Monthly Archives: May 2016

Our Curious Public Mood Swings


This is a fascinating and revealing chart illustrating our curious public mood swings. It was produced by Larry Bartels (see here) using data compiled by James Stimson (see here). It measures the “policy mood” of the country since 1950. The higher the score, the more conservative was public opinion at that particular point in time.

Stinson derived this policy mood index from responses to a wide range of public policy surveys. Since it does not rely upon self-identification as liberal or conservative, it is arguably a more nuanced and accurate measure of where public attitudes fall on the liberal-conservative spectrum.

The most obvious thing to note here are the dramatic swings. Clearly public attitudes about major issues are not as fixed as we might imagine. Over the past 65 years public opinion has swung up and down by almost 20 points. Clearly public sentiment can be swayed significantly.

The most interesting thing about these swings is revealed when you refer to the Administration timeline that Bartels added to the x-axis. If you study this a bit you’ll undoubtedly start to scratch your head in confusion. Under each Democrat administration the country became more conservative, and under each Conservative administration the country became more liberal. This is entirely counter-intuitive and immensely important.

The nation became dramatically more liberal during the Eisenhower years. Ike was moderately conservative overall but staunchly conservative on economic issues. It became slightly more conservative during the moderately liberal Kennedy/Johnson era but shifted far toward the conservative extreme during the very liberal Carter years. Similarly, during the extremely conservative Reagan era, public sentiment shot back down again toward the liberal end of the spectrum. Under Clinton, the public then became more conservative and after a year or two of George Bush became more liberal again. Finally, under the very liberal President Obama, we have become dramatically more conservative.

The next observation may or may not be significant, but the swing has been between 30 and 50 on this scale of conservatism. I can’t imagine what kind of views it would require to earn a 100% rating on this scale, but for what it’s worth public opinion has remained solidly on the liberal side of the spectrum. This seems to defy the popular meme that America is a “near Right” country. It suggests we are actually (still) a “near Left” country.

But that may not last if trends continue. Although this chart bounces up and down, there is still a clear upward best fit line. This supports the long-term trend toward conversativism reported independently by other sources. Essentially each President since Eisenhower has rated as more conservative. More specifically, each Republican President has been more conservative than the previous Republican President and each Democrat President has been more conservative than the previous Democrat President. This reinforces the observation that despite these swings, the Conservatives succeed year after year in moving the “center” ever farther toward the Right.

So what conclusions can we draw from these data? First, it isn’t true that we are intractably divided and cannot change. Clearly a very significant fraction of us can be moved a substantial amount in one direction or the other. Next, we are perhaps overall more liberal than the Right would like to have us believe. However, we are trending ever more conservative and that is never likely to reverse as long as liberals keep voting for the “lesser of two evils” who is still ever more conservative than his or her predecessor.

Finally, as Bartels pointed out in his article, Presidents do not actually succeed in shifting public opinion their direction. The data rather show that the public tends to recoil reliably away from the President in their attitudes. Paradoxically and counter-intuitively, these data suggest that the fastest way to shift public sentiment toward the liberal end would be to elect a highly conservative President. And the best way to reverse the long-term trend toward conservatism may be to allow our “lesser of two evils” Democratic candidates to lose.




The Anatomy of Thought

Mind-uploading is the fictional process by which a person’s consciousness is transferred into some inanimate object. In fantasy stories this is typically accomplished using magic. By casting some arcane spell, the person’s consciousness is transferred into a physical talisman – or it might just float around in the ether in disembodied spirit form.

