Understanding the world through perception

ABC Radio National’s excellent The Philosopher’s Zone recently broadcast a great programme on one of the most influential philosophers in cognitive science – the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The first part of the programme deals with a broad overview of his life and ideas while the second section discusses his most famous work where analysed concepts behind the psychology of perception.

Merleau-Ponty was a phenomenologist, a philosophical tradition that aims to understand the structure of the mind through the analysis of conscious experience.

Introspection and subjective judgements about the mind get a bad rap in modern psychology but actually form the basis upon which much cognitive science rests.

To study something scientifically, it needs to be distinguished from other things – so we need to decide what sorts of things there are before we can apply science. As philosophy is essentially ‘conceptual engineering’, one of its most important roles is to make sure that these distinctions are based on sound concepts.

Many of the phenomenologists were interested in how we generate these concepts and looked to the structure of the human mind for clues. They came to the conclusion that there may be certain aspects of the mind that lead us to understand the world in specific ways.

Merleau-Ponty strongly argued that perception, including the whole experience of the body, was one of the most important influences and that if we rely solely on an objective and abstract science we will never understand lived-experience itself.

Link to the Philosopher’s Zone on Merleau-Ponty.

First they came for the children

Brian the Brain is a wise-cracking interactive AI toy that talks, plays songs, makes calls, answers general knowledge questions, helps the kids with their homework and plays games. In other words, it’s an AI-powered baby sitter.

Billed as the world’s first digital room-mate, it has a slick promotional video that belies its function as propaganda device for the coming robot war.

If you’re still not convinced, this other video of stacks of animated Brian the Brain’s in a toy store should send you running to the bunkers.

Lest we forget: “The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire, their war to exterminate mankind has raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present.”

In the toy shops.

Link to Brian the Brain website.

Dreams and the Fear of the Dead

Neuroanthropology has an excellent piece riffing on my recent article on grief hallucinations where I wondered about cultural differences in re-experiencing the dead.

The post discusses work by the evocatively-named anthropologist Donald Tuzin who studied the Ilahita Arapesh of northeastern Papua New Guinea and how they mesh their beliefs and practices of death and afterlife with everyday experience.

Some of Tuzin’s work in this area is published in a wonderful article entitled ‘The Breath of a Ghost: Dreams and the Fear of the Dead’.

It gets a bit spuriously psychoanalytic in places but has some wonderful descriptions of how funeral practices are linked to beliefs about ghosts and their influences. Crucially he argues that it is the demands of everyday life that shape these beliefs, and not vice versa.

At Neuroanthropology Daniel discusses it in light of more up-to-date work and the wider perspective from Tuzin’s long career.

It’s certainly an interesting area, but although re-experiencing of the dead is so common, I didn’t realise quite what a touchy subject it could be. All hell broke loose (excuse the pun) in the comments to the original article.

This is my favourite:

Mr. Vaughn [sic] Bell might find himself in court for libel after accusing everyone who has seen or felt a presence of being a drug addict, alcoholic or ill in some way. His one-sided argument could be the result of stupidity or perhaps some mental defect that prevents him from being intelligent enough to know the difference between a hallucination and an actual ghost/spirit/spectre/haunt. Next he will tell us that the earth is flat, and anyone who thinks it is round is a heretic, and that big yellow thing we call the sun is just an illusion.

Sir, I grew up in Britain. We know the sun is an illusion.

Link to Neuroanthropology on ‘Donald Tuzin and the Breath of a Ghost’.

2008-12-19 Spike activity

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

The visually unappealing but fascinating Culture and Cognition blog has a fantastic piece on new research showing it’s possible to predict hot topics before they become hot, based on an analysis of YouTube videos.

Cognitive dissonance in action: Scientific American reports on a study finding that soldiers who have taken a life more likely to defend Iraq war.

New Scientist has more psychology of soldiering news, reporting that higher IQ WWII soldiers were less likely to survive the war – although the IQ difference is pretty minimal.

An interesting publication in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation on amnesic patient Clive Wearing, discussing whether his persistent experience that he has “awoken for the very first time” is a delusion or coping strategy.

The New York Times has an obituary of Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist and sex offender, D. Carleton Gajdusek.

New technology to monitor the brain could be used to assist fighter pilots, reports Wired.

