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Saturday, October 30, 2004

A Broccoli Story

As a kid you likely grew up with the constant exhortation by your parents to ‘eat your broccoli’. Why? Because it was good for you, and science said so. Well, since it was science rather than a sadistic impulse that was behind that parental commandment, you accepted the advice and ate your broccoli. As adults, mom and dad are gone, but we still have ‘science’ around to nag us, as all good nannies do, with the ‘facts’. Although discovering facts takes scientific minds, using facts is simple, and the more facts we have the more useful they are and the simpler they seem to be. That’s because we can hook facts together like tinker toys into logical tools that can enable us to make some pretty good predictions about our world. Thus we know from science how broccoli is good for us because scientists found that people who ate broccoli lived longer than people who don’t eat broccoli. We also know from equally scientific minds how to cook broccoli so that it tastes good, and how broccoli does good things to our bodies to help us grow up big and strong.

But what would happen if scientists acted like seven-year-old children, and gave some special status or privilege to ‘their’ unique way of exploring the wondrous world of broccoli? This new world of broccoli knowledge would be bizarre to behold. One group of scientists would say ‘eat your broccoli’ because the people in the broccoli crazy state of Minnesota live longer than the folks in the state of Wisconsin, who much prefer cauliflower. And then they would say in a loud voice: ‘AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW!’ We would of course persist in asking how broccoli can be so good, to which the broccoli scientist would make up some inherent need, drive, or impulse for broccoli. Not knowing any better, we would accept this wisdom, and accept broccoli consciousness as the reason why we must wolf down our broccoli at every occasion we can.

Not accepting broccoli consciousness as a scientific reason for why we must eat broccoli, a second group of scientists noted that if you cook broccoli just the right way and add on just the right sauces, then folks would eat their broccoli with enthusiasm and gusto. And then they would say in a loud voice: ‘AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW!’ We would of course persist in asking why broccoli is so good; to which the broccoli scientist would say you don’t need to know why when you’ve got good recipes!

Not accepting broccoli consciousness or recipes as a scientific reason for why we must eat broccoli, a third group of scientists noted that broccoli does good things because of all those amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that help keep our molecular machinery ticking. And then they would say in a loud voice: ‘AND THAT’S ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW!’ We would of course persist in asking where one can find some tasty broccoli. To which they would respond; we’re physiologists, not cooks!

Of course, we eat our broccoli because to use knowledge we must take it anywhere we can get it, and we know our knowledge is sound because we can fit together and use the facts we get from different ‘levels’ of observation. Thus broccoli is a good and desirable thing because we know statistically we should live longer, that a good recipe makes us want broccoli more, and because broccoli is good for the heart, brain, and other body parts. Now the scientists who come up with these facts may say that my particular fact is better than the other guy's; but we ignore them, as we should. That’s because as common folk, we have to be practical and not parochial, and are forced to look at life as a whole, from the infinitely large to the microscopically small.

Unfortunately, in the world of social science, parochial trumps the practical, and knowledge for its own sake ends up being trumped up knowledge, for goodness sake! That is, in academia, practicality is not an exclusive gauge of scientific goodness, hence useless, convoluted, and simply wrong information often gets by if it merely sounds good on paper. So because practical measures of the goodness or badness of ideas are scarcely applied, the relative goodness of the methods that give you those ideas often takes the place of pragmatism. Thus we are treated to endless debates on the 'epistemology' of science, which is a fancy way of saying how we should go about discovering which methods are best at finding out the facts, as if truth somehow was easier to find if you just limited the types of questions you asked.

And so, if we get our facts by taking polls or observations of groups of people and comparing them statistically, we call ourselves sociologists, anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, or social psychologists. If we get our facts by observing individual people and the various events from rewards to punishments that make them do things, we call ourselves behaviorists. And if we get our facts by taking a microscope to individual brains and bodies and see how such molecular events cause behavior, we are neuro-psychologists. And each 'school of thought' of course is perfectly prepared to ignore or disparage the methods and the results of those who do not adopt their standards for what counts as understanding.

We do not of course have broccoli sociologists, broccoli behaviorists, or broccoli neuro-psychologists, as our earlier example implies, since we after all have to work rather than think for a living, and we need to know why we should eat certain foods to survive. (Hence, less patience for nonsense) Similarly, we will eventually get to the bottom of our behavior, and in the process understand ourselves, but only when we get practical about it. It's as simple as asking ourselves why we must eat our broccoli.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Why I am not an academic psychologist

Part one in an infinite series.

Ok, quick. What's your take on human motivation, or more precise, the things that make you happy, or merely get you off?

You can say something like this:

Good motivation is caused by good work, good friends, good family, good times, and good sex. Bad motivation is caused when these things aren't good, or when they get in each other's way (sort of like having to work on super-bowl weekend).


You can buy into this alternate psychological view of motivation, called self-determination theory, or 'I determine it myself' theory.

According to the definition found on its web site, hyper-linked below:

"SDT (Mezmer' take: sounds like a female reproductive disease) is based on an organismic (not to be confused with orgasmic)-dialectical meta-theory, which begins with the assumption that people are active organisms, with innate tendencies toward psychological growth and development, who strive to master ongoing challenges and to integrate their experiences into a coherent sense of self. This natural human tendency does not operate automatically, however, but instead requires ongoing nutriments and supports from the social environment in order to function effectively. That is, the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth. Thus, it is the dialectic between the active organism and the social context that is the basis for SDT's predictions about behavior, experience, and development."

Guess which one makes sense?

Guess which one is obscure enough to enable you to charge money to gullible people?
Bingo! Now that wasn't too hard!

For people who have to work for a living, definitions like the simple one I offered work just fine. But for people who have to work at being psychologists for a living, bullshit reasons are necessary to justify their meaningless lives as academics. Although this writer often reads many highly convoluted journal articles and scientific texts, and can derive from them at least a kernel of meaning, no such luck with this SDT thing. That ordinarily would be good, since outside of those poor psychology undergraduates who would be saddled with the thankless task of learning about it, the SDT people would mainly have themselves to listen to in their annual conferences held at the Motel 6 meeting room in lower Manitoba.

No such luck though. Rather than wallow in their own gibberish, they've sauntered out into the semi-academic world of education. Education and educational psychology is a perfect breeding ground for muddled thinking, since educational administrators and their evil henchmen (henchpeople?) of educational psychologists are generally bureaucratic types who are more concerned about their pension plans than practical ones. Furthermore it doesn't help that educational psychology does not attract rocket scientist minds, and is usually looked upon as a slightly more difficult elective than basket weaving.

So pity the poor teacher, who is saddled not only by stupid administration, but stupid theories of educational management that have as much motivational resonance and validity as the well known and highly 'productive' motivational properties of communistic or Islamic politics.

So what are the SDT people trying to foist down the throats of our educational establishment? It has to do with something called extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. On the surface, this concept does seem a bit sensible. We are motivated by extrinsic objects like money, sex, food, gold ribbons, etc. and by intrinsic objects like pride, satisfaction, love, etc. However, rather than having these things represent different sides of the same coin (e.g. I got my trophy and thus I feel proud), the SDT people represent them as two separate processes that mysteriously intermingle and otherwise fight it out.

To get their point across, the following type of psychology experiment is often quoted as proof positive that there are obscure metaphorical intrinsic and extrinsic psychological forces that are fighting it out for control of our psyche. Take a child and offer her a coke. Normally, she will accept the coke and profess that she likes cokes. However, offer her ten dollars to drink the coke, and afterward she will say she doesn't like cokes. You see, the extrinsic reward of money has somehow squelched the intrinsic reward of liking cokes. Using experiments like this, educational psychologists influenced by the SDT party line have thus come to the earth shattering conclusion that extrinsic rewards like gold stars, ribbons, awards, etc. are actually harmful to motivation, and should be abandoned in our schools. Presumably, they would have students dance about the teacher in a blissful state of spontaneous motivation like Barney the Dinosaur and his friends, but that's another story.

Of course, pragmatic folks and not a few pragmatic psychologists have had the temerity to challenge this crackbrained idea. But this has ironically made SDT become even more popular. That's because SDT people needed more than a bullshit reason for human motivation. They also needed a bullshit controversy that could generate a lot of journal articles, a lot of heat, and a black hole of luminescence that would eventually suck the entire subject matter of psychology into its depthless maw.

