Friday, July 21, 2017

That's Not Funny

Why Do Hyenas Laugh?

Are hyenas the most misunderstood animals in the wild? They're intelligent, they have a sophisticated social order, and their famous laugh isn't even a laugh.

I Think, Therefore I'm Confused

A Test for Consciousness?
Michelson-Gale-Pearson experiment/Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images

Will we ever really know what, or even where, consciousness is? Is there any way to get at it scientifically, conclusively? Week by week we hear claims from neuroscientists that would appear to confirm the prevailing “internalist” view of consciousness. If the brain creates a representation in our heads of the world around us through the firing of neurons, the argument goes, then we can identify neural activity that corresponds to particular aspects of consciousness. They tell us that if this part of the brain is damaged it will affect our eyesight. If that part suffers, we will have difficulty moving through space. They show us images based on scans of electrical and chemical activity in the brain and how those images change when our experience changes. Yet there has been no progress in bridging the gap between this activity in the brain and the nature of our experience, the richness of our sensations of color, sound, touch, motion, or simply awareness.

How, then, can the internalist theory be tested and demonstrated scientifically? Will it ever really be possible to prove beyond all doubt that this neural activity is our experience? And if that can’t be done, is there any proof for an alternative account of consciousness? What about the hypothesis that Riccardo Manzotti has been setting out in these dialogues, that consciousness is actually external to the body? Are there any scientific experiments that could settle this debate?

—Tim Parks
This is the tenth in a series of conversations on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks.

Tim Parks: Riccardo, let me start with a very simple experiment, something anyone can try, that seems very much in favor of the internalists. When we look intensely at a field of red color and then shift our eyes to a white or grey surface, we see, admittedly only for a few seconds, but nevertheless very distinctly, an area of green. Since it is clear to anyone who has not been looking at red that there is no green on this white background, is it not evident that colors are generated in the brain?

Riccardo Manzotti: Well, first, you don’t see green but cyan, a greenish blue color.

Parks: Who cares! Surely the only thing that matters is that one is seeing a color that isn’t there.

Manzotti: I care, we should all care. When doing science we must be precise. It’s actually rather extraordinary that in current textbooks and even in scientific papers people are still claiming one sees a green afterimage after looking intently at red.

Parks: But…

Manzotti: It’s more important than you think. Let’s put in the colors right here for people to see and have them make up their own minds.
So, readers should stare at the red square for at least twenty seconds— if they’re using a small screen, they’ll need to get right up close—then move their eyes and look steadily at the light grey, whitish square, where they will now see a color afterimage. But what exactly?
Color A, or color B? If you are a standard color perceiver, a trichromat, what you have just seen is much closer to color A than B, that is, to cyan rather than green.

Parks: Ok, it works for me. And so?

Manzotti: Well, white, as you know, or this light grey is made up of all the colors. And it just so happens that if we take the red out of the white, we’re left with cyan. Not green.

Parks: But still, the paper is white, or greyish, not cyan. At least to anyone who hasn’t been staring at red.

Manzotti: If you had stared at green rather than red, then when you turned to the white you would see white minus green, which is magenta. And if you stared at red and then looked at a field of yellow rather than white you would see a green afterimage, which is yellow minus red.

Parks: Ah. What you’re saying is that what we see is dependent on what’s out there.

Manzotti: Right. And we can predict what we’re going to see. Staring at an intense color, the eye experiences something called chromatic fatigue. It becomes briefly blind to that color. So when it turns to look elsewhere, for a few seconds it does not pick up the color it’s blind to. Turning to white after looking at red, you see the cyan in the white. Then white takes over again.

Parks: So I’m seeing something that’s really there.

Manzotti: You are. That’s why it matters that we establish the exact color we’re seeing. Because it’s not produced in the head. It depends on what’s out there. It is what’s out there, for your altered perceptive faculties. And before we move on, let me just say that this is a classic example of how an orthodoxy—in this case the idea that experience, and in particular color, is all generated in the brain—leads to some sloppy science and even a denial of what anyone can go and check for themselves.

