Spike activity 28-02-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Nautilus magazine has a good piece on behavioural economics and rethinking ‘nudges’. Although the rethink is really just another form of standard ‘nudge’.

The biggest hedge fund in the world, the $165 billion Bridgewater, starts an AI team to help give it the edge on investments reports Bloomberg. Well, they couldn’t get much worse than humans.

Gizmodo reports that a neuroscientist says he’ll do a head transplant ‘real soon now’. Hungover neuroscientist reads Gizmodo, thinks ‘I said what!?!’

The UK’s Post Office head of marketing has clearly been taken in by neuromarketing who thinks it will help them “better understand” their customers. Just like the stamp while we scan your brain…

The New York Times reports on pharma company Shire doing the old ‘disease marketing by the way I have a pill for that’ trick with DSM-5 newcomer binge eating disorder.

Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions. Good piece in The Atlantic.

The Human Brain Project is to be reorganised after a bit of a fuss (Americans: a significant crisis).

Being a asshole boss is bad for team performance. Interesting piece in Harvard Business Review.

The smart unconscious

We feel that we are in control when our brains figure out puzzles or read words, says Tom Stafford, but a new experiment shows just how much work is going on underneath the surface of our conscious minds.

It is a common misconception that we know our own minds. As I move around the world, walking and talking, I experience myself thinking thoughts. “What shall I have for lunch?”, I ask myself. Or I think, “I wonder why she did that?” and try and figure it out. It is natural to assume that this experience of myself is a complete report of my mind. It is natural, but wrong.

There’s an under-mind, all psychologists agree – an unconscious which does a lot of the heavy lifting in the process of thinking. If I ask myself what is the capital of France the answer just comes to mind – Paris! If I decide to wiggle my fingers, they move back and forth in a complex pattern that I didn’t consciously prepare, but which was delivered for my use by the unconscious.

The big debate in psychology is exactly what is done by the unconscious, and what requires conscious thought. Or to use the title of a notable paper on the topic, ‘Is the unconscious smart or dumb?‘ One popular view is that the unconscious can prepare simple stimulus-response actions, deliver basic facts, recognise objects and carry out practised movements. Complex cognition involving planning, logical reasoning and combining ideas, on the other hand, requires conscious thought.

A recent experiment by a team from Israel scores points against this position. Ran Hassin and colleagues used a neat visual trick called Continuous Flash Suppression to put information into participants’ minds without them becoming consciously aware of it. It might sound painful, but in reality it’s actually quite simple. The technique takes advantage of the fact that we have two eyes and our brain usually attempts to fuse the two resulting images into a single coherent view of the world. Continuous Flash Suppression uses light-bending glasses to show people different images in each eye. One eye gets a rapid succession of brightly coloured squares which are so distracting that when genuine information is presented to the other eye, the person is not immediately consciously aware of it. In fact, it can take several seconds for something that is in theory perfectly visible to reach awareness (unless you close one eye to cut out the flashing squares, then you can see the ‘suppressed’ image immediately).

Hassin’s key experiment involved presenting arithmetic questions unconsciously. The questions would be things like “9 – 3 – 4 = ” and they would be followed by the presentation, fully visible, of a target number that the participants were asked to read aloud as quickly as possible. The target number could either be the right answer to the arithmetic question (so, in this case, “2”) or a wrong answer (for instance, “1”). The amazing result is that participants were significantly quicker to read the target number if it was the right answer rather than a wrong one. This shows that the equation had been processed and solved by their minds – even though they had no conscious awareness of it – meaning they were primed to read the right answer quicker than the wrong one.

The result suggests that the unconscious mind has more sophisticated capacities than many have thought. Unlike other tests of non-conscious processing, this wasn’t an automatic response to a stimulus – it required a precise answer following the rules of arithmetic, which you might have assumed would only come with deliberation. The report calls the technique used “a game changer in the study of the unconscious”, arguing that “unconscious processes can perform every fundamental, basic-level function that conscious processes can perform”.

These are strong claims, and the authors acknowledge that there is much work to do as we start to explore the power and reach of our unconscious minds. Like icebergs, most of the operation of our minds remains out of sight. Experiments like this give a glimpse below the surface.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

Spike activity 20-02-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Interesting social mapping using subway journey data from Beijing reproted in New Scientist.

BPS Research Digest has compiled a comprehensive list of mind, brain and behaviour podcasts.

That study finding a surge of p values just below 0.05 in psychology, probably not a sign of bad science, reports Daniel Lakens with a new analysis.