Unfortunately, the intrinsic-extrinsic motivation controversy is not only played out on the SDT website, but all over the web. Sadly, since the great preponderance of psychology websites are written by witless morons whose aspiration of psychological importance is a guest shot on Oprah, the SDT notion of separate intrinsic and extrinsic motivational forces has taken the fundamentalist aura of Biblical cant. Thus, this 'controversy', although still with us, is nonetheless settled due to the unassailable wisdom of SDT research and theory.
To which I Mezmer, delicately respond: NO!

As controversies go, the intrinsic-extrinsic motivation argument must rank as one of the most useless, puerile, and stupid exercises in academic history, since it profoundly misrepresents what the psychology of learning (which is not by the way the same as educational psychology, as it actually involves literally and figuratively brains) tells us about motivation. Indeed, as learning theory tells us, as well as simple common sense, we are not and can never be rewarded by things, but rather by the information denoted by things. Thus, an extrinsic motivator such as money does not reward us because of itself, but because of all the things you can get with money and what receiving money denotes in a social context. Thus if I receive ten bucks for drinking a coke, the money may denote the fact that the coke is really not very good, since why else would someone give me money to drink coke? On the other hand, if I get ten million dollars for playing on a football team, that money denotes not that playing football is awful, but rather that lots of folks value football.

If you want people to be creative, interesting, and be good conversationalists, you simply reward them for being so. And if you want people to recite Shakespeare, go to church, and sing opera tunes, then you likewise have to organize the subtle rewards that make it rewarding to do these things. But by eliminated courses in the fine arts, dumbing down our curriculum, and erasing merit systems and school discipline, these rewards have been all but erased. Pathetically, many educators and educational psychologists have ignored the obvious, and have settled on extrinsic motivators as the true problem. An easy cop out if you think of it. (Just blame the behaviorists for all our woes!!!)

Is it any wonder that I think most psychologists are intellectual twits?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Shakespeare and the Turtle

Once upon a time, William Shakespeare was walking on Stratford Street, across from Avon. He stopped at the curb, and slowly, a turtle passed by him and began to cross the street.
As the turtle crawled into the distance, Shakespeare turned to hear an idling crowd. Go walk and get the turtle, they said, and we shall applaud.
A theater manager, knowing a good thing when he saw it, said skip to the turtle and I will pay you money.
A pretty girl in the crowd then said, twirl as you walk and I will kiss you!
A man then cried out, reach the turtle before I do and you will be a better man than I.
Then he heard from the palace window the Queen, who said hop to the turtle and I will make you a knight!
Several friends beckoned to him. And show us moves that we can perform with similar acclaim!
Finally, a ghost appeared to him, and said to Shakespeare, make it all original, and I the ghost of posterity will remember you.
And so Shakespeare pondered for some time the diverse requests of his audience, and with budding excitement came to a solution. Then, in a balletic motion that would do Balanchine proud, he walked and he ran and he twirled and he hopped. He did it all with originality, with speed, and with panache. And so his walk across the street became choreography for the ages, and perhaps maybe, just maybe, he even got the turtle.

In the movie Shakespeare in Love, our hero was muddling over a new play that was not coming on at all well. It was titled 'Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter'. Burdened with an uninspiring title and plot, he at first despaired of his own genius. Inspiration of course came to the rescue, but the muse was dressed in a dozen very different robes, and represented the mundane things that filled his world. And so were such inspirations cast as a crowd that demanded sex and violence, a playhouse owner wanting a popular play, a girlfriend longing for lines of romantic intimacy, a Queen desiring pratfalls, and actors in his troupe clamoring for good lines. And of course, for pride's sake he had to surpass the efforts of his rival Christopher Marlowe, and above it all, forever beckoning, was the specter of posterity.
With such inspiration, or rather, inspirations, Shakespeare could not help but create works of surpassing genius, and be charged with the motivation that created them. The cauldron of genius is seasoned with a dozen motivations, and the more diverse the demands, the greater heights does it vault. Genius requires not an audience, but audiences, and it is diverse demand that is the spark of motivation that electrifies the mind. Educational psychologists would do well to learn this lesson, that genius comes when it is wanted, from everywhere.
Note: (Oh yes. And the real Shakespeare? Consider an environment full of external motivators for a pastime as addictive to its age as our time is for television. To quote Daniel Boorstin’s book ‘The Creators’ (pp.307-310): "The theater had risen in London during Shakespeare’s youth. "The suddenness with which the new pastime had appeared raised the alarm of the learned and the pious. Like television in our time, theater acquired its frightening popularity within a half century." "…..In two weeks during the 1596 season a Londoner could have seen eleven performances of ten different plays at one playhouse, and on no day would he have had to see a repeat performance of the day before."…."Of the twelve hundred plays offered in London theaters in the half century before 1590, some nine hundred were the work of about fifty professional playwrights." (It should be noted that the London of 1590 had about the population of present day Jackson, Mississippi!!) This author wonders what a Vesuvius of inspiration would follow if present day authors had such willing ears, and what any of us would trade for such extrinsic motivation!)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Kissing your Sister, The Spandrel of Incest

It's something you would never anticipate, which ironically is the origin of the problem. It may be said that anticipation is half the pleasure, though at times it may be thought of as all the pleasure. We know this from anecdote and experience. Consider poor Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke on the aptly named Dick Van Dyke TV show) eating a chocolate cake while absorbed in conversation with his wife. Pausing in midphrase he said: "By the way, what is this, its delicious!" "You should know", she said, "That's your favorite dish, chocolate cake." Rob looked at the cake and cried out in horror: "Why didn't you tell me, I love that dessert!"

It may be argued that forgeting to anticipate a chocolate cake has a lot in common with learning not to anticipate it. After all, it may permit us to go about our lives undistracted by the myriad diversions of the world. Consider your kid sister, or your kid cousin, or the girl kid next door. Doubtless you would not want to kiss any of them or anticipate kissing any of them because you are not in the practice or 'habit' of doing so. But is habit or the incidental correlations perceived while growing up enough to overwhelm the sexual 'drive' that makes no distinction between kith and kin?

Awful Kissing Act

Sure, providing of course you realistically define the concept of 'drive'. By realistically I mean of course the real circuitry, as in the wiring of our cerebral noggin that accounts for the incentives from food to sex to sexy cars that get us from A to B. When we think of drives, we think of indivisible mind states, hardwired circuits, or chemical imbalances that are present from the time we expect something to the time we get something. That is, looking forward to a pie in he sky is similar to eating that pie, wanting is the same as having. Both are driven by the same processes, and if the having is instinctive, the wanting must be equally so. This is a commonplace and commonsensical reasoning by layman and academic alike. It is also wrong.

Pie in the Sky = Pie in a Plate?

In the last ten years neuroscience has demonstrated that 'drives' are bifurcated into two parts that are different psychologically and physiologically. That is, wanting is different from having (or liking), and each aspect represents different processes and corresponds to different laws. For the 'wanting' part, we feel alert, attentive, and pleasurably primed for action and sustaining action. The 'having' part, where we imbibe, engorge, or otherwise consume the object of our appetite feels good in a different way, and does indeed represent a different thing.

The neuropsychological differences between them both are strikingly clear. The 'wanting' part reflects the activity of 'neuromodulators', brain chemicals such as dopamine that control alertness, attentiveness, and because they have affective value (i.e. they feel good), keep us us on course. The having or 'liking' part engages neurotransmitters (opiods) that reflect gustatory, sexual, or other pleasures. Ironically, liking something or merely being aware that it tastes, smells, or feels good is not enough to spur behavior, one must also 'want' it. So how do you want? To wit, you must learn how to.

An interesting aspect about our wants, from food to sex, is that we want certain things at certain places and times. We don't want to eat ice cream before our main course, or pasta for breakfast (usually). And we don't for that matter want to kiss our sister, or any other playmates of the opposite sex either. And why not? Simple, because we never learned to, or more succinctly, never learned to anticipate or 'want' to.

When we are young, we hang around siblings or playmates in a decidedly non sexual context. Unfortunately, when we come around eventually to recognize that sex is quite nice, contextual relationships or habits get in the way, so we don't get primed to anticipate a hot date with the girl next door. In short, we don't 'want' to because sexuality was something we learned to 'un' anticipate. Having to learn in effect to 'want' to do nothing seems like a self defeating thing. After all, shouldn't the prospect of having something be enough for motivation? Well, no.

