What is Science Trying to Prove?

So just imagine this – it’s midnight, you have to get up at 6am, go hang out on campus for 14 hours the next day enduring a 6 hour break in the middle that is just long enough to come home but the bus ride is also just long enough that it’s not worth the effort. Sounds like a good time to sleep, no?
I don't alwaysOf course not.
It’s time for a big idea. That absolutely MUST be written down BEFORE you sleep, because let’s face it, we always think we’ll remember in the morning, but science has shown we really just can’t. We don’t really consolidate anything that last 15 minutes, so I pick up my phone and dutifully start typing.
So what was this absolutely marvelous idea that absolutely HAD to be written down? That was worth sleep deprivation on a 14-hour-Monday (which just makes it suck even more)?
It’s (another) discussion on the issues of science. I’ve talked about the whole induction deduction issue before, and I have talked about how psychology is more aware of its propensity for errors in conclusions and results, largely due to the variation that exists within individuals, but I’ve missed out I think on how science contradicts some of it’s own principles, and has set up this double standard.

source

source. For the record, men’s brains are technically larger, though most of the difference is owing to their generally larger size,  and there is a high degree of overlap between the distributions of male versus female brain size. Which is essentially irrelevant because connections matter more than mass.

What is interesting is that science is paralleled largely as a man’s world. You know, as in men are rational and logical and they rely more on the right hemisphere (?) than women who are so incredibly irrational (but damn are they good in the kitchen!). And because of this “fact” women cannot be associated with science, it must be a man thing. Which to be fair more females are engaging in scientific pursuits lately thanks to various women’s and men’s movements, and some of the big thinkers in science are female (nevermind that Watson and Crick used a woman’s data and then took all the credit…). But we are presented with this wonderfully rational and emotionally sterile picture of science. Except that’s not really the case.
The problem with science is that its methods are designed to prove by deduction and inferences – we don’t prove something is true in theory. In theory we demonstrate that the alternative is extremely unlikely, to a level that our theory or proposal is more likely. And science acknowledges this in its theoretical methods, but the problem is that this information is then taken as fact and used on future studies as such. Thus our hypotheses become progressively more precarious as they come to rely on “most likely true” which was developed from another “most likely true” but science doesn’t acknowledge that. So we’ve essentially set off a cascade of potential error each time we report results.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life's efforts. Crossing fingers and toes.

Oh the normal curve. This will prove or disprove the last 8 months of my life’s efforts. Crossing fingers and toes. Source.

What becomes even more problematic is the public reaction to such results. As a student in psychology and science it has been drilled into my head to carefully look at the results, and while I rarely track down the results unless it bears significance for me (usually in the context that I am already interested in the topic for personal or school related research), I know how to read a study and discriminate between statistical and practical significance.
Curious if the general population was as careful I asked a few friends, who, except for one, told me that they would likely simply take the evidence at face value without further skepticism or investigation assuming it came from a reasonably credible source (i.e. the newspaper. Because you know, those guys NEVER bias their information.). At this point I decided to ask them if they knew the difference between statistical and practical significance. It’s my bread and butter. What we want is both, but we don’t always get that. Tragically, again, only one person (the same person) understood what I was talking about.

The issue is that newspapers rarely distinguish the two. So people make life decisions potentially or at the very least alter their opinions about things, somewhat needlessly. So for non-psych junkies allow me to explain it in less than 30 seconds: statistical significance says that there’s a very small mathematical chance that there isn’t a difference between the groups/that our “best guess” was wrong; practical significance is whether or not something actually matters – is the effect size (i.e. the effect of whatever manipulation was applied on one group compared to another untreated) big enough to be a big deal?

So you end up with a situation like this... maybe.  Source.

So you end up with a situation like this… maybe.
Source.