The Toronto Star reports that psychologists terminated a study on implanting false crime memories early due to over-effectiveness.

Why do mirrors seem to reverse left and right but not up or down? Clear explanation in a great video from Physics Girl.

Vice has an interesting piece on public reactions to celebrities who become psychotic or begin to display unusual behaviour.

Science News has a map of ambient noisyness is America.

There’s an interesting interview with Facebook AI director Yann LeCun in IEEE Spectrum magazine.

Anti-vax: wrong but not irrational

badge

Since the uptick in outbreaks of measles in the US, those arguing for the right not to vaccinate their children have come under increasing scrutiny. There is no journal of “anti-vax psychology” reporting research on those who advocate what seems like a controversial, “anti-science” and dangerous position, but if there was we can take a good guess at what the research reported therein would say.

Look at other groups who hold beliefs at odds with conventional scientific thought. Climate sceptics for example. You might think that climate sceptics would be likely to be more ignorant of science than those who accept the consensus that humans are causing a global increase in temperatures. But you’d be wrong. The individuals with the highest degree of scientific literacy are not those most concerned about climate change, they are the group which is most divided over the issue. The most scientifically literate are also some of the strongest climate sceptics.

A driver of this is a process psychologists have called “biased assimilation” – we all regard new information in the light of what we already believe. In line with this, one study showed that climate sceptics rated newspaper editorials supporting the reality of climate change as less persuasive and less reliable than non-sceptics. Some studies have even shown that people can react to information which is meant to persuade them out of their beliefs by becoming more hardline – the exact opposite of the persuasive intent.

For topics such as climate change or vaccine safety, this can mean that a little scientific education gives you more ways of disagreeing with new information that don’t fit your existing beliefs. So we shouldn’t expect anti-vaxxers to be easily converted by throwing scientific facts about vaccination at them. They are likely to have their own interpretation of the facts.

High trust, low expertise

Some of my own research has looked at who the public trusted to inform them about the risks from pollution. Our finding was that how expert a particular group of people was perceived to be – government, scientists or journalists, say – was a poor predictor of how much they were trusted on the issue. Instead, what was critical was how much they were perceived to have the public’s interests at heart. Groups of people who were perceived to want to act in line with our respondents’ best interests – such as friends and family – were highly trusted, even if their expertise on the issue of pollution was judged as poor.

By implication, we might expect anti-vaxxers to have friends who are also anti-vaxxers (and so reinforce their mistaken beliefs) and to correspondingly have a low belief that pro-vaccine messengers such as scientists, government agencies and journalists have their best interests at heart. The corollary is that no amount of information from these sources – and no matter how persuasive to you and me – will convert anti-vaxxers who have different beliefs about how trustworthy the medical establishment is.

Interestingly, research done by Brendan Nyhan has shown many anti-vaxxers are willing to drop mistaken beliefs about vaccines, but as they do so they also harden in their intentions not to get their kids vaccinated. This shows that the scientific beliefs of people who oppose vaccinations are only part of the issue – facts alone, even if believed, aren’t enough to change people’s views.

Reinforced memories

We know from research on persuasion that mistaken beliefs aren’t easily debunked. Not only is the biased assimilation effect at work here but also the fragility of memory – attempts at debunking myths can serve to reinforce the memory of the myth while the debunking gets forgotten.

The vaccination issue provides a sobering example of this. A single discredited study from 1998 claimed a link between autism and the MMR jab, fuelling the recent distrust of vaccines. No matter how many times we repeat that “the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism”, the link between the two is reinforced in people’s perceptions. To avoid reinforcing a myth, you need to provide a plausible alternative – the obvious one here is to replace the negative message “MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism”, with a positive one. Perhaps “the MMR vaccine protects your child from dangerous diseases”.

Rational selfishness

There are other psychological factors at play in the decisions taken by individual parents not to vaccinate their children. One is the rational selfishness of avoiding risk, or even the discomfort of a momentary jab, by gambling that the herd immunity of everyone else will be enough to protect your child.

Another is our tendency to underplay rare events in our calculation about risks – ironically the very success of vaccination programmes makes the diseases they protect us against rare, meaning that most of us don’t have direct experience of the negative consequences of not vaccinating. Finally, we know that people feel differently about errors of action compared to errors of inaction, even if the consequences are the same.

Many who seek to persuade anti-vaxxers view the issue as a simple one of scientific education. Anti-vaxxers have mistaken the basic facts, the argument goes, so they need to be corrected. This is likely to be ineffective. Anti-vaxxers may be wrong, but don’t call them irrational.

