Tag Archives: psychology

Very superstitious: why we believe

four_leaved_cloverI’ve always been curious as to why human beings are superstitious, now evolutionary biologists believe it is the result of natural selection. Prof Kevin Foster of Harvard University defines superstition as the tendency to falsely link cause and effect:

…a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but “if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around,”

So far so plausible:

Foster and Kokko worked with mathematical language and a simple definition for superstition that includes animals and even bacteria.

The pair modelled the situations in which superstition is adaptive. As long as the cost of believing a superstition is less than the cost of missing a real association, superstitious beliefs will be favoured.

I’ve always felt that, even though I agree with a lot of what A C Grayling, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins say vis a vis belief and superstition they need to give more thought to the possibility that superstitious beliefs are part of the human condition.

[story via Slashdot][image from Greencolander on flickr]

Personality hacking – what are we willing to enhance?

purple pillsOK, hypothetical question – let’s say you could pick any personality trait to be chemically enhanced. Which aspects of your personality would be in the top three? [image by Tom Saint]

According to a recent study, you’re most likely to be willing to tweak the parts of your psyche that you don’t consider fundamental to to your identity as a person – your ability to concentrate, for example, or maybe the number of hours of sleep you need each night. [via FuturePundit]

Human enhancement drugs are still very much in their infancy at the moment; to draw an analogy, many people were pretty leery of plastic surgery when it was first becoming more commonplace. So I suspect that we’ll see the ‘early-adopter’ pattern with more drastic enhancements, with artists, outcasts and other pioneers of the psyche venturing out beyond mere ‘cosmetic’ cognitive enhancement… after all, think how useful it would be to become autistic for a week.

Bookworms have stronger people skills

The Bookworm I have occasionally wondered, as I write fiction, if what I am doing is really a particularly worthwhile way to spend my time. Shouldn’t I be off actually, you know, building something? Inventing something? Saving the planet?

Via Blogowych, I am encouraged to learn from Toronto’s Globe and Mail that:

A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills.

Their years of research – summed up in the current issue of New Scientist magazine – has shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts. And follow-up research showed that reading fiction may help fine-tune these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same magazine.

Those benefits, researchers say, may be because fiction acts as a type of simulator. Reading about make-believe people having make-believe adventures or whirlwind romances may actually help people navigate those trials in real life.

And, yes, science fiction gets mentioned, although in that usual sort of “ooh, how icky” tone one encounters so often in news stories:

And do sci-fi tales about chasing aliens through the galaxy have the same benefits as Alice Munro’s short stories about love and loss?

This is a false dichotomy, of course. A story about chasing aliens through the galaxy can as easily be about love and loss as a story set in the here-and-now.

Besides, I’d argue that if one of the benefits of mundane fiction is that it acts as a “type of simulator” of real life, then one of the benefits of science fiction (oddly enough, maybe even in particular so-called Mundane SF) is that it acts as a type of simulator of how life may be affected by the never-ending and accelerating onslaught of the effects of technological change. So even if science fiction fans may not necessarily have exceptionally strong people skills (and certainly I’ve met a few at conventions who most emphatically did not), they may just possibly have exceptionally strong skills in other important areas, like adjusting to cultural upheavals and dealing with new technology.

And also exceptionally strong alien-chasing skills, of course. You never know when those might come in handy.

(Image: The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg.)

[tags]books, science fiction, reading, psychology[/tags]

Change your language, change your personality?

languageinterchangejpg“To have another language is to possess a second soul,” Charlemagne supposedly said, possibly in a Germanic dialect of the Franks. That certainly implies another personality, which is what researchers in the Journal of Consumer Research report observing in a study of bicultural, bilingual women.

…[W]omen classified themselves as more assertive when they spoke Spanish than when they spoke English. They also had significantly different perceptions of women in ads when the ads were in Spanish versus English. “In the Spanish-language sessions, informants perceived females as more self-sufficient and extroverted,” write the authors.

The researchers say the shift, which seems to occur unconsciously, could have implications for political and purchasing choices. Not to mention an interesting side-effect to a shrinking world.

[Image: jetheriot]

The Matter of Mind

It is always difficult to predict the next big revolution in science and technology. However it seems extremely likely that the scientific and technological history of the next thirty years will be dominated by discoveries and revelations about that most complex of organs: the human brain.

The latest discovery by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh reported in The Guardian concerns how words are encoded in the brain. The scientists have developed a device that can read a person’s mind from brain scans.

Once it has been trained on an individual subject’s thoughts, the computer model can analyse new brain scan images and work out which noun a person is thinking about – even with words that the model has never encountered before.

The model is based on the way nouns are associated in the brain with verbs such as see, hear, listen and taste. The research will inevitably raise fears that scientists could soon be able to read a person’s mind without them realising.

Unfortunately prospective telepaths are going to be disappointed: first because the device needs to be “trained” for each individual and secondly because the person as to be lying perfectly still in an MRI scanner.

According to one of the researchers, computer scientist Tom Mitchell:

“…the brain represents the meaning of a concrete noun in areas of the brain associated with how people sense it or manipulate it. The meaning of an apple, for instance, is represented in brain areas responsible for tasting, for smelling, for chewing. An apple is what you do with it. Our work is a small but important step in breaking the brain’s code.”

Meanwhile in Japan a paralysed man has been able to manipulate a virtual Internet character:mind

The patient, who has suffered paralysis for more than 30 years, can barely bend his fingers due to a progressive muscle disease so cannot use a mouse or keyboard in the traditional way.

In the experiment, he wore headgear with three electrodes monitoring brain waves related to his hands and legs. Even though he cannot move his legs, he imagined that his character was walking.

The potential in this research is mind-blowing. Imagine a video game controlled by thought. Imagine the educational opportunities of fully immersive and fully interactive virtual worlds. Many people already live a large part of their lives in virtual relities of one sort or another. And if they can respond to your merest thought they would become ever more compelling places.

[First story from The Guardian and PhysOrg][Second story from Physorg][image by Redvers]