Mind and Brain

Free speech and free will

I’ve always believed that a healthy society encourages free and open debate among its citizens, and am a strong supporter of technology and trends that support free and independent speech. At its heart is a belief in the Darwinism of ideas — that out of a cacophony of voices somehow the the good ideas will beat out idiocy and lies. Between the incredibly polarized US politics and the rising prominence of Islamic and Christian fanaticism, the past few years have seriously tested my faith in this belief. The myth of the Internet and the free speech movement in general is that by allowing many voices to flourish the good ideas and behaviors will push out the bad — that the best way to fight the harmful effects of “bad” speech is not through censorship but through still more speech. I think it’s important to question that assumption from time to time, especially for those like myself that design technology to make communication even more frictionless.

My recent thinking has been shaped in part by two editorials. One is the recent op-ed in the NYT in which John Tierney calls on the media to show a little restraint in reporting on suicide bombings to “give the public a more realistic view of the world’s dangers.” To this, security expert Bruce Shneier responds that reports on suicide bombings may make us feel more insecure than we should, but that

…the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure.

The second editorial is Mark Danner‘s chilling analysis of the political positioning that led up to the Iraq war, based on the recently leaked secret Downing Street memo. One quote from that piece that’s relevant is by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister:

Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.

I’m now starting to see speech as a duality, made up of information on the one hand and emotion on the other. Information is communication for the head — the factual, objective component of what is being communicated that speaks to the analytical parts of our minds. Emotion is the punch that goes right to our guts — the difference between a logical but dry speech and a rousing call to arms. All communication has aspects of both. While a particular speech, document or medium may emphasize one more than the other, human-to-human communication necessarily is encoded in ways that speak to both our heads and our hearts simultaneously.

Both information and emotion are used to convince, seduce, cajole and manipulate others, either to their benefit or detriment. It’s beneficial to society and to the people being convinced when parents raise their child to be a responsible and caring adult, when religion convinces a criminal to lead an honest life and when a book inspires someone to go out and follow his dreams. It’s detrimental to society and the person being manipulated when a con artist bilks a widow out of her life savings, an advertiser fosters the addictions of new potential customer and a politician lies to hide the fact that he’s working against the voters’ best interest.

On the whole I still believe the myth about many voices favoring good ideas when it comes to the information part of speech — just look to The Pajamahidin of bloggers who fact-check a news story to death as soon as it hits the Net. My fear is that a plethora of voices does not have the same filtering effect when it comes to the emotional impact of society’s various conversations, and if anything has a magnifying effect on powerful, wrong ideas.

Assuming I’m correct, I can see two possible reasons the emotional speech that is most healthy for society doesn’t rise to the top. The first is that, at least in the US, our primary emotion these days is fear. Terrorism is the obvious fear, of course, but that also functions as a proxy for all sorts of other fears: fear of losing our jobs, our investments and our retirement; fear of a housing bubble, or that we’ll never be able to afford a house at all; fear that the world has shifted in fundamental ways, that our old ways of thinking are becoming obsolete and that we’ll never be able to adapt. Our natural human response to fear is to emphasize our connection and similarity to those most like ourselves — to speak as one voice rather than question what is said by members of own tribe. Fear is also a strong and infectious emotion, and tends to overwhelm less primal ones. The net result is that the communication that is rising to the top varies in informational content, but speaks with one voice when it comes to emotional content. It’s “Social Security is going bankrupt! Boogah boogah!” versus “The Republicans are trying to dismantle Social Security! Boogah Boogah!”.

The second reason is more subtle: our society is very bad at recognizing or even admitting the role emotion plays in determining our beliefs and behaviors. We cling to the myth that man is a rational creature, the truth is that man is a rationalizing creature. But because our society values rational response over emotional reaction, when we do get carried away by our emotions us we rationalize excuses for our behavior rather than take a step back and examine how we’re being manipulated.

I agree with Shneier that the solution is not censorship, even self-censorship. Any system that relies on individuals to police their own ideas is doomed to fall to the first idiot with a strong belief in a stupid idea, or more likely to someone with something to gain by gaming the system. What we need is a better way to defend ourselves, as individuals, from this kind of manipulation. Educating ourselves in how manipulation works is a good first step, but to avoid just fooling ourselves that education itself needs to be both informational and emotional in nature. I don’t know whether such a thing would look more like logic, religion, psychology, self-help, yoga or stand-up comedy, but I know we could certainly use more of it.

