The futility of contrarian arguments

Since I was very young, I used to want to tell people exactly what I think about something. Most of these views would be contrarian, and I would assume that I am adding value to the conversation by presenting an alternate view. Needless to say, I often had trouble making friends in middle school, high school or college. I would thrive on trying to spot holes in people’s arguments, presenting a contrarian view with some “evidence”, etc. I would share inflammatory posts on social media trying to “present an alternative view”, politicize issues, and then take exception when people couldn’t see why my opinion was correct.

This has slowly changed over time. I realized how I was only needlessly antagonizing people by trying to be contrarian all the time. However, I truly began to understand the issues involved when I read “Trapped Priors as a basic problem of rationality” by Scott Alexander. Let me try and explain some salient points of this phenomenal article.

People argue about all kinds of issues in person or online (of course smarter people mostly stay away from such things). We now have unprecedented access to all kinds of opinions both online and offline. However, it is extremely rare to see anyone change their opinion. With a greater access to information, we are only seeing people further entrench themselves in their opinions. One example of this is that Trump supporters only became more entrenched in their support for Trump after the media flurry of anti-Trump articles early on in his presidency. One explanation of this is confirmation bias: if I already have a particular stand on an issue, I will have a tendency to accumulate information that supports my stand, and cheaply dismiss information that contradicts it. Although Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that this is a defect of the brain, I’ve also seen a research paper that says that this is actually a feature and not a defect, and helps us form a coherent world view (which was historically important for survival).

Hence, whenever I argue with someone about an issue, I am mostly trying to defend my opinion by sharing cherry-picked facts that support my stand, and omitting facts that don’t. Moreover, when the person I’m arguing with shares their own opinions and facts, I try desperately to find a way to poke holes into their arguments so that I can “win” the argument and claim “intellectual superiority”. Let us assume that I’m successful in doing so: that I’m able to poke holes in my opponents’ arguments, and that they’re not successful in doing so. Does that mean that I’ve managed to convert them to my opinion?

You’ve obviously guessed that the answer is a resounding “No”. But why is that? Is it just out of spite that my opponent would not like to accept my stand as the only correct one? I don’t think so. An opinion is a manifestation of many conscious and unconscious inferences about the world, and being able to contradict one inference does not mean that all inferences have been contradicted. For instance, if my opponent supports Republican politics, they might argue that Republican policies have generally been better for the layman’s income than Democrat policies. In response to this, I might bring up a research paper that claims that this is only a myth, and that Democrat policies are in fact slightly better for the layman’s income than Republican policies. Does that mean that my opponent will understand that they’re wrong, and hence should morally accept my stand? No, because their support for Republicans rests on many other factors like how Republicans seem to be doing a better job of developing their area than the previous Democrat candidate, how a lot of Democrat policies seem ineffective and counter-productive, how Republicans don’t carry the “holier than thou” attitude, etc. These opinions still stand unchallenged. Moreover, because research papers contradict each other all the time and often reflect vested interests, bringing up one research paper that disproves their point doesn’t really prove anything. It only shows that I was pretentious enough to bring up a research paper in a casual conversation about politics, probably as a means of signaling awareness.

Essentially, if I try and poke holes in the arguments that my conversation partner is making, I’m not really trying to understand the deeper reasons for their stand. Curiously, this was something I first came across in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, and have since come across in many places like Yudkowsky’s Sequences on Rationality and Scott Alexander’s blog. We only antagonize people further by trying to argue with them, and not attempting to understand their deeper values. What is the solution to this? Should we just agree to disagree on everything that we don’t agree on already? Do people’s opinions never change?

I don’t know. However, I do know that our only responsibility is to listen carefully to other’s opinions, strengthen them instead of trying to poke holes into them, and then see how we should change our opinions in order to fit the facts that the other person has presented. Of course it is entirely possible that the other person has said only incorrect things, and that we should not change our opinion at all. However, what is much more likely is that we will try to cheaply dismiss their opinions despite the value inherent in them, and look for reasons to stick to our previous opinions. We should avoid that temptation.

I grew up thinking that my main aim was to be right. Very, very slowly, it has (partly) changed to understanding how and where I’m wrong, and possibly changing myself/my opinions in order to form a more accurate view of the world. Writing this essay has hopefully been a step in that direction. In Yudkowsky’s words, our main aim should be to create a “map that reflects the territory“.

Dealing with conflicting goals

Today I read an amazing paper titled “Behavioural Consistency and Inconsistency in the Resolution of Goal Conflict” by Laran and Janiszewski. It was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2009, and is one of the most highly cited papers in the field. I think this paper really helped me understand my daily behaviour, and can hopefully help to rectify whatever it is that I do everyday.

Goal Conflict

So what really is goal conflict? Well, most of us have at least two conflicting goals- say eating delicious fatty food vs eating healthy/staying fit. Clearly, chasing after any one of these goals will undercut the other (unless you’re one of those salad-loving freaks). So which of these goals do we end up pursuing?

There are two theories of goal management: active goal guidance (AGG) and passive goal guidance (PGG). The active goal guidance theory states that humans rationally measure and calibrate how close or far they are from their goals, and then make decisions based on that. For instance, after a week full of 4 mile runs, you might calculate that you’ve done enough to deserve a pizza meal tonight. However, humans aren’t always calculating and calibrating. Most of our impulses and desires that shape the bulk of our behaviour stem from something deeper and much more irrational. If there’s a piece of cake lying in your refrigerator that you’ve been avoiding for a day or two because you haven’t been working out at all, there will come a moment when you’ll go stick your head into the refrigerator and just inhale the cake before you know what hit you. This move to eat the cake wasn’t really a result of a conscious, rational calculation. So what’s going on? Hint: it’s the other goal guidance system.

Passive goal guidance is an imprecise goal management system that is always running in the back of our minds when we’re not actively thinking. And it is a pretty shoddy system. How so? Let us assume that you’ve decided to start working out in order to lose weight. It’s your first day, and you go for a run. Ideally, you should continue this for at least a couple of months, eat healthy, and start eating unhealthy food only when you’ve reached your target weight. However, the passive goal guidance system tells you that you’ve done enough towards your fitness goals….on the first day itself! Hence, you disengage with your goal of becoming fitter, and engage with your other goal: to eat delicious fattening foods. All of this is a result of the fact that the passive goal guidance system cannot distinguish between whether you’ve actually achieved your goals or just taken a small step towards them. Hence, we keep bouncing between conflicting goals, never actually attaining either of them.

This is something that resonates very deeply with me. I have multiple goals: to become a good mathematical researcher, to learn about a lot of different and disparate fields, read good fiction and non-fiction, etc. These goals are in conflict because I only have limited time and energy to allot to these goals. Hence, working towards any of them means not working towards the other goals. I can of course use the active goal guidance system to rank these goals in order of importance, and then allot time to them judiciously in order to maximize my personal utility function. However, what ends up happening in practice is that whenever I make even a small amount of progress in one of my goals, I abandon it to pursue something else. Context switching often nullifies whatever little progress I might have made towards any of my goals, and I end up not achieving much towards any of my goals. The most effective strategy that I’ve ever applied to myself is that of not abandoning a task until I finish it completely. Although I couldn’t continue that strategy beyond the first week or so, mostly because of the level of discipline required to carry it out, this strategy effectively eliminated the problem that the passive goal guidance system creates. Hence, my personal experience suggests that the authors are correct: the passive goal system seems to be responsible for a lot of the context switching and procrastination I see in my daily life.