Parks: Let’s see if I can do better with my next challenge. Internalists often mention Wilder Penfield’s experiments. He managed to get people to have hallucinations by stimulating parts of their brains electrically during open brain surgery. Other neuroscientists have even managed to relate stimulation of a particular neuron to “seeing” a particular face, obviously in the absence of that face. Again this suggests that experience is generated by the brain; we don’t need the world around to see something.

Manzotti: Have you checked out the hallucinations Penfield reports?

Parks: No.

Manzotti: They are all rather everyday ordinary experiences. Seeing one’s wife entering the room. Hearing a friend’s voice.

Parks: And so?

Manzotti: Well, if experience were actually generated freely by the brain, isn’t it odd that it remains so strictly tied to the world? Why no colors that have never been seen before? Sounds never heard in reality? Why no experiences that clearly have nothing to do with the outer world? Even when we dream we are aware that the bizarre aspects of dreams are due to their superimposition or mixing of different elements of known experience. An elephant that’s pink, or green. A dog that can talk. Whatever.

Parks: But surely the point is that we’re seeing something that’s not there.

Manzotti: Tim, we discussed this in our conversation on dreams. The question of what’s “there” or what’s “now” is complex. The objects that make up our experience can be milliseconds or years away from our bodies. Photons take time to travel, neurons take time to send electrical signals. We have already suggested that although ongoing ordinary experience of the world follows a privileged neural path that makes it possible for the body to deal with phenomena immediately around it, there are also other paths, eddies as it were, where neural activity mills, or is somehow delayed, then released later in dreams, or when a surgeon stimulates a part of the brain electrically. But this does not mean the brain is creating experience.

Parks: I’m not entirely convinced by this. You can’t prove, scientifically, this idea of experience being buffered or delayed in neural eddies.

Manzotti: At this stage, no. Neuroscientists can’t disprove it, or prove that the experience is “generated” in the head. But let’s remember, we do science by forming a hypothesis, making predictions in line with that hypothesis, and inventing experiments that prove or disprove the hypothesis.

Parks: So how would that work in the case of consciousness?

Manzotti: Hypothesis: All our experience is made of physical things that have had some causal relationship with our bodies. In fact, if it could be demonstrated that someone has had an experience made up of elements that were never causally related to his or her body, my theory would collapse and—

Parks: Sorry. What about the congenitally blind painter, Turkish I think, who claims to see colors in his mind?

Manzotti: Esref Armagan. Okay. He was born with no eyes. However, he has spent all his life among people who talk about color and he refers to color with the common terms, the sky is blue, the grass is green, etc. But the colors have to be chosen for him when he paints them. He can’t see them, so it’s impossible for us to know what it means when he says he experiences them. There are many cases of congenitally blind people writing about color, but they usually admit these are simply words they learned. If color was concocted in their heads, without any contact with the outer world, why would they ascribe the right colors to the right objects, as it were, having never seen those objects?

Parks: I can see we’re not going to get very far with this. Your general prediction is that every experience will be traceable back to an actual physical property in the world. But when it comes to fleeting feelings and intuitions, any such tracing back becomes extremely complicated. And I want to be brutally definite. Can you invent a clear and concrete experiment and predict an outcome of that experiment that would prove your position? Accepting of course, that if the outcome is different, you are wrong.

Riccardo: Yes. Let me propose two. Neither is easy, but then again neither is impossible, and both are certainly easier than much of what neuroscience gets up to these days. The first requires a little surgery and a willing guinea pig.

Parks: Yourself?

Manzotti: I’m up for it, yes. Though no doubt some people will raise ethical objections. So, take an afferent nerve from a part…

Parks: What is an afferent nerve?

Manzotti: Simply a bundle of axons carrying an electrical impulse, or action potential, from an external physical phenomenon to the central nervous system. For example, mechanoreceptors are cells that respond to mechanical forces, such as pressure or distortion. They generate action potentials that head off towards the brain via the spinal cord. They allow the external world to be the cause of effects in the brain.

Parks: Ok.

