The science of theory

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has written an excellent piece on experimental philosophy, the practice of testing out philosophical ideas by using experiments or gathering data.

Now, the more astute of you might be thinking, “isn’t that just science?”, and, you’d be right. Sorta.

Schwitzgebel makes the important point that lots of the things that are taken for granted in the philosophy of mind, like what it is like to have have certain conscious experiences, haven’t actually been examined to see how widely these assumptions or experiences are shared.

Partly, he notes, because psychology is too scared about being called unscientific to start returning to introspection, and partly because philosophers are the ones most concerned about these issues.

In the philosophy of perception, there‚Äôs a long-standing dispute between those who think that our concepts and categories thoroughly permeate and infect even the most basic perceptual experiences and those who hold that people with very different understandings of a scene may still have exactly the same perceptual experience of it…

Such phenomenological claims have two things in common with claims about what’s intuitive that make them ripe for inclusion under the umbrella of “experimental philosophy”: First, it is mainly philosophers who make such claims; and second, there is no substantial tradition outside of philosophy dedicated to the empirical evaluation of the claims.

These facts may be mere historical accident: Back in the days of introspective psychology, psychologists loved to dispute issues of this sort. But fortunately or unfortunately, psychology still has not sufficiently rebounded from the behaviorist revolution that such general phenomenological claims are broadly discussed by mainstream psychologists.

If you consider tradition of phenomenological philosophy, which aims to describe the subjective structure of the mind, it’s striking that it’s been almost entirely based on philosophers’ own intuitions about their mental states, which they then extrapolate to everyone else.

Schwitzgebel also suggests that experimental philosophy could be used for exploring an anthropology of philosophy. In other words, how culture affects our general assumptions about how the mind works.

I have looked at the relationship between culture-specific metaphors and the prevalence of certain views about conscious experience. To highlight some of my own work: Are people (including philosophers) more likely to say that dreams rarely contain colored elements if the film media around them are predominantly black and white? Are people more likely to say that a circular object (such as a coin) viewed obliquely looks elliptical if the dominant media for describing vision are media like paintings and photographs that involve flat, projective distortions?

Of course, there’s a big overlap with psychology here, but the fact is, psychologists just aren’t that interested gathering the data that philosophers would often find most useful, and so they’re setting about gathering it themselves.

The first book on experimental philosophy was recently published, and Schwitzgebel’s article is a fantastic introduction, as well as an eye-opening look at the possibilities of philosophers armed with clipboards.

Link to article ‘The Psychology of Philosophy’.

Gazzaniga on split-brains and bioethics

Michael Gazzaniga, one of the founding fathers of cognitive neuroscience and a pioneer of ‘split brain’ research, is interviewed on this week’s ABC All in the Mind where he talks about the use and abuse of ‘left brain – right brain’ metaphors and how our understanding of free will is impacting on the law.

Gazzaniga was a student of Roger Sperry, who won a Nobel prize for his work on ‘split-brain patients’, people who had the two cortical hemispheres of the brain functional separated by neurosurgery to cut the corpus callosum in an attempt to treat otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

One of the amazing things was that while the people didn’t feel any different, it was easy to demonstrate that the each hemisphere processed things in quite different ways and each was, to a certain extent, independently conscious.

The interview discusses some of this early research, and asks how much of the popular ‘left brain – right brain’ rhetoric that gets thrown around actually stands up to scientific scrutiny. I think you can guess, but it’s good hearing it from the man himself.

Gazzaniga also talks about one of his other interests – neuroethics, and particularly the effect that a neuroscientific understanding of free will is having on our concepts of legal responsibility.

I was interested to read that US judges can now take courses in neuroscience to help them makes sense of the sometimes counter-intuitive findings in cognitive science.

As it happens, Gazzaniga’s new book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique is published today. If you want a taster an Edge article by Gazzaniga from a few months ago seems to be taken from it.

The AITM Blog also has some bonus audio of Gazzaniga discussing his experience of being on George Bush’s bioethics council when the President was vetoing stem cell cloning.

Link to AITM interview with Michael Gazzaniga.

The itch is special

The New Yorker has an excellent article on the neurology of the itch, that curious cutaneous sensation that seems to be handled quite differently from other bodily sensations by the brain.

I warn you, the article is quite icky in places, with a particularly stomach churning case study in one place, but I was quite fascinated to find out that the sensation of the itch seems to rely on itch dedicated nerve cells, distinct from the nerves that transmit pain.

It prompted me to look up some of the literature on the cognitive neuroscience of itch and it turns out there’s quite a healthy number of research studies that are suggesting there may be distinct brain networks for processing itch sensations.

One of the most interesting things is that itch seems to be one of the sensations most sensitive to psychological state. For example, I guarantee you’ll feel more itchy just reading the article (and probably already reading this).

The New Yorker does a great job of relating this work to wider cognitive science discoveries in perception and the neurology of body image, even touching on the fact that people with phantom limbs can feel itches.

Link to New Yorker article ‘The Itch’ (via Frontal Cortex).

