Monday, October 19, 2009

The Mouse Trap migrates to a new host

The Mouse Trap blog will henceforth move to self-hosted wordpress and can be accessed at . Please note the change in domain name . The existing RSS feed subscribers should not need to do anything and should be able to access the feed of the new blog automatically without unsubscribing and please, please do not unsubscribe. Give me a few days to migrate everything properly.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

BAD09: the Psychology of trading carbon emissions and why it is misguided.

It is blog action day and the topic is climate change. today I want to focus on why carbon emissions trading is not the right approach. This is a small post inspired by something I read/watched recently, but cant place the source right now.

The argument goes like this. There is a moral domain of deliberation and reasoning and then there is an economical. Both place different constraints on thinking and lead to different results. while the moral deliberation would be guided by feelings of guilt and responsibility; the economical would be guided by self-interest and 'greatest good for greatest people' utilitarian concerns. All hell breaks loose if we mix the two domains.

Climate change is a moral and not an economic problem facing us. It is psychologically hard (due to affective forecasting) to envision what would be best for our future selves, so how hard it is to envision and care for what might be apparent only after a few generations. If we purely go by the well-meaning economic approach of carbon emissions trading, we'll perhaps ease the guilt/discomfort that individuals and nations feel today on wasteful and needless emissions. If rationalized from an economic perspective, the emission trading may actually backfire. It is akin to levying minor fines on littering; rich people then become prone to littering thinking they can get away easily by paying the fines: instead of a punishment , the small fine becomes a convenience fees to be paid for not bothering to look up proper waste disposal mechanism.

All of the above is based on solid psychological studies and concepts and hopefully would enlighten those who are hell bent on thinking that carbon emission trading is a step in the right direction.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dont Worry, Be Happy

Today launches a new web portal called, that purports to be a personal trainer for your happiness. I have been beta-testing the site for some time (full disclosure : I got a free 30 day account to beta test it) and though I haven't really tested it exhaustively , the site looks promising. you can choose what goals you set for yourself (like finding and using your signature strengths in daily life) and there are exercises, journals, tests and questionnaire to keep track of your progress. I had taken the VIA signature strength test earlier too( its freely available elsewhere too) and the results were more or less the same. Seems the strengths do not change much. My top strength is courage and valor and I never knew how to usefully apply that in daily life. At there are suggestions on how to use every strength in daily life. what I didn't like was the speed of videos and the length of videos (they are very short length videos).

Below the fold is press information about the release and more information can be gleaned from here:

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Entrepreneurial rollercoaster- am happy, have vision; am sad, will focus on task
There is a recent article by foo et al, that shows , using Experience Sampling method, that entrepreneurs, when in a negative mood (not necessarily sad, but including anger, irritability etc...sorry for misleading headline:-) are more likely to be focusing on the task at hand; while those same entrepreneurs , when they were in a happy or positive mood would be more likely to be spending efforts on tasks that are more future directed. They interpret their finding in terms of the affect-as-information theory, whereby a positive affect signals that everything is hunky-dory in the present and one can take chances and focus on the future instead; while a negative affect is an indication that things are not going well and one needs to focus on the tasks at hand.  To quote:

Our findings suggest that affect serves as a source of information for entrepreneurs. As argued in the affect-as-information theory, negative affect signals that things are not going well in the venture and may lead entrepreneurs to expend more effort on venture tasks requiring immediate attention. An unexpected finding was that negative affect also increased venture efforts beyond what is immediately required. Because negative affect signals that something is wrong in the venture situation, it could lead entrepreneurs to engage in precautionary behaviors to prevent future damage to the venture.

