Science

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The excellent Neuroanthropology blog offers up a terrific list of links to recent research & articles covering topics like Design, Research, Addiction and Art Criticism. Check it out!

First of all, I didn’t realize that Michael Wesch had a blog. Now that I’ve found it, I have a lot of back-reading to do.

But here’s a recent post on the subject of Context, as it relates to web-cams and YouTube-like expression. Digital Ethnography — Context Collapse

The problem is not lack of context. It is context collapse: an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording. The images, actions, and words captured by the lens at any moment can be transported to anywhere on the planet and preserved (the performer must assume) for all time. The little glass lens becomes the gateway to a blackhole sucking all of time and space – virtually all possible contexts – in upon itself.

By the way, I’m working on a talk on context for IDEA Conference. Are you registered yet?

Ok… before the flames start… nobody’s saying that categories are useless, just the opposite. And it’s not saying that “useful” categories are no better. But it’s still a fascinating insight… From the Frontal Cortex blog:

“Now Iyengar has published a new study showing that one way to combat the effects of excessive choice is to group items into categories. It turns out that even useless categories make people happier with their choices.”

Moral Dimensions

Without going into a lot of detail about it (no time!) I wanted to quote from this article discussing the ideas of Jonathan Haidt. It’s actually supposed to be a review of George Lakoff’s writing on political language, but it gets further into Haidt’s ideas and research as a better alternative. He’s not so kind to dear Lakoff (whose earlier work is very influential among many of my IA friends).

Essentially, the article draws a distinction between Lakoff’s idea that people act based on their metaphorical-linguistic interpretation of the world and Haidt’s psycho-evolutionary (?) view that there are deeper things than what we think of as language that guide us individually and socially. And Haidt is working to name those things, and figure out how they function.

Oddly enough, I remembered once I’d gotten a paragraph into this post that I linked to and wrote about Haidt a couple of years before. But I hadn’t really looked into it much further. Now I’m really wanting to read more of his work.

Haidt maps five major scales against which we can categorize (or measure) our moral responses. One of those is the one that seems least changeable or approachable by reason, the one that describes our visceral reaction of elevation or disgust in the presence of certain things we find taboo, without necessarily being able to explain why in a purely rational or utilitarian way.

Will Wilkinson — What’s the Frequency Lakoff?

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. …

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt’s suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

I like this approach because it doesn’t refute the linguistic approach so much as explain it in a larger context. (Lakoff has come under criticism for his possibly over-simplification about how people live by metaphor — I”ll leave that debate to the experts.)

And it explains how people can have a real change of heart in their lives, how their morals can shift. Just this week, the mayor of San Diego decided to reverse a view he’d held for years, both personally and as a campaign promise, to veto any marriage-equality bill. Evidently one of his scales changed the other — he was caught in a classic Euthyphro conundrum between loyalty to his party and loyalty to the reality of his daughter. Unlike with Euthyphro, family won out. Or perhaps the particular experience of his daughter convinced him that the general assumption of homosexuality as evil is flawed? Who knows.

Whatever the cause, once you get a bit of a handle on Haidt’s model, you can almost see the bars in the chart shifting in front of you when you hear of such a change in someone.

And you can see very plainly how Karl Rove and others have masterfully manipulated this tendency. They have an intuitive grasp of this gut-level “digust/elevation” complex, and how to use it to get voters to act. I wonder, too, if it helps explain the weird fixation “socially conservative” people of all stripes had with the “Passion of Christ” film? Just think — that extreme level of detailed violence to a human being ramping up the digust meter, with the elevation meter being cranked just as high from the sense of transcendent salvation and martyr’s love that the gruesome ritual killing represented. What a combination.

The downside to Democrats here is that they can’t fake it. According to Wilkinson, there’s no way to just word-massage their way into this emotional dynamic with the public on the current dominant issues that tap into it. In his words, “Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.”

(PS: I dig Wilkinson’s blog name too — a nice oblique reference to Wittgenstein, who said the aim of Philosophy is to “shew the fly the way out of the bottle.” )

Edited to Add: There’s a nice writeup on Haidt in the Times here.

