Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Slating the thirst for knowledge... an addiction...?

'Thirst for knowledge' may simulate opium craving
General Science : June 20, 2006

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix. The "click" of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

"While you're trying to understand a difficult theorem, it's not fun," said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"But once you get it, you just feel fabulous."

The brain's craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge, he said.

"I think we're exquisitely tuned to this as if we're junkies, second by second."

Biederman hypothesized that knowledge addiction has strong evolutionary value because mate selection correlates closely with perceived intelligence.
Only more pressing material needs, such as hunger, can suspend the quest for knowledge, he added.

The same mechanism is involved in the aesthetic experience, Biederman said, providing a neurological explanation for the pleasure we derive from art.

"This account may provide a plausible and very simple mechanism for aesthetic and perceptual and cognitive curiosity." [curiosity does not, however, correlate with intelligence-TOM ]

Biederman's theory was inspired by a widely ignored 25-year-old finding that mu-opioid receptors – binding sites for natural opiates – increase in density along the ventral visual pathway, a part of the brain involved in image recognition and processing.

The receptors are tightly packed in the areas of the pathway linked to comprehension and interpretation of images, but sparse in areas where visual stimuli first hit the cortex.

Biederman's theory holds that the greater the neural activity in the areas rich in opioid receptors, the greater the pleasure.

In a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging trials with human volunteers exposed to a wide variety of images, Biederman's research group found that strongly preferred images prompted the greatest fMRI activity in more complex areas of the ventral visual pathway. (The data from the studies are being submitted for publication.)

Biederman also found that repeated viewing of an attractive image lessened both the rating of pleasure and the activity in the opioid-rich areas. In his article, he explains this familiar experience with a neural-network model termed "competitive learning."

In competitive learning (also known as "Neural Darwinism"), the first presentation of an image activates many neurons, some strongly and a greater number only weakly.

With repetition of the image, the connections to the strongly activated neurons grow in strength. But the strongly activated neurons inhibit their weakly activated neighbors, causing a net reduction in activity. This reduction in activity, Biederman's research shows, parallels the decline in the pleasure felt during repeated viewing.

"One advantage of competitive learning is that the inhibited neurons are now free to code for other stimulus patterns," Biederman writes.

This preference for novel concepts also has evolutionary value, he added.

"The system is essentially designed to maximize the rate at which you acquire new but interpretable [understandable] information. Once you have acquired the information, you best spend your time learning something else.

"There's this incredible selectivity that we show in real time. Without thinking about it, we pick out experiences that are richly interpretable but novel."

The theory, while currently tested only in the visual system, likely applies to other senses, Biederman said.

Source: University of Southern California

Saturday, June 17, 2006

"The better part of valor is discretion"

Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition).
June 16, 2006. pg. A.1

Scientist's Study Of Brain Genes Sparks a Backlash

Antonio Regalado

[Dr. Bruce Lahn of the Univeristy of Chicago] says he is moving away from the research. "It's getting too controversial," he says....

Dr. Lahn had touched a raw nerve in science: race and intelligence.

Dr. Lahn has drawn sharp fire from other leading genetics researchers. They say the genetic differences he found may not signify any recent evolution -- and even if they do, it is too big a leap to suggest any link to intelligence. "This is not the place you want to report a weak association that might or might not stand up," says Francis Collins, director of the genome program at the National Institutes of Health....

Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin, criticizes Dr. Lahn for implying a conclusion similar to "The Bell Curve," a controversial 1994 bestseller by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The book argued that the lower average performance by African-Americans on IQ tests had a genetic component and wasn't solely the result of social factors. Referring to Dr. Lahn and his co-authors, Prof. Ossorio says: "It's exactly what they were getting at. There was a lot of hallway talk. People said he's doing damage to the whole field of genetics."...

[Lahn] personally believes it is possible that some populations will have more advantageous intelligence genes than others. And he thinks that "society will have to grapple with some very difficult facts" as scientific data accumulate. Yet Dr. Lahn, who left China after participating in prodemocracy protests, says intellectual "police" in the U.S. make such questions difficult to pursue....

Henry Harpending, a University of Utah anthropology professor who recently published a theory for why Ashkenazi Jews tend to have high IQ's, says Dr. Lahn once suggested they co-author an article for Scientific American about the genetics of behavior, in which they could explain why "Chinese are boring."

"I think that Bruce doesn't understand political correctness," Dr.Harpending says. Dr. Lahn says he only vaguely recalls the conversation but confirms that he wonders whether during China's imperial times there was "some selection" against rebellious individuals....

[Lahn's work] suggested brain evolution might have occurred in tandem with important cultural changes. Yet because neither variant is common in sub-Saharan Africa, there was another potential implication: Some groups had been left out....

"You have to follow the data wherever it leads, but speculating in this field is dangerous," says Spencer Wells, head of the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project, a five-year, $40 million effort to collect DNA samples from 100,000 indigenous people. Dr. Wells says the project team might try to find evolutionary reasons for physical differences such as why Danes are taller than pygmies. But Dr. Wells says National Geographic won't study the brain. "I think there is very little evidence of IQ differences between races," he says....

Dr. Lahn stands by his work but says that because of the controversy he is moving into other projects. Earlier this year, Mr. Easton of the university's media department forwarded Dr. Lahn a paper by two economists looking at the IQ of infants of different races. Dr. Lahn wasn't interested. "I'm surprised anyone studies this," he replied in an email.

