Reason; as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct

Category: Biology

Weakness feeds weakness


A collaborative Princeton research team of psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that physical exercise increases, so to speak, a brain’s resilience to anxiety. The team have shone light on the underlying substrates which, with the endorsement of further confirmatory research, naturally pave the way for the concept’s incorporation into the rapidly widening landscape of mental health treatments – widening in terms of pending possibility, even if still restrained by fledgling capability. Aside from those that have survived by chance, or arrived by mutation, all an organism’s traits must have endowed it with an advantage at some time in its history. As such, the study discusses the concept in evolutionary terms. Both ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ rely on physical proficiency. Physical proficiency, further still, is always relative to that reliably bigger fish. It follows, then, that less physically fit individuals would benefit, in survival terms, from an innate inclination to avoid having to impart either response.

“We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes – one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way” – Stephen Jay Gould

Cognitive biases 002 – The overconfidence effect

Cognitive biases 002 – The overconfidence effect

Introduction (

Perhaps one of the cognitive biases we can, or should, all relate to the most (for the reflective individual) is that of unfounded confidence. Evident too often each day, each conversation, to possibly count; this bias manifests in front of our eyes, in others and in ourselves, moment after moment, assertion after assertion. We feel certainty in our beliefs to the extent that we allow ourselves to become emotional in their defence, and even less rational still as we stand by views often unreceptive to new information or logic. How often do we make fools of ourselves as we lay down pragmatic thought to argue with those around us as if to prove our intelligence, our wisdom – what irony that practice carries. All of us have been shown the fallacy of our ways on enough occasions that it is to our sincere discredit that we still will stand by our opinions with such strength, and with such vanity, that to the keen observer far too many disputes are simply a primal clash of egos.

How frequently will we not only arrest our own efforts of analysis, of self-scrutiny, too early; but will also wager our credibility on the certainties we have that our ‘opinions’ are correct. Clearly, forgetting that inducting philosophy of wisdom; that we “know nothing except the fact of our ignorance,” is a practice we engage in interaction after interaction. The maturity and wisdom shown by those who have the strength of character to second-guess their views, particularly when those views are public, and go on to admit they are wrong, is something we should all aspire to.

Luckily these days we are able to support these philosophies empirically. Socrates had no such data to go on when he stood alone in asserting the wisdoms that have been held in the highest regard by the greatest minds that followed him, to his unending credit. On the one hand his commitment to logic was exceptional, and on the other it was hugely brave considering that, then more than now, challenging the fear-alleviating beliefs of his brothers and sisters carried the risk of death or worse.

The overconfidence effect describes the difference between the certainty that we feel, to ourselves or openly to others, and the actual accuracy of our views. This bias, like many, will manifest differently from person to person and across varying circumstances. The bias is often discussed as one of the most dangerous that is prevalent throughout humans given its likely role in financial bubbles, foolish lawsuits and wars and conflict.

There is one specific example that paints very elegantly how absurd our confidences are. Participants answering quiz questions, and giving confidence ratings, were wrong 40% of the time that they reported feeling 99% certain of their answer. Indecision is final; and probably the organisms that practiced this old cliché were left behind by those that acted on their first impressions; instantly, without contemplation. In the world of today, though, how foolish they seem.


Book Review: Antonio Damasio “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain”

Book Review: Antonio Damasio “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain”

Anyone who has seen Damasio’s lectures, or read some of his work, will I’m sure have been struck by what a remarkable man this is. One of the most respected authorities on consciousness, and cognition in general; Damasio has a wealth of life-changing insight which he blends with his excellent taste and rich life experiences to produce an engaging masterpiece of literary achievement, rather than just a scientific feat alone. If Damasio goes on to write a more accomplished book we can only wait with excitement as to what mysteries he will trace with his relentlessly fair, wise and rational analysis.

Like every brilliant scientist Damasio follows the evidence he has as far as it will take him and no further. It is not enough for him to explain and harmonise the different experimental observations made; Damasio qualifies every theory or hypothesis in the context of evolutionary pressure (of functional significance) – why would an organism with this trait outperform one with that? What value was there to an autobiographical self that meant it prevailed? He addresses, throughout the book, many questions with a haunting relevance to our lives; our plights; our well-being – our happiness.

I have not read another book as challenging as this one. Einstein once observed that things “should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Damasio achieves this here, but the subject matter is complex, or perhaps simply abstract compared to lines we have drawn ourselves about the nature of our consciousness. After an introduction that discusses why brains were an evolutionarily successful trait; what came before brains; and how they improved from their inception, Damasio goes on to tackle the task of communicating the mechanisms we believe contribute to our consciousness of today. He rattles off, chapter by chapter, explanations detailing the workings of the various compartments of the brain considered to have a role, leading or not, in the eventual spectacle of contemplative, autobiographical consciousness. These are complicated chapters. Damasio teaches, though, with excellent skill. After explaining concepts in the simplest terms he can, which may not be simple at all, he then recruits the most elegant metaphors that paint perfectly the picture of what it is you must understand to move on. This style is continuous, so even when you are pressing through the most complicated sections, solace can be taken that it will soon be put in context for you effortlessly. After passing over each important contributor to the consciousness process, Damasio rounds off the book with a collection of concluding chapters that cover, in exquisite fashion, the various products of consciousness such as language, economics, moral codes, written records, poetry, politics, and, finally, art.

If on the one hand this book is an achievement because it is communicating the acclaimed work of a great thinker, then on the other it is animated by Damasio’s style, wit and taste.