Mind_switcherIn science fiction, this kind of magic is routinely accomplished by means of technology. Upgraded hair-dryers transfer the person’s consciousness into a computer or some external storage unit. There it is retained until  it can be transferred back to the original host or into some new person or device. This science fiction mainstay goes back at least to the 1951 novel “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In some of these stories, the disembodied consciousness retains awareness within the computer or within whatever golem it has been placed. Sometimes the consciousness is downloaded into a new host body. It might inhabit a recently dead body but other times it might take over a living host or even swap bodies with another consciousness. Fictional stories involving technology being used for a variety mind-downloading and body-swapping scenarios or possessions go back at least to the book to “Vice Versa” written by Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1982.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” depicts of all sorts of sophisticated technological mind-uploading, remote consciousness-control, and even the mystical downloading of consciousness into a new body. In this and innumerable other science fiction, fantasy, and horror plots, minds are portrayed as things that can be removed and swapped out given sufficiently advanced magic or technology – like a heart or liver. This is depicted so often in fact that it seems like some routine medical procedure that must be right around the technological corner at a Body-Swap™ franchise near you.

One reason this idea seems so believable to us because it is so similar to installing new software into your computer. But the computer analogy fails here. Brains are not analogous to computers in this regard and consciousness is not analogous to a computer program. Our hardware and software are not independent. Our hardware is our software. Our thoughts are literally our anatomy.

It might be a better analogy to rather think of our brains as non-programmable analog computers in which the thinking is performed by specific electronic circuits designed to perform that logic. The logic is not programmed into the circuits, the logic is the circuitry itself. Our thoughts are not programmed into our brains, our thoughts are produced by our neural circuitry. Obviously  our thinking does change over time, but this is a physical re-linking and re-weighting of our neural connections, not the inhabitation of some separable, independent consciousness within our brains.

I allow that we might conceivably copy our consciousness into a computer, but it would only be a mapped translation programmed to emulate our thought patterns. And as far-fetched as that is, downloading our consciousness into another brain is infinitely more far-fetched. That would require rewiring the target brain, that is, changing its physical microstructure. Maybe there is some scientific plausibility to that, like a magnet aligning all the particles of iron along magnetic ley lines. But it’s incredibly unlikely. We’d essentially have to scan all the connections in the subject’s brain and then physically realign all the neurons in the target brain in exactly the same way and tune the strength of all the connections identically.

And even if we did that, there are lots of nuanced effects that would still introduce differences. Our body chemistry and external drugs influence how these neurons fire. In fact, it’s likely that even if our brain were physically transplanted into a new host body, subtle differences in the environment of the new body would affect us in unanticipatable ways, influencing the very thoughts and emotions that make us – us.

Yet our fantasy imagining of consciousness as an independent abstraction not only persists but largely dominates our thinking. Even the most modern intellectuals tend to be locked into at least an implicit assumption of a mind-body dualism. René Descartes was a key figure in bringing scientific and philosophical credibility to what is fundamentally a religious fantasy concocted to make religion seem plausible (see here).

For religious thinkers, a mind-body duality MUST exist in order for there to be an after-life. In order for religious fantasies to seem reasonable, the soul (essentially just our disembodied mind) must be independent and independently viable outside the body. For many, the mind or soul is bestowed by god and is the uniquely holy and human thing that we have that lesser species do not. For them, the mind has to be separable to support their fantasy of God-given uniqueness from the rest of the animal kingdom. A unified mind-body greatly undermines their case for creationism, human divinity, and an afterlife.

So this illusory assumption of dualism is propagated by familiar computer analogies, by ubiquitous fantasy and science fiction, by horror ghost stories, and by our dominant religious and new age thinking. But this dualistic pseudoscience leads to many false and misleading ideas about how our brains work. That in turn results leads us to a great deal of mistaken thinking about a broad and diverse range of questions and precludes our ability to even imagine more realistic answers to those questions.

One harm this idea does is to provide a circular, self-fulfilling basis for belief in the supernatural. If we accept the assumption that our mind is independent, that then demands some kind of mystical explanation. But this dualistic thinking hinders our understanding of many non-religious questions as well. How do newborns fresh out of the womb or the egg know what to do? How can thoughts be inherited? How can a child be born gay? The answer to all these questions become quite simple if you shed your mistaken assumption of dualism. We all start with an inherited brain structure which is the same as to say that we are all born with thoughts and emotions and personalities.

