Neuropolitics: “Openness” and Cortical Thickness

Brain anatomy–gyruses

I ran across an interesting study today, on openness, creativity, and cortical thickness.

The psychological trait of “openness”–that is, willingness to try new things or experiences–correlates with other traits like creativity and political liberalism. (This might be changing as cultural shifts are changing what people mean by “liberalism,” but it was true a decade ago and is still statistically true today.)

Researchers took a set of 185 intelligent people studying or employed in STEM, gave them personality tests intended to measure “openness,” and then scanned their brains to measure cortical thickness in various areas.

According to Citizendium, “Cortical thickness” is:

a brain morphometric measure used to describe the combined thickness of the layers of the cerebral cortex in mammalian brains, either in local terms or as a global average for the entire brain. Given that cortical thickness roughly correlates with the number of neurons within an ontogenetic column, it is often taken as indicative of the cognitive abilities of an individual, albeit the latter are known to have multiple determinants.

According to the article in PsyPost, reporting on the study:

“The key finding from our study was that there was a negative correlation between Openness and cortical thickness in regions of the brain that underlie memory and cognitive control. This is an interesting finding because typically reduced cortical thickness is associated with decreased cognitive function, including lower psychometric measures of intelligence,” Vartanian told PsyPost.”

Citizendium explains some of the issues associated with too thin or thick cortexs:

Typical values in adult humans are between 1.5 and 3 mm, and during aging, a decrease (also known as cortical thinning) on the order of about 10 μm per year can be observed [3]. Deviations from these patterns can be used as diagnostic indicators for brain disorders: While Alzheimer’s disease, even very early on, is characterized by pronounced cortical thinning[4], Williams syndrome patients exhibit an increase in cortical thickness of about 5-10% in some regions [5], and lissencephalic patients show drastic thickening, up to several centimetres in occipital regions[6].

Obviously people with Alzheimer’s have difficulty remembering things, but people with Williams Syndrome also tend to be low-IQ and have difficulty with memory.

Of course, the cortex is a big region, and it may matter specifically where yours is thin or thick. In this study, the thinness was found in the left middle frontal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, left superior temporal gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, right inferior parietal lobule, and right middle temporal gyrus.

These are areas that, according to the study’s authors, have previously been shown to be activated during neuroimaging studies of creativity, and so the specific places you would expect to see some kind of anatomical difference in particularly creative people.

Hypothetically, maybe reduced cortical thickness, in some people, makes them worse at remembering specific kinds of experiences–and thus more likely to try new ones. For example, if I remember very strongly that I like Tomato Sauce A, and that I hate Tomato Sauce B, I’m likely to just keep buying A. But if every time I go to the store I only have a vague memory that there was a tomato sauce I really liked, I might just pick sauces at random–eventually trying all of them.

The authors have a different interpretation:

“We believe that the reason why Openness is associated with reduced cortical thickness is that this condition reduces the person’s ability to filter the contents of thought, thereby facilitating greater immersion in the sensory, cognitive, and emotional information that might otherwise have been filtered out of consciousness.”

So, less meta-brain, more direct experience? Less worrying, more experiencing?

The authors note a few problems with the study (for starters, it is hardly a representative sample of either “creative” people nor exceptional geniuses, being limited to people in STEM,) but it is still an interesting piece of data and I hope to see more like it.


If you want to read more about brains, I recommend Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind, which I am reading now. It goes into some detail on relevant brain structures, and how they work to create memories, recognize patterns, and let us create thought. (Incidentally, the link goes to Amazon Smile, which raises money for charity; I selected St. Jude’s.)


Book Club: The Code Economy ch. 1

Greetings! Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. Tea is also good. Today we’re diving into chapter one of Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, “Jobs: Divide and Coordinate.”

I wish this chapter had been much longer; we speed through almost 2.5 million years of cognitive evolution in a couple of pages.

The earliest hominins had about the same short-term memory as a modern-day chimpanzee, which is to say they could keep track of only two operations at a time. … Our methods for creating tools gradually became more sophisticated, until we were using the tools we created to produce other tools in a repetitive and predictable manner. These processes for creating stone tools were among humanity’s first production algorithms-that is, the earliest code. They appeared almost simultaneously in human communities in most part of the world around 40,000 BC.


…[E.O.] Wilson refers to this phenomenon more broadly as the discovery of eusocial behavior… Wilson situates the date far earlier in human history than I do here. I chose 50,000 years [ago] because my focus is on the economy. it is clear that an epochal change in society occurred roughly 10,000 years BCE, when humans invented agriculture in six parts of the world simultaneously. The fact of this simultaneity directly suggests the advance of code represented by the invention of agriculture was part of a forward movement of code that started much earlier.

