Daniel Kahneman ‘masterclass’ online

Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman recently gave a two day masterclass on his work. It’s now been made available on Edge as transcripts and video clips.

Kahneman has done a huge amount of work on cognitive biases – the quirks of mind that make us deviate from rationality, sometimes in quite surprising and interesting ways.

For example, with his colleague Amos Tversky, he discovered the availability heuristic, which is the process by which we tend to judge an event as more likely to happen in the future the more easily it can be brought to mind.

This is why we vastly overestimate the chances of vividly spectacular but unlikely things like terrorism, but underestimate the mundane but consistently lethal things like driving.

Kahneman has been involved in identifying many of these sorts of biases, and cleverly, applying them to economic decision making to inform economic models of financial behaviour.

As a result, experimental psychology is now a key part of economics to understand how people actually behave as opposed to earlier models which assumed that people will always act more-or-less rationally to maximise their profits.

The Edge ‘masterclass’ is quite a comprehensive guide to his work and covers work which has been influential in many areas of psychology.

Link to Edge Daniel Kahneman ‘masterclass’.

The false progression of Louis Wain

The five pictures are by Victorian artist Louis Wain who painted cats through the whole of his life and continued through periods of intense psychosis.

Almost every article on Wain uses them to demonstrate the progression of schizophrenia but the evidence for them being painted in chronological order is actually quite weak.

The five pictures are from an original series of eight which were collected by Dr Walter Maclay who was interested in the effect of mental illness on art.

However, the pictures were undated and, as Rodney Dale notes in his biography of Wain (Louis Wain: The Man Who Painted Cats; ISBN 1854790986), “with no evidence of the order of their progression, Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the progressive deterioration of the artist’s mental abilities.”

In fact, his later works are for the most part conventional cat pictures in his normal style, with the occasional ‘psychedelic’ example produced at the same time – where he experimented with what he called ‘wallpaper patterns’.

However, the increasing abstraction over time is likely to be a myth. Wain’s biography again:

Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on Dr Maclay’s paintings, there is clear no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain’s art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his [supposedly] ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats. All of which is to say no more than that the eight paintings were done at different times, which could be said of eight paintings by any artist!

Link to Wikipedia page on Louis Wain.
Link to online gallery of Wain pictures.

Olivers Sacks on music, drugs and emotion

Wired magazine has an interview with Oliver Sacks where he talks about cases from his forthcoming book on the neurology of music, and his own drug-induced experiences of seeing non-existent colours while listening to Monteverdi.

Hume wondered whether one can imagine a color that one has never encountered. One day in 1964, I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain, and at its peak, I said, “I want to see indigo, now!” As if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall ‚Äî the color of heaven. For months after that, I kept looking for that color. It was like the lost chord.

Then I went to a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the first half, they played the Monteverdi Vespers, and I was transported. I felt a river of music 400 years long running from Monteverdi’s mind into mine. Wandering around during the interval, I saw some lapis lazuli snuffboxes that were that same wonderful indigo, and I thought, “Good, the color exists in the external world.” But in the second half I got restless, and when I saw the snuffboxes again, they were no longer indigo ‚Äî they were blue, mauve, pink. I’ve never seen that color since.

The interview is a glimpse of what his next book will contain, and also relates a case of a man with Alzheimer’s and severe memory impairment who can nonetheless take part in an acapella singing group. Seemingly his musical abilities survived his amnesia, not unlike Clive Wearing, who we discussed recently on Mind Hacks.

Link to Wired interview with Oliver Sacks.

Who killed the NYT psychology section?

The New York Times has a record of publishing some cutting edge mind and brain journalism, most of which was collected on their ‘Mental Health and Behavior’ page. However, the page seems to have ground to a halt, removing one of the best psychology resources from the net.

Actually, they’ve not stopped publishing high-quality psychology articles, as the recent piece on the genetics of moral behaviour and social altruism demonstrates.

But their single best advert for their articles, a one-stop shop that gathered them all in one place, seems to have died a death.