When you truly internalize that the mind and body are one and the same, that our thoughts arise purely from our brain micro-structure and our unique body chemistry, new and far simpler solutions and perspectives open up for a wide range of otherwise perplexing and vexing social, scientific, and metaphysical questions.

Someone smarter than me could write a fascinating book about all the ways that this fantasy of an independent consciousness leads us to false conclusions and inhibits our ability to consider real answers to important questions. But if you simply become aware of this false assumption of duality, you will find that you’ll naturally start to look at a wide range of questions in far more satisfying and logically self-consistent ways.



If Only I Had a Photographic Memory!

Few of us probably remember the 1968 B-film cult classic Barbarella. In that fantasy story the naively buxom Barbarella battled the sadistic Durand-Durand and the evilly beautiful Dark Tyrant. One notable character in this sex romp was the blind angel Pygar. The white-winged angel befriends Barbarella but is then kidnapped and cruelly tortured by the Dark Tyrant.

pygarIn the climax of the film, with the city exploding around them, Pygar swoops down and rescues both Barbarella and the Dark Tyrant, flying off with one woman in each arm. Barbarella looks up at his angelic face, confused, and says “Pygar, why did you save her, after all the terrible things she did to you?” Pygar answers serenely, “Angels have no memory.”

It’s an interesting thought. Angels have no memory. Perhaps only without memory can one really be an angel. Perhaps memory makes us just too bitter, too angry, to resentful, too hurt to be truly forgiving. Perhaps it just isn’t possible to remember every hurt one caused you and still fully forgive them. Perhaps those memories must be sacrificed to gain your wings.

There is data to support this premise.  Researches have looked at individuals on both extremes of memory. They have studied those rare individuals who have no long-term memory – who cannot recall anything beyond very recent events. They have compared those individuals to those equally rare individuals with nearly perfect recall, people who can exactly remember almost every incident, no matter how unremarkable, that they ever experienced.

When you compare these two groups, you see clear differences. Those with impaired long-term memory tend to be quite happy and contented while those with exceptional long-term memory tend to be quite unhappy, depressed, angry, and even suicidal. Apparently, having perfect memory takes its toll. One cannot forget every slight, every insult, every disappointment, and every disillusionment. Such unselective memories make one quite unhappy. Not having memories can be a blessing.

On the other hand, those with perfect memories tend to be excellent networkers. They recall every birthday, every anniversary, and every name. So they tend to have lots of social support that can offset their hurtful memories. Those with poor memories on the other hand tend to have few social contact and fewer friends. The cost of happiness may be loneliness and the loss of social connectivity. Are they then still happy? Kind of a sad internal contradiction.

Don’t hire an angel to become your salesperson and don’t expect them to win celebrity Jeopardy.

Thankfully most of us aren’t angels with no memory and we aren’t elephants who never forget a slight and stomp their trainer into a bloody pulp years later. We lie in the broad middle of the spectrum. I am certainly no angel but I think I lie off toward the bad memory end of the continuum. I have a terrible memory but am pretty free from regrets and grudges. But I’m also quite bad at social networking as I am hopeless at remembering things, let alone birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve wisely perhaps stayed away from professions that rely upon memory and entered instead into a career where things change quickly, where continually looking up current information is an advantage.

Many of us imagine that perfect memory would be kind of a cool superpower but that such recall is just not really possible. But it is clearly possible and evolution is wise enough not to give us what we think we want. Sometimes less is better. We could have much better smell or hearing or taste, for example, and some people do and it makes them painfully miserable. Longer lifespans are apparently possible as well, but evolution knows that longer lifespans are not actually a good thing for the individual or for the species.

Evolution has given us the balance of memory we need to make us both functional and happy. If technology eventually lets us override evolution on this, we may regret being burdened with all those painful best-forgotten memories.

