The Modular Mind

The other day I was walking through the garden when I looked down, saw one of these, leapt back, screamed loudly enough to notify the entire neighborhood:

(The one in my yard was insect free, however.)

After catching my breath, I wondered, “Is that a wasp nest or a beehive?” and crept back for a closer look. Wasp nest. I mentally paged through my knowledge of wasp nests: wasps abandon nests when they fall on the ground. This one was probably empty and safe to step past. I later tossed it onto the compost pile.

The interesting part of this incident wasn’t the nest, but my reaction. I jumped away from the thing before I had even consciously figured out what the nest was. Only once I was safe did I consciously think about the nest.

So I’ve been reading Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (I’m thinking of making this a Book Club pick; debating between this and Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human thought Revealed, which I have not read, but comes recommended. Feel free to vote for one, the other, or both.)

Gazzaniga discusses a problem faced by brains trying to evolve to be bigger and smarter: how do you get more neurons working without taking up an absurd amount of space connecting each and every neuron to every other neuron?

Imagine a brain with 5 connected neurons: each neuron requires 4 connections to talk to every other neuron. A 5 neuron brain would thus need space for 10 total connections.

The addition of a 6th neuron would require 5 new connections; a 7th neuron requires 6 new connections, etc. A fully connected brain of 100 neurons would require 99 connections per neuron, for a total of 4,950 connections.

The human brain has about 86 billion neurons.

Connecting all of your neurons might work fine if if you’re a sea squirt, with only 230 or so neurons, but it is going to fail hard if you’re trying to hook up 86 billion. The space required to hook up all of these neurons would be massively larger than the space you can actually maintain by eating.

So how does an organism evolving to be smarter deal with the connectivity demands of increasing brain size?

Human social lives suggest an answer: Up on the human scale, one person can, Dunbar estimates, have functional social relationships with about 150 other people, including an understanding of those people’s relationships with each other. 150 people (the “Dunbar number”) is therefore the amount of people who can reliably cooperate or form groups without requiring any top-down organization.

So how do humans survive in groups of a thousand, a million, or a billion (eg, China)? How do we build large-scale infrastructure projects requiring the work of thousands of people and used by millions, like interstate highways? By organization–that is, specialization.

In a small tribe of 150 people, almost everyone in the tribe can do most of the jobs necessary for the tribe’s survival, within the obvious limits of biology. Men and women are both primarily occupied with collecting food. Both prepare clothing and shelter; both can cook. There is some specialization of labor–obviously men can carry heavier loads; women can nurse children–but most people are generally competent at most jobs.

In a modern industrial economy, most people are completely incompetent at most jobs. I have a nice garden, but I don’t even know how to turn on a tractor, much less how to care for a cow. The average person does not know how to knit or sew, much less build a house, wire up the electricity and lay the plumbing. We attend school from 5 to 18 or 22 or 30 and end up less competent at surviving in our own societies than a cave man with no school was in his, not because school is terrible but because modern industrial society requires so much specialized knowledge to keep everything running that no one person can truly master even a tenth of it.

Specialization, not just of people but of organizations and institutions, like hospitals devoted to treating the sick, Walmarts devoted to selling goods, and Microsoft devoted to writing and selling computer software and hardware, lets society function without requiring that everyone learn to be a doctor, merchant, and computer expert.


Similarly, brains expand their competence via specialization, not denser neural connections.

As UPI reports, Intelligence is correlated with fewer neural connections, not more, study finds:

The smartest people may boast more neurons than those of average intelligence, but their brains have fewer neural connections…

Neuroscientists in Germany recruited 259 participants, both men and women, to take IQ tests and have their brains imaged…

The research revealed a strong correlation between the number of dendrites in a person’s cerebral cortex and their intelligence. The smartest participants had fewer neural connections in their cerebral cortex.

Fewer neural connections overall allows different parts of the brain to specialize, increasing local competence.

All things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing that is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things. –Plato, The Republic

The brains of mice, as Gazzinga discusses, do not need to be highly specialized, because mice are not very smart and do not do many specialized activities. Human brains, by contrast, are highly specialized, as anyone who has ever had a stroke has discovered. (Henry Harpending of West Hunter, for example, once had a stroke while visiting Germany that knocked out the area of his brain responsible for reading, but since he couldn’t read German in the first place, he didn’t realize anything was wrong until several hours later.)

I read, about a decade ago, that male and female brains have different levels, and patterns, of internal connectivity. (Here and here are articles on the subject.) These differences in connectivity may allow men and women to excel at different skills, and since we humans are a social species that can communicate by talking, this allows us to take cognitive modality beyond the level of a single brain.

So modularity lets us learn (and do) more things, with the downside that sometimes knowledge is highly localized–that is, we have a lot of knowledge that we seem able to access only under specific circumstances, rather than use generally.