What do you think? Does the simultaneous advent of behavioral modernity–or eusociality–in far-flung human groups roughly 50,000 years ago, followed by the simultaneous advent of agriculture in several far-flung groups about 10,000 years ago speak to the existence of some universal, underlying process? Why did so many different groups of people develop similar patterns of life and technology around the same time, despite some of them being highly isolated? Was society simply inevitable?

The caption on the photo is similarly interesting:

Demand on Short-Term Working Memory in the Production of an Obsidian Axe [from Read and van der Leeuw, 2015] … We can relate the concepts invoked in the prodcution of stone tools to the number of dimensions involved and thereby to the size of short-term workign memory (STWM) required for the prodction of the kind of stone tools that exemplify each stage in hominin evolution. …

Just hitting the end of a pebble once to create one edge, as in the simplest tools, they calculate requires holding three items in the working memory. Removing several flakes to create a longer edge (a line), takes STWM 4; working an entire side takes STWM 5; and working both sides of the stone in preparation for knapping flakes from the third requires both an ability to think about the pebble’s shape in three dimensions and STWM 7.

(The Wikipedia article on Lithic Reduction has a lovely animation of the technique.)

It took about 2 million years to proceed from the simplest tools (working memory: 3) to the most complex (working memory: 7.) Since the Neolithic, our working memory hasn’t improved–most of us are still limited to a mere 7 items in our working memory, just enough to remember a phone number if you already know the area code.

All of our advances since the Neolithic, Auerswald argues, haven’t been due to an increase in STWM, but our ability to build complexity externally: through code. And it was this invention of code that really made society take off.

By about 10,000 BCE, humans had formed the first villages… Villages were the precursors of modern-day business firms in that they were durable association built around routines. … the advance of code at the village level through the creation of new technological combinations set into motion the evolution from simplicity to complexity that has resulted in the modern economy.

It was in the village, then, that code began to evolve.

What do you think? Are Read and van der Leeuw just retroactively fitting numbers 3-7 to the tools, or do they really show an advance in working memory? Is the village really the source of most code evolution? And who do you think is more correct, Herbert Spencer or Thomas Malthus?

Auerswald then forward to 1557, with the first use of the word “job” (spelled “jobbe,” most likely from “gobbe,” or lump.)

The advent of the “jobbe” a a lump of work was to the evolution of modern society something like what the first single-celled organism was to the evolution of life.


The “jobbe” contrasted with the obligation to perform labor continuously and without clearly defined roles–slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, or even apprenticeship–as had been the norm throughout human history.

Did the Black Death help create the modern “job market” by inspiring Parliament to pass the Statute of Laborers?

I am reminded here of a passage from Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, (published in 1903):

The idea of making a bargain when two persons entered upon some particular piece of work, the one as employer, the other as employed, was entirely repugnant to the older generation, since it was assumed that their relations as inferior and superior should determine their financial relations; the superior would do what was right, and the inferior should accept what the superior might give without a question or a murmur. Among the samurai, where the arrangement is between equals, bargaining or making fixed and fast terms which will hold to the end, and which may be carried to the courts in case of differences, was a thing practically unknown in the older civilization. Everything of a business nature was left to honor, and was carried on in mutual confidence.

“A few illustrations of this spirit of confidence from my own experience may not be without interest. On first coming to Japan, I found it usual for a Japanese who wished to take a jinrikisha to call the runner and take the ride without making any bargain, giving him at the end what seemed right. And the men generally accepted the payment without question. I have found that recently, unless there is some definite understanding arrived at before the ride, there is apt to be some disagreement, the runner presuming on the hold he has, by virtue of work done, to get more than is customary. This is especially true in case the rider is a foreigner. Another set of examples in which astonishing simplicity and confidence were manifested was in the employment of evangelists. I have known several instances in which a full correspondence with an evangelist with regard to his employment was carried on, and the settlement finally concluded, and the man set to work without a word said about money matters. It need hardly be said that no foreigner took part in that correspondence. …

“This confidence and trustfulness were the product of a civilization resting on communalistic feudalism; the people were kept as children in dependence on their feudal lord; they had to accept what he said and did; they were accustomed to that order of things from the beginning and had no other thought; on the whole too, without doubt, they received regular and kindly treatment. Furthermore, there was no redress for the peasant in case of harshness; it was always the wise policy, therefore, for him to accept whatever was given without even the appearance of dissatisfaction. This spirit was connected with the dominance of the military class. Simple trustfulness was, therefore, chiefly that of the non-military classes.