The conundrum of motivation, and the inspiration for motivational speakers, is that objects alone do not motivate unless we learn to anticipate them. But anticipation can be a seemingly mindless thing. We nonconsciously infer meaning and motive from the simplest correlations, like a chair made favorite because we sat there often. And like a behavioral currency, such correlations can be tendered to new situations, giving them a new perspective that can dampen and reverse desire.

Oedipus learned that the hard way. Having discovered that he was married to his mother, he put out his eyes. As another literary example, Moll Flanders became instantly disinterested in her husband when she learned he was her long lost brother, and subsequently abandoned hearth and home. As literary sense would have it those events that you never anticipated would lead to never more anticipating!

To want without having is a necessary and pleasurable part of our lives, as our dreams keep us awake and the pleasures of the world. However, to have without wanting is to be listless, without material or sensual desire. Like a spandrel or superstition, it's an unexpected side effect of learning that innocent correlations can dull one's very desires. It's a better explanation for habits, good and bad, and when writ large to include the chaste experiences of youth, a reason for you to never, never, expect to kiss your sister.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Achilles and the Turtle Soup

Or why halfway getting there is all the fun.

A simple fact not normally understood is that most of our thought is not literal but metaphorical. That is, we understand much of our world through images or pictures that when combined into metaphors become the aphorisms, maxims, fables, parables, and mind experiments that teach us in simple and near visual terms the ways of the world. Generally our pictures of the world and the real world are kept in close interplay. Thus if you think of pie in the sky, pies and skies refer to real world events or act as metaphors for behavioral events that are understood and agreed upon by large groups of people.

When we deal with the subtle behavior of objects, such as those physical events that fall beneath our perceptual radar, we use instruments that allow us to describe their minute details, but these details when revealed are still visualized as metaphors. Thus we envision TV signals, radio waves, black holes, cosmic radiation, contagious viruses and so forth through mental pictures, not mental equations. Unfortunately, when we deal with the behavior of people, and in particular the subtle neural or covert behavior that also falls beneath our perceptual radar, we have not until the last decade or so been able to so easily visualize and render metaphorically what we see.

Physical and biological scientists have thus a big advantage over psychologists, since they've got better and more realistic metaphors to work with. That metaphors are the key to understanding our physical and psychological universe is surprising but true. Even Einstein could not keep track of his calculations, and thought instead in terms of mind experiments. A popular conception about great scientists is that they are constantly tossing about in their mind scads of convoluted mathematical formulae. But this is not true. Physicists are not different from most of us except in the types of physical structures they imagine. To demonstrate this, let's consider a housewife as physicist. Let's say she is planning the décor for a new house. She thinks in terms of the myriad types of things such as flowers, clocks, ottomans, paintings, and chairs that she can acquire, and the near infinite permutations that they can be arranged. She doesn't think of the exact physical measures, descriptions, or other criteria that fully define things like clocks and sofas. That's merely detail, and can easily be filled in when she writes down the specifications to give to her interior designer. The devil of course is in the details, but for the housewife its mainly the busy work that follows getting her plan 'right' in her head. She after all knows the mathematics that can describe the dimensions of the objects she is moving about in her mind, but finalizes the 'measurements' when the picture of her final creation is made up in her head.

Physicists are no different in essence from the housewife, except that the objects they think of range from the macroscopic (universes, black holes, galaxies) to microscopic (atoms, photons, gravity waves), and use a mathematical language only to put the final details down. Of course, that language is a whole lot more complex than the simple measurements the housewife used, but the principle is the same.

So one might ask, how can one apply a scientist's imagination to thinking about the real world if one doesn't have the time to master advanced calculus? Easy! You start not with answers, but with questions. Einstein of course is the par excellence of the inquiring mind, and of course he started with simple metaphorical questions that involved such prosaic things as trains, elevators, and speeding bullets. But the guy who really got the mind experiment business going, and can be called the father of scientific imagination lived almost 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece. In classical Greece, you didn't have instruments to help you dissect the world, but you did have imagination in abundance, and simple daydreams, like simple levers could move worlds.

No one knew this better than the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno of Elea, who demonstrated the contrariness of nature by showing how our pictures of nature lead us to paradoxes. Among many of his unique beliefs, Zeno didn't have much regard for time, and in fact doubted it's existence. In lieu of a mathematical proof in an age when mathematics was just getting started, a simple mind experiment had to fill the bill. So begins the tale of Achilles and the turtle.
It's your classic race of course, ages before Bugs Bunny made it a true fixture in the imagination. The turtle challenged Achilles to a race, who in his confidence, obliged the turtle a modest head start. Now if time was a continuous rather than discrete thing, as our experience holds, then every time Achilles got to the place where the turtle was, the turtle would have been gone. And every time Achilles got to where the turtle was last, the little bugger would likewise be gone. Now this would occur ad finitum, thus proving that the view of a continuous time made for some very long races, and that Achilles took a sucker's bet.
Zeno's paradoxes continue to bedevil physics, which has responded by dismissing them or by embracing them. This latter point of view, eloquently expounded by the physicist Julian Barbour in particular, is that time doesn't exist at all. But of course, I digress, since its in psychology where Zeno can come to play, and similarly shake's things up a bit.

So here's a simple question. How come we want things, but never want to have things? For example, we love sports teams that win championships, meals that taste good, and orgasms that make our hair stand on end. So how come if we want them so much, why not just have them now, and without waiting about?

Enter Zeno.

Who would say that the answer lies in a paradox derived from a faulty common sense approximation of the world. In other words, motivation, like time, is not what you think it is. Lets say, following the master's reasoning that Achilles was after the turtle not to win a race, but to grab him as an essential ingredient for a good bowl of turtle soup. Avoiding the temporal argument for the time being (or being is not in time, as Zeno would have it), then we note that if we are motivated by objective things like orgasms, trophies, and turtle soup, it would be immensely gratifying to rid our selves of the wait and get on to the main course. But of course, that doesn't happen, as getting there is half the fun, or rather our knowledge that we are getting there. So the answer is that Achilles, to be really on top of the world, will never actually be on top of the turtle. He's just having too much fun in the chase.

We can encapsulate this fact in a joke from the old Dick Van Dyke TV show in the mid 1960's. The scene pictured our hero eating a piece of cake. "What was that darling, that's pretty good!" "Its your favorite dessert" came the reply. He responded in agony, "Why didn't you tell me before, I love that cake!" In other words, by depriving him the opportunity to look forward to the cake, the very dessert was wasted.

By being able to 'look forward' to positive events, whether merely informative or sensual, we often feel energized, pleasant, and often rather ecstatic. The vast majority of contemporary psychologists, in their myopic idiocy, attribute obscure mentalistic processes like flow, intrinsic motivation, and so on to this fact. But for those psychologists who take the trouble to look beyond the fuzzy metaphors to the subtle activity of the human brain, two separate motivational processes have been distinguished that truly explain the phenomenon. The looking forward part is due to the release of neurochemicals or 'neuromodulators' that activate or modulate global areas of the brain. They make us more alert, attentive, make the brain think better, and feel good to boot. The consumnatory part, or when we eat the soup or get the girl activate entirely different parts of the brain entirely. Thus we come to a strange bifurcation of our everyday motivations into 'wanting' or 'looking forward to' parts and 'liking' parts when we actually achieve the object of our desire. The philosophical and practical implications of this are legion, and make up the bulk of my serious as well as not so serious articles on my site. But for those who take their psychology straight up, unadulterated by humor or fancy prose, I would recommend the web site of the neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge, who has posted to the web quite a few articles that represent what good psychology is all about.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Day the Earth Stood, Still

(A great movie idea from Mezmer that didn’t quite make it.)

It was a strange day at the Malomar Observatory as the group of astronomers looked sullenly and in shock at the view screen.
What they saw was the visage of a green, reptilian, and hideous monster. He looked at them with a sinister grin, and licked his lips with his purple slimy tongue in seeming anticipation of what was to come.
"People of earth", the creature hissed. "We want your world. We have been looking at your planet for a long time. You have what we want. You cannot stop us, your planet will be ours, and there is nothing you earthlings can do! Today is the day that we will come for what your most precious possession!!"
The creature then swung back his head and laughed. "Har! Har! Har!"