Another important fact to note is that goals are often unconsciously created inside us. For instance, watching an advertisement for the latest cola product might create an unconscious desire inside us to buy it. This kind of unconscious goal creation is called priming, and is also controlled by the passive goal guidance system. Priming plays a very important role in this paper, which will be discussed below.

Goal Management in the presence of conflicting goals

The following quote sums up most of the arguments made above:

Goal management models seek to explain goal pursuit and disengagement in the presence of goal conflict. Fishbach and Dhar (2005, 2008; see also Fishbach, Dhar, and Zhang 2006) propose that the determinant of consistency versus inconsistency in two consecutive behavioral decisions is the extent to which an initial behavioral decision signals goal progress or commitment. They posit that when people perceive an initial act as goal progress, they become less likely to pursue the same goal, and they end up pursuing opposing goals when making the second decision. When people perceive an initial act as commitment to a goal, they become more likely to pursue the same goal when making the second decision. Therefore, people make an inference of how far they are from achieving a certain goal and, depending on whether there is an inference of progress or commitment, choose their subsequent behaviors.

Another interesting aspect to note is that when we have to trade off goals vs resources, we are mostly consistent in our choices. For instance, when faced with either indulging in expensive shopping or saving money (resource), we either consistently buy a lot of expensive things, saving little money, or very rarely buy expensive things, saving a lot of money in the process. We strike some sort of optimum balance, and stick to it. However, when dealing with conflicting goals, we are not consistent in our choices, indiscriminately hopping between eating junk food and trying to have a healthy lifestyle. We rarely ever intend to strike an optimal balance between the two goals: we first religiously stick to one goal, and then completely abandon it to pursue a conflicting goal. This suggests that when deciding what to do with our resources, we let our active guidance system guide us. However, when we’re merely comparing two conflicting goals, eventually our passive goal guidance system takes over, often making contradictory and self-defeating choices for us.

Some features of the passive goal guidance

The propositions of this system of goal guidance are:

  1. As goal activation increases (decreases), means that are relevant to the goal will gain (lose) value. What is goal activation, you ask? Imagine that you read a biography of Elon Musk. You are heavily prepped to do fantastic things and change the world. This is goal activation (and obviously not fulfillment). The means through which you may attain these goals, perhaps your computer and books, gain importance for you, while other unrelated means, like your Xbox, might at least temporarily reduce in value.
  2. When you take a step towards your goal, it might be misinterpreted as goal completion, leading to disengagement with that goal. This has been explained above.
  3. Goal activation for one goal will result in the inhibition of other goals. For instance, as explained above, when your “create something great” goal has been activated, your “play with your Xbox for long hours” goal may take a backseat.
  4. Goal achievement will result in disengagement with that goal, leading to a rebound of previously inhibited goals. For instance, after you’ve achieved your goal of having a great job, your inhibited goal of “spend more time with family” will come to the forefront, and you’ll try to make amends on that front.

    Remember that our false belief of goal completion, promoted and abused by our unconscious mind and our passive goal guidance system, is a major reason why we jump to conflicting goals and fail to accomplish what we’re capable of.

Experiments and discussion

Five different experiments are described in the paper, which I will not discuss in much detail. However, I will discus the results obtained from those experiments, and how they support the main claims of this paper.

Initial steps taken towards goal completion are hugely significant. For example, if you are trying to avoid eating unhealthy food at a party, saying “no” to it early on hugely boosts your chances of not eating that food at all. However, if you decide to partake of a small amount of that food so that you may somehow quench your desire to eat that food, that’ll turn out to be a disastrous strategy, as you’ll soon succumb to eating increasingly large amounts of that unhealthy food. Hence, if you’re going on a diet, throwing out all the unhealthy food in your house is a much better strategy than trying to restrict yourself to “one cookie a day”. This is something that I’ve struggled with myself. “I’ll only check facebook once or twice everyday” has turned out to be a spectacularly bad strategy. What has turned out to be a better strategy is deactivating my profile and saying “no” to all my future selves with less self control.

Active goal guidance is activated when you compare your goal progress with others or your past self, while it fails to be activated when no comparison is being made. For instance, after a run you may compare yourself to a fitter family member and find yourself lacking. You will then persist in your goals for longer. However, if you don’t form any such comparisons, your passive goal guidance system is likely to tell you that you’ve achieved your fitness goals and that you deserve to eat all your favorite junk food.

“Small indulgences” that don’t result in goal completion can prime you for other related goals. For instance, if you’re satiated only after eating a full bowl of chocolates but are allowed to eat only one chocolate, you are more likely to indulge in all kinds of pleasurable activities like eating more chocolates, buying expensive merchandise online, drinking expensive wine, etc for a short while. However, indulging in your guilty pleasures until you’re satiated will result in goal completion, and then you can move on to other conflicting goals. For instance, if you finish a whole bowl of chocolates, you’re more likely to be more interested in healthy food, living a simpler life without expensive indulgences, etc. In some sense, it is better to say “no” right away to an indulgence, or to completely immerse yourself in it until you’re satiated, than to partake only a little of it (which will prime you for bigger indulgences and worse crashes).

Another interesting observation in one of the experiments was that goals eventually fade away with time. For instance, if a TV advertisement primes you to go buy its product, and you restrain yourself from doing so for some time, eventually you’ll disengage with that goal and move on to other things. Hence, if you ever feel a very strong impulse to do something, just restrain yourself for long enough until that goal fades away.

Conclusion

Like everybody else I spend way too much time on my phone, keep jumping between unrelated tasks, procrastinate after completing small subtasks of my main task, find it difficult to complete most tasks, etc. This paper gave me a scientific basis for why this happens, and also an idea for what I can do to reduce such distractions. I can perhaps write a post a month or two later, detailing the extent to which this paper changed my productivity and life.

I also feel that procrastination is the act of jumping between conflicting goals, and am unsure why the authors do not address it in this paper.

References

  1. Behavioural consistency and inconsistency in the resolution of goal conflict, by Laran and Janiszewski

Decoding human personality

I recently had the opportunity to read a fascinating paper titled “A model for personality at three levels” by Revelle and Condon. I was expecting the article to be rather dry, from which I would need to extract useful facts after a lot of effort. However, it proved to be fantastically “wise”, with deeply penetrating insights into human personality. Written more like a Tolstoy novel than a research paper, it is hands down the most amazing thing I’ve read in recent times.

Levels of individual differences

The authors state that people change with time at an intra-person level, inter-person level and inter-group level. Intra-person refers to the changes within a person, like a sudden surge in anger or hunger, inter-person refers to a relative change between individuals, like a faster decrease in awkwardness in one person than in another which causes that person to speak first in a social situation, and inter-group refers to group level differences, like some majors such as Physics being negatively correlated with agreeableness.

Why are we concerned with trait changes with respect to time, and not stable characteristics? For instance, why are we not concerned with a person’s stable level of anger, as opposed to a “rate of increase of anger”? The authors contend that it is the rate of change of a characteristic, and not the stable value of a characteristic that determines human behaviour. Why is that? Consider the following situation: you’re walking on the road, and you suddenly see an acquaintance from college. There will be a part of you that will want to go talk to them, while the anxious part of you will want to feign ignorance and move on. Whichever tendency rises fastest at that moment will lead to the consequent action. Hence, it is the rate of change of a desire/trait inside a person that determines their actions.

