would be. The authors seem to be running together two sorts of claim:
  • (i) The claim, Kantian in spirit, that certain questions—summarized by the phrase “the quest for the absolute”—cannot even in principle be settled by appeal to experience;
  • (ii) The claim that only experiment, and not just experience generally, yields genuine knowledge.
The second is more restrictive than the first. How much more depends on the definition of “experiment”. Too narrow a definition will consign history to the flames. I’m not sure that (ii) can be made plausible except by defining ‘experiment’ merely as some sort of test to which experience is essential. But then (ii) is effectively equivalent to (i).
Concerning (i): Kant’s position, in brief, is that reason itself demands that we move from the conditioned (e.g. a determinate region of space) to the unconditioned (space without limits). This is not the result of some argumentum ad ignorantiam but a product of reflection on what being conditioned presupposes. Kant himself did not so much rule out metaphysics as put it in its place: the Ideas of metaphysics (God, space, time, the harmonious unity of the laws of nature) have no role in the determination of the objects of thought, and thus no role in science; nevertheless they remain indispensable to thought and even to science, as conditions on the conversion of experience into knowledge that cannot be proved from experience itself (nor applied to it, as the categories are).
What I’m summarizing is the murkiest part of the Critique of pure reason. Opinions differ, to say the least, on what Kant was up to and whether he succeeded. Still what I’ve said is enough to show that the Kantian claim (i) need not commit you to a combat with religion or metaphysics. Indeed if you want to revive the “warfare between science and theology” (historically a dubious notion, I should note), it would seem that you must either argue that outside science there is no knowledge or else grant that religion does have testable consequences that science can refute.
The critique of dubious religious or metaphysical claims is a worthwhile project. I don’t think it is well served by dubious history or question-begging arguments.
Briefly noted
  • The neuroscience of regret:
    From Cosma Shalizi’s Three-toed sloth.— Nathalie Camille, Giorgio Coricelli, Jerome Sallet, Pascale Pradat-Diehl, Jean-René Duhamel and Angela Sirigu, “The involvement of the orbitofrontal cortex in the experience of regret”, Science 305 (2004): 1167--1170. Punchline: “The orbitofrontal cortex has a fundamental role in mediating the experience of regret”. There is a comment by David Eagleman (308 (27 May 2005):1260) and a response by the authors.
  • The neuroscience of intuition:
    From Neurotopia.— One class of neuron, known as Van Economo neurons, resides in the fronto-insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Those two areas of the brain are “active during social situations”, when we’re assessing other people’s beliefs and desires; they also process “the conscious monitoring of visceral activity”. As Neurotopia notes, the expression “gut feeling” may have some truth to it.
  • Old fogies still have it in ’em:
    From Postclassic. —At least some old fogies. Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David Galenson distinguishes two kinds of artist: the experimental artist and the conceptual innovator. The innovator is at his or her best under 40; experimenters reach their peak at 40 or later. (Galenson is an economist at Chicago.)

LinkJanuary 14, 2006

Evolutionary psychology criticized, not so well & well

Psychology · Science ·· More from July 2005
At Mixing Memory: discussion of criticisms of evolutionary psychology originating from Gould; a lucid analysis of a typical argument-form and its flaws. See “Leiter on EP II”.

