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Journal of No. 118

March 14th, 2015

The Self Illusion, by Bruce Hood @ 09:09 pm

subtitle: How the Social Brain Creates Identity

I was a little disappointed with the overall thrust of the book. I was coming at it hoping for more of a philosophical take. Something like what Daniel Dennett says about the self being more like a narrative center of gravity for the burbling bubblepot that is the brain. There is some of that, but more of the book seems to be directed at deflating what I would consider to be a strawman. That there is some sort of rigid self that is so autonomous that it is immune to outside influence. I mean, when you're hungry, I think we all know we make different decisions (even not about food) than when we're sated. But there was still much to like.

Early face experience also shapes human brains. For example, children born with cataracts never see faces clearly as infants. When their vision is surgically corrected later in life, they still have problems with recognizing faces even though they can now see clearly.10 No matter how much training and practice you have later in life, some early exposures are important for shaping brain development. So, when Tarzan returned from the jungle to take up his position as Lord Greystoke, he would have had a problem telling the difference between the cook and the scullery maid, having never seen a human face as an infant. His recognition for ape faces at the zoo, on the other hand, would have been just fine.

However, researchers at the Institute of Neurology in London found that you could tickle yourself with a tickling machine when there was a delay inserted between the action of operating the lever and the probe that did the tickling.27 When the self no longer seems in control, we surrender to the illusion of an external agent. This also explains why schizophrenic patients can tickle themselves: their self-monitoring is believed to be disrupted, and they attribute sensations and experiences generated by their own brains and bodies as coming from somewhere else.

In one study,69 a female adult looked and smiled at 14-month-old infants and then leaned forward to activate a light-switch on a box by bending over and touching it with her forehead. When presented with the light-switch box, the babies produced the same bizarre movement. However, if the woman had her arms wrapped in a blanket and did exactly the same movement with her forehead, the babies did not copy the head movement but activated the light-switch on the box with their hands.

Discussing delayed gratification:

Very often, they distract themselves by singing a song or doing something with their hands to take their minds off the temptation. In fact, coming up with alternatives might be the secret to resisting temptation. You can even train children how to distract themselves or tell them to imagine that the marshmallow is only a picture and not real. All of these strategies reduce the attention-grabbing properties of the goal, thereby making restraint more possible. It also means that self-control is something that can be practised, which explains the counterintuitive finding that children raised in very strict households perform worse on delay of gratification. By being too controlling, parents do not allow children to develop their own internalized self-control,95 which might explain many of the stereotypes of individuals who have led sheltered lives running amok when they are no longer under the control of others.

In his prospective suicide note, Whitman wrote about the impulsive violence and the mental turmoil he was experiencing. He had a history of aggressive outbursts and a troubled family life, but in the months leading up to the Austin rampage, Whitman thought things were getting worse. He wrote, “After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” He also asked that after his debts had been paid off, any money left over should go into research to find out if there was some explanation for his actions. He knew that something was not right. And he was unfortunately correct. Deep inside his brain was a sizeable tumor in the region of his amygdala.

This comes close to what I was looking for...

This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture. My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the decision has been arrived at independently—a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

more recently, researchers using brain imaging have been able to push this boundary back to 7 seconds.11 They can predict on the basis of brain activity which of two buttons a subject will eventually press [7 seconds ahead of time].

Not all depression is the same in its origins, but it is statistically more common among the poor and deprived in our society.16 One theory is that it is not so much that poverty is the root cause but rather the circumstances that having no wealth entails—the inability of individuals to do anything about their lives. Like the inescapable shocks to the dogs, people learn helplessness, which leads to the negative fatalism that things can never get better. The obvious solution is to empower people with choices. Some would argue that this is what wealth really brings—the opportunity to make choices and not be shackled to a life you can’t escape. If nothing changes no matter what you do, you have the basics for despair. The need for control appears to be fairly important for both physical and mental health. Simply believing that you have the power to change your life makes it more bearable.

We know this because we wired adults up to a machine that measures arousal and found that they got anxious when they had to cut up a photograph of the object of their childhood attachment. Myself and colleagues have recently created a series of brain imaging studies in which we show adults videos of their objects being blown up, driven over, axed, chain-sawed, and jumped on. A brain scanner reveals the different regions of the brain that are activated during these distressing movies.

[People] who bid for the same items in an auction but had been allowed to handle the items for 30 seconds, compared to those bidders who only examined the object for 10 seconds, were willing to bid 50% more for the same objects.

We don’t mimic those outside our social groups. In fact, we dislike individuals from outside of our social group more if they mimic us. In one study, white Dutch adults who scored highly on tests that measure prejudice disliked a computer-generated avatar that mimicked them if it appeared to have a Moroccan face rather than a white European one.

In another study using a different Eastern population, U.S. and Chinese participants watched movies of a shoal of fish with one fish swimming out front that could be interpreted as either leading the shoal or ostracized by the other fish.66 U.S. students thought the lone fish was more likely to be leading the shoal, whereas Chinese students interpreted the movie as the lone fish being rejected by the group.

In one classic study, Princeton theology students were asked to present a sermon on the “Good Samaritan” in a building across campus.25 If they were told that they were running late, only one in ten stopped to help a sickly man in a doorway on their way to the meeting, compared to six out of ten who were not in a hurry.

I have been fairly skeptical of the claims of 'multiple personality', but...

However, one dramatic case in which brain science backs up the claim of true, separated selves comes from a recent German DID patient who, after 15 years of being diagnosed as blind, gradually regained sight after undergoing psychotherapy.37 At first, only a few of the personalities regained vision, whereas others remained blind. Was the patient faking? Not according to the electrical measurements recorded from her visual cortex—one of the early sensory processing areas in the brain.

in one study on attitudes about global warming, Republicans shifted from 49% who believed the planet was warming up in 2001 to 29% in 2010. In contrast, Democrats increased from 60% to 70% who believed it was a problem over the same period.28 It was if they were living on different planets.

"Mr. Bungle was the disturbed creation of a young hacker logging on from New York University."
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Journal of No. 118