Breakdown in the Globe and Mail

All this week, Canada’s Globe and Mail has a fantastic special on mental health entitled Breakdown, relating the personal experiences of people who’ve experienced the extremes of thought and mood, and talking to some of the mental health professionals who work to assist people through times of mental turmoil.

During the coming week, articles on employment and mental health, addiction, mental illness and the law, fighting stigma and the Canadian way of treating mental disorder will be published on a day-by-day basis.

It’s already incredibly comprehensive though, with video interviews, articles and audio slideshows focusing on the life stories of people who’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, as well as an interview with psychiatrist David Goldbloom, one of Canada’s head honchos in mental health.

From what I’ve seen already, and I’m still exploring, it’s a wonderfully put together, powerful and engaging project.

Hats off to The Globe and Mail.

UPDATE: I just watched the interview with psychiatrist David Goldbloom and the last five minutes have a striking reading from an 1841 letter. After hearing the letter, the author might surprise you. Well worth checking out.

Link to Globe and Mail special (via MeFi).

Encephalon 48 makes an entrance

Neuroanthropology has just released the latest edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival, where there’s a line-up of the last fortnight’s best in mind and brain blogging.

A couple of my favourites include an interesting look at the science of out of body experiences, and another on the Amazonian Mundurucu tribe who have no formal maths but who apparently have a logarithmic mapping of numbers onto space.

It’s quite a diverse edition and it seems some of the anthropologically inclined readers of Neuroanthropology have submitted posts as there’s some welcome new faces.

Link to Encephalon 48.

Psychobabble and the expressions we love to hate

PsyBlog has asked readers to nominate the worst examples of psychobabble, to identify verbal crimes against neuroscience, and to nominate where the language of cognitive science is being most used and abused. The best of the worst will be collected and published online, so now’s your chance to name and shame.

There are a few great examples there already and you can either add your contribution to the comments or email Jeremy with your nomination.

My contribution would be the term “hardwired”, which is surely one of the most abused terms in both science journalism and everyday language.

Presumably, it originally meant an innate behaviour or process that is almost entirely genetically determined, or at least, is present from birth without the need for prior experience.

However, it gets used to refer to almost biological finding or reported sex difference.

According to even usually quite reliable sources, we’re “hardwired” for money, risky behaviour, religion, feeling others’ pain, art, fraud, oh, and liking pink, if you’re a girl of course.

Anyway, if you’ve got any misleading jargon that’s been bothering you, do send them on.

Link to PsyBlog’s request for psychobabble.

Suicide, phone masts and magnetic underpants

The Sunday Express is one of the UK’s biggest selling Sunday papers and today’s front page is spectacularly half-cocked, attempting to link suicides to phone masts based on an unpublished study, by a man who sells cranky radiation protection devices, and who seems to have only the feintest grasp of neurobiology.

Roger Coghill (incorrectly described as Dr Coghill in the article), is an independent researcher who argues that radiation from mobile phone masts and electricity cables causes cancer, kills children and, now, is a suicide risk.

The study isn’t published, is not available on his website, and may still turn out to be an interesting well controlled study of mobile phone mast proximity and suicide risk. I’ve requested a copy of the research report, so hopefully I’ll find out, but from the way it is described, I suspect it won’t be.

According to the article, the people who recently killed themselves in a spate of suicides centred around the South Wales town of Bridgend lived closer to a mobile phone mast than the average for each home across the country.

Now, it strikes me that the average distance from a mobile phone mast in any small town is going to be less than the national average because mobile phone masts tend to be clustered around where people live.

So you’d want to do two things. The first, is control for population density, the second is compare the correlation between suicide rate and mobile phone mast distance with other small towns, because you’d want to be sure that this wasn’t a spurious correlation. Neither are mentioned.

According to Mr Coghill, however:

What seems to be happening is that the electrical energy is having an effect on the chemistry of the brain, depleting serotonin levels. We know that in depression serotonin levels are low and that a standard treatment for depression is to give drugs to boost serotonin levels. As they begin to work, the patient’s depression lifts.

So what evidence is there that mobile phone mast radiation affects serotonin levels in the brain? None that I can find. Really, nothing at all. I’d be interested to hear otherwise.

In fact, the whole idea that serotonin, depression and suicide are linked so simply is highly suspect.

Studies that have looked at this association using measures of serotonin metabolites, transporter proteins, receptor density and binding, depletion studies and genetics show remarkably mixed results.

While, on average, there seems to be something up with serotonin neurotransmission in the brains of people diagnosed with depression, the evidence suggests that the ‘low serotonin = depression’ idea is so over-simplified to be virtually useless.

However, those of you who are keen to take precautions even without a good scientific basis may be interested in purchasing some ‘protective devices’ that also lack a good scientific basis.

Mr Coghill’s company also sells lots of useful devices to ‘shield’ you and your pet, and a number of other devices to harness the ‘healing power’ of magnets.

This includes a ‘small discrete unit that attaches to your underwear’ to boost your flagging libido.

This rather obvious conflict of interest is not mentioned in the article.

Anyway, I will await the mystery research report and see whether I need to be avoiding phone masts or putting magnets down my pants.

Link to shining example of how not to do science journalism.