For example, suppose a study reports than individuals on diet X lost significantly more than the individuals on diet Y. They very well may have – there might be a mathematical difference, but then you look at the effect size and the means, and you realize that there’s a high degree of overlap, lots of people on diet Y lost more than diet X and lots lost less, but the difference in the average amount of weight lost between groups is say 35lbs compared to 32lb.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for.

Well stop the presses. Not. This is hardly worth getting excited for. Source.

So how science is reported and viewed is a problem. Beyond the general population’s lack of awareness of how to interpret the results, is the issue of how people don’t appear to get how science does it’s thing. We trust the process just a little bit too much. Even I have fallen prey to reading a study, remembering to check all the appropriate statistics and methodology and going, yup looks good, let’s source this in my paper and call it fact, without considering how it was that the scientists developed their theories and how shakey the foundation of their theory (or any theory for that matter) may be. Yes I ensure that I mention when things only showed increased likelihood (i.e. the study was correlational and thus proves very little according to science), but I also sort of treat it as fact, as a given, when I build it into my argument. So really, I’m not better than the general population, I’m just more aware of  that fact that I’m doing it.

Beaker, Flasks, Test TubesIn most of the “pure sciences” – chemistry and physics – you are dealing with inanimate objects with no will or growth on their own. But I don’t recall there ever being a discussion of the null hypothesis, I remember taking measurements to calculate error – but the error measurements didn’t assume confounds, it affirmed that either you did something wrong or the scale or PCR or whatever other science machine wasn’t working properly. For example, you compare the mass you DID get versus the theoretical amount you SHOULD HAVE gotten. When you calculate the error it is based on a theory, which either was thought up almost out of thin air, or was based on other potentially flawed measurements. Thus the theoretical answer (based on either a theory/idea or a potentially flawed answer) is used to judge the accuracy of another lab experiment. Yet the point of comparison may be no more accurate.

To give the pure sciences credit, at least they have a tangible point of reference. In psychology we just have the complex calculations and a lot of assumptions because we never can KNOW if we were right or wrong about people. They change their minds too often. Psychology lacks a point of reference for it’s error, it can in no way calculate the true state of the world, and so we work in a world of theories, but we are not immune to using these theories as near fact. We perhaps acknowledge it more, but we are no better. 

See the issues?

  1. We take “science” as fact, when really it’s probability because we can never know the true state of things.
  2. We judge probability from theory.
  3. We develop theories from ideas and pre-existing “fact.”
  4. Go back to 1.

There’s an infinite loop of probability painted as truth. But we don’t talk about it. Like if we ignore it, it’ll go away.
At the risk of sounding like some sort of hell-raiser, just out there to leave you hanging from a metaphorical cliff, I don’t have really any solutions to fix this. It’s part of being human, this notion of knowing and perceiving reality without actually having any proof of anything. The only solution I can offer is skepticism and awareness. Not taking things for face value, find the science and judge it’s results for yourself, or at least learn to read the graphs and data and not fall prey to tricks such as modifying the scale.

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It’s okay, to not be okay.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about social protocol lately. What is the normal human reaction to things? Is what I’m feeling ok? I’ve meditated a lot on emotions (clearly. Since I wrote about it Monday), and tried to wrap my head around the public and private emotional domains.

Something that struck me was how cultures around the world seem to shy away from displays of sorrow. We only want the good. And we only want people to think we have our lives together and that they’re awesome, but that isn’t always the case. Life isn’t only what shows up on Facebook. Sometimes things aren’t okay. And that’s okay too.

I find it rather amusing in a tragic way that I used to find it difficult to even tell my therapist that I was not okay. Every time she asked me how I was, I would say good. Thankfully my nonverbal cues gave me away, and I mean if everything was totally fine why would I be in a therapist’s office in the first place? But I am totally caught up in this social script that goes like this:

“Hey! How are you?”
“I’m good! You?”
“I’m good!”

Because to say “to be honest my life is a hot mess right now” would be too much for us to handle. I’m in psychology and I don’t even know if in that instant I would know what to say if someone said that to me right now with a straight face. I say it sometimes, usually accompanied by a 🙂 or “hahah”, because God forbid I be serious.