For example, I have long wondered at the phenomenon of people who can definitely do complicated math when asked to, but show no practical number sense in everyday life, like the folks from the Yale Philosophy department who are confused about why African Americans are under-represented in their major, even though Yale has an African American Studies department which attracts a disproportionate % of Yale’s African American students. The mathematical certainty that if any major in the whole school that attracts more African American students, then other majors will end up with fewer, has been lost on these otherwise bright minds.

Yalies are not the only folks who struggle to use the things they know. When asked to name a book–any book–ordinary people failed. Surely these people have heard of a book at some point in their lives–the Bible is pretty famous, as is Harry Potter. Even if you don’t like books, they were assigned in school, and your parents probably read The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham to you when you were a kid. It is not that they do not have the knowledge as they cannot access it.

Teachers complain all the time that students–even very good ones–can memorize all of the information they need for a test, regurgitate it all perfectly, and then turn around and show no practical understanding of the information at all.

Richard Feynman wrote eloquently of his time teaching future science teachers in Brazil:

In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had many courses, and this was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism – Maxwell’s equations, and so on. …

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.

They hadn’t any idea.

I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”

Nobody said anything.

Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”

“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”

“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”

“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

I said, “Well?”

Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”

“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

The students here are not dumb, and memorizing things is not bad–memorizing your times tables is very useful–but they have everything lodged in their “memorization module” and nothing in their “practical experience module.” (Note: I am not necessarily suggesting that thee exists a literal, physical spot in the brain where memorized and experienced knowledge reside, but that certain brain structures and networks lodge information in ways that make it easier or harder to access.)

People frequently make arguments that don’t make logical sense when you think them all the way through from start to finish, but do make sense if we assume that people are using specific brain modules for quick reasoning and don’t necessarily cross-check their results with each other. For example, when we are angry because someone has done something bad to us, we tend to snap at people who had nothing to do with it. Our brains are in “fight and punish mode” and latch on to the nearest person as the person who most likely committed the offense, even if we consciously know they weren’t involved.

Political discussions are often marred by folks running what ought to be logical arguments through status signaling, emotional, or tribal modules. The desire to see Bad People punished (a reasonable desire if we all lived in the same physical community with each other) interferes with a discussion of whether said punishment is actually useful, effective, or just. For example, a man who has been incorrectly convicted of the rape of a child will have a difficult time getting anyone to listen sympathetically to his case.

In the case of white South African victims of racially-motivated murder, the notion that their ancestors did wrong and therefore they deserve to be punished often overrides sympathy. As BBC notes, these killings tend to be particularly brutal (they often involve torture) and targeted, but the South African government doesn’t care:

According to one leading political activist, Mandla Nyaqela, this is the after-effect of the huge degree of selfishness and brutality which was shown towards the black population under apartheid. …

Virtually every week the press here report the murders of white farmers, though you will not hear much about it in the media outside South Africa.In South Africa you are twice as likely to be murdered if you are a white farmer than if you are a police officer – and the police here have a particularly dangerous life. The killings of farmers are often particularly brutal. …

Ernst Roets’s organisation has published the names of more than 2,000 people who have died over the last two decades. The government has so far been unwilling to make solving and preventing these murders a priority. …

There used to be 60,000 white farmers in South Africa. In 20 years that number has halved.

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the measures ordinary South Africans have to take in what was once a safe country to not become human shishkabobs, which you should pause and read, but is a bit of a tangent from our present discussion. The article ends with a mind-bending statement about a borrowed dog (dogs are also important for security):

My friends tell me the dog is fine around children, but is skittish around men, especially black men. The people at the dog pound told them it had probably been abused. As we walk past house after house, with barking dog after barking dog, I notice Lampo pays no attention. Instead, he’s watching the stream of housekeepers and gardeners heading home from work. They eye the dog nervously back.

Great, I think, I’m walking a racist dog.

Module one: Boy South Africa has a lot of crime. Better get a dog, cover my house with steel bars, and an extensive security system.

Module two: Associating black people with crime is racist, therefore my dog is racist for being wary of people who look like the person who abused it.

And while some people are obviously sympathetic to the plight of murdered people, “Cry me a river White South African Colonizers” is a very common reaction. (Never mind that the people committing crimes in South Africa today never lived under apartheid; they’ve lived in a black-run country for their entire lives.) Logically, white South Africans did not do anything to deserve being killed, and like the golden goose, killing the people who produce food will just trigger a repeat of Zimbabwe, but the modes of tribalism–“I do not care about these people because they are not mine and I want their stuff”–and punishment–“I read about a horrible thing someone did, so I want to punish everyone who looks like them”–trump logic.

