Fodor vs Pinker scrap continues

Philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker are continuing their tussle over the structure of the mind in a recently published exchange.

Pinker wrote a book in 1999 entitled ‘How the Mind Works‘ which argues that the mind can be understood as a computational or information processing device. This, he says, consists mostly of independent but co-operating mental modules that can be inherited and selected for by evolution. An approach strongly linked to the new discipline of evolutionary psychology.

Fodor dismissed most of these ideas in 2000 with a book entitled ‘The Mind Doesn’t Work that Way‘ and the two have carried on their dispute in a recent edition of the journal Mind and Language.

Pinker argues his latest case in an article entitled ‘So How Does the Mind Work?’.

The subsequent commentaries get quite lively with Fodor starting with “If you really must have a defense mechanism, I recommend denial. It’s special charm is that it applies to itself, so if it doesn‚Äôt work, you can deny that too.”

Earning the comeback from Pinker “This kind of language can be paraphrased as, ‘I really don’t have an argument here, but if I dismiss the opposition with enough confidence, perhaps readers will assume that I’m right'”.


Link to PDF of Pinker’s article ‘So How Does the Mind Work?’.
Wikipedia entries for Jerry Fodor and Stephen Pinker.

An unusual case of a shrinking brain


A gentleman from Utah has a condition which is baffling brain scientists. The left side of his brain is shrinking, although the right-hand side seems fine.

He is currently being investigated by neurologists at the University of Utah, Brain Institute.

His brain scan is shown in the picture on the left.

NB: brain scans done by radiologists have left and right reversed, as they label their scans as if they were looking at the patient as they lie on their backs in the scanner, so the patient’s left is on the viewer’s right.

Link to news story from
Link to coverage from Daily Times.

Love looks not with the eyes…

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” says Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps explaining the strange behaviour of those in love.

Love has long been linked to madness, and it’s easy to see why. People in love tend to hold unlikely and overly positive beliefs about their lovers, show signs of mania, obsessional thinking and experience catastrophic lows when things go wrong.

In a new book, psychologist Frank Tallis argues that love and lovesickness should be considered more seriously by psychologists and neuroscientists, and that lovesickness can trigger identifiable symptoms of mental illness in some people.

In fact, Dr Tallis is continuing a long tradition of medical enquiry into lovesickness which has been around since the Ancient Greeks (as the history of erotomania shows) although Jacques Ferrand’s 1623 A Treatise on Lovesickness probably stands as one of the greatest works in this area (summary, amazon entry with excerpts).

To say that “The course of true love never did run smooth” would be an understatement though, especially if you’re investigating love and attraction.

Research has shown that, for some, making love causes amnesia. Luckily though, people are disproportionately more likely to marry others whose names resemble their own, perhaps making the post-coital name guessing a little easier. It seems Cupid has a sense of humour if nothing else.

Link to BBC site on the science of love.
Link to Frank Tallis’ site with a sample chapter of his book.

Male faces with feminine features more attractive

Recently released results from Dr Tony Little and his team, suggest that males with more feminine features are more widely attractive to women. Women who consider themselves highly attractive however, are more likely to go for classically masculine faces.

Dr Little is interested in identifying the features of attractiveness and explaining why we might have evolved to recognise and seek-out beauty.

The link might be explained by the fact that some physically attractive features are linked to levels of hormones (such as testosterone) that are present during development. These are also known to have an influence on fertility and coupling behaviour.

The researchers based their findings on data gathered from staff and students at the University of Liverpool, but have an online lab where you can take part in similar experiments.

Link to the research team’s online lab.
Link to BBC News story on the research findings.

Fortean Times article on Outsider Art

The Fortean Times have just put a fantastic article online about Outsider Art.

Although the term ‘Outsider Art’ is used to describe artists from a number of different backgrounds, the art of people who have been declared insane or mentally ill is especially prominent.


The work can often be intricate, intense, disturbing and delightful, sometimes all at the same time, and is largely produced by people with no formal training or contact with the mainstream art world.

The above image is part of Adolf W√∂lfli’s picture ‘Irren-Anstalt Band-Hain’.

Link to Fortean Times article on Outsider Art.
Link to some Outsider artists on

2005-02-11 Spike activity

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


Previously it was known that higher IQ predicts longer life, but it was not known exactly why. A recent study suggests that faster reaction times, which are known to be linked to higher IQ, may be one of the key factors.

Recent research suggests that some aspects of visual function actually improve with age, particularly some motion perception skills (story 1, story 2).

The ability to make sense of ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’ (and vice versa) seems to rely on areas on the opposite sides of the brain in right and left handers.

An in-depth article from this month’s Scientific American on the neuroscience of memory is available online.

Bad news for smokers: Tobacco smoking can cause memory and cognitive impairment in adolescents, and smoking marijuana can have long-term effects on the brain’s blood flow.

A brain scanning study finds that when information is stored, activity in parts of the brain can predict whether it will be recalled accurately or form a false memory.

Coma and the tyranny of mental life

A research team led by neurologist Nicholas Schiff has recently published a brain scanning study on two patients who may show evidence of an internal mental life, despite being in a coma-like “minimally conscious state”.

MCS usually occurs after severe brain damage and is a condition where patients seem to be unconscious, but show intermittent awareness of the self or the environment, although they are not able to communicate or maintain this awareness for pronlonged periods of time.

It is thought to be ‘less severe’ than coma, where patients are entirely unresposive, or persistent vegetative state, where patients are unconscious but may show simple automatic functions such as the sleep-wake cycle or eye-tracking.

