Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Availability Cascade

We live in a complicated world that constantly throws complex issues at us. Because it is impossible for one person to be an expert in every field, we have to employ different strategies and tactics to navigate through these issues.

A fascinating way that our brain tries to solve a current issue is the availability cascade. This is a self-reinforcing cycle, where an idea essentially “infects” a group of people, displacing individual thought and opinion and overwhelming critical thinking.

The way this happens was described and modelled by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein.

First, a new idea that seems to be a simple and elegant solution or explanation to the current issue starts to gain traction. People easily adopt and embrace this idea because it sounds plausible and because it is easy to process.

Secondly, people who adopt these ideas spread it themselves, making it more available in the social network. Particularly, nowadays we see this in both reported and social media.

Lastly, as the availability increases, more and more people are pulled in and the idea seems more credible, because “everybody” seems to think it. People do less research and have less individual thoughts or opinions about the matter because the group consensus is more appealing or acceptable.

The availability cascade as a platform can be very effective at raising awareness of issues and banding people together to fight a common cause, such as when the AIDS epidemic was starting.
However, it is fraught with issues.

The availability cascade is mediated by a heuristic, which is essentially a mental shortcut. Heuristics are extremely useful in that it reduces our cognitive load and automates many of our decisions. However, because they are based on rule sets, they are not as effective for new, different situations.

We are less likely to think critically when using heuristics, meaning that we are more vulnerable to being manipulated. In this situation, people think “this is widely available information, therefore it must be important” and default to believing it (even if it is just to appear “current” and to fit in).

Because critical thinking is overwhelmed by the availability cascade, it can be extremely dangerous when misinformation spreads this way; or worse, disinformation – where people maliciously spread false information for their own gains.

A classic example is the anti-vaccination movement that spawned from a discredited, falsified article that claimed MMR vaccines increased rates of autism, despite mountains of evidence pointing towards the effectiveness and safety of immunisation. Subsequently, vaccination rates dropped and we now see outbreaks of illnesses such as measles, resulting in countless deaths and injuries that could have easily been prevented.

Information can be just as contagious and dangerous as an actual infection. Knowing about the existence of these cognitive biases and phenomena help protect us from falling victim to them.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Doorway Amnesia

Have you ever experienced the curious phenomenon where you walk into the kitchen and completely forget why you came there? Or why you stepped out of the house? Almost everyone is struck with this bizarre amnesia at some point in their lives. But why does it happen? Do Men in Black come in and wipe your memory because there was an alien in the room or something? The answer lies in the doors.

It has been scientifically proven that doorways have a magical property of causing memory loss. To be exact, doors do not cause amnesia, but the physical act of passing through a doorway causes the brain to lose memories. The reason for the phenomenon is this. The human brain stores information in a very unique way where it compartmentalises information by physical location. Because of this “filing system”, the thought “I really want cake from the kitchen” that you had in the living room is difficult to access when you are in the kitchen. By crossing a doorway, the brain recognises that the physical location has changed and opens a different “folder”, metaphorically speaking. This system allows for smooth mental functioning usually as it lessens the load on the brain, but also creates confusing situations where you just stand in front of the door, questioning whether you are losing your memory.

In an experiment in France, it was found that when students were told to memorise certain objects and then walk into another room, they had much worse recollection of the objects compared to the control group (students who walked the same distance but not through a door). It was even found that a person did not even have to physically walk through a door to lose their memory. When students were made to repeat the experiment in a virtual setting (i.e. moving a computer character through a door in a game), the same thing happened. The effect was so powerful that the researchers dubbed doorways event erasers.

Although it seems like an inconvenient system, the brain’s special way of compartmentalising information according to physical location can be used to harness the power of complete memory. This is done by using the method of loci, also called the memory palace. This is a mnemonic device first devised by ancient Romans to help memorise a large amount of information. To use the memory palace, you must first visualise a certain location – one that you are familiar enough with to recall with great detail. This may be your room, house, the street you live on, or even a fictional palace. The object of the memory palace is to convert a piece of information into an item which you can place in a certain location in the palace. For example, if you have to memorise a shopping list, you can conjure a mental shelf in your mental palace and put all the items in the shelf. To enhance this effect, make the image as bizarre and fancy as possible, as the mind is prone to remembering weird things more (e.g. a massive apple with eyes and a mouth is more memorable than a normal apple). Once your memory palace is complete, you can take a “mental walk” through the palace, go to the room where the memory you need is stored, and just browse the contents to recall the information. With practice and a vivid imagination, this is an infallible method of remembering anything you want, for as long as you want.