Who dies–and how they die–significantly shapes our engagement with the news. Gun deaths via mass shootings get much more coverage and worry than ordinary homicides, even though ordinary homicides are far more common. homicides get more coverage and worry than suicides, even though suicides are far more common. The majority of gun deaths are actually suicides, but you’d never know that from listening to our national conversation about guns, simply because we are biased to worry far more about other people killng us than about ourselves.

Similarly, the death of one person via volcano receives about the same news coverage as 650 in a flood, 2,000 in a drought, or 40,000 in a famine. As the article notes:

Instead of considering the objective damage caused by natural disasters, networks tend to look for disasters that are “rife with drama”, as one New York Times article put it4—hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes all make for splashy headlines and captivating visuals. Thanks to this selectivity, less “spectacular” but often times more deadly natural disasters tend to get passed over. Food shortages, for example, result in the most casualties and affect the most people per incident5 but their onset is more gradual than that of a volcanic explosion or sudden earthquake. … This bias for the spectacular is not only unfair and misleading, but also has the potential to misallocate attention and aid.

There are similar biases by continent, with disasters in Africa receiving less attention than disasters in Europe (this correlates with African disasters being more likely to be the slow-motion famines, epidemics and droughts that kill lots of people, and European disasters being splashier, though perhaps we’d consider famines “splashier” if they happened in Paris instead of Ethiopia.)

From Personality and Political Attitudes: “Conservatives are hard-working, organized, closed-minded, and emotionally stable. Liberals are lazy, disorganized, open-minded, and neurotic. Let’s see how the punditocracy spins that one.”

From a neuropolitical perspective, I suspect that patterns such as the Big Five personality traits correlating with particular political positions (“openness” with “liberalism,” for example, or “conscientiousness” with “conservativeness,”) is caused by patterns of brain activity that cause some people to depend more or less on particular brain modules for processing.

For example, conservatives process more of the world through the areas of their brain that are also used for processing disgust, (not one of “the five” but still an important psychological trait) which increases their fear of pathogens, disease vectors, and generally anything new or from the outside. Disgust can go so far as to process other people’s faces or body language as “disgusting” (eg, trans people) even when there is objectively nothing that presents an actual contamination or pathogenic risk involved.

Similarly, people who feel more guilt in one area of their life often feel guilt in others–eg, “White guilt was significantly associated with bulimia nervosa symptomatology.” The arrow of causation is unclear–guilt about eating might spill over into guilt about existing, or guilt about existing might cause guilt about eating, or people who generally feel guilty about everything could have both. Either way, these people are generally not logically reasoning, “Whites have done bad things, therefore I should starve myself.” (Should veganism be classified as a politically motivated eating disorder?)

I could continue forever–

Restrictions on medical research are biased toward preventing mentally salient incidents like thalidomide babies, but against the invisible cost of children who die from diseases that could have been cured had research not been prevented by regulations.

America has a large Somali community but not Congolese, (85,000 Somalis vs. 13,000 Congolese, of whom 10,000 hail from the DRC. Somalia has about 14 million people, the DRC has about 78.7 million people, so it’s not due to there being more Somalis in the world,) for no particular reason I’ve been able to discover, other than President Clinton once disastrously sent a few helicopters to intervene in the eternal Somali civil war and so the government decided that we now have a special obligation to take in Somalis.

–but that’s probably enough.

I have tried here to present a balanced account of different political biases, but I would like to end by noting that modular thinking, while it can lead to stupid decisions, exists for good reasons. If purely logical thinking were superior to modular, we’d probably be better at it. Still, cognitive biases exist and lead to a lot of stupid or sub-optimal results.


Apparently Most People Live in A Strange Time Warp Where Neither Past nor Future Actually Exist

Forget the Piraha. It appears that most Americans are only vaguely aware of these things called “past” and “future”:

Source: CNN poll conducted by SSRS,

A majority of people now report that George W. Bush, whom they once thought was a colossal failure of a president, whose approval ratings bottomed out at 33% when he left office, was actually good. By what measure? He broke the economy, destabilized the Middle East, spent trillions of dollars, and got thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed.

Apparently the logic here is “Sure, Bush might have murdered Iraqi children and tortured prisoners, but at least he didn’t call Haiti a shithole.” We Americans have standards, you know.

He’s just a huggable guy.

I’d be more forgiving if Bush’s good numbers all came from 18 year olds who were 10 when he left office and so weren’t actually paying attention at the time. I’d also be more forgiving if Bush had some really stupid scandals, like Bill Clinton–I can understand why someone might have given Clinton a bad rating in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but looking back a decade later, might reflect that Monica didn’t matter that much and as far as president goes, Clinton was fine.

But if you thought invading Iraq was a bad idea back in 2008 then you ought to STILL think it is a bad idea right now.

