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Misunderstanding Positive Emotion

[5.25.16]

We know in the physical ecosystem that biodiversity is healthy and important. People can buy into that. We know that biodiversity fosters resistance to pathogens and invasive species. When you explain to someone that the human mind may not be so different, that it's important to have a diverse array of emotions—joy, sadness, love, admiration, guilt—and that these are all important pieces of our internal human emotional ecosystem, people can understand that. People appreciate that diversity is important, that maybe it's some sort of spice of mental life.

When you frame it that way, people are more readily able to not put such a premium on positive emotions and, in some situations, try to foster other kinds of experiences if they think it's part of a more diverse psychological life and repertoire. Framing it less as pushing positive emotions down, but as letting all emotions grow and thrive. They're all important sources of information for us and we have them for a reason. We have evolutionary goals; people can understand that. That's one way we've been thinking about trying to frame this. You don't just want to grow one kind of plant in your garden, you want to have a diverse array. 

JUNE GRUBER is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology LaboratoryJune Gruber's Edge Bio Page


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The Social Construction of Stories

How Narratives Can Get in the Way of Being Happier
[5.13.16]

I went for dinner with a friend who spent the whole of the evening complaining about her job, her boss, her colleagues, and her commute. Everything about her day-to-day experiences was miserable. Then, at the end of dinner, she said, "I love where I work." That's quite common. She was working for an organization where she'd always wanted to work, her parents were proud, her friends were jealous. How could she not be happy when she thought about the story of how happy she was where she was working? Her experiences—day-to-day and moment-to-moment—were telling her something quite different.                                  

I'm interested in where these narratives come from, particularly those narratives that sometimes get in the way of us being happier. There's been a lot of psychological research on how stories are helpful for us; for example, in the case of experiencing adversity or trauma. If we look for explanation and reason through narrative, it helps us cope with the adverse consequences. There's been a lot of work on that. I'm interested more in the social constructions of the stories, in the things that evolution, society, our parents, or historical accident tell us about the lives that we ought to be leading, and in particular, how they might sometimes get in the way of us experiencing better lives.

PAUL DOLAN is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Happiness by DesignPaul Dolan's Edge Bio Page


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Is Big Data Taking Us Closer to the Deeper Questions in Artificial Intelligence?

[5.4.16]

In artificial intelligence we need to turn back to psychology. Brute force is great. We're using it in a lot of ways like in speech recognition, license plate recognition, and for categorization, but there are still some things that people do a lot better. We should be studying human beings to understand how they do it better.

People are still much better at understanding sentences, paragraphs, books, and discourse, where there's connected prose. It's one thing to do a keyword search. You can find any sentence you want that's out there on the web by just having the right keywords, but if you want a system that could summarize an article for you in a way that you trust, we're nowhere near that. The closest thing we have to that might be Google Translate, which can translate your news story into another language, but not at a level that you trust. Again, trust is a big part of it. You would never put a legal document into Google Translate and think that the answer is correct.

GARY MARCUS, CEO and founder, Geometric Intelligence; professor of psychology, New York University; author, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Gary Marcus's Edge Bio Page


 

A Characteristic Difference

When Experimental Philosophy Meets Psychology
[4.26.16]

DANIEL KAHNEMAN:  We're at the nub of the question. You come from philosophy, so there are certain things that are of interest to you. You want to convey two things at once: that the question is exciting, and that you have something new to say about it. It is true that I, as a psychologist, would come to the same question and conclude that it's an impossible question. Those are two impossible questions, and I certainly would not expect people to answer them in any way that is coherent.                                  

My first assumption, coming to it as a psychologist, is that there is no coherence. You agree with me that there is no coherence. What makes it exciting from the point of view of philosophy is that there is no coherence. Whereas, as a psychologist, I take it for granted that there is no coherence, so it's less exciting. That could be one of the differences.               

JOSHUA KNOBE:  That's really helpful. The thing we showed is not just that it is incoherent but along which dimension it is incoherent. It seems like there was evidence already that there's something pulling us towards one side and something pulling us to the other side, and we want to know which thing is pulling us towards one side or the other. We suggested that it's this difference between abstract thinking and concrete thinking.... 

