Quick Roundup 430

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Worried Sick?

Over at Junkfood Science is an interesting post about a category I'd never heard of before of psychological phenomena to which I suspect "medical student's disease" might belong:

[Stuart Blackman's] article, "Why health warnings can be bad," began by describing the nocebo effect. That's the powerful phenomenon of developing the most extraordinary physical symptoms when we believe or fear that something is bad for us. It's the negative stepsister of the placebo effect and the full significance of both isn't understood by many people. The nocebo effect is behind the confirmation for most food fears, for example. People who've been taught to believe certain foods are bad for them actually feel sick, experiencing such things as headaches, chest pain, nausea and indigestion, rashes, cough, congestion, weakness and fatigue, and even paralysis when they believe they've eaten them. It's the stepsister of the placebo effect, at work when we feel healthier after eating foods or taking dietary supplements we believe are healthy.
I would not be surprised to find that some statists grasp this, if not explicitly, then on the level of low cunning or at least or opportunism. The Financial Times article notes:
"It's quite remarkable how the illnesses that are increasing at the moment are not the big, killer diseases, grounded in real, physical pathology," says David Wainwright. "It's the subjective problems of everyday life that are becoming medicalised, where there's no actual evidence of any physical illness. "Even hassles at work are interpreted through the medicalised category of work stress rather than political or industrial relations issues" – a practice that Wainwright says is promoted by government agencies. "Health policy is promoting this belief that we're all at risk from absolutely everything we come into contact with, and that just encourages us to feel more vulnerable and to interpret our normal experiences as health problems. It's all just amplifying this epidemic of non-specific illness, which has incredibly disabling effects on people." [bold added]
Perhaps as the Obama Administration attempts to speed us down the primrose path to socialized medicine and nanny-state paternalistic hell, it should consider revising its de facto motto of, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," by adding, "or pass up the opportunity to cultivate a fake one."

Top Ten (Paper) Notebooks

Both my new Levinger's Pocket Briefcase and the Pulse Livescribe "smart pen" Martin Lindeskog favors made this list of "10 Great Notebooks Productive People Love over at Lifehack. There are some other interesting options there I'd never heard of before, too.

So far, I like my Pocket Briefcase, but as with my All-Ett, I'm taking my time getting used to it. In this case, it isn't that I'm ambivalent about it. I definitely like it, but I am trying to figure out how best to use its limited space and how to integrate it into the rest of my personal productivity system. It's like I'm trying to decide whether I have a low-tech PDA, an "outboard brain", or an auxiliary wallet, if that makes any sense.

Texas Trio

Dismuke has brought three interesting items about Texas to my attention recently:
  • Some policemen operating out of Teneha, Texas may be using drug law as a pretext to commit highway robbery. I seem to remember stories like this popping up about a decade ago from East Texas and southern Louisiana.
  • The original recipe of Dr. Pepper, which was invented in Texas, surfaced recently and is being put up for auction. As it turns out, an antiques buff bought the recipe -- and discovered he had it -- quite by accident.
  • Dismuke, on hearing that our Secretary of State seems to recognize Texan independence, jokes that, "Perhaps this means we don't have to pay Federal income taxes anymore!"
To that last, I say, "Shhh! Someone might get wind of that and decide to make Texas the 58th state!"

The "Uncanny Valley"

Some time ago, I read a piece concerning the question of whether cloned Neanderthals would have rights. The piece framed the question badly, but it did at one point introduce me to an interesting idea from the field of robotics, the "uncanny valley hypothesis:
"[Masahiro] Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.
From my own experience, I remember always being puzzled by the popularity of that creepy -- to me, anyway -- "dancing baby" that seemed to be all over the Internet a decade or so ago. (Yes, some people are still making animations of it.) I think my reaction to the baby would qualify as an "uncanny valley" type of experience.

The ensuing discussion at Wikipedia is littered with modernist misconceptions like "instinct", but I think that Mori on to something interesting: If an emotion is an automated response to one's value judgments, then how does one respond to something one apparently can't successfully categorize automatically?

-- CAV


Martin Lindeskog said...

Thanks for the link. I had to go to Lifehacker and write a comment on Fisher space pen, Field Notes and Pulse Smartpen. I have written a new post on Livescribe and how you could share your notes in a great way. The post includes a short lesson in Swedish! ;)

Gus Van Horn said...


I just stopped by Lifehack to see whether there were other recommendations in the comments and saw that you'd been by.