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Posted in History & Literature

Torture

Travelling is fun. But strangely, the etymology of the word travel is the Latin word tripalium, which means “torture instrument”. This is most likely because in the old days before airplanes and trains were invented, travelling was often long, arduous and painful. Travelling is probably the least terrifying form of torture. Let us explore the various methods of torture used throughout human history. There are many types of tortures, but they can be largely divided into physical and psychological torture. The main goal of torture is to induce maximum pain to extract information from, punish or to execute a person.

Physical torture is very simple: inflict as much pain as you can. For example, you can simply tie the person to a chair and beat them senselessly, or apply pressure to a wound to cause intense pain. A useful tip for beating someone is to place a phonebook on their stomach or hand and hitting the book, which transfers pains while not leaving a bruise or any marks. A simple way to cause extreme pain is the use of fingers. Finger tips are extremely sensitive and contain many nerve endings, meaning sticking needles under the nail bed or ripping the fingernails off causes extreme pain. Like this, medical knowledge has often been used to develop new ways to torture people. For instance, heating the sole of the feet with fire causes severe pain, electricity used in the right amount can keep the person alive while causing pain and seizures, and if you lie a person flat and on a slight decline (so the head is lower than the body), put a cloth over their face and pour over it, you can induce a sensation of drowning (this is called waterboarding and is used by the CIA). Another simple, effective torture method is the joori-teulgi(주리 틀기) from Korea, where a person is tied to a chair with the feet bound, with two long sticks inserted between the thighs, crossed, then pulled down to streth the thighs apart. This causes extreme pain and suffering.

As mentioned above, torture can be used to kill a person too. The famous hanged, drawn and quartered torture was used in the Middle Ages to punish treasonists. The convict was drawn behind a horse for a while and then hanged until just before death, when they were disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. Another strange, complicated method of torture can be found in China, where slow slicing was used. Slow slicing involves tying a convict to a post and cutting slices of flesh off him until he dies. Executioners often had an art of slicing in such a way to prolong the suffering for as long as possible without killing the person. Another execution method found in both Western and Eastern history is dismemberment by horses, where the person’s four limbs and head are tied to individual horses (or cows), which are then made to run in different directions to violently rip the person up.

Animals were used in various forms of torture throughout history around the world. Tying the prisoner to an elephant’s feet to crush them to death, putting a rat on the person’s stomach then putting a pot over it and heating it with fire to make the rat burrow into the person’s guts, feeding them to lions or vicious dogs, coating them in honey and leaving them in the path of fire ants to make them get slowly eaten… Out of all of these, the most bizarre method is the goat torture used in ancient Rome. This torture involved tying the prisoner to a chair and securing their feet, which were coated with salt water. Next, goats were released around the prisoner. The goats would lick the sole of the feet to cause tickling, which over a prolonged period is interpreted as pain by the body. This eventually drives the person insane from pain.

Unlike physical torture, psychological torture induces shame and fear rather than pain. Threatening, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, rape and sexual torture, sensory deprivation, exploitation of phobias, loud noises (such as banging on a door constantly), blindfolding the person and rubbing a balloon on their cheeks, placing foreign objects or snakes in the anus or vagina, leaving them in a container full of insects… Psychological torture has just as much a variety as physical torture and can have longer lasting effects on the person. Furthermore, as it leaves no external marks, it is still frequently used in the modern day.

No matter what the method, inducing extreme pain to control people, extract information and cause suffering is an inhumane act that cannot be tolerated. If mankind had focussed their creativity and effort into more constructive and altruistic things rather than discovering various ways to cause pain, we would probably be living in a much better world.

