Monday, October 31, 2011

Unrealistic Optimism and the Brain

The latest issue of Nature Neuroscience has this interesting study on the human trait of unrealistic optimism. The abstract:

Unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait that influences domains ranging from personal relationships to politics and finance. How people maintain unrealistic optimism, despite frequently encountering information that challenges those biased beliefs, is unknown. We examined this question and found a marked asymmetry in belief updating. Participants updated their beliefs more in response to information that was better than expected than to information that was worse. This selectivity was mediated by a relative failure to code for errors that should reduce optimism. Distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex tracked estimation errors when those called for positive update, both in individuals who scored high and low on trait optimism. However, highly optimistic individuals exhibited reduced tracking of estimation errors that called for negative update in right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These findings indicate that optimism is tied to a selective update failure and diminished neural coding of undesirable information regarding the future.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Black Death Genome

The latest issue of Nature includes this letter on the sequence of the Black Death Genome. Details about the findings can be found here (and in the Nature video above).


Monday, October 24, 2011

Nature Commentary on Decline of Violence

The latest issue of Nature has this interesting commentary on the decline of violence. A sample:

“The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history.” This frequently asserted claim is popular among the romantic, the religious, the nostalgic and the cynical. They use it to impugn a range of ideas that flourished in that century, including science, reason, secularism, Darwinism and the ideal of progress. But this historical factoid is rarely backed up by numbers, and it is almost certainly an illusion. We are prone to think that modern life is more violent because historical records from recent eras are more complete, and because the human mind overestimates the frequency of vivid, memorable events. We also care more about violence today. Ancient histories are filled with glorious conquests that today would be classified as genocide, and the leaders known to history as So-and-So the Great would today be prosecuted as war criminals.

Attempts to quantify the death tolls from earlier centuries suggest that many of the collapsing empires, conquering maniacs, horse-tribe invasions, slave trades and annihilations of native peoples had individual death tolls that, adjusted for population, are comparable to those of each of the two world wars. War before civilization was even bloodier. Forensic archaeology and ethnographic demography suggest that around 15% of people living in non-state societies died violently — five times the proportion of violent deaths in the twentieth century from war, genocide and man-made famines combined.


Friday, October 07, 2011

Positive Biology Paper

My paper entitled "“Positive Biology” as a New Paradigm for the Medical Sciences" has been accepted for publication in Nature's EMBO Reports. Here is the abstract:

Most basic and applied research in the medical sciences today is premised upon the presumption that well-ordered science requires us to prioritize what one can call “negative biology”. Negative biology is the intellectual framework that presumes the most important question to answer is- what causes pathology? Positive biology, by contrast, focuses on a different set of questions and priorities. Rather than making disease the central focus of our intellectual efforts and financial investments, positive biology seeks instead to understand exemplar examples of health and happiness. Understanding why some (rare) individuals can live a century of disease-free life, or why some individuals enjoy more well-being (e.g. positive subjective experience, optimism, perseverance, high talent) or possess greater memory or resilience than the average person could lead to new knowledge that permits us to significantly expand the opportunities today’s populations have for health and happiness.


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Nature Commentary on Legislating the Good Life

The latest issue of Nature has this interesting Commentary piece on the importance of turning to the science of happiness/wellbeing to guide public policy rather than simply assuming sound public policy can be equated with the goal of maximizing economic growth.

Here is a sample:

This interest in well-being — and its subjective measurement — is good news. Economic growth is just one of many tools for bringing about good lives. Political decisions involve trade-offs — between, say, fostering economic growth and stable communities, or agreeable urban landscapes. The traditional focus on gross domestic product (GDP) as a target biases these decisions. The result is lower levels of public well-being than could be the case if people's quality of life was the priority. As economic activity places a greater strain on the environment than many other routes to happiness — such as spending time with one's family — this bias is also bad for sustainability (see 'Good lives needn't cost the Earth').

There are two key challenges for researchers, politicians and policy-makers: first, to gather and interpret new data, so as to create a much fuller science of well-being to rival traditional economics; and second, to create public understanding of some headline measure of well-being and of the role of policy in influencing it, in order to create the political will to use the new science.

....Well-being is variously defined. Psychologists see it as 'good functioning' or the meeting of psychological needs1, an approach that emphasizes relationships, autonomy, competence and purpose. Economists use more abstract terms such as 'happiness' or 'utility'.

Social surveys over several decades have shown that economic and social policies affect aspects of well-being, however it is defined. Income correlates with well-being, but only up to a certain level, which varies between countries. In the United States, for example, earnings above US$75,000 don't add much more happiness2. Studies also reveal that loss of income is more damaging than a gain is beneficial, and unemployment is more damaging to well-being than is the consequent loss of income. Casual employment is bad for well-being, but self-employment is good, at least for those earning a decent income. Commuting is bad.


Saturday, October 01, 2011

International Day of Older Persons

Today is the World Health Organization's International Day of Older Persons.

Sadly a "news google" search yields very few news items noting this. The importance of keeping today's aging populations healthy ought to be a news headline every day as unprecedented numbers of human beings face high risks of chronic disease.

Over here at "In Search of Enlightenment" the international day of older persons does make the headlines. Along with the following video: