Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

why should i care?

July 15, 2011

anyone who watches the colbert report with any frequency
will also hopefully have been a bit discomforted by how often
he leaves his guests baffled with the simple “why should I care”
argument.

speaking about soaring food prices in developing nations,
the guest could only comment that it was such a horrible argument
that she “couldn’t even go there”,

while colbert, though hopefully being sarcastic, is in fact
raising a question that has to be addressed if one is ever
to get beyond “preaching to the choir”.

the recurrent failure of guests to be prepared for this question,
regarding economic equity, resource access, human rights, health care, climate, etc.
demonstrates 1.) an embarrassing lack of preparation for
the kind of interview they are about to encounter, and
2.) a regrettable failure of liberal arts education to even
promulgate the kind of critical argumentative skills
that it presumably proposes to.

in an attempt to remedy such shortcomings,
i’d like to try to list a few of the obvious rebuttals
to such explicit self-centerness.

A.) You should care,
because even if you are comfortable, content, and well-fed now,
the consequences of these events will most likely affect you
or someone you care about negatively eventually.

B.) You should care,
because knowingly letting others suffer,
when one can take some action to reduce that suffering,
encourages others to let you suffer.

C.) You should care,
because demonstrating compassion and generosity,
will give you legitimate reasons to be proud of yourself,
maintain more secure relations with more trustworthy kinds of people,
and sleep better at night.

D.) You should care,
unless you are really willing to tell your children,
that you don’t care about how cute penguins and polar bears are,
or how innocent starving children are,
or how needy elderly and handicapped people are,
just because they don’t offer any practical benefits to you,
if you really aren’t afraid of them looking at you like a monster.

E.) You should care,
unless you really aren’t bothered by the sight of
sick suffering people starving, and wouldn’t mind living
in gated communities surrounded by sick contagious criminal beggars.

All these arguments essentially rely on appealing
to the selfishness of the opposed party, more or less practically,
and though especially the last could well be accused of being
an absurdly slippery slope fallacy,
it merely intends to use the extreme to make the more graded argument
that our environments impinge on our comfort and happiness
even when they are outside our immediate circle of family and friends.

mysteries of the brain

July 9, 2010

Brain localization, as a topic of inquiry, has certainly had its ups and downs, and the topic of “lateralization”, in particular, has been subjected to so much gross generalization that even the wikipedia page on this topic devotes a section to “Pseudoscientific exaggeration of the research”. Most of all, I would like to suggest that we need to find a sufficient degree of sophistication in talking about these matters so that we can recognize both the significant predisposition to brain lateralization and the conversely marvelous plasticity of the brain.

That said, it seems undeniable that most people show preferences for certain sides on different tasks. However, questions of lateralization become more complex when we ask whether such preferences correlate with other tendencies and/or whether such preferences are genetic. Wikipedia also claims “In more than 95% of right-handed men, and more than 90% of right-handed women, language and speech are subserved by the brain’s left hemisphere. In left-handed people, the incidence of left-hemisphere language dominance has been reported as 73% and 61%” (see wiki for the multiple citations).

There is also a growing body of interesting research which attempts to explain lateralization from an evolutionary perspective. That is to say that there are a growing number of studies which attempt to show that lateralization provides certain advantages for survival (though a priori the converse just as well might seem true). For instance, “Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (Suppl.) 271, S420–S422 (2004)” shows that lateralized chicks were better at “finding food and being vigilant for predators”. That paper also cites numerous studies indicating that lateralization derives from light exposure during egg incubation, and could be suppressed by incubating the chick eggs in the dark. Careful geneticists will also note that separated twin studies may not properly consider the significance of long-term prepartum developmental effects.

Stanislas Dehaene’s “Reading in the Brain” also makes much of the left hemisphere region usually dedicated to reading (and the puzzle of its evolution in the face of the brief existence of reading on an evolutionary scale– leading to the conclusion of what he calls “recycling”, but which I believe SJ Gould called “recruitment”*), but ultimately mentions briefly a young girl’s normal reading development, regardless of the necessary early removal of this region from her brain (her brain activation during reading focused on the mirrored location in her right hemisphere).

In any case, what mystifies me even more than lateralization is what I will call “transposition”: that is, the fact that the left hemisphere focuses on right side tasks and vice versa. I have yet to encounter any “explanations” for this phenomenon, though part of my problem may be not even knowing how to technically refer to it.

It strikes me as somewhat reminiscent of the fact that the image projected on our retinas is “upside-down”, but the basic physical properties that necessitate that situation are hardly analogous to the anatomical conditions that insure transposition. More similarly, I also find it surprising that the visual cortex is located far to the rear of the brain, while our eyes are located far forward.

For the moment, I’ll just have to keep wondering about it, and can at least keep my eyes out for any relevant, legitimate research.


*”Therefore, a large component of evolvability must be attributed to inherent structural properties of features that originated by natural selection for one reason, but also manifest a capacity for subsequent recruitment (with minimal change) to substantially different and novel functions”.
-The structure of evolutionary theory, Stephen Jay Gould, p. 1228
Perhaps that sentence mixes a bit the “spandrel” issue of “inherent structural properties” and “natural selection”, and maybe the ‘original’ functions of the reading region of the brain weren’t even that “substantially different” from their reading function, but I still think “recruit” sounds more appropriate than “recycle”; in fact that other term of his, “exadaption”, is probably the least prone to confusion, but may or may not also evoke other irrelevant associations.