Manzotti: Take an afferent nerve from a part of the body that is not of crucial importance, for instance a tactile nerve in the back. Then connect it to a transducer…

Parks: Explain.

Manzotti: A transducer is a device that picks up a phenomenon and transforms it into an electrical impulse. For example, artificial retinas and artificial cochleas are transducers, picking up visual and auditory phenomena. Connected to nerves in the eye or ear they offer forms of sight and hearing.

Parks: And what’s the phenomenon that the transducer in this experiment picks up? The one we’re going to attach to the nerve in your back.

Manzotti: Well, it has to be a transducer for a phenomenon human beings cannot pick up with their bodies. Ultrasound, infrared, electromagnetic fields. Let’s say infrared. After all, some species of snakes experience infrared.

Parks: We take the nerve in your back and hook it up to an infrared transducer. Your prediction?

Manzotti: Since my hypothesis is that experience is not created in the brain but selected by the brain and the body in the external world, it follows that if we extend the mechanisms of selection, we should be able to extend our experience accordingly. So I predict that as soon as that external phenomenon—in this case infrared—becomes able, through the transducer connected to the afferent nerve, to affect what is going on in my brain, I will begin to perceive the additional external phenomenon. I will have an experience of infrared if only because infrared is now causally connected to my brain.  

Parks: This sounds a bit like those attempts to convey visual information through tactile stimulators attached to the back of a blind person. A camera, or visual transducer I suppose you’d say, sends signals to a sort of plate placed on the back, and the person then learns to interpret the signals visually.

Manzotti: Right. But there are two important differences. First, those systems are not directly attached to the nerves. Second, the point of that research is to allow a person who is blind, but was once able to see, to learn a skill, that is, to respond appropriately to a new kind of visual stimuli—something he or she has done in the past reacting to stimuli from the eyes before he or she became blind. In my experiment, the transducer is fixed directly to the nerve, which puts the body in causal contact with a new phenomenon, not something previously experienced.

Parks: So, we do the experiment, and either you have a new experience, which is an awareness of infrared, or you don’t. But couldn’t the internalists claim that the nerve was, yes, stimulated from without, but that nevertheless what is experienced is experienced within, and is a representation of infrared, not the phenomenon itself?

Manzotti: Ha! They could. We would have established a need for the outside world to have the experience, but not the location of the experience.

Parks: So you’re only halfway there, or not even.

Manzotti: I said there were two experiments and the second attempts to deal with this objection. The idea this time is to prove that it is possible to have different experiences with the exact same neuronal activity. And the experiences would be different because the external world would be different.

Parks: How on earth are you going to do that?

Manzotti: First we need some optical reversing, or inverting, goggles, the kind that make everything look upside down. We know from previous experiments that if you wear the goggles continuously for a few days you adapt and your perception adjusts. You see things the right way up, the way they are, despite the goggles. Right? So, in this experiment, before giving a subject the goggles we present him with a simple visual stimulus, say, a big capital T. Then after he has worn the goggles a few days and adapted to them, we present him the same stimulus, but inverted—an upside down capital T.

Parks: I’m getting confused. Why?

Manzotti: Well, at this point we have a double inversion: the inverted T with the inverting goggles will cause the viewer the exact same retinal activity he had previously when there was an upright T without the goggles.

Parks: Got it. We’ve created the same retinal activity with different stimuli.

Manzotti: Right. And my prediction is that despite the retinal activity being the same, the viewer will see the stimulus upside down, as it really is.

Parks: Because he’s adapted to the goggles. Cunning.

Manzotti: Naturally, we would record the neural activity in both cases using a high-res fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Here I’m predicting that the cascade of neural activity in the cortical area would be the same, while the experiences, as we’ve said, would be different and, crucially, correct, on both occasions. This, I think, would demonstrate that the experience is not a neural representation, not in the head, since in the head we have the same activity on both occasions, while the experience is different. Therefore, the experience must exist outside the brain.

Parks: Wait a minute! Wouldn’t the adaptation process that the wearer has gone through produce some variation in brain activity, and wouldn’t it be that variation that accounts for the different experience?

