An Unnatural State

A blog about science and humanity by Brandon Gantt

Sam Harris on death

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I feel it’s time to resurrect the blog. This blog began as a marked assignment in a science communication course. But, the paper has ended, the blog has been marked, and the blog can be reborn a little freer from the constraints of anticipated academic judgement.

Talk of resurrection is apt because I just recently watched Sam Harris’ speech (embedded below) from Melbourne in April about death and the value of living in the present moment. For many, certain aspects of death would appear to be outside the purview of scientific inquiry. While this is not true, it is the central axis around which all religions orbit, some sort of of denial of death apart from the now obvious answer, that death returns you to the state you were in before you were born.

So why shatter people’s illusions (delusions?) and deny them the comfort of an eternity of consciousness? Well, that’s where Harris has been so interesting lately. Rather than simply tearing down, and it’s easy to point out flaws in religious thinking, the Harris of late has been building up.

He offers us The Moral Landscape as a way to establish a secular objective morality. In Free Will  (my review) he attacks the classical notion of free will, but spends plenty of time offering up reasons to think this may indeed be a refreshing change in view and shows possible knock-on benefits for individuals and society.

His discussion of death is not just to point out the problems of death denial. It offers ways to inject new kinds of vitality, urgency, and appreciation into people’s lives. His points will make you reexamine how you spend your time, and at best offer more happiness and fulfilment than any religion ever could.

This is well worth your time:

Pre-pregnancy obesity and lowered cognitive ability in children

File this one under moral choices that are increasingly informed by scientific inquiry. It turns out that women who are obese when they become pregnant are more likely to have children with lowered cognitive function.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why people become overweight. For some individuals, weight is very difficult to control, sometimes even for genetic reasons. For others, it is well within their control, in principle. A better diet and more exercise would do the trick. But, no matter the reason, whether or not one has a child is arguably much more controllable most of the time.

Consider that it is generally legal to drink when pregnant, though extremely discouraged. It’s also generally legal to smoke tobacco while pregnant, though extremely discouraged. Those behaviors are discouraged for obvious reasons; they will likely cause harm to the fetus, including impaired cognitive function.

I would argue that it is unethical to knowingly create a child that has a higher risk for cognitive impairment. This is only one study, so more work needs to be done. But if having a child while obese non-trivially increases its risk of lower cognitive function, I think it should be avoided.

It’s not about freedom. Do people have the freedom to smoke tobacco while pregnant? Sure. Should they? Absolutely not. We might be on the verge of extending the same advice to obese women.

The mirror problem

Issues of perception have always been fascinating to me. Courts of law often hold eyewitness testimony in the highest regard, treating us essentially as big, wet video cameras.

But the more we learn about the brain, this turns out to be less and less the case. We are constantly judging, coloring, and interpreting our sensory inputs in ways that are invisible to us, especially from the inside out.

I was just reminded of this video of the late, great physicist Richard Feynman in which he explains why mirrors seem to flip us left to right (i.e. your hair will be parted on the other side), but not top to bottom (your feet are still at the bottom).

I can’t explain it any better than he does so here’s the clip:

Even explaining simple concepts, he’s always amazing to listen to. The mirror problem shows that even the plainest reality can be radically twisted by the brain.

Here’s another one, a set of pictures actually. They’re slightly NSFW, but totally worth a look, and they’re hilarious. If stuff like this ever gets you too worried about questioning everything so much, just remember that that’s probably better than unjustified confidence.

A sample from the set:

Flying carpet?



Auras explained, partly

I mentioned auras a while back in a post about what the word physical means in science. Just to be clear at the start, an aura is a psychological phenomenon, one that’s often mistaken for some kind of observation of “energy”. But, while auras may not be what their viewers tend to claim, there might be something interesting going on here.

A recent study has shown that at least some viewers of auras have synesthesia, a neurological condition that crosses the senses. This means they really do see something, even if it’s not a magical energy field. The aura is not coming from the person being viewed (which had already been well established), but rather the person doing the viewing.

That’s not a surprising conclusion, and it would be easy to be snarky about it and say well of course they made it up! But, that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

What I find interesting here is the viewer’s subjectivity. If you tell them they can’t be seeing anything, you’d be wrong. But, when they say they can see some phenomenon emanating from another person that would exist in the absence of the observer, they’d be wrong too.

On the one hand, this issue underlines the importance of objectivity in science. The auras cannot be objectively verified independently of the person who claims to view them. Yet, on the other hand, it’s clear that we cannot totally dismiss people’s subjective experiences.

There is an experience here. It’s just that the person having the experience got the interpretation wrong, which might seem counterintuitive at first.

But this is precisely what makes science such a powerful tool. It allows us to collectively overcome these common cognitive errors that none of us is totally free from, however rational and objective we would like to think we are.

How to spend money to maximize your happiness

It’s often repeated that money cannot buy happiness. That’s not strictly true, as money is correlated with happiness up to a point. But, the relationship is quite modest.

