“Non-partisan brains differ from those of partisans | Non-partisans are real, and their lack of partisanship has a cognitive element” [Big Think]

“Non-partisan brains differ from those of partisans

Non-partisans are real, and their lack of partisanship has a cognitive element.

21 August, 2020

https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/non-partisan-brain

A new study suggests that the brains of non-partisans function differently than those of partisans.
Blood flow to regions associated with problem solving differed between the two groups.
The findings may lead to further research in how differences in brain activity affect personality.
Despite the repeated claims of those without party affiliations, the belief that non-partisans don’t actually exist is widespread. Proponents of this stance argue that those who claim to be non-partisans are merely partisans who don’t want to be outed.

A new study offers a strong counterpoint to these commentators; it suggests that the brains of non-partisans function differently than the brains of partisans.

Some people just really don’t want to join political clubs. Go figure.

The study, published in The Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties as “Neural Nonpartisans,” looked at blood flow in the brains of partisans and non-partisans as they played a betting game. The test subjects, all of which were from San Diego County, had their brains scanned as they decided between options with guaranteed payoffs or ones with the chance to lose or gain money. The results were later compared to their voter registrations to confirm their partisanship or lack thereof.

The brain scans demonstrated that blood flow to the right medial temporal pole, orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex, and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex differs between partisans and non-partisans as they made decisions in the previously mentioned game. These regions are associated with socially relevant memory, decision making, and goal-related responses. Previous studies have also shown them to be essential for social connections.

This demonstrates that the brains of non-partisans approach non-political problems differently than the brains of partisans. Future studies may go further, and see if other brain functions differ between the two groups.

The study is not without limitations; there were a mere 110 test subjects overall. However, given the general lack of research on non-partisans, the study is still an excellent starting point for further research.

What does this mean for politics?

Lead author Dr. Darren Schreiber laid out his interpretation of the data and offered takeaways:

“There is skepticism about the existence of non-partisan voters, that they are just people who don’t want to state their preferences. But we have shown their brain activity is different, even aside from politics. We think this has important implications for political campaigning – non-partisans need to be considered a third voter group. In the USA 40 percent of people are thought to be non-partisan voters. Previous research shows negative campaigning deters them from voting. This exploratory study suggests US politicians need to treat swing voters differently, and positive campaigning may be important in winning their support. While heated rhetoric may appeal to a party’s base, it can drive non-partisans away from politics all together.”

He references a variety of studies on the effects of negative campaigning. It is widely agreed that it drives down turnout.

A variety of studies suggest that differences in political opinion relate to the differences in the brain. While these studies can’t tell us how to solve our various political problems, they can offer us ways to help bridge the gap. People who don’t leap at the opportunity to join political clubs must be interreacted with differently than those who do to encourage their involvement. While this may come as a shock to seasoned political junkies, it may also come with benefits to our political discourse.”

“Neuroscience has much to learn from Hume’s philosophy of emotions” By Richard C. Shais [Psyche]

“Neuroscience has much to learn from Hume’s philosophy of emotions

https://psyche.co/ideas/neuroscience-has-much-to-learn-from-humes-philosophy-of-emotions

Richard C. Shais professor of literature and an affiliate professor of philosophy, as well as an affiliate of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, all at the American University in Washington, DC. His books include Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1830 (2009) and Imagination and Science in Romanticism (2018).

We are in the midst of a second Humean revolution. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions …’ By ‘passions’, Hume meant what we now call emotions. What gave him such faith in the passions that he could accept reason’s enslavement to them? Hume understood reason to be incapable of producing any action, and the passions to be the source of our motivations. So he insisted that we must attend to the passions if we want to understand how anything gets done. Much recent neuroscience has found that human rationality is weaker than is commonly presumed, and the emotions make it possible to make decisions by granting certain objects salience. Why does this second Humean revolution matter and what, if anything, can the second revolution learn from the first?

By and large, scientists until recently avoided the emotions as too subjective, too imprecisely defined. Yet once Darwinian evolution and neuroscience supported the link of emotion to action, emotions began to gain more attention from scientists. In his book The Strange Order of Things (2018), Antonio Damasio, one of the most influential neuroscientists today, defines the affects and emotions as ‘action programmes’, and by this he connects emotions to homeostasis, the process by which we keep ourselves alive. How better to grant the emotions scientific weight than to make them the key to human survival? Neuroscience also supports a growing recognition of the connections between the brain’s perceptual and motor systems; this has led scholars such as Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Andy Clark and Shaun Gallagher – ‘enactivists’ who argue that human thought is not brainbound but stems from connections between the mind and body and its environment – to conclude, to varying degrees, that human perceptions are for the purpose of action. Sometimes, however, I just want to look at something, not reduce it to a tool.

