Wired for info

Are we addicted to information? Is there something hardwired into our beings that makes us unable to resist compulsive Twittering? Every other day there’s a news article or radio story on how studies show that… well, really, not much more than scientists like to publish things.
The Mind Hacks folks do a good job of demolishing the “studies show” myth with respect to information-seeking behaviour here. If you’ve ever nodded to one of those articles going on and on about how we’re natural information addicts, then go read this one. Now. GOOGLE COMMANDS IT.
In case it’s not obvious, I think those theories are, like a lot of the rest of pop psychology, bullshit. Yet we techie types eat them up like coffee ice cream or something. If you’ll excuse me, I have some bark to examine now.

Quirks and Quarks on Psychopathy

On my walk in to work this morning, I listened to a rebroadcast of the 30 September 2006 Quirks and Quarks show. Aside from some small disappointment that Ted Bundy made their list of serial killers, but not Alan Legere, there was a question raised in my mind by the conclusion.
One of the researchers interviewed posited that psychopathy is a mental disorder, just like chronic depression and others, and as such ought to be fairly understandable – and treatable. Well, we can tell when treatment for chronic depression is working; the person is no longer so severely depressed, or indeed, is “cured”.
How can we tell when a psychopath is made better? It’s not actually in the best interests of a psychopath to cooperate with treatment or the law, except insofar as it might get them released. Reliance on self-reporting is foolish in this case.
The tone of the podcast reminded me of the conclusion of a movie about another psychopath: “I was cured, all right!”
(From the archives of “posts I intended to publish a year ago.” First written 2007-07-17, published 2008-10-04.)

Popular views of justice

Tangentially related to a paper I wrote for my cognitive science seminar, I’ve been collecting references to stories on CBC, CTV, and other outlets that allow commenting. What I’m interested in is the popular reaction to matters related to what can loosely be described as justice. For instance, I’ve bookmarks to stories on Robert Pickton, Thomas Svekla, street racers who’ve killed people, Gregory Despres’s trial, some child pornography cases, and so on.
Besides the obvious effect of the stories themselves – litanies of the indignities which we visit upon one another with depressing regularity – I’ve found a couple of other things. First is an extension of that thought; it’s similarly depressing how people who are presumably largely Canadian citizens, my peers, presumably fairly well-educated and in the top 10th or 20th percentile worldwide, folks who are well-enough off to have both the free time and access to read and comment on these stories online, are able to so casually dismiss and pass judgement on other human beings with a minimum of information. Second is now every time I see a story that’s likely to get such comments, I mentally grin and rub my hands in anticipation. Then I feel guilty, because each one of those stories means something horrible has happened to one or more human beings, and chances are something horrible is going to happen to at least one more person.
I have a rough idea where I’d like to go with this stuff, and I even have a rough idea about the direction in which I’d like to see our society headed. But given that we live in a democracy, it’s fairly unlikely we’d even come close to what I’d like to see, at least in my lifetime.

Emotions, simulating and emulating

From a marginal note I made in class last term: talking about computers simulating emotions makes me think of virtual machines.

Is my iMac running VMWare Fusion creating a Windows box, or simulating one, or is it even attaining Windows?  An emulator like VICE doesn’t somehow turn my Mac into a C64. Look at the difficulty of emulation: it takes a P2-400+ to emulate a C64, a 1MHz CPU with 64kb of RAM.

So what would it take to emulate a human brain?  Would that emulation be sufficient to simulate emotions?  (Ignore the obvious physiological issues; assume that those also are emulated, or are unimportant.)

Public credulity with respect to brain science

If you read no other magazine article summarizing an academic study, read this one.  I wish I’d had it when I did my paper.  Summary of the summary: the general public is fairly credulous when it comes to articles with pretty pictures of brains included, even if the conclusions drawn by those articles is counterintuitive.

My initial thoughts were that this could be dangerous, but Western society is pretty firmly libertarian (in the philosophical sense, not the political one) and dualist.  It should be interesting to see how this cognitive dissonance – trust in science, yet a fervent belief in truly free free will – plays out.

(Via the Neuroethics and Law Blog.)