Monday, May 22, 2017

 The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - II

In The Emotional Brain, the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux shows that the emotional part of the brain is tightly integrated with the rational part and has dominance in decision making because of its ability to respond quickly to threats, which is crucial to an organism's survival. He says that emotions can easily displace routine events out of awareness but non-emotional events do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight. He writes:
...emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur...We have little direct control over our emotional reactions. Anyone who has tried to fake an emotion, or who has been the recipient of a faked one, knows all to well the futility of the attempt. While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.
I came across an experiment in The Emotional Brain involving split-brain patients. In such patients, the nerve connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are cut to try to prevent very severe epilepsy and thereby, the two sides can no longer communicate with each other. Thus, since language centres of the brain are in the left side, the person can only talk about what the left side knows. If a stimulus is presented in such a way that only the right hemisphere sees it, the split-brain patient is unable to verbally describe the stimulus. In these patients, information provided to one side of the brain remains trapped on that side and is unavailable to the other side.

A split-brain patient called P.S. was presented with a stimulus having emotional content. When the emotional stimulus was presented to the left hemisphere, P.S. could describe the stimulus and tell whether it signified something good or bad. But when the same stimulus was presented to the right hemisphere, the speaking left hemisphere could not describe the stimulus. But it could correctly judge whether the stimulus seen by the right hemisphere was good or bad.

For example, when the right hemisphere saw the word 'mom', the left hemisphere rated it as 'good', and when the right side saw the word 'devil', the left rated it as 'bad'. Such correct rating by the left hemisphere happened consistently even though it had no idea what the stimuli were, the emotional significance of the stimulus seeming to 'leak' across the brain. Joseph LeDoux writes, 'The patient's conscious emotions, as experienced by his left hemisphere, were, in effect, being pushed this way and that by stimuli that he claimed to have never seen.'

A psychologist at New York University, Jonathan Haidt, describes the two systems with the image of a rider and elephant. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. I came across a passage in Somerset Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage, which struck a chord in me:
It amused him sometimes to consider that his friends, because he had a face which did not express his feelings very vividly and a rather slow way of moving, looked upon him as strong-minded, deliberate, and cool. They thought him reasonable and praised his common sense; but he knew that his placid expression was no more than a mask, assumed unconsciously, which acted like the protective colouring of butterflies; and himself was astonished at the weakness of his will. It seemed to him that he was swayed by every light emotion, as though he were a leaf in the wind, and when passion seized him he was powerless. He had no self-control. He merely seemed to possess it because he was indifferent to many of the things which moved other people.
He considered with some irony the philosophy which he had developed for himself, for it had not been of much use to him in the conjuncture he had passed through; and he wondered whether thought really helped a man in any of the critical affairs of life: it seemed to him rather that he was swayed by some power alien to and yet within himself, which urged him like that great wind of Hell which drove Paolo and Francesca ceaselessly on. He thought of what he was going to do and, when the time came to act, he was powerless in the grasp of instincts, emotions, he knew not what. He acted as though he were a machine driven by the two forces of his environment and his personality; his reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere: it was like those gods of Epicurus, who saw the doings of men from their empyrean heights and had no might to alter one smallest particle of what occurred.
Sometimes, I will feel that I have some solid grounds to let off a bit of steam. But I will keep telling myself, 'Relax. No need to get so agitated, it is not such a big deal.' But all these attempts at self-control will be utterly useless and I will show my usual signs of being irritated like the stiffening of my muscles.  I will realize that the task of trying to control my emotions was a daunting one and my Inner Voice will tell me to  abandon the project. I will later find that Jaya had already attended to whatever had been agitating me and I had been fretting unnecessarily.