(…)

Habits consolidate what control we can have of our passions. Hume gives habit pride of place in his moral accounting, but the key here is to continually assess whether we have the right habits, not to passively accept existing habits. ‘Nothing can be more laudable,’ he writes, ‘than to have a value for ourselves, where we really have qualities that are valuable.’ In other words, he asks for empirical evidence of value, not just for our feeling of it. Habits, after all, make it possible to contain violent passions such as anger. Hume insists that ‘when a passion has once become a settled principle of action, and is the predominant inclination of the soul, it commonly produces no longer any sensible agitation’. In this view, habit reduces passion’s agitations, making them manageable.

Hume’s idea that reason serves the passions has in important ways found scientific support. Our rationality serves our passions, and we have less control over the passions than is commonly presumed. By stipulating that reason is the slave of the passions, Hume warns us of the consequences of not having the right habits. When neuroscientists equate emotion and action, it narrows emotion to survival and underestimates the ways in which the emotions can foster deliberation. While neuroscientists set the timescale of the emotions to no more than a few minutes, Hume insists that it will take nothing less than a lifetime to get our emotions right.”

“A Neuroscientist’s Theory of Everything | Karl Friston takes us on a safari of his free-energy principle” [Nautilus]

“A Neuroscientist’s Theory of Everything

Karl Friston takes us on a safari of his free-energy principle.

By Brian Gallagher

June 10, 2020

http://nautil.us/issue/86/energy/a-neuroscientists-theory-of-everything

(…)

In “The Free-Energy Principle,” you write the world is uncertain and full of surprises. Action and human perception, you argue, are all about minimizing surprise. Why is it important that things—including us—minimize surprise?

If we minimize surprise now, then on average over time, we’re minimizing the average surprise, which is the average entropy. If a thermostat could have beliefs about what its world is—it might say, “My world is living at 22 degrees centigrade”—so any sensory information from its thermal receptors that departs from that is surprising. It will then act on the world to try and minimize that surprise and bring that prediction error back to zero. Your body’s homeostasis is doing exactly the same thing.

Does the brain minimize surprise in order to conserve energy?

You could certainly say that. But I wouldn’t quite put it like that. It’s not that the brain has a goal to exist. It just exists. It looks as if it has a goal to exist. What does existing mean? It’s always found in that configuration. The brain has to sample the world in a way that it knows what’s going to happen next. If it didn’t, you’d be full of surprises and you’d die.

(…)

The Markov blanket helps explain how things can exist—but what is it, exactly?

The Markov blanket is a permeable interface between the inside and the outside, a two-way exchange. Stuff on the outside—the environment, the universe, the heat bath—impacts what’s going on on the inside via the sensory part of the Markov blanket. The Markov blanket has sensory and active states. Stuff on the outside, the external states, influence the blanket’s sensory states, what the blanket senses. And stuff on the inside of the blanket, the internal states, influence the blanket’s active states. The active states close that circle of causality, or, if you like, they disclose what’s going on on the inside by acting on the outside state. With that mathematical construct in place, you can go a lot further than 20th-century physics, which was all about equilibrium statistics and thermodynamics, the kind of physics that you would have been taught in school. Implicit in that is the notion that you’ve got an isolated or a closed system. That implicitly assumed the Markov blanket.

(…)

How do Markov blankets help make sense of our inner life?

I have to be clear that I’m speaking as a physicist would, because I’m not a philosopher. That said, there is a representationalist interpretation of the internal states of something with a Markov blanket. You could say that all that matters in terms of sentience, perception, and active inference, is just on the inside. It’s our neuronal activity, say, the internal states that are negotiating dependent upon and influencing the blanket states that comprise our sensory states, our sensory receptors—our sensorium if you like—and ways of changing that sensorium through acting. Like my eyes palpating, sampling the world to get new sensory information. That would mean that it is never going to be the case that you’re going to be able to transparently sample—or know—what is out there, generating those sensory blanket states. You could actually adopt an anti-realist position about external reality. You will never know the difference.

(…)

This brings you back to this notion that anything you talk about is really just an explanation for your lived world. It’s the simplest explanation for all of these sensations that I’m getting, in all the modalities that I possess. And it doesn’t have to be true or false. As long as it’s a good-enough explanation that keeps your surprise down and self-evidence nice and high—that’s all it’s required to do. Selfhood in itself now becomes just another explanation. Anything that a philosopher says also succumbs to exactly the same argument, including qualia. These are now reifications of the best explanation for my understanding of my sensory data and my internal view in this inner life. The highest form of consciousness is the philosopher’s brain.

(…)

Is the self an illusion?

Well, say you’re a feral child who’s never seen another mammal. There would be no need to have a notion of self. You and the universe would just be one thing. But as soon as you start to notice other things that look like you, a question has to be resolved, “Did you do that or did I do that?” Now you need to have, as part of your generative model, the hypothesis of fantasy, the illusion—which may be absolutely right—that there are other things like me out there, and I need to resolve that. I think the theory of mind on the necessity of encultured brains provides a simple answer as to why we have self. But to come back to your question, I think, yes, selfhood is another really plausible hypothesis for my generative model that provides the best explanation for your sensory exchanges.”