Positive affect signals that things are going well in the venture, and, using affect-as-information theory, one might expect the entrepreneur to reduce effort because all is well at the moment. In the present study of entrepreneurs, we argued that positive affect should increase venture efforts. It is precisely because positive affect signals that things are going well at the moment that the entrepreneur’s focus can shift to the future, and such focus motivates the entrepreneur to work harder because it promotes behaviors to achieve desired future outcomes (Karniol & Ross 1996). This argument was supported, because our findings showed that future temporal focus mediated the link between positive affect and venture efforts beyond what is immediately required (next-day lagged outcome). Although not hypothesized, positive affect was also found to increase effort on tasks immediately required, and a future temporal focus also mediated the link between positive affect and venture tasks immediately required (with a next-day lag). Striving toward desired future states involves bridging the present and the future (Karniol & Ross, 1996). When entrepreneurs focus on the future, they may not neglect the present, as knowledge of the present may be required to determine how one can reach the desired outcome. To become successful in their venture pursuits, entrepreneurs should be able to integrate the present and future time horizons (Bird & West, 1997). They must be able to make sense of the here and now and the what will be and establish a coherent link between them.

I , would , of course , not restrict myself to what the authors conclude but , as is my ilk, would like to extend the findings and relate to other stuff. For example, I have written earlier about the Promotion and Prevention focus and how promotion focus is related to happiness/mania; while preventive focus may be more related to sadness/depression. Although, not mutually exclusive, a new hypothesis could be that the affect was due to promotion and preventive focus, which itself was due to either the environment was risky or risk-free. The same risky or risk-free environment which led to the negative or positive mood also lead to focusing on the here-and-now or on the future. I'm also tempted to correlate this with some other articles I came across recently-namely one that found that future orientation leads to creativity, while if there is not enough psychological distance we tend to be not -so creative; Could it also be that that is why entrepreneurs long-term strategies and visions are creative; while their short term tactics and day to day handling of affairs is mundane; while we are on the subject of creativity and vagueness (either in distance or space or time or abstractness) another study found that being primed about or thinking about Love leads to creativity while being primed with Lust leads to better analytical ability; is analytical ability much different from focusing on here-and-now; while creativity more future oriented? All these have important implications on how you can use your affect to either focus on hand in an analytical manner or solve problems in future creatively and with vision. As a last afterthought, is that why Manics, who are extremely happy, have such grand visions of future and are so future directed and entrepreneurial in spirit?
Foo MD, Uy MA, & Baron RA (2009). How do feelings influence effort? An empirical study of entrepreneurs' affect and venture effort. The Journal of applied psychology, 94 (4), 1086-94 PMID: 19594247

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Living on the edge of chaos; implications for autism and psychosis

SMI32-stained pyramidal neurons in cerebral co...Image via Wikipedia
I serendipitously came cross this article today about how our brains are self-organized criticality or systems living on the edge of chaos. There are many interesting ideas and gold nuggets in that article, and I'll briefly quote from it.

In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.

Neuroscientists have long suspected as much. Only recently, however, have they come up with proof that brains work this way. Now they are trying to work out why. Some believe that near-chaotic states may be crucial to memory, and could explain why some people are smarter than others.

In technical terms, systems on the edge of chaos are said to be in a state of "self-organised criticality". These systems are right on the boundary between stable, orderly behaviour - such as a swinging pendulum - and the unpredictable world of chaos, as exemplified by turbulence.

The quintessential example of self-organised criticality is a growing sand pile. As grains build up, the pile grows in a predictable way until, suddenly and without warning, it hits a critical point and collapses. These "sand avalanches" occur spontaneously and are almost impossible to predict, so the system is said to be both critical and self-organising. Earthquakes, avalanches and wildfires are also thought to behave like this, with periods of stability followed by catastrophic periods of instability that rearrange the system into a new, temporarily stable state.

Self-organised criticality has another defining feature: even though individual sand avalanches are impossible to predict, their overall distribution is regular. The avalanches are "scale invariant", which means that avalanches of all possible sizes occur. They also follow a "power law" distribution, which means bigger avalanches happen less often than smaller avalanches, according to a strict mathematical ratio. Earthquakes offer the best real-world example. Quakes of magnitude 5.0 on the Richter scale happen 10 times as often as quakes of magnitude 6.0, and 100 times as often as quakes of magnitude 7.0.