Cognitive biases 001 – The illusion of control

Introduction (

Following the ground-breaking work of Ellen Langer in 1975, we have come to understand the illusion of control as a cognitive bias that manifests as the perception that we have more control over some events than we actually do. One of my favourite examples of this bias looked at gamblers trying to throw the combined dice value they needed in a game of pure chance. When a person needed a high number they threw the dice harder; and softer when they needed a lower value. Other studies have shown individuals to believe they could improve their ability to predict a coin toss with practice (44% of participants believed this).

Like all cognitive biases this phenomenon must have served a functional advantage and one could speculate for hours as to the benefit here – of which many suggestions may be correct. Perhaps the still-evolving human, living in an unforgiving, survival-of-the-fittest world, who believed that they could control events that were beyond their influence; would persevere longer. Maybe these organisms chanced their way through danger they couldn’t control but would assert themselves at the very first instant they could because they had never believed that they couldn’t make a difference. Conversely, however, in situations where we have a lot of control we have been shown to underestimate it; perhaps suggesting that theories attributing responsibility to heuristics in the mechanisms by which we link goals to outcomes are correct. The bias has been shown to strengthen in stressful and competitive situations, which should be taken into account in its interpretation (the implications to financial markets I’m sure speak out on their own).



Unit 731

In the dark basement archives that detail the history of unethical medical trials it is important to remember that even from the countries or cultures without notable documented cases it would hardly constitute a challenge to find equally distinguishable breaches of ethics, if not perhaps in the name of medical science.

I have to give the introduction above to feel that I am not being unfair to post here the example of perhaps the most shocking single case of atrocious medical research that emerged from a country with a cultural history at least as interesting and rich as any I have come across. Unit 731 was a research facility under the control of the Imperial Japanese Army between 1935 and 1945 in an area of north-eastern China under Japanese control.


Introduction to a series on cognitive biases

One of the many great banana skins for humans that sits right under our noses, but that we emphatically fail to see, is how much we will infer from the visual appearance of others. Founded by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman; one of the most fascinating areas of psychology to emerge over the last four decades has been that of the cognitive biases that we apply in our mental processing; the shortcuts we take while we relentlessly assess the world around us. Never more than a step from disaster or profound success; there has always been an unquestionable pressure on our brains to produce solutions that aid us in our actions. From this premise it is important to understand, without any doubt, that the brain has always valued ‘any’ information in the absence of reliable information. The brain with something to go on outlives the brain that has appreciated the most frequently enunciated philosophies of Socrates; that we certainly can’t be certain of anything.

These phenomena are our cognitive biases, ranging from a natural fear of unfamiliar things; to the bandwagon effect where we believe more readily that which is accepted by the people around us. In the no rules fight-to-the-death battleground that has shaped us through our evolution, these flawed but instant cues served us for the better as we could shape solutions to novel problems quickly – if not always reliably.

Today, however, these biases only detract from the decision making we engage in. At best the gut feelings, or rash conclusions, that we act on might be correct; but at worst we are confident without due reason. Our higher conscious brain allows us the powers of contemplation necessary to gain critical distance and second guess the mistakes our brains make when we don’t stop to consider. It would be no great feat to list for pages the evils committed on the certainty of flawed thinking. To continue on to list the bad business decisions made today alone based on the shortcuts our minds are taking would be an achievement by no definition, and a task not possible to document as quickly as new cases arose, I don’t doubt.

A scan over the Wikipedia page listing the reproducibly proven biases we apply, that I include below, is I hope enough to stop any individual short in utter disbelief at the suddenly clear errors we all make; if they weren’t already clearly visible to you as you considered irrational actions in yourself or in others.

To punctuate this point I will call on an example right from the top: The proven inferences we make of competence from the faces of others. A recent study (by Alexander Todorov; Anesu N. Mandisodza; Amir Goren; and Crystal C. Hall at Princeton University) showed that judgements of competence based on facial appearance alone could predict the outcome of US elections better than chance (68.8%). The margin of victory also scaled linearly with such judgements. Can the decisions we make on a topic debated so heatedly by so many – to my thorough exhaustion – be predicted by utterly irrelevant information? Well, yes, it can be…



How to be best understood

According to censuses from 2007, the most recent globally available data, the five most spoken languages, by native speakers, are as follows: Mandarin (935 million speakers); Spanish (387 million); English (365 million); Hindi (295 million); and Arabic (280 million).

The overall figures of how many people speak particular languages (including non-native speakers) are available from 2010 data: Mandarin (1151 million); English (1000 million); Spanish (500 million); Hindi (490 million); and Russian (277 million).

Smoother than ice

The combined ensemble of the articular surfaces covering the ends of the associated bones; the synovial capsule; and the contained synovial fluid, of human synovial joints, has a lower coefficient of friction than ice on ice. Joints like your knee, comprised of the components above, return less resistance to movement than you would feel pushing one block of smooth ice over another.

My back hurts, I need to sit down

The forces in your lower back are around double their standing values when you are sitting. When sitting there is reduced lordosis, curvature, in the lower back and the resultant of the forces in the lower spine is pulled to a position where it irritates the associated soft tissues. Nerves in the intervertabral discs respond painfully to structural disruption of the discs and the position we adopt when we sit increases the likelihood of this. Improved muscle strength in the back and abdomen can help to counter the action of the forces that are damaging your discs – damage that is currently beyond the scope of medicine to repair. Sitting more upright helps to pull the vector of the acting forces into more favourable lines of action, similarly to how stronger muscles will. Some academics, rather dryly in my opinion, describe the chair as the most dangerous orthotic device ever developed; under the assumption that for most of the 150,000 years or so of our existence we would not have spent extended periods sitting in one position. Will a new generation who spend more time sitting than previous generations suffer from worse backs from an earlier age? If mine and those of some of my friends are anything to go on then yes, certainly.