Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

HowTo: be clutter free

July 23, 2012

Mind Hacks has a nice pointer:

Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it. Quite reasonably, I would ask myself whether I should throw this away. At this point, although I didn’t have a name for it, the endowment effect would begin to work its magic, leading me to generate all sorts of reasons why I should keep an item based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable I found it. After hours of tidying I would have kept everything, including the 300 hundred rubber bands (they might be useful one day), the birthday card from two years ago (given to me by my mother) and the obscure computer cable (it was expensive).

Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

Apparently, this works even while reading your mail:

… it works for emails too. If someone sends me a link to an article or funny picture, I don’t think “I must look at that”, I ask “If I hadn’t just been sent this link, how hard would I endeavour to find out this information for myself?”. And then I delete the email, thinking that however fascinating that article on the London sewerage system sounds or that funny picture of a cat promises to be, I didn’t want them before the email was in my possession, so I probably don’t really want them now.

Have fun!

HowTo: fight with your spouse

November 26, 2009

Here is some useful info:

A new study of married couples, however, has found physiological evidence for one technique to diffuse tension: choosing the right fighting words.Couples who used analytical language, such as “think,” “understand,” “because,” or “reason,” during heated arguments were able to keep important stress-related chemicals in check, according to research published in the latest issue of the journal Health Psychology. Cytokines are inflammatory chemicals that spike during periods of prolonged tension and can lower your immunity and lead to early frailty, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers. The authors noted a curious gender twist in their results. Husbands benefitted from their wives’ measured language, but a man’s carefully chosen words had little effect on a woman’s cytokine balance.

By the way, some sections of the articles will make you think twice before signing up as a couple for the next psychological study:

Researchers measured cytokines before and after discussions with 42 married heterosexual couples. In the first session, couples chatted about a neutral topic. In the second, an interviewer gathered a couple’s history and then deliberately provoked a fight by asking them to hash out their hardest issues, saying to a husband and wife something like, “You hate the way her mother always comes over, and you feel like he controls all the money. Discuss,” explains Jennifer Graham, lead author and assistant professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State.

Take a look!

HowTo: take a restorative study break

November 6, 2009

Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily:

When you’re studying during nearly every free moment, what’s the best way to clear up your mind and refocus yourself for the next round of studying?

One old idea that has re-emerged recently is called “attention restoration theory”, or ART. William James actually discussed a similar concept in his 1892 psychology textbook. The idea that taking a walk in the woods can help you refocus your thoughts is at least as old as Immanuel Kant, and probably older. But how exactly does interacting with nature help focus attention? ART says that the natural world engages your attention in a bottom-up fashion, by features of the environment (e.g. a sunset, a beautiful tree). The artificial world demands active attention, to avoid getting hit by cars or to follow street signs. Since intellectual activities like studying or writing also demand the same kind of attention, taking a break in the artificial world doesn’t really function like a rest.

A must-read post!

All failures happen for only one reason — at least in the case of start-ups!

February 26, 2009

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Opening sentence of Anna Karenina

Contrary to what Tolstoy has to say, apparently, when it comes to failed start-ups, they all fail for the same reason — lack of motivation (which, might not be news to those of you who are in the habit of reading Paul Graham); here is Joel expanding on the same idea (quoting Paul Graham, of course):

Jessica is the co-founder of a small angel investment group called Y Combinator. Its model is to give a few thousand dollars to groups of two or three geeks to start tech companies. She has also written a book called Founders at Work, in which she interviews the founders of about 30 successful start-ups. When she asked me what she should speak about, I asked her to consider describing all the different ways a start-up can fail, rather than the usual stuff about lessons learned from people who succeeded.”That would be boring,” she told me. “They all fail for the same reason: People just stop working on their business.” Um, yeah, well, sure, and most people die because their heart stops beating. But somehow dying in different ways is still interesting enough to support 40 hours a week of prime-time programming.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jessica was onto something. Why do start-ups fail? As she pointed out, it’s usually a collapse of motivation — everyone wanders back to civilian life, and the start-up ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

Paul Graham, Jessica’s husband and partner in Y Combinator, has tackled this subject on his website. “The biggest reason founders stop working on their start-ups is that they get demoralized,” he writes. “Some people seem to have unlimited self-generated morale. These almost always succeed. At the other extreme, there are people who seem to have no ability to do this; they need a boss to motivate them. In the middle there is a large band of people who have some, but not unlimited, ability to motivate themselves. These can succeed through careful morale management (and some luck).”

