Monday, June 28, 2010

A prophet in his own land?

The newly opened Dostoyevskaya station on the Moscow metro has caused some controversy. It is decorated with large black and gray images evoking disturbing scenes of murder and suicide from Dostoyevsky's novels. Critics are worried that it could become a "suicide Mecca," but the artist who did the murals is unrepentant. In his defense, he told journalists: "What did you want? Scenes of dancing? Dostoevsky does not have them." Indeed, it's all Dostoyevsky's fault - he should have written more cheerful stuff. On the other hand, 19th-century Russia knew neither Prosac nor positive psychology. Then, how can we blame any Russian writer for being excessively gloomy?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The failed poets society

It is sometimes said that people who could not make decent poets become critics instead. It seems brain science offers some corroboration to this old hunch. On his “Psychology Today” blog, Norman Holland recounts an improvised “experiment” he once witnessed. Someone brought together poets and critics to read poetry, and it turned out they had very different takes on it. While the poets paid attention to the sounding of words and to rhythm, “the critics concerned themselves with things like repetitions and contrasts of themes and meanings.” Now a neuroscientist has done a clever study of the “information-processing approach” of poets and critics. It turns out, exposure to poetry activates different neural networks in the brains of individuals belonging to the two groups. While poets tend to experience poetry more immediately (I would add, maybe more emotionally), critics apply a more top-down semantic-conceptual analysis. Holland makes it seem like this is a matter mostly of choosing the reading strategies appropriate for the occupations poets and critics have taken up. It’s probably more a matter of some individuals having the inclination (and underlying brain wiring) to approach the written word in one manner, and others – very differently.

Beyond stereotyping

Yesterday Madrid saw a mass demonstration by public sector workers. They were protesting government plans to cut their salaries by five per cent. Meanwhile, the Irish government has already cut the salaries of its public sector workers by 18 per cent. The measure, though unpopular, was met only by muted public grumbling. Now, someone could say: what can you expect? Spaniards, as quintessential southerners, are apparently less inclined to intellectualize away the challenges life (and class enemies) throw up at them. And Greeks seem to have an even harder time bracing up for the inevitable. But, of course, we have learned to look away from such tired cultural cliches.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Driven to distraction

Despite the alleged erosion of our brain powers Nicholas Carr laments, once in a while a longer, earth-shattering, potentially life-changing article does shoot to the top of the NYT’s “most emailed” list. The latest example is Matt Richtel’s “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.” It highlights the way electronic multiple devices can become addictive and undermine our ability to focus, filter out irrelevant stimuli, and stay “connected” in our first lives. It also offers a snapshot of the “work station” of a troubled (yet successful) IT entrepreneur – semi-surrounded by four computer screens, he looks like Tom Cruise in front of all those controls in “Top Gun.” As published on the web, though, the article has an ironic twist. It is interlaced with 19 blue-tinged hyperlinks enticing us to click away from it while reading. At school, this would be called “teaching by negative example.” Richtel cites a couple of neuroscientists who sound worried that this state of being incessantly hooked to IT devices must be rewiring our plastic brains in somewhat unhealthy ways. Yet, most of the concerns are still related to changes in our thinking and ability to empathize – as a result of the direct pressures and enticements we experience. It should by now be evident that any profound changes in the way we think or feel should be linked to changes in our brain wiring and activation, not only to cognitive or behavioral adaptations. But the old frame of reference lingers on.

The pursuit of scientific understanding

Lehrer’s faith that the scientific experiments he cites offer a valid explanation of the effects of electronic gadgets and web surfing on the brain calls to mind an older post by Norman Holland on his “Psychology Today” blog. So, I am quite relieved – apparently, my mind hasn’t yet gone completely the way of HAL’s. Here is what Holland says regarding the mountain of psychological experiments that have piled up over the decades: “Each experiment defines its independent and dependent variables in unique ways and adds a unique methodology. The result is a collection of discrete experimental results, each of which is thoroughly scientific, but that, as a whole, do not cumulate in the manner of a science. Rather the collection of experiments maintains a continuing conversation in the manner of the humanities.” I guess this wouldn’t resonate emotionally with someone like Lehrer, too – to say nothing of the more technically smart researchers who have not given up their research careers to write non-fiction.