As an aside, consider the following quote:

When others evaluate our reputation, they are evaluating our behavior in critical situations and how it changes across situations. When we think of our identity, we interpret our behavior as the result of our affects and our cognitions.

This is a supremely deep quotation that set me thinking. Yes, people do seem to evaluate the true worth of others only in “critical situations”. If you didn’t help your friend in their time of need, you will forever be thought of as unreliable and “not really a friend”. However, we interpret our behavior as a result of our thoughts and desires (that are not accessible to others), and hence tend to give ourselves far more leeway than others do. Although this quote is not directly related to the rest of the paper, I thought it was a great quote and deserved to be discussed on its own merit.

The authors’ main contention in this paper is that the behaviour of individuals depends majorly on intra-person dynamics, and which tendencies of theirs are reinforced by social approval and encouragement, etc. Of course, this reinforcement only works when an individual is receptive to external opinion and feedback from past performances. For instance, one of the major reasons why I switched to Mathematics in grad school was that I didn’t enjoy engineering, and had previously performed very well in Mathematics in high school. Hence, my past performances reinforced my affinity for Mathematics, which led me to change my whole life trajectory. On the other hand, I was never very receptive to reinforcement by social acceptability, which has hampered my social behaviour for many years. Hence, receptivity to reinforcement is perhaps a factor that the authors have left out from the paper.

Different levels can be different

Consider alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption is negatively correlated with cognitive abilities at an intra-person level, while being positively correlated with cognitive abilities at an inter-person level. How do we reconcile these two facts? These are completely different and non-contradictory facts. We are just saying that smart people tend to drink more alcohol than not so smart people (sorry teetotaling Hitler), and smart people get less smart when they drink a lot of alcohol.

This example illustrates the fact that correlations between two traits can be completely different at an intra-person and inter-person level. However, individual intra-person traits are still indicative of inter-person traits.

Dynamics within individuals

Consider the following quote:

Dynamic models imply more than the mere observation that people differ over time, for this could just be random fluctuations around a mean level.

This is a realization that I had myself a couple of weeks back! People don’t generally stay the same their whole life, their behaviour fluctuating around a stable mean. People change slowly but irrevocably with time (their mean behaviour changes with time). And it is around this changing mean that behaviour fluctuates.

We will now describe the mathematical model of dynamic personality developed by the authors. Let T be the desire or action tendency related to a particular action, F be the external conditions causing that desire, and c the “amount of action” taken to quench that desire. Then the rate of change of desire is dT=F-cT. In other words, your desire to do something will keep increasing with time unless you act upon it, which will then cause it to decrease sharply. If you desire to eat a chocolate cake, your desire to do so will keep increasing until you take a bite, which will cause it to decrease momentarily. Moreover, the decrease is proportional the desire itself!

When does dT become 0? This happens when F=cT, or in other words when you’ve done enough to quench that desire. Note that desire may not actually become 0 when dT=0. Hence, when the action c is removed, the desire again starts growing, until more action is taken. Effectively, enough action c has to be taken until T=0.

What is F, exactly? It is expressed as p_s(1-p_s)N_{ach}, where p_s is the probability of success and N_{ach} is the “need for achievement” (in other words, ambition). In other words, our desire to do something doesn’t necessarily increase with the ease with which it can be done. Desire is maximal when the probability of success is equal to the probability of failure. What does that mean? If I’m a naturally gifted athlete, and it is apparent that I am almost certain to win the Olympiad gold, I will not really want to pursue athletics that badly. However, if I’m a great musician but my chances of making it to the big stage are 50-50, I will be tempted to gamble on my life and see if I have what it takes to make it. This hit home for various reasons. As humans, we are not really maximizing our chances of having a comfortable life. We are always looking to gamble on our lives, and see if we have what it takes. That is why we are so open to new challenges and get excited by uncertainty (under the right circumstances). Although I probably have to think through some of the deeper implications of this, this equation did blow my mind!

There is an analogous model for negative tendencies or anxiety. Let N be the anxiety related to a particular task, I the inhibitory forces (factors that are causing anxiety), and r the cost of resisting action. Then we have dN=I-rN. In other words, anxiety about a pending homework assignment keeps rising (if the cost of doing homework is too low) or falling (if the cost of doing homework is too high) until it stabilizes. There is no action that you can perform which will make doing your homework less of an anxious experience.

What does this teach us? We all have tasks that we find distasteful but have to do from time to time. And waiting longer to do them is not going to make them any less distasteful (might only increase anxiety). Hence, whenever you have a task that you have to do, do it first. And then when it is over, you can get back to enjoying your life.

Again I is defined as p_s(1-p_s)N_{af}, where p_s is the probability of success and N_{af} is the need to avoid failure. We don’t really get anxious about things that have a low probability of success (asking someone out who will almost surely say no) or a high probability of success (asking someone out who will surely say yes). Our anxiety is the highest in situations which have a 50-50 chance of success (asking someone out just above our league).

Essentially, whether we do something or not depends on p_s(1-p_s)(N_{ach}-N_{af}). Things that have a 50-50 chance of success induce both the highest excitement and the highest anxiety in us. This says something very deep about human nature, which I’ll leave up to you to interpret.

The authors note that in this model of the human personality, there is no fixed or control point. There is no fixed value that positive or negative tendencies return to. In some sense, both desires and anxieties are unbounded.

Some more aspects of the model

You might want to eat pizza and go for a run at the same time. However, what you end up doing depends on what you want to do more badly. Hence, although desires for various actions grow in parallel, the actions themselves can only happen one after the other, and the action with a higher desire function is performed first. For instance, a newt copulates underwater, but comes up to the surface for oxygen. If oxygen content is increased, the chances of the newt being able to breathe successfully increase. Hence, the desire to go up on top decreases (remember that F=p_s(1-p_s)N_{ach}), and the newt copulates underwater for longer.

Another aspect of this is that because attention is limited, it can only be allotted to various tasks sequentially. Hence, one must not text while driving, watch tv while doing a cognitively intense task, etc.

Inter-person dynamics

The first observation that the authors make is that rates of change are more important than absolute levels. For instance, a person whose anxiety suddenly spikes is more likely to behave irrationally than someone who is always anxious.

Secondly, they state that the average levels of what one person does is different from the maximum levels that that person is capable of. For instance, if you work for 5 hours a day, that does not preclude the fact that you may be capable of 20 hours of work in a day when motivated.

Thirdly, the authors state that most cognitive abilities correlate with other cognitive abilities. A straight A student is probably also good at music and debating and all kinds of other activities that you may think of. This is perhaps the reason why top Business schools prefer that their candidates demonstrate excellence in multiple fields- a demonstrated expertise in multiple areas is of the best signals of overall cognitive abilities.

Cognitive abilities are sometimes described as the speed at which a solution to a problem is found/speed of processing. It has also been seen that the amount of crystallized knowledge is positively correlated with processing speed. Hence, smart people are more likely to be repositories of knowledge…at least in school (this may change later in life, when smart people may no longer be incentivized to accumulate irrelevant knowledge).

Now consider the following quote:

If temperament is what you usually do, and ability is what you can do, interests are what you like to do and how you spend your time.

One way to interpret this line is that abilities or the capacity for a certain kind of work does not necessarily form one’s temperament. Moreover, temperament may be different from interests. For instance, although you may have an angry temperament (reinforced perhaps by a lack of opposition from others), being angry might not be how you like spending your time. The authors also note that interests can be classified into people vs things and facts vs ideas.