Manzotti: Yes and no. First, I should say that we’ll be recording neural activity related to visual stimuli, the way neuroscientists do when they establish neural correlates for visual experience. Haynes and Rees, for example, in 2006 succeeded in matching specific brain activity with specific visual experience. More remarkably, in 2011 Nishimoto managed to reconstruct the external visual stimuli that volunteers were responding to on the basis of their brain activity.

In light of these results, then, you might suppose that the adaptation that occurs when someone wears reversing goggles is the result of an inversion that takes place inside the brain. Yet we have no indication that anything of the kind takes place. It’s worth remembering that ever since the early 1600s, when Kepler did his work on human vision, scientists and philosophers have been puzzled by the optical inversion that occurs inside the retina and have looked for some corresponding re-inversion in the brain. Nothing has ever been found. As to adaptation to inverting goggles, evidence collected by Linden and Kallenbach in 1999 suggests that no change occurs in the orientation of neural activity in the visual cortex. Of course, one could always object that current brain imaging techniques have their limitations and that there may be hidden neural activities not yet observed, but the burden of proof would then be on the internalists to find such activity. This is an empirical question and needs to be settled empirically, not on the basis of prejudice or dogma.

Parks: Coming at this from another angle, don’t we already know that the same type of neural firing along a single axon can be correlated to different senses? In which case, even assuming your experiment works, would it really be such a revolutionary result?

Manzotti: You’re right, yes. And we also know that the same byte of memory can have different meanings, and again that the primary auditory cortex and the primary visual cortex have very similar structures with similar neural activity, yet one correlates to auditory experiences and the other to visual experiences. The point of my experiment is to create such a clear-cut situation that scientists would have to consider the obvious conclusion from all this data: that the experience is not located in the brain, but in the truly different phenomenon outside.

Parks: But do you believe that either of your experiments will be carried out in the near future?

Manzotti: At present we are stuck in a dead end where the orthodoxy, internalism, is entirely dominant, but no progress is being made as to the nature of consciousness for the simple reason that, as we showed in our earlier dialogues, this orthodoxy makes no sense at all. Rather than doing any real science, we are hearing fantasies about downloading consciousness into computers and the like.

Perhaps in our next conversation we could consider this state of affairs and challenge internalists to disprove the hypothesis I have put forward.

Parks: By all means, let’s see where everyone stands and where they think they’re moving.

Little Miracles

See Hummingbirds Fly, Shake, Drink in Amazing Slow Motion | 

National Geographic  Published on Jul 18, 2017 2 min. 21 sec.

It's Surreal, All Right

Workers bring a casket to the Dali Theater Museum in Figueres, Spain, on Thursday. Salvador Dali's eccentric artistic and personal history took yet another bizarre turn Thursday with the exhumation of his embalmed remains in order to obtain genetic samples that could settle whether one of the founding figures of surrealism fathered a daughter decades ago. | AP

In surrealist twist, Spanish artist Dali’s body is exhumed in paternity lawsuit

The Japan Times  AP

Salvador Dali’s eccentric artistic and personal history took yet another bizarre turn Thursday with the exhumation of his embalmed remains in order to obtain genetic samples that could settle whether one of the founding figures of surrealism fathered a girl decades ago.

Pilar Abel, a 61-year-old tarot card reader, claims her mother had an affair with Dali while working as a domestic helper in the northeastern Spanish town of Figueres, where the artist was born and where he had moved back to with his Russian wife, Gala.

After two decades of court battles, a Madrid judge last month granted Abel a DNA test to find out whether her allegations are true.

“I am amazed and very happy because justice may be delivered,” she said at the time, adding that a desire to honor her mother’s memory was motivating her paternity lawsuit. “I have fought a long time for this and I think I have the right to know.”

Her lawyer, Enrique Blanquez, said a judicial victory for Abel will give her a chance to seek one-quarter of Dali’s estate in further lawsuits, in accordance with inheritance laws in Spain’s Catalonia region.

Dali and his wife had no children of their own although Gala — whose name at birth was Elena Ivanovna Diakonova and who died seven years before the painter — had a daughter from an earlier marriage to French poet Paul Eluard.