Everything bad is really, truly good for you

In the NYT, Jonah Lehrer reviews (“Our Cluttered Minds”) Nocholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet IS Doing to Our Brains” (an elaboration of his much discussed Atlantic piece, “Is Google making Us Stupid?”). Carr essentially argues that the powerful distractions generated by the Internet are toasting our brains, thus undermining our ability to focus and “deep-read.” Lehrer objects that “the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.” For example, one study found that “[video] gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention.” And another “found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex” – the brain area that “underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet.” The bottom line for Lehrer is that “Google … isn’t making us stupid – it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.” And, clearly, “the negative side effects of the Internet” Carr obsesses about do not “outweigh its efficiencies” – as Carr argues. Why do these two intelligent authors have such a fundamental disagreement? I have a hypothesis which I wish I could test. In what Lehrer identifies as a “melodramatic flourish,” Carr begins his book with a vignette from his earlier article. He reminds us of that memorable scene from “2001: A Space Odissey” when HAL, the spaceship “supercomputer” (having maybe less computational power than a sweatshop-made cell phone) pleads as he senses his electronic life seeping out of his silicone veins: “My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” Then Carr comments: “I can feel it too. Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” Apparently, even a highly sophisticated and reflexive scientist-turned-science-writer like Lehrer can’t feel it. Here is the comment I posted on Lehrer’s blog under the entry pointing to his review of Carr’s book: “In ‘How We Decide’, Jonah Lehrer makes clear that emotional attunement to one's natural and social environment … is crucial to making judicious judgments and ad hoc decisions. I am just curious: are there any studies demonstrating that video games and web serving are beneficial for this aspect of our mental lives? Or are they improving mostly the nerdish cognitive skills boasted by the neuroscientists conducting all those clever experiments?”

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Save our mental environment!

A few years ago I maintained a simple web site grandly proclaiming that the erosion of our brain powers by all kinds of audiovisual pollution will be the "new frontier of environmental awareness." Adbusters now have a new issue of their magazine out under the heading "The Whole Brain Catalog" - with a nod to the Whole Earth Catalog which catalyzed the environmental movement in the 1960s. The promo they emailed warns that "the mental environment is now the terrain where our fate as humans will be decided." The lead article is a mental manifesto by Bill McKibben titled "The Environmental Movement of the Mind," and the other pieces look promising, too. Welcome to the new wave of mental environmentalism.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Launching your kid in life

The NYT carries an article on "Teaching Work Values to Children of Wealth." Apparently, this is a new craze among the wealthy - as the crisis bites, and seemingly well educated college students or grads have increasing difficulty "getting into a purposeful path" in life. Of course, this new business opportunity is eagerly seized by all kinds of coaches and consultants - giving a much needed boost to the GDP. One expert offers the following sound advice to the anxious well-off: "Those families that treat their kids' launch like any other endeavor are having the most success." Indeed, what could be the difference between giving your offspring a good start in life and, say, launching a new celebrity fashion line or social website? All you need is cool business sense and/or professional judgment. And isn't this what helped the rich get rich in the first place (unless they inherited it all)?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ironic democracy

The municipal elections in Reykjavik were won by an upstart party calling itself humbly the Best Party. Headed by Iceland's best-known comedian (who could now become mayor), the party ran a satirical campaign making extravagant promises - if elected, they would bring a polar bear to the city zoo, hand free towels at all swimming pools, construct a Dysneyesque theme part at the airport, etc. For decades, political scientists have tried to come up with qualifiers to describe obviously imperfect, yet seemingly democratic systems: "protodemocracy," "authoritarian democracy," "neopatrimonial democracy," etc. One study found 550 such examples of "democracy with adjectives" in the scholarly literature. Maybe it's time to add a new, less ominous entry to the list - "ironic democracy." This would be a system in which no one would be expected to take seriously elections and the post-election gimmicks of elected "politicians." Some would say the Reykjavik vote was an aberration, reflecting the rage of the electorate with the traditional parties that steered the country into its current financial meltdown. But let's not forget the trail-blazers who set the trend years ago - gifted self-styled entertainers (some detractors would call them clowns) like Silvio Berlusconi and Boris Johnson.