Rather than lacking scientific facts, they lack a trust in the establishments which produce and disseminate science. If you meet an anti-vaxxer, you might have more luck persuading them by trying to explain how you think science works and why you’ve put your trust in what you’ve been told, rather than dismissing their beliefs as irrational.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Oliver Sacks: “now I am face to face with dying”

In a moving and defiant article for the The New York Times, neurologist Oliver Sacks has announced he has terminal cancer.

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

The whole piece is a reflection on life, death and living and, fittingly, is a joy to read.

Keep on keepin’ on Dr Sacks.

We look forward to hearing about your final adventures.
 

Link to ‘My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer’.

Half a century of neuroscience

The Lancet has a good retrospective looking back on the last 50 years of neuroscience, which in some ways, was when the field was born.

Of course, the brain and nervous system has been the subject of study for hundreds, if not thousands, of years but the concept of a dedicated ‘neuroscience’ is relatively new.

The term ‘neuroscience’ was first used in 1962 by biologist Francis Schmitt who previously referred to the integrated study of mind, brain and behaviour by the somewhat less catchy title “biophysics of the mind”. The first undergraduate degree in neuroscience was offered by Amherst College only in 1973.

The Lancet article, by one of the first generation ‘neuroscientists’ Steven Rose, looks back at how the discipline began in the UK (in a pub, as most things do) and then widens his scope to review how neuroscience has transformed over the last 50 years.

But many of the problems that had beset the early days remain unresolved. Neuroscience may be a singular label, but it embraces a plurality of disciplines. Molecular and cognitive neuroscientists still scarcely speak a common language, and for all the outpouring of data from the huge industry that neuroscience has become, Schmitt’s hoped for bridging theories are still in short supply. At what biological level are mental functions to be understood? For many of the former, reductionism rules and the collapse of mind into brain is rarely challenged—there is even a society for “molecular and cellular cognition”—an elision hardly likely to appeal to the cognitivists who regard higher order mental functions as emergent properties of the brain as a system.

It’s an interesting reflection on how neuroscience has changed over its brief lifespan from one of the people who were there at the start.
 

Link to ’50 years of neuroscience’ in The Lancet.

Spike activity 13-02-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

US Governor proposes that welfare recipients should be drug screened and have negative results as a condition for a payment. A fascinating Washington Post piece looks at past data on similar schemes.

BPS Research Digest launches the PsychCrunch podcast. First episode: evidence-based dating.

The brain, interrupted: neurodevelopment and the pre-term baby. Excellent Nature piece.

Fusion has a great piece on *how* we should worry about artificial intelligence.

“The world’s first hotel staffed entirely by robots is set to open in Japan” reports the International Business Times. Clearly they’ve never visited a Travelodge.

Forbes reports on the ‘coming boom in brain medicines’. Personally, I won’t be holding my breath.

There’s an excellent update on new psychoactive substances and synthetics drugs over at Addiction Inbox.

The Scientific 23 is a great site that interviews scientists and there are lots of cognitive scientists discussing their work.

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win” is the title of Allen Newell‘s 1973 paper, a classic in cognitive science. In the paper he confesses that although he sees many excellent psychology experiments, all making undeniable scientific contributions, he can’t imagine them cohering into progress for the field as a whole. He describes the state of psychology as focussed on individual phenomena – mental rotation, chunking in memory, subitizing, etc – studied in a way to resolve binary questions – issues such as nature vs nature, conscious vs unconscious, serial vs parallel processing.

There is, I submit, a view of the scientific endeavor that is implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the picture I have presented above. Science advances by playing twenty questions with nature. The proper tactic is to frame a general question, hopefully binary, that can be attacked experimentally. Having settled that bits-worth, one can proceed to the next. The policy appears optimal – one never risks much, there is feedback from nature at every step, and progress is inevitable. Unfortunately, the questions never seem to be really answered, the strategy does not seem to work.

As I considered the issues raised (single code versus multiple code, continuous versus discrete representation, etc.) I found myself conjuring up this model of the current scientific process in psychology- of phenomena to be explored and their explanation by essentially oppositional concepts. And I couldn’t convince myself that it would add up, even in thirty more years of trying, even if one had another 300 papers of similar, excellent ilk.