I will be like the batsman who shapes to play a hook shot but pulls out of the shot at the last moment and ducks hastily after realizing that the bouncer is a little quicker and a little higher than what he had initially anticipated. What often helps preserve a facade of calmness instead of giving a stupid speech are two factors:

Firstly, I am indifferent to many things like new models of cars, mobile phones etc. that excite many people. (In the present age, mobile phones provide the starkest reminders of Gandhi's warning - 'Machines should be man's slave, man should not be machine's slave.) Secondly, the tediousness of my communication process means that I am unable to deliver my fiery speech.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - I

The only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no. - Lester Bangs, rock critic

“An Indian born economist once explained his personal theory of reincarnation to his graduate economics class,” Paul Krugman writes in the opening paragraph of his Preface to Peddling Prosperity. “If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist,’ he said, ‘you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.” The evil economist is closer to reality but many economists want to emulate the virtuous economist and achieve the precision of physics.

Adam Smith recognized that humans are not always guided by reason. His Theory of Moral Sentiments begins, 'How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.' But many later economists try to subsume human behaviour into their imposing theories and complex calculations involving the rational maximiser whose resemblance to reality is highly questionable.

Commenting on the new methods of reproduction like IVF and surrogacy, one professor of business administration at Harvard said that this 'unbundling the supply chain' has prompted 'growth in the surrogacy market' since people who participated in this market 'essentially needed to purchase a single package of egg-bundled-with-womb. 'This description instrumentalises women's bodies and treats babies as tradeable commodities. Philip Ball writes in  Critical Mass about Gary Becker's analysis of the economics of  the family (which helped him win a Nobel Prize in 1992):
'Participants in marriage markets', argues Becker, face a difficult choice because they 'have limited information about the utility they can expect with potential mates.' People are compelled to marry across boundaries of race, religion and class when 'they do not expect to do better by further search and waiting'. Let us be thankful that Shakespeare did not have Romeo and Juliet put it that way. 
In this TEDx talk,Gerd Gigerenzer talks about this idea of economists of marrying by maximizing expected rational utility. When he asks economists how many married this way, no one says he did so. Finally, one economist admitted that he calculated the maximum utilities of his girlfriends and married the one who had the highest score. Not surprisingly, when they met a few years later, the economist was divorced.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (no admirer of economists; he often calls them charlatans and advocates throwing out everything in economics that has an equation)  relates a hilarious story. It is about a highly cited academic in the field of decision theory who helped develop "something grand and useless called 'rational decision making' loaded with grand and useless axioms... and grand and even more useless probabilities".

When at Columbia university, he struggled over a decision to move to Harvard. A colleague suggested that he use some of his greatly honoured and discussed techniques which "included something like like 'maximum expected utility'". He angrily responded, 'Come on, this is serious!' (Taleb is not sure whether the story is apocryphal or not but thinks it true to type.) As Yogi Berra said, 'In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.'

Economists often come up with such cartoon models of human behavior because they are conducive to deriving simple equations and getting exact solutions. But modeling human behaviour without any role for emotions is unrealistic. It is like the drunk who was searching for his keys under a streetlight. When a passerby asked him where he had lost his keys, he replied that he had lost it in the next street. Then why search here? The drunk said, 'Because this is where the the light is present.' Similarly economists use only reason in their models because that is where light is present. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives an idea of why economists make bizarre models:
Economics is the most insular of fields; it is one that quotes least from outside itself. Economics is perhaps the subject that currently has the highest number of philistine scholars - scholarship without erudition and natural curiosity can close your mind and lead to the fragmentation of disciplines.
Humans have generally thought that reason is better than passion, thoughts are better than feelings. Plato thought that emotions are like wild horses which have to be controlled by the intellect which he thought of as the charioteer. I came across some sample sentences in  Metaphors we Live by that show humans regarding reason as better than emotions - The discussion 'fell to the emotional' level, but I 'raised' it back 'up to the rational' plane. We put our 'feelings' aside and had a 'high-level intellectual' discussion of the matter. He couldn't 'rise above' his 'emotions'.