But that’s the problem. Saying you’re happy and being happy are two different things. And I think we get very caught up in the should-be’s – the social scripts of how we should think and feel. And I think that’s part of the problem with mental health – feeling depressed isn’t okay, so we suffer in silence. We feel alone and unacceptable so we feel more depressed and isolated and unloveable. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel sad, that we can’t be ourselves, and the pressure crushes us.

The other problem? We too often think we’re alone. Out of this understanding that our sorrow violates the norms of human functioning comes a belief that we are the odd ball out, we are failing being normal. You are not failing anything, and you are not the only one suffering. Imagine how freeing it would be to accept this?

I read an interesting passage by Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning, in it he talks about how we know ourselves first through others (me) before we know ourselves (I). This struck me because we essentially put ourselves on the hands of others, we become what they want us to be. We talk about self-fulfilling prophecies in a lot of my classes and yet this thought has never struck me. Am I only me as I exist in others eyes? Is it then the discrepancy, the knowledge that our me and I don’t match. We feel split and confused.

I thought about this a lot because I am very much an open book, ask me anything and I will generally give you an honest, albeit potentially partial answer. I don’t come with much of a censor system. And I am a huge advocate for mental illness being something okay to talk about; for stopping the silence and shame of mental illness; and increasing the awareness. But I live a double life.
There’s the me that has my shit together. That knows exactly where I’m going and what I want. Then there’s the part of me that knows what it is to suffer, that cares too deeply. That questions if I’ve got it all figured out.

When I started applying to graduate studies I was told that the number one rule was to not talk about my experiences with mental illness. I felt like I had been punched.

Number one rule of Fight Club? Don’t talk about Fight Club.

I get it. Sort of. We want rational psychologists – the depressed can’t tell the depressed how to be less depressed. And I don’t want to get into grad school out of the professor’s pity – I do want them to see me as competent, intelligent, and caring. But at the same time I am mildly disgusted. I heard of a student who was forced onto a leave when the faculty found out he had a mental illness. I was told that even if the issue was resolved the faculty would still look at you differently. And I just want to scream – this doesn’t mean you’re broken and defective.

And so, despite my general openness, and my advocacy for awareness and acceptance. I don’t talk about this. But I want things to be different, I want it to be okay to walk up to someone and say, “I need a break. I’m not ok. I need help,” and have that person respond “That’s ok. You’ll be ok. Let me help.”

A few months ago I signed the “It’s Time To Talk” pledge. And you know what happened? I didn’t talk. I kept my mouth shut. Yeah I talked vaguely on here about body image and depression and suicide. I joke about cheering people up, I know that I am accepting of mental illness in others but I never opened up to the world, that I, a twenty-something woman with my life together, have known mental illness. I have seen its painful effects.

This is my brother Troy, he would have turned 29 last week, 12 years ago today, he took his own life.

This is my brother Troy, he would have turned 29 last week, 12 years ago today, he took his own life.

People don’t suspect that of me – in society we have this idea that those with mental illnesses are completely nuts, total hot messes, a sobbing mess in the corner, or else freaking out/hallucinating. Sometimes that is true, but the majority you might not even suspect. I went to class, I went to prom, I dated, I worked. Didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting.

Life hurts sometimes.

Sometimes it hurts really bad.

But pain is subjective.

And if everyone cries; if everyone is sometimes overwhelmed with the agony that sometimes comes with life; if everyone needs someone to tell them it’s going to be ok – why can we not accept this? Because maybe it means that if all these normal people can suffer depression, and anxiety, and eating disorders then what does this say about us? That we too may break down? Well damn, thank goodness there’s all these understanding individuals all around…

Acting like there’s something inherently wrong with the mentally ill doesn’t protect you and it doesn’t help anyone. Reach out, love everyone. It sounds preachy and cheesy, but you never know what someone is hiding. You don’t know what they’re going through, so smile at them because sometimes that can make the difference. If you’re suffering from a mental illness I’d love to hear from you – you’re not alone and only through talking about it can we break down all this shame.