Upon his death in 1989 at age 84, Dali bestowed his estate to the Spanish state. His body was buried in his hometown’s local theater, which had been rebuilt to honor the artist in the 1960s. The building now hosts the Dali Theater Museum.

After the gates of the premises closed Thursday, a 1.5-ton stone slab was removed to open the crypt where Dali was interred 27 years ago. In order to lessen the risk of contaminating any biological samples, only five people — a judge, three forensic experts and an assistant— witnessed the opening of the coffin at 22:20 local time.

It remains to be seen if the chemicals used for preserving the artist’s body have damaged his genetic information, said Narcis Bardalet, the forensic expert who embalmed Dali back in 1989.

Regional Catalan officials previously told AP that experts planned to remove four teeth, some nails and the marrow of a long bone, if the corpse’s condition allowed it. A coffin from a funeral home was delivered earlier in the day to the museum premises. If the operation is successful, the samples will travel to a forensic lab in Madrid, where an analysis could take weeks.

The public foundation that manages Dali’s estate failed to halt the exhumation but convinced the judge to reschedule it out of visiting hours. Extra measures were taken to prevent images being taken of the process, including raising a marquee inside the museum’s glass dome to avoid any possible photography or video taken from drones.

Dali’s paternity lawsuit was a topic of discussion Thursday among the lines of visitors at the museum.

“I think the woman has the right to know who her father is,” said 33-year-old Miguel Naranjo. “But I think it is surreal that they have to unearth his body after such a long time.”

Since the judge ordered the exhumation many have raised doubts about Abel’s story. In an article published by Ian Gibson last month in El Pais after having researched the artists’ complex sexual appetites, the Dali biographer concluded that there could be serious doubts about any offspring claims.

Among the skeptics is Joan Vehi, who started working as a carpenter for Dali and his wife, Gala, but who, over time, became a close friend of the couple and one of the painter’s personal photographers.

“I’ve never heard of this woman, Dali never talked to me about her, and now suddenly all this fuss,” Vehi said Thursday. “This is self-publicity.”

Salvador Dalí’s Moustache Is Still Intact

According to an embalmer who participated in his exhumation.

Salvador Dalí, the surrealist artist, had a beautiful moustache, which you can see in the photo of him above. He apparently still has it, even though he died in 1989.

“His moustache is still intact, [like clock hands at] 10 past 10, just as he liked it,” Narcís Bardalet, an embalmer who participated in the recent exhumation of Dalí’s body, told a Catalan radio station, according to The Guardian. “It’s a miracle.”

Dalí’s body, which had been laid to rest at a crypt in a Dalí-designed museum in his hometown of Figueres, Catalonia, was exhumed this week to determine whether a fortune-teller is Dalí’s biological daughter.
DNA results from his body aren’t expected for another month or two, though Bardalet said that getting the samples was hard enough, in part because Dalí’s body had stiffened, “like wood.” Exhumers used an electric saw to take bone samples. They also collected hair and fingernail samples.

The moustache, though, stayed.

More Silly Osprey Art

Take an Alien Home day...

Who makes up these "Special Days"?

These two are for Celebrate the Moon & Mars Day

And this is for Fortune Cookie Day.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Internet & Friendship

How the Internet Is Changing Friendship

No matter where in the world your friends are, they’re always a text, email, or Facebook message away from reconnecting. But does that mean that we’re keeping friendships alive past their natural expiration date, or are virtual connections actually making friendships stronger?

Inequality Makes Everyone Poorer

The Broken Ladder: Keith Payne on How Inequality Affects Our Behavior 

Signature   By July 14, 2017

Americans believe strongly in personal responsibility. It’s one of the underpinnings of our culture—and of all of Western thought—and rightly so. But Americans also believe deeply in fairness, and it’s increasingly difficult to square either of these American values with the dramatic rise in income inequality that this country has witnessed over the last fifty years.