This study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology, reveals some of the reasons why and makes recommendations based on empirical data that show how to best spend money to maximize happiness. I’ll mention some favorites and leave the rest so you can dive into the paper, as it’s extremely readable.

The first thing is to spend money on experiences rather than items. It turns out that pleasant experiences stick around for a long time in form of pleasant memories. Whereas physical items that we buy tend to lose their luster relatively quickly. It’s tempting to think of big exciting purchases as investments, or to imagine that we will enjoy the item over and over again.

But we humans adapt quickly, and that ability to adapt makes things dull pretty quickly. That 42 inch LCD TV that you couldn’t wait to get out of its box is now just the regular old TV to pop on after a long day at work. That month you spent tramping in the Italian Alps will give you wonderful memories for a lifetime, long after that TV got recycled.

Another one is to buy many smaller pleasures rather than a few big ones. This works for two main reasons. The first is the adaptation thing again. Small pleasures can be a little different every time, like going out with your friends is never quite the same, making them harder to adapt to. And, they can change over time with your tastes and desires.

A small pleasure might be having a beer in the evening with friends. It can change because there’s always a new one to try! And, your company will not always be the same.

The second main reason smaller pleasures are better is that they are resistant to a phenomenon called decreased marginal utility. (That’s my favorite phrase from the paper!) Decreased marginal utility describes the phenomenon that, to use the paper’s example, one 12 ounce cookie is not twice as pleasurable as two 6 ounce cookies.

If you eat two 6 ounce cookies on separate occasions, your net pleasure will be more than the one larger cookie. This means you can take small pleasures, like cookie eating, and spread them out over many occasions, gaining more happiness from the same amount of consumption.

The last tip I’ll leave you with (the paper offers five more) is to beware of comparison shopping. I’ll channel Frank Herbert on this one and say choice is the mind killer.

Modern consumer culture is dominated by choice, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon evolutionarily speaking. Unfortunately our brains often have a hard time handling so much choice. It seems counterintuitive. The more choice you have, you might think, the more opportunity you have to make a great decision!

Not quite. Too much choice means you are always worried about all the other options you could have picked, no matter what you choose. The paper suggests avoiding looking around too much, and avoiding using comparison shopping sites on the Internet.

One reason is that people are not good at judging the hedonic impact of an experience prior to the experience occurring. You can always imagine the option you didn’t take as bringing more pleasure, whether it would or not.

For more on that, check out this awesome TED talk on the paradox of choice.

It’s the science of being happy through better decisions. : )

My brain made me do it

At what point is someone culpable for their actions? We like to think that at least some of our decisions and actions are the products of our free will, that we are just as able to choose not to do something as to choose to do it, but that may not be true.

Some recent research has shown that psychopaths have different brain structures than other people, brain structures that cause their asocial behavior. They don’t choose to behave that way, per se. Their minds are simply products of their brains just as everyone else’s.

How can they be held responsible for the structure of their brain, something over which they have no control whatsoever? Of course, no one is arguing that they shouldn’t be removed from society since they pose a clear danger.

But, if the personality that inhabits a psychopath’s brain is not responsible for it’s unchangeable nature, can we say they are responsible for the actions that personality produces? And, can we punish them for actions they had no choice but to commit?

Psychopaths are an extreme example, but it follows that we are all products of our brains’ structures. If you accept non-culpability for psychopaths for having a physical neurological disability, how can we determine where culpability kicks in for normal brains?

Consider another example. In 2002 it was reported that a normal 40 year-old married man and school teacher began exhibiting symptoms of pedophilia. He was collecting child pornography, visiting prostitutes, and ultimately making sexual advances on children.

It was then discovered that he had a brain tumor the size of an egg in the right lobe of his orbifrontal cortex. When the tumor was removed, the symptoms disappeared. When they later reappeared, a new growth was discovered. It was removed and he was cured for good.

Most people are quick to absolve this man of responsibility because it was the tumor, not him! He was normal, then the tumor formed and visited symptoms upon him he had no way to control.

Extend that idea to a pedophile without a tumor. He may suffer as a result of a problem with the structure of his brain, but the structural problem is not a tumor; it’s the brain itself. Why is this different? Should he be more responsible than the guy with the tumor even though he has no more control over the structure of his brain?

I’m not claiming to have the answers to these questions. I do think a tendency towards help rather than punishment might be a good idea. Brains are not immutable; they can change to an extent. That’s why they deserve help.

And, I still think that in everyday matters, the perception of responsibility for one’s actions is a useful tool to guide behavior. It just seems that the more we know about the brain, the edges of traditional notions of responsibility are becoming fuzzier.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Less religion, more compassion studies reveal

One of the most common arguments for religions of various forms is that regardless of their truth or untruth, they are useful. Proponents will often suggest that religions can cause people to feel compassionate and do good things. That may be true for some, and it might be a mistake to overgeneralize.

But a new group of studies has shown that less religious people tend to be motivated by compassion more than their highly religious counterparts. The three studies, performed at the University of California, Berkeley, found that existing compassion predicted generosity more so in the less religious. And, when compassion was induced, generosity was increased in the less religious people more than in religious people.

