The Architecture of Happiness

de botton.jpgWe’re probably going to be seeing a lot of Alain de Botton in the coming months, as he’s out and about promoting his new book ‘The Architecture of Happiness’.

I’m a huge fan of de Botton, whose books such as ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ have won widespread critical acclaim for making philosophy accessible and relevant to modern life.

But I felt he went off the boil with his last book Status Anxiety and after reading Jonathan Glancey’s review of his new book in The Guardian, I’m worried he may not have found a return to form.

However, I am going to read the new book (partly because I‚Äôm researching a feature on the role of psychology in Britain‚Äôs current building boom) so if there are any magazine or newspaper editors out there who‚Äôd like me to review it, please do get in touch 😉

Also, while we’re discussing de Botton, I should point you to his Times review of Cordelia Fine’s book ‘A mind of its own’, in which he discusses whether the experimental approach to understanding the human psyche – that is, psychology – really is the right one:

“Expecting to study the mysteries of the mind, [psychology] students soon realise that they have set off down a far less glamorous and unusual path, for their field requires them not so much to explore new insights as to test old and quite simple ones according to a rigorous and patient scientific method. Psychology emerges as, depending on your point of view, either a gloriously or horrifyingly pedantic discipline”.

PS. I virtually bumped into de Botton at Edinburgh airport once, but I’m (a) not that good with faces and (b) shy, so I persuaded my girlfriend to go and ask him if he was who I thought he was. Anyway, apparently he was utterly charming and self-effacing.

UPDATE: Alain de Botton appeared on Monday’s edition of Start the Week on BBC Radio 4. And he’s got his own TV series on Channel 4/ More 4.

Link to Alain de Botton’s website, which includes full details of all his books, plus reviews, audio clips and much more.
Link to Guardian review of his new book.
Link to article on Britain’s building boom.
Link to de Botton’s review of ‘A mind of its own’.

The Happiness Formula

the happiness formula.gif
There’s a new six-part series starting on BBC 2 this week called The Happiness Formula, and the companion website has all sorts of features including on-line video clips, happiness tests, and an article about the science of happiness.

Glancing through, it looks like among the key contributors are well-being psychologist Ed Diener, positive psychologist Martin Seligman, and Emeritus Professor of Economics Lord Layard, who’s been making a lot of noise recently in an effort to get the UK government to provide more therapists. Layard also wrote a book a few years ago called Happiness: Lessons from a new science.

The series comes at a time when there are increasing calls for the population’s happiness, rather than it’s prosperity, to be used as the main measure of the government’s success.

Link to The Happiness Formula Website.
Link to article on the science of happiness.
Link to happiness test.

Ethics of human enhancement

HETHRhead.jpgHuman Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights is a conference that kicks off next month to debate how the age-old practice of human modification should be handled in modern times and in the future.

Yet, what, if any, limits should be considered to human enhancement? On what grounds can citizens be prevented from modifying their own genes or brains? How far should reproductive rights be extended? Might enhancement reduce the diversity of humanity in the name of optimal health? Or, conversely, might enhancements inspire such an unprecedented diversity of human beings that they strain the limits of liberal tolerance and social solidarity? Can we exercise full freedom of thought if we can’t exercise control over our own brains using safe, available technologies? Can we ensure that enhancement technologies are safe and equitably distributed? When are regulatory efforts simply covert, illiberal value judgments?

The conference is being hosted at Stanford University Law School and runs from May 26-28.

Link to HETHR conference info (via BoingBoing).

Jury psychology

Christian’s posted a great summary on the BPS Research Digest of a recent study that examined factors in jury death penalty decisions, some of which are quite surprising.

It seems to reflect an increasing focus on the psychology of court room and jury interactions. It will be interesting to see these sort of findings will ever lead to additional rules in court room to try and eliminate the effects.

Think friend and enter

keys_white_bg.jpgWired has a short piece on researchers from Carleton University who are attempting to use EEG signals in place of a password – so you can think ‘pass thoughts’ to get to your data.

“It is known there are differences between people’s brains and their signals,” says Carleton researcher Julie Thorpe, who’s working on the project with Anil Somayaji and Adrian Chan. “Can we observe a user-controllable signal encoding hundreds or thousands of bits of information in a repeatable fashion? That’s the real question. We think it may be possible.”

The system has the potential to become a new kind of biometric security tool that — in contrast to fingerprint readers, iris scanners or facial recognition — would allow users to change their pass codes periodically.

Maybe this will lead to a new generation of hackers who train themselves to simulate others mental states in an attempt to forge ‘pass thoughts’?

Link to article ‘Your Thoughts Are Your Password’.

2006-04-28 Spike activity

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


Scientific American investigate the neuroscience and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in a new feature article.

Researchers devise software that tracks the mood swings of 150,000 LiveJournal users.

The New York Times examines the neuropsychology of investor behaviour – christened neuroeconomics.

The New Atlantis Magazine takes an in-depth look at the trouble with the Turing Test (via 3quarksdaily).

In light of the first ‘female viagra’ The Observer discusses whether it will be a substitute fix for emotional problems in couples.

The New York Times examines evidence about the role of the gene neuregulin in the risk for schizophrenia.

Physicists devise mathematical model to simulate how sensory neurons operate.

