I want a way to exercise the hippocampus. So far, I have been doing Google searches for phrases like ‘hippocampus activation’ in order to discover research. Particularly, I have been looking for research that shows increased neuronal activity or blood flow to hippocampus using fMRI or PET. My theory is that, if you practice the things which increase activity in the hippocampus, you will develop your hippocampus. I have good basis for this theory, I believe. Here is what I have found so far.

First, the left hippocampus seems to be involved in contextual or episodic memory. The research here is tricky, because memory has many facets, and different recall tasks have different levels of activation in the left hippocampus. If you want to get maximal left hippocampal activation, you will need to exercise specific types of memory, I believe. My current proposal is this: display a list of words or letters on a color background for a specified period of time. Display another list, on a different color background. Do this for a total of three word lists and three colors. Now, display a random word from one of the lists. The user must press a key representing the color of the background upon which the word appeared. I believe this would activate left hippocampus pretty nicely. If anyone reading this has fMRI or PET equipment, I would appreciate verification.

Next, I found that the right hippocampus is completely different. It is used for spatial memory, such as map navigation. This is the area of the brain which gets really large for cabbies in London. Maze navigation, it would seem, is the way to activate the right hippocampus. But again it is tricky.Navigating withsequences of moves seems to involve the caudate instead of right hippocampus. Also rat tests have shown that various tweaks of a maze-navigation testcould optmize for activation of one of three areas of the brain: right hippocampus, caudate, and someoptical processing area. So, it would stink to do an exercise that you think is activating your right hippocampus, but have it activate the caudate instead. My current understanding is that the right hippocampus seems to be involved mainly when navigating by landmarks, and making new routes. Therefore, I think a game like Crimson Skies, with its 3D mazes and goal-oriented route-finding,is perfectly optimized for right hippocampus training.

Hitler Ads

[via Scripting] Some people are offended by the new Bush ad, which shows a montage of attacks on Bush, including some attack ads which compare Bush to Hitler. The clips are offensive, apparently deliberately to say ?look at the offensive, wild-eyed hyperbole that our opponents are propagating?. With the exception of the Howard Dean clip (?I want my country back!?), all of the clips are over-the-top, and represent violations of decorum on the part of Bush opponents.

These clips are fair game. If these people don’t like having their wild-eyed statements used against them, they shouldbe more civil.It is not Bush’s fault that the Hitler ads make Kerry look bad, and blaming Bush for Kerry’s failure to control the rhetoric of his own supporters just makes him look ineffective.

This is a perfect opportunity forKerry to show some bold leadership and encourage his supporters to be more civil. The Hitler clip isa great example. Soros (himself a holocaust survivor) has compared Bush to Hitler, paid for the Hitler ads, and is one of Kerry’s largest contributors. Kerry has had plenty of opportunities to denounce the Hitler ads and resolve that ?never again will mybiggest supporterssay such things?. People are free to say what they want, but politicians are free to choose their supporters. And a statement that ?people who engage in divisive, wild-eyed rhetoric are no friends of mine? would go a long way toward restoring civility.

When Kerry’s biggest supporters says things that make him look bad, it raises questions about Kerry’s ability to control the message of his own party. And the continued focus on blaming the opponent raises additional questions about his leadership. Go with the wild-eyed rhetoric, then pretend it never happened, andblame otherswhen it’s brought to light –trying tohave it both ways just looks dishonest and indecisive. It’s the leader’s job to set the standards for how the campaign will be conducted, and lead by example.

A good example right now is Bill Clinton, who refuses to get sucked into the bitter and divisive rhetoric. If the same ad were run today, with Clinton’s face at the end, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective, because Clinton has done a much better job of keeping the kooks at arms length. Kerry should learn from Clinton’s example. Kerry should be a better example.

Seattle Public Library and RFID

I’ve finally been to the new, internationally acclaimed, Seattle Public Library. I’ve been a few times, checked out and returned books. Since everyone so far has offered glowing reviews, I’ll focus on the things I don’t like about the library.

First, there are three elevators, and 10 or more floors. The elevators are the only way to get up and down from parking garage. There are no stairs. This is hostile to a healthy lifestyle, and the elevators take forever to arrive (and are invariably crowded). The elevators on upper levels have status lights to tell you which floor the elevator is on, but not in the parking garage.

Next, there are several places where perfectly passable spaces are blocked off by shin-level railings. This could be dangerous or painful. There are crotch-level railings, too. Other places, the walls bend and curve and make it easy to bump your head. The fourth level is painted an angry red; and has lumpy walls of sheetmetal which, though perhaps ?artistic?, are unnecessary and claustrophobic. Reading areas are exposed to major throughfares, and completely unprotected from noisythrongs of people and tour guides.

The checkout process is a step in the right direction, but stops a bit short. The books are tagged with RFID, which allows the computer to detect all of the books you have almost magically. However, you still need to scan your library card with barcode scanner, which kind of defeats the purpose of RFID. If the library card were RFID, you could just walk out of the library and have the checkout process happen automatically; without having to stop and pull out any cards, set down the books, etc.For book returns, you can drop your books in a conveyor belt, and the machineuses the RFID to record that you have returned the book and route to the appropriate reshelving station. However, the process only works with about half of the books, so it can take anywhere from 1 minute to 10 hours before the system recognizes your return.

Some hints of coming RFID support from Microsoft.

