Archive for January 15th, 2009

I wonder if I can break from the flow in this blog to posit a response on the CNN article

When any argument used results in the personification of the brain as an entity that ‘does’ things, the value of your verbal behavior to others gets minimalized. Brains are cellular matter that behave according to cellular chemistry and physics without any agency toward purpose, function, or order.”

Please don’t follow the crowd and use words as if they don’t matter. Furthermore, avoid the crowd’s focus on monocausality, absolutes and Newtonian cause and effect chain-link logic. You are involved with an organ that has roughly 100 billion neural cells with 10 million attachments to each one. Noodle that if you will! The number of permutations for what is going on in the brain as a billion fibers fire in and out of synchrony with other patterns is difficult to deal with. Using simplistic metaphors is what the crowd does. Metaphors may sound succinct but they reduce the reader’s ability to grasp the enormity of the problems involved in every aspect. Behavior::neural activity::genetics::the environment and their reciprocities are complex. The subject matter has a “wow” factor but it also has a history littered with charlatans, elixir salesman and worse. Don’t follow the crowd but instead, select the empirical path rather than the path of myth, magic and dualism.

No, these observations reported by CNN don’t abstract well.  They don’t do much but imply that a correlation is as good as a ‘cause.’ Pity. Correlations are the basis of fMRIs.

The brain doesn’t show that people fear being different. The brain shows patterns of firings that people with letters and research project numbers after their name interpret one way or another. You still have to listen and read and evaluate what they say, write and interpret.

  • How did the brain come to fire the way it did (in that area, at that amplitude, and pattern)?
  • What impact did neural plasticity have on the firings?
  • What do the fMRI readings represent?
  • Is the same firing pattern seen in Budapest or Pogo to that stimuli?
  • Is it true of Paraná tribe members and Malaysian sea nomads?

We are like others in groups or organizations because we are both reinforced and punished over time for our behavior in relation to their behavior. We recognize similarities (selectively) and as long as they don’t conflict with our other (selected) valued belief systems, we “relate” to that group. We diverge from social group convention for the same reasons. What is constant are the changes in the flow of what we value or what we relate to in those and other groups we attend to…which is also conditioned.

To show the degree that things are controlled by consequences, invite a Shiite to speak at your church mission group or invite a goyim to participate in the next Hasidic  law review. Watch the group behavior.  Of course these are extremes to show an effect.  But there are subtle abstractions as well… Bring your close friends, the ones who love you for who you are… to a Monster Truck Rally.   Social contingencies are powerful!  

That is one way to explain why some people are Green Bay Packer fans and some are Oakland Raider fans. Each sees things they value in their group and don’t value in the other’s group. Those ‘things’ are also conditioned by the contingencies the different fans were exposed to in the past.

How else does one explain being a Raider fan?

Read Full Post »

We’ve got yet another mystery of the mind revealed article in the loose today.

The two leading theories of conformity are that people look to the group because they’re unsure of what to do, and that people go along with the norm because they are afraid of being different, said Gregory Berns, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.”

That is not an explanation.

Perhaps we’ll find something of value in this article here:

Participants looked at projections of three-dimensional objects, and had to identify which shapes were similar. As with the new study in Neuron, participants tended to shift their opinion to the majority view, although in this case the problems had objectively correct answers. The effect was also more potent in this experiment because actors were in the room to simulate a group with a shared opinion, he said.

But brain images revealed participants were not lying just to fit in. Changes in the activation of the visual part of the brain suggest the group opinion actually changed participants’ perceptions of what they saw.

One reason behind conformity is that, in terms of human evolution, going against the group is not beneficial to survival, Berns said. There is a tremendous survival advantage to being in a community, he said.

This is your typical evolutionary psychology explanation.  The brain shows this on fMRI because it helps people survive.  Blah.  

There’s little doubt that we all conform to the group.  There’s little doubt that others opinions on things change our perceptions. There is a lot of doubt about the origin of such a phenomenon and whether it helps or hinders survival.

This particular aspect of behavior falls into the bigger bucket of how we learn, within and outside of a group.  We get conditioned and reinforced and punished and all that.  This applies to social behavior as well as to the process of developing that social behavior.

What I mean is that, perhaps this “groupthink” is simply conditioned.  Perhaps the brain isn’t hardwired after all but becomes so after we condition group think behavior (don’t be different!).  That’s a more plausible explanation than the mind is wired for community!

What stinks so much about these types of reports and experiments is they don’t abstract well at all.  There are no first principles presented here.  We get a collection of “in the brain we see this”, but nothing that applies to all sorts of different behavior.  This is in the face of a lot of data and experimentation and field studies suggesting that learning is consistent in all sorts of situations and species.  More specifically, if I say “we fear being different” how does that explain any other behavior other than in the context of this experiment?  If i have to specify a rule like that for every behavior, i gain nothing by my research and really explain very little.  And it isn’t the truth that we fear being different.  If you have children you learn pretty quickly that we condition children to start “seeing differences”.  and we condition the fear in our schools, media and homes.  I’m not making a moral argument here.  The fact is you have to learn which features you can differ on and be shown how to differentiate and attach value to those differences.  Yes, a child can tell different colors and different face shapes and different voices.  But they do not attach values to them like “oh, being different is something I should fear.”  We shape that.

Maybe I’m wrong though.  I don’t want to be different, ya know.

Read Full Post »

There is a lot of spew about ‘behavioral economics’, the ‘behavior’ of markets, the psychology of markets, etc., and that ilk in pop media as well as ‘professional’ journals. All bring to mind that you can say almost anything if you don’t have to substantiate it. For the most part these type articles fill the vacuum left by disciples NOT having any scientific and empirical approaches to apply where needed. Most tell the reader little of value and almost all promise to understand the future enough to predict it. Yes, red flags all for those trying to figure what the heck is going on out there [in the world].

Niall Ferguson has written a book “The Ascent of Money” and, far from being a primer on Money 101 from this Harvard faculty member, his book is a set of deposits and balance statements on selected facts on loot, dinero, change, coin, or money and how it works with almost no relevance to the global financial meltdown (1-15-09).

So that you can appreciate the basis of what is going on out there financially and be entertained at the same time, I have enclosed the beautifully done PBS 2 hour documentary for online viewing. It is outstanding! Not in its profundity but in its scope. It was done (filmed, edited and packaged) before the death knell of current markets was sounded and it can’t possible live up to the expectations of those seeing it now through pauper’s glasses who are looking for THE ANSWER

The sections follow a sensible sequence: the history of money, trust, credit, bonds, stocks, insurance, real estate, globalization, hedge funds, computer models of investing, and “behavioral” finance. In reality the whole thing is about behavior; there is less focus on disciples of finance, economics, banking and risk management. See what you think. Let me know and I’ll respond to your thoughts and critiques.


Read Full Post »