Boing Boing has a lovely paean saying Happy birthday, Carl Linnaeus, to the one responsible for bringing a common vocabulary (and, maybe most importantly, a system of naming) to natural science — one of the cornerstones that has helped human beings (*ahem* … “homo sapiens”) to share and codify scientific learning.

He’s, of course, a kind of patron saint of Information Architecture, where we’re all about classifying and organizing things.

But, alas, even Linneas’ dream of pristinely organized information is suffering from the realities of the post-modern world. From the Boing Boing post:

But how much longer will the Linnaean system last? Recently it has come under attack from some taxonomists who believe its structure is too inflexible to cope with the explosion of knowledge unleashed by DNA analysis. Today’s young Turks of taxonomy want to abolish the strict ranked hierarchy of family, order, class, etc. In its place they advocate “clades,” groupings that are based on genetic relationships and can be expanded, contracted or redefined as new kinships are discovered. For now, the traditionalists outnumber the iconoclasts, and Linnaean-style classification remains the gold standard.

Fascinating, that even in the seminal uber-taxonomy, there’s a kind of “tagging relativism” going on…

Maybe they need a pattern language?

Excellent article on JM’s ideas about how game situations can unlock incredible problem-solving potential in groups of people, and can be applied to anything from medicine to politics.

San Francisco – News – Future Games – sfweekly.com

McGonigal designs games for a living, and she believes they point the way toward civilization’s next step forward. Her games are sprawling extravaganzas that suck in thousands of players and force them to pool their talents to become, essentially, one big networked brain. In the young and burgeoning genre of alternate reality games, otherwise known as ARGs, the players’ collective intelligence is applied to cracking codes, solving puzzles, and completing complex tasks doled out by almighty “puppetmasters.” McGonigal is one of the people who pulls the strings.

I really loved the idea of glass being a liquid that was just moving ‘super slow.’ I first heard it from a tour guide or two in an old building somewhere, and I could swear my chemistry teacher once mentioned it. But, alas, it is not the case:

Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: Fact or Fiction?: Glass Is a (Supercooled) Liquid — Are medieval windows melting?

Why old European glass is thicker at one end probably depends on how the glass was made. At that time, glassblowers created glass cylinders that were then flattened to make panes of glass. The resulting pieces may never have been uniformly flat and workers installing the windows preferred, for one reason or another, to put the thicker sides of the pane at the bottom. This gives them a melted look, but does not mean glass is a true liquid.

Chalk this up to the same disappointment I had about lemmings, and all the Eskimo words for snow.

Excellent video interview with Wenger.

Interview with Etienne Wenger on Communities of Practice — Knowledge Lab

Etienne Wenger is one of the founding fathers of Social Learning Theory and the concept of “Practiced Communities”. People are learning together – every individual deals and engage in many different communities of practice. Here people negotiate and define what competence and knowledge is. To know something or to be competent builds on the individuals experiences of being in the world – learning is a constant transformation or journey of the self.

In a study much like the famous Milgram experiments (where people administered shocks to others behind a partition, in accordance to an authoritative direction), they’re finding that people have high empathic response to avatars (like those in Second Life) even when they know they aren’t real.

Research findings:

Our results show that in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.

First of all, there’s the 3D meta world about Shakespeare that it’s giving a quarter million to Ed Castronova to develop:

Shakespeare coming to a virtual world | CNET News.com
On Thursday, the MacArthur Foundation is [announced] a $240,000 grant to Castronova and his team to build “Arden: The World of Shakespeare,” a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO, built entirely around the plays of the Bard.

But that’s the tip of the icebert. The MacArthur Foundation has gone whole hog on digital learning (and it’s a $50 million hog), with a significant focus on virtual environments and games as an ‘ecology.

It’s pretty obvious to most people who watch users act and react that they do a lot of what they do based on somewhat primal and/or emotionally driven impulses. And I’m sure there’s a lot of neuroscience stuff out there that explains how this works, but I haven’t encountered any until I read the article Mind Games in last week’s New Yorker.

