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Friday, October 24, 2014

Can Our Brains Handle the Information Age?

An Interview with Daniel Levitin
By Bret S. Stetka
Originally posted September 24, 2014

In his new book, The Organized Mind, best-selling author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, PhD, discusses our brain's ability—or lack thereof—to process the dizzying flow of information brought on us by the digital age. Dr Levitin also suggests numerous ways of organizing mass information to make it more manageable. Medscape recently spoke with Dr Levitin about the neuroscience of information processing as well as approaches potentially useful to overworked clinicians.

The Fear of Information

Medscape: Your new book discusses how throughout history humans have been suspicious of increased access to information, from the printing press back to the first Sumerian writings. But I think most would agree that these were positive advancements. Do you think the current digital age weariness expressed by many is more of the same and that today's rapid technological progression will end up being a positive development for humanity? Or has the volume of data out there just gotten too big for the human brain to handle?

Dr Levitin: I have two minds about this. On one hand, there is this "same as it ever was" kind of complaint cycle. Seneca complained at the time of the ancient Greeks about the invention of writing—that it was going to weaken men's minds because they would no longer engage in thoughtful conversation. You couldn't interrogate the person who was telling you something, meaning that lies could be promulgated more easily and passed from generation to generation.


If we look back at our evolutionary history, the amount of information that existed in the world just a few thousand years ago was really just a small percentage of what exists now. By some estimates, the amount of scientific and medical information produced in the last 25 years is equal to all of the information in all of human history up to that point.

The human brain can really only attend to a few things at once, so I think we are reaching a point where we have to figure out how to filter information so that we can use it more intelligently and not be distracted by irrelevant information. Studies show that people who are given more information in certain situations tend to make poorer decisions because they become distracted or overwhelmed by the irrelevant information.

The entire interview is here.

When do people cooperate? The neuroeconomics of prosocial decision making.

Declerck CH, Boone C, Emonds G. When do people cooperate? The neuroeconomics
of prosocial decision making. Brain Cogn. 2013 Feb;81(1):95-117. 
doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.09.009.


Understanding the roots of prosocial behavior is an interdisciplinary research endeavor that has generated an abundance of empirical data across many disciplines. This review integrates research findings from different fields into a novel theoretical framework that can account for when prosocial behavior is likely to occur. Specifically, we propose that the motivation to cooperate (or not), generated by the reward system in the brain (extending from the striatum to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex), is modulated by two neural networks: a cognitive control system (centered on the lateral prefrontal cortex) that processes extrinsic cooperative incentives, and/or a social cognition system (including the temporo-parietal junction, the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala) that processes trust and/or threat signals. The independent modulatory influence of incentives and trust on the decision to cooperate is substantiated by a growing body of neuroimaging data and reconciles the apparent paradox between economic versus social rationality in the literature, suggesting that we are in fact wired for both. Furthermore, the theoretical framework can account for substantial behavioral heterogeneity in prosocial behavior. Based on the existing data, we postulate that self-regarding individuals (who are more likely to adopt an economically rational strategy) are more responsive to extrinsic cooperative incentives and therefore rely relatively more on cognitive control to make (un)cooperative decisions, whereas other-regarding individuals (who are more likely to adopt a socially rational strategy) are more sensitive to trust signals to avoid betrayal and recruit relatively more brain activity in the social cognition system. Several additional hypotheses with respect to the neural roots of social preferences are derived from the model and suggested for future research.


6. Concluding remarks and directions for future research
Prosociality includes a wide array of behavior, including mutual cooperation, pure altruism, and the costly act of punishing norm violators. Neurologically, these behaviors are all motivated by neural networks dedicated to reward, indicating that prosocial acts (such as cooperating in a social dilemma) are carried out because they were desired and feel good. However, the underlying reasons for the pleasant feelings associated with cooperative behavior may differ. First, cooperation may be valued because of accruing benefits, making it economically rational. This route to cooperation is made possible through brain regions in the lateral frontal cortex that generate cognitive control and process the presence or absence of extrinsic cooperative incentives. Second, consistent with proponents of social rationality, cooperation can also occur when people expect to experience reward through a “warm glow of giving.” Such intrinsically motivated cooperation yields collective benefits from which all group members may eventually benefit, but it can only be sustained when it exists in concert with a mechanism to detect and deter free-riding. Hence socially rational cooperation is facilitated by a neural network dedicated to social cognition that processes trust signals.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Case Against Empathy

By Derek Beres
Originally posted September 29, 2014

It’s hard to imagine empathy being anything but beneficial. It has become one of the most championed mental states in the neuroscience age: the ability to feel what someone else is feeling and, if all goes well, extend a hand altruistically or compassionately.

This is the clean-cut version of empathy. I feel what you’re feeling; I get it. Thinkers call for empathy when facing international crises, such as continual turmoil in Gaza: if Israelis could just feel what it’s like to be a Palestinian mother, if the Hamas leader could just understand what a sympathetic Jewish father goes through, none of this would be happening.