UK nurses back harm-reduction scheme to supervise chronic self-harmers.

A curious case-vignette of a person with depression is published in The New York Times.

BBC News reports that female ovulation makes men more wary of ‘rival’ masculine males, according to a new study.

NewSci: Likes love, neuroscience, psychology, GSOH

white_bg_rose.jpgI take it Spring has truly sprung, as this week’s New Scientist keeps the theme of love alive by devoting a special issue to that most curious of human behaviours.

There’s feature articles on everything from the psychology of finding (and keeping) the perfect partner to the darker side of obsession and stalking.

Unfortunately, the articles are only available if you stump up hard cash, except for a one-off personals page that has adverts from scientists around the world wanting to meet potential partners. Some are quite poetic:

60’s CHILD (F), thrives on serendipity and chaos, globally involved, healthily skeptical. Curiously awaits nice guy with nourishing bio-psycho-social alternative to flaming hot cheetos for perspectives sharing. Los Angeles. Reply number: 134

Keep an eye out for any hypocoristics.

Link to this week’s table of contents.
Link to New Scientist personals page.

Neuroscience for lovers

glitter_ball.jpgOnline science and humanities e-zine LabLit has an article about one guy’s experience of ‘luring the ladies’ with smooth talking neuroscience chit-chat (and presumably it works well for luring men too).

So, next thing I know, I’m actually chatting away with three beautiful young ladies in a bar in Baltimore. And we’re chatting about signal transduction mechanisms and the implications of cerebral ischemia! Not in strict scientific terminology of course, but in decent general terms. I explain about signal transduction by using the band as an example. The signal leaves the guitarist‚Äôs hand as he makes the strings vibrate. This is transmitted to the pick-ups in the guitar, and turned into a signal that travels along his cable to his amplifier (or amp, as we rock stars say). There the signal has to be transduced into a sound…

Link to article ‘How to lure in the ladies with your PhD’.
Link to LabLit (via MeFi).

Fast Artificial Neural Network Library

Zhang_neural_stem_cells04s.jpgThe Fast Artificial Neural Network Library is a programming library that takes much of the pain out of constructing artificial intelligence and cognitive modelling projects.

It is free software, incredibly professional, well documented, fully supported, and available for a number of programming languages both mainstream and obscure.

There’s also a concise introduction to neural networks (pdf) which covers some of the operating principles for those wanting to know how they work.

Neural networks are used both as software tools for completing otherwise difficult tasks, and in cognitive science for simulating cognitive processes.

In neuropsychology, neural networks are often created to simulate a certain cognitive task, and then the network is ‘damaged’ to see whether the network can predict the effects of brain injury or impairment.

This connectionist approach to cognitive science was made particularly popular by the 1986 book Parallel distributed processing: Explorations in the microstructure of cognition (ISBN 0262631121) by David Rumelhart and James McClelland.

Link to Fast Artificial Neural Network Library.
pdf of ‘Neural Networks Made Simple’.
Link to Wikipedia page on ‘connectionism’.

The Age of Neuroelectronics

odd_skull_image.jpgTechnology and society magazine The New Atlantis has a comprehensive article on ‘neuroelectronics’ – the science of interfacing digital components with neural wetware.

The potential merging of mind and machine thrills, frightens, and intrigues us. For decades, experiments at the border between brains and electronics have led to sensationalistic media coverage, vivid science fiction portrayals, and dreams of cyborgs and bionic men. But recently, this area of science has seen remarkable advances—from robotic limbs controlled directly by brain activity, to brain implants that alter the mood of the depressed, to rats steered by remote control. Adam Keiper explores the peculiar history and present directions of this research, and considers the challenges of staying human in the age of neuroelectronics.

Link to article ‘The Age of Neuroelectronics’.

Uncovering hidden biases

man_at_laptop.jpgScience News has got an excellent article on one of psychology’s most recent developments – the Implicit Association Test – a computerised task that claims to measure hidden or unadmitted biases.

The test involves reacting to (usually) words as they appear on-screen by classifying them into categories. The categories are altered to draw out differences in reaction time, which supposedly relate to the difficulty of associating certain concepts with each other.

The idea is that the measure of reaction time makes it particularly difficult to fake, and the association should be detectable even if it is usually over-ridden by the conscious mind.

The IAT has been used for everything from detecting hidden racial prejudices to examining violent associations in psychopaths.

It is still controversial, however, because it is not clear exactly what is being measured, other than some general concept of an ‘association’.

Whether this is predictive of explicit beliefs or attitudes, or future action and risk (such as violence – particularly importantly in forensic psychology) is still an open question.

If you want to try the test yourself, there’s an online version at Project Implicit.

Link to ‘The Bias Finders’ from Science News.
Link to Project Implicit.

SfN Brain Briefings online

SfN_logo.jpgThe Society for Neuroscience publishes monthly Brain Briefings that explain how basic neuroscience discoveries lead to clinical applications.

The newsletters cover recent advances in neuroscience research and are intended for a lay audience so are jargon free and easily digestible.

The webpage versions (rather than the pdf files) are referenced so you can also follow up any of the briefings by getting deep into the science if you get inspired.

Link to SfN Brain Briefings.
Link to Society for Neuroscience.