Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: How Emotions are Made - The Secret Life of the Brain

How Emotions Are Made describes a new theory of how emotions are provoked, evoked, and created in the brain. The classical view, which is that emotions are spontaneously evoked by external stimuli and then provokes uncontrollable muscle twitches and reactions in the face and body language is wrong, writes Lisa Feldman Barrett. This is the approach espoused by Paul Ekman's work on finding out who's lying. Basically, she's saying that all the current work on emotional intelligence, etc. is simply outright incorrect.

Because this is such a big claim, Barrett lays out all the laboratory and field work carefully: she goes through previous studies on the universality of human emotions, and points out how the field workers inadvertently corrupted their results by effectively teaching people of other cultures about western style emotional expression, rather than figuring out whether human facial musculature is involuntarily linked to human emotions. This is ground-breaking work and I find it convincing. In particular, Barrett provides us with a picture and tricks us into thinking what the facial expression is before granting us the context and showing that our perception is completely wrong. She also demonstrates that even when conducting emotion recognition in Western settings, if you eliminate cue words (i.e., disallow multiple choice questionnaires), the ability of most people to recognize emotion correctly drops by a huge amount.
Emotions are not expressed, displayed, or otherwise revealed in the face, body, and voice in any objective way, and anyone who determines innocence, guilt, or punishment needs to know this. You cannot recognize or detect anger, sadness, remorse, or any other emotion in another person—you can only guess, and some guesses are more informed than others. (pg. 244)
As a male of supposedly low emotional intelligence, I've always wondered how other people could so easily guess what others are feeling (there have been times when I've wondered whether I have autism because I was so bad at it). I'm gratified to know that Barrett's work proves that this is purely an illusion: juries are wrong about guilt so often that DNA evidence has exonerated many convicted "criminals." This is huge. It means that when you think someone's angry, they might not be. This is especially true when they come from a different culture with a different set of emotional expressions. Barrett provides evidence that this is even true of professional psychologists, who would guess wrong about their patients' emotional condition!
 To improve at emotion perception, we must all give up the fiction that we know how other people feel. When you and a friend disagree about feelings, don’t assume that your friend is wrong like Dan’s ex-therapist did. Instead think, “We have a disagreement,” and engage your curiosity to learn your friend’s perspective. Being curious about your friend’s experience is more important than being right. (pg. 195)
What new theory should substitute for the classical view, then?  Barrett here agrees with Jeff Hawkins' theory of the mind: that the brain is basically a statistical learning prediction machine. She further elaborates on that theory thus: you grow up with caregivers who teach you what emotional responses are appropriate, and the greater culture around you guide you into reacting the way you do by reflex through practice. Then when you become an adult, you shape the culture and teach your children to behave like you do. This is so built into human culture that we don't question it and think that emotions are a primary aspect of our biology, rather than a construct of our minds:
No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built-in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience. (pg. 40)
This has huge implications for society and its general broken-ness and myths. For instance, the myth that women are more emotional than men (not true, they're not).  It even affects the "science" of psychology:
Many psychologists, for example, do not realize that every psychological concept is social reality. We debate the differences between “will power” and “tenacity” and “grit” as if they were each distinct in nature, rather than constructions shared through collective intentionality. We separate “emotion,” “emotion regulation,” “self-regulation,” “memory,” “imagination,” “perception,” and scores of other mental categories, all of which can be explained as emerging from interoception and sensory input from the world, made meaningful by categorization, with assistance from the control network. These concepts are clearly social reality because not all cultures have them, whereas the brain is the brain is the brain. (pg. 287)
Barrett also points out in an entire chapter that the legal system which distinguishes between crimes of passion and crimes of pre-meditation is just a fiction, with case after case showing that juries can't tell the difference. In one case, a woman identified a man who raped her with utmost certainty, only to discover that he happened to be on TV being interviewed (about the unreliability of human memory --- ironically) while the event took place! Basically, human beings live in a socially-constructed fantasy world without a single resemblance to reality:
 Nobody can completely escape affective realism. Your own perceptions are not like a photograph of the world. They are not even a painting of photographic quality, like a Vermeer. They are more like a Van Gogh or Monet. (Or on a very bad day, perhaps a Jackson Pollock.) (pg. 283)
Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with this book, I consider it ground-breaking and well worth the read. As y ou can see from this review, I found myself compelled to highlight quote after quote in the book. It's quite possibly the best book I've read this year. Highly recommended!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: The Dispatcher

After giving up on several audio novels, I finally came across The Dispatcher, which for whatever reason was a free audio book on Audible.