Then the screen went dark.
The astronomers were dumbfounded. "Well gentlemen, we are looking at the end of our civilization," said the leader. "We should have expected this, and taken all that alien abduction stuff, saucer sightings, and crop circles seriously! Now it’s too late. They’re coming for us, and there’s nothing we can do about it except sit around and wait. But what could they want from our world?"
One astronomer spoke up. "I figure they want our natural resources. Perhaps they’ve exhausted them on their home world and need a new colony planet"
"No." said another. "They obviously are fearful about our technology. We are an aggressive and dangerous race you know. Perhaps they want to do us in before we do the same favor to them."
A third astronomer shook his head in disagreement. "No." he said. "We are sinners, and this is God’s retribution for our rejection of our law."
A fourth astronomer then said slowly. "Gentlemen. Perhaps it’s none of that. I figure they have come for our women!"
Then the astronomers sat back and waited, and waited. One of them looked out the window into the night sky. "Well? Where are these aliens? They’re overdue. Are they toying with us?"
Suddenly a fellow astronomer rushed into the room. "Am I late for the meeting? Funny thing, I was doing some star gazing, but then I noticed a blank spot in space that shouldn’t be there. I don’t know how to put this, but where the heck is the planet Jupiter?"

Now you see it.....

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Incest and Learning: A Bio-Behavioral Explanation

The aversion to incest is one of the most pervasive and remarkable regularities of human behavior, yet to this date has defied explanation. The fact that early and prolonged exposure to opposite sex members of kith and kin results in sexual apathy has been matched with hypotheses that explain incest aversion, but have no true explanatory or predictive power. That is, incest aversion is normally adduced to a specialized cognitive module or 'imprinting mechanism' (Pinker, 1997; Tooby and Cosmides, 1995; Wilson, 1998), yet such an explanation does not account for the latency, generality, or mutability of the response, nor does it match any actual processes, real or hypothesized, that are instantiated in the human brain. Although it may be argued that a specialized mental or neural module is as necessary or demonstrable as phlogiston (the imaginary component that enabled fire), it can only be abandoned if general purpose neural processes are demonstrated to be recruited in early experience to produce the same results.

The author proposes that such a mechanism does exist, but has been ignored not because of its complexity or obtuseness to observation, but rather because of differing meta-theoretical principles regarding the informing principles of psychological science. The specific question is whether cognitive structures that underscore incest aversion are informed from the teleological (i.e. imputed design in nature) principles of evolutionary psychology or the experimental and ethologically (i.e. animal experiments) informed principles of behaviorism.

Incest and Evolutionary Psychology

The environmental circumstances that frame incest aversion are clear. Prior to puberty, a history of continuous social contact with members of the opposite sex, regardless of their biological relatedness to each other will result in a generalized reduction or elimination of the preparatory response of sexual arousal. According to the teleological principles that guide evolutionary explanations of cognitive phenomena, the lack of sexual arousal resulting from early childhood social contact is due to metaphorical 'imprinting' mechanisms that are inferentially derived from hypothetical selection pressures occurring over the evolutionary span of human development. In other words, because interbreeding between closely related kin results in the likely physiological impairment of their offspring, an imprinting mechanism evolved, the existence of which was predicated to ensure the long term 'fittedness' of the race.

Although the correlations between environmental events such as proximal rearing of different sex individuals and incest aversion is well established, the gradual development of this trait only partially fits the empirical data. Indeed, incest aversion can be displayed towards kith and kin who have not grown up in proximity with one another, and the onset of sexual apathy or aversion can be near instantaneous depending upon changes in information alone (Harris, 1989). Thus we may be automatically averse to incest with in-laws, adopted children, first cousins, etc. with the independent variable being not rearing proximity, but cultural mores or norms that are independent of proximity.

Besides representing incomplete explanations for incest aversion, evolutionary mechanisms presently represent unrealistic explanations. That is, for explanations that implicate modular evolved imprinting mechanisms in lieu of ascertaining real learning processes and the physiological events that comprise them, such processes are wholly inferred from evolutionary selection processes that are themselves inferred. These modular imprinting mechanisms derive from metaphorical perspectives of a human brain that possesses numerous hard-wired computational structures or modules that determine the function and shape of specific behavioral traits. Moreover, selection pressures inferred from the geological record determine the content and structure of these processes. Because of the implied certainty of this presumption, inferred biological processes co-opt the need to discover actual learning and biological processes because the brain acts in an orderly computational manner that is set in motion by hard wired circuits selected by evolution, thus obviating the need for seriously considering a bio-behavioral perspective. In this manner, the metaphors of computation replace the actual processes of cognition or learning that drive human brains and human behavior.

In order to arrive unchallenged to this conclusion, a learning theoretical or behaviorist approach to the brain must be demonstrated to absolutely adhere to the metaphor of the brain as a computational organ bereft of nativistic influences, and thus be dismissed a-priori as an alternative source for explanations for incest aversion, and indeed for the many behavioral patterns (e.g. aggressiveness, altruism, etc.) explained by modular hard-wired cognitive mechanics of evolutionary psychology. In principle, this equates behaviorism with the 'Standard Social Science Model' (Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow, 1992) that holds that the mind is devoid of any nativistic or inborn influences and is metaphorically akin to a 'blank slate'.

Behaviorism thus became a non-starter as an investigative tool to uncover the covert and instinctive mechanisms equipped by evolution in the human mind. It was, in the words of the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, 'dead' (1997). The idea that behaviorism is moribund or dead reflects the popular view that behavioristic learning theories are purely computational, and conceptualize the human mind as a blank slate that is engraved by experience alone. But at root, behavioristic learning theories have never been exclusively informed by simplistic data processing languages, and modern behaviorism in particular is committed to the more catholic view that behavior is modulated by multiple processes that are primarily non-computational, originate in different areas of the brain, and can be described by multiple sets of metaphors, from Skinnerian contingencies and Pavlovian associational bonds to cognitive metaphors such as expectancy and affect. Thus may be best illustrated by a behavioristic account of incest aversion. .

Incest and Behaviorism

In evolutionary psychology teleological viewpoints are fundamental, and physiological viewpoints incidental. The opposite is the case with biological learning theory or bio-behaviorism. The difference is that unlike evolutionary psychology, a bio-behaviorism provides the opportunity for empirical test, and generalization to similar behaviors from established principles that are rooted in empirical data. Ironically, modern biologically informed behaviorism or bio-behaviorism does not adhere to 'blank slate' information processing metaphors, but entails the unique participation of neural processes that are analog, not digital in nature. In particular, the instinctive or nativistic behaviors described by bio-behaviorism are not neurally embodied as self contained 'modules', but rather derive from the interoperation of different well-defined morphological structures in the human brain.

To understand how learning principles may generalize across types of behavior, and in particular to incest aversion, the concept of 'blocking' or 'latent inhibition' provides a fitting example. Blocking demonstrates not how new information may override old, a common theme implied by blank slate metaphors, but how old information may override new, and thus provide a learning equivalent to instinctive mechanisms that posit how old information encoded by the genome drives instinctive traits. The concept of blocking (Kamin, 1969) entails that the learning associated with one stimulus may inhibit or 'block' any additional associations with that stimulus. For example, present an auditory tone repeatedly for an experimental animal, and the subsequent pairing of the tone with food will result in slower acquisition of the conditioned response, and in some cases no conditioning at all. In other words, the animal will not anticipate food because previous associations of the tone with no food block the associative strength of the tone and food. Moreover, the level or prior training affects the level of associative strength gained on each training trial. Thus, an animal that undergoes multiple trials of the tone without food will be less likely to associate the tone with food than an animal that is subjected to a few trials.