His diagnosis for one reason that phenomena can generate an endless excellent papers without endless progress is that people can do the same task in different ways. Lots of experiments dissect how people are doing the task, without constraining sufficiently the things Newell says are essential to predict behaviour (the person’s goals and the structure of the task environment), and thus providing no insight into the ultimate target of investigation, the invariant structure of the mind’s processing mechanisms. As a minimum, we must know the method participants are using, never averaging over different methods, he concludes. But this may not be enough:

That the same human subject can adopt many (radically different) methods for the same basic task, depending on goal, background knowledge, and minor details of payoff structure and task texture\u2014all this\u2014 implies that the “normal” means of science may not suffice.

As a prognosis for how to make real progress in understanding the mind he proposes three possible courses of action:

  1. Develop complete processing models – i.e. simulations which are competent to perform the task and include a specification of the way in which different subfunctions (called ‘methods’ by Newell) are deployed.
  2. Analyse a complex task, completely, ‘to force studies into intimate relation with each other’, the idea being that giving a full account of a single task, any task, will force contradictions between theories of different aspects of the task into the open.
  3. ‘One program for many task’ – construct a general purpose system which can perform all mental tasks, in other words an artificial intelligence.

It was this last strategy which preoccupied a lot of Newell’s subsequent attention. He developed a general problem solving architecture he called SOAR, which he presented as a unified theory of cognition, and which he worked on until his death in 1992.

The paper is over forty years old, but still full of useful thoughts for anyone interested in the sciences of the mind.

Reference and link:
Newell, A. You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win: Projective comments on the papers of this symposium. in Chase, W. G. (Ed.). (1973). Visual Information Processing: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Carnegie Symposium on Cognition, Held at the Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 19, 1972. Academic Press.

See a nice picture of Newell from the Computer History Museum

What gambling monkeys teach us about human rationality

We often make stupid choices when gambling, says Tom Stafford, but if you look at how monkeys act in the same situation, maybe there’s good reason.

When we gamble, something odd and seemingly irrational happens.

It’s called the ‘hot hand’ fallacy – a belief that your luck comes in streaks – and it can lose you a lot of money. Win on roulette and your chances of winning again aren’t more or less – they stay exactly the same. But something in human psychology resists this fact, and people often place money on the premise that streaks of luck will continue – the so called ‘hot hand’.

The opposite superstition is to bet that a streak has to end, in the false belief that independent events of chance must somehow even out. This is known as the gambler’s fallacy, and achieved notoriety at the Casino de Monte-Carlo on 18 August 1913. The ball fell on black 26 times in a row, and as the streak lengthened gamblers lost millions betting on red, believing that the chances changed with the length of the run of blacks.

Why do people act this way time and time again? We can discover intriguing insights, it seems, by recruiting monkeys and getting them to gamble too. If these animals make dumb choices like us, perhaps it could tell us more about ourselves.

First though, let’s look at what makes some games particularly likely to trigger these effects. Many results in games are based on a skill element, so it makes reasonable sense to bet, for instance, that a top striker like Lionel Messi is more likely to score a goal than a low-scoring defender.

Yet plenty of games contain randomness. For truly random events like roulette or the lottery, there is no force which makes clumps more or less likely to continue. Consider coin tosses: if you have tossed 10 heads in a row your chance of throwing another heads is still 50:50 (although, of course, at the point before you’ve thrown any, the overall odds of throwing 10 in a row is still minuscule).

The hot hand and gambler’s fallacies both show that we tend to have an unreasonable faith in the non-randomness of the universe, as if we can’t quite believe that those coins (or roulette wheels, or playing cards) really are due to the same chances on each flip, spin or deal.

It’s a result that sometimes makes us sneer at the irrationality of human psychology. But that conclusion may need revising.

Cross-species gambling

An experiment reported by Tommy Blanchard of the University of Rochester in New York State, and colleagues, shows that monkeys playing a gambling game are swayed by the same hot hand bias as humans. Their experiments involved three monkeys controlling a computer display with their eye-movements – indicating their choices by shifting their gaze left or right. In the experiment they were given two options, only one of which delivered a reward. When the correct option was random – the same 50:50 chance as a coin flip – the monkeys still had a tendency to select the previously winning option, as if luck should continue, clumping together in streaks.

The reason the result is so interesting is that monkeys aren’t taught probability theory as school. They never learn theories of randomness, or pick up complex ideas about chance events. The monkey’s choices must be based on some more primitive instincts about how the world works – they can’t be displaying irrational beliefs about probability, because they cannot have false beliefs, in the way humans can, about how luck works. Yet they show the same bias.