So, who is capable of “careful morale management,” and what does it entail? In my mind, an entrepreneur is like a kid playing with his first shortwave radio. He takes it home and turns it on, and what does he hear?

Nothing. Static.

This might be demoralizing. So he tries a different frequency.

Nothing. Static.

And this might be demoralizing again. Until his mom wanders by and plugs in the antenna on the radio, and suddenly, he picks up the ghost of a station! It sounds like it’s far away, and they seem to be speaking — what is that language they’re speaking? Never mind, it’s a station! An antenna! Who knew? The kid runs off to blog about how cool antennas are.

This is what it’s like when you’re creating a business.

Take a look!

Psychoanalysis as literature

February 16, 2009

Not the first time I am hearing this idea though — Hanif Kureishi in The Independent (in a piece full of what some of you might think very foul language):

Psychoanalysis is more like poetry. It’s more like literature in its deepest sense: this is where we think about who we are. It’s not a mathematical thing.

Link via Amitava Kumar.

Zen meditation, William James on PhD thesis and Darwin’s London

September 4, 2008

Here are a few links via Coturnix at A blog around the clock:

Zen meditation

Science daily reports (via):

Experienced Zen meditators can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than novices, according to a new brain imaging study.

The paper in question is published in PLoS ONE (via); here is the abstract:

Recent neuroimaging studies have identified a set of brain regions that are metabolically active during wakeful rest and consistently deactivate in a variety the performance of demanding tasks. This “default network” has been functionally linked to the stream of thoughts occurring automatically in the absence of goal-directed activity and which constitutes an aspect of mental behavior specifically addressed by many meditative practices. Zen meditation, in particular, is traditionally associated with a mental state of full awareness but reduced conceptual content, to be attained via a disciplined regulation of attention and bodily posture. Using fMRI and a simplified meditative condition interspersed with a lexical decision task, we investigated the neural correlates of conceptual processing during meditation in regular Zen practitioners and matched control subjects. While behavioral performance did not differ between groups, Zen practitioners displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.

William James on PhD theses and PhDs

William James, more than a century ago (via):

When the thesis came to be read by our committee, we could not pass it. Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear. So, telling him that he was temporarily rejected, we advised him to pad out the thesis properly, and return with it next year, at the same time informing his new President that this signified nothing as to his merits, that he was of ultra-Ph.D. quality, and one of the strongest men with whom we had ever had to deal.

To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of. We wrote again, pointing out that a Ph.D. in philosophy would prove little anyhow as to one’s ability to teach literature; we sent separate letters in which we outdid each other in eulogy of our candidate’s powers, for indeed they were great; and at last, mirabile dictu, our eloquence prevailed. He was allowed to retain his appointment provisionally, on condition that one year later at the farthest his miserably naked name should be prolonged by the sacred appendage the lack of which had given so much trouble to all concerned.

Getting the sense of Darwin as a young man

Richard Conniff at the Atlantic (via):

In paintings and sculptures from the last years of his life, Charles Darwin gives the impression of a man deeply wishing he could be somewhere else. At the National Portrait Gallery in London, he keeps his rumpled hat clutched in one hand, ready to bolt for the door. At the Natural History Museum, he has his coat folded across his lap, as if yearning to shed the burden of fame and slip quietly into oblivion. On the £10 note, his eyes are haunted beneath a vast furrowed brow, and there’s dismay behind that biblical white beard.

This image of Darwin is everywhere, and that seemed to me, on a recent trip to London, to be a pity. Even the founding father of evolutionary theory was not born a gloomy old man. I began to wonder if it might be possible to walk Darwin’s London and get a sense of him as a young man caught up in the fray. The landmarks of his life turned out to be all around. One day, for instance, I ducked into the Burlington Arcade—a handsome 1819 predecessor of the enclosed luxury shopping mall, where the bon ton of Darwin’s day shopped—and then, via another arcade, out onto Albemarle Street. To the right was the Royal Institution, where Darwin attended lectures. Brown’s Hotel, where a pro-Darwin group called the X Club used to meet in the 1860s, stood in mid-block. And though Darwin’s publishing company was sold off a few years ago to a conglomerate, the seventh generation of John Murrays still presides over the company’s old house just down the street. Murray told me he was already being inundated with visitors anticipating next year’s big anniversaries of Darwin’s birth (1809) and of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Happy reading!