Recent iterations of blocking experiments with humans and animals have demonstrated that associations are not blocked, but rather that inattention to logically salient events is learned that inhibits the behavior those associations may logically entail (Kruschke & Blair, 1999). This concept of learned inattention implies that for behavior to occur, attention to or anticipation of a salient event is as important as the perceived logical or contingent relationship between an event and behavior, and is equally and separately described by learning principles. For the neuropsychology of incentive motivation, the bifurcation of motivation into two separate processes of anticipation and reward, or of wanting and liking (Berridge, 2001) demonstrates that the contingent logic of cause and effect or behavior and reward is not enough to elicit behavior. Attention must be invested, and attention must be learned. This importance is due to the fact that an attentive or anticipatory cognitive state is not a neutral but an affective state that is different from consummatory behavior (e.g. eating, sex) and reflects different neurological processes (namely the activity of midbrain dopamine neurons) that activate global areas of the brain and give value or incentive salience to behavior (i.e. it feels good). Moreover, these processes in turn can be influenced or modulated by experience or learning. Thus, looking forward to or anticipating events (i.e. wanting) represents an entirely different neurological process from having (i.e. liking), and can be altered by learning. Extending this concept to sexual desire, the 'wanting' part of arousal is entirely different physiologically and psychologically from it's 'having' or coital element, and is subject to the often nonconscious vagaries of learning. The major question is whether this observation of 'learned inattention' may transfer without loss to the preparatory response of sexual arousal, and thus account for incest aversion. Continuous exposure to opposite sex members where sexual behavior cannot occur (e.g. as in pre-puberty) and will not be anticipated to occur (e.g. sexual modeling or fantasy) will result in a continuous association of a stimulus event (the girl next door) with the absence of a sexual priming response or attentive arousal. Thus inattention or unanticipation is learned, rather than a contingency (boy meets girl) being unlearned. In other words, the contingency between behavior and 'getting the girl' is not sufficient itself to generate behavior. The individual must learn to be attentive to a lady's charms, and if he has learned to be inattentive, he will not respond. Secondly, anticipation as a covert operation or behavior can have negative implications that act separately or in concert with blocking mechanisms. Thus, we will not think or fantasize about having sex with close kin because it strongly implicates social norms, and if those norms are suddenly imposed, anticipation stops, and with it the 'drive' to have sex with kin.

In sum, sexual anticipation is different psychologically and physiologically from sexual attraction. One can find a sibling attractive, but not anticipate sex or be inclined to anticipate sex. Anticipation, or the covert modeling of sexual behavior, can be influenced by learning (negative reinforcement of societal norms) or the interference of prior learning (blocking). Thus behaviorism can account for all aspects of incest aversion, and demonstrate the behavior as fully representative of learning processes. In other words, sexual anticipation as an affective state represents the activity of midbrain dopamine neurons that receive input from the neocortex, and are thus constrained by learning principles.that are informed by the facts of behavior and the facts of the human brain. Thus, one can be aroused by a sexual opportunity because of information about the opportunity, and likewise be unaroused when an opportunity is unavailable, entails negative outcomes (e.g.,strong social disapproval) or if an individual is physically incapable (due to physical immaturity) of being aroused.

One question, as of yet unanswered, is whether a core principle of learning theory such as blocking is a valid explanation for incest aversion, and if it can be explained by the data language of Pavlovan behaviorism and the neurological events that language underscores. This will require the experimental manipulation of sexual anticipation, an element of desire that has not been controlled for in any representative studies on incest aversion. In lieu of an experimental verification of this hypothesis, a Pavlovian explanation of incest aversion certainly fits the data better than the 'critical period' process of sexual imprinting. It can explain how we can be resistant to sudden rises in sexual temptation, and also how sexual aversion can automatically happen, as in the literary example of Oepidus or in more common situations when adults become biological or adoptive parents parents and 'automatically' become incest averse. But as importantly, it can explain incest aversion or apathy without the postulation of additional neurological or cognitive baggage, and demonstrate the economy of means employed by the human brain in generating behavior of staggering diversity.

Behaviorism, Evolutionary Psychology, and Incestuous Science

A behavioristic explanation of incest is hypothetical, yet testable, and it is the ability to be subject to experimental falsification that distinguishes it from evolutionary explanations that are untestable, and hence cannot meet the strictures of science. But the continuing neglect and disparagement of behaviorism, and by implication, of learning theory is due in large measure to a gross misunderstanding as to what behavioristic learning theories entail.

The purpose of the scientific enterprise is to consider all viable and testable explanations for phenomena, but the neglect of alternatives can be rationalized by prejudicial factors that unwarranted by the evidence. This is particularly the case regarding the nature of behavioristic learning theories. Learning theories describe how experience influences behavior, and come in many stripes, from Freudian constructs to mathematical models. As a special class of learning theory, a 'behaviorism' uses ethological data, is deductive in nature (although Skinnerian methodological and radical behaviorisms are a notable exception), employs within (single subject, multiple trials) group designs to isolate and study psychological variables, considers behavior in all its manifestations (overt, covert, molar, molecular), and because it uses animal behavior to inform an understanding of human behavior, limits the metaphorical representations of the data it collects, hence the nom de guerre 'behaviorism'. Behavioristic research is not informed by teleological reasons that assign a purpose to behavior beyond what the data would permit. On the other hand, evolutionary psychology is highly teleological in nature, and presumes that stories that impute an evolutionary design can provide a precise specification of the functions of cognitive mechanisms (Tooby and Cosmides, 1995). Nonetheless, teleological stories that imply an ultimate purpose to behavior, namely insuring reproductive fitness, never inform behavioristic research in any of its guises, from the study of overt molar behavior (Thorndike, Pavlov, Skinner, Tolman) to covert neural behavior (Donahoe, Berridge), because teleological causes are at root untestable, and conflict with the Popperian principles of falsification or testability that inform the biological and physical sciences. Thus, evolutionary psychology and behavioristic learning theory are incompatible because of their opposing estimates of the heuristic or research value of teleological versus ethologically guided experimental principles, and more significantly, their differing estimates as to the definition of scientific inquiry. That behaviorism and evolutionary psychology do not inform and rather neglect each other is rooted in the denial of the epistemological principles that support each subject matter. and can only change if one or the other abandons the very definitions of their fields. That is, if teleological principles are not needed to explain incest, then they are likely not needed for other behavioral traits that are equally amenable to a bio-behavioristic explanation. But if teleology is abandoned as an essential informing principle in science, then evolutionary psychology is refute at root, and must be replace ironically by the very behaviorism it has trumpted as dead.

Does an explanation for incest need evolutionary psychology?

A case in point is incest aversion. The Kiplingesque stores that impute final causes to incest aversion cannot change in any manner how incest avoidance is observed to develop in naturalistic settings. It suggests neither procedure not process, yet by its premature closure on the matter, can preclude the use of alternative and testable hypotheses that describe its true nature. Indeed, it may be persuasively argued that fitness issues have nothing whatsoever to do with incest, and that incest avoidance is, like a spandrel, a by-product of unremarkable learning processes that are traceable in human behavior and in the activity of the human brain. Unfortunately, whereas behaviorism neglects evolutionary psychology, the reverse holds true as well. Indeed, evolutionary stories rarely if ever are informed by ethological or neural principles (Panksepp, 2000). To describe how the mind works without referencing the biological mind, a claim characteristic of evolutionary psychology and dogmatically made by the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (1997) in his ironically named book 'How the Mind Works', highlights these very opposing positions.

To define psychological science through the prism of philosophical rather than empirical perspectives limits psychology to an incestuous brand of science, wherein quoting from members who hold the same tribal affiliation is the way for progress. This results in endless debates on the workings of the world. The fact that modern behavioral psychologists can mix and match the once exclusive data languages of Skinner, Pavlov, and cognitive science, and are grounded to an understanding of the organic brain is a hopeful sign. But whether psychology can match the progress of the physical and biological sciences in understanding and controlling our world and ourselves is dependent upon a renewed dedication to scientific principles, and how our behavior and consciousness itself emerges from the simplest processes in brain and body that are demonstrated to us from the behaviorisms that so many academics view as dead.


Berridge, K. (2001) Reward Learning: Reinforcement, Incentives, and Expectancies,
The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, (3), Academic Press, New York

Harris, M. (1989) Our Kind, Harper Collins: New York

Kamin, L. (1969) Predictability, surprise, attention, and conditioning. In Campbell, B. and church, R., eds. Punishment and aversive behavior. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts; 44, 276-296

Kruschke J. K. and N. J. Blair (2000) Blocking and backward blocking involve learned inattention, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 7(4), 636-645

Panksepp, J. and J. B. Panksepp (2000) The Seven sins of evolutionary psychology. Evolution and Cognitivion, 6(2), 108-131

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. Norton: New York

Tooby, J. and L. Cosmides (1995) Mapping the Evolved Functional Organization of the Mind and Brain. In Michael S. Gazzaniga (ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences (1185-1197). Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press

Wilson, Edward O. (1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Dawkins's Bad Idea: Memes, Genes, and the Metaphors of Psychology

In times past, if the devil didn’t get you, the vapors would, and if they didn’t, humours, poisons, bile or any number of fanciful entities would do you in. With Pasteur and 19th century biology, these agents of illness were replaced with microscopic organisms, and the invention of the disease model made it easy to attribute your aches and pains to malicious bacteria, viruses, or other little microscopic buggers. Of course, then as now, few people understand the actual biological processes that are responsible for disease, but the metaphors for disease do just fine, and have been duly incorporated into the common vernacular. Some may say that these metaphors have worked a bit too well, since they have made a Procrustean stretch to cover all sorts of behaviors, from alcoholism to gambling. Nonetheless, the incorporation of metaphors from the syntax of science does provide a correcting influence to common sense, which earlier had only recourse to metaphors that engaged evil spirits and deadly vapors to help explain the world.