What’s going on, the researchers argue, is that it’s usually beneficial to behave in this manner. In most of life, chains of success or failure are linked for good reason – some days you really do have your eye on your tennis serve, or everything goes wrong with your car on the same day because the mechanics of the parts are connected. In these cases, the events reflect an underlying reality, and one you can take advantage of to predict what happens next. An example that works well for the monkeys is food. Finding high-value morsels like ripe food is a chance event, but also one where each instance isn’t independent. If you find one fruit on a tree the chances are that you’ll find more.

The wider lesson for students of human nature is that we shouldn’t be quick to call behaviours irrational. Sure, belief in the hot hand might make you bet wrong on a series of coin flips, or worse, lose a pot of money. But it may be that across the timespan in evolution, thinking that luck comes in clumps turned out to be useful more often than it was harmful.

This is my BBC Future article from last week. The original is here

A refocus of military influence

The British media has been covering the creation of 77th Brigade, or ‘Chindits’ in the UK Army which they’ve wrongly described as PsyOps ‘Twitter troops’. The renaming is new but the plan for a significant restructuring and expansion of the UK military’s influence operations is not.

The change in focus has been prompted by a growing realisation that the success of security strategy depends as much on influencing populations at home and abroad as it does through military force.

The creation of a new military structure, designed to tackle exactly this problem, was actually reported last year in British Army 2014 – a glossy annual policy publication. The latest announcement of the 77th Brigade is really just a media-friendly re-branding of the existing plan.

You can read the document online (warning it’s a 50Mb plus pdf) but here’s a crucial section from page 121 onwards:

Our potential adversaries and partners are increasingly blurring the lines between regular and irregular and between military, political, economic and information activities. At least three nations who operate large conventional ‘traditional’ armies have now also adopted the Chinese concept of Unrestricted Warfare.

Author Steve Metz describes this as involving “diverse, simultaneous attacks on an adversary’s social, economic and political systems. It ignores and transcends the ‘boundaries the boundaries between what is a weapon and what is not, between soldier and non-combatant, between state and non-state or suprastate.” If we wish to succeed in such as environment we need to compete on an equal footing.

To do this, we must change not only our physical capabilities but our conceptual approach, our planning and our execution. This is not to say that the virtual and cognitive domains now produce a ‘silver bullet’ that will mean the end of combat, but that “superiority in the physical environment was of little value unless it could be translated into an advantage in the information environment”…

In order to shift the Army’s thinking in the approach to this new manoeuvre, the Security Assistance Group (SAG) will form in September 2014. It will form through the amalgamation of the current 15 Psychological Operations Group, the Military Stabilisation Support Group, the Media Operations Group and the Security Capacity Team.

However, these structures are merely the start point for a fully integrated capability that will harness a wide range of powers to achieve the desired effects – from cyber through to engagement, commercial, financial, stabilisation and deception. At the heart of the new structure must be a culture and attitude that is both Defence and civilian orientated.

And that is really what the ‘newly announced’ 77th Brigade is all about.

To see how seriously the British Army are taking this, the 77th is reportedly going to be made up of up to 2,000 full-time and reserve troops. Think Defence report that the combined strength of all the existing relevant groups that will be incorporated is just 300 people.

The idea is to make Information Operations a much more central part of military doctrine. This includes electronic warfare and computer hacking, physical force targeted on information resources (like taking out infrastructure), psychological operations – traditionally focused on changing belief and behaviour in the theatre of war, media operations – essentially corporate PR, and a wider use of media to influence external populations and potential adversaries.

The Daily Express reports that “the brigade will bring together specialists in media, signalling and psychological operations, with some Special Forces soldiers and possibly computer hackers” which seems likely to reflect exactly what the Army are aiming for in their new plan.

From this point of view, you can see why governments are so keen to hold on to their Snowden-era digital monitoring and intervention capabilities.

They typically justify their existence in terms of ‘breaking terrorist networks’ but they are equally as useful for their role in wider information operations – targeting groups rather than individuals – now considered key to national security.

The formation of the 77th Brigade is a mostly reflection of a wider refiguring of global conflict that puts cognition and behaviour at the centre of political objectives.

It is simultaneously more and less democratic that ‘hard power’. It makes the battle of ideas, rather than the use of force, central to determining political outcome but attempts to shape the information environment so some ideas become more equal than others.

Spike activity 30-01-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

PLOS Neuroscience has an excellent interview on the strengths and limitations of fMRI.

There’s an excellent profile of clinical psychologist Andrea Letamendi and her interest in comics and mental health in The Atlantic.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on hikikomori – a syndrome of ultra withdrawal by Japanese youth.

