Dennett on chess and artificial intelligence

Technology Review has published an article by philosopher Daniel Dennett looking at what the development of computer chess tells us about the quest for artificial intelligence.

AI and chess have an interesting and intertwined conceptual history.

It used to be said that if computers could play chess, it would be a genuine example of artificial intelligence, because chess seemed to be a uniquely human game of strategy and tactics.

As soon as computers became good at chess, it was dismissed as a valid example because, ironically, computers could do it. A classic example of moving the goalposts.

Similarly, I’ve recently heard a few people say “If computers could beat us at poker, that would be a genuine example of artificial intelligence”. Recently, a poker playing computer narrowly lost to two pros.

Presumably, ‘genuine intelligence’ is just whatever computers can’t do yet.

Dennett is a big proponent of the “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” school of behaviour.

In other words, if something can perform a certain task (like playing chess), then objections about it not using the same mechanism as humans to do the task are irrelevant as to whether its doing the task ‘genuinely’ or not.

One of his related ideas is the intentional stance. It says that things like belief, intention and intelligence are not properties of a creature, computer or human, they’re just theories we use to understand how it works.

So if it makes sense for us to interpret a chess computer as having the belief that “taking the queen will give an advantage”, then that’s a good theory for us to work on, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about how that behaviour is implemented in the system.

Link to TechReview article ‘Higher Games’ (via BoingBoing).

Ancient Egyptian post-mortem neurosurgery

Retrospectacle has a great post that describes how the Ancient Egyptians removed the brains of the dead before mummification and notes some of their neurological knowledge.

The Ancient Egyptians described a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders in their writing that would be recognisable today.

One major source is the Edwin Smith papyrus, another is the Ebers papyrus which has quite a significant section on psychiatric disorders, including what we would now class as depression, dementia and psychosis.

Needless to say, the remedies were often magical in nature, but the observation of the clinical features can be quite astute.

The article on Retrospectacle has some great brain scan images and a link to a video of how embalmers would remove the brain through the nose, using a metal tool to go up into the frontal lobes.

Link to Retrospectacle article.

2007-08-24 Spike activity

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

Why are visual memories so vivid when visual memory is so limited? Cognitive Daily has another fantastic breakdown.

Science and Consciousness Review has a new feature article on whether language is necessary for self-awareness.

The New York Times has an article on the potential of physical exercise to boost memory and cognitive processing speed. Pure Pedantry picks up on its off-kilter interpretation.

The BPS Research Digest looks at why we’re rubbish at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally.

Read the latest and ‘in progress’ research on cognitive training and brain fitness at Sharp Brains.

Apparently, we have taste receptors in the gut!

Drug company AstraZenenca have been whitewashing the entries for their drugs on Wikipedia. Bears still shitting in woods.

PsyBlog notes that pessimists have good reason to be pessimistic. People prefer optimists and realists!

The New York Times discusses the importance of getting a therapist you click with to get the most out of psychological treatment.

Mr. Freeze, the Iced-Time Demon. A thought-provoking thought experiment from philosopher Pete Mandik

Is there anything good about men? Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s speech notes that males are much less likely to reproduce than females, and wonders what evolutionary effect this has had on gender psychology.

Jose Padilla’s conviction raises questions about whether detainees who undergo extreme isolation can be given fair trials, according to In These Times.

More on the wonderful ACHOO syndrome that won our AAICS competition.

Induced out-of-body experiences: Do try this at home

Science has just published two short papers where researchers induced a touch sensation that that seemed to be felt in a ‘fake’ body that appeared to be several metres in front – similar to an ‘out-of-body-experience’.

The two studies were developed independently but both involved the same idea. In one study, the person was filmed from behind while they had their back stroked. They also wore a special head-mounted display that showed them what the video camera saw.

In other words, they saw their back being stroked as if they were sitting behind themselves and their body was in front of them. After a while, the sensation seemed to be move from their own back to be located in the projected body in front.

Neurophilosopher has found a fantastic video of Prof Olaf Blanke explaining the experiment, which is a wonderful introduction.