Note: If you thought it was a good idea at the time, then it’s sensible to think it is still a good idea.

This post isn’t really about Bush. It’s about our human inability to perceive the flow of time and accurately remember the past and prepare for the future.

I recently texted a fellow mom: Would your kid like to come play with my kid? She texted back: My kid is down for a nap.


What about when the nap is over? I didn’t specify a time in the original text; tomorrow or next week would have been fine.

I don’t think these folks are trying to avoid me. They’re just really bad at scheduling.

People are especially bad at projecting current trends into the future. In a conversation with a liberal friend, he dismissed the idea that there could be any problems with demographic trends or immigration with, “That won’t happen for a hundred years. I’ll be dead then. I don’t care.”

An anthropologist working with the Bushmen noticed that they had to walk a long way each day between the watering hole, where the only water was, and the nut trees, where the food was. “Why don’t you just plant a nut tree near the watering hole?” asked the anthropologist.

“Why bother?” replied a Bushman. “By the time the tree was grown, I’d be dead.”

Of course, the tree would probably only take a decade to start producing, which is within even a Bushman’s lifetime, but even if it didn’t, plenty of people build up wealth, businesses, or otherwise make provisions to provide for their children–or grandchildren–after their deaths.

Likewise, current demographic trends in the West will have major effects within our lifetimes. Between the  1990 and 2010 censuses (twenty years), the number of Hispanics in the US doubled, from 22.4 million to 50.5 million. As a percent of the overall population, they went from 9% to 16%–making them America’s largest minority group, as blacks constitute only 12.6%.

If you’re a Boomer, then Hispanics were only 2-3% of the country during your childhood.

The idea that demographic changes will take a hundred years and therefore don’t matter makes as much sense as saying a tree that takes ten years to grow won’t produce within your lifetime and therefore isn’t worth planting.

Society can implement long term plans–dams are built with hundred year storms and floods in mind; building codes are written with hundred year earthquake risks in mind–but most people seem to exist in a strange time warp in which neither the past nor future really exist. What they do know about the past is oddly compressed–anything from a decade to a century ago is mushed into a vague sense of “before now.” Take this article from the Atlantic on how Micheal Brown (born in 1996,) was shot in 2014 because of the FHA’s redlining policies back in 1943.

I feel like I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but one of the world’s most successful ethnic groups was getting herded into gas chambers in 1943. Somehow the Jews managed to go from being worked to death in the mines below Buchenwald (slave labor dug the tunnels where von Braun’s rockets were developed) to not getting shot by the police on the streets of Ferguson in 2014, 71 years later. It’s a mystery.

And in another absurd case, “Artist reverses gender roles in 50s ads to ‘give men a taste of their own sexist poison’,” because clearly advertisements from over half a century ago are a pressing issue, relevant to the opinions of modern men.

I’m focusing here on political matters because they make the news, but I suspect this is a true psychological trait for most people–the past blurs fuzzily together, and the future is only vaguely knowable.

Politically, there is a tendency to simultaneously assume the past–which continued until last Tuesday–was a long, dark, morass of bigotry and unpleasantness, and that the current state of enlightened beauty will of course continue into the indefinite future without any unpleasant expenditures of effort.

In reality, our species is, more or less, 300,000 years old. Agriculture is only 10,000 years old.

100 years ago, the last great bubonic plague epidemic (yersinia pestis) was still going on. 10 million people died, including 119 Californians. 75 years ago, millions of people were dying in WWII. Sixty years ago, polio was still crippling children (my father caught it, suffering permanent nerve damage.)

In the 1800s, Germany’s infant mortality rate was 50%; in 1950, Europe’s rate was over 10%; today, infant mortality in the developed world is below 0.5%; globally, it’s 4.3%. The death of a child has gone from a universal hardship to an almost unknown suffering.

100 years ago, only one city in the US–Jersey City–routinely disinfected its drinking water. (Before disinfection and sewers, drinking water was routinely contaminated with deadly bacteria like cholera.) I’m still looking for data on the spread of running water, but chances are good your grandparents did not have an indoor toilet when they were children. (I have folks in my extended family who still have trouble when the water table drops and their well dries up.)

Hunger, famines, disease, death… I could continue enumerating, but my point is simple: the prosperity we enjoy is not only unprecedented in the course of human history, but it hasn’t even existed for one full human lifetime.

Rome was once an empire. In the year one hundred, the eternal city had over 1,500,000 citizens. By 500, it had fewer than 50,000. It would not recover for over a thousand years.

Everything we have can be wiped away in another human lifetime if we refuse to admit that the future exists.

Conservatives Over-Generalize; Liberals Under-Generalize

This is a theory about a general trend.

