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Wed, 18 Sep 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


Study prompts call for routine memory testing of teenagers

Car Accident
© Getty Images
New study questions whether all teenagers are up to the demands of driving.
A study of young drivers in the US has found those who did worse on tests for short term "working" memory were more likely to crash in the first few years after getting their licence.

The finding has prompted the authors, led by neuroscientist Elizabeth Walshe from the University of Pennsylvania, to call for routine memory testing of teens to weed out those not ready to take the wheel. They could instead be offered extra training.

The study comes on the back of a stark set of numbers. Statistics from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention show vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in US teens. Six teen drivers die on the roads each day with the cost of adolescents injured in crashes topping $US13 billion in 2016.

Having a callow youth at the helm is also bad news for other youngsters in the car. More than half of children aged eight to 17 who die in crashes are in cars driven by someone under 20.

The authors' suspicion was that some teenage brains are just not up to the job.

Driving puts big demands on your working memory. That's the "scratch pad" that keeps track of things that happened in the last few seconds and helps you decide what to do next.


Confirmation bias: People will accept anything as true if it confirms their beliefs

Manipulating people
© Sobol/Shutterstock
Lots of people — including Congress — are worried about fake videos and imagery distorting the truth, purporting to show people saying and doing things they never said or did.

I'm part of a larger U.S. government project that is working on developing ways to detect images and videos that have been manipulated. My team's work, though, is to play the role of the bad guy. We develop increasingly devious, and convincing, ways to generate fakes — in hopes of giving other researchers a good challenge when they're testing their detection methods.

For the past three years, we've been having a bit of fun dreaming up new ways to try to change the meaning of images and video. We've created some scenarios ourselves, but we've also had plenty of inspiration from current events and circumstances of actual bad guys trying to twist public opinion.

I'm proud of the work we've done, and hope it will help people keep track of the truth in a media-flooded world. But we've found that a key element of the battle between truth and propaganda has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with how people are much more likely to accept something if it confirms their beliefs.

Comment: See also:


When false claims are repeated, we start to believe they are true - but behaving like a fact-checker can help

fack checking
If you hear an unfounded statement often enough, you might just start believing that it's true. This phenomenon, known as the "illusory truth effect", is exploited by politicians and advertisers — and if you think you are immune to it, you're probably wrong. In fact, earlier this year we reported on a study that found people are prone to the effect regardless of their particular cognitive profile.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do to protect ourselves against the illusion. A study in Cognition has found that using our own knowledge to fact-check a false claim can prevent us from believing it is true when it is later repeated. But we might need a bit of a nudge to get there.

The illusory truth effect stems from the fact that we process repeated statements more fluently: we mistake that feeling of fluency for a signal that the statement is true. And the effect occurs even when we should know better — when we repeatedly hear a statement that we know is wrong, for instance, like "The fastest land animal is the leopard". But Nadia Brashier at Harvard University and colleagues wondered whether asking people to focus on the accuracy of a statement could encourage them to use their knowledge instead, and avoid relying on feelings of fluency.

In the initial study, the team first asked 103 participants to read 60 widely-known facts, some of which were true (e.g. "The Italian city known for its canals is Venice"), and some of which were false (e.g. "The planet closest to the sun is Venus"). One group rated how interesting each statement was, while the other rated how true it was. Then in the second part of the study, both groups saw the same 60 statements along with 60 new ones — again a mixture of true and false — and rated their truthfulness.

Comment: See also: The illusion of truth: Believing something is true when it's not


New clues in understanding near-death experiences

Going in the tunnel
© Candice Mickler/Getty Images
Imagine a dream in which you sense an intense feeling of presence, the truest, most real experience in your life, as you float away from your body and look at your own face. You have a twinge of fear as memories of your life flash by, but then you pass a transcendent threshold and are overcome by a feeling of bliss. Although contemplating death elicits fear for many people, these positive features are reported in some of the near-death experiences (NDEs) undergone by those who reached the brink of death only to recover.

Accounts of NDEs are remarkably consistent in character and content. They include intensely vivid memories involving bodily sensations that give a strong impression of being real, more real even than memories of true events. The content of those experiences famously includes memories of one's life "flashing before the eyes," and also the sensation of leaving the body, often seeing one's own face and body, blissfully traveling through a tunnel toward a light and feeling "at one" with something universal.

Not surprisingly, many have seized on NDEs as evidence of life after death, heaven and the existence of god. The descriptions of leaving the body and blissful unity with the universal seem almost scripted from religious beliefs about souls leaving the body at death and ascending toward heavenly bliss. But these experiences are shared across a broad range of cultures and religions so it's not likely that they are all reflections of specific religious expectations. Instead, that commonality suggests that NDEs might arise from something more fundamental than religious or cultural expectations. Perhaps NDEs reflect changes in how the brain functions as we approach death.


The importance of searching and testing ourselves for truth

"What is truth?"

This question Pontius Pilate asked Christ moments before the Crucifixion is, in my opinion, the question that the rest of the Gospels spend answering. It is the reason why Jesus gives no specific answer to Pilate in John 18, and instead simply stands there as the answer Himself. But truth, regardless of how much we would like it to be black and white, is often difficult to decipher. Stories, which often contain emotional truths can hold lies within them. This is unfortunately common in Hollywood movies, which use good and true emotions such as love and kindness to cover up narratives that underscore many Christian values.

Rather than dissecting a current film, which would require an article much longer than this one, here a is clever science fair project that 14 year-old Nathan Zohner came up with, covered by this 1997 Washington Post article:
The chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide (or DHMO) has been implicated in the deaths of thousands of Americans every year, mainly through accidental ingestion. In gaseous form, it can cause severe burns. And, according to a new report, "the dangers of this chemical do not end there."