It's a John Scalzi novel, so it's breezy and easily read and understood. It's not really science fiction, closer to urban fantasy. Well, not quite urban fantasy either, since my understanding is that the genre incorporates werewolves, vampires, etc., and this isn't quite it.

It's a short novel, based in a world where (for no particular reason) murders would 99.9% of the time simply cause the victim's body to disappear and the victim to recover in bed just seconds later. Scalzi uses this premise to contemplate how society would deal with this. His answer is that you'll end up with people licensed and bonded to murder people in order to salvage a poor surgery outcome, for instance.

He has fun with questions like: "How would the mob actually murder someone so he stays dead?" Overall, there aren't really very many deep questions explored, but as easy light reading (and listening), it succeeds.

Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: The Home Front

I'll admit that I don't manage to get through most Audio Books. Fiction is a non-starter, and most non-fiction books don't work great, with the exception of the Great Courses, which are of course designed to be audio first.

The Home Front is an Amazon special from the Audible branch of Amazon, and it's currently free. It's designed to be audio first, and is great listening. Like a great radio series, it's compelling listening and filled with historical information that you might not know, from the isolationism in the lead up to the war, to personal accounts of people who were there at Pearl Harbor. It's right up there with the best of NPR. Even better, unlike even the best radio series, the episodes are not shoe-horned into a fixed length, so each episode is only as long as it needs to be, and so there is no padding.

Topics covered included the role of women, racism (including the Japanese American internment), the Manhattan project and the use of the first atomic bombs (a very balanced coverage), as well as the postwar period and the rise of the military industrial complex.

Consider me impressed. You should go listen to this show. Highly recommended. And it's free!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Memoirs of a Theoretical Physicist

I met Joe Polchinski on a bike ride some time back in 2010. We rode together several times but then he dropped off the radar at one point. Then I recently learned that he had brain cancer and had to be operated and was in recovery when he wrote his autobiography.

As you might expect, the book is heavy on physics, and with my under-educated background, there was no way I could keep up with even the non-mathematical wordy descriptions of what he was doing in string theory. But the overall arc of his life is clearly described in non-technical terms, and was interesting to me in terms of how unconventional his approach was (for a while he was famous as the guy who didn't write papers).

The best thing about books written by technical people is that they're very honest. Polchinski doesn't shy away from his struggle with his mood disorders or health, and addresses everything head-on. I think that in itself made the effort to read the book worthwhile. There's also a humility in the book that goes deeper than what you typically find in business-oriented books like Raising the Bar.

It's a difficult book to read (especially for this non-physicist), but it was worth my time. I recommend this book, but be prepared going in that the physics is not going to be easy, and you might have to skim those sections.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: Brush On Block SPF 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen

I was at Costco and they had a 2-pack of Brush On Block SPF 30 Sunscreen on sale. I was really skeptical, but on examining the ingredients decided that it's actually pretty much the only sunscreen that Costco had that doesn't have potentially hazardous chemicals. Plus, it's non greasy, which is great as I have not found a non-greasy sunscreen ever since Lifeguard Sunscreen went out of business.

The package comes in a tube, with a cap for the brush (and a brush saver so you don't mangle the brush when it comes time to stow it away), and a bottle for the dispenser. You dispense it by turning the bottle to "unlock" (past that and the bottle will unscrew so you can buy a refill, which is substantially cheaper than buying the package over), giving the package a quick flick, and then uncapping the brush and applying.

The big disadvantage of the sunscreen as far as I can tell is that it's effectively invisible: I cannot really tell where it's been applied. I probably over-apply the sunscreen as a result, but so far, I've never been burnt and neither have my kids (and we've used it enough to buy a refill!). The packaging is a bit awkward: it's a long tube rather than a short bottle, but it goes into a jersey pocket well enough, and I like that the refills are tiny so I could potentially start a tour with multiple refills. Each refill lasts about a couple of weeks of near daily use.