The other study did something very similar but used touches to the chest.

While these two studies have demonstrated the effect in a most striking way, the effect isn’t new, as it’s often been demonstrated with the ‘rubber hand illusion‘.

In fact, you can do something similar at home, and make touch sensations seem as if they are located in inanimate objects:

This is taken from Hack #64 (‘Mold your Body Schema’ [pdf]) from the Mind Hacks book, but was originally inspired by a similar exercise in Ramanchandran and Blakesee’s book Phantoms in the Brain:

Sit at a table with a friend at your side. Put one hand on your knee, out of sight under the table. Your friend‚Äôs job is to tap, touch, and stoke your hidden hand and‚Äîwith identical movements using her other hand‚Äîto tap the top of the table directly above. Do this for a couple of minutes. It helps if you concentrate on the table where your friend is touching, and it’s important you don’t get hints of how your friend is touching your hidden hand. The more irregular the pattern and the better synchronized the movements on your hand and on the table, the greater the chance this will work for you. About 50% of people begin to feel as if the tapping sensation is arising from the table, where they can see the tapping happening before their very eyes. If you’re lucky, the simultaneous touching and visual input have led the table to be incorporated into your body image.

All of these experiments synchronise the touch with visual movement, but put these perceptions in conflict with visual information about where the synchronisation is happening.

The brain attempts to resolve this conflict by prioritising the visual system, which is relatively information rich in comparison to our other senses.

Notably, these new studies are the first to demonstrate something akin to an ‘out-of-body-experience’.

It’s not really the same as the classic experience where you see your body in front of you, perhaps as you float above it, something known as autoscopy or heautoscopy in the medical literature.

However, as we reported last year, Prof Olaf Blanke’s team have studied various types of ‘out-of-body’ and ‘projected self’ experiences, either caused by direct brain stimulation, or after neurological disorder.

The lab’s publications page has many of their papers available as full-text articles if you want more detail.

Link to video interview and explanation of experiment.
Link to New Scientist write-up.
Link to previous Mind Hacks article on Blanke’s and colleagues studies.
pdf to Hack #64 ‘Mold your Body Schema’.

Drug testing whole cities

USA Today is reporting that a toxicology team have developed a method for drug testing a city’s water supply, indicating the level at which certain drugs are being used by the population.

The study was reportedly led by environmental toxicologist Prof Jennifer Field and was presented at the 2006 American Chemical Society conference.

The technique apparently involves taking a sample of water from the city’s sewer plant, and so doesn’t identify individuals, but can estimate the proportions of different drugs in the water to give a guide to which drugs are being used in what quantities.

The science behind the testing is simple. Nearly every drug — legal and illicit — that people take leaves the body. That waste goes into toilets and then into wastewater treatment plants.

“Wastewater facilities are wonderful places to understand what humans consume and excrete,” Field said.

In the study presented Tuesday, one teaspoon of untreated sewage water from each of the cities was tested for 15 different drugs. Field said researchers can’t calculate how many people in a town are using drugs.

She said that one fairly affluent community scored low for illicit drugs except for cocaine. Cocaine and ecstasy tended to peak on weekends and drop on weekdays, she said, while methamphetamine and prescription drugs were steady throughout the week.

Field said her study suggests that a key tool currently used by drug abuse researchers — self-reported drug questionnaires — underestimates drug use.

“We have so few indicators of current use,” said Jane Maxwell of the Addiction Research Institute at the University of Texas, who wasn’t part of the study. “This could be a very interesting new indicator.”

Unfortunately, it seems the American Chemical Society charge for access to the summaries of their conference presentations, but Scientific American has a little more detail on the procedure.

The news is reminiscent of a 2004 Environmental Agency study that found Prozac in UK sewage (incorrectly reported as the ‘Prozac found in drinking water’ story).

Link to USA Today article (via AADT).
Link to SciAm write-up.