The Hearing Voices Network as an alternative approach to supporting voice hearers is covered by a good article in The Independent.

Backchannel looks at the largest ‘virtual psychology lab’ in the world.

Does subliminal advertising actually work? asks BBC News.

BPS Research Digest covers a study finding that psychologists and psychiatrists rate patients less positively when their problems are explained biologically. Along the lines of several similar studies.

In the 21st Century, project management for parents

I’ve just read an excellent book on the surprising anomaly of modern parenting called All Joy and No Fun.

It’s by the writer Jennifer Senior who we’ve featured a few times on Mind Hacks for her insightful pieces on the social mind.

In All Joy and No Fun she looks at how the modern model of childhood born after the Second World War – “long and sheltered, devoted almost entirely to education and emotional growth” – has begun to mutate in some quarters into an all consuming occupation of over-parenting that has meant childcare has been consistently rated as one of the least enjoyable family activities in a wide range of studies.

The book combines field trips with parenting in middle American (YMMV) and a look at the surprising data about how parenting has become almost a competitive sport which requires forever more money, time, restrictions and plans, lest you be accused be being a ‘bad parent’.

New parents in the United States, Mead observes, are willing to try almost any new fad or craze for their baby’s sake. “We find new schools of education, new schools of diet, new schools of human relations… And we find serious, educated people following their dictates.” Which is why attachment parenting is consdiered de rigeur one year and overbearing three years later. And why cry-it-out is all the rage one moment and then, after a couple of seasons, considered cruel. And why organic home-milled purees suddenly supplant jars of Gerber’s, though an entire generation has done just fine on Gerber’s and even gone on to write books, run companies and do Nobel-winning science. Uncertainty is why parents buy Baby Einstein products, though there’s no evidence that they do anything to alter the cognitive trajectory of a child’s life, and explains why a friend – an extremely bright and reasonable man – asked me, with the straightest of faces and finest of intentions, why I wasn’t teaching my son sign language when he was small.

Because he was writing in the 1950s, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about the ‘good enough mother’, but taking its more modern version, we could say that ‘good enough parenting’ is all that parents need to aspire to.

All Joy and No Fun is a thought-provoking exploration of how childrearing become so unenjoyable in the 21st Century, and how fads, fashions and commerce, seek to undermine ‘good enough parenting’.
 

Link to more details on All Joy and No Fun.

Hard Problem defeats legendary playwright

I’ve written a review of legendary playwright Tom Stoppard’s new play The Hard Problem at the National Theatre, where he tackles neuroscience and consciousness – or at least thinks he does.

The review is in The Psychologist and covers the themes running through Stoppard’s new work and how they combine with the subtly misfiring conceptualisation of cognitive science:

This is a typical and often pedantic criticism of plays about technical subjects but in Stoppard’s case, the work is primarily about what defines us as human, in light of the science of human nature, and because of this, the material often comes off as clunky. It’s not that the descriptions are inaccurate – allusions to optogenetics, Gödel and the computability of consciousness, game theory, and cortisol studies of risk in poker players, are all in context – but Stoppard doesn’t really understand what implications these concept have for either each other or for his main contention. Questions about mind and body, consciousness and morality, are confused at times, and it’s not clear that Stoppard really understands the true implications of the Hard Problem of consciousness.

It’s worth saying, I actually enjoyed the play, but it was Stoppard’s philosophy and unwieldy use of neuroscience that didn’t quite hang together for me.

The full piece is the link below.
 

Link to review of The Hard Problem in The Psychologist

A misdiagnosis of trauma in Ancient Babylon

Despite the news reports, researchers probably haven’t discovered a mention of ‘PTSD’ from 1300BC Mesopotamia. The claim is likely due to a rather rough interpretation of Ancient Babylonian texts but it also reflects a curious interest in trying to find modern psychiatric diagnoses in the past, which tells us more about our own clinical insecurities than the psychology of the ancient world.

The claim comes from a new article published in Early Science and Medicine and it turns out there’s a pdf of the article available online if you want to read it in full.

The authors cite some passages from Babylonian medical texts in support of the fact that ‘symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder’ were recorded in soldiers. Here are the key translated passages from the article:

14.34 “If his words are unintelligible for three days […] his mouth [F…] and he experiences wandering about for three days in a row F…1.”

14.35 “He experiences wandering about (for three) consecutive (days)”; this means: “he experiences alteration of mentation (for three) consecutive (days).”