Liberals tend to be very good at learning specific, detailed bits of information, but bad at big-picture ideas. Conservatives tend to be good at big-picture ideas, but bad at specific details. In other words, liberals are the guys who can’t see the forest for the trees, while conservatives have a habit of referring to all trees as “oaks.”

Or all sodas as Cokes:


Waitress: What would y’all like to drink?
Lady: Oh, I’ll have a Coke.
Waitress: All right, what kind of Coke?
Lady: Diet Pepsi.

When conservatives speak of general trends among people, liberals are prone to protesting that “Not all X are like that.” For liberals, the fact that one guy might be an exception to a general trend is important enough to mention in any discussion. Liberals who want to un-gender pregnancy discussion, because “men can get pregnant, too,” are a perfect example of this. (See my previous post about TERFS.)

This post was inspired by a friend’s complaint that “Trump keeps saying untrue things,” to which I responded that the Hillary also says lots of untrue things. It seems to me that there is a distinct pattern in the kinds of untruths each camp engages in.


If you ask the average conservative to define the races of man, he’d probably tell you: black, white, and Asian. Give him a crayon and a map of the world, and he’d probably produce something like this:

Ask the average liberal to define the races of man, and he’ll tell you that race is a social construct and that there’s more genetic variation within races than between them.

Diagram of Trans-species polymorphisms, from Evo and Proud
Diagram of Trans-species polymorphisms, from Evo and Proud

Both of these statements are basically correct, (but see here) but in different ways. The Conservative misses the within-racial variety (and may draw the racial borders incorrectly, eg, assuming that north Africans or Australians are Black.) And the Liberal misses that race is actually a real thing, and that the issue of genetic between vs. within also holds true for different species (see: species is a social construct,) and yet we still recognize that “dog” is a useful word for describing a real category of things we encounter in the real world.

Conservatives are prone to saying things like, “Blacks commit more crime than whites,” and liberals are prone to responding that the majority of black people aren’t criminals.

nope-the-claim-trump-says-clinton-acid-washed-her-email-4623517I find that it helps a lot in understanding people if I give them the benefit of the doubt and try to understand what they mean, rather than get hung up on the exact words they use.

NBC perhaps went too far down this path when they claimed that Trump had lied for saying Clinton “acid washed” her email server, when in fact she had used an app called BleachBit. Sure, bleach is a weak base, not an acid, but I don’t think Trump was actually trying to discuss chemistry in this case.

When the newsmedia claimed that the Syrian refugees pouring into Germany would be “good for the German economy,” this was obviously false. Yes, some Syrians are exceptionally bright, hardworking, motivated people who will do their best to benefit their new home. But most refugees are traumatized and don’t speak the local language. Few people would argue that the Syrian educational system turns out grads with test scores equal to the German system. It’s one thing to take refugees for pure humanitarian reasons, because you care about them as people. It’s another thing to pretend that refugees are going to make the average German richer. They won’t.

When Trump says there is so much wrong with black communities, so much poverty and violence, he is, broadly speaking, correct. When Hillary says there is so much good in black communities, like black businesses and churches, she is, narrowly speaking, also correct.

Of course, as Conway et al caution [warning PDF]:

Prior research suggests that liberals are more complex than conservatives. However, it may be that liberals are not more complex in general, but rather only more complex on certain topic domains (while conservatives
are more complex in other domains). Four studies (comprised of over 2,500 participants) evaluated this idea. … By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient. Studies 2–4 involve the domain specificity of integrative complexity. A large number of open-ended responses from college students (Studies 2 and 3) and candidates in the 2004 Presidential election (Study 4) across an array of topic domains reveals little or no main effect of political ideology on integrative complexity, but rather topic domain by ideology interactions. Liberals are higher in complexity on some topics, but conservatives are higher on others.

Weight, Taste, and Politics: A Theory of Republican Over-Indulgence

So I was thinking about taste (flavor) and disgust (emotion.)

As I mentioned about a month ago, 25% of people are “supertasters,” that is, better at tasting than the other 75% of people. Supertasters experience flavors more intensely than ordinary tasters, resulting in a preference for “bland” food (food with too much flavor is “overwhelming” to them.) They also have a more difficult time getting used to new foods.

One of my work acquaintances of many years –we’ll call her Echo–is obese, constantly on a diet, and constantly eats sweets. She knows she should eat vegetables and tries to do so, but finds them bitter and unpleasant, and so the general outcome is as you expect: she doesn’t eat them.

Since I find most vegetables quite tasty, I find this attitude very strange–but I am willing to admit that I may be the one with unusual attitudes toward food.

Echo is also quite conservative.

This got me thinking about vegetarians vs. people who think vegetarians are crazy. Why (aside from novelty of the idea) should vegetarians be liberals? Why aren’t vegetarians just people who happen to really like vegetables?