Alzheimer’s risk gene may boost memory in young

A fascinating study published in this month’s Cerebral Cortex reports that a gene known to massively increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life is associated, in young people, with better memory performance and more efficient use of the brain’s memory structures.

The research team, led by neuroscientist Christian Mondadori, looked at the genetics and memory performance of 340 volunteers, all in their early 20s.

The team were particularly interested in which version or allele of the apolipoprotein E (ApoE) gene each person had, because the ‘Epsilon 4’ allele raises the risk for Alzheimer’s disease in old age.

In fact, people with two ‘Epsilon 4’ alleles are virtually guaranteed to the brain disorder by the age of 80.

Each person took part in a word learning test that involved both short-term and long-term memory. This type of test is known to particularly rely on the function of the hippocampus, a key memory area which is known to decline in Alzheimer’s disease.

People who were carriers of the Epsilon 4 allele performed better in the long-term memory test, and no different for short-term memory.

The team decided to do more extensive memory tests while brain scanning 34 participants who were picked specifically to represent equal numbers of the three common genetic combinations.

These tests in the scanner involved learning faces and associations with professions over a number of trials and a target detection task that involved manipulating information in short-term memory (working memory).

There was no difference between the groups in terms of their accuracy on these tests, but people with the Epsilon 4 allele showed decreases in brain activity as time went on, suggesting they were using their brain more efficiently.

In contrast, people without the Epsilon 4 allele showed increases in brain activity, suggesting their brain was having to work harder to keep up.

A key question is why people who carry the Epsilon 4 allele would have a more efficient brain system for memory in early life but are more likely to have these same memory systems degrade in later life, as happens in Alzheimer’s disease.

As Alzheimer’s typically strikes after the time most people have children, the researchers suggest that the Epsilon 4 allele could confer an evolutionary advantage without adversely affecting chances of reproduction.

Some evidence that supports this idea has been found in previous studies where the ApoE Epsilon 4 allele has been associated with higher IQ scores, reduced heart activity under stress, and reduced chance of difficulties during pregnancy and post-birth problems.

Link to abstract of scientific study.

Old School Neurophysiology

squidaxon.jpgThe Plymouth Marine Laboratory brings us footage of experiments on the giant axons of the squid — the work that brought us the action potential. Quoting:

“The Squid and its Giant Nerve Fiber” was filmed in the 1970s at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England. This is the laboratory where Hodgkin and Huxley conducted experiments on the squid giant axon in the 1940s. Their experiments unraveled the mechanism of the action potential, and led to a Nobel Prize. Long out of print, the film is an historically important record of the voltage-clamp technique as developed by Hodgkin and Huxley, as well as an interesting glimpse at how the experiments were done. QuickTime video excerpts from the film are presented here.

Link: excerpts from The Squid and its Giant Nerve Fiber

(via Three-Toed Sloth)

Metal casing, mental illness and masturbation

The image is taken from the psychiatry section of the Science and Society picture library and depicts a male anti-masturbation device from the late 19th / early 20th century, and, believe it or not, was considered an effective way of preventing insanity.

Masturbation was long linked to madness in both folk and professional medicine and this belief lasted, even among professionals, until the early 1900s.

It was thought a particular mental health risk in children, as illustrated by this excerpt from a 1988 article on the development of child psychiatry in 19th century Britain.

William Acton, trained in surgery and venereal diseases, published The functions and disorders of the reproductive organs, in youth, in adult age and in advanced life in 1857. It gained immediate popularity and went through six editions in 18 years, despite it’s many discrepancies, premature conclusions and emotional prejudices (Marcus, 1966).

Typical of most authors of the time, Acton on the one hand postulates that normal childhood is essentially asexual, on the other describes over many pages the many sexual disorders of childhood — a conflict that is never resolved. Again, without further explanation, a causal connection between masturbation and a whole array of consequences is drawn: the boy would become haggard, thin, antisocial, hypochondriacal, would lose his spontaneity and cheerfulness and would turn into a timid coward and liar. The final state was one of idiocy, epilepsy, paralysis and even death.

