Tuesday, December 02, 2014


Matthew Lieberman -- want him in your group?

One of the main premises of the book called “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” by Matthew Lieberman is that physical pain and social pain (from rejection and attack) are the same somehow.  This comes from fMRI studies of people who play a game called “Cyberball” in which they are little surrogate figures playing three-cornered catch with a dot until the other two inexplicably stop throwing the ball to the guy in the fMRI tunnel.   It’s a conspiracy, but the left-out one doesn’t know that.  The same connectome systems lit up as the systems that show when when people physically hurt.  Indeed, people report that being rejected “hurts” in much the same way as trauma.  Of course, the point of pain is to make you stop doing things that don’t help your survival.  

But the point of science is that hypotheses are welcome but that they must be confirmed by other kinds of tests and by retesting.  Many times the original tests don’t pan out, but the pop media generally grabs them and runs with them into Fantasyland before there is any confirmation or before the raw results can be digested.  I’m afraid that this is true of “Social.”  Here’s an abstract from one of the other related studies.

ABSTRACT: Experiences of social exclusion elicit social pain responses. The current study examined the ability of social exclusion to activate physiological stress responses and adaptively modulate affect and empathy consistent with "defensive emotional analgesia." Measures of affect and empathy, and saliva samples for cortisol and alpha-amylase (sAA) analysis, were collected before and after subjects participated in a computer game ("Cyberball") designed to manipulate feelings of social exclusion. Contrary to our hypotheses, social exclusion was associated with a reduction in cortisol, and social inclusion with an increase in cortisol. Both Cyberball groups showed increases in sAA and decreases in both positive and negative affect, with the greatest drop in affect occurring after social exclusion. Empathy did not differ between the social exclusion and inclusion groups and was not correlated with cortisol or sAA levels. These results support the presence of a defensive response to social exclusion in which central stress pathways controlling cortisol release are inhibited. Cortisol and sAA were shown to have distinct patterns of responses to psychological stress, with sAA responding more rapidly. Related methodological concerns for the use of these physiological stress markers and of Cyberball in social neuroscience research are discussed.
I had never heard of alpha-amylase, but it turns out to be pretty interesting.  It’s an enzyme.  (unattributed from Wiki:   Enzymes are highly selective catalysts, greatly accelerating both the rate and specificity of metabolic chemical reactions, from the digestion of food to the synthesis of DNA. Most enzymes are proteins, although some catalytic RNA molecules have been identified.”)  People in hunting cultures have fewer genes for this stuff than people who eat starches, so it is thought to be a mutation associated with the development of agriculture.  It’s not tested by analyzing blood, but rather from spit which makes a test both cheaper and less painful.

Human beings seem to need to form groups, which is logical enough since it’s an excellent survival strategy for a species that is partly herd (prey) and partly hunting party (predator).  The forces that draw the boundaries are both those of ostracism because of people who make trouble, are contagious, or don’t seem to fit (stigma), and those of inclusion which may be because of affinity or merit, a shared goal or because no one else will have them so they band together.  Now and then I check back to some group where I was once included (even my family) and find I just don’t fit anymore.  Some -- not all -- are sorry to see me go.  Some are just astounded that anyone would care to leave.  Mostly the catalytic enzyme for departure has been education, but maybe lack of education would do the same thing.

By birth I belong to Portland, OR, by location I belong to Valier, by history I belong to Browning, by education I belong to Chicago in two ways:  south side university intellectuals (a group slow to change) and north side Method-based theatre (now pretty much dispersed).  The Portland where I grew up does not exist anymore.  There are other groups that are covert, either because I would have to invoke Thumper’s law (“if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”) and others because it would endanger them to be exposed.

The kind of groups I prefer are not inclined to huddle but more like nomads who need a point of return in order to regroup and go out again.  The groups I avoid are dangerous, either because they try to capture members through fear or reward or because they develop interior hierarchies that sacrifice the least powerful for the benefit of the most powerful.  Others are endangered because bigger and better armed groups target them and try to eliminate them.

Actually, though I probably “count” in the periphery of a hundred Venn diagrams and in the overlap of a few, I’m a satellite to most orbits because of conflicting sociology -- I move in terms of intellectual inquiry, while staying put in a high prairie village, one of the least known of all American contexts.  What difference does it make?  Mainly I can forget about publishing, my “home” denomination has already forgotten about me and anyway has changed away from my values, and though the internet has been a home and a joy, it is clearly about to be commodified to exclude me.  If I dress down, I am ignored and put down.  If I dress up, I am treated with respect.  Typical.  Predictable.

by Valentino Korokov

Since I write for myself as Ariadne’s thread of thought that I follow through the days, how I dress doesn’t really take the value out of what I do.  That day when the government tries to force me to get a “writer’s license” that dictates what and how I write (don’t be shocked -- it’s bound to come) I’ll just do it quietly at home as a guerrilla scribbler. Some are very experienced at this and can write in plain sight, because the authorities are not smart enough to recognize the markers.  Inquire about South American magic realist novels.  Look into the deeply hidden underculture of dictator-ruled countries whether Soviet or African -- the message might be music or painting.  In fact, one of the uses of prudery in America is to criminalize defiance and transgression.  But oppression is always a catalyst.

Lieberman’s book insists that brains “are built to make sense of other brains and to understand everyone’s place in the pecking order.”  Hidden in his work is the need to categorize humans as “better” than animals and some humans as “better than others.”  He is fond of sci-fi and therefore closes with a paragraph about Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel called “Foundation.”  I haven’t read it but it’s supposed to describe “a new branch of mathematics called “psychohistory”, in which principles of psychology are used to predict how many psychopolitical events over the next several decades will materialize and be resolved.”  He’s talking algorithms.  He’s talking statistics.  He’s assuming that pecking orders are unchanging.

He’s prioritizing groups as defined by some survey -- NOT individual choice or self-description -- and ASSUMING that everyone else is just like him.  He speaks of “unprecedented quality of of life” as measured by the stock market.  It’s not that he doesn’t want to help the impoverished and suffering, it’s that they are not part of his consciousness.  He’s a pinhead playing catch with pixels.  He’s no more useful than the Netflix experts who can’t figure out what movie I want to watch.

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