Now let us consider the following quote:

That what one can do (ability or competence) is not necessarily shown by what one does has been known since at least Tolman and Honzik (1930) who studied the effect of reward on maze performance. With the same number of learning trials, non-rewarded rats take far longer to run a maze than when given a reward.

One way of interpreting this line is that if you want to assess a person’s maximal capabilities, attach a reward to the successful completion of a task. Only then will that person really exert themselves in attaining that goal.

Group differences as the consequence of individual choices

Imagine that there are two students- A and B. A feels slightly more anxious during public speaking than B. Hence, B generally does a better job at speeches than A. A receives negative reinforcement through audience disinterest or discouragement, while B receives positive reinforcement in the form of adulation. These effects compound, and A may join a profession that does not involve much public interaction while B may become a lawyer or a politician. Hence, individual differences compound and result in individuals joining different groups.

The natural question to ask at this point is what personality traits lead a student to choose a particular major, say Physics? In a large scale study, it was found that having high cognitive abilities and being less agreeable was highly correlated with choosing Physics (sorry Physicists). This is just a small example of how individual differences lead to group differences.

Conclusion

The authors conclude by clarifying that individual differences don’t deterministically lead to group differences. It is not as simple as that. Although individuals are blessed with their own abilities and desires, individuals change as a result of reinforcement from society or other external factors. “Personality needs to be conceived at multiple temporal durations.”

The authors also emphasize the importance of using softwares and formal methods to analyze data and create more accurate mathematical models.

References

  1. A model for personality at three levels, by Revelle and Condon

Status signaling

Of the subtle things in life, status signaling is one of the subtlest. It is mostly a delicate art refined in the forging fires of one-upmanship (and perhaps envy), but it can become quite unpleasant in the hands of brutes.

So what is status signaling? Well if I am earning a lot more than you, or went to a better school than you, or perhaps can stake some claim to professional success, I will need to signal that in some way, lest you think you’re better than me.

There are a couple of things about status that one needs to carefully consider before we get into status signaling. Status in a varied society is not a completely ordered set. There is not just one parameter by which you can compare the statuses of two people. For example, a rich person is not necessarily better than an MIT professor. However, an MIT professor in a particular field may be considered to be “better” than a professor at a lesser known school who works in the same field.

This, too, is not the complete picture. Some communities do give greater importance to some parameters over others. For instance, my own community in India gives much more importance to wealth than academic achievement. Hence, status may be thought of as a weighted sum of all parameters, and these weights vary amongst communities and cultures.

Secondly, status signaling is mostly a defensive strategy, and not an offensive strategy. If my social group already accords my a high social status for my unique talents and personality, and I do not feel that another person has been accorded a higher social status than me, I will mostly be comfortable, and will not feel the need to compete with another person for status. However, if my group accords me a lower status than someone else, or if someone slights me and hence challenges me to a status duel, I will feel a need to somehow pull myself up (or maybe pull them down) in order to gain higher status than them.

As an adult, I spend a lot of my time watching other people signaling their status, or perhaps doing some signaling of my own. Such signaling is mostly subtle. If I went to reputed school for my education, I cannot just bring it up right away. I’ll need to find the right opportunity to bring it up: maybe when the conversation meanders to the topic of education, I can casually talk about how I had a terrible time in college. This of course would lead to “where did you go for college?”, in which instance I would bring it up. Some people may casually slip in where they went for vacation, what senior administrative managerial position they occupy in their company, how they once beat the odds and got that very coveted job, etc.

The delicate art of signaling, however, can get less subtle in the hands of brutes. I once saw two math professors compete for status by comparing the scores they got on some standardized exams two decades ago. I’ve seen multiple students from reputed institutes in India bring up their entrance exam ranks in their very first conversations with me (I’ve seen profs do that too). I’m sure that brutes may also signal wealth and professional achievement in a similar manner, although I do not have real life examples of these sort.

What is perhaps even more interesting is not status signaling, but status slapping. What is status slapping, you ask? I’d thought of a similar concept myself a couple of months back, but then I came across Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment on slatestarcodex that perhaps expressed it much better. If society thinks that you have a status S, and you try to convey that your status is S+2, people around you will push you down/make fun of you, etc until you begin to accept that your status is indeed S. Consider the following example: someone in my college cohort did very well on a standardized exam in India. Everyone was suitably impressed. Then she said something to the effect of “I think I have the potential to become a tech genius like Ironman”. Predictably, this led to a lot of derision until that person accepted their lower “true” status.

Another aspect of status slapping/signaling is status by association. If you signal that you have higher status than me, I can remind you that there are people who have even higher status than you, so that you don’t feel all high and mighty. For instance, if you casually let slip that you went to Berkeley for grad school, I might bring up the fact that I had a close friend who went to Harvard last year. Hence, I know people that “are better than you”. Why is this a successful form of status slapping? Even though I know someone who went to Harvard, I myself remain where I am! Why does bringing up this overachieving friend reduce our mutual status gap? Maybe status can also be earned by association. Although going to Harvard/being rich/being athletic may give me direct social status, being a spouse/friend/family member of someone with high status may also accord some secondary status to me. This feels weird in our supposedly individualistic societies. However, it exposes the fact that we still possess monkey brains, and status by association is a real thing.

It is important to note that status signaling is a lost battle for most people. If you are rich/well educated/etc, you are likely to socialize with people who enjoy the same status as you, if not more. For instance, if I went to Yale and joined a law firm right after, I am likely to work with other well educated college graduates, perhaps some from Harvard, who may go on to do much better than me. Hence, status signaling will mostly be a lost battle for me in the long run. However, status signaling does not affect those people (as much) who accept their status. If I accept my position in the status hierarchy and do not try to compete with another for status, I will mostly be left alone. Everyone I know who refuses to status signal actually has a much better time socializing, fitting in, etc.

So what should be the best strategy for life, as far as social signaling is concerned? Should I just stop signaling status? Sure. That plan should work for most people…..until the next jerk who comes along and signals their superior status. Faced with such a situation, we may feel an irresistible urge to either challenge them to a status duel, or perhaps pull off a “status by association” move. I would perhaps give some zen advice on how not to care about status, and that we’re all stupid mortals anyway, etc…but this would run directly opposed to our fundamentally simian brains that have been hardwired to indulge in status challenges for literally millions of years. Can we subdue our monkey brains? Can we not care when someone of a supposedly higher social status slights us? Can we just keep learning and growing forever, exploring our fascinating universe and ourselves, and not competing for status? Thus ends my status signaling post on status signaling.

On virtue signaling

Let me detail some of the many ways in which I am basically a hypocrite.

I am a “liberal”. Does that mean that I fight for women’s rights? Do I work tirelessly for the downtrodden? Well I got into an argument with a family member once in which I said that men and women deserved equal professional opportunities. I sometimes post articles on social media when I’m particularly “disgusted” by women not getting a chance. A lot of people see it for what it is- a stab at the social applause meter.

However, let us imagine a better version of me. Imagine a (slightly better-looking) version of me who went on long marches advocating for equal pay for men and women, gave money to the poor, etc. I would probably do all of that, and then expect some social capital out of it. Although I’d be discreet enough to not bring it up myself in conversations, people would eventually “come to know”, and then they’d think of me as passionate about equality of justice, etc. Come to think of it, even this slightly better version of me is not that great.

