26 August 2009

You Get What You Expect?

Interesting article from Wired’s Steve Silberman on the apparently increasing placebo effect.  He concludes:
Ironically, Big Pharma’s attempt to dominate the central nervous system has ended up revealing how powerful the brain really is. The placebo response doesn’t care if the catalyst for healing is a triumph of pharmacology, a compassionate therapist, or a syringe of salt water. All it requires is a reasonable expectation of getting better. That’s potent medicine.
So think positive!

08 April 2009

Out of Our Heads – Alva Noë (2009)

Last night I went to a new book event at Powell’s City of Books, for the publication of Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads. Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at Berkeley, and his book is really trying to re-define the cognitive science approach to consciousness – not to deny that the brain is an important part of the picture, but to broaden the conception of consciousness out much wider.  He likens it to moving from a physics/chemistry type of approach to a more biological approach, where you focus on a complete entity in its environment rather than going reductionist. He feels the concentration on the neural basis approach actually doesn’t present anything new, because in a sense it’s just a new way of restating what Descartes wrote – that there’s something inside us that is a ‘thinking thing’.  We still don’t really know what that ‘thing’ is, and Noë is trying to reject the notion in any case.

Summing it up from the book:
I seek to demonstrate that the brain is not the locus of consciousness inside us because consciousness has no locus inside us. Consciousness isn’t something that happens inside us; it is something that we do, actively, in our dynamic interaction with the world around us.  The brain – that particular bodily organ – is certainly critical to understanding how we work.  I would not wish to deny that.  But if we want to understand how the brain contributes to consciousness, we need to look at the brain’s job in relation to the larger nonbrain body and the environment in which we find ourselves.  I urge that it is a body- and world-involving conception of ourselves that the best new science as well as philosophy should lead us to endorse.
Afterwards I got a book signed, and mentioned to him my parallel observation with regard to computers.  One can truly say that computers just boil down to 0’s and 1’s – but that explains almost nothing about what is interesting about computers, nor does it predict anything about what will be done with them (nor could you understand much what a computer is doing by simply monitoring the 0’s and 1’s at points within the chips).  He agreed, and spoke of the fact that computers have these various levels of abstraction, where programming languages work high above the 0’s and 1’s.  We concluded that both computers and people are ‘programmable’ – and that the programming clearly involves all sorts of interactions with ‘the world’.

Update:  Here’s a link to a video interview with Alva Noë with transcription, to get a quick overview.

22 January 2009

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely (2008)

Predictably Irrational is a book by Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT, and it’s subtitled ‘The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions’.  Ariely takes issue with the standard economics assumption of the fully rational man, and shows through various experiments a few of the many ways in which we make systematically irrational decisions.  Some topics I’ve heard about before, such as the effect of anchoring (the notion that thinking of a random number, such as a value between 1 and 100, can then influence how much you might be willing to pay for an item), but there’s plenty of new findings here that really make you think about your own habits.

I’ll let Dan himself tell you the bottom line, from page 239:
Standard economics assumes that we are rational – that we know all the pertinent information about our decisions, that we can calculate the value of the different options we face, and that we are cognitively unhindered in weighing the ramifications of each potential choice.

The result is that we are presumed to be making logical and sensible decisions. And even if we make a wrong decision from time to time, the standard economics perspective suggests that we will quickly learn from our mistakes either on our own or with the help of ‘market forces.’ On the basis of these assumptions, economists draw far-reaching conclusions about everything from shopping trends to law to public policy.

But, as the results presented in this book (and others) show, we are all far less rational in our decision making than standard economic theory assumes. Our irrational  behaviors are neither random nor senseless – they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains. So wouldn’t it make sense to modify standard economics and move away from naive psychology, which often fails the tests of reason, introspection, and – most important – empirical scrutiny?
Recommended, an easy yet thought-provoking book.