These prejudices were considered valid scientific facts, so that the Scottish psychiatrist David Skae even created the term “masturbatory insanity” ‚Äî a separate nosological disease caused exclusively by masturbation, with characteristic features (Skae, 1874). This term was taken up by Henry Maudsley (1868); the 1879 edition of Pathology of mind included a chapter devoted to the insanity of masturbation (Maudsley, 1879), which was later changed to insanity and masturbation (Maudsley, 1895).

I’ll save you the gory details, but these beliefs led to supposed ‘treatments’ and ‘preventative measures’ that stretched from devices like the one pictured, to what would now be considered brutal genital mutilation of both boys and girls.

If you think that these were fringe beliefs, it’s worth remembering that Henry Maudsley was otherwise considered the greatest psychiatrist of his generation.

Link to picture from Science and Society image library.

Chasing Memory with romantic science

Frontal Cortex has just alerted me to a compelling four-part series on the quest to find the molecular basis of memory in Prof Gary Lynch’s neuroscience lab.

It’s not only an account of the science behind the research, but also of the characters and human drives of the people involved.

Old school Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria wrote case studies of brain injured patients that not only described the neuroscience of their disorders, but also described the people in such sensitive detail that you really felt you got to know them.

He called this ‘romantic science’ – something which Oliver Sacks cites as a major inspiration for his own work.

These LA Times pieces are not about brain injury, but they have the same quality of human passion intertwined with the story of scientific discovery.

The first time I spoke with the neuroscientist Gary Lynch, the conversation went something like this:

Me: I’m interested in spending time in a laboratory like yours, where the principal focus is the study of memory. I’d like to explain how memory functions and fails, and why, and use the work in the lab as a means to illustrate how we know what we know.

Lynch: You’d be welcome to come here. This would actually be a propitious time to be in the lab.

Me: Why’s that?

Lynch: Because we’re about to nail this mother to the door.

Link to four-part LA Times special ‘Chasing Memory’.

Psychological continuity and the problem of identity

Philosophy Now magazine has an interesting article on the problem of identity – how we have the impression that we are the same person, despite the fact that our personality, preferences and even cognitive abilities may change from moment to moment.

It’s a problem that was most famously tackled by 17th century philosopher John Locke but is still relevant for understanding the issues of identity and the self in contemporary cognitive science, as well as for informing complex judgements on free will and responsibility.

Suppose a man has committed a crime whilst drunk or undergoing temporary amnesia. Suppose also, that because of his mental state at the time of the offence, he genuinely cannot remotely remember a thing about it. Clearly on the evidence of witnesses ‚Äì and perhaps he was caught in the act ‚Äì it was his own body, the same man who now stands in the dock, who did it. But was it the same person? Should the present person be found guilty of the crime if the drunkenness or amnesia had so changed his psyche that, at the time, he ‘wasn’t his true self’? Can he rightly claim that at the time of the incident the occupant of his body was a different person altogether; or perhaps some fractured component of his own psyche that couldn‚Äôt rightly be described as ‚Äòhimself‚Äô?

Psychological continuity was, Locke claimed, the answer to the question. The accused, considered as a man, the physical being, is certainly guilty. His own hand struck the blow, his own voice had risen in anger. But if the person, the psychological being, cannot remember one atom of it, then he is not guilty.

But though Locke’s theory answered the question, it‚Äôs not certain that it solved the problem; for it raises a paradox that will try the wits of the jurists: the man in the dock may be guilty, but not the person in the man! And if the man is punished, he will experience the pain, but the wrong person will suffer it.

Link to article ‘A Question of Identity’ (via Thinking Meat).

US psychologists snub CIA but scrap total ban

After much debate at the American Psychological Association conference a resolution was passed that condemns torture, bans psychologists from taking part in certain abusive activities, but still leaves significant grey areas for participation in contested CIA interrogation techniques.