It’s such as shame for a publication that has the rare and enviable record of publishing engaging pieces by writers who actually understand the science.

Link to moribund ‘Mental Health and Behavior’ page (thanks Jeremy!).
Link to excellent piece on genetics and moral behaviour.

Smart drugs, 1948

There’s a copy of a wonderful 1948 article magazine available online entitled ‘Pills That Increase Your Intelligence’ from Modern Mechanix .

It discusses the possibilities of ‘smart drugs’ and is full of archaic language that makes it equally shocking and endearing.

Can you feed your brain some special food to make it smarter? Scientists have always laughed at the idea. Now they aren’t quite so cocksure. Maybe your brain does have faster speed and quicker getaway when it runs on certain fuels. New scientific discoveries indicate that brain power can be stepped up by swallowing tablets. These pills are not stimulating drugs but concentrates of a food element you eat every day.

Let’s look into the strange story of one particular brain. It wasn’t a very good brain. In fact, it belonged to a fourteen-year-old imbecile boy who had an intelligence quotient of 42 (the average I. Q. is 100). Every year the boy grew twelve months older, but his mental age increased only four and a half months. He kept running an intelligence deficit. Then he was fed little white pills, a dozen and a half daily. Within two months his mental age leaped ahead one year and five months. Sixty days on brain pills and his mental age increased as much as it had in the last five years!

It sounds much like the ‘miracle cure’ claims that conditions like autism attract to the present day.

Link to 1948 Modern Mechanix article (via Bad Science).

Salon’s Mind Reader

Salon have just announced the start of a regular series of neuroscience articles with the first tackling whether brain scans might enable us to communicate with people who are conscious but trapped in their paralysed bodies.

The article considers a recent scientific paper [pdf] on the use of brain imaging to detect awareness in people who might otherwise be thought to be in a coma-like state, but actually are largely unable to communicate with the outside world because they’re paralysed.

We’ve covered two studies during the last few years that have reported consciousness in what were thought to be unconscious patients owing to the fact that their brain activity seemed to reflect complex mental processes or could be altered at will, following verbal requests from the researchers.

There are two main implications of this work, the first is that we could better diagnose patients as being paralysed rather than in comas, and the second is the hope that we could design systems to read the brain activity in a reliable enough way to allow affected people to communicate with the ‘outside world’.

With all of the brain scan hype we get subjected to, the article considers an important but rarely discussed point – although revolutionary, fMRI isn’t a very accurate measure of brain activity and we can’t directly infer subjective mental states from brain scan data.

This means its utility as a tool for detecting consciousness, let alone ‘mind reading’, is severely limited.

Interestingly, the article is written by a neurologist called Robert Burton, who shares a name with the author of the 17th century book The Anatomy of Melancholy which remains one of the best books ever written on the troubled mind.

It seems this article is the first in a new series called Mind Reader – “a new Salon feature exploring the galaxy of the brain.”

Link to Salon article ‘The light’s on, but is anybody home?’.
pdf of review article on fMRI detectection of awareness in coma-like states.

PR for the self: managing identity on social networks

The New Atlantis magazine has an intriguing article that considers the social effects of sites like MySpace and Facebook and discusses how we are increasingly using these tools to carefully manage our public image – something that was previously only a concern for celebrities and media figures.

The article describes by describing the social networking sites and how they work and discusses a little of their history, but shortly after, it tackles the psychology of how we use them to manage our online identities.

The world of online social networking is practically homogenous in one other sense, however diverse it might at first appear: its users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one‚Äôs own and others‚Äô lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence; there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month. As one college student recently described to the New York Times Magazine: “You might run into someone at a party, and then you Facebook them: what are their interests? Are they crazy-religious, is their favorite quote from the Bible? Everyone takes great pains over presenting themselves. It’s like an embodiment of your personality.”

The article also covers some key studies in social network analysis, the science of understanding how relationships between people facilitate large scale social interaction.

And it also discusses some recent ideas on how these tools might be changing the nature of our relationships as a consequence of simply becoming part of the equation.

Link to article ‘Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism’.