Jim May said...

The "uncanny valley" is a big deal in the CGI arena as well, where "digital actors" remain the last big challenge to being able to do any aspect of a movie using computers.

The basic cause of this phenomenon is the optimization of the human brain for reading human faces.

When a robot is "cute" or interesting, we are responding to it in the same manner we respond to animals -- they have faces, but they are not human faces. Their differences from actual human faces are sufficiently large that the "human face reader" is not invoked.

However, the closer a simulation gets to human faces, the closer it gets to triggering the "face reader". When that point is reached, the brain switches over to trying to read the CGI or robot as an actual human face. That's where all hell breaks loose. All those little flaws in the CGI or robot, which non-facial cognition happily overlooked, become BIG flaws; instead of reacting to it as a cute character, we suddenly find outselves reacting to a person who is odd in many small, yet profoundly unfamiliar and disconcerting ways. All the subtle cues of human facial expressions are "wrong". We are not necessarily aware of the particular flaws themselves, but we are very aware of the emotional summation coming from the "face reader"; warning, there is something definitely wrong with this "person"!

This "face reader" is an evolutionary survival trait, that makes sense in a social species such as we are; even with language, the visual components of facial expressions and body language remain big components of everyday social interaction. Without language, it's just about the entire channel of communication.

I would speculate that this might contribute to xenophobia and racism among primitive societies.

Most of us in the West grew up in a cosmopolitan society; our "face readers" are trained to handle the wider range of "normal faces". But for someone raised with a much narrower experience, their "face reader" is trained to a narrower concept of what a human face looks like; this is what I suspect gives rise to the "aw, they all look the same to me" sort of attitude often associated with racists.

Reduced or non-functionality of the "face reader" is AFAIK a big part of the symptoms associated with the various forms of autism.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the very interesting comment, which I thought was spot-on about racism in primitive societies.

I think, contrary to my previous wording, that the brain IS automatically classifying, but is tricked just enough to make the the wrong classification. The many imperfections you note then become the drivers of the emotional response.


Anonymous said...

I want to thank Jim May for his discussion of the "human face reader." I remember reading about this very briefly years ago but had forgotten about it since. Jim writes:

"I would speculate that this might contribute to xenophobia and racism among primitive societies."

I read some of the racialist or so-called "race-realist" blogs on occasion and I think this "face reader" phenomenon goes along way to explaining not only racism among primitive societies but our own home-grown racist movement such as the racialist / white nationalist movements.

The racialists are always saying that different races "look at the world in a different way" or "secrete different societies" or are "fundamentally incompatible." I think the "face reader" as evolutionary survival trait makes these racist viewpoints, while no less contemptible, easier to understand as a phenomenon. They are simply concrete bound tribalism.

Lastly, I think the "face reader" phenomenon might go along way to explaining sexual attraction. For myself, growing up as a half-Asian in an all white suburb, I never had much exposure to black or Latin people until I spent a year in Brazil. Until that point, I never found Latin women attractive. That changed after living in Brazil. I think what happened is that I became familiar with the different facial types and was able to detect all the nuances that go along with facial expressions; ie humor, sarcasm, concern, etc. As a result I was able to see beauty. Perhaps this is an example of the Objectivist view of concept formation in operation. First you need to see multiple instances of something and then abstract out the similarities while omitting the measurements. That's just speculation though, I could be wrong.


Gus Van Horn said...

I have been pondering that myself, and have a slightly different answer.

I think the face reader can explain only so much. Beyond that the culture and, of course, free will come into play.

Brazil, like North America, is racially mixed, but unlike America, people see themselves as being on a continuum, rather than strictly of any one race. The former is far more conducive to the absence of racism.

Anonymous said...

Madmax: I would say that my experience matches yours w/r/t sexual attraction. Over time, the range of women that I'd consider attractive has grown more and more inclusive, in regard to not only race, but body type and age, as well. I attribute it to personal growth, in that my automatized emotional reactions to people adjust over time to match my conscious convictions.

(That wouldn't stop certain cynics from declaring simply that as we get older and more desperate, we get less choosy :)

Gus: that is correct, as with all the other innate mechanisms we inhereit from our pre-conceptual past; all of those things are now subject to the will.

Gus Van Horn said...


(1) Per your request, I am identifying you as Jim May.

(2) I have to second you comment about becoming attracted to a wider range of women as I grew older.