According to nonpartisan policy and research institute the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since the 1970s, income growth for high-earning households has vastly outpaced that of low- and middle-earning households. Over the last ten years, the wealthiest one percent of households’ share of before-tax income “has climbed to levels not seen since the 1920s.” And when it comes to households’ wealth—the value of assets minus debts—the top three percent possess more than half of all wealth in the United States.

Keith Payne tackles inequality and its wide-ranging effects in his timely and illuminating new book, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. In America and all over the world, more inequality correlates to more health and social problems. It influences how we think about social justice, how we vote, how we save for retirement or don’t, what illnesses are likely to afflict us, and how long we can expect to live. But inequality is about more than just the amount of money in a person’s bank account. “Inequality is not the same as poverty,” Payne writes. “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

Payne recently spoke with Signature about how inequality permeates our perception of ourselves and others, the role of fundamental attribution error and how it reinforces the notion of poverty as a result of personal failings, and what we can do to feel more at ease in our own skin.

SIGNATURE: You punctuate this book with stories from your own life, like how, when you were in the fourth grade, a new lunch lady asked you to pay for your lunch, not knowing you received free lunches. How did your personal experiences inform your career path and your decision to write this book?

KEITH PAYNE: My personal experiences with poverty and wealth, with high status and low status, have been so incongruous and startling to me that it drove home how far apart people’s subjective experiences of poverty and their actual income can be. And when I looked at the new psychology research, I realized that it was often the subjective experiences that matter most. For example, in the fourth grade lunch line, when I first realized that my free lunches meant I was poorer than other kids, my world suddenly changed. My family’s income was the same, but now I felt poor, and started seeing the world and acting accordingly."The increasing residential and social segregation that is happening today changes what people think of as 'normal.'"

It was a huge demotion, psychologically. Later when I went to college and graduate school, the opposite happened. I had no money but felt upper class because I was on a trajectory that made me feel confident for the first time in my life that things would go my way. I felt that disconnection again when I began my first position as a professor. At 27 years old I went from being a poor graduate student one day to being called “professor” by everyone and treated with more respect than I had ever experienced.

These incongruous experiences made me aware of the profound disconnections between people’s objective incomes and their subjective experiences of it. And that disconnection is the linchpin that psychologically connects inequality (the size of the gap between rich and poor) to poverty. When inequality gets very high as it is today, everyone feels poorer. Even the middle class feels left behind.

SIG: If you regard yourself as poor, regardless of your actual income, what are some things that are more likely to happen to you?

PAYNE: Subjective feelings of wealth and poverty are associated with a huge range of health and emotional problems. Holding constant people’s actual incomes, those who feel poorer are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, cardiovascular disease, and obesity and diabetes. The cumulative effect of all these illnesses is that people who feel poorer actually have shorter life expectancies. I saw this dynamic in one study that my colleagues and I conducted with cancer survivors.

This group of survivors had undergone a kind of stem-cell therapy that is brutal to experience. A high rate of patients who survive the treatment experience post-traumatic stress disorder from the treatment itself. We measured their quality of life (including PTSD, anxiety, and depression) six months after the treatment. Their objective incomes didn’t predict their quality of life, but those who felt poorer were more likely to develop PTSD as well as to suffer from depression and anxiety in the following months.

The interesting thing about this study is that the stem cell therapy is expensive and cutting edge, and not generally covered by insurance. That means that patients in our study were all relatively wealthy. And even among this wealthy group, feeling poor predicted poor outcomes.

SIG: One of the most striking themes of your book is just how inaccurately people see themselves, especially regarding where they stand on what you call the “status ladder.” In your research or elsewhere, have you had occasion to show people where they actually fall on the ladder, and if so, how have they responded when confronted with the truth?

PAYNE: This question of where people “really stand” on the status ladder is interesting, and tricky. When we ask people to rate themselves on the status ladder, we ask them to consider things like their income, education, and jobs, and rate where they stand compared to other people. If you feel that you are better off than most people, you can probably find an angle that justifies that feeling. Maybe it’s focusing on your education and ignoring the income part.

Or maybe it’s selectively picking the “other people” you compare to. Likewise, if you feel worse off than others, you can probably focus on one or two aspects of the comparison to justify it. The important part—for predicting people’s behavior and their thoughts—is their subjective experience. And if someone feels above or below average, providing them facts about income distributions does not change much.