Aggression Paradigm and Competition

I have been thinking recently about two laboratory measures for aggression and one particular experiment in game theory; and how they are related:

  • Taylor Aggression Paradigm: Give somebody a list of sentences; some of which can be interpreted positively, some negatively, and some neutral. Scatter several ambiguous sentences in the list (?The painter drew the knife?). Have the person read the sentences and rate positive/negative/neutral. People with low levels of aggression will take longer on ambiguous sentences than non-ambiguous, while people with higher levels of aggression will be very quick to interpret ambiguous sentences with a negative spin.
  • Point Subtraction Aggression Paradigm: Tell the subject that he will be playing a computer game online against someone else. There are two buttons, ?A?, and ?B?, and the players take turns pressing either ?A? or ?B?. When a player presses ?A?, a random amount of points is added to his own score. If the player presses ?B?, a random amount of points is deducted from the opponent’s score. At the end of a fixed number of turns, each player will get a cash reward based on the number of points he has. The opponent is actually a computer, and randomly presses button ?B? to subtract from the subject’s balance. Monitor how aggressively the subject retaliates to judge level of aggression.
  • Fixed Value Win/Lose Auction: Put two people in a room and tell them that you are going to auction off a dollar bill. Bids increment by 5 cents. The highest bid wins the dollar, while the loser has to pay whatever his losing bid was (to the house; not to the other player). In other words, if player ?A? bids $1.25 and player ?B? bids $1.30, then player ?A? has a net loss of $1.25 and player ?B? has a net loss of $0.30. The players play with researcher’s money.

The first one is interesting, because it highlights the importance of interpretation in aggression. People like to think that their internal perceptions are closely-related to reality, but this experiement highlights the cognitive/gestalt reality. People often react to phantoms.

The latter two are sort of ?game theory?, in that they involve reacting to perceived motivations and strategies of other humans. The point-subtraction one is an experiment I would expect to lose predictive value as IQ increases, because the strategy seem rather obvious. In the auction game, people also quickly arrived at a stable strategy; normally you only pay $3.00 for $1.00 a time or two before learning.

The thing I find interesting about all three is that people will make rather unproductive choices initially, until they understand the game they are playing. And in all three cases, the subject could make much better choices by spending a relatively short period of time initially to understand the game before playing.

Reality Check (Credit or Cash)

In the bubble days, there was a foolish belief that e-commerce would take over huge chunks of the economy. Since the bubble burst, many people seem to have adjusted their expectations about e-commerce too far in the opposite direction. Some data should serve as a reality check: Online commerce placed by credit card grew 59% last year. This is despite the economic downturn, and does not include alternate pay methods like paypal which have grown significantly as well.

People are willing to spend money online, and my hunch is that the growth is not currently being limited by the amount that people will spend, but is instead limited by lack of ability to get products and services to market quickly enough. This is still an area of great opportunity.

What’s Science?

Dare once told me that science is the modern world’snew superstition. ?Science? is the trojan horse that can slip beneath people’s BS-meters and exempt claims from rational scrutiny. We have all of the same snake-oil hucksters as before, but now their products are backed by the immutable, clinically-tested, scientific laws of nature.

I believe that the vast majority of adults (well over 90%, and more than 75% of the readers of this blog) do not really understand what science is. They have been brainwashed since youth to believe that (religion == bad; superstition == bad; science == good), and they have been led to believe that they can easily distinguish between science and superstition. They are taught that certain observable cues can alert them to religious or superstitious arguments, and that certain characteristics typify proper scientific discourse. Children are trained to distinguish between science and supertition based on the superficial characteristics of both, rather than based on an understanding of the fundamental perspective. By the time most children reach adulthood, they understand the fundamental assumptions of scientific method and discourse less than they understand the lives of the movie stars, but their understanding of the superficial characteristics is hardwired at a subconscious level. They are like Pavlov’s dogs; snarling at any superficial demonstration of?superstition? andobediently salivating for any superficial demonstrationof ?science?.

This conditioned response continues in the adult media, who consider it a public service to trash anything with superficial religious or superstitious characteristics, while dedicating an equal amount of airtime to publishing scientific ?studies? and ?expert opinions?. By continual example, our society reinforces the Pavlovian slobber response to the superficial characteristics of ?superstition? and ?science?.

Apsychological defense based on superficial characteristics is flawed,and leaves the door wide open to anyone with the ability to mimic.The hucksters know the superficial cues better than most people, and have long ago adopted all of the code-words and mannerisms that children are conditioned to perceive as ?scientific?. What we have is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; superstition masquerading as science. And adults are basically defenseless, because we have been taught only to fear things that look like wolves.

When people have their beliefs based on ?science? challenged, they often become defensive, just as any devotee of a cult would. It is instructive to ask someone who has had a belief installed through ?scientific evidence? to explain why their belief is any more validthan if it had simply been asserted by the Dalai Lama. Eating fat makes you fat, because science says so, right? Reducing cortisol helps you get slim, right? Insulin surges make you fat, right? Which of these statements do you believe? Now explain why your reasons for believing it have any more validity than an assertion from the Dalai Lama.

Some of these claims are more defensible than others, and none of them are defensible without proper context, so I’m not trying to say that any of them is ?wrong? or ?right?. The point is that most people who would agree with any of these statements, do so out of superstition rather than any scientifically defensible reason; and likely do not understand the paramaters under which their beliefs are valid or invalid. Furthermore, they do not even know that their belief is based on superstition. Most adults are probably not sophisticated enoughto defend specific claims at a ?scientific? level, but even the ones who are will quickly fall back on tangled webs of logical fallacy: ?Five scientific studies say that Cortisol leads to weight gain, and three scientific studies show that chemical X reduces cortisol; so chemical X must reduce weight!?