The key section of the APA resolution is the following:

This unequivocal condemnation includes, but is by no means limited to, an absolute prohibition for psychologists against direct or indirect participation in interrogations or in any other detainee-related operations in mock executions, water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape, cultural or religious humiliation, exploitation of phobias or psychopathology, induced hypothermia, the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances used for the purpose of eliciting information; as well as the following used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process: hooding, forced nakedness, stress positions, the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate, physical assault including slapping or shaking, exposure to extreme heat or cold, threats of harm or death; and isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to the individual or to members of the individual’s family;

The resolution is widely being interpreted as a snub to the CIA, but notably, participation in detainee “isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation” are not specifically banned unless they are judged to cause “lasting harm” – without any clear definition of what this amounts to.

Salon points to a publicly available CIA interrogation manual from the 1960s that notes that these techniques quickly provoke hallucinations and stress that become “unbearable for most subjects” although the manual also notes a “profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.”

Some members were pressing for an outright ban in participation in all CIA interrogations, citing the whole process of internment without due process unethical, but this was not adopted by the APA, meaning the guidelines fall short of those already adopted by psychiatrists and physicians.

One notable aspect of this story is just how important it’s become. At the time of writing, Google News lists over 300 news items on the decision.

Much of the credit for this has to go to Salon who have followed the story since the beginning, at times catching APA with their pants down.

Their dogged investigations have obviously touched a nerve as they report that the APA president refused to answer questions from the publication when approached after a panel session.

Link to APA resolution.
Link to Salon article ‘Will psychologists still abet torture?’.
Link to APA press release on resolution.

The cognitive science of magic

The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness invited some of the world’s best stage magicians along to their June conference to demonstrate how the conscious mind can be manipulated. The New York Times has just published a fantastic article on the conference and the cognitive science of magic.

The symposium was entitled ‘The Magic of Consciousness’ and was deliberately more than just light entertainment. The magicians were specifically chosen for the interest in the cognitive aspects on illusion and talked on how they take advantage our of brain’s quirks.

“This wasn’t just a group of world-class performers,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, a scientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix who studies optical illusions and what they say about the brain. “They were hand-picked because of their specific interest in the cognitive principles underlying the magic.”

She and Stephen Macknik, another Barrow researcher, organized the symposium, appropriately called the Magic of Consciousness.

Apollo, with the pull of his eyes and the arc of his hand, swung around my attention like a gooseneck lamp, so that it always pointed in the wrong direction. When he appeared to be reaching for my left pocket he was swiping something from the right. At the end of the act the audience applauded as he handed me my pen, some crumpled receipts and dollar bills, and my digital audio recorder, which had been running all the while. I hadn’t noticed that my watch was gone until he unstrapped it from his own wrist.

Link to NYT article ‘Sleights of Mind’.
Link to list of symposium speakers and talks.

Awkward acronyms in cognitive science winners

Many thanks for everyone who sent in their entries for our AAICS (Awkward Acronyms In Cognitive Science) competition. There were many worthy entries all of which illustrated the seductive allure of the acronyms to cognitive scientists who obviously had too much coffee.

In 4th place, Dr Rebecca Achtman suggested the seemingly defunct support group YAWN: Young Adults With Narcolepsy.

3rd place, sent in by Dr Robert Volcic, is the wonderfully contrived SOMAPS: Multilevel systems analysis and modeling of SOmatosensory, Memory, and Affective maPs of body and objects in multidimensional Subjective space. Wow.

Patrick Squires sent in the 2nd placed entry, with the enigmatic BIRP: Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program.

But the winner, sent in by Sandra Kiume, is truly lovely ACHOO syndrome: Autosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst syndrome). It’s the condition where sunlight causes sneezing.

I suspect there were more researchers assigned to the acronym than the syndrome.

Sandra gets a copy of David Lodge’s Thinks and everyone else gets the eternal respect of Mind Hacks readers for their unique and eclectic knowledge of the cogntive science world.

Why there is no such thing as internet addiction

‘Internet addiction’ doesn’t exist. It can’t, because it’s a logical impossibility, a category error, and there’s no good evidence that heavy internet use, in itself, is a risk to mental health.

