(un)emotional investment

Here’s a spin on the depressive realism story. Shiv et al (2005) found that substance abusers and those with brain damage affecting their emotions had enhanced performance on an investment task. According to the authors of the study, the normal controls were actually distracted from making optimum decisions by their emotional involvement in the task.

‘The dark side of emotion in decision-making: When individuals with decreased emotional reactions make more advantageous decisions’ Baba Shiv, George Loewenstein and Antoine Bechara. Cognitive Brain Research, 23(1), April 2005, Pages 85-92. summary here


Can dysfunction in neural systems subserving emotion lead, under certain circumstances, to more advantageous decisions? To answer this question, we investigated how individuals with substance dependence (ISD), patients with stable focal lesions in brain regions related to emotion (lesion patients), and normal participants (normal controls) made 20 rounds of investment decisions. Like lesion patients, ISD made more advantageous decisions and ultimately earned more money from their investments than the normal controls. When normal controls either won or lost money on an investment round, they adopted a conservative strategy and became more reluctant to invest on the subsequent round, suggesting that they were more affected than lesion patients and ISD by the outcomes of decisions made in the previous rounds.

Link: a related post at mindhacks.com

A retro ‘Chinese room’ moment

ARPA_Chinese_characters.jpgThis video is a 1972 documentary about the beginnings of ARPANET, the forerunner to the modern internet, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense

In one scene, a woman is seen typing Chinese symbols into a computer, echoing a beautifully whimsical scene from John Searle‘s famous ‘Chinese room‘ thought experiment.

Searle’s experiment addresses the question of whether information processing would be sufficient to account for consciousness, and includes people in a room, typing Chinese symbols into a computer.

Link to ‘Computer Networks’ video (via BoingBoing).


Sandra Kiume, founder of the Neurofuture blog has kicked off a tongue-in-cheek competition to coin a new ‘neuroword’.

Some of my favourites include the beautifully recursive “neurologism: a word created by prefixing ‘neuro’ to almost any normal word” (by Neil H) and “neuromanticism: the discipline that investigates neural correlates of love” (by Andrea Gaggioli). My own contribution is “neurosceptic: someone who doubts grand media claims made on behalf of neuroscience”.

If you want to enter, you’ll need to be quick. The competition closes shortly.

Link to neurowords competition (via Brain Waves).

Eliminative materialism on Wikipedia

Cellarius_ptolemaic_system.jpgThe Wikipedia article on eliminative materialism has undergone a radical transformation since the end of January. It is now a clear and comprehensive introduction to one of the most important philosophical approaches to modern cognitive science.

Philosophers, unfortunately, have an image problem. Ask the average person in the street about what philosophers do and you’re likely to be informed that they try and work out whether God, reality or each other exist.

In reality, a significant number are involved in the cognitive sciences and are doing some much needed structural work on the foundations.

Philosophy of mind focuses on understanding and testing the foundations of psychology and cognitive science, and is now an essential partner in the bid to explain human thought.

The majority of theories about the mind make assumptions about the sort of mental states we have. Many of these assumptions are taken from everyday language and culture, and are usually described by ‘common sense’.

For example, the everyday concept of ‘belief’ features regularly in scientific explanations of the mind, despite the fact that this concept is often applied so widely in natural language as to be seemingly contradictory in places.

A school of thought called ‘eliminative materialism’ argues that these ‘common-sense’ concepts are like the ancient four humours theory of medicine – which said that the body and mind are controlled by levels of ‘blood’, ‘black bile’, ‘yellow bile’ and ‘phlegm’.

Although this theory was assumed to be true at the time, modern science hasn’t given us an improved explanation of the ‘four humours’, it has rejected the idea as completely ridiculous.

Eliminative materialism argues that everyday concepts like ‘belief’ and ‘desire’ will suffer the same fate because of their inconsistencies, and that theories that use these concepts are ultimately flawed.

Supporters also point to the lack of clear evidence that these everyday concepts are linked to any consistent pattern of brain activity. This might suggest that these concepts are also not supported by other, similarly intentioned, approaches.

If eliminative materialism is accurate, many past theories will have to be re-thought, and how we test, create and think about the mind and brain will change radically.

It is not clear, however, whether it is accurate, and the recently updated Wikipedia page gives an excellent and evolving account of the arguments.

Link to Wikipedia article on eliminative materialism.

Week 2 book draw

If you missed it last week, I posted some thoughts on Mind Performance Hacks, a new book from Ron Hale-Evans and O’Reilly (you can read sample hacks and browse the support site for it).

We managed to get some copies from the publisher, as they also published Mind Hacks, the book this blog spun out from, and last week we gave away 2 copies in a draw. We’re doing the same this week, and have another two draws after this.

If you’d like a chance of winning one of 2 copies of Mind Performance Hacks, please send an email to mphdraw at mindhacks dot com. Next Sunday evening, UK time, I’ll choose 2 emails randomly and, if you’re a winner, I’ll be in touch to get your address. Please include your name in the email; if my email to you bounces I’ll choose a different one; cheaters will be excluded; organiser’s decision is final; void where prohibited; etc. You don’t have to be in the UK, and emails are deleted if you’re not a winner (if you entered last week and didn’t win, you’re welcome to enter again).

Please note that the email address is different from last time.