These are purely physical systems, but the brain has much in common with them. Networks of brain cells alternate between periods of calm and periods of instability - "avalanches" of electrical activity that cascade through the neurons. Like real avalanches, exactly how these cascades occur and the resulting state of the brain are unpredictable.

Two of the power laws that are found in human brains relate to the phase shift and phase lock periods of EEG/fMRI or human brain systems etc. As per this PLOS comp biology paper:

Self-organized criticality is an attractive model for human brain dynamics, but there has been little direct evidence for its existence in large-scale systems measured by neuroimaging. In general, critical systems are associated with fractal or power law scaling, long-range correlations in space and time, and rapid reconfiguration in response to external inputs. Here, we consider two measures of phase synchronization: the phase-lock interval, or duration of coupling between a pair of (neurophysiological) processes, and the lability of global synchronization of a (brain functional) network. Using computational simulations of two mechanistically distinct systems displaying complex dynamics, the Ising model and the Kuramoto model, we show that both synchronization metrics have power law probability distributions specifically when these systems are in a critical state. We then demonstrate power law scaling of both pairwise and global synchronization metrics in functional MRI and magnetoencephalographic data recorded from normal volunteers under resting conditions. These results strongly suggest that human brain functional systems exist in an endogenous state of dynamical criticality, characterized by a greater than random probability of both prolonged periods of phase-locking and occurrence of large rapid changes in the state of global synchronization, analogous to the neuronal “avalanches” previously described in cellular systems. Moreover, evidence for critical dynamics was identified consistently in neurophysiological systems operating at frequency intervals ranging from 0.05–0.11 to 62.5–125 Hz, confirming that criticality is a property of human brain functional network organization at all frequency intervals in the brain's physiological bandwidth.

Further, as per research by Thatcher et al, the EEG phase shift is larger in people with high IQ, while phase lock is smaller in the people with high IQ.

Phase shift duration (40–90 ms) was positively related to intelligence (P < .00001) and the phase lock duration (100–800 ms) was negatively related to intelligence (P < .00001). Phase reset in short interelectrode distances (6 cm) was more highly correlated to I.Q. (P < .0001) than in long distances (> 12 cm).

Further, in this paper , thatcher eta look at autistics and conclude that the people with autism show some deficits in phase shift and phase lock.

Results: In both short (6 cm) and long (21 – 24 cm) inter-electrode distances phase shift duration in ASD subjects was significantly shorter in all frequency bands but especially in the alpha-1 frequency band (8 – 10 Hz) (P < .0001). Phase lock duration was significantly longer in the alpha-2 frequencyband (10 – 12 Hz) in ASD subjects (P < .0001). An anatomical gradient was present with the occipitalparietal regions the most significant.
Conclusions: The findings in this study support the hypothesis that neural resource recruitment occurs in the lower frequency bands and especially the alpha-1 frequency band while neural resource allocation occurs in the alpha-2 frequency band. The results are consistent with a general GABA inhibitory neurotransmitter deficiency resulting in reduced number and/or strength of thalamo-cortical connections in autistic subjects 

It is interesting that in the original new scientist article , thatcher speculates that the pattern in schizophrenia may be reverse of what is seen in autism (exactly my thoughts, though the confounding of low IQ with autism may explain his autism results to an extent):