14.36 “If his words are unintelligible and depression keeps falling on him at regular intervals (and he has been sick) for three days F…]”

19.32 “If in the evening, he sees either a living person or a dead person or someone known to him or someone not known to him or anybody or anything and becomes afraid; he turns around but, like one who has [been hexed with?] rancid oil, his mouth is seized so that he is unable to cry out to one who sleeps next to him, ‘hand’ of ghost (var. hand of […]).”

19.33 “[If] his mentation is altered so that he is not in full possession of his faculties, ‘hand’ of a roving ghost; he will die.”

19.34 “If his mentation is altered, […] (and) forgetfulness(?) (and) his words hinder each other in his mouth, a roaming ghost afflicts him. (If) […], he will get well.”

Firstly, it’s clearly a huge stretch to suggest these are symptoms of PTSD which is defined as groupings of intrusive memories of the traumatising event, heightened arousal or emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders and, since the DSM-5, depression-like symptoms.

The authors suggest that the strongest evidence for the fact that the ancient descriptions are PTSD is that the ‘ghost’ mentioned in the text is often considered to be the ghosts of enemies whom the patient killed during military operations, and these could be PTSD-like flashbacks.

The trouble is that ‘ghosts’ are given as causes of many disorders in Babylonian medicine. Furthermore, all of the symptoms the authors describe could clearly also describe epilepsy and, in fact, are described in Babylonian texts on epilepsy.

For example, these are all symptoms described in BM 47753 a Babylonian tablet on epilepsy, discussed a 1990 article, that also describes wandering, confusion and unintelligible speech.

If he keeps going into and out of (his house) or getting into and out of his clothes .. or talks unintelligibly a great deal, does not any more eat his bread and beer rations and does not go to bed…

If, in a state of fear, he keeps getting up and sitting down, (or) if he mutters unintelligibly a great deal and becomes more and more restless…

Most symptoms are diagnosed as a form of being touched by the hand of a supernatural being. Below are some ‘ghost’ afflictions that are clearly epilepsy related, including ‘ghosts’ who have died violently in various ways, including a ‘mass killing’.

If at the end of his fit his limbs become paralysed, he is dazed (or, dizzy), his abdomen is “wasted” (sc., as of one in need of food) and he returns everything which is put into his mouth …….-hand of a ghost who has died in a mass killing.

If when his limbs become at rest again like those of a healthy person his mouth is seized so that he cannot speak,-hand of the ghost of a murderer. R: hand of the ghost of a person burned to death in a fire.

If when his limbs become at rest again like those of a healthy person he remains silent and does not eat anything,-hand of the ghost of a murderer; alternatively, hand of the ghost of a person burned to death in a fire

Oddly, the authors of the ‘ancient PTSD’ article suggest that references to slurring of speech and cognitive difficulties might reflect co-morbid drug abuse. They also admit that all their cited symptoms could be caused by head injury but as prognosis is given as non-fatal, they were probably PTSD-related. But again, epilepsy seems a much better fit here both from a contemporary and Babylonian perspective.

In fact, historians Kinnier Wilson and Reynolds, who wrote the 1990 article on Babylonian epilepsy texts, were quite convinced that references to ‘ghosts’ were ancient terms for nocturnal epilepsy, not ‘flashbacks’.

But it’s also worth mentioning that the ‘ancient PTSD’ argument is in a long-line of studies that attempt to match contemporary psychiatric diagnoses to vague historical references as a way of legitimising the modern concepts.

However, the ways in which psychological distress, particularly trauma, is expressed are massively affected by culture. PTSD is unlikely to be a concept that transcends time, place and social structure.

In fact, historians have not been able to convincingly find any PTSD-like descriptions in history and there seems a virtually complete absence of any records of flashbacks in the medical records of First and Second World War veterans, let alone in Ancient Babylon.

War, violence and tragedy has left its psychological mark on individuals from the beginning of time.

PTSD is a useful diagnosis we’ve created to help us deal with some of the consequences of these awful events in the limited but important contexts in which it occurs – but it’s not a universal feature of human nature.

Who knows whether anything like PTSD existed for the Babylonians but the fact that we can use it to help people is all we need to legitimise it.

From the machine

A new film, Ex Machina, is released in the UK tomorrow and it is quite possibly one of the best sci-fi films of recent times and probably the best film about consciousness and artificial intelligence ever made.

The movie revolves around startup geek turned tech corp billionaire Nathan who has created the artificially conscious android Ava. Nathan invites one of his corporate coders, Caleb, to help test whether Ava feels conscious.