“How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature” By Antonio Damasio [Brain World Magazine]

“How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature

April 14, 2020

Antonio Damasio

https://brainworldmagazine.com/neuroscience-helps-us-understand-human-nature

[This article was originally a lecture given at the Fourth International Brain Education Conference held at the United Nations. It has been edited for length.]

The area that I come from is that of neurology and neuroscience. My work is about trying to understand how the brain works. My hope is that some of the neuroscience that is taking place right now will help those of you who teach, and those of you who want to make each individual and the world as a whole better than they are today.

(…)

What has only been happening quite recently is that neuroscience can have a role in our culture. Neuroscience also talks about the fields of economics, moral behavior, politics, aesthetics, and education.

(…)

Most of what we know now from neuroscience that has an impact on society and culture actually comes from understanding human emotions, decision-making, and processes of consciousness.

(…)

Why such an interest in neuroscience now? Well, Largely for two reasons. One, there is a revolution going on in biology and two, there is an enormous rise in cognitive neuroscience.

The revolution in biology goes all the way back to 150 years ago and what has been learned since the days of Darwin. We now have a very clear idea of the structure of DNA. DNA is a fundamental element in the transmission of traits through genes. We know about the genetic code. We even know how it operates through molecular genetics and we have a fairly good idea of how the human genome is organized.

At the same time we have something very interesting happening in neuroscience: a hybrid of psychology and of large-scale systems neuroscience. New disciplines with funny names like experimental neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropsychology, and last but not least, human neuroimaging, which has allowed us to have a clear view of the human brain in living individuals.

(…)

Living a life that has reduced stress and a great amount of happiness and harmony is also related. This is not just my desire to whistle in the dark and tell myself that because I’m active and I’m reasonably happy, I’m not going to have Alzheimer’s disease. Stress is inevitable if you live in a large urban center and have to cope with the reality of life. When you are under stress, you’re engaging a number of brain mechanisms that release certain hormones that are anything but helpful to us in our current cultural and historical situation.

They are the hormones that are connected with fear and with anger and they not only damage, for example, your arteries and the heart — bringing the possibility of hypertension — they also damage receptors that are on the surface of cells — nerve cells, neurons — in this region in particular.

(…)

The brain, the source of our memory, our mind, our behavior, and what we consider our self, is nonetheless an organ system that exists within the body. Because we pay so much attention to the brain and the mind, we start talking about brain and mind and behavior as if they were disembodied — as if they existed on some kind of vat and not inside the body. But from the point of view of evolution and biology, we have brains because we have bodies that the brains need to maintain.

(…)

The social structure in which the individual is inserted depends on the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the get-go, we are born and are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university. It’s perfectly obvious that dependence is a state for human beings. They depend throughout life on others.

Spinoza was a major philosopher of the 17th century who I believe was one of the great forerunners of modern thinking in biology. The man could not know anything about the brain. Yet in the 1650s he was honing in on ideas that we now find perfectly sensible in terms of our modern understanding of life and of the brain in particular. He clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

Here’s a man who was writing all this between Amsterdam and the Hague in the 17th century, and he has very interesting philosophies that were not at all connected with the Christian and Jewish roots that were his education. It is much more connected to other parts of the world where such thinking is more accepted. He had an interesting spiritual view of the world in which there was a God that was nature. He actually talked about God or nature as if they were virtually interchangeable.

How one leads one’s life, and the lives of others that surround one, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.

I also wanted to say something specifically about emotions and feelings. Emotions and feelings are two different things.  Emotions turn out to be programs in our brain that we inherited through evolution that are devoted to the management of our life. They’re devoted to a process that is known as “homeostasis.”

Emotions are action programs. When you have fear, your face becomes startled, your body posture changes, your heart races, your gut contracts, your pulse races as well, your respiration changes and on and on. All of that is an action program that exists not just in our brain, but in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

These programs achieve something very important. For example, fear allows you to take action, even without thinking, so that you can remove yourself from harm’s way. There are emotion programs that are negative on the surface, such as fear or anger, but that nonetheless are very positive in the outcome that they produced for us. Probably fear has saved more lives than any other emotion.

(…)

The very important thing to remember is that feelings are not those action programs. Feelings are what you perceive in your mind as a result of being in a state of emotion. Although in everyday language, we confuse one with the other, it’s important — and you have no idea how important this is for research strategy — it’s important to distinguish between an action program that does not even need to be conscious, that animals as have, from feelings. Feelings are conscious and feed this enormously beautiful edifice that we call culture.

(…)

The important thing for you to remember is that emotions are biological processes that are fundamentally about governing life, and administer either punishment or reward. If you’re happy, if you’re leading a great life, then you are administering rewards to yourself.”