LinkJuly 19, 2005

Musa: European Tour

Cats · Psychology ·· More from July 2005
Dominique Autié of Balles de match, balles perdues has included a photo of Musa in an entry entitled “Le philosophe” (the photo appeared here in May). The latest entry, by Maurice Corcos, is a “Mise au point sur l’alexithymie”:
L'alexithymie est un néologisme‘Alexithymy’ is a neologism coined in 1972 by Nemiah and Sifneos to designate the mode of mental functioning found in many patients suffering from illnesses with a psychosomatic component. Etymologically “alexithymy” signifies the incapacity to express one’s emotions by words (a- privative — lexis, words — thymy, humor, emotions. crée en 1972 par Nemiah et Sifneos pour désigner le mode de fonctionnement mental de nombreux patients souffrant de maladies à composante psychosomatique. L'alexithymie signifie étymologiquement, l'incapacité à exprimer ses émotions par des mots (a privatif – lexis, mots – thymie, humeur, émotions).
Le concept d’alexithymie, bien qu’il soit appréhendé par de multiples notions neurobiologiques, phénoménologiques, cognitives et comportementales, psychanalytiques mais aussi philosophiques et socio-anthropologiques (les émotions sont liées intrinsèquement à des formes de socialisation), reste flou et indécis, non pas tant du fait de l’insuffisance de ces approches que du fait de sa nature (l’exploration de l’émergence de l’émotion et de la pensée) et de son contenu (la qualification et la quantification des affects à l’origine des pensées).

LinkJuly 13, 2005

The cat made me do it, officer

Psychology · Science ·· More from June 2005
Source : “Spectatorship and Framing”, in David
Westbrook, From Hogan's Alley to Coconino County.
Original by George Herriman.
Mixing Memory has an item on toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite in cats which is sometimes passed on to humans. One study (of several mentioned by MM) found that the disease made men “more impulsive, extravagant, and disorderly (they looked more ragged), along with having lower IQs, lower education levels, and lower levels of novelty seeking”. Another found that infected men were more likely to be in traffic accidents. Women, on the other hand, become more naïve and promiscuous.
I’ve been around cats all my life. So unless the effects are cumulative over decades, I’m probably about as ornery and dumb as I’m going to get. From the disease, at least. If I’ve got it.
Gotta go watch some rasslin’ now.

LinkJune 30, 2005

Les nuages… encore une fois

As I said earlier, the Midwestern sky is a nepheophile’s delight. A multitude of forms, gradations of color, perspectives, shadings, ever-changing as the sun travels across the sky & the winds reshape them & carry them off. A tranquil delight on a calm, clement morning like this.
Yet why should the eye find pleasure in that sight? I know that evolutionary psychology has an explanation for this as for so much else. The æsthetic sense, if I may call it that, offers no doubt some benefit. I see in my cats a feeling for “rightness”, for the suitability of a place to nap in, survey the yard from, or wait for prey. If that feeling is reliably attuned to the fit between the cat’s ends and the means that, on the basis of its feeling, it chooses, then (working backwards) we may conjecture that having such a sense was “selected for”, that it gave to the proto-cats who had it some reproductive advantage.
Something similar guides our choices in arranging things around us (when we take the time to do so: it often happens, of course, that convenience or laziness is the principle), and likewise the hand in drawing, the ear in putting sounds together in music. SpencerHerbert Spencer (1820–1903). Best known as an early proponent of Darwinism to human affairs, although in his early work (Social statics, 1851) his theory of development was Lamarckian. The ten volumes of his System of synthetic philosophy (1862–1892) begin with a “developmental metaphysics” (anachronistically, a theory of the origins of complex systems) and then followed out the consequences of the “developmental” style of reasoning in biology, psychology, and sociology. Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, which was adopted by Darwin in later editions of The Origin of Species.
thought that judgments of the beauty of the human form were effectively judgments of fitness to reproduce. There is probably something to that. But even if such explanations are sound, there seems to be a kind of surplus value attaching to natural beauty. Kant wrote of “beauty as a symbol of morality”, as an intimation that the moral order, the noumenal realm of freedom, was or could be realized in the natural order, the phenoumenal realm of physical law. I don’t think one must be a theist to acknowledge that something extra is given in experience beyond what a strictly scientific account provides for.


LinkAugust 25, 2004

Incidental thoughts on being oneself

The last few weeks the word ‘slowly’ has popped into my thoughts at intervals, usually in between thoughts I consider my own. The phenomenon doesn’t seem different in kind from that of a persistent melody or fragment of music recurring in thought as a kind of background music. The occurrences of the word seem to have little to do with what I’m thinking at the moment; they just happen.


LinkAugust 9, 2004