Schiff’s study found that an area of the temporal lobe, known to be involved in language comprehension, was activated when the two unconscious patients were played recordings of a friend or relative recounting a familiar event.

These responses were remarkably similar to the responses recorded from healthy participants used as controls. This surprised the researchers, who expected far less brain activity in the MCS patients.

One further result they describe as “haunting” was finding activity in the patients’ occipital lobe. The researchers speculate that activity in these areas may reflect memories and mental images triggered by the recordings and the sound of their family member’s voice.

Little is known about the functioning of the brain during these coma-like or miminally conscious states, and medical science is often surprised by the recovery of function even after prolonged periods of unconsciousness.

Terry Wallis, the subject of a recent Channel 4 documentary, regained consciousness after a record 19 years in a coma.

Link to abstract of Schiff study.
Link to news story about the study from Yahoo News.
Link to information on Terry Wallis, his recovery and the documentary about him (“The Man Who Slept for 19 Years”).

2005-02-04 Spike activity

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


An article on Alexander Shulgin chemist and author of PiHKAL, a book about the chemistry, pharmacology and experience of psychedelic drugs.

Scientists unlock the secrets of sleep and elsewhere report that listening to relaxing music before going to bed can help with sleep problems.

When we make slips of the tongue it may be our language skills which are at fault rather than our intentions, suggests recent research which showed that people often correctly look at an object they incorrectly name.

The large number of young people involved in car crashes may be partly explained by the frontal cortex not being fully mature until the mid twenties. This area of the brain is involved in a number of driving-relevant skills, such as attention, multi-tasking and decision making.

New Scientist review

New Scientist reviews Mind Hacks:


Which is nice. I’m pleased they picked up on all the links and references we give if you want to explore the phenomena further. Like another (very favourable) review said:

“Mind Hacks” is helpfully structured to take you just as deep as you want to go.

From which also contains this interesting suggestion:

[Mind Hacks] is totally overflowing with examples and simple exercises — the “hacks” — that you can do by yourself or with friends. Better yet, buy the book and give a “Mind Hacks” party! Ask your guests to open the book randomly, exclaim on the particular mental characteristic explained on that page, and then put everyone through the exercise or group discussion implied.

If you do have a Mind Hacks party and manage to get a group of people all doing one of the demos (I think some of the mood induction ones like “Make Yourself Happy” [Hack #95] would serve well for this) then make sure you take pictures and let us know how it goes!

Alan Turing and the lusty robots

A news story in the online edition of the Guardian is reporting that a Korean professor has developed ‘artificial chromosomes’ that will allow robots to fell ‘lusty’ and have their own emotions and personality.

It sounds like some good PR for what seems to be nothing more than a genetic algorithm approach to artificial intelligence. Certainly interesting, but not new and hardly likely to lead to machine lust or emotion.

Nevertheless, Professor Kim Jong-Hwan would not be the first computer scientist to get a little overexecited about the possibilities of AI.

A certain Alan Turing suggested his ‘mechanical brain’ might eventually produce some fairly unusual things way back in 1949…

Continue reading “Alan Turing and the lusty robots”

Vive la difference

A news story about a recent meeting on bioethics in neuroscience reports that brain abnormalities are, well, not that abnormal:

Judy Illes, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, said that she and others have found that 18 percent of healthy volunteers had some kind of brain anamoly. While only 2 percent to 8 percent have required clinical follow-up, these incidental findings have raised concerns among scientists who are using the newest technology to unravel the mysteries of the brain.

Ethical issues in neuroscience and neuroimaging research (often called ‘neuroethics’) are becoming increasingly important as previously expensive and exclusive scientific tools (such as fMRI) are becoming widely used.

One important issue of debate is the ethics of informing someone if a brain abnormality is detected, when they have volunteered to take part in a research study as a healthy participant.

Link to story from
Link to recent article on neuroethics from Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Ivan Noble, dies at 37

BBC science writer Ivan Noble, who has been charting his battle with neurological illness since being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2002, died yesterday.

His online diary gathered thousands of readers as he recorded an ongoing and moving account of the personal, medical and emotional aspects of living with brain cancer.

The diary documented a personal journey not often reflected in the scientific and medical literature.

Thanks Ivan.

Link to announcement on BBC News.
Link to tribute and interview from BBC News.

Chimps fair or foul

I went to a conference a few years ago at the LSE; if you look at the speakers you’ll see why. Although it proved to be patchier than I’d hoped, I was captivated by Frans de Waal’s contribution, outlining some wonderful research on the social behaviour of apes. One highlight, which is now finally coming to publication, was the finding that chimpanzees judge reward not just on its instrumental value, but whether it is even-handed or otherwise. They reject a moderate reward if they see an unfamiliar ape get a better one. Good to know that apes throw their toys out of the pram as well.

The explanatory gloss on this is that apes have a ‘sense of fair play’. Another angle that comes to mind is that preferential reward may be seen as the forming of a dominance hierarchy, and the smart ape should make it clear that it’s not going to acquiesce -a nuclear threat to dissuade a minor loss.

Possibly this is merely talking at different levels of causation – the monkeys may have such a sense due to the need to hold their own in a fluctuating dominance hierarchy. It’s also very possible that my thought doesn’t fit with chimpanzee social structure at all. Regardless, it keeps the mind sharp to explore the gloss at least as much as the nuts and bolts of a study. Simian Cold War, or chimp village cricket: can you find a better tack?