Nowadays, man has access to a wealth of metaphors from modern science. Cancers, black holes, laser beams, and computer viruses have replaced the vitalistic metaphors that assigned causes to ethereal spirits, evil demons, or invisible ethers. Of course, the incorporation of the metaphors of the biological and physical sciences into common language does not entail the ability to map actual processes, but only suggest those processes. The metaphorical description of a cold and its viral causes does not equate with a biochemical or biological description that requires a strict syntax and data language all its own. Thus when we mix our metaphors by talking about rampaging viruses spreading like wildfire from person to person, we know that our description only suggests what viruses are doing in the large, not the actual processes that cause them to propagate and harm.

The mixing of metaphors from different data languages can be poetic insofar as it suggests the juxtaposition or correlation of causes and events, or it can be interpreted as literal insofar as it presumed to denote actual processes. But how do we know if ‘rampaging viruses’ are a literal or a figurative representation of the truth? The ability in science to distinguish the literal from the alliterative is the mark of good science, and good science writing. A physicist may talk about matter using the metaphors of billiard balls, time warps, and cosmic string, but the literalness of those concepts is intentionally undermined by a continuous restatement of the mathematical metaphors that belie their literal reality. So why does a physicist engage two sets of metaphors when he can participate in his science quite well without the need to postulate billiard ball atoms and the like? It is simply because ‘understanding’ requires it. On the one hand, common sense metaphors are easily understood through their appeal to conceptual domains that we readily perceive (e.g. up, down, fast, slow, hot, cold), but mathematical metaphors (e.g. E=mc2) correct for the tendency to make their existence literal. Well-written books that popularize ‘hard’ physical science all recognize the necessity to utilize two different sets of metaphors that correct the deficiencies of the other. Thus an understanding of the physical world can engage metaphors that are derived from our native experience and those that are derived from the abstract language of mathematics. Understanding consists in our ability to move from once set of conceptual metaphors (e.g. green grass, hot suns, expanding universes) to another (e.g. the calculus, non-Euclidean geometry). It is no less than our ability to shift between different languages that enables us to envision the world.

Sometimes however, two entirely different sets of conceptual metaphors may be quite similar in terms of the processes they describe, and proceed to confirm rather than contrast with one another. Newtonian ideas of acceleration, mass, gravity, force, etc. have long been assimilated into our popular lexicon because a Newtonian view of the universe coheres with our own naïve experience. The mechanical universe of Newton corresponds with common sense theories of the physics of cars, boats, apples, and other physical objects, and is much easier to understand and accept than other more accurate physical theories that are reflected in the conceptual metaphors of Einsteinian relativity and Quantum theory. However, the conceptual metaphors associated with relativity and the invisible quantum correct for the literal interpretation of Newtonian mechanics as a representation of reality, and have entailments (e.g. time travel, multiple universes, quantum indeterminacy) that are dramatically at odds with the Newtonian conception of a clockwork universe.

In the biological sciences, the Darwinian principles of natural selection have an import comparable to Newton, and the conceptual metaphors of evolution find an equal correspondence with common sense theories of human psychology. Common sense or ‘folk’ theories of psychology tell us that we are motivated by ordinary objects (e.g. cars, jewelry, money, sex) whose value we determine consciously, and either impel (as in eliciting drives and reflexes) or compel (as in rewards, reinforcers, or punishers) behavior. In a Newtonian sense, our lives revolve around the collection of ordinary objects that push and pull us to them from a distance, and populate but scarcely our psychological universe.

This common sense explanation of how behavior is selected bridges quite easily to conceptual metaphors that describe how biological entities are selected, and by implication to the behavior that is instantiated by those entities. Thus patterns of behavior that are elicited by instinctive events can be ultimately attributed to individual genetic influences that are objectified in the metaphors of the activities of individual genes. Similarly, the common sense notion that ideas are selected by some obscure competition between objective alternatives also finds an equal bridge to selectionist principles that are derived from biology. Thus, just as Newtonian physics and common sense physics seem to confirm each other, common sense psychology and Darwinian biology share similar metaphorical principles that explain respectively how behavioral and biological selections are made.

As with the blending of metaphors that saw the adoption of Newtonian terms into common sense physics, metaphors from biology and ‘folk’ psychology have also become commingled, and thus form a new explanatory framework for behavior that explains behavior as a Darwinian process. Thus genes become ‘selfish’, and ideas or memes become ‘contagious’. But these are only two different levels of thinking, and do not implicate the metaphorical schemes that explain the actual neurological processes that underlie behavior.

Darwinian or sociobiological explanations strongly imply that the molar processes of cumulative selection that led to bumblebees and human beings are isomorphic with neural or ‘molecular’ processes of the mind that lead to the selection of behavior. But an implication is not a demonstration, as a sociobiological explanation merely establishes a similarity between the metaphors of common sense and natural selection. The overriding question is not whether genes and memes represent a good metaphorical bridge between common sense and biological explanations for behavior, but whether they provide an equally good metaphorical representation of the biobehavioral processes that instigate behavior. The question is analogous to that posed by Quantum physicists to the common sense and academic views that extended the metaphors of Newtonian physics to the molecular world of the atom. The answer to that question was not a reaffirmation of the perspective of atoms as mere baby solar systems, but of the creation of an entirely new science that was equally rooted in the empirical tradition of science. That science was quantum physics.

A biobehavioral explanation of behavior represents the mapping of the actual neurological processes that comprise behavior to the patterns of information or environmental contingencies that parallel and elicit them (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). This information is in turn mediated by somatic events that are perceived as emotion (Damasio, 1996), activating neurological events that comprise attentional processes (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993), and nativistic (i.e.inborn or genetic) sensitivities to certain abstract patterns of information (Bolles, 1976). Whereas a biobehavioral explanation is neurally realistic because it ties behavior to actual neural and informative events, a sociobiological explanation is neurally unrealistic, and merely substitutes neurological processes with Darwinian metaphors.

Biobehavioral science, which is also known as 2nd generation cognitive science (Lakoff, 1999), or theoretical behaviorism (Staddon, 1990), is like evolutionary psychology entirely informed by evolutionary principles. However, it is more rigorously empirical because of its insistence on ultimately observing or reliably inferring the neural processes that intervene between information and behavior. Biobehavioral and evolutionary psychology are represented by entirely different sets of conceptual metaphors that are respectively entailed by molecular (small scale processes and time frames) and molar (large scale processes and time frames) processes. The polarity of these metaphors is remarkable, and can be reduced to the following contrasting principles.

Evolutionary psychology and folk psychology share the implicit presumption that decision making is generally based on the conscious and disembodied appraisal of ordinary objects that lead to the maximization of our self interest. In contrast, biobehavioral psychology has demonstrated that most reasoning is not conscious but nonconscious (Lewicki, 1992; Greenwald, 1992), and is guided by embodied non-verbalized somatic (Damasio, 1994) and neural activation events (Donahoe and Palmer, 1997) that are ‘just as cognitive as any other perceptual image’ (Damasio, 1994). Because nonconscious embodied reasoning is computable but not directly accessible by conscious reasoning, we often find that our conscious reasoning about what is a ‘best outcome’ conflicts with our nonconscious determination of ‘best outcome’. Thus there is no univocal or self-consistent locus of value (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). (Remember this next time you reluctantly try to get up in the morning.) Values are due to the binding of many information streams that are mediated by disparate neural and somatic processes, and motivate behavior in real time as they are perceived, and not when the physical or objective entity that denotes such information is attained. (In other words, it’s the thought that counts) Thus value is not found in some conceptual object like a meme, but in separate threads of information that are mediated by the mind and body that individually have salience to an individual and are perceived presently, independently, virtually, and for the most part nonconsciously. In other words, the concept of ideas as compartmentalized memes leads us to find value in the obvious topographical or ‘surface’ aspects of an idea, whereas it is the non-obvious abstract properties that are actually selected. Because value resides in information that is often incognizant to us, it cannot be subject to the economic models that are based on the rationing of value according to some single utilitarian measure, or the mathematical decision models such as game theory that conceptualize value simplistically as being no more than material wealth.