He found that the length of time the children's brains spent in both the stable phase-locked states and the unstable phase-shifting states correlated with their IQ scores. For example, phase shifts typically last 55 milliseconds, but an additional 1 millisecond seemed to add as many as 20 points to the child's IQ. A shorter time in the stable phase-locked state also corresponded with greater intelligence - with a difference of 1 millisecond adding 4.6 IQ points to a child's score (NeuroImage, vol 42, p 1639). Thatcher says this is because a longer phase shift allows the brain to recruit many more neurons for the problem at hand. "It's like casting a net and capturing as many neurons as possible at any one time," he says. The result is a greater overall processing power that contributes to higher intelligence. Hovering on the edge of chaos provides brains with their amazing capacity to process information and rapidly adapt to our ever-changing environment, but what happens if we stray either side of the boundary? The most obvious assumption would be that all of us are a short step away from mental illness. Meyer-Lindenberg suggests that schizophrenia may be caused by parts of the brain straying away from the critical point. However, for now that is purely speculative. Thatcher, meanwhile, has found that certain regions in the brains of people with autism spend less time than average in the unstable, phase-shifting states. These abnormalities reduce the capacity to process information and, suggestively, are found only in the regions associated with social behaviour. "These regions have shifted from chaos to more stable activity," he says. The work might also help us understand epilepsy better: in an epileptic fit, the brain has a tendency to suddenly fire synchronously, and deviation from the critical point could explain this. "They say it's a fine line between genius and madness," says Liley. "Maybe we're finally beginning to understand the wisdom of this statement."
Thus, it seems Autism and Psychosis are just two ways in which self-organized criticality can cease to do what it was designed to do- live on the edge , without falling on either side of order or chaos.
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bozo Sapiens: a book review

Bozo Sapiens :why to err is human, is a book that tries to document the frailties of our decision making process and the underlying psychological mechanisms behind them.

Written with a lay audience in mind,it is written in an easy to read manner and is fun to read. As per the site, it is in the tradition of books like Blink and Stumbling on happiness and plans to cater to the same market segment of people who are interested in psychology and how it affects day-to-day lives. while most of the psychology studies were already familiar to me, they would be novel for a lay audience and would definitely interest and entertain and also inform and guide. I,myself, cam across a few new and worthwhile studies and feel enriched having been made aware of them. As is prone to writing for a popular audience, the Kaplans often gloss over or do not highlight all the subtleties involved, but it must go to their credit that they are able to explain the studies lucidly and clearly,without significantly diluting on the scientese involved. the only peeve I have is that the sections and studies covered in them somehow felt unconnected and not flowing in a smooth manner from one to the other.

The organization of the chapters is decent- one chapter focusing on perceptual errors, another on action-based errors while yet another on errors based on group mentality. The section on perception seemed to me better and the section on groups perhaps the weakest. Despite its title it is not a bleak view of humanity and knowing our heuristics, biases and design features/bugs will only help us act better. It is an easy read and perhaps would be savored by those who do have a general interest in psychology; for the experts there are some nuggets spread here-and-there and that may make it worthwhile skimming through the book.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book for review.

PS: would my readers like to see more book reviews featured on the mouse trap ? some books that I would love to review and highlight include books by Nettle : happiness, personality; gazzaniga: mind's past riddley: genome, nature via nurture etc etc. Do let me kno wvia commnets/ skribit suggestions using left sidebar.
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Thursday, September 10, 2009

If it’s abstract you gel in, if it’s concrete you stand out..Or Why I compare myself to a man but not to men.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with research by Bargh et al that showed that priming with stereotypes led to assimilation of those traits by the primed subjects. To recall, when asked to wait, those primed with rudeness interrupted the experimenter more than those primed with patience/nicety primes. Also those primed with elderly stereotype walked more slowly, away from the experimenter after the end of the alleged experiment, than those in neutral condition. These are all very well known findings and more so as they have been included in numerous pop-sci books.

Sceepar et al provide a very sober qualification for the above findings, contrasting how stereotype traits priming (abstract concept priming) do indeed lead to assimilation of stereotype in behavior/self-schema; but exposing to concrete, extreme exemplars belonging to stereotyped category has an opposite and paradoxical effect of leading to social comparison with the exemplar and thus leading to contrast behavior or behavior where the subject tries to distance oneself from the stereotype. Thus, if primed with the stereotype of professors, and thus the trait intelligence, and then subjected to an intelligence/knowledge test, then the subjects would perform better than baseline condition; but if primed with Einstein (a concrete exemplar of professor/intelligence), then one may lead to compare with Einstein, deduce that one is not so great, but indeed stupid or a bozo in comparison, and thus perform badly in the subsequent test based on this self-comparison. This is what they theorized and this is what they found.