“Since the overthrow of communal feudalism and the establishment of an individualistic social order, necessitating personal ownership of property, and the universal use of money, trustful confidence is rapidly passing away.

We still identify ourselves with our profession–“I am a doctor” or “I am a paleontologist”–but much less so than in the days when “Smith” wasn’t a name.

Auerswald progresses to the modern day:

In the past two hundred years, the complexity of human economic organization has  increased by orders of magnitude. Death rates began to fall rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century, due to a combination of increased agricultural output, improved hygiene, and the beginning of better medical practices–all different dimensions of the advance of code…. Greater numbers of people living in greater density than ever before accelerated the advance of code.

Sounds great, but:

By the twentieth century, the continued advance of code necessitated the creation of government bureaucracies and large corporations that employed vast numbers of people. These organizations executed code of sufficient complexity that it was beyond the capacity of any single individual to master.

I’ve often wondered if the explosion of communist disasters at the beginning of the 20th century occurred because we could imagine a kind of nation-wide code for production and consumption and we had the power to implement it, but we didn’t actually have the capabilities and tools necessary to make it work.

We can imagine Utopia, but we cannot reach it.

Auerswald delineates two broad categories of “epochal change” as a result of the code-explosion of the past two centuries: First, our capabilities grew. Second:

“we have, to an increasing degree, ceded to other people–and to code itself–authority and autonomy, which for millennia we had kept unto ourselves and our immediate tribal groups as uncodified cultural norms.”

Before the “job”, before even the “trade,” people lived and worked far more at their own discretion. Hoeing fields or gathering yams might be long and tedious work, but at least you didn’t have to pee in a bottle because Amazon didn’t give you time for bathroom breaks.

Every time voters demand that politicians “bring back the jobs” or politicians promise to create them, we are implicitly stating that the vast majority of people are no longer capable of making their own jobs. (At least, not jobs that afford a modern lifestyle.) The Appalachians lived in utter poverty (the vast majority of people before 1900 lived in what we would now call utter poverty), but they did not depend on anyone else to create “jobs” for them; they cleared their own land, planted their own corn, hunted their own hogs, and provided for their own needs.

Today’s humans are (probably not less intelligent nor innately capable than the average Appalachian of 1900, but the economy (and our standards of living) are much more complex. The average person no longer has the capacity to drive job growth in such a complicated system, but the solution isn’t necessarily for everyone to become smarter. After all, large, complicated organizations need hundreds of employees who are not out founding their own companies.

But this, in turn, means all of those employees–and even the companies themselves–are dependent on forces far outside their control, like Chinese monetary policy or the American electoral cycle. And this, in turn, raises demand for some kind of centralized, planned system to protect the workers from economic hardship and ensure that everyone enjoys a minimum standard of living.

Microstates suggest themselves as a way to speed the evolution of economic code by increasing the total number of organisms in the ecosystem.

With eusociality, man already became a political (that is, polis) animal around 10,000 or 40,000 or perhaps 100,000 years ago, largely unable to subsist on his own, absent the tribe. We do not seem to regret this ill-remembered transition very much, but what about the current one? Is the job-man somehow less human, less complete than the tradesman? Do we feel that something essential to the human spirit has been lost in defining and routinizing our daily tasks down to the minute, forcing men to bend to the timetables of factories and international corporations? Or have we, through the benefits of civilization (mostly health improvements) gained something far richer?

Satanic Daycare Scandal, part 2


Now, you might think that people would be cautious about accepting absurd claims coming from actually diagnosed, mentally-ill people receiving psychiatric treatment, but personal experience suggests that they don’t. Combine this with the feminist claim that you must always believe and support the victim and never question their claims, and you have the ingredients for thousands of destroyed lives.

Sybil launched a good two decades of psychiatrists using hypnosis to convince anxious or depressed women that they actually have a dozen or two personalities as a result of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse or other trauma. With the publication of “Michelle Remembers,” these patients became instant sources of repressed evidence of a world-wide Satanic child-torturing conspiracy. For example, as the NY Times reports:

While undergoing psychiatric therapy at a Chicago hospital from 1986 to 1992, Patricia Burgus says, she was convinced by doctors that she had memories of being part of a satanic cult, being sexually abused by numerous men and abusing her own two sons.