The definition of a meme as an independent conceptual object is ultimately not simple, but simplistic, since it does not denote the web of informative relationships between behavior and and the environment that is denoted by consciously and nonconsciously by the mind and body proper. For example, the concept of the sport of football is a well traveled meme to be sure. Football represents a rather involved information pattern that has infected the minds of young men nationwide, and football games, commentary, and assorted chatter has parasitized not only the minds of people, but the network airwaves, the written media, and many unwilling housewives. But is a football game an indivisible meme like entity, or is it somewhat different than the sum of its parts? Actually, the ‘meme’ of football is not a singular information pattern that replicates like a strand of DNA, but rather emerges from a web of separate patterns of information that are mediated not only by consciously perceived information but by neural and somatic activating processes that we otherwise call emotion. The meme of football is not just a compendium of rules, but comprises the memory of the somatic responses that occur while watching (excitement, depression), the natural feeling of elation that occurs with a high state of alertness, the virtual extension of control over all those partisans of the losing team, the constantly changing and stimulating prediction error that occurs as one play after another unfolds, the smell and taste of hot dogs and beer, the camaraderie of friends, and so on. The meme of football is in other words a web of perceptual relationships that is volatile and constantly changing. Moreover, different aspects of the meme football may be present in one circumstance, and not present in another. Watching your team lose at a hostile stadium on a rainy day is a whole lot less rewarding than if you were watching your team at home while among friends.

The most important distinction contrast between evolutionary psychology and bio-behavioral psychology is that bio-behavioral psychology denotes value not in the assimilation of ideas or memes, but in changes in the relationships between memes, or behavioral discrepancies (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). To explain this, we must understand first how a meme does not reproduce.

Although a meme represents a self replicating packet of information, unlike a virus it possesses no internal instructions that secure its influence on behavior, let alone its retention in memory. Memes or ideas take root in memory because they are rehearsed, and they are rehearsed because of their contingent relationship to a myriad other ideas that comprise the stimulus context of a behavior. This idea of contingency is critical to the methodology of modern behaviorism, and underlines the fact that it is not ideas alone that motivate, but the dependencies between ideas. The meme of a fishhook for example hardly comes to mind until it is perceived as part of a means-end (memes-end?) expectancy. We think of fish hooks because of the fish it can catch, but to even think about fishing one must also think about the time, place, and equipment that allows one to fish. If any of these events fail to take place, there is hardly a need to think about fishing, or for that matter the meme of fishhooks. An atomized universe of memes does not implicate the contingent relationship between ideas that secures the rehearsal and retention of a ‘good idea’. Behavior is elicited not by individual memes but by global maps of means-end expectancies that are constantly changing, and are in general non-consciously perceived. However, what causes us to think about fishhooks, fishing trips or other ideas is the fact the relationships they denote are selected and are mentally rehearsed. We constantly think about a fishhook as it winds its way from our tackle box to the end of our fishing line because in every moment the relationship between the fishhook and the line changes, and it is the change that gains our attention. Thus, we select not only memes, but also the abstract relationships between memes as they are moderated by our thoughts and overt behavior. Ultimately, as Alexander the Great found out when he wept upon having no more new worlds to conquer, what motivates is not the end, but in the traveling.

Unfortunately, Darwinian and common sense models can no more describe the molecular ‘environment-behavior’ relationships that comprise human motivation than a weatherman’s description of an impending cold front describes how a snow storm forms over your head. We would err in using a molar analysis (cold fronts) to describe molecular process (the formation of clouds) because the inherent processes implied by storm systems and storm clouds are different. Likewise, the human brain is a massively parallel biological computer, and metaphors from information processing are far more apt than biological metaphors that liken ideas to viruses and their spread to contagion, let alone the metaphors from common sense that posit a disembodied objectified reasoning. The lack of ‘fit’ of Darwinian and common sense metaphors to bio-behavioral science does not invalidate the selectionist principles that inform all of the sciences. But it does point out the level confusion that occurs when a set of principles from one level of understanding (biology) are invoked not just to explain another (an in the juxtaposition of the metaphors of cosmic string and mathematics) but to embody another. In other words, because the uses of memes and genes is not corrected by an understanding of how the brain as a neural system actually works, the metaphorical conception of memes and genes can easily be seen as not just figuratively real, but literally real.

The ultimate danger in assigning a literal reality to the means-end rationality imposed by utilitarian memes and genes is that it implies that we implicitly know what is in our best interest. Furthermore, the convergence of the metaphors of common sense and Darwinism reinforce the idea that value is objectified and is a limited commodity, and must be allocated to those who are most fit to achieve it. In this way, a meme world becomes ‘mean’ world, wherein our memetic impulses robotically drive us forward to achieve our goals, with the long term survival of our genes and memes being the only necessary outcome.

In contrast to this cold and sterile vision, bio-behavioral psychology defines value not as a scarce commodity, but in the creation of information that is consumed virtually. That is, if value is denoted in abstract informative relationships between ideas, then it is prospectively unlimited, and is constrained not by our inability to manufacture physical things, but by our ability to create and perceive information. But perception requires the skills that enable us to mentally model the world, from the implications of the cheers of a crowd in a football game to the thoughts of a proud parent. To experience the world is to model it, and that is nothing more than empathy. Universal empathy allows us to expand and enhance the rewards we perceive, but it also constrains our behavior due to the virtual penalties (e.g. shame, embarrassment) we perceive. Cultures that understand that value derives from the development of empathy will take an entirely different course than the materialistic societies that posit value as the accumulation of objects. Indeed, information is more economically produced by a societal exaltation of sports, art, literature and music than by the manufacture of a new prestige automobile. Ironically, the lasting legacy of a psychology that is informed by evolutionary principles is not the amoral world driven by the erroneous metaphors of selfish genes and infectious memes, but by the evolutionary mandate of an expanding empathy, and our innate interest in the cultivation of beauty.

Bolles, Robert C. (1976) Theory of Motivation. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row
Damasio, Antonio R. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon

Greenwald, A.G. (1992) Unconscious Cognition Reclaimed, American Psychologist, 766-775
Lewicki, P., Hill, T., & Czyewska, M. (1992) Nonconscious acquisition of information, American Psychologist, 47, 796-801
Donahoe, J. W. and D. C. Palmer (1993) Learning and Complex Behavior, Allyn and Bacon
Donahoe, J. W., D. C. Palmer, and Jose E. Burgos (1997) The Unit of Selection: What do reinforcers reinforce?, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 67, 259-273
Donahoe, J. W. (1997) Neural-Networks Models of Cognition, J. W. Donahoe and V. Packard Dorsel (Eds.)
Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books
Staddon, John (1993) Behaviorism , Duckworth

(the best introduction to bio-behaviorism comes from Shull’s article on the website of the Journal for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and the scholarly commentary also at the JEAB website that discussed this new school of behaviorism. An understanding of metaphor and how it heavily influences ideas in evolutionary psychology can be found on the many web sites that discuss the work of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and in particular his new book: Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its challenge to Western Thought)

Friday, October 22, 2004

Dr. Mezmer's Blog of Bad Psychology

The offical blog of Dr. Mezmer.

Mezmer in earlier life Posted by Hello

As the writer of the satirical psychology website of the same name, I have found it always easy to think of the ironies that sustain the ways we look at ourselves and our behavior, but have never had quite the time to write about it. Like an attic filled with the bric a brac of countless observations, I have decided to empty my mind out into this blog, seeing that I have scarcely the time to finesse my ideas for the formal essays that make up my main site. So here it is, a stream of my bizarre consciousness, laid out daily before you. Whether you find it good, bad, ugly, or just mispelled, this is my take on the human condition, tiny essays written in cybernetic vapor, bequeathed to the netherworld of the net.