A paper of mine, just published in the Journal of Mental Health [pdf], describes why, but I’m going to summarise the arguments here because of an infuriating and self-contradictory press release about “Internet addiction disorder” that seems to be all over the internet.

Perhaps the most important point is the concept of ‘internet addiction’ relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is.

‘Internet addiction’ researchers conceive of the internet as if it were a set of activities when, in fact, it’s a medium for communication.

People become addicted to substances or activities, but it’s impossible to become addicted to a medium. You can be no more addicted to the internet than you can to language or radio waves.

This is important because the proposed criteria for internet addiction or pathological internet use (there is no accepted classification, contrary to what the press release says) typically make reference to ‘using the internet’ or ‘spending time online’ without reference to any specific activity.

It’s important to specify specific activities, because, as noted above, the concept of a behavioural addiction logically requires one.

It’s also important to make the distinction between something being compulsive, something that you want to do again (commonly, but confusingly, called ‘addictive’ in everyday language), and a fully-fledged behavioural addiction – a mental disorder where you keep doing the activity even when it has serious damaging effects.

The cinema, reading books, going for walks, chatting to friends and any other enjoyable activity can be compulsive, but it doesn’t make it an addiction, even if it’s a daily time consuming activity and you get pissed off if you can’t do it.

Some online activities are almost universally accepted as being genuinely addictive (e.g. gambling) whereas others are subject to significant debate (e.g. gaming, chat).

This is not to say that some of the people who have been described as having ‘internet addiction’ don’t have any problems or aren’t suffering.

There are definitely people who are dysfunctional in day-to-day life, have significant problems with mood and motivation, and who spend a huge amount of time online.

However, there’s little evidence that heavy internet use actually causes these problems:

Although initial work suggested that time spent online was correlated with a small but significant increase in loneliness and depression (Kraut et al., 1998), subsequent replications and extensions found the reverse (Howard et al., 2001; Moody, 2001; Wastlund et al., 2001) and a follow-up to the original Kraut et al. study found the negative effects were no longer present and that, in contrast, internet use was generally associated with positive effects on communication, social involvement, and well-being (Kraut et al., 2002). A key finding from this latter study was that extroverts generally showed a positive relationship between internet use and social well-being measures, whereas introverts showed the reverse – reporting an increase in isolation and loneliness. It is still not clear why this might be the case, although it has been suggested that the internet might provide tools to ‘amplify’ predispositions (Joinson, 2003), so that extraverts can meet more people and socialise, while introverts can keep them at a distance.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to see why addiction is the best way of understanding these problems.

Addiction researcher Prof Mark Griffiths has outlined some elements that an activity needs to have to be considered addictive, notably salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse.

He also notes that the proposed description of ‘internet addiction’ does not fulfil these criteria.

The core problem is not using repetitive, extended internet use, or even intrusive thoughts about keeping track of online events (otherwise 90% of the office workforce would be diagnosed), but low mood and social withdrawal.

In Japan, almost exactly the same problems have been named ‘hikkikomori‘. One of the key characteristics of hikkikomori individuals is that they isolate themselves and occupy their time with the internet and video games.

But the Japanese, rather sensibly, identify the core problem as social withdrawal, and the excessive solitary activities as symptoms – just ways in which isolated people try to fill the void.

In fact, this is exactly what a recent study of internet game users found: the driving force behind internet games was less the ‘fun’, the kick of the game if you will, but instead a sense of achievement, freedom and social connectedness.

There’s always a temptation to try and fit fuzzy human problems into comfortable pre-existing categories because it makes us feel useful and qualified to use our existing tools.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have clear and defined treatments for addiction but very little for social withdrawal, because social withdrawal isn’t a diagnosis in itself.

The press release is apparently based on a published paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, although it has yet to appear.

It may contain a revolutionary new argument, but I doubt it, as there is not a single study showing that heavy internet use causes the features of an addiction.

And certainly not the supposedly “extreme and menacing” condition that is described as affecting 10% of all internet users.