What if there were something in preference for vegetables themselves that correlated with political ideology?

Certainly we can theorize that “supertaster” => “vegetables taste bitter” => “dislike of vegetables” => “thinks vegetarians are crazy.” (Some supertasters might think meat tastes bad, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t support this; see also Wikipedia, where supertasting is clearly associated with responses to plants:

Any evolutionary advantage to supertasting is unclear. In some environments, heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. In other environments, increased response to bitterness may have limited the range of palatable foods. …

Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:

Mushrooms? Echo was just complaining about mushrooms.

Let’s talk about disgust. Disgust is an important reaction to things that might infect or poison you, triggering reactions from scrunching up your face to vomiting (ie, expelling the poison.) We process disgust in our amygdalas, and some people appear to have bigger or smaller amygdalas than others, with the result that the folks with more amygdalas feel more disgust.

Humans also route a variety of social situations through their amygdalas, resulting in the feeling of “disgust” in response to things that are not rotten food, like other people’s sexual behaviors, criminals, or particularly unattractive people. People with larger amygdalas also tend to find more human behaviors disgusting, and this disgust correlates with social conservatism.

To what extent are “taste” and “disgust” independent of each other? I don’t know; perhaps they are intimately linked into a single feedback system, where disgust and taste sensitivity cause each other, or perhaps they are relatively independent, so that a few unlucky people are both super-sensitive to taste and easily disgusted.

People who find other people’s behavior disgusting and off-putting may also be people who find flavors overwhelming, prefer bland or sweet foods over bitter ones, think vegetables are icky, vegetarians are crazy, and struggle to stay on diets.

What’s that, you say, I’ve just constructed a just-so story?

Well, this is the part where I go looking for evidence. It turns out that obesity and political orientation do correlate:

Michael Shin and William McCarthy, researchers from UCLA, have found an association between counties with higher levels of support for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and higher levels of obesity in those counties.

Shin and McCarthy's map of obesity vs. political orientation
Shin and McCarthy’s map of obesity vs. political orientation

Looks like the Mormons and Southern blacks are outliers.

(I don’t really like maps like this for displaying data; I would much prefer a simple graph showing orientation on one axis and obesity on the other, with each county as a datapoint.)

(Unsurprisingly, the first 49 hits I got when searching for correlations between political orientation and obesity were almost all about what other people think of fat people, not what fat people think. This is probably because researchers tend to be skinny people who want to fight “fat phobia” but aren’t actually interested in the opinions of fat people.)

The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee
The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee–note that Phoenix is #7, not #1.

Disgust also correlates with political belief, but we already knew that.

A not entirely scientific survey also indicates that liberals seem to like vegetables better than conservatives:

  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to eat fresh fruit daily, and 17 percent more likely to eat toast or a bagel in the morning, while conservatives are 20 percent more likely to skip breakfast.
  • Ten percent of liberals surveyed indicated they are vegetarians, compared with 3 percent of conservatives.
  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to enjoy beer, with 60 percent of liberals indicating they like beer.

(See above where Wikipedia noted that supertasters dislike beer.) I will also note that coffee, which supertasters tend to dislike because it is too bitter, is very popular in the ultra-liberal cities of Portland and Seattle, whereas heavily sweetened iced tea is practically the official beverage of the South.

The only remaining question is if supertasters are conservative. That may take some research.

Update: I have not found, to my disappointment, a simple study that just looks at correlation between ideology and supertasting (or nontasting.) However, I have found a couple of useful items.

In Verbal priming and taste sensitivity make moral transgressions gross, Herz writes:

Standard tests of disgust sensitivity, a questionnaire developed for this research assessing different types of moral transgressions (nonvisceral, implied-visceral, visceral) with the terms “angry” and “grossed-out,” and a taste sensitivity test of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) were administered to 102 participants. [PROP is commonly used to test for “supertasters.”] Results confirmed past findings that the more sensitive to PROP a participant was the more disgusted they were by visceral, but not moral, disgust elicitors. Importantly, the findings newly revealed that taste sensitivity had no bearing on evaluations of moral transgressions, regardless of their visceral nature, when “angry” was the emotion primed. However, when “grossed-out” was primed for evaluating moral violations, the more intense PROP tasted to a participant the more “grossed-out” they were by all transgressions. Women were generally more disgust sensitive and morally condemning than men, … The present findings support the proposition that moral and visceral disgust do not share a common oral origin, but show that linguistic priming can transform a moral transgression into a viscerally repulsive event and that susceptibility to this priming varies as a function of an individual’s sensitivity to the origins of visceral disgust—bitter taste. [bold mine.]