In the second study they reused the Bargh paradigm of priming with elderly stereotype and replicated the results; the twist they added was adding a condition in which after priming with the elderly stereotype, an elderly exemplar was presented; this condition led to comparison and thus to contrast behavior whereby the subjects walked faster after the experimental manipulation in this exemplar condition.

Their third study was essentially a study to nail down the mechanism (social comparison) behind the contrast behavior observed. After priming with Einstein and professor in two separate conditions, the subjects were exposed to a lexical task, that was designed to discover if concepts like intelligence , stupidity had been primed and if so , was any of them also bound to the self schema. They found that indeed in the Einstein condition the concept of stupidity was bound to the concept of self, thus only exemplars, like Claudia Schiffer or Einstein led to social comparison, but not abstract notions like supermodels or professors. They end with an advice to Mick Jagger which has to be read in original to be savored.

We close with perhaps one of the more trivial of these implications. This concerns advice we might offer celebrities such as Mick Jagger and other stars known for their predilection for supermodels. If these people share the popular stereotype of supermodels found among our participants, they would be wise to restrict themselves to a single such partner (i.e., an exemplar) on intellectual as well as moral grounds.
I now also post some snippets form the excellent article, freely available on the web, which you should read in its entirety.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Common mechanisms for learning (past), navigation(present) and dreams (future?)

Sorry for the brief(?) hiatus. I have left my day job to start a venture and so am a bit preoccupied. Hopefully, the mouse trap should benefit from the new arrangements.
Today I would like to highlight a recent study from MIT that once again highlighted the fact that the same brain mechanisms are used for envisaging the future as are used for reminiscing about the past.  The study was performed on rats and found that the rats sort of replayed their day-time navigational memories while they were dreaming. This in itself is not a new news and has been known for a long time; what they found additionally is that the rats also , sort of replayed the navigational memories/ alternatives in their head at a faster rate, to sort of think and plan ahead. This use of replaying the traces to think ahead to me is very important and cements the role of default netwrok in remebering the poast and envisaging the future.

When a rat moves through a maze, certain neurons called "place cells," which respond to the animal's physical environment, fire in patterns and sequences unique to different locations. By looking at the patterns of firing cells, researchers can tell which part of the maze the animal is running.

While the rat is awake but standing still in the maze, its neurons fire in the same pattern of activity that occurred while it was running. The mental replay of sequences of the animals' experience occurs in both forward and reverse time order.

"This may be the rat equivalent of 'thinking,'" Wilson said. "This thinking process looks very much like the reactivation of memory that we see during non-REM dream states, consisting of bursts of time-compressed memory sequences lasting a fraction of a second.

"So, thinking and dreaming may share the same memory reactivation mechanisms," he said.
"This study brings together concepts related to thought, memory and dreams that all potentially arise from a unified mechanism rooted in the hippocampus," said co-author Fabian Kloosterman, senior postdoctoral associate.

The team's results show that long experiences, which in reality could have taken tens of seconds or minutes, are replayed in only a fraction of a second. To do this, the brain links together smaller pieces to construct the memory of the long experience.

The researchers speculated that this strategy could help different areas of the brain share information - and deal with multiple memories that may share content - in a flexible and efficient way. "These results suggest that extended replay is composed of chains of shorter subsequences, which may reflect a strategy for the storage and flexible expression of memories of prolonged experience," Wilson said.

To me this seals the fate of hippocampus as not just necessary for formation of new memories, but also for novel future-oriented thoughts and imaginations.

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