The chemical is so caustic that it "accelerates the corrosion and rusting of many metals,... is a major component of acid rain, {and} . . . has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients." Symptoms of ingestion include "excessive sweating and urination," and "for those who have developed a dependency on DHMO, complete withdrawal means certain death."

Yet the presence of the chemical has been confirmed in every river, stream, lake and reservoir in America.

Judging from these facts, do you think dihydrogen monoxide should be banned?

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MindMatters: The Meaning of the World's Mythologies

In our previous show on Witzel's book Origins of the World's Mythologies, we learned that the vast majority of world mythologies share the same narrative structure or overall storyline. But what does it mean, and why has it endured for so long, among so many peoples? Today we look at the final chapter of Witzel's book, where he ties it all together, along with our own expansions on his ideas. With reference to psychology (including Jordan Peterson and Kazimierz Dabrowski), generational history (the so-called "fourth turning"), and a hint at a future discussion: the history of earth's encounters with cataclysm-causing cometary encounters.

Running Time: 01:03:18

Download: MP3 — 58 MB


Genetic markers found that link to being left-handed

© Shutterstock
Scientists have discovered the first genetic markers tied to being left-handed, according to a new study.

In addition, these genetic markers may play roles in brain development and communication between different brain areas, the authors said.

The findings, published Thursday (Sept. 5) in the journal Brain, "shed considerably more light on the [biological] processes leading to left-handedness," study lead author Dr. Akira Wiberg, a research fellow at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

About 1 in 10 people worldwide is left-handed. Scientists have known that genes contribute to being left-handed, but they didn't know which genes are involved.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed the genomes of about 400,000 people in the United Kingdom whose health records and genomic data are part of a database known as the U.K. Biobank. Of these, about 38,000 were left-handed.

The researchers looked for differences in the DNA of left- versus right-handers, and they identified four genetic markers tied to being left-handed.


Why transhumanists' search for earthly immortality is misguided

robot equation
For all the reports on the sordid life of Jeffrey Epstein, little has been written about his interest in transhumanism. Followers of the transhumanist movement believe humans will achieve super-longevity, and, perhaps one day, live forever. Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and the author of books predicting a coming technological "singularity," is perhaps the most prominent transhumanist.

The singularity refers to the date when machines obtain human intelligence; Kurzweil sees that happening by 2045. He foresees people "merging with the [machine] intelligence we have created."

Followers active in the movement, like Kurzweil, take an unfathomable number of nutritional supplements each day. Those supplements supposedly slow the aging process, allowing time for science to kick in and enable transhumanists to achieve immortality. Some transhumanists believe their consciousness will be uploaded into a machine or a new body, or perhaps even a younger cloned version of themselves.

As one follower of Kurzweil puts it:
As a true digital-cerebral interface comes into existence and we are able to 'upload' our memories and consciousness into a twin computer backup, true human immortality will follow automatically as a matter of course. This creation of a twin consciousness of self on the digital plane will be the defining moment of The Singularity. For as soon as this is done, and we are able to create backup copies of ourselves, by definition, we're immortal.

Comment: Perhaps if the transhumanists weren't so identified with nihilistic materialism and the ideas posed by neo-Darwinism they would be more open to the idea that their minds/consciousness/souls perhaps do take on a new kind of life - after death - and so they would have less to fear about such an eventuality.

See also:


Kill your inner John Bolton

bolton's moustache

John Bolton's moustache may be more famous than he is
We each have a miniature John Bolton living rent-free inside our heads, ruining our peace and promoting world domination at every opportunity.

Hear me out.

The most common objection I hear when I advocate non-interventionist foreign policy can essentially be boiled down to something like, "But- but- but if we're not controlling the world all the time, then the world will be out of our control!" The argument, as I understand it, is that if the US-centralized empire stopped waging endless wars, staging coups, inflicting siege warfare upon civilian populations, patrolling the skies with flying death robots, arming terrorist militias, and torturing journalists who expose US war crimes, the bad guys might win.

Comment: This piece from Johnstone sounds suspiciously like an invitation to navel gaze. Yes, meditation can be helpful to separate oneself from the constant chatter and vying for control of the ego. But to liken that to 'just let everything be' on a geopolitical level is a bit naive.


Is psychology building a house of cards?

brain puzzle
© Ratoca/Shutterstock
Here's a short quiz concerning several popular findings from different subfields of psychology. True or False?

1. Brain training games strengthen cognitive skills in ways that generalize to everyday life tasks.

2. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, the class of anti-depressants that includes Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil (among others), are more effective than older anti-depressants, and are significantly better than placebo for most people with mild or moderate depression

3. Standing in a "power pose" prior to a job interview, hands on your hips or interlocked behind your head, increases testosterone production as well as the odds of being selected for the job.

4. The reason most types of psychotherapy are helpful is because they share a set of common factors, such as empathy, not because of specific methods unique to each approach.

5. Girls and women perform better on math tests when they are told the test doesn't really measure anything about their true math ability. This is one variant of the stereotype threat effect.

6. If you are asked to resist eating a freshly baked chocolate cookie on a nearby plate for 15 minutes, your performance on a cognitive test is likely to diminish — a phenomenon called ego-depletion.

7. The Stanford Prison Study, in which participants were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners in a mock prison, showed definitively that specific contexts can lead people to act sadistically.

And now the answers:

Comment: See also: Undead theories: The sorry state of modern psychology