Maybe Trump is Good for US

trumpHow could Donald Trump conceivably be good for us and for the USA? I’m glad you asked!

Most of us appreciate that the normally low norm of juvenile political dysfunction in our country has degenerated over the last few decades down into an unsustainable and unacceptable low of incivility and internecine warfare. We have not quite reached a Mad Max level of dysfunction, but we’re getting uncomfortably and embarrassingly close.

We have always been proud of a certain level of dysfunction baked into our system of government. By design, we see great value in our system of check-and-balances in which each official and unofficial branch of government challenges the others to ensure that none of them run amok. A certain level of conflict is desired and expected.

However, if carried too far, healthy checks-and-balances can easily degrade into automatic knee-jerk obstruction and mindless attacks. Imagine a football team in which healthy competition between players degrades into “I don’t care if we win this game. I only care if my teammates score less than me. If my teammates get injured, all the better for me!

That is the very level of self-destructive behavior that our government has degraded into. As much as our system of government benefits from a measure of good-natured competition, it simply cannot function when the prevailing attitude is “destroy the other guy at all costs.” If the various groups refuse to cooperate and instead focus exclusively on winning and beating the other side, then healthy competition breaks down and becomes counter-productive and self-destructive.

Over the last few decades this is exactly what has happened in politics. Others could point to a different progression, but in my lifetime I have to point to the Clinton hearings as when it turned truly nasty. The Republicans pledged to “bring down” Bill Clinton even before he was sworn into office, and they put 100% of their energy into that. They virtually brought all responsible governance to complete halt while they prosecuted their incessant and relentless attacks on Clinton.

Unfortunately for all of us, this infighting has only continued to get worse from there. And frankly this war has been largely waged by Conservatives who have continued to escalate each year. They have lost all interest in moving our country forward and instead are doggedly fixated on simply destroying anything and anyone that does not identify with them. And they don’t even actually have an agenda. Their agenda is largely whatever hurts or at least does not help the other side and they are happy to burn down the nation if it diminishes their opponents.

So, is it any surprise that out of this climate of rabid, raving, insensate political ideologues, someone like Donald Trump should emerge as their leader? As clearly crazy and incompetent as he is, he is still a welcome breath of fresh air by comparison to the status quo that has emerged. He actually offers some hope amidst the angry, incompetent, government-loathing, self-interested dogmatic extremists that have completely taken over the Republican Party for far too long.

Here’s how this may be a good thing. Trump is a slap in the face of our self-image. He could be just the drenching of cold-frigid water that we need to wake up and snap out of our routine of mindless attacks and rigidly partisan childishness. Perhaps he will force pundits, political fight-promoters in the media, voters, and even Conservative leaders to step back a moment and ask, is this us? Is this the US? Is this as good as we can be?

I think for every American with a shred of sanity remaining, the answer has to be no. We can do much better. We must do much better. We can dial back our senseless Hatfield and McCoy feuding and work together to accomplish great and good things.

If Donald Trump succeeds in showing us just how far we have sunk, if he incites us only to step back and self-assess our behavior, he may have offered our nation the greatest service possible just when it is most desperately needed.



Similarities Training

Our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines. Most of our mental processing, however complex, derives from simple pattern-recognition primitives. Generally pattern-recognition is thought of as recognizing a pattern amidst noise, like the silhouette of a tiger obscured by reeds, branches, and shadows. But pattern-recognition also can be thought of as spotting differences between patterns. The pattern of the weeds versus the pattern of the tiger. We can either focus on similarities between patterns or we can focus on differences but we seem to have difficulty focusing on both simultaneously.

duck-rabbitThink of it like the picture to the right. What do you see? If you see a rabbit facing right, then for whatever reason your pattern-recognition system is more programmed to spot rabbits. But if you first see a duck facing left, then you’re more attuned to look for duck patterns. With this particular image, you can switch back and forth between the rabbit and the duck quite easily, but it’s extremely hard to see them both at the same time.

Since everything we think is essentially built upon pattern-recognition, this kind of selectivity applies to everything we think, no matter how complex. We can see the world with God or we can see the world without God. Both seem obvious to the observer if their pattern-recognition system is tuned to find that pattern. But the other view can seem just as obvious to us simply by flipping a switch in our brains. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that both perceptions are equally real in fact. If the image above is actually a photo of a duck, and seeing it as a rabbit does not make it a rabbit.

Similarly, we can either focus on the similarities between two patterns, or we can focus on the differences. It just depends which one we’re tuned to look for, like the rabbit or the duck. And even if the differences are incredibly minor compared to the similarities, the differences are all we can see if that is what we expect to see. In this case, there actually IS no difference at all between the duck and the rabbit, but we are convinced that they are completely different.

Social training makes us hypersensitive to recognizing differences in people – even when there are virtually no differences at all. We see it as a particular social good to notice, acknowledge, and celebrate the differences between people and their groups. But while this is good, it also tunes our neural networks to perceive a very skewed view of the world. If carried to an extreme this can be more divisive than unifying.

For example, when I was in the Peace Corps, their very well-intentioned cultural awareness training tuned our pattern recognition systems to be hyper-aware of what were often tiny cultural differences. The result was that this made most volunteers quite frightened and apprehensive. It made them extremely worried that they were venturing into some alien civilization where the people were so foreign that any tiny inadvertent slip on their part could result in an international incident. I proposed half-seriously to the Peace Corps leadership that they needed to offer “similarities training” to reassure the volunteers that the Africans were in fact 99.999% just like them and that while the .001% of differences should be understood and recognized, the similarities far out-weighted any differences.

I saw this again when I was out working in my village in rural South Africa. There was a very sweet local Afrikaans woman who had volunteered in the Black community her entire life. Still, she asked me quite sincerely one day what it was like to actually “live with them.” I asked her what she meant. She stated what was obvious to her, “but they are so different!” I pressed her for specifics and all she could finally think to say was “Well for one thing they eat pap!”

Now, pap is the corn version of mashed potatoes. That was the big difference that made life amongst them inconceivable to her? But to this woman, so hyper-sensitive to differences, this was totally understandable given the way our brains work. Her neural network was so focused on incredibly minor differences that she couldn’t see that the Black folk she worked with every day were exactly the same as her in almost every possible way.

I often tell another story. When I lived in India my pattern recognition machine got gradually tuned to see everything around me as dirty and disgusting. My attitude plummeted for a good long while. All that made it through my pattern-recognition filters was the duck, quacking and dirty and fowl. Then one day I suddenly had an apparently random “attitude adjustment” and in the blink of an eye my pattern-recognition system flipped to see the rabbit and suddenly everything around me was beautiful and inspiring. All those same people who disgusted and repelled me before were now proud and happy folk that I wanted to engage with. These changes can happen gradually in imperceptible increments like me descent into negativity or instantaneously as happened in my attitude adjustment.

That story illustrates the tremendous power of our unconscious pattern recognition programming. Reality doesn’t change but you are conditioned to see either a rabbit or a duck. Like the picture, even though reality doesn’t actually change, you are either convinced that there is evidence of god all around you or that there is no evidence whatsoever. The African villagers don’t change but you see strange alien creatures, or you see regular folk just like you. The Indian streets don’t change but you either see only the smelly cow-dung or only the pretty wildflowers. One day your soulmate can do no wrong, the next moment everything he or she says or does is incredibly offensive.

What you see and think all depends on the patterns that your brain is conditioned to recognize and allow through your perceptual filters. Attitudes are formed by perceptions and perceptions are filtered by the biases imposed by our innate pattern-recognition machines. Science trains our brains to identify real patterns, not merely imagined constellations amongst the stars. And when it comes to your fellow man, while recognizing differences is important, don’t become conditioned to imagine that those small differences outweigh the overwhelming similarities that connect us.

Read more about this topic in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here).