Genes, Media, and the Mind

Presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Philosophy Forum, November 1st, 2009

1.0 How do our genes affect our mind?

1.1 Psychological research strongly indicates that our mental states are often highly genetically influenced. Twin and adoption studies, for example, indicate a highly level of heritability with schizophrenia (although there are environmental factors such as; prenatal development, urbanisation). The frequency of the illness in the general population is 1%, if one twin has it the chance of the other is 28%, if both parents have it the chance is 36%. Note that heritability studies sometimes show significant variation between the sexes; a twin study on the heritability of depression in men calculated it as 0.29, while it was 0.42 for women in the same study.
Questions: What is the relationship between dispositions and action? Is adaptive expertise itself largely a disposition or it trainable?

1.2 Psychometrics of generalised intelligence indicates that there is also a genetic basis to cognition which has strong predicitive validity. Multiple studies in the past decade (based on the U.S.) suggests that genetic variation has a significant impact on IQ, accounting for three fourths in adults Other biological factors correlating with IQ include ratio of brain weight to body weight and the volume and location of gray matter tissue in the brain. Environmental factors may have an effect upon childhood IQ, accounting for up to a quarter of the variance. The ratio of brain weight to body weight for fish is 1:5000; for reptiles it is about 1:1500; for birds, 1:220; for most mammals, 1:180, and for humans, 1:50. Within humans brain size shows substantial and consistent correlation (r = .35 to .43 in various studies) with IQ among adults of the same sex. Note that a side effect of this is that there is a statistically significant, although weak, correlation between height and intelligence.
Questions: Does heritability imply immutability?

1.3 The Flynn Effect indicates a high relationship between environmental factors and general IQ; there has been a continious and roughly linear increase since the earliest days of testing to the present. The average rate of rise seems to be around three IQ points per decade. The gains are primarily associated with low-end scores, with very little increase in very high scores. Environmental factors that has a large influence on general intelligence include nutrition (both general and micronutrients such as iodine and iron), pollution (exposure to lead, mercury etc and prenatal alcohol is particularly bad), environmental complexity (education and workplace). A number of reports in Western Europe suggests that the Flynn Effect has now ended.
Questions: Why do you think that the Flynn Effect is either (a) coming to a close in some countries and (b) seemed to have greatest influence on lower-ends of generalised IQ tests? What does this mean to race-based theories of intelligence (e.g., Murray and Herrnstein's "The Bell Curve")?

2.0 Is our mind socialised?

2.1 Language is the most immediate and obvious form of cultural influence on our mind. Although there are a number of biological requirements for linguistic expressions there is no knowledge of how language originated (e.g., was there a period of semi-language or did it emerge once all the capabilities were available?). From Derek Bickerton and Noam Chomsky, there is an argument with evidence that there is a universal grammar hardwired into the brain. There has been some reported experiments where isolated children were tested for language ability. Examples from feral children (most famously the 'Genie' case and earlier Victor of Aveyron) suggest that language must be learned through socialisation and stimuli giving rise to the critical period hypothesis - that first language must be learned in the first years of life or it will not be learned at all.
Question: What are the physical requirements for a language? In what way would we be conscious without language? What about animal consciousness?

2.2 Language consists of shared symbolic values created with mutual understanding. The relationship between a signifier and its signification is entirely arbitrary. Individual interpretation of signifiers becomes a map of metaphor (similarlity, e.g., "all the world's a stage") and metonym (continuity, e.g., "the crown" for a monarch), connotation (emotional interpretation e.g., "strong-willed", "pig-headed") and denotation (direct meaning, e.g., "stubborn"). Disparity between signifiers and actions can lead to confused and lasting mental damage; this is similar to an particularly advanced form of cognitive dissonance (the negative emotions that give rise when contradictory ideas are held simultaneously e.g., an advocate for animal rights who is not a vegetarian).
Question: Is a rose by any other name still a rose? What else can the signifier of the rose have as signification?

3.0 Can the media control us? Can we control the media?
3.1 Early criticism of the mass media (e.g., Frankfurt School) argued that it was primarily a controlling device and sought to reduce culture to the lowest common denominator. Empirical studies however suggest that social expectations have a significantly stronger role in people failing to apply their critical faculties (e.g., the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment) and that individuals engage in significant interpretation and even radical reconstruction of the messages that they receive from the media (and in some cases, appropriation e.g., the British government's "Heroin Screws You Up" campaign in the 1980s).
Question: What are some examples of the message from mass media being interpreted very differently from those who distributed the message?

3.2 Mass media does have significant influence in agenda-setting. Four main news agencies (AP, UPI, Reuters and Agence-France-Presse) claim together to provide 90% of the total news output of the world's press, radio and television.
Question: Does this oligopoly ensure high standards or does it serve to maintain an existing social order? Is it sufficiently competitive?

3.3 Association of media expressions and actual behaviour (e.g., violence in films leading to violent behaviour) is contingent on three dimensions; the (a) cognitive ability of the receiver to differentiate between performance and reporting, (b) the degree of sensual immersion potential from the actual medium (e.g., written text is low, a three-dimension virtual reality with tactile feedback would be high), and (c) the visceral level of content to base instincts (e.g., sex and violence). Studies in phenomenology show that in unstructured settings the introduction of new facts can actually alter perception.
Question: What sort of media expressions are most prone to individual mimicking? To what audience?

3.4 Hyperreality is the contemporary suggestion (by Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco et al) that consciousness is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy due to high levels of technologically advanced media. Hyperreality characterises consciousness in such an environment whereby the media filter the original event or experience being depicted.
Question: Are we capable of distinguishing that the hyperreal from the real? (e.g., a digitally altered photograph)

3.5 In recent years there has been an increasing distinction between information media and communications media; the latter providing an equality of production and feedback (e.g., the telephone, the Internet). It is argued that although the latter may start from a lower base it has a telos towards a more democratic and integrative development.
Question: Does the Internet enhance democracy or detract from it? Where do you get your information from these days?

Some recommended viewing on the subject: Videodrome, (1983 science fiction thriller, directed by David Cronenberg) and Mockingbird Don't Sing, 2001, directed by Harry Bromley Davenport)

Brian O'Blivion: The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the minds eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television. Videodrome. Image from the film.