Update 7/26/05: Eric Nehrlich weighs in that emotional speech may have a natural tendency to die out due to “emotional speech exhaustion.” I think that’s true at the individual level (certainly I’ve become much less emotional by politics in the past year). I have to wonder whether emotional exhaustion can be directly applied when looking at a culture as a whole though, given that there are always new young hot-headed 20-year-olds to replace the burned-out 30-something activists that preceded them. Certainly society goes in cycles with regard to polarization and emotional thinking, but when looking at patterns over years or decades I expect that’s much more due to demographics, economics and insecurity than one generation becoming worn out by the previous generation’s passion.

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Physical differences in ADHD brains

Also from the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting, by way of PRNewsWire:

Novel Imaging Method Shows Abnormal Brain Anatomy in Children with ADHD (embargoed until 9 a.m. CT, Nov. 29)

Researchers at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York have discovered that children with h Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have abnormalities in the anatomy of their brains. Previously, ADHD was suspected to be a chemical imbalance, but this study shows physical abnormalities in the fiber pathways in three areas of the brain that regulate attention, impulsive behavior, motor activity and inhibition. A second study found that stimulant medications usually prescribed for ADHD actually correct some of these structural abnormalities. The studies will be presented by Manzar Ashtari, Ph.D.

More technical summaries are here and here.

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Using fMRI to detect a lie

A new study presented yesterday at the Radiological Society of North America yesterday showed differences in brain patterns when people are lying vs. when they’re telling the truth. It’s a small study (just 9 subjects) and it’s not clear that fMRI would be any more reliable than a polygraph, but it’s an indication of what’s down the road…

Changes were detected in the frontal, temporal and limbic lobes — it’s not clear to me how many of those changes might be detectable by the near-infrared spectral imaging I blogged about earlier, but if possible that might address some of the cost issues associated with fMRI…

Press release, Reuters story

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Wearable Computing Conference Highlights

Just got back from the 7th IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computers. As always, the subjects spanned several fields including augmented reality, machine perception, biosensors, fashion design and ergonomics, human-computer interaction, textiles, and systems. I’ll post a link to a full trip report in a few days, but here are a few highlights:

  • Implantables (keynote): it’s always nice when a keynote can do a conference one better, and that was certainly the case this year. Dr. Michael Okun, co-director of the University of Florida Movement Disorders Center, discussed and showed videos from his work on surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders using deep brain stimulator therapy (DBS). Okun and his colleague probe deep inside a fully awake patient’s brain with a micrometer lead and start “listening” to individual neuron firings to tell what part of the brain they’re probing. The target is the part of the brain that controls motion for the body part experiencing tremors — a spot about the size of a small pea. Then they insert a deep-brain lead attached to an embedded pacemaker-like device that sits in the chest. The device emits electrical pulses that change the pattern with which the neurons fire, and within seconds the patient’s tremor stops. The videos he showed were almost like magic; you can literally turn on and off a person’s tremor using a remote control.

    Even more thought-provoking is that when you move the deep-brain lead you can affect not just other motor functions but also cognition and emotions. Some of the videos he showed were of patients with slightly misplaced electrodes (placed by other labs). Depending on where the electrode has been placed, activation can induce face twitches, contralateral (one-sided) smiling, giggling and laughter, crying attacks, manic attacks, euphoria, severe depression, fear or anxiety. Some patients would cry while experiencing a sudden overwhelming feeling of sadness, while others would go into a fit of uncontrollable sobbing but have no feeling of sadness at all. To see all these effects induced with what looks like a normal TV remote is rather amazing, as is the thought that Okun thinks such techniques might one day be used to treat affective disorders, severe depression, or possibly even conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  • Memory Glasses: Last year Rich DeVaul presented a poster on some preliminary work showing that he could successfully cue people’s memory by displaying subliminals on a head-up display. The idea is that such a system might be used as a “zero attention memory aid,” designed to help a person remember names, facts or conversations without the additional cognitive load usually required. This year he presented a more complete study that bears out his hypothesis: subjects did about 1.5 times better on a match-names-to-faces recall test when they had subliminal cuing with names than when they didn’t have cuing. Even more intriguing, when subjects were given an incorrect subliminal cue (a name that matches a different face), they still did slightly better at remembering the correct name, presumably because the subliminal primed the memorization process as a whole even if it didn’t prime the specific name. This secondary effect was not quite statistically significant (p = 0.06) but if real it might mean that the subliminal only needs to be related to an event to have a positive effect. For example, you might better remember a conversation with your boss just by having a subliminal flashback of an image of what he was wearing at the time.