Insofar as we accept compassion and other prosocial behaviors as values to promote, and I think there are very good reasons to do so, there are fewer and fewer defensible reasons to adopt a religious framework for one’s life.

It’s not my intention to create conflict. But I think science has more and more to say about human and non-human animal wellbeing. The problem is that various religions have staked claims in this domain for a long time, and their territories are eroding.

Any honest conversation about morality informed by rationality is going to have to touch ground here in this disputed area. The only way forward, as I see it, is honest inquiry and honest conversation about these issues.

We need to defend and promote our ideas. It’s just that that job is getting much harder for some people under the powerful light of evidence.

The Blue School

The New York Times had a great article recently about The Blue School, a school in New York City that structures its curriculum around modern neuroscience. When education at the state level seems to be such a slow moving ship, it’s nice to see that people are still looking for fresh approaches to learning.

Few would argue that traditional schools are perfectly optimized for human learning, yet the way forward is unclear. This, of course, requires that parents effectively accept that their children will be guinea pigs for new processes.

The school’s evidence based approach is admirable, but there are plenty of unanswered questions. How to you translate neuroscientific findings from published papers into a cohesive and effective curriculum? How will these students fare when they transfer to other, more traditional schools?

I have to say that my favorite bit was about the students planning their own field trip, including what kind of transportation to take and mapping the route to get there. If that’s a first grade activity, what will the fifth graders be doing? (The oldest kids are just now in second grade.)

The whole thing reminded me of this absolutely brilliant TED talk by Ken Robinson about how schools kill creativity. As someone who is trying so hard to reclaim some of that latent creative desire as an adult, I can’t help but think that more creatively inspiring schooling would have had a hugely positive impact on my life.

My current field of study, science communication, seems to be giving my whole brain a workout. And it feels pretty good.

Public evidence followup

This is just a short followup to my previous post about Dr. Lee Smolin’s definition of science. I finished the post by stating that this definition could be useful for the public sphere in that it could set a foundation for where discourse can begin. But I don’t want to leave out scientific uncertainty or understate its importance.

People need to know that science is a process, not a series of dogmatic revelations about the world, and uncertainty is part of that process. What I want to make clear, though, is that a debate need not start at something like how old the Earth is. The Earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years. There’s a margin of error of ± 1 percent. And 10,000 years is not included in that margin of error.

Maybe Aladdin’s genie will pop out one day and prove that he created the Earth and made it look as if it were 4.54 billion years old. Until that day, 4.54 billion is the best we’ve got.

When I mentioned schools and government, I alluded to the potential for discussions centered on baseless claims, like a 10,000 year old Earth. But, the really interesting discussions begin when we all have a proper foundation. It’s from this point of view that I suggested Dr. Smolin’s definition could be a useful, if a little dreary.

Don’t we stand on the shoulders of giants? Sometimes we do, and sometimes one side of the argument still has a foot in the Bronze Age. It’s just my hope that all these erroneously disparate points of view on matters of objective reality will collapse under the weight of public evidence so we can get to work on things that matter.

The weight of public evidence

Perhaps one of science’s greatest strengths, amidst relentless progress and profound success, is its constant self-examination. Unlike traditional forms of knowledge, science thrives on change. The knowledge gained through it is always our best answer yet. That yet contains all of our hope for the future, and an acknowledgement that our knowledge is incomplete.

As such, even the definition of science is in flux. I heard one recently that really gave me pause.

I was watching the 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate on YouTube. In this installment of the debate, the panel of physicists discusses the theory of everything, the idea that there may be a unified, and perhaps simple, mathematical description of the Universe that explains all physical behaviors large and small.

It’s a contentious idea because it’s not known whether setting the goal of finding a unified theory even makes sense within the current paradigm of physics. Also, so much of the work is theoretical and could be extremely difficult or even impossible to test for, a challenge facing string theory for example.

So, this is work that is not only challenging from a scientific perspective, but also work that challenges current notions of what constitutes science itself. At one point during the debate, Dr. Lee Smolin said something that made me stop the video and think for a moment. It was this:

Science is not about what’s true or what might be true. Science is what people with originally diverse viewpoints can be forced to agree on by the weight of public evidence.
—Dr. Lee Smolin, Isaac Asimov Debate 2011, 1:19:57

That’s obviously not an exhaustive definition of science, but it might be a useful way of looking at it. On this view, pursuing something like string theory is not science per se. It’s an avenue of exploration that may eventually become science.

Nobody has to be persuaded that string theory is true, even those working on it. It’s merely a possibility. Contrast that to something like evolution. The weight of public evidence is such that one would be a fool to deny it if properly educated.

This is a definition that could be useful from the public’s perspective in that it need not be concerned with scientific fringes and controversies. There are things we know about the world that simply cannot be denied in any coherent or convincing way.

As a corollary, there are things one cannot claim to know in a coherent or convincing way. This is the science we need in schools and government buildings. It should form the foundation of rational discourse everywhere.