In other words, supertasters are more easily disgusted, and with verbal priming will transfer that disgust to moral transgressions. (And easily disgusted people tend to be conservatives.)

The Effect of Calorie Information on Consumers’ Food Choice: Sources of Observed Gender Heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart, states:

While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such
as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed
(Keller et al. 2010).

(Always remember, of course, that a great many social-science studies ultimately do not replicate.)

I’ll let you know if I find anything else.

Is Disgust Real? (Part 2 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.

I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.

I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.

There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.

For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.

I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.

This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.

“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”

So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.

Which begs the question: Why?

Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.

By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.

It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

A Zombie-Free Uncanny Valley

Maybe the Uncanny Valley has nothing to do with avoiding sick/dead people, maybe nothing to do with anything specifically human-oriented at all, but with plain-ol’ conceptual category violations? Suppose you are trying to divide some class of reality into two discrete categories, like “plants” and “animals” or “poetry” and “prose”. Edge cases that don’t fit neatly into either category may be problematic, annoying, or otherwise troubling. Your brain tries to cram something into Category A, then a new data point comes along, and you switch to cramming it into Category B. Then more data and back to A. Then back to B. This might happen even at a subconscious level, flicking back and forth between two categories you normally assign instinctively, like human and non-human, forcing you to devote brain power to something that’s normally automatic. This is probably stressful for the brain.

In some cases, edge cases may be inconsequential and people may just ignore them; in some cases, though, group membership is important–people seem particularly keen on arguments about peoples’ inclusion in various human groups, hence accusations that people are “posers” or otherwise claiming membership they may not deserve.

Some people may prefer discreet categories more strongly than others, and so be more bothered by edge cases; other people may be more mentally flexible or capable of dealing with a third category labeled “edge cases”. It’s also possible that some people do not bother with discreet categories at all.

It would be interesting to test people’s preference for discreet categories, and then see if this correlates with disgust at humanoid robots or any particular political identities.

It would also be interesting to see if there are ways to equip people with different conceptual paradigms for dealing with data that better accommodate edge cases; a “Core vs. Periphery” approach may be better in some cases than discreet categories, for example.


So, building on last night’s potential revelation, let’s review what we may or may not know about amygdalas.

I had read (summaries of) studies indicating that conservatives have larger amygdalas than liberals. From this I concluded that amygdalas were likely to be involved in some sort of processing that produces more conservative results.

But what does the amygdala do? Articles indicated involvement in the disgust reflex. I concluded that people who are more easily disgusted are just more likely to feel disgust in response to novelty.

But, Frost brings up a good point: has the initial orientation/amygdala data been confounded by researchers failing to control for ethnicity? If researchers have classed, say, Muslims who vote Labour as liberals, then obviously the data is meaningless?

There is an to solve this conundrum: Just find some data that controls for ethnicity and measures liberalness or conservatism, (rather than use self-reported orientation). If no suitable studies exist, do one–go to some rural college, collect an ethnically similar cohort, give them a quiz about their attitudes toward novel foods and other such non-emotionally charged things that seem to correlate with political orientation, and then scan the brains of equal numbers of liberals and conservatives and see what you get. If you find some sort of correlation, repeat the experiment with other ethnicities. If you find nothing, widen your scope to compare whites from different areas, or whites who are further apart in political orientation. If you still find nothing, do a multi-ethnic study and see if the initial results were just ethnic differences in party affiliation.

Recent articles further indicate that my interpretations may have been wrong, or that the picture is more complicated than I realized, eg, Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, “Functional imaging and behavioral tasks included face-emotion processing paradigms that reliably distinguish psychopathic individuals from controls. Here we show that extraordinary altruists can be distinguished from controls by their enhanced volume in right amygdala and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results mirror the reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions observed in psychopathic individuals.”

This does not support my “conservatives have larger disgust reflexes becuz amygdalas,” theory, but would be consistent with a “extremely conservative people were mis-categorized as liberals in other studies,” result.

More research is necessary.

Peter Frost and Amygdalas

(I promised I’d get to this.)

Amusingly, Peter Frost, over on Evo and Proud, just recently posted, “Are liberals and conservatives differently wired?“, which describes some of the recent studies on the subject and draws conclusions broadly counter to my own. I thought you should know.

Actually, I suspect that most of the reason for or ‘disagreement’ is that we are using a different organizing schema to class people as “liberal” or “conservative.” Frost is starting with people’s self-reported affiliation, noting the differences found in the experiments, and then noting the (rather large) ethnic differences between the two groups and speculating that much of the observed difference may be primarily ethnic, rather than some grand approach to principles.