(for even more breathlessly dumb essays, visit my website at

aka mezmer

Friday, October 01, 2004

Flow, Metaphor, and Churchills Nose

Consider a copper atom at the tip of the nose of Churchill’s statue in Parliament. How could one have predicted it got there? Very simply, the atom got there because Churchill was a great man. Parliament commissioned the statue to honor him, and miners in Chile extracted the copper ore that winded its way from a freight car to a transport ship to a smelter to the artists mold. In other words, how did the copper atom get there? It was simply picked up and moved. Ask this same question to, say, a superstring physicist, and the answers become much more abstract and near intractable. Superstring theory, which is a theory of the ultimate constituents of matter, reduces all reality to the vibrations of an infinite number of one-dimensional strings. Reducing the processes that moved the copper atom to such an infinitesimal perspective would require an almost God-like capability to follow, but would ultimately be no more explanatory than our simple perception of an Andean miner lifting an ore laden rock.

In this example the physicist David Deutsch (1999) demonstrated that explanations and predictions are entirely different things. Explanations provide us with the linguistic tools from the English vernacular to the calculus that enable us predict outcomes in our physical world. But when and where we will utilize these tools depends on the problems we have to solve. We do not use Newtonian mechanics, Einsteinian field equations, or the mathematics of superstrings to help us get to the store in the morning or in any of our daily behaviors for that matter. However, we can and do use the metaphors of Newton, Einstein, and even superstring theory to explain our worlds.

The metaphorical understanding that comprises Newtonian, Darwinian, Einsteinian, etc. explanations are useful because they constrain or correct for the spurious inferences we could otherwise make from our vicarious experience with the regularities of the world. Thus knowing about the world from the perspective of modern physics constrains us from inferring the existence of angels moving the planets, of astrological influences on behavior, and hypothetical entities such as ether and phlogiston. It also constrains us from accepting shared metaphorical assumptions that may be equally incorrect. For example, common sense and Newtonian mechanics postulate causes and effects in a billiard ball array of interacting three dimensional objects set in an invariant time that higher order Einsteinian and quantum descriptions render illusory. Nonetheless, an understanding and acceptance of modern physics does not invalidate the subjective metaphors that describe our daily existence or the common sense physics of everyday life. Thus we still feel that the earth is immobile, that time passes, and that heat feels hot. The ‘qualia’ of our daily existence, the conscious feel of time, taste, touch, and color remains undisturbed.

In a similar vein, we know what a headache is by the fact that it hurts, but we understand what a headache is by our ability to move from one metaphorical scheme (hurt, pain, discomfort) to another (inflamed blood vessels, high blood pressure, etc.) Understanding what headaches are precludes us from hypothesizing new and strange causal entities such as demonic possession or errant microwaves. Similarly, understanding that headaches hurt assign an emotional valence or value to our understanding, and it is this empathic understanding that impels behavior to ends that serves individual and societal needs. Thus, we may say that a doctor understands what headaches are, but a good doctor also understands that patients suffer.

The ability to use the metaphorical language of different methods of inquiry precludes the postulation of odd metaphorical constructs that have no basis in reality, and is indeed essential to science. However, science does not dismiss subjective reality, but permits us to more reliably anchor it to physical or empirical events, and thus allows us to better communicate how we feel and what we truly value. This multi-metaphorical position assumes that no one metaphorical level of understanding is more privileged than another, and is championed by the cognitive linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Turner (1999), who argue that a true understanding of any phenomenon is dependent upon our ability to frame it using differing methodological assumptions. Thus, "In applying a method, we need to be as sure as we can that the method itself does not either determine the outcome in advance of the empirical inquiry or artificially skew it. A common method for achieving this… is to seek converging evidence using the broadest available range of differing methodologies. Ideally, the skewing effects of any one method will be canceled out by other methods. The more sources of evidence we have, the more likely this is to happen."

Unfortunately however, the tendency in science is be restrictive in the use of one’s metaphors, and to address particular issues in science with the singular methodology of the specialist. As the founder of cybernetics, Nobert Weiner noted (1961) "… has been increasingly the task of specialists. Today there are few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restriction. A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist. He will be full of the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy."

This argument is particularly true for the science of psychology. Psychologists in the fields of humanistic, social, experimental, cognitive, and behavioristic psychology have churned out an extensive corpus of journalistic literature, but nearly all of it is does not include even the most cursory consideration of how other methodologies and their accompanying metaphors would clarify understanding. In particular, the question that comes to mind to any layman who confronts the imposing and intimidating edifice of endless rows of stacks of books and journals that comprise the knowledge of psychology is how much of all this stuff is comprised of just different ways of saying the same thing, and how much of it consists of merely metaphors that allude to events, but are grounded in none of them.

Consider this simple yet very nontrivial observation. A person who has to rapidly shift his attention between a host of very salient perceptions or precepts will experience a state of high neurological arousal marked by consistent reports of pleasure, ecstasy, and well being. This fact has been independently confirmed by the separate methodologies of humanistic, social, physiological, and bio-behavioral science, but never through the combined perspective of those methodologies. Simple polling procedures (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) have found that individuals consistently report ecstatic or pleasurable states when engaging in very involving pursuits ranging from mountain climbing to gambling. This phenomenological interpretation is often merged with a social psychological perspective that imports indistinct metaphorical motivating processes such as intrinsic motivation, ‘autotelic’ personality, and self-actualization. In addition to these metaphors, the neurophysiological correlates to these experiences are well established. PET scans and other neurophysiological measures have demonstrated that heightened levels of the neuro-modulator dopamine are present during video game playing (Koepp et al., 1998), extreme sports, and gambling, and represent the distinguishing morphological change during such ‘flow’ producing behaviors. It has been proposed (Ashby, Isen, & Turken 1999) that dopamine facilitates switching between different cognitive perspectives, which improves cognitive flexibility and creative problem solving, and mediates the cognitive effects of positive affect. This position has been corroborated by recent neuro-physiological findings that have established dopamine as a neurochemical that imparts pleasure (Montague et al. 1994), makes thinking more efficient (Durstewitz et al. 1999), and keeps us rooted on our behavior (Schultz, 1998). Dopamine is released when attention ‘shifts’ due to behavioral discrepancies or challenges (Donahoe, Palmer, and Burgos, 1997), or in other words, is released when one is "attending" to salient events (Horvitz, Stewart, and Jacobs, 1997).

Finally, the bio-behavioral events that constitute the neural activity corresponding with peak experiences can be modeled using neural models of reinforcement that implicate dopaminergic midbrain systems (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993), and mapped to patterns of information (e.g. variable ratio or gambling schedules of reinforcement) that as a matter of course engage the contingency based metaphors of behaviorism. Each of these empirical methodologies if used in concert would immensely simplify an understanding of such ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experiences by discounting extra behavioral metaphorical entities that have no meaning outside of the methodologies that created them. In particular, a grounding of ecstatic experiences to neural events and the schedules of information (or reinforcement) that elicit those events would dispel the implied reality of metaphorical constructs (e.g. ‘undreamed of level of consciousness, ‘heightened sense of self’.) On the other hand, an understanding of the subjective metaphors (e.g. ecstasy, pleasure) of peak experiences implicates those aspects of neuro-biological research that are important to people.

Because the evidence for what has been popularly called ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experiences has never converged, the phenomenon has been needlessly confounded and trivialized by the persistence of extraneous metaphors that have no meaning outside of the methodology that created them. Contrariwise, if looked as a mere physiological or behavioral phenomenon, the subjective importance of such experience is unrealized, and is reduced to some colorless and abstract component of ‘reinforcement’. Only through the combined use of metaphors from phenomenology, social psychology, physiology, and behavior analysis (i.e. behaviorism) may such experiences be understood, and be ultimately reduced to the comfortable intuitive explanations that we apply to many aspects of the human condition, from headaches and disease to the mechanics of throwing a ball.
Ultimately, what is ‘real’ to us is what we understand, and understanding is not the province of one favored metaphorical description of the world, but of many. In his landmark book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Thomas Kuhn noted that the work of a scientist was a community affair, and that scientists tend to work with a narrow vocabulary that they may not share with other communities, thus causing each faction to ultimately talk past each other rather than to each other. Recent advances in cognitive science, and particularly in the nascent field of cognitive linguistics recognize that the long overdue simplification of the overly complex field of psychology requires an understanding and appreciation of the metaphorical underpinnings of the language we use. This appreciation is only the beginning, and is long past due.

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Horvitz, J. C., Stewart, T., and Jacobs, B. L. (1997) Burst activity of ventral segmental dopamine neurons as elicited by sensory stimuli. Brain Research, 759, 251-258
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago
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Weiner, Norbert, Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1961