She says that hypnosis and other treatments caused her to believe she remembered cannibalizing people, so much so that her husband brought in a hamburger from a family picnic and therapists agreed to test the meat to see if it was human. …

Mrs. Burgus, 41, said in an interview that she was referred to the hospitals by therapists in her hometown of Des Moines who had been treating her for what she describes as a severe post-partum depression. She said she received a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder and was treated with various medications, hypnosis and was occasionally kept in leather restraints during six years of treatment, two and a half years as an inpatient. She said her children were hospitalized because doctors believed her disorder might be genetic.

As it turns out, if you make enough claims about an on-going, massive child-torture and rape conspiracy, sooner or later the police get involved.

In 1980, Becky McCuan, a little girl living in Kern County, California, was actually molested by her grandfather. Her mother’s step-mother, Mary Ann Barbour, became so distressed by her conviction that Becky’s parents weren’t doing enough to protect her that she had a psychotic breakdown and ended up in the mental hospital. [Note: the quotes in this section come from the Religious Tolerance link, but see also “A Modern Witch Hunt,” “Kern Case that Brought 1,000 year Sentences Thrown Out,” and the relevant Wikipdia article. I recommend reading more about the case just to get the full flavor of how horribly it was handled.]

The step-grandmother made numerous bizarre accusations against the parents, leading social workers to put the two step-grandchildren into her custody and begin investigating the parents for being part of a “sex-ring.”

After being repeatedly questioned by the police over many months, the children claimed that they had been:

1. Hung from ceiling hooks and beaten with belts

2. Rented to strangers in motels and forced to act in “kiddy-porn” movies,

3. Abused by a sex ring involving their grandparents, their parents, their father’s brothers, friends of their parents, (Scott and Brenda Kniffen,) the social worker who did the inspection, a co-worker of their father, and two unnamed child welfare workers,

4. And they had witnessed infants murdered and buried in a Satanic ritual.

They led the FBI to the place where the bodies were supposed to be buried, but not only were not corpses found, there wasn’t even evidence that the dirt had been disturbed (ie, dug up and filled back in.) (Archaeologists are amazingly good at figuring out if dirt has been disturbed, which is why we can tell where thousand-year old ditches and post-holes were buried. The police, we may assume, are similarly skilled at finding hastily dug graves.)

In fact, no evidence was ever found to support the childrens’ allegations, and the children themselves told their parents’ lawyers that they only accused their uncle because their grandmother told them to.

The police then brought in Scott and Brenda Kniffen’s kids; in order to get the accusations they wanted, the children:

were repeatedly and suggestively interrogated. The interviewers would describe a sex act and then ask the child to confirm or deny that it happened. When questioned separately, each was told (falsely) that their brother had disclosed abuse by both the parents and the rest of the sex-ring. Brian and Brandon claim that they were yelled at and terrorized by the interrogators. They were told that they could go home again if they testified about the abuse. …

Brian Kniffen later recanted, and said that he had been told what to say at the trial and had been promised that he could be with his parents again if he cooperated. His brother Brandon has also recanted. They have stated that the abuse never occurred and that they were led and coerced to testify as they did.

Accounts of the case claim that the police were just too ignorant to realize that you can get a small child to confess to just about anything this way. I don’t believe this for an instant, both because these kinds of interrogations were illegal at the time for adults, and because, the memories small children, no matter how honest, are not all that reliable even under good circumstances.

The McCuan’s and Kniffens were convicted and given combined sentences of over 1,000 years in prison.

From here, the number of cases ballooned–eventually 60 children were interrogated, resulting in convictions against 39 people (out of 80 accused) for ritual Satanic abuse and murder, including the sacrifices of 29 infants. All of the cases involved the same social workers, child abuse coordinators, deputy sheriffs and district attorney, Ed Jagels.

Eventually the children also began accusing the social workers, deputy sheriffs, and deputy district attorneys of ritual Satanic abuse, at which point the criminal cases all suddenly, mysteriously stopped.

Actually, the cases probably stopped because Attorney General of California started investigating the DA after the FBI couldn’t find the dead babies Becky and her sister claimed they had seen sacrificed and buried, and the DA was forced to admit that the whole infant sacrifice story was fake.

Eventually–20 years later–pretty much the entire case was overturned due to gross police misconduct. All but one of the people who hadn’t already died in prison or completed their sentences have been released.

(Showing that even a stopped clock can be right twice a day, one of the guys they imprisoned was a previously-convicted child molester, and after being released, he was re-arrested for molesting three children. Had the prosecution not attempted to charge 79 other, probably totally innocent people of ritual Satanic abuse at the same time, he probably would not have been released.)