Short and long-term impact of meditation on mind and brain

April 27, 2008

Vaughan at Mind Hacks collects and comments on couple of review articles on the neuroscience of meditation:

This month’s Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a fantastic review article on the neuroscience of meditation – focusing on how the contemplative practice alters and sharpens the brain’s attention systems.

The full article is available online as a pdf, and discusses what cognitive science studies have told us about the short and long-term impact of meditation on the mind and brain.

A recent review of ‘mindfulness’ meditation-based therapy found that although research is in its early stages and not all possibilities have been ruled out, there’s good evidence from the existing RCTs that it’s particularly good in preventing relapse in severe depression.

Though Vaughan notes that some of the meditational techniques used in these studies are taken from Buddhist meditation practices (and the role that the interest that the science-savvy Dalai Lama have shown on such scientific studies), such practices are also used in several of the Indian meditational practices and schools — though, to be fair to Buddhists, I think, they are the first ones to secularise meditational practices by noting that any word can be used for meditation and that there is no special power associated with any mantra or special word.

Take a look!

Why we love fantasy

April 2, 2008

When we were kids, bedtime was made the most enjoyable for the wonderful stories that our grandmother told; those were mostly stories from Ramayana and Mahabharatha (but with a heavy folk flavour — as I realised later, when I read Ramanujan), which had a large element of the fantastical in them — a hero who would uproot and use whole trees for cooking fire but would be humbled by an old monkey whose tail he could not even move and so on and so forth.

Over at Freakonomics blog, there is a pointer to a couple of links which address the question, namely, as to what the fantasies are good for and why we love them:

Some good ideas have tumbled out of a lively discussion on the subject at Oxford’s Overcoming Bias blog, where Robin Hanson points out that fantasy helps us understand the world we live in, because it can “suppress irrelevant detail and emphasize important essences, like a math model.”

Eliezer Yudkowsky counters that fantasy is only useful when it helps us appreciate what we do in the “merely real” world.

Of course, this being the Freakonomics blog, the next paragraph is only natural:

So if fantasy is a complement to real life, what kind of returns might we see from our growing investment in online role playing games, fantasy books and films, and live-action role playing?

Take a look!

Transition from walking to running!

April 1, 2008

I am no morning person; I would prefer to be a late evening person. But circumstances are such that I am forced to be an early afternoon person. So, when I have a meeting with my mentor or colleagues (I walk from my apartment to my office — a distance of 1 or 1.5 km or so), since I usually wake up late and have just enough time to make it for the meeting in time, I tend to walk fast (though the speed is reduced compared to what I used to — a couple of years ago). So, it is no surprise that I have noticed that, beyond some speed, I do find that running would be easier than walking. However, I never thought about this transition a lot; from Cognitive daily, I learn that one can push this transition speed where walking becomes harder than running towards higher values by doing some math problems in the mind. I now know what I should do to reach my office fast when I am running out of time!

Learning to be compassionate

March 26, 2008

Scientific American has a piece about meditations and their probable uses:

Like athletes or musicians, people who practice meditation can enhance their ability to concentrate—or even lower their blood pressure. They can also cultivate compassion, according to a new study. Specifically, concentrating on the loving kindness one feels toward one’s family (and expanding that to include strangers) physically affects brain regions that play a role in empathy.

“There is such a thing as expertise when it comes to complex emotions or emotional skills, such as the one of cultivating benevolence,” says Antoine Lutz, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who led the study. “That raises the possibility that you can train someone to cultivate this positive emotion.”

Lutz and his colleagues, including neuroscientist Richard Davidson, director of the university’s Waisman Center for Brain Imaging where the study was conducted, took fMRI scans of the brains of 16 veteran meditators as well as 16 others who had started with no meditation experience but received cursory training before they carried out a series of tests. During these tests, the researchers measured the flow of blood in the brains of both the veterans (some of them Tibetan monks) and the American novices as the subjects did or did not meditate on compassionate feelings while being subjected to various sounds with positive and negative connotations.

The piece goes on to describe the experiments that were done, but is careful in its claims:

Although the research does not prove that compassion can be learned, it does suggest that possibility—and that could have implications for treating a range of issues. “Can this type of training be used for depression?” Lutz asks. “Another question is whether this form of mental training and empathy can have an impact for education. We don’t know yet.”

Take a look!