Well let’s imagine an even better version of me (who’s even better looking). I maintain strict anonymity, but work really hard to serve the marginalized sections of society. I go on long marches (perhaps wearing a Guy Fawkes mask), and distribute a lot of my income to the poor who I think have better use for it than I do. Although people don’t really know my true identity, I feel pretty good at the end of the day. A true savior. The closest thing to Batman a baniya from Kolkata can get. Is this guy “good”?

Moloch is probably the word/feeling that most closely resembles what this much better version of me is trying to do. “I will defend the rights of all the marginalized sections of society. And I will do so because I matter, and my chosen actions are exactly what are needed to correct these evils.” The sheer arrogance of it. What if going on marches and redistributing my income are not what is needed to cure these problems?

If I really wanted to help, I would have made an effort to discover what actually helps. And what actually helps is often counter-intuitive, and can only be found after experimentation. For instance, Abhijit Banerjee discovered that it was very difficult to convince people in India to have their kids take the Polio vaccine. However, when they started a policy of giving away 2 kgs of rice free after administering the vaccine, this relatively inexpensive intervention convinced hundreds of thousands of people to buy much more expensive tickets, and brave hours and hours of journeying to travel to the polio administration centers, kids in tow.

What actually helps in improving the general condition of people is not redistributing wealth to the poor, but allowing the rich to hoard it (Capitalism)! This is perhaps one of the most counter-intuitive ideas in history. If you allow the rich to hoard wealth, they pump in so much money into a country’s infrastructure that the poor are bettered as a consequence. Who’d have thunk!

Did this much-much better version of me care about finding out what actually helps? No. He was mostly invested in an ineffective cocktail of arguing with family members, sharing updates on social media, and perhaps going on marches and redistributing income.

Most people don’t really want to do anything! Whether it be helping others, doing meaningful research, basically anything at all! They mostly want to be thought of as doing something meaningful or important. If I can shut down a “male chauvinist” uncle at a family gathering, I will have emancipated all women alive. Because it is I, the emancipator of women, that stands at the crossroads of history, on whose actions the future arc of humanity depends. What if I am basically a stupid and inconsequential bystander, who is too stupid to realize this?

What if asking that uncle to shut up is not the best intervention? In fact, I will only have further alienated him. Instead of taking the higher moral ground at family functions, what if I look up ways that actually work to emancipate women? What if I help my mother cook? What if I *really listen* to her with full attention, as she tells me stories of her past? What if I devote more time and effort to what the women in my life want me to do to help them? What if I stop assuming that the only way that women can be made equal to men is if they’re doing the same jobs, because I, me, myself think that way? What if it is not my f@#king place to make that choice for them? What if I just shut up, listen and learn?

Mimetic desire

One of my favorite things in life is to discover counterintuitive truths. Hence, I was happy to recently learn about mimetic desire, as discovered by the French polymath René Gerard.

Let me reproduce some real zingers from the article:

 We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought.

Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of StendhalFlaubertProust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.

What Paris wanted, then, was not Helen, but to be a great king like Agamemnon. A person who desires seeks to be like the subject he imitates, through the medium of object that is possessed by the person he imitates.

This was, and remains, a pessimistic view of human life, as it posits a paradox in the very act of seeking to unify and have peace, since the erasure of differences between people through mimicry is what creates conflict, not the differentiation itself.

It is the last quote in particular that seems like a fundamentally counter-intuitive fact about the world. I was always taught that it is our differences that create strife and conflict, and that if we could reduce the differences amongst ourselves, we could be peaceful. However, it now seems clear on reflection that conflicts are the harshest between people that are similar or close to each other. This is because, at least according to mimetic theory, all conflict is a desire to become someone- someone who you envy. You desire what they have. And hence you’re ready to maim them, insult them, somehow occupy the exalted position that they currently command.

If we could accept our differences, and accept that we are unique and incomparable with everyone else, we would perhaps have peace. It is this acceptance of our differences that would reduce conflict. However, we do not consider ourselves to be fundamentally incomparable with people that we envy or despise. We want to become them, and think that we indeed can become them. And it is in this act of aspirational mimicry that we shatter any hope of peace or contentment.

The true cost of an education

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him

Main takeaway: Moloch has killed your curiosity (and hence the cat still lives)

People that are much more intelligent and successful than me have written about the perils of standardized education. Some of them are Paul Graham, Scott Alexander and Bryan Caplan. I would highly recommend that anyone reading this post read these linked articles. There are some of the most eye-opening arguments that I’ve heard on the subject of education.

Some highlights from Paul Graham’s article are given below:

I

Like most other children, I would want constantly want to ask adults questions about the world. However, after trying to humor me for some time, my family would ask me to stop, and my teachers would ask me to “first understand what’s written in the book, and then ask all of these unrelated questions”. I soon learned to shut up and read the textbook.

This approach mostly worked OK for me throughout school. Now I’m a PhD student, and I realize that I have no questions to ask. I train all day to try and become better at answering questions that others ask me. “Can you solve this problem?” I learn theorems and techniques so that I may be able to attack most problems that I see.

I recently came across this blogpost by Zvi Moshwowitz. Zvi is a member of the rationalist community who writes very, very long posts performing detailed statistical analysis of the government’s COVID response. And he posts these extremely detailed statistical analyses every 2-3 days.

My first response on seeing this post was disgust. I was disgusted by the fact that this person, somewhere in the world, spends hours and hours everyday performing statistical analyses, running numbers through some number-crunching software, and then compiling them to post on a blog that he cannot possibly earn much financial or social credit from. Why does he do it? No one asked him to!

When I saw this article a couple of days back, I wanted to write a blogpost right away. And I wanted to call it “The difference between successful people and….me”. This is become it is unfathomable for me that I would put in this much work into anything that wouldn’t go towards my career or oiling my social network. I had absolutely no curiosity about the world around me. There was no question that I’d come up with for a long time, that I wanted to answer. I only aspired to answer questions that other had, so that I could signal some combination of intelligence and hard work, in order to perhaps gain employment, etc.

Over the last couple of days, this made me angry. I have now spent most of my life trying to jump through hoops. I let the people around me kill my curiosity. And as I near the age of 30, my only aspiration is to get better at jumping through these hoops in order to gain employment, or perhaps earn social credit. But what about the education system killed my curiosity? I can only speak about it from an Indian perspective, although these problems seem true for the US (at least as per Paul Graham’s article) as well.

II

An education is mostly supposed to broaden your horizons, and teach you facts about the world that an adult is expected to know. However, in practice, it becomes a system that can be gamed. Although I have learned a lot by going to class in school and college, I ultimately knew that doing well in that course only partially correlated with “loving the subject”. Some combination of intelligence + solving the questions at the back of the chapter + access to notes from class + access to past years’ exams would be required. I don’t really think that any of these factors in themselves are bad. Of course trying to solve problems from the back of the book or from past years’ exams would only strengthen my understanding of the concept. The abuse arose from the fact that it was only through solving the problems at the back of the book or from past years’ exams that one could prepare for the exam or signal an understanding of the subject. Let’s explore this a little bit.

Suppose I’m taking a class in college. I know that if I am able to solve all the questions at the back of the textbook and from past exams, I can realistically be assured of an A/B+. Because humans mostly do the least amount of work required (perhaps because there is an evolutionary advantage to conserving energy that has been hard-coded into our brains), my study strategy would soon evolve into solving just those questions, and not caring as much about being curious about the subject and asking my own questions/reading other unrelated material. Although sometimes there are questions on exams that aim to test whether students have a “deeper” understanding of the material, trial and error soon teaches us what’s the least we have to do to “get by”.