I started by first controlling for race, because otherwise (IMO) we end up smushing most of the non-whites into incorrect categories by assuming that they are voting for candidates and policies for the same reasons as whites. IE, “attitude towards blacks” and “attitude toward people who are ethnically different from yourself” might be roughly synonymous if you happen to be a white person who lives near black people, but they’re not at all synonymous if you happen to be a black person. Of course black people tend to vote for candidates who seem most likely to not be racist against black people, but that’s not the same as being liberal. (That’s just common sense.) However, since we live in a country where the majority of people are white, we tend to default toward the white POV when talking about political affiliation, and so many people who are not actually liberal at all may call themselves liberal just because they vote for the Democrats (and possibly, though I suspect less likely, vice versa.)

Any study looking for neurological differences between “liberals” and “conservatives” that just uses self-reported political orientation and doesn’t control for ethnicity seems rather dubious. If it turns out that all of my understanding of neuroprocessing is compromised, I’m going to be sad and will have to re-research everything.

Once you factor out the wonky racial dynamics, I think there is actually such thing as more or less liberal people. In the case of the British study Frost cites, I strongly suspect that the Muslims who vote Labour are actually quite conservative. Likewise, African Americans have very high rates of church attendance and strike me as fairly conservative overall, though not as conservative as most Muslims. The same is more or less also true of American Hispanics and Asians, while most white Europeans strike me as more liberal than American whites.

Studies: Disgust, Prisoner’s Dilemma

Disgust leads people to lie and cheat; cleanliness leads to ethical behavior


Prisoners better at Prisoner’s Dilemma than non-Prisoners


“… In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products such as antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched a disgusting toilet scene from the movie “Trainspotting.” Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. Mittal and colleagues found that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not.

“In another set of experiments, after inducing the state of disgust on participants, the researchers then had them evaluate cleansing products, such as disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes. Those who evaluated the cleansing products did not engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion condition.

“At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted,” Mittal said. “If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other.” ”



“for the simultaneous game, only 37% of students cooperate. Inmates cooperated 56% of the time.

On a pair basis, only 13% of student pairs managed to get the best mutual outcome and cooperate, whereas 30% of prisoners do.

In the sequential game, far more students (63%) cooperate, so the mutual cooperation rate skyrockets to 39%. For prisoners, it remains about the same.”

A several things may be going on:
1. Defecting on your fellow prisoners may have really negative consequences that college students don’t face.
2. Prisoners may identify strongly with each other as fellow prisoners.
3. Prisoners may be united by some form of hatred for the people keeping them in prison, leading them to cooperate with each other over outsiders even when they don’t like each other.
4. Prisoners may have been through enough bad crap already in their lives that the promise of a few cigarettes seems trivial and not worth defecting over.
5. Prisoners are drawn disproportionately from a population that happens to have strong norms or instincts about not defecting.
6. College students are jerks.

Feedback Loops

I am pretty sure that neurotypicals (normal people) have “feeedback loops” in their brains that reward them for conformist behavior and punish them for non-conformist behavior.

We can call this “mirror neurons”, though I understand that’s probably an oversimplification.

Americans tend to glorify being non-conformist in their words, but are actually pretty darn conformist in their actions. The average person seems to think of themselves as a radical noncomformist, while going along with whatever ideas happen to be in their vicinity. Then they loudly trumpet about how great it is to be a nonconformist like them and how terrible it is to be a sheep.

Such people are annoying.

In reality, conformity actually has a lot going for it. You learn to talk by imitating the people around you. If you can’t imitate, then you probably won’t learn to talk, and you’ll be fucked for life. Other people do tons of things right, every day–hence why they are alive. Imitating other people is actually a good way to learn how to do lots of useful things.

In the state of nature, if everyone in your tribe eats the blue berries and avoids the red ones, its probably a good idea to eat the blue berries and avoid the red ones. Even if your fellow tribesmen give you a totally dumb reason for avoiding the red ones, like, “Thors blood got on them,” you should probably avoid them.

Likewise, if you’re out collecting berries one day and a fellow tribesman runs past, yelling “LION!” it’s probably not in your interest to say, “Are you sure it was a lion?” You should probably imitate him.

These feedback loops may not just encourage you to imitate others, but also punish people for non-imitation. That is, people may feel deeply unsettled or uncomfortable if they find themselves out of sync with others. This provides strong incentive to fix the problem, or if unfixable, may create long-term psychological stress.

Downsides to these feedback loops:

1. Sometimes, everyone around you is wrong.

2. Sometimes, you cannot conform to everyone, especially if everyone does not conform to each other.

3. These loops may induce great discomfort in people merely observing other people non-conforming.

If I have a strong urge to conform at all times, and that urge utilizes mirror neurons to tell me what other people are doing, and then I observe you non-conforming, that may induce the same reaction in me as if I were the one non-conforming. Then in order for me to feel psychologically at peace, I have to make you stop non-conforming.