from the world's big
Myself as a Commonwealth: Notes on the Science of Self
We imagine our view of the world like a painting from the Realism movement – rife with detail and comprehensible – but the contents of our conscious mind are more like a work of Pop Art, full of abstractions and open to interpretation. The problem, as any MOMA goer will confess, is that it’s difficult to interpret a world full of ambiguity. You can spend a career studying Rothko or Pollock and reach a different conclusion from the modern art professor down the hall. Worse, as any art historian will admit, even the artist struggles to explain his preferences.
Many times trying to explain those preferences actually makes you worse off. Consider a 2003 experiment conducted by an all-star team of psychologists including Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein. Participants listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and either evaluated their state of happiness while listening to the composition or after it finished. The three psychologists discovered that the participants who continually monitored their experience reported lower levels of happiness compared to their peers in the other group. In other words, by trying to understand why something is pleasurable, we might destroy the pleasure.
The focusing illusion is a related phenomenon that demonstrates how directing our attention towards one bit of information distorts our thinking. In a revealing study a researcher asked college students two questions: “How happy are you with your life in general?” and “How many dates did you have last month?” The ordering of these questions mattered. Researchers did not find a correlation in the group that heard the question about life satisfaction first. But when they asked the questions the other way around the students implicitly evaluated their life in terms of how many dates they had been on. As a result, students with many dates reported higher levels of happiness than students with fewer dates.
What does this research tell us about the mind? It’s uniquely human that we can reflect on our beliefs and preferences. Yet, psychological science demonstrates that when and how we do this actually alters those beliefs and preferences. This is not obvious. We like to think that who we are – what we enjoy, who we like, and how we decide – is immutable and that introspection provides a transparent window into the self. The problem with this perspective is where my analogy comparing the self to Pop Art breaks down. It’s true that it’s often difficult to interpret the contents of our mind, but unlike No. 5 or Ochre and Red on Red, the self is an illusion. It’s not just that you are full of abstractions; there’s no unified “you” to begin with. MOMA goers will interpret No. 5 and Ochre and Red on Red differently, but at least they’re looking at the same paintings each time.
Let’s explore this a bit further. In the early 20th century William James famously separated “I” from “Me.” The “I” describes our conscious experiences from one moment to the next. You might think of it as the CEO of the mind. “Me” is a collection of our past experiences, current activities and future aspirations; it is the low-level employees who document changes, make projections and occasionally report to the CEO. James’ distinction was an important one for modern psychology because it recognized our fragmented mental life. Today we can do a bit better.
Starting in the late 1970s psychologists began demonstrating that people do not realize the reasons for their feelings and decisions. Timothy Wilson and Richard Nisbett famously showed that women described nylon stocking uniquely (i.e., texture, softness) in a field study under the guise of a customer evaluation survey even though unbeknownst to the women the pairs were identical. Similarly, a different group of scientists gave participants three different colored boxes of detergent to trial for a few weeks. The participants overwhelmingly favored the detergent with a colorful box and their reasons elaborated on the merits of detergents even though the content of each box was, in fact, identical. Years later a group of researchers headed by Adrian North discovered that when an English supermarket played French music 77 percent of the wine purchased was French, while the days it played Germany music 73 percent of the wine purchased was German. Importantly, only one of the 44 customers polled reported that the music influenced their decision. A popular response to this research is to denounce human rationality or conclude that we are at the mercy of subliminal effects. Another is that the “I” James wrote about is an ever-evolving narrative fueled by after the fact rationalizations. The “Me,” if there is such a thing, is simply inaccessible.
Here’s where things get meta. Philosophers and many 20th century psychologists used to think that the question “what is the nature of the self?” was difficult because the self was so complex. Now the more challenging question is, “which self are you talking about?” David Hume famously compared the self to a “commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination.” Close. Modern neuroscience and psychology suggest that it’s more like dozens of members, and they are not necessarily united – we might imagine a UN assembly. This idea explains many oddities of the human condition: why we smoke, procrastinate, cheat, and eat poorly knowing the long-term negative consequences. A unified theory of the self could never account for these contradictions.
And it’s not like each of these “sub selves” are immutable either. Sometimes your cheese and fat craving self beats your health-conscious self. Studies show that certain primes influence our moral judgments; depending on the prime, either your angel or devil will do the judging. Research conducted by Dan Ariely found, not surprisingly, that when we are sexually aroused our willingness to engage in some sexual acts increases significantly. Stranger still, we’re acutely aware that one self might dominate another self in certain circumstances. This is why instead of going to the bar for “just one beer” we simply don’t show up.
This brings me to the relationship between the self and the circumstance. Tufts Professor of Psychology Sam Sommers writes about how context shapes behavior. While not diminishing the role of genetics, Sommers outlines the many ways situations determine our behavior. For instance, it’s easy to punch in credit card information and donate 10 dollars to a good cause, yet if you stroll the streets of Manhattan you’ll notice those same givers walking past homeless people begging for change with indifference. Altruism, it seems, depends on the circumstances. Where does this leave us?
If the self is an illusion generated by flimsy narratives and competing brain modules, then who is doing the narrating? In his book The Self Illusion the psychologist Bruce Hood notes that the philosopher Gilbert Ryle observed that with respect to the mind you cannot be both the hunter and the hunted. Hood’s counter intuitive point is that you cannot separate a thought from our awareness of that thought. As he puts it, “the brain creates both the mind and the experience of mind.”
Last year Dan Gilbert and two researchers published a paper in Science that outlined what they termed the “end of history illusion.” They note that we know that our past self seems quite different from our present self. Tastes change, relationships come and go, and we remember that who we were ten years ago is different from who we are now. If that sounds obvious consider that when the researchers asked participants (nearly 19,000 of them) to make projections about their selves in ten years most reported that they would stay the same. “People,” the researchers conclude, “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”
At least two reasons explain this finding. First, we generally believe that our personalities are attractive and our values and preferences are admirable. Given these lofty traits, we might be reluctant to foresee change because it will only be for the worse. Second, making projections about the future is hard. It’s easy to look back and read the story of your life. However, it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict who you will become, so you simply go with the default option – yourself in the present. The takeaway isn’t that we change over time – that’s obvious – but given the nature of memory and biases the present will always distort how we think of the past and the future.
I imagine the end of history illusion to resemble the perspective from the bow of a motorboat. Looking back we notice the churned up water and conclude rather obviously that we are moving away from it. When we look forward we see the opposite: calmness. Yet for some reason we conclude that it will stay that way, as if the boat will stop carving out a wake.
Again, my analogy is not perfect. If there is one conclusion from the science of the self it is that the singular nature of term “the self” is misleading. There is no one perspective looking forwards or backwards, nor is there one painting to interpret. I think Hume said it best when he compared the self to a commonwealth – sometimes productive and coherent and other times not. Somehow, though, an identity emerges from the collective. The singularity and unity is an illusion. But as Dan Dennett points out, it’s a convenient and cohesive one.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>