Link to press-release on Science Daily.
pdf of paper ‘Online Information, Extreme Communities and Internet Therapy: Is the Internet Good for Our Mental Health?’.

Recursive knitted brain scan art

The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art create beautiful knitted and needlecraft brain images based on brain scans.

Now neuroscientist Mark Dow has put one of the creations in a brain scanner, creating a 3D MRI of a knitted brain based on an MRI scan of a brain.

Needless to say, it was discovered by the ever-unpredictable Omni Brain.

I also notice that The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art has been joined by a new brain-based online art extravaganza: The Gallery of Wooden Brain Art.

Link to Omni Brain with 3D knitted brain scan movie.

The psychology of behavior detection officers

Time magazine is reporting that ‘behaviour detection officers’ have been introduced to US airports who have been trained to pick out potential terrorists by analysing, at least in part, facial expressions. Despite the enthusiasm of the authorities for this new approach, there’s no clear evidence that it will be effective.

America’s Transport Security Administration describes the job as involving “voluntary encounters with the public under the SPOT Program, to determine whether elevated behaviors indicate that the individual may be involved in a terrorist or criminal act or activity”.

SPOT stands for “Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques” and, according to The New York Times, was created in consultation with psychologist Paul Ekman.

This means the SPOT system is likely to be based on one of Ekman’s two commercial systems for analysing facial expressions: the Facial Actions Coding System (FACS) or the Micro-Expression / Subtle Expression Training Tool (METT/SETT).

Ekman’s Facial Actions Coding System (FACS), a well-researched method for coding the individual muscle movements or component parts that make up a facial expression.

The idea is that its hard to fully hide emotions as they often quickly or partially emerge on the face before we suppress them, so by being able to detect ‘microexpressions’ we can get a better idea if someone might be trying to hide inner stress.

The FACS system is available commercially and the introductory chapters of the manual and investigator’s manual are available online.

It is designed by to be used by researchers, who have time to carefully examine video tape, but also by people who need to catch microexpressions as they happen – on the fly.

Research has shown that people who are better at detecting microexpressions are better as detecting lies [pdf], but so far, the (admittedly limited) evidence suggests that training people to detect microexpressions doesn’t make people better lie detectors.

There are only two small studies I know of that have tested this (I would be interested to hear of more), none of which inspire much hope. Both studies looked at whether FACS training improved clinicians ability to detect faked vs genuine pain.

A 1993 study found that it improved the ability to detect faked but not genuine pain. A 2004 study found it had no effect on accuracy.

The METT/SETT is even less well-researched. In fact, only one pilot study that I know of has used it at all.

Yet Ekman makes some grand claims for its effectiveness. In a recent article for the journal Behavioral Science and the Law he notes that:

This Micro Expression Training Tool (METT) (Ekman, 2002) includes feedback about the correct answers, morphed faces contrasting the most difficult to discriminate emotions, and a pre and post test. In two recent studies, Ekman & Frank (2005) provided training on detecting deception using METT. They obtained a very large
increase in accuracy with less than one hour of training with METT.

Rather than research published in a peer-reviewed journal the Ekman and Frank (2005) reference turns out to be to a document listed only as “Revealing concealed emotions. Retrieved from”, which, I’m damned if I can find. Anywhere.

However, it is likely these techniques are already being used in training law enforcement officers, security guards and the like. Ekman’s corporate website notes that he’s signed a three year contract with the UK Police’s Anti-Terrorist Unit at New Scotland Yard.

One possibility is that either Ekman’s company or the US authorities have done extensive unpublished research to show that training in these or similar methods are effective at helping staff detect potential terrorists or risky passengers.

One difficulty with all deception research is that participants told to lie in the lab are not necessarily good models for ‘real-life’ deception, with all its complex motivations and emotional force.

Lab-based lies are likely to be a poor substitute an actual covert terrorist situation.

Link to Time article ‘A New Tack for Airport Screening: Behave Yourself’.
Link to NYT article ‘Faces, Too, Are Searched at U.S. Airports’.