SIG: What is fundamental attribution error and how does it affect our ideas about inequality?

PAYNE: Imagine that you see Mary weeping. It might be because of something about Mary (is she a depressive personality?) or it might be something about the situation she’s in (maybe she has just been dumped?). The fundamental attribution error is the widespread bias to think about person-based explanations and ignore situation-based explanations.
When it comes to unequal economic outcomes, this means that we look at successful people and assume it’s because of their hard work and talent, and we look at unsuccessful people and assume they are lazy or dumb. We ignore situational factors—like whether they were raised by wealthy or poor parents, attended good or bad schools, or had opportunities in their lives.

Both can matter, but the data show that by far the best predictor of how much people will achieve in terms of income and education is the income and education of their parents and the geographical locations in which they were born. And yet, many people can’t help seeing millionaires as brilliant, and food stamp recipients as deficient.

SIG: In Chapter Two, about why we can’t stop comparing ourselves to others, you write that inequality is hard to see because “its essence is the lack of a single shared experience.” Essentially, “the haves and the have-nots separate themselves from one another where they live, where they work, and where they go to school.” What is this segregation doing to how people perceive one another and the world?

PAYNE: The increasing residential and social segregation that is happening today changes what people think of as “normal.” If you live in a wealthy suburb of Washington DC, you may think that it is completely normal to drive an Audi, and spend a thousand dollars a month on restaurants, and it would be very strange if your friend’s child did not go to a four-year college.

But if you live in a trailer park in rural Kentucky, you might think it’s totally ordinary that the neighbor’s teenager sells drugs and that no one you know has gone to college. People do what seems normal to them. Segregation creates increasingly different norms for what regular people do, and that has the effect of reinforcing inequality.

SIG: In exploring how inequality divides our politics, you debunk the notion that poor people tend to vote conservative and rich people tend to vote liberal. But in the 2016 presidential election, we heard a lot about working class people who voted for Donald Trump. To what extent was voting in this election in line or out of line with historical trends, and what can we learn from it?

PAYNE: The journalistic coverage of the 2016 election fell prey to the same bias as was observed in the previous several elections—depicting poor people voting mainly Republican and wealthy people voting mainly Democrat. In fact, higher income was associated with a greater likelihood of voting for Donald Trump in 2016.

The typical Trump voter earned above the national average income, and the typical Clinton voter earned below the national average. The misperception arises because, although richer individuals tend to vote Republican, the average person in richer states tends to vote Democrat. I think that the resolution to this puzzle is found in the fact that people vote not based on their objective income but on their subjective experiences of the status ladder. The more money you make, the higher you will tend to feel on the status ladder. That means that conservative policies like tax cuts will probably sound like they are in your interest, even though most people who feel subjectively rich would not actually benefit from tax cuts that help the top tax brackets.

Conversely, the poorer you feel, the more it will feel in your interest to strengthen the social safety net. But here’s the surprising thing: the poorer the state you live in, the richer you are likely to feel. Imagine two people who earn $58,000 a year (about the national average household income). One who lives in Alabama will feel much richer than one who lives in Connecticut. So if people vote based on their subjective perceptions—what feels in their self-interest—rather than economic realities, it explains both why richer people vote Republican and people in poorer states vote Republican. From the liberal perspective this looks like poor people voting against their self-interest. But if you ask those people what they see as their self-interest, they will tell you they are voting rationally.

SIG: Thomas Jefferson has often been credited with saying, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” But these days, it seems like the populace, at least in the U.S., is woefully uninformed. For example, you describe a survey that showed that 40% of people who had received government benefits did not believe they had. If the public is that ignorant of the facts, how can we hope for legislation and change that will actually benefit most people?