I saw this video a few months ago, and it really inspired me.

Uncontrollably, Emotionally, Human

Source

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

― Albert Einstein

There is a emotion center labelled in the brain. According to science, all emotion originates or is processed in the amygdala. Though thinking back, I have no idea whether the emotions are caused by the amygdala or affect it. Which roots back to the whole idea of perceptions – are they created by the brain or do they create brain activity by stimulating specific neural pathways. This depends on your philosophical viewpoint in a sense. On one hand you could believe that we should doubt our very existence, in which case, perceptual experiences are the result of our brain activity – our brain creates our experiences. Of course you could take it a step further and say we don’t even have a brain and we cannot know we exist in any form. Which quite frankly has always struck me as senseless. On the other hand, you could argue that we developed sophisticated sensory systems to be able to detect stimuli, we have studied these stimuli extensively, and the brain react to the stimuli. Which fits more with my practical side, but leave me with the problem of how does the brain construct the mental  images? I am still working on that one, hopefully I will have an answer to that, and in general the brain question (i.e. What does the brain do?) next week. For now, I shall return to the concept of emotions.

Emotions are a pretty busy and varied area of psychology so allow me to boil down the key issues with emotions as I see them:

  1. Science has located the biological center but cannot explain the mechanism
  2. Science tries to remove emotions from science, but this is essentially impossible – emotions are a part of us. I can’t stop my emotions any more effectively that I can stop breathing.
  3. Emotions impact everything we do – have you ever heard noticed how your emotions colour EVERYTHING! The same event, missing the bus is a totally different thing if you’re upset because you failed a midterm versus if you got a good night’s rest and are looking forward to a date.
  4. We are not always experts at emotions, they’re not always apparent.
  5. Emotions are either part of consciousness or born out of consciousness.

Sitting on the bus Tuesday night, I looked around and realized everyone was likely thinking something. Or so my female mind tells me (according to comedians it is actually possible for men to not be thinking ANYTHING). So everyone on the bus was thinking something. In my experience, everything to some degree has an evaluative component.

In mediating on emotions I came to a slow and peaceful realization of the distinction between the public and private emotions. We have the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve.” Meaning you make no attempt or are unable to conceal your emotions. I argue this is part of a more general expressiveness. People show the really powerful emotions, or they usually do – and which we see them naming them, we have no difficulty naming them. But what about mixed emotions? We do not always feel one thing.

Thankfully there was no one this tired. I am alarmingly close.

Thankfully there was no one this tired. I am alarmingly close.

Sitting on the bus, I can see people who are tired, but that, beyond, the concept of psychache,  is not really an emotion. I am sure they were thinking about things, feeling things under the surface, but superficially all I could see was the tiredness. Humans are capable of an unimaginable array of emotions, science has attempted to find a set of “core” emotions, basic things like anger, sadness, happiness, surprise. But we don’t always have these simple emotions that can be neatly packaged up. Sometimes our “head and our heart disagree” (i.e. our logical and rational thought system, wherever that is, and our emotions are telling us to do different things). And then things get messy. This is essentially why science tries to eliminate these things. Ironically, at least here in North America, we talk about how couples (particularly actors) “have great chemistry.” Somewhere Neils Bohr just turned over in his grave.