All in all, this is excellent stuff, and while it feels insanely expensive, the lack of grease makes it about on par with Lifeguard, which also cost about $15 per bottle.

Recommended

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: The Body Builders

The Body Builders is an optimistic book about the possibility of improving the human body and brain through engineering. It explores the current state of the art, which to be honest still seems pretty crude by science fiction standards: improved prosthetics from MIT, magic pixie dust limb regeneration, Artificial Synesthesia, and brain-computer interfaces.

Of the lot, improved prosthetics and regeneration seem most magical, potentially providing improved performance for otherwise impaired athletes, and obviously regeneration has wide application across a wide range of medical problems. Brain-computer interfaces seemed the least cooked: at this point doctors are still stuck drilling holes in skulls and planting electrodes: one researcher actually did this to himself only to have to reverse the procedure months later due to infection. Not for the faint of heart.

The obvious avenue of genetic engineer are largely unexplored: it seems like that would be the ultimate hack for the human body, but the human DNA and the accompanying epigenetics still seem much too complex to tackle with what we know today.

Nevertheless, it's a fun book to read and worth the time. Recommended.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: The Secret Race

I remember once being on a bike ride with a colleague and discussing the doping scandals in professional bicycle racing. "It's a good thing that doping for intellectual performance isn't effective, or we'd all be pressured into doping for work." "How do you know that it isn't being done?" came the response, "Look around you, and look for those people who're not quite normal --- hyper-focused or strange." And of course, I had no ready answer, though I now know that the reason why intellect-based doping isn't an issue is that there are far more important methods of getting ahead at a corporation than any amount of chemical can fix. (Indeed, I recently read a book where a well known Physicist mentioned that Paul Erdos, for instance, wrote all of his 1500 papers under the influence of stimulants, including amphetamines!)

The Secret Race is Tyler Hamilton's tell-all confession about the culture of doping in professional bicycle racing and how he ended up being discovered as a doper. Along the way, it corrected many incorrect ideas I had about doping. For instance, I thought that it would basically give everyone the same boost. It turned out that during the years when there was no test for EPO, the UCI rules basically stated that your hematocrit level couldn't exceed 50%. This meant that those with a naturally high hematocrit level wouldn't benefit from EPO!
Hamilton’s 1997 decision to start using EPO may have been based on an inaccurate assumption about his teammate, Marty Jemison. “That spring, Tyler and I were in the same boat, hanging on by our fingernails,” Jemison says. “I raced clean through the spring. Then in June, just before the Dauphiné, Pedro [Celaya] came to me and said if I was going to make the Tour team, I needed to be healthy. He taught me, he provided everything. So yeah, I did what the others did, starting in June and then in the Tour. But my Liège result was an honest result. I just had a good day.” Jemison, who won the U.S. national championship in 1999, rode just two Tours for Postal, a fact that might be attributed to the way the EPO era changed how teams assessed riders’ potential. “I had a natural hematocrit of 48, so EPO didn’t add that much horsepower to me,” he says. “The longer I was [at Postal], the more I saw that I was no longer being groomed for the A team. Clearly, they were looking for riders who could deliver a whole new level of results.” Jemison left the team after the 2000 season. (Page 62)
 This is a book where you really want to read the footnotes, as they contain the most juicy parts. For instance, it turned out that the doctor that Hamilton was using (Fuentes) had an assistant suffering from dementia, and that assistant had probably mixed up the blood doping blood bags:
JONATHAN VAUGHTERS: The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they’re doping doctors for a reason. They’re the ones who didn’t make it on the conventional path, so they’re not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they’re having another glass of wine at the café, it’s predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they’d find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found—whoops!—there weren’t any others. (Pg. 232)
It was also amazing how easily the system was gamed and the athletes knew how long they had before they could pass a dope test, so they knew exactly when to take the drugs and when to back off.

Hamilton asserts towards the end of the book that the authorities have finally cracked down on doping in cycling, and that the speeds in the 2011 Tour have dropped to reflect that. Ultimately, however, the temptation will always be too high, and all it takes is one person to start and everyone has to join the arms race again. Considering that the next step in doping is genetic engineering of human bodies for high performance, I also have to wonder when chemical doping is just not going to be an issue any more.

In any case, the book's a fun and entertaining read and well-written to boot. Recommended.