PAYNE: When the stimulus package was passed in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, the government did something savvy: projects funded by the stimulus carried big signs that said, in effect, “This project is brought to you by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” You would see those signs at road construction sites and bridge repairs, for example. Political scientists have a term—the submerged state—for the fact that many government programs that help people are invisible. We don’t see tax breaks, Medicare, or government subsidies for policies like Obamacare or social security on a day-to-day basis. I think those policies should carry signs—like the ones on construction sites—that let you know that you are getting a break because of a particular policy. For example, tax forms could say, “Here is what you owe based on your income. But here is what you actually pay because of the Earned Income Tax Credit.”

SIG: In your chapter about how inequality is a matter of life and death, you write about something that’s been in the news a lot lately: in the U.S., death rates have been steadily declining, with the exception of middle-aged whites, especially those without a college degree. I was especially struck by the line, “This demographic group is dying of violated expectations.” Can you describe these deaths of despair and explain what you mean by that sentence?

PAYNE: The group for whom death rates are alarmingly increasing—middle-aged whites without a college degree—is a great example of how subjective experiences of the status ladder can peel apart from objective wealth. This group has been hit hard by increasing automation, just like low-education black and Hispanic Americans. But black and Hispanic death rates continue to trend down. What separates the groups is that whites expected, based on their past experiences and their parents’ generation, to do better. By comparison to those expectations they feel left behind. That’s why it is interesting that the causes of death driving this increase are largely self-inflicted wounds like drug overdoses and suicides.

SIG: Your chapter about racial and economic inequality is full of sobering research about implicit bias around race, like how many people view black welfare recipients as lazy and dishonest and white ones as the “deserving poor,” and how blacks receive more severe criminal sentences. But you remain optimistic. You conclude that section by saying, “Consider this chapter an invitation to look forward.” Can you elaborate?

PAYNE: The living conditions of black and white Americans really are staggeringly different. But the perceptions of these groups are also in different worlds. Black Americans believe that racial discrimination against blacks is widespread, but whites see racial discrimination as largely a thing of the past. Psychologists Richard Eibach and Joyce Ehrlinger discovered that those perceptions are driven by different reference points. If you ask how bad racial prejudice is today, white Americans tend to think about the Jim Crow past. By comparison to that, today seems pretty good. But when you ask black Americans the same question, they think of what true equality would look like. By comparison to that ideal future, today seems woefully prejudiced. These researchers found that if you first get each group to consider the other group’s reference point, their differences of opinion about the present largely disappear. What I’m trying to do in this chapter is encourage white Americans to think about what a truly equal America would look like. By comparison to that, I think most readers will agree we have work to do.

SIG: At the end of the book, you write that big-picture economic change is a long-term prospect, but suggest that we might “improve the quality of individual lives on a more immediate basis”—for example, by recognizing when we are compulsively comparing ourselves to others and consciously choosing comparisons that are relevant and useful, redirecting our comparisons from other people to our own pasts, and assessing what is most meaningful to us. Can you explain how changing one’s perspective can help people live better despite the realities of inequality?

PAYNE: The best solution to the problems we’ve been discussing is to reduce economic inequality and widen the ability of ordinary people to share in the historic increases in wealth that America has been experiencing for the past half century. But in the short term, I outline a number of psychological strategies that people can use, for themselves and their children, to get off the treadmill of constant social comparison. We discussed that importance of subjective experiences—how much it matters if we feel poor, regardless of actual income.

By making social comparisons strategically and purposefully rather than as a knee-jerk reaction, we can take control of how we feel compared to others. So when we need inspiration or motivation, it makes sense to compare ourselves to those more successful than us. It may make us feel inferior, but it can also give us an energy boost. And when the problem is that we are feeling stressed or left behind, then it makes sense to compare to those who are not as far ahead as we are. It might encourage us to rest on laurels, but downward comparison can give us some much-needed breathing room on the status ladder.

All of these comparisons, however, are really indirect ways of reassuring ourselves that we are good, valuable people worthy of respect and admiration. The best strategy is to go straight to the heart of the matter: spend some time reflecting on what really matters to you. This simple activity, which can be done on a moment’s notice and on a daily basis, gives us the best of both worlds. It motivates us to pursue the things that really matter, ignore the things that don’t, and to feel comfortable in our own skin regardless of what those around us may have.