How Free Is Your Will?

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

Think about the last time you got bored with the TV channel you were watching and decided to change it with the remote control. Or a time you grabbed a magazine off a newsstand, or raised a hand to hail a taxi. As we go about our daily lives, we constantly make choices to act in certain ways. We all believe we exercise free will in such actions – we decide what to do and when to do it. Free will, however, becomes more complicated when you try to think how it can arise from brain activity.

Do we control our neurons or do they control us? If everything we do starts in the brain, what kind of neural activity would reflect free choice? And how would you feel about your free will if we were to tell you that neuroscientists can look at your brain activity, and tell that you are about to make a decision to move – and that they could do this a whole second and a half before you yourself became aware of your own choice?

Scientists from UCLA and Harvard — Itzhak Fried, Roy Mukamel and Gabriel Kreiman — have taken an audacious step in the search for free will, reported in a new article in the journal Neuron. They used a powerful tool – intracranial recording – to find neurons in the human brain whose activity predicts decisions to make a movement, challenging conventional notions of free will.

Fried is one of a handful of neurosurgeons in the world who perform the delicate procedure of inserting electrodes into a living human brain, and using them to record activity from individual neurons. He does this to pin down the source of debilitating seizures in the brains of epileptic patients. Once he locates the part of the patients’ brains that sparks off the seizures, he can remove it, pulling the plug on their neuronal electrical storms.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

A New Tool for Creative Thinking: Mind-Body Dissonance

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

A New Tool for Creative Thinking: Mind-Body Dissonance

Did you ever get the giggles during a religious service or some other serious occasion?  Did you ever have to smile politely when you felt like screaming?  In these situations, the emotions that we are required to express differ from the ones we are feeling inside.  That can be stressful, unpleasant, and exhausting.  Normally our minds and our bodies are in harmony.  When facial expressions or posture depart from how we feel, we experience what two psychologists at Northwestern University, Li Huang and Adam Galinsky, call mind–body dissonance.  And in a fascinating new paper, they show that such awkward clashes between mind and body can actually be useful: they help us think more expansively.

Ask yourself, would you say that a camel is a vehicle?  Would you describe a handbag as an item of clothing?  Your default answer might be negative, but there’s a way in which the camels can be regarded as forms of transport, and handbags can certainly be said to dress up an outfit.  When we think expansively, we think about categories more inclusively, we stop privileging the average cases, and extend our horizons to the atypical or exotic.  Expansive thought can be regarded a kind of creativity, and an opportunity for new insights.

Huang and Galinsky have shown that mind–body dissonance can make us think expansively.  In a clever series of studies, they developed a way to get people’s facial expressions to depart from their emotional experiences.  Participants were asked to either hold a pen between their teeth, forcing an unwitting smile, or to affix two golf tees in a particular position on their foreheads, unwittingly forcing an expression of sadness.  While in these facial configurations subjects were asked to recall happy and sad events or listen to happy and sad music.

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Jevons Paradox: Energy Efficiency Increases Consumption?

Energy efficiency sounds simple, but it’s rather difficult to measure. Sure when you purchase a shiny, new more energy efficient washing machine compared with your previous model you’re making a personal dent in energy consumption. But, what if in aggregate overall consumption increases because more people want that energy efficient model? In a nutshell, that’s Jevons Paradox, named after a 19th-century British economist, William Jevons. He observed that while the steam engine consumed energy more efficiently from coal, it also stimulated so much economic growth that coal consumption actually increased. Thus, Jevons argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use.

John Tierney over at the New York Times brings Jevons into the 21st century and discovers that the issues remain the same.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

For the sake of a cleaner planet, should Americans wear dirtier clothes?

This is not a simple question, but then, nothing about dirty laundry is simple anymore. We’ve come far since the carefree days of 1996, when Consumer Reports tested some midpriced top-loaders and reported that “any washing machine will get clothes clean.”

In this year’s report, no top-loading machine got top marks for cleaning. The best performers were front-loaders costing on average more than $1,000. Even after adjusting for inflation, that’s still $350 more than the top-loaders of 1996.

What happened to yesterday’s top-loaders? To comply with federal energy-efficiency requirements, manufacturers made changes like reducing the quantity of hot water. The result was a bunch of what Consumer Reports called “washday wash-outs,” which left some clothes “nearly as stained after washing as they were when we put them in.”

Now, you might think that dirtier clothes are a small price to pay to save the planet. Energy-efficiency standards have been embraced by politicians of both parties as one of the easiest ways to combat global warming. Making appliances, cars, buildings and factories more efficient is called the “low-hanging fruit” of strategies to cut greenhouse emissions.

But a growing number of economists say that the environmental benefits of energy efficiency have been oversold. Paradoxically, there could even be more emissions as a result of some improvements in energy efficiency, these economists say.

The problem is known as the energy rebound effect. While there’s no doubt that fuel-efficient cars burn less gasoline per mile, the lower cost at the pump tends to encourage extra driving. There’s also an indirect rebound effect as drivers use the money they save on gasoline to buy other things that produce greenhouse emissions, like new electronic gadgets or vacation trips on fuel-burning planes.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Wikipedia, Popular Science Monthly / Creative Commons.[end-div]