JOSHUA KNOBE is an experimental philosopher and professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. Joshua Knobe's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page


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Power Over Nature

New Phenomena That Will Change and Enrich Our Understanding of Fundamentals
[4.20.16]

The big story of the 20th and the 21st century is that we’re learning to control the world better. With the development of quantum mechanics, we understand the fundamental principles of what matter is and how it behaves that’s adequate for all engineering purposes.                                 

The limitation is just our imagination and our ability to calculate the consequences of the laws. We’re getting better at both of those as we gain experience. We have more imagination. As computing develops, we learn how to calculate the consequences of the laws better and better. There’s also a feedback cycle: When you can understand matter better, you can design better computers, which will enable you to calculate better. It's kind of an ascending helix.

FRANK WILCZEK, currently the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, has received many prizes for his work in physics, including the Nobel Prize (2004) for work he did as a graduate student at Princeton University. Frank Wilczek's Edge Bio Page


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The Augmented Human Being

[3.30.16]

There are now 2000 gene therapies where you’ll take a little piece of engineered DNA, put it inside of a viral coat so all the viral genes are gone, and you can put in, say, a human gene or you can have nonviral delivery, but the important thing is that you’re delivering it either inside of the human or you’re taking cells out of the human and putting the DNA in and then putting them back in. But you can do very powerful things like curing inherited diseases, curing infectious diseases.                                 

For example, you can edit out the receptor for the HIV virus and cure AIDS patients in a way that's not dependent upon vaccines and multidrug resistance, which has plagued the HIV AIDS story from the very beginning. You’re basically making a human being which is now augmented in a certain sense so that, unlike most humans, they are resistant to this major plague of mankind—HIV AIDS.              

There are now people walking around who are genetically modified: There are some that are resistant to AIDS because they have had their T cells, or more generally, their blood cells modified. There are children that have been cured of blindness by gene therapy. None of this is CRISPR, but it’s in the same vein. CRISPR is overtaking it very quickly and it’s drafting behind all the beautiful work that’s been done with delivery of DNA, delivery of genetic components to patients.

GEORGE CHURCH is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Personal Genome Project. George Church's Edge Bio Page


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Sounds of the Skies

Hear the Spacetime Ringing
[3.23.16]

The effect of these gravitational waves is to squeeze and stretch space. If you were floating near these black holes, you would literally be squeezed and stretched. If you were close enough, you would feel the difference between the squeezing and stretching on your face or your feet. We’ve even conjectured that your eardrum could ring in response, like a resonant membrane, so that you would literally hear the wave, hear it even in the absence of a medium like air. Even though we think that empty space is silent, in these circumstances you would hear the black holes collide but you wouldn’t see them; it would happen in complete darkness. The two black holes would be completely dark, and your only evidence of their collision would be to hear the spacetime ringing.

JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots; A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines; and most recently, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer SpaceJanna Levin's Edge Bio Page 


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The Mattering Instinct

[3.16.16]

We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter." Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct, that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN, awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Obama, is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of English and Philosophy at NYU. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Edge Bio Page


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Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century

[3.9.16]

It is going to be much more of a Wild West—what sorts of things get tried in education. The notion that we’re going to be all singing out of the same hymnal is just not going to be the case. And it may not be bad. The American federal system has been very effective in certain areas, but not in policies of higher education.

HOWARD GARDNER is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner also directs the Good Project. Howard Gardner's Edge Bio Page


 

AI & The Future Of Civilization

[3.1.16]

The question is, what makes us different from all these things? What makes us different is the particulars of our history, which gives us our notions of purpose and goals. That's a long way of saying when we have the box on the desk that thinks as well as any brain does, the thing it doesn't have, intrinsically, is the goals and purposes that we have. Those are defined by our particulars—our particular biology, our particular psychology, our particular cultural history.

The thing we have to think about as we think about the future of these things is the goals. That's what humans contribute, that's what our civilization contributes—execution of those goals; that's what we can increasingly automate. We've been automating it for thousands of years. We will succeed in having very good automation of those goals. I've spent some significant part of my life building technology to essentially go from a human concept of a goal to something that gets done in the world.

There are many questions that come from this. For example, we've got these great AIs and they're able to execute goals, how do we tell them what to do?...

STEPHEN WOLFRAM, distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and business leader, is Founder & CEO, Wolfram Research; Creator, Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha & the Wolfram Language; Author, A New Kind of Science. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page


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