It’s the emotions that complicate the science of psychology. This boils down to an overarching experience or issue of things being made more complicated than they need to be and more simple than they can be. We can’t remove emotions from our experiences, they’re the very thing that taint our perception. So we try to remove emotions, be completely unbiased, my psych profs have repeatedly told me that we try to be interested in the results either way, out of scientific curiosity. Really, I don’t think that’s possible, yes some experiments may actually be interesting for interest sake, but we develop hypothesis – mini-theories of sorts that state what we are expecting to happen. To have those expectations invalidated is useful in allowing us to grow and learn, but at the same token, it sucks. It sucks to be wrong. And we get sad, or frustrated, disappointed, maybe even angry. Our hope that we are right, may guide our interpretations, our desire to avoid the negative emotions could affect how we interpret things. At the same time, we do not live in a vacuum – in the background, beyond the experiment is our lives. The things that really matter to us as individuals. We may be sad because of a break-up or dreading a visit from the in-laws (for the record, I have never had an awful boyfriend’s family experience, I’m starting to wonder why everyone dreads the in-laws) – and that affects how they carry out the experiment or interpret the results. It’s the same in daily life – like I mentioned before – say you just failed a midterm, and someone steps on your foot on the bus, you are going to react differently than if you just found out you aced the midterm.

So to say that science can remove emotions is laughable – you can’t – it is part of our consciousness. Are they consciousness? Well I guess that requires an understanding of consciousness, which could be an entire post on it’s own – but let’s do the SparkNotes version.

Consciousness=awareness of your existence
Unconsciousness=existing without awareness

People sometimes have talked about unconscious emotions – and I’ve read studies that demonstrate implicit feelings that individuals are unaware they’re feeling – racist reactions are a big one – i.e. science has supposedly proven that even if explicitly you state you are not racist, and your general behaviour agrees with that, there are subtle indicators of your us-them bias. Which is interesting, though at this point we may be stretching too far in our generalizations.

To what degree is the unconscious a valid indicator of someone’s emotions? To what degree do those “unconscious motives/emotions” guide our behaviour? This is the bedrock of the problem of whether emotions are consciousness or merely a part of consciousness. If they are our consciousness then should we not be able to label them all the time? Should emotions not guide everything? In class I argued, almost on a whim, on the basis that emotions affect everything, that emotions are consciousness. Sitting back and thinking about it though, emotions don’t necessarily affect everything. Motivation plays a huge part. Some may argue that this is just another more complex emotion, but I don’t think so. Emotions impact motivation potentially. But I don’t think that emotions are necessarily a part of everything, at least not on a conscious level. When I wait to cross the street, it is not because I fear getting hit by a car (which is technically valid), it is because that is social norm. When I climb the stairs (I might wish I had taken the elevator),  I am not feeling any emotion generally, at least not related to climbing the stairs.

After writing this, on a later bus ride I realized – was I perhaps unable to read the emotions of people on the bus because there were none? Is that possible? If emotions are to be consciousness, then they must always be present, we must be unable to evaluate or think without an associated emotion. But is exhaustion an emotion or a state of physical or mental existence?

I vacuumed Saturday morning, I was distracted thinking about other things I was going to do, but did I have an emotion or some sort of appraisal of vacuuming? No. I was simply doing something, yet I was conscious of that. Neutrality isn’t really an emotion. At the same background thoughts of future plans or past events may also be generating emotions that are completely unrelated. What is interesting and forms a sticking point for me, is how I may be unaware of emotions, I may even not be feeling anything – but when someone asks me how I am feeling, I can tell them…usually. Does this mean that emotions are part of the unconscious, the background noise of our lives that can be brought forward into consciousness? Or do we actually include emotions in all areas of our lives, we just don’t think of them as emotions because we do not have the language to articulate the emotions? Are thoughts as I watch people on the bus emotions, appraisals, or simply thoughts?

So emotions aren’t everything, motivations and social norms also play a role (though they too may be considered variations of emotional states), but emotions have the potential to impact everything.

In meditating on science and emotions and decision making an interesting concept became clear. We try to remove emotions when we make decisions or guide our behaviour because they can be rash, they are volatile and out of our control (much like our own consciousness – we can choose to ignore things, but this requires some degree of consciousness). Jury, business, and medical decisions are all supposed to be based on fact. Psychologists are expected to be completely unbiased, empathic, but not emotionally involved. We pretend that this is the way things actually are because if we accept that emotions can be illogical, AND we accept that they CANNOT be eliminated  from decisions, then our reasoning is not actually logical, and we are no longer wise and rational beings. We become a slave to the illogical, to the chaos of our minds. And yet when an individual completely lacks emotions, or the ability to show/react to emotions, like Dexter, we pathologize it. Something just isn’t right.