Because curiosity is not really a skill that is required or moulded in school or college, it soon dies out. But what can our education systems really do? Is there really a way to encourage and mould students’ curiosities? Having taught a number of classes myself over the years, I find that this is a difficult problem to solve. I’ve often toyed with the idea of asking students to just “write a detailed summary of the whole course, and any particular problems you like, why you like them, etc”, and then just grade it like a subjective essay rather than an objective assessment. This perhaps sounds silly because science and mathematics are expected to be about “objectivity” and “accuracy”, and do not really lend themselves to long essays filled with “feelings” and such. Although I mostly agree with this, I think that this stance is partly overstated. I would have a much higher opinion of a student’s mathematical understanding if they could write a detailed essay on the development of calculus, why it was shocking for scientists of that time, and what some of their favorite calculus problems are, than one who can differentiate and integrate the problems given on the exam.

Moreover, a lot of hard mathematical problems are just about trying enough things until something clicks. Even if I have to give students numerical problems to solve on an exam, I would perhaps give them most, if not all points if they could write down ten ways that they tried solving the problem but couldn’t. At least in this way, students will be encouraged to try.

III

Education has been a contentious issue for a very long time. Surely a lot of people must have thought of the same points as me. Why haven’t they been implemented yet? Perhaps part of the answer is that it is much easier to test and grade students on numerical problems than on opinion-driven essays. For instance, grading an exam paper consisting only of numerical problems would not take more than 5-7 minutes. However, grading an essay would take perhaps twice as long, because you would often have to address the points made by the student and critically evaluate them. I definitely find this to be true for myself when I grade my students’ exams. There are lots of other ways in which the education of students is harmed by lazy administration, but that perhaps calls for a different post.

I’ve actively tried to be more curious over the last couple of days. This has led me to address fundamental doubts about subjects that I’ve already studied, and has even made research more pleasurable for me. I hope to pass this on to my students who I meet 4 times a week.

Don’t optimize for the world.

Self-propulsion towards the extremes

Consider the following whatsapp forward I received a few years ago:

I’m 25 this year. I’m very pretty, have style and good taste. I wish to marry a guy with 100 crore annual salary or above. You might say that I’m greedy, but an annual salary 2 crore is considered only as middle class now days. My requirement is not high. Is there anyone in this forum who has an income of 100 crore annual salary? Are you all married? I wanted to ask: what should I do to marry rich persons like you? Among those I’ve dated, the richest is 50 crore annual income, and it seems that this is my upper limit.

I’m here humbly to ask a few questions:
1) Where do most rich bachelors hang out? (Please list down the names and addresses of bars, restaurant, gym)
2) Which age group should I target?
3) Why most wives of the riches are only average-looking? I’ve met a few girls who don’t have looks and are not interesting, but they are able to marry rich guys.

4) How do you decide who can be your wife, and who can only be your girlfriend? (my target now is to get married)

Ms. Pooja i Chohan.

A philosophical reply from Mukesh Ambani-

Dear Ms. Pooja,
I have read your post with great interest. Guess there are lots of girls out there who have similar questions like yours. Please allow me to analyse your situation as a professional investor. My annual income is more than 100 crore, which meets your requirement, so I hope everyone believes that I’m not wasting time here. From the standpoint of a business person, it is a bad decision to marry you. The answer is very simple, so let me explain. Put the details aside, what you’re trying to do is an exchange of “beauty” and “money” : Person A provides beauty, and Person B pays for it, fair and square.

However, there’s a deadly problem here, your beauty will fade, but my money will not be gone without any good reason. The fact is, my income might increase from year to year, but you can’t be prettier year after year. Hence from the viewpoint of economics, I am an appreciation asset, and you are a depreciation asset. It’s not just normal depreciation, but exponential depreciation. If that is your only asset, your value will be much worse 10 years later. By the terms we use in Wall Street, every trading has a position, dating with you is also a “trading position”.
If the trade value dropped we will sell it and it is not a good idea to keep it for long term – same goes with the marriage that you wanted. It might be cruel to say this, but in order to make a wiser decision any assets with great depreciation value will be sold or “leased”. Anyone with over 100 crore annual income is not a fool; we would only date you, but will not marry you. I would advice that you forget looking for any clues to marry a rich guy. And by the way, you could make yourself to become a rich person with 100 crore annual income. This has better chance than finding a rich fool.

As Whatsapp forwards go, this is a pretty mediocre “joke”. It obviously is not a true incident, and it is not an original joke either. Similar jokes have been made about other rich men for years now. I’ve known all this for quite a while now. However, for some reason, I’ve carried the joke with me for quite a long time. I’ve always been confounded by why someone would want to make a Whatsapp forward like that in the first place.

Was it Mukesh Ambani himself, who paid someone to create a joke like that? This sounds unlikely. He owns most of Indian media. He doesn’t need to pay people to create flattering Whatsapp forwards for him. Hence, it was probably some clown with a smartphone, who one day decided to plagiarize an already existing joke, hoping that a flattering joke about Mukesh Ambani would catch on and “become viral”.

But what made him think that a flattering joke about Mukesh Ambani would become viral? Was he sure that most, or at least a lot of Indians were fans of Ambani’s? Probably not. Most Indians probably carry a mixed picture of him. “Very successful, probably corrupt – but that’s okay because you have to be slightly corrupt to survive in this country, inherited a lot of his wealth and status, but look how well he’s doing he’s probably smart“, and so on. However, despite this mixed picture, most people lean (at least slightly) towards perceiving Ambani positively rather than negatively. But making this Whatsapp forward go viral would need a very large number of hardcore Ambani fans, forwarding this message to family and friends. How did the person making the Whatsapp forward make the inexplicable jump from “people definitely don’t hate Ambani, and might like him a little bit” to “most people love Ambani, and hence will forward my joke to make it go viral”?

This is because of the following phenomenon: when you and the people around you are slightly sympathetic to a cause, something in your brain clicks, and you assume that everyone loves the cause. Then you make an effort to make statements that project your love for the cause, hoping that you’d fit in with these cause-lovers, and hopefully even be idolized for it.

This is what must have happened with the person who created the crappy Whatsapp forward. He was perhaps subconsciously aware that society was slightly sympathetic towards Ambani. Something in him clicked, and he formed a picture of society in which everyone loved Ambani, and then he created that flattering Whatsapp forward, esconced in the certain belief that it would catch on.

Political polarization

Let us now analyze political polarization in the same light. Imagine that I lean slightly left, and most people in my immediate social group also lean left to varying extents. However, my brain will uniformly characterize my group as far-from-centre left-leaning, and I will incentivize myself to say far-left statements in order to gain their approval. Of course others in my group have the same mental picture that our group is predominantly far-from-centre left-leaning, and my far-left statements will convince them even further of this fact. Soon, they will start agreeing with me and making statements of a similar nature. Our group will progressively become more and more left leaning with time, at least in terms of our opinions (and possibly actions), although individually we might not be as far-left as we pretend to be.

This has happened to me a number of times. Whenever I am hanging out with people who seem concerned with any political issue, say immigration, human rights violations etc, I find myself vehemently expressing my outrage at these issues. Of course I assume that all of them are extremely pro-immigration, pro-human rights even in fringe cases when their stand contravenes state law, and voice far-left opinions in order to perhaps gain their approval and trust. Of course, their true stands might be closer to the centre. However, my statements inevitably lead the group conversation further and further left.