The District Attorney who prosecuted all of these cases, Ed Jagels, once sent a man to prison for 25 years for stealing <$1 worth of donuts. Despite the courts overturning 25 of his convictions due to gross mishandling of the case and admissions that much of the “evidence” was made up, he remained adamant that the convictions were correct.

For his “hard on crime” and anti-child abuse stances, the people of Kern County re-elected him 6 times, until he retired in 2006.

The assistant DA, Andrew Gindes, died in 2010 after a “long illness.” Brian Kniffen, now grown up, said of Gindes, “He would slam books down, yell when we wouldn’t cooperated. He was demanding and scared us and wouldn’t take no for an answer…I wish I could talk to him now and ask him… why, why did he do that to me?”

Gindes worked in law for 30 years, though I have yet to figure out how much of that was after the trials.

After four of the now-grown children recanted their testimony and told the court that they’d been forced to lie 20 years before, a third prosecutor, Lisa Green, told the judge, “These kids were telling the truth back then and they are not for whatever reason today.”

Lisa Green is still employed as a Kern County District Attorney:

Lisa Green, a native of Buffalo, New York, graduated from Fresno State University in 1980 and attended the University of San Diego Law School, graduating in 1983. … She joined the Kern County District Attorney’s Office as a law clerk in 1983 and became a Deputy District Attorney upon passing the Bar exam in 1983. She has prosecuted over 110 felony trials, the majority of those cases involving homicides and sexual assaults. Mrs. Green was promoted to Supervising Deputy District Attorney in 2001 and in 2009 she was promoted to Chief Deputy District Attorney. In 2010 she was elected District Attorney, the first woman in Kern County to hold that position.


The McMartin Preschool Trial, 1984-1990, was one of the longest and most expensive–$15 million–criminal trials in US history. Prosecuted by Ira Reiner, who also prosecuted actual serial murderer and avowed Satanist Ricardo (Richard) Ramirez.

While we are here, I’m just going to shoe-horn in the case of Adolfo Constanzo, the Florida-born son of a Cuban immigrant who became a Voodoo cult leader after apprenticing under a Miami-based Palo Sorcerer. Palo, from the Congo basin, involves ritual human sacrifice, and Constanzo was no exception. He moved to Mexico and murdered at least 20 people for his magic rituals (the local drug cartels used his “potions” to aid their operations.) Eventually the police caught up with him and he committed suicide.

Note that it is actually really hard to keep ritual murders a secret for very long–sooner or later, the cops find the bodies and you end up on Wikipedia. The idea of a massive, secret, multi-generational conspiracy torturing and murdering children that no one noticed until 1980 is simply absurd.

Highlights of the McMartin case: After a preschooler had trouble pooping, his mom accused daycare workers of sodomy, bestiality, drilling “a child under the arms” and flying through the air. The mom was soon hospitalized for acute, paranoid schizophrenia, and died of chronic alcoholism before the criminal trial actually began.

Pazder and Michelle were flown in to meet with parents Several hundred children were coercively interviewed, resulting in bizarre accusations that they’d been abused by Chuck Norris and “flushed down toilets” to secret rooms under the preschool where the ritual abuse happened.

No one was ever convicted, and all charges were eventually dropped.

One of the prosecutors, Glenn Stevens, nobly left the case when he realized it was all dreamed up by a mentally ill woman. Stevens was forced to resign from the DA’s office when the state attorney general and the Los Angeles city attorney began considering criminal charges against him for pointing out their massive mis-handling of the case.

Thus the wages of honesty.

The guilty parties in this case were “Jane Hoag, the detective who investigated the complaints; Kee MacFarlane, the social worker who interviewed the children; Robert Philibosian, the district attorney; and Wayne Satz, the television reporter who first reported the case, and Lael Rubin, the prosecutor.[1]”

Some more information on them, hopefully correct. Scroll down.

Philibosian is still “at council” at the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.[3]

MacFarlane specialized in getting children to pretend they’d been sexually abused in order to convince them that they’d been been raped. According to Wikipedia, she testified before Congress that, “she believed there was an organized, nationwide conspiracy of individuals and “orthodox satanic groups” sexually abusing children, although she never presented evidence of who any of the individuals are nor proof of any orthodox satanic groups.[12]”

As of 2000, Lael Rubin was still working for the LA county DA’s office.

It’s getting late, so To Be Continued…