  • Sociometer: The real structure of a business isn’t the official organization chart but the informal network of who communicates with whom. In the late 1980s Olivetti and Xerox PARC used their active badge technology to explore some aspects of these networks, but Tanzeem Choudhury is taking it several steps further with active badges that can not only map out who talks to whom (using infrared beacons) but also the style of turn-taking that is used in a conversation (using microphones). Through this she’s able to, for example, determine who has more social prestige in a group by who modifies his or her speech patterns to match the other person in a conversation.

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Transhumanism and the problem of value

The Village Voice has a nice summary of the Transvision 2003 USA Conference, sponsored by the World Transhumanist Association. Founded in 1998, the organization anticipates the day when technology will have the ability to halt aging and alter “limitations on human and artificial intelligence, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.” As the name implies, they look forward to the day when technology allows us to move beyond what we now consider “human,” becoming first transitional humans and finally “posthuman.” They also anticipate several bumps in the road, both in terms of real dangers from the technology itself and a backlash against what some might see as an unnatural or downright immoral use of technology to “play God.” Thus this conference, which brings together Transhumanists, professional bioethicists, anti-technology activists, and critical social theorists of science and technology.

I think these guys are pointing in the right direction, but they’re pointing way, way far out down the road. For example, here is their view on what a posthuman can become:

As a posthuman you would be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as we are to other primates. Your body would be resistant to disease and immune to aging, giving you unlimited youth and vigor. You would have control over your own desires, moods, and mental states, giving you the option of never feeling tired, bored, or irritated about petty things; you could instead choose to experience intense pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, focused serenity, or some other state of consciousness that currently human brains may not even be able to access.

Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads [see “What is uploading?”], or they could be the result of making many partial but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, mood drugs, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.

I tend to be a techno-optimist when it comes to my own fields of intelligence augmentation and wearable computing, as well as those I know less about such as genetic engineering and psychoactive drugs. Many years from now (sadly, probably a generation or two after I am already dead) I expect some of the things the Transhumanists predict will come to pass. However, there are a few fundamental issues that we will have to face along this road before we ever get to the point on the horizon that they look towards.

First, we will hit a crisis of values. Biology can make us stronger, healthier and longer-lived. Artificial intelligence can make us better able to solve problems and reach goals we set for ourselves. Psychology and psychiatry can help us better understand and change of our moods, emotions and motivations. But none of these sciences can tell us whether being long-lived is good or bad, whether the goals we choose to achieve are the “right” goals, or whether the (presumably happy and contented) moods we choose to feel are in any way more appropriate than how we feel today. These questions can only be answered by liberal arts such as religion, ethics and philosophy, not science, not logic, not pure reason. (Being rationalists, I suspect the Transhumanists would be upset by that assertion, but no matter. Others with a different set of philosophical tools will come to answer these issues.)

Second, long before technology brings us the first transhuman it will by necessity bring us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. These findings will likely have wide-reaching repercussions in how society operates. For example, we may discover that our personality, intelligence, and our very choices are determined solely by the chemistry of our brain, leaving no room for an atomic, immutable soul or indeed any identity that continues throughout time. Such issues are already being taken on by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. They are also seeping into practical questions over the use of Prozac, the acceptability of the insanity defense plea, the regulation of and treatment for addictive drugs, and the concept of justice and “reform” of criminals. If the Transhumanists are right, these battles will be nothing compared to the turmoil over issues of identity, free will and responsibility that are yet to come.

Finally, we will have to accept that transhumans may be very unlike humans now, not only in ability but in morals and values. The Transhumanists believe “progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values.” What happens when I change myself so much that my deepest values themselves change? And what if, in my new transhuman state, I decide that intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and the true purpose of life is to sit around doped-up on happy drugs all day? Would you, inferior normal human that you are, decide that perhaps given my choices I’m not so superior after all? The question of value is paramount in deciding what even qualifies as transhuman or posthuman. It is, I suspect, something of a Göedel statement for the Transhumanist philosophy.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— George Bernard Shaw

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