Of course I do meet opposition. Some people do withhold commenting on the issue, or question some of my assertions. However, those people are generally slightly right of centre, and their questions are only disguised disagreements with my stand. Hence, the phenomenon of a group moving more and more to the left is possible only when all the members of the group are at least slightly left of centre on the political spectrum to begin with. When there’s a mix of left-of-centre and right-of-centre people, this problem may be avoidable. Of course, such a varied group is unlikely to exist as people are more likely to hang out with other people with the same political inclinations.

Explaining Chomsky

Noam Chomsky often makes the statement that the media is biased in its reporting of world events. When questioned on how the media acquired its bias, and whether journalists are bribed or otherwise pressured to write these biased reports, Chomsky says that these journalists themselves choose to become biased, whether in school or university, and are then hired by media houses. I was confused by this statement when I heard it for the first time. Now I think it has begun to make sense to me.

If I am an aspiring journalist at a university in the United States, for instance, I will mostly be surrounded by students and professors who are left leaning to various extents (there will be some people who will be right-of-centre of course, but that will be the exception and not the norm). Inevitably, my brain will tell me that the people surrounding me are all heavily left leaning, and all my writing and speaking will henceforth become more left-leaning in order to subconsciously gain their approval. Because it is journalists like me that then go on to join major news outlets, most news outlets will also progressively become more left leaning with time. In this way, I will have chosen to become more left-leaning than I initially intended.

Of course this phenomenon is not restricted to being left-leaning. If I am slightly sympathetic towards any particular world view, and the people around me are the same way, I will for some reason assume that they are very sympathetic to that world view, and will make statements to assert my supreme sympathy for the same. I will have chosen to bias myself.

Shattering to pieces

Any inhomogeneous group of people ultimately fractures into two groups that propel themselves to the opposite ends of the political/opinion spectrum. These groups may again fracture based on some other issue, again self-propelling to the opposite ends of the spectrum of that particular issue. If this happens repeatedly, we end up with multiple groups that have pretty extreme opinions on most issues, and don’t know how to talk to each other. Of course this is currently happening in the world already, and things may only become worse with time.

One way to avoid this is to repeat Eliezer Yudkowsky’s refrain: “Arguments are not soldiers”. You’re allowed to pick out the “best” arguments from both sides of the spectrum. You don’t have to declare yourself part of any ideological group. Of course this goes against our evolutionary instinct of sorting ourselves into cohesive groups rather than remain in inhomogeneous crowds. Hence, the reason why political polarization is such a hard problem despite having our best minds on it is that it is a really hard problem to crack, and goes against the very thing that makes us humans- our proclivity to disintegrate into factions and attack each other.

The neuroscience of meditation

I recently had the chance to read The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by Tang, Hölzel and Posner. It is effectively a summary of all the research that has been done on the neuroscience of mindfulness meditation, and comments on how a lot of those studies suffer from design flaws, that make their conclusions questionable. In the process of pointing out design flaws in these research papers, the paper fleshes out some clear overarching benefits of meditation that have consistently been seen in research and self-reported experience. I intend to mainly focus on these in this blogpost.

Note that in this paper, the authors consider only mindfulness meditation. Other types of meditation like mantra meditation, chi gong, etc have been ignored. The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of mindfulness meditation on attention control, emotion regulation and self-awareness.

Main takeaway: Mindfulness meditation helps in accepting the past in an objective light, and moving on. It also improves alertness, helps in dealing with addiction, and obviously reduces stress. Although more evidence is needed for other benefits that people attach with meditation, those mentioned above have ample scientific evidence backing them up.

Challenges in meditation research

Like in other areas of social science, there seems to be a strong bias towards the publication of positive results in the realm of meditation. In addition to this, research on meditation suffers from small samples and post hoc interpretation of results. In other words, researchers collect a bunch of data, and then say “this data probably points to the fact that meditation is beneficial for x”. Their experiment design and hypothesis don’t come from a larger overarching theory that they’re trying to verify or disprove. I will now go into specifics of some of the shortcomings that research into meditation faces:

  1. Cross-sectional versus longitudinal studies: Early research into meditation tended to be cross-sectional: this means that a control group of non-meditators was compared to a group of seasoned and experienced meditators. Differences in their brain structures and neurology would be examined, and many such differences would generally be found. The authors of this paper contend that these neurological differences need not solely be a result of meditation. Maybe people with this particular neurological structure are more likely to meditate, and become seasoned meditators. Hence, the authors propose that scientists perform longitudinal studies. These are studies in which persons are randomly sorted into a meditation group or a general “wellness” group. They’re both made to live a healthy lifestyle. The only difference between them is that one group meditates while another doesn’t. Scientists should then track neurological changes in their brains at regular time intervals. Some researchers have indeed conducted these longitudinal studies, and found that there generally are significant neurological differences between people who meditate and those who don’t. A lot of the evidence presented in this paper will come from longitudinal studies.
  2. Control conditions in functional imaging: How does one find neurological differences between two people? By taking their brain scans of course. However, taking these scans can be tricky. We want to take brain scans in which people are not actively meditating, so that we detect only those neurological features that have been permanently altered, and are not temporarily altered only when a person is meditating. However, if you ask a meditator to enter a “rest state”, they automatically enter a meditative state, or are likely to enter that state at least once. And if we engross our subjects in some other mental activity so that they don’t enter a meditative state, blood flow to their brains increases, causing their brain scans to change. Hence, imaging protocols that do not rely on blood-oxygen-level-dependent contrasts (BOLD contrasts) should be used.

Changes in brain structure

The following areas have consistently been shown to be affected by meditation. Note that other kinds of meditation like Zen, IBMT, etc have also been included in these studies.

  1. Frontopolar cortex: related to meta-awareness (awareness of your attention, and not just the object of your attention)
  2. Sensory cortices and insula: related to body awareness
  3. Hippocampus: related to memory processes
  4. Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), mid-cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex: related to self and emotion regulation
  5. Superior longitudinal fascicles and corpus callous: involved in intra and inter-hemispherical communication

Although these physical changes in the brain have been consistently found, how these physical changes impact behavior and function are less well understood. Moreover, most studies suffer from treating different regions of the brain as distinct, unrelated entities. It is possible that all of these different regions are parts of a single brain network or pathway. Hence, the neurological structure of the brain needs to be better understood before we can fully understand how meditation is impacting the brain.

Mindfulness and attention

Attention is subdivided into three different components:

  1. Alerting: This can further be subdivided into tonic and phasic effects. This paper does a good job of explaining what those are. Imagine that you’re first given a signal that someone will throw a ball at you, and then after some time a ball is indeed thrown at you. Phasic effects deal with the amount of time it takes for you to get into a suitable fielding position to be ready to catch a ball, and tonic effects deal with fatigue: how much time can you spend catching balls before you start losing your alertness and readiness.
  2. Orienting– This deals with the selection of specific information from multiple sensory stimuli. For instance, imagine that balls of different colors are thrown at you, and you’re told to only catch the red ball. Then you have to be able to ignore the other balls and only go after the red one.
  3. Conflict monitoring– Imagine a timed setting in which you’re asked to pick crayons of colors that are written on a piece of paper. If the word “green” is written in red, the brain will be tempted to pick up the red crayon, although you’re supposed to pick up green. The process of ignoring your initial reaction and going for the green crayon instead of a red one is called conflict monitoring.