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Posted in History & Literature

Dystopia

The following is an excerpt from the book Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman, where the author compares and contrasts two famous books depicting a dystopian society: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism

Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the Feelies, the orgy porgy and the Centrifugal Bumble-puppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, people are controlled by inflicting pain.
In Brave New World, people are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. 
Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

(Source: http://www.totalitariers.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Brave-New-World-vs.-1984.jpg)

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Identity

Do you want to gain trust and build intimacy with someone? That is easy – all you have to do is recognise and accept their identity. Every person tries to define who they are by building an identity or their “self”. This identity includes their personality, experiences, philosophies and interests. If you wish to have a deep and meaningful conversation, start off with a light conversation to explore the person’s identity. What kinds of films do they like? What leisure activities do they enjoy in their free time? What occupation are they in? If you slowly learn such superficial information, an outline of their identity begins to take place. Also, observe the person’s attitude as they speak and how they respond to certain topics. You will be able to know or at least guess what their interests are.

As the person slowly becomes fond of you through conversation, simply lead the conversation towards their interests that you found out. The person will talk excitedly about their interests. Now, respond accordingly with a smile and a look of interest (better if you are actually interested). A positive conversation has been established. Steer the conversation so that the other person talks as much as possible about their “self”. The person will think that you share their interests, and nothing is as attractive as common interests.

Shall we go one step deeper? Interests give an outline and begin to add colour to the identity, but to recognise their identity as a whole you must gather more specific data. Once a sense of trust and intimacy begins to develop, the conversation can develop into a more personal one. Talk about the person’s past, their philosophies, their dreams, hopes and aspirations. The more intimate information they share with you, the deeper the intimacy becomes and the more you learn about their identity. The important point here is that you not only learn about their identity, but acknowledge it every step of the way. The greatest gesture you can make to another person is accepting them for who they are. If you talk with someone that understands you and accepts you, you will talk as if time does not matter and share your deepest secrets.

On the other hand, if you wish to attack an enemy psychologically, what could you do? As you might have guessed, you should attack their identity. Pull out all of their weaknesses and faults and attack them, while logically disproving their fundamental beliefs and philosophies. Systematically pull apart their psyche and destroy the pride they have for their identity and even the strongest enemy will fall to their knees.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Transactive Memory

It is common to find couples, families or teams where someone always asks another member about a certain memory, while the opposite happens for a different memory. For example, a mother might always consult his son about computers and technical difficulties, while the father might always consult the mother about his plans for the month. This kind of “shared memory” is named transactive memory, where a group becomes organised in a way to share memory around in an efficient manner. This is usually done by the group reorganising itself so that each member specialises in a certain field, with the other members only remembering that that person is the expert. This means that instead of memorising every field, you can simply remember who is the expert in that field. It is much like learning where the reference text is rather than learning the contents.

Although it may look like dependence, transactive memory is an extremely useful tool in tight groups such as a couple or a small team. By having members specialise in certain domains of knowledge, the group is able to expand their capacity to acquire knowledge and create innovation. Transactive memory allows for a group to become efficient and effective in learning and retrieving knowledge. Overall, it improves decision making processes and the efficiency of the group, allowing for better outcomes. This is achieved by the division of responsibilities from specialising, shortening the time needed for finding the appropriate knowledge (as everyone knows the “guy” or “gal” to go to) and the shared understanding of the teammates regarding the interpersonal relations in the team. This means that everyone knows exactly who to go to for a certain domain of knowledge, while understanding their strengths and weaknesses, allowing for well coordinated interactions. Because of this, transactive memory only works in groups with limited numbers, with the maximum number being similar to the Monkeysphere (150).

Many studies prove the effectiveness of transactive memory. It has been found that couples have much better memory recollection compared to when they are paired with a stranger. In the modern technological era, transactive memory has expanded to the internet, with studies showing that people are more likely to know the source of information (such as Wikipedia) rather than the actual information. Given the ease of access to the internet and large databases containing all the information we need, sometimes it is far more efficient learning how to find these sources rather than rote learning all the information.

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Posted in History & Literature

Spy

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu dealt with the topic of spies extensively in his book The Art of War. He believed that information and intelligence determined the flow of war and spies were a vital element. Sun Tzu talked about five types of spies.