Here are a couple of salient bits:

The first scenario [in the MRI study] corresponds to the theoretical ideal: investors facing a set of known risks. The second setup was more like the real world: the players knew something about what might happen, but not very much. As the researchers expected, the players’ brains reacted to the two scenarios differently. With less information to go on, the players exhibited substantially more activity in the amygdala and in the orbitofrontal cortex, which is believed to modulate activity in the amygdala. “The brain doesn’t like ambiguous situations,” Camerer said to me. “When it can’t figure out what is happening, the amygdala transmits fear to the orbitofrontal cortex.”

The results of the experiment suggested that when people are confronted with ambiguity their emotions can overpower their reasoning, leading them to reject risky propositions. This raises the intriguing possibility that people who are less fearful than others might make better investors . . .

Today, most economists agree that, left alone, people will act in their own best interest, and that the market will coördinate their actions to produce outcomes beneficial to all.

Neuroeconomics potentially challenges both parts of this argument. If emotional responses often trump reason, there can be no presumption that people act in their own best interest. And if markets reflect the decisions that people make when their limbic structures are particularly active, there is little reason to suppose that market outcomes can’t be improved upon.

Part of the article also describes how the researchers used oxytocin (a hormone generated during pleasurable and intimate activities) via nasal inhalers. I have to quote this too because it’s so fascinating.

Trust plays a key role in many economic transactions, from buying a secondhand car to choosing a college. In the simplest version of the trust game, one player gives some money to another player, who invests it on his behalf and then decides how much to return to him and how much to keep. The more the first player invests, the more he stands to gain, but the more he has to trust the second player. If the players trust each other, both will do well. If they don’t, neither will end up with much money.

Fehr and his collaborators divided a group of student volunteers into two groups. The members of one group were each given six puffs of the nasal spray Syntocinon, which contains oxytocin, a hormone that the brain produces during breast-feeding, sexual intercourse, and other intimate types of social bonding. The members of the other group were given a placebo spray.

Scientists believe that oxytocin is connected to stress reduction, enhanced sociability, and, possibly, falling in love. The researchers hypothesized that oxytocin would make people more trusting, and their results appear to support this claim. Of the twenty-nine students who were given oxytocin, thirteen invested the maximum money allowed, compared with just six out of twenty-nine in the control group. “That’s a pretty remarkable finding,” Camerer told me. “If you asked most economists how they would produce more trust in a game, they would say change the payoffs or get the participants to play the game repeatedly: those are the standard tools. If you said, ‘Try spraying oxytocin in the nostrils,’ they would say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ You’re tricking the brain, and it seems to work.”

I wonder what this tells us about the focus we should be placing on the emotional response people have to what we’ve designed? Especially when it comes to systems they use to make important decisions about which they may have anxieties or confusion.

Also, I wonder what this means for information architecture specifically, since so much of our most basic daily work is about reducing semantic ambiguity — to what degree does the user’s emotional context affect their ability to reason through what we’re giving them? And, in a Heisenbergian twist, to what degree does the ambiguity of choice within the designed experience exacerbate the user’s context?

I often wondered what sorts of brain chemicals were involved in music enjoyment — I’ve definitely noticed similar emotional effects between songs I enjoy (especially cranked up while driving) and other things like caffeine. Nice quick interview at Wired News about it.

WN: What are we learning about the link between music and emotion in the brain?

Levitin: Music activates the same parts of the brain and causes the same neurochemical cocktail as a lot of other pleasurable activities like orgasms or eating chocolate — or if you’re a gambler winning a bet or using drugs if you’re a drug user. Serotonin and dopamine are both involved.

Another interesting point he makes:

Levitin: (Research has shown that) if women could choose who they’d like to be impregnated by, they’d choose a rock star. There’s something about the rock star’s genes that is signaling creativity, flexibility of thinking, flexibility of mind and body, an ability to express and process emotions — not to mention that (musical talent) signals that if you can waste your time on something that has no immediate impact on food-gathering and shelter, you’ve got your food-gathering and shelter taken care of.

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