But researchers are finding that reason and emotion work together. The evolutionary journey has equipped us with two distinct information processing systems. Researchers such as Daniel Kahneman have classified these systems as System 1 which can be called the emotional brain and System 2 which can be called the rational brain. These systems are in constant communication with each other.  The attentive System 2 is who we think we are but it is not a paragon of rationality and is often derailed by the automatic System 1.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sharing knowledge - II

The Tamil folktale about the importance of telling your stories that Ramanujan relates goes as follows. A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughters-in-law who always ill treated her. Since there was no one to whom she could unburden herself, she kept putting on weight and her sons and daughters-in-law mocked her bulk and told her to eat less. Once she wandered away and came to an old, deserted house where she decided to blurt out her miseries.

She told her grievance against her first son to the wall in front of her which collapsed under the weight of her woes and she felt herself becoming lighter. She similarly told of her grievances about each of the other persons to each wall in turn. All of them came down and she felt lighter each time. Standing amidst the rubble, she felt lighter not only in body but also in mood.

While reading folktales, you should suspend logic for some time and not ask questions like 'Won't the roof fall on her head if the walls collapse?' Otherwise you will miss the main point of the tale which is that telling stories has a cathartic effect on the teller even if nobody else is listening. Ramanujan writes that wealth, knowledge, etc must circulate , 'there are danas, or gifts, that, in their nature, must be given.'

Whenever I feel like stopping the blog, I will remember this story and tell myself that I  will end up being the loser if I do it. It gives me something to do and keeps me from irritating others in the house. Of course the unintended consequence is that you will have to bear the brunt of my prolixity, what with me frequently expounding on various weighty matters with, what Gandhi once said regarding himself, ‘…a cocksureness worthy only of a man who knows not that he knows not’. The motivation is similar to what Wodehouse says in the preface to Very Good, Jeeves:
It is some fourteen summers since, an eager lad in my early thirties, I started to write Jeeves stories: and many people think this nuisance should now cease. Carpers say that enough is enough. Cavillers say the same. They look down the vista of the years and see these chronicles multiplying like rabbits, and the prospect appalls them. But against this must be set the fact that writing  Jeeves gives me a great deal of pleasure and keeps me out of the public houses.
 (The poet and satirist Edward Young didn't spare the  likes of Gandhi and Wodehouse and other such cunning foxes in whose pack I find myself: The love of praise, howe'er concealed by art,/ Reigns more or less supreme in every heart;/ The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure;/ The modest shun it, but to make it sure!)

So there is some uncertainty about when you can finally give a sigh of relief and exclaim, 'All is well that ends.' As Yogi Berra said, 'If you ask me a question I don't know, I'm not going to answer.' One option you have is to wait for the dialogue from Sholay to play itself out, 'Agar Gabbar se koi tumhe bacha sakta hai toh khud Gabbar.'(If anyone can save you from gabbar, it is gabbar himself.) The easier option is to use the mouse aggressively and escape to less taxing parts of the blogosphere.

Actually I will tell a couple of stories now itself instead of waiting for a future post. What was it that Laurence Sterne said? Digression is “the sunshine of narrative”. I love this quote - it gives me the freedom to write pretty much what I like without bothering about unity, order, coherence, and completeness and other such inconvenient factors.

The first story is about the Dalai Lama's impish sense of humour that I  saw in this post by Ramachandra Guha where he mentions an incident during a commemoration ceremony for the Dalai Lama. One of his table-mates went over to the Dalai Lama and said loudly, ‘Your Holiness! How are you!! You remember we met in Calcutta!’. The Dalai Lama did not recognize him at all so the person continued, ‘We met in Calcutta! With Mother Teresa!’. The older man now took off his glasses, wiped his face, and softly said: ‘I am sorry I don’t remember you, but I do remember Mother Teresa’.

The second story is about Gandhi who thought it a sin to waste a moment of one's life and kept a punishing schedule. He would get up at 3 a.m., say his morning prayers and start replying to letters that he has received and writing articles for his newspapers. He would even dictate letters and articles to his secretaries while walking which used to be an average of 10 km a day.  After one disagreement, one of his devoted, long-time secretaries, Mahadev Desai, wrote in exasperation:

To live with the saints in heaven is a bliss and a glory,
But to live with a saint on earth is a differnt story!