Yale University professor of psychology and cognitive science Paul Bloom thinks a lot gray resides in such a black-and-white definition, and that there is more danger than good adopting such a simplistic view of empathy. He argues exactly this point in the latest issue of Boston Review.

The entire article is here.

God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

By David P. Barash
The New York Times Sunday Review
Originally published September 27, 2014

EVERY year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

I’m a biologist, in fact an evolutionary biologist, although no biologist, and no biology course, can help being “evolutionary.” My animal behavior class, with 200 undergraduates, is built on a scaffolding of evolutionary biology.

And that’s where The Talk comes in. It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

The entire article is here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?

By Lauren Weber and Elizabeth Dwoskin
The Wall Street Journal
Originally posted September 29, 2014

Here is an excerpt:

Workplace personality testing has become a $500 million-a-year business and is growing by 10% to 15% a year, estimates Hogan Assessment Systems Inc., a Tulsa, Okla., testing company. Xerox Corp. says tests have reduced attrition in high-turnover customer-service jobs by 20 or more days in some cases. Dialog Direct, of Highland Park, Mich., says the testing software allows the call-center operator and manager to predict with 80% accuracy which employees will get the highest performance scores.

But the rise of personality tests has sparked growing scrutiny of their effectiveness and fairness. Some companies have scaled back, changed or eliminated their use of such tests. Civil-rights groups long focused on overt forms of workplace discrimination claim that data-driven algorithms powering the tests could make jobs harder to get for people who don't conform to rigid formulas.

The entire article is here.

Psychologist Whistleblower Threatened

By Sophie Borland
The Daily Mail Online
Originally posted September 25, 2014

A whistleblower says her career was destroyed by NHS managers after warning about how vulnerable patients were coming to severe harm.

Dr Hayley Dare, 42, a psychologist,even claims to have received a poison-pen letter from one of her bosses saying her children would suffer if she lost her job which also threatened: ‘You cannot win, you cannot beat us’.

She said conditions were so appalling at the mental health unit where she worked that one 72-year-old woman died after staff forgot about her.

The entire article is here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

College Counseling Centers Turn to Teletherapy to Treat Students for Anxiety

By Jared Misner
Sunoikisis via the Chronicle of Higher Education
Posted September 26, 2014

At the University of Florida, students struggling with anxiety can visit its counseling center and, after an initial, in-person consultation with a counselor, can elect to start a seven-week program called Therapist Assisted Online. The program works like an online course, complete with videos and online activities. Once a week, students meet with their specific counselor, one on one, through a videoconference for 10 to 15 minutes to discuss their anxiety.

That means students visit the counseling center only once and can do the rest from the comfort of their dormitory room. “They like the idea of being at home,” Brian C. Ess, a counselor at Florida’s Counseling and Wellness Center, says.

The entire article is here.

Please visit the Ethics and Psychology podcasts for Episodes 15 and 16, which addresses Ethics and Telepsychology.

Impressions of Misconduct: Graduate Students’ Perception of Faculty Ethical Violations in Scientist-Practitioner Clinical Psychology Programs

January, A. M., Meyerson, D. A., Reddy, L. F., Docherty, A. R., & Klonoff, E. A. (2014, August
25). Impressions of Misconduct: Graduate Students’ Perception of Faculty Ethical Violations
in Scientist-Practitioner Clinical Psychology Programs. Training and Education in Professional
Psychology. Advance online publication.


Ethical conduct is a foundational element of professional competence, yet very little is known about how graduate student trainees perceive ethical violations committed by clinical faculty. Thus, the current study attempted to explore how perceived faculty ethical violations might affect graduate students and the training environment. Of the 374 graduate students in scientist-practitioner clinical psychology programs surveyed, nearly a third (n  121, 32.4%) reported knowledge of unethical faculty behavior. Students perceived a wide range of faculty behaviors as unethical. Perception of unethical faculty behavior was associated with decreased confidence in department faculty and lower perceived program climate.  Implications of these findings are discussed and recommendations offered.

The entire article is here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rebooting Philosophy

By Luciano Floridi
Oxford University Press's Blog
Originally published July 12, 2014

Here is an excerpt:

Philosophy is a bit like a computer with a memory leak. It starts well, dealing with significant and serious issues that matter to anyone. Yet, in time, its very success slows it down. Philosophy begins to care more about philosophers’ questions than philosophical ones, consuming increasing amount of intellectual attention. Scholasticism is the ultimate freezing of the system, the equivalent of Windows’ “blue screen of death”; so many resources are devoted to internal issues that no external input can be processed anymore, and the system stops. The world may be undergoing a revolution, but the philosophical discourse remains detached and utterly oblivious. Time to reboot the system.

Philosophical “rebooting” moments are rare. They are usually prompted by major transformations in the surrounding reality.

The entire article is here.