Dr. Lahn says he isn't as eager as he once was to continue studying brain differences. P. Thomas Schoenemann, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, says that at Dr. Lahn's request he collected DNA from 25 people whose brain sizes he had studied previously. But the two scientists haven't been in touch recently.

The university's patent office is also having second thoughts. Its director, Alan Thomas, says his office is dropping a patent application filed last year that would cover using Dr. Lahn's work as a DNA-based intelligence test. "We really don't want to end up on the front page ... for doing eugenics," Mr. Thomas says.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The role of dominance (power tripping) in the Islamic Threat

The week following the Muslim protests in London against the Danish cartoons—with marchers carrying signs calling for the beheading of infidels—other Muslims demonstrated to claim that Islam really meant peace and tolerance. While their implicit recognition that peace and tolerance are preferable to strife and bigotry, the claim regarding Islam was both historically and intellectually preposterous. Only someone ignorant of the most elementary facts could believe such a thing, or... they are suffering from serious delusions.

From the first, Islam was a religion of pillage, violence, and compulsion, which it justified and glorified. And it is certainly not "the evident truth of the doctrine itself," to quote Gibbon with regard for what, with characteristic irony, he called the primary reason for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the civilized world, that explains the exponential growth of the Dar-al-Islam in its early history.

It is important, of course, to distinguish between Islam as a doctrine and Muslims as people. Untold numbers of Muslims desire little more than a quiet life; they have the virtues and the vices of the rest of mankind. Their religion gives to their daily lives an ethical and ritual structure and provides the kind of boundaries that only modern Western intellectuals would have the temerity to belittle.

But the fact that many Muslims are not fanatics is not as comforting as some might think.

In his new book, Islamic Imperialism: A History, Professor Efraim Karsh does not mince words about Mohammed's early and (to all those who do not accept the divinity of his inspiration) unscrupulous resort to robbery and violence, or about Islam's militaristic aspects, or about the link between Islamic tradition and the current wave of fundamentalist violence in the world. The originality of Karsh's interpretation is its underlying assumption that Islam was, from the very beginning, a pretext for personal and dynastic political ambition, from the razzias against the Meccan caravans and the expulsion of Jewish tribes from Medina, to the siege of Vienna a millennium later in 1529, and Hamas today.

Contrary to its universalistic pretensions, Karsh argues, Islam has never succeeded in eliminating political power struggles within the Muslim world, where, on the contrary, such struggles have always been murderous. Islamic regimes, many espousing in the beginning the ascetic principles of what one might call desert Islam, invariably degenerate (if it be degeneration) into luxury- and privilege-loving dynasties. Like all other political entities, Islamic regimes seek to preserve and, if possible, extend their power. They have shown no hesitation in compromising with or allying themselves with those whom they regard as infidels.

Saladin, a mendaciously simplified version of whose exploits has inflamed hysterical sentiment all over the Middle East, was not above forming alliances with Christian monarchs to achieve his imperial ends; the Ottoman caliphate would not have survived as long as it did had the Sultan not exploited European rivalries and allied himself now with one, now with another Christian power.

In short, Islamic imperialism, in Karsh's view, illustrates three transcendent political truths: the Nietzschean drive to power, Michels' iron law of oligarchy, and Marx's economic motor of history. Religious feeling, on this reading, is but an epiphenomenon, a mask for what is really going on.

This interpretation raises the difficult and perhaps unanswerable question of what should count in history as a real, and what as merely an apparent, motive for action. When Bernal Diaz del Castillo claims a religious motive for the conquest of Mexico, at least in part, should we just dismiss it as a sanctimonious lie to justify a more rapacious motive? That he ended up a rich man does not decide the question; and Diaz himself would have taken his material success as a sign that God smiled upon his enterprise, just as Muslims have viewed their early conquests as proof of God's approval and the truth of Mohammed's doctrine. (On the other hand, failure for Muslims never seems to provide proof of the final withdrawal of God's favor, much less of his non-existence, but rather shows his dissatisfaction with the current practices of the supposedly faithful, who will return to His favor only by restoring an earlier, purer form of faith.)

Karsh seems to oscillate between believing that Islamic imperialism is just a variant of imperialism in general—imperialism being more or less a permanent manifestation of the human will to power—and believing that there is something sui generis and therefore uniquely dangerous about it.

I hesitate to rush in where so many better-informed people have hesitated to tread, or have trodden before, but I would put it like this. The urge to domination is nearly a constant of human history. The specific (and baleful) contribution of Islam is that, by attributing sovereignty solely to God, and by pretending in a philosophically primitive way that God's will is knowable independently of human interpretation, and therefore of human interest and desire—in short by allowing nothing to human as against divine nature—it tries to abolish politics. All compromises become mere truces; there is no virtue in compromise in itself. Thus Islam is inherently an unsettling and dangerous factor in world politics, independently of the actual conduct of many Muslims.

Karsh comes close to this conclusion himself, when he writes at the end of the book:

Only when the political elites of the Middle East and the Muslim world reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism, forswear pan-Arab and pan-Islamic dreams, and make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition will the inhabitants of these regions at last be able to look forward to a better future free of would-be Saladins.

The fundamental question is whether Islam as a private faith would still be Islam, or whether such privatization would spell its doom. Do we have the luxury of time to find out? Afterall, it took two millennia for Xtianity to become defanged. All the more reason for Epicureans to take to their gardens.