Basically? We want to have our cake and eat it too.

What is interesting to me is how different cultures deal with emotions and show them, and how that affects our understanding. For example, the Japanese are known for their lack of emotional expression (or at least traditionally). To say you’re depressed or display anger publicly is disapproved. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on eating disorders for various papers and proposals, and what strikes me is how the Japanese have been found to display a non-fat-phobic version of anorexia nervosa. I reference this to EDs in children, a growing area of research, as children are largely considered to be unable to articulate and understand their own emotional experiences, which could explain the atypical presentation in Japanese individuals – if emotional displays are not appropriate, like children, they may lack the fat phobic trait either because the expression may be foreign to them, or because culturally expression of such individual desires may be inappropriate.

How we experience and display emotions are partially culturally derived, but also inherently variant and potentially contradictory. For example, outside of NY, even if you are experiencing heart-wrenching pain, crying on public transit is generally bizarre. So maybe you put on a mask of calm, maybe even try some good ol’ fashioned opposite action and smile. Either way, public transportation is a no-cry zone. So emotions, in my opinion, are somewhat inevitable, displaying them is optional.

So scientists pretend to be unbiased, I don’t think that’s really possible. What is possible, is controlling your actions, somewhat. So science is essentially alogical because of the inductive reasoning, and illogical because it is tainted by emotions, and essentially science then becomes an exercise is how convincing you are. Not truly on how convincing the evidence is. I have read articles where the author talks up the results and then you examine yourself, and they’re significant, but only statistically so, in real life it is hardly worth any pomp and circumstance.

What about the really powerful emotions? Sometimes, you just feel too much – they become uncontrollable.

So what does this say about emotions?

As I’ve said before, emotions cannot be explained by the brain’s activities, I refuse to accept that emotions can truly be simply a neurochemical cocktail. I see emotions as both uncontrollable – you can’t control love, you can’t help but feel sad when someone you love dies – and at the same time incredibly malleable – which is the very principle behind cognitive behavioural therapies. But then what are emotions, scientists really hate the intangible, so I feel like I should come up with some sort of hypothesis that will eventually be proven wrong. I propose that this is essentially no different that perception to a degree. 

There is a chicken and the egg debate in both, and neither can pinpoint exactly how those neural signals are converted back into mental images of the sensory world. Maybe the difference with emotions is the evaluative component but also the fact that emotions are percepts of the unobservable.

I still have a long way to go in understanding emotions, a prelude to understanding my own emotions I suppose, but what is incredibly fascinating to me is that they are always changing. I think our emotions hold the power to alter the connections in our brains, to bias our perceptions and interpretations – a sort of stimulus acting on the brain from within whatever source of being defines that which science has yet to explain.

The science kids are confident that we only say science can’t explain things because it  hasn’t developed the technology to do so – but how can you boil something so potentially irrational and volatile down to a complex, but logically organized sequence of firing neurons and neurotransmitter releases? I don’t think science can or should explain emotions, but I still don’t agree that the reactions can be so instantaneous that we can experience the flashes of emotion. Science has done some pretty cool stuff, but please science – don’t take away the magic of love.

What do you think? Has science already explained the emotions? Will it? Should it?

Also, not a huge fan of making emotions a scientific theory – but this is pretty cool (don’t ask me why happiness is completely isolated)

emotions web

“I think there is something beautiful in reveling in sadness. The proof is how beautiful sad songs can be. So I don’t think being sad is to be avoided. It’s apathy and boredom you want to avoid. But feeling anything is good, I think. Maybe that’s sadistic of me.”

― Joseph Gordon-Levitt