The film is near-future but in the tradition of sci-fi as a theatre in which to test ideas, it focuses on the stark and unexpected issues raised by self-conscious robots designed for the human market.

Writer and debut director Alex Garland clearly put a lot of effort into getting the scientific concepts right, enlisting biologist Adam Rutherford and cognitive roboticist Murray Shanahan to finesse the philosophy of mind.

In addition, it’s brilliantly acted, paranoid, subtly disturbing and thought-provoking – long after the credits roll.

It’s also sparked some great reviews of the movie and the cognitive science behind it. The Independent has an excellent piece on the science behind the plot and there’s a great interview with the scientific advisors in Dazed.

But probably the best so far is consciousness researcher Anil Seth’s extended review in New Scientist which tackles the core of the film’s philosophical kick:

While the Turing test has provided a trope for many AI-inspired movies… Ex Machina takes things much further. In a sparkling exchange between Caleb and Nathan, Garland nails the weakness of Turing’s version of the test, a focus on the disembodied exchange of messages, and proposes something far more interesting. “The challenge is to show you that she’s a robot. And see if you still feel she has consciousness,” Nathan says to Caleb.

This shifts the goalposts in a vital way. What matters is not whether Ava is a machine. It is not even whether Ava, even though a machine, can be conscious. What matters is whether Ava makes a conscious person feel that Ava is conscious. The brilliance of Ex Machina is that it reveals the Turing test for what it really is: a test of the human, not of the machine. And Garland is not necessarily on our side.

In fact, the film constantly flips viewers between thinking of Ava as a machine, and as a conscious being, and forces us to continually check the shifting plot reality to see if it still holds together.

At the end of the film you come to realise that it’s not Ava who’s being tested, it’s you.
 

Link to Ex Machina page on Wikipedia.
Link to UK trailer on YouTube.
Link to international trailer on YouTube.

pwned by a self-learning AI

Backchannel has a fascinating profile of DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis which although an interesting read in itself, has a link to a brief, barely mentioned study which may herald a quiet revolution in artificial intelligence.

The paper (available online as a pdf) is entitled “Playing Atari with Deep Reinforcement Learning” and describes an AI system which, without any prior training, learned to play a series of Atari 2600 games to the point of out-performing humans.

The key here is ‘without any prior training’ as the system was not ‘told’ anything about the games. It worked out how to play them, and how to win them, entirely on its own.

The system was created with a combination of a reinforcement learning system and a deep learning network.

Reinforcement learning is based on the psychological theory of operant conditioning where we learning through reward and punishment what behaviours help us achieve certain goals.

One difficulty is that in video games, the reward (points) may only be distantly related to individual actions because strategy is not something that can be boiled down to ‘do this action again to win’. Mathematically there is lots of noise in the link between an action and eventual outcome.

Traditionally this has been solved by programming the structure of the game into the AI agent. Non-player characters in video games act as effective opponents because they include lots of hard-coded rules about what different aspects of the game symbolise, and what good strategy involves.

But this is a hack that doesn’t generalise. Genuine AI would work out what to do, in any given environment, by itself.

To help achieve this, the DeepMind Atari AI uses deep learning, a hierarchical neural network that is good at generating its own structure from unstructured data. In this case, the data was just what was on the screen.

To combine ‘learning effective action’ and ‘understanding the environment’ the research team plumbed together deep learning and reinforcement learning with an algorithm called Q-learning that is specialised for ‘model-free’ or unstructured learning.

So far, we have performed experiments on seven popular ATARI games – Beam Rider, Breakout, Enduro, Pong, Q*bert, Seaquest, Space Invaders. We use the same network architecture, learning algorithm and hyperparameters settings across all seven games, showing that our approach is robust enough to work on a variety of games without incorporating game-specific information…

Finally, we show that our method achieves better performance than an expert human player on Breakout, Enduro and Pong and it achieves close to human performance on Beam Rider.

The team note that the system wasn’t so good at Q*bert, Seaquest and Space Invaders, and it wasn’t asked to battle the real Ko-Dan Empire after playing Starfighter, but it’s still incredibly impressive.

It’s an AI that worked out its environment, its actions, and what it needs to do to ‘survive’, without any prior information.

Given, the environment is an Atari 2600, but the AI is a surprisingly simple system that ends up, in some instances, outperforming humans from a standing start.

Essentially, the future of humanity now rests on whether the next system is given a gun or a dildo to play with.
 

Link to Backchannel profile of Demis Hassabis.
pdf of paper “Playing Atari with Deep Reinforcement Learning”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25,121 other followers