Studies have found that early phases of mindfulness meditation might be associated with improvements in conflict monitoring and orienting, whereas later phases might be associated with improved alerting.

Which part of the brain does mindfulness meditation affect though, which causes these changes in attention? The part of the brain that has been most consistently linked to meditation is the anterior cingulate cortex, which will henceforth be abbreviated as ACC. The ACC allows a person to ignore thoughts that keep running in the back of their mind, and focus on the present and the task at hand. This seems pretty useful for people dealing with trauma, who find it difficult to carry on with their daily lives. However, although ACC activation may be enhanced in the early stages of mindfulness meditation, it actually decreases with higher levels of meditation. Does that mean that meditation makes people less capable of dealing with past trauma in the long run? No. Meditation over the long term helps people accept the past and move on. Hence, the suppression of trauma is no longer as important for seasoned meditators. This will be elaborated in a later section of this blogpost.

Mindfulness and emotion regulation

Emotion regulation deals with choosing which emotions rise to the surface, how long those are experienced, and how these emotions may be expressed (in action, for example). Experiments have shown that mindfulness meditation helps in reducing emotional interference by unpleasant stimuli, decreases physiological reactivity, facilitates a return to emotional baseline after stressor films, and decreases self-reported difficulties in emotion regulation. Essentially, it reduces the intensity of negative emotion, and improves overall mood.

What is the neuroscience behind this? Studies have consistently shown that mindfulness practice reduces the activation of the amygdala during stressful situations, along with the activation of the orbitofrontal cortex. Simplistically speaking, the amygdala makes us “sad” and brings up bad memories in stressful situations, and the orbitofrontal cortex helps a person re-frame past traumatic memories in a more positive light. Hence, a reduction in the activation of the amygdala implies a successful suppression of such thoughts and memories, and an activation of the orbitofrontal cortex helps one interpret painful memories in a less traumatic manner. These changes have consistently been shown in less experienced meditators. However, these changes have not been seen in seasoned meditators. Why? Aren’t things supposed to be even better for seasoned meditators? Consider the quote below:

These findings are in line with the assumption that the process of mindfulness meditation is characterized as an active cognitive regulation in meditation beginners, who need to overcome habitual ways of internally reacting to one’s emotions and might therefore show greater prefrontal activation. Expert meditators might not use this prefrontal control. Rather, they might have automated an accepting stance towards their experience and thus no longer engage in top-down control efforts but instead show enhanced bottom-up processing.

In other words, the early stages of meditation help in suppressing negative thoughts. However, the later stages promote acceptance of the past. In a sense, meditation prepares a person to accept the events of the past, and then hopefully move on.

In addition to this, a cross-sectional study has also found that meditation reduces connectivity between the pain-related brain regions and the executive regions. For instance, meditation might help a chain smoker experience the withdrawal pains of giving up nicotine, and still not succumb to start smoking again. Another longitudinal study showed an increased connectivity between the frontal regions of the brain and the amygdala. Hence, the frontal regions of the brain, responsible for modulating thoughts, could more easily modulate the amygdala, which could be thought of as a source of negativity in the brain.

Another area that meditation has been shown to help in is motivation and reward processing. A stronger activity of the putamen and the caudate following mediation suggests a stronger motivation to keep working towards one’s goals, while a lower activation in the caudate nucleus during reward anticipation suggests a heightened ability to not succumb to short-term incentives and rewards. Hence, meditation might help you keep slogging towards your life goals in a fairly stoic manner, without being overly concerned with winning and other “rewards” that you expect to get when you achieve those goals.

Mindfulness and self-awareness

Buddhist philosophy asserts that one should make awareness itself an object at one’s attention. If I’m looking at an orange, I should also be aware of how I’m looking at an orange, and whether other ways of looking at it exist. My thoughts should also go to the nature and limits of my perception. If we can recognize that our limited perception is a major source of misery to us, we may have some hope of seeing our surroundings and circumstances more objectively.

Cue the underlying neuroscience: the default mode network or DMN is considered to be the part of the brain involved in subjective (as opposed to objective) self-referential processing. The DMN shows high activity when one’s mind is wandering or not at peace, and also helps in projecting oneself into another perspective. For instance, if I was bullied as a kid in school, the DMN will help me project myself into my bully’s psyche. I will be able to see exactly how little my bully thought of me (at least according to me. Maybe he was actually bullying me out of insecurity), and the shock of that injustice will lead to trauma and repeated re-processing of that event, causing me greater and greater mental stress. Through fMRI scans, mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease DMN activity.

The overall findings from multiple studies on mindfulness meditation are that it might alter the self-referential mode so that a previous narrative, evaluative form of self-referential processing is replaced by greater awareness and greater objectivity. Because this is my blog, I am now going to write my personal interpretation of this (plagiarized in part from multiple sources like Sam Harris, Kurt Vonnegut, etc), because I think that this is the main takeaway of the whole paper.

We are often taught to classify things as “good” or “bad”. This is the evaluative narrative that they talk about above. If someone has done something bad to us in the past, we can never get over the injustice of it: how could that person do it? If we have done something bad to someone, and this generally tends to be more traumatic than the former, we can’t get over that either. How could we possibly have wronged this person?! And these thoughts keep gnawing at us day in and out. Mediation helps in destroying this erroneous dichotomy of good and bad. Nothing really is good and bad. It is now a well-established fact that free will doesn’t really exist (I can try and establish this more scientifically in a future blogpost if you’re not convinced by this statement, but Sam Harris has many intelligent things to say about it). We are all Turing machines that have been pre-programmed to do certain tasks in certain situations, with only the illusion that we’re choosing to do these particular things. The person who wronged you was in a state of mind that prompted him to act in that manner in that particular situation. It was inevitable. If you’ve wronged someone, it is because you were in a state of mind that led you to do that thing in that particular situation. We’re not really free agents. We’re just robots gifted/cursed with consciousness. We get to experience our actions, and not really “choose” them. We’re not here to change the world based on our choices. We’re here just to enjoy the show that we put on with other actors. If one can accept this narrative, the acceptance of past and future wrongdoings becomes easier. And this is the acceptance of the past that meditation helps one attain.

References

  1. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation by Tang, Hölzel and Posner

Evolution and adapting to changing conditions

I read an interesting paper today, titled “Dire wolves were the last of an ancient new world canid lineage” by Frantz et al. Having only heard of dire wolves in badly written fiction about really good looking vampires, I did not even know that these creatures actually existed in real life.

On reading the paper, I realized that dire wolves did actually exist, but became extinct in North America about 13,000 years ago. Grey wolves, on the other hand, survive and thrive to this day. The authors explain that both dire wolves and grey wolves had similar diets 20,000 years ago. They ate large fauna. However, when large fauna slowly disappeared from the North American landmass, grey wolves could adapt to these changes and change their diet to include smaller animals, whilst dire wolves could not. Hence, the former continue to thrive while the latter went extinct thousands of years ago.

This made me think of a blogpost that I’d written on Why is Chlorophyll Green? After doing some complex network analysis, the authors conclude that leaves are not green because this color allows them to maximize energy input, or even minimize energy waste, etc. Is it not the “best” color for any clear criterion. However, evolution has made leaves green because it is the most reliable color. When sunlight or other conditions change, green continues to produce a steady stream of energy for the plant, whilst other colors are prone to failure in such changing conditions.

Evolution, it seems, favors traits that continue to produce results with changing times and conditions. There is a pretty useful life lesson in there somewhere.