  • Local spies (鄕間): Use the enemy’s people
  • Internal spies (內間): Use the enemy’s officials (like a resident spy)
  • Double spies (反間): Use the enemy’s spies to feed the wrong information
  • Dead spies (死間): Has a possibility of betraying, so use them to spread misinformation, leading the enemy to persecute them
  • Living spies (生間): Use agents that can gather intelligence and return safely back to report their findings, the most useful type of spies

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Question

The word that children say the most as they grow up is probably “why?”. Children always ask this and that, seeking knowledge as if they want to understand every object and everything happening around them. This is an extremely important developmental step that trains the most powerful weapon a human being possesses: the brain. Children can use their brain’s amazing information processing abilities to start building a massive knowledge tank, absorbing information like a sponge. Furthermore, they never ask a question just once but love to repeat the same question over and over, driving an adult crazy. This is not because the child wants to frustrate the adult. Just like how you cannot fully understand all of the meanings in a good book on the first read, a child learns through repetition and ruminating knowledge. If you do not repeat something, the knowledge only lasts in short term memory and is soon deleted, making it a very inefficient study process. Ergo, famous children’s educational programs such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues teach children things by constantly repeating the same thing. After that, the children watch the same episode over and over again to acquire knowledge.

As children do not know much about the world, they need to inherit knowledge from adults. Because adults possess a vast amount of knowledge, children need to ask a series of specific questions to build their knowledge base slowly and steadily. As their basic knowledge base builds, they can start to learn through other means such as books and encyclopaedias. However, whether you are a child or an adult, if you have something that you want to know, there is no faster and effective way of finding out than asking someone that knows. If you do not ask, you cannot learn and your brain will atrophy. Curiosity is a sign that there is still something you can learn. Thus, no matter how old you are, you should have the courage to ask a question. Curiosity is progress.

On the other hand, if someone (especially a child) asks you a question, do not brush them away; calmly answer their question and try to pass on as much of your knowledge to them as possible. That is your responsibility as a member of society; a sacred duty of feeding and nurturing the future generation.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Symptom Reporting

Some people always complain of symptoms, claiming that they are sick, while some people never seem to complain even if they have a whole list of symptoms. Why is there a difference in symptom reporting between people? For example, women are more likely to recognise symptoms and report them compared to men. This is because men are generally under the social pressure of needing to appear strong and healthy, so they become stoic and less sensitive to pain and disease. Women are usually more sensitive to internal bodily changes and worry more about their health.

According to a psychological theory called the competition for cues hypothesis, there are two signals that compete for attention when we recognise symptoms. The first is bodily changes, i.e. internal cues, while the other is external stimuli from what happens around us. Awareness of symptoms follows a ratio between these two signals: if there is a strong internal cue such as severe pain, we notice symptoms more quickly, while if there are many distractions, we may not notice the symptom. For example, according to a study people can run faster when listening to music and running through a forest with plenty to see. This is because music and the scenery distract the runner from internal cues. As we can only process a certain amount of information at a given moment, the more distractions there are the less sensitive we become to signals from inside our body.

Another factor that affects symptom reporting is illness labelling. The more information we have about a disease, the more we search for those symptoms. For example, if you yawn or scratch yourself, people around you will do the same. This is because they see you yawning and subconsciously believe that they should yawn too. This can be a powerful effect, as seen in mass hysteria. This strange phenomenon occurs when a person observes a sick person and their brain believes they are sick too, beginning to show symptoms despite being healthy. A similar example is seen in medical student disease, where medical students, with their extensive knowledge of diseases, match their own symptoms to symptom lists of rare diseases. For example, they might think that their high blood pressure is due to a phaeochromocytoma or renal artery stenosis, rather than just hypertension.

However, the opposite can occur where people fail to notice important symptoms and suffer serious consequences as a result. For instance, not all cases of heart attacks (myocardial infarction) cause unconsciousness and a patient may believe they are fine when only chest pain occurs. Failure to get treated as soon as possible at a hospital may result in ventricular fibrillation, leading to sudden death.

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