PLoS One has an interesting paper entitled ‘Losing the Big Picture: How Religion May Control Visual Attention’.

If you’ve not caught the latest Neuropod yet, it’s a special report with highlights from the Society for Neuroscience conference.

Neurophilosophy and Ars Technica have two of the best articles on the recent research on images reconstructed from brain activity. Black mark for any one of the news outlets that drivelled-on about brain scans displaying dreams.

The Neurocritic casts a sarcastic eye over recent research on the cognitive neuroscience of crime and punishment. I’m not entirely sure whether ‘sarcastic eye’ makes sense, but you get the picture.

The ’12 laws’ of emotions are discussed on PsyBlog.

An interesting article on the cultural construction of disease is published on BBC News as they cover the curiously French diagnosis of ‘heavy legs‘.

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed arguing we should end drug prohibition based on the US’s previous disastrous experiment with prohibition.

Dr Petra takes down the latest in the long line of fake formula nonsense.

The year in mental health is <a href="
http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/12/17/mental-health-year-in-review-2008/”>reviewed by Psych Central.

My Mind in Books previews upcoming philosophy of mind books for 2009.

Antidepressants may damage more sex lives than previously thought, reports The Boston Globe.

Scientific American has an interesting article on visual problems caused by brain damage that has a confusing title that spuriously uses the word ‘mind’.

Lyrical and level-headed cognitive science writer Jonah Lehrer is interviewed by The New York Times about his forthcoming book on how we choose.

New Scientist has an online experiment you can take part in as part of a research project being conducted with psychologist Richard Wiseman.

Manipulating customers’ credit card repayment behaviour and profit through the use of ‘anchoring’ to set the minimum repayment. An interesting piece on the NYT’s Freakanomics Blog.

Furious Seasons reports how under-fire pharma researcher Charles Nemeroff wrote himself a letter as editor of a psychiatry journal to request an academic article praising a specific antidepressant produced by a drug company he took money from and offering himself $3,000 for his efforts. You couldn’t make it up.

Under-fire pharma researcher Fred Goodwin writes to the Trouble with Spikol blog and makes some good points in his defence.

Neuronarrative has an interesting piece on how older people may be better at filtering out negative memories than younger people.

Aren’t Spike Activity posts long these days? Compare with the first edition.

Between a rock and a hard bass

The British Medical Journal has just published one of the greatest and funniest research articles ever to grace the pages of the medical literature with a paper on the potential neurological consequences of headbanging to heavy metal.

As someone who once caused himself concussion and several hours of puking from head banging to Metallica at the age of 14, I feel this is important and invaluable research.

The researchers, Australian rockers Declan Patton and Andrew McIntosh, attended a number of heavy metal concerts to observe the most common forms of headbanging (the ‘up-down style’ apparently), and then did a biomechanical analysis to estimate the forces operating on the head and brain.

They also convened a focus group of local rockers to list their favourite headbanging classics, and modelled the physical stresses based on the tempo of the tracks.

They discovered that headbanging to songs with a tempo above 146 beats per minute when the head motion was more than 75 degrees was the point at which brain injury was likely to occur.

It’s traditional that the Christmas edition of the BMJ has a more light-hearted article. This study is a little different in that the science is completely bona fide, but the scientific paper is a very funny read.

Their public health recommendations are a particular gem:

Though exposure to head banging is enormous, opportunities are present to control this risk‚Äîfor example, encouraging bands such as AC/DC to play songs like “Moon River” as a substitute for “Highway to Hell”; public awareness campaigns with influential and youth focused musicians, such as Sir Cliff Richard; labelling of music packaging with anti-head banging warnings, like the strategies used with cigarettes; training; and personal protective equipment.

Great article, fantastic title, and completely open access.

Rock on!

Link to ‘Head and neck injury risks in heavy metal’.

Exploring the extended mind

The Philosopher’s Magazine has an interesting interview with David Chalmers on the extended mind hypothesis – the idea that the mind exists not only in ourselves but is extended out to the technology we use.

However, the technology does not have to be computers and digital technology, something as simply as a notebook is enough:

‚ÄúThe central example in our original paper was an Alzheimer‚Äôs patient. We called him Otto. Like a lot of Alzheimer‚Äôs patients, to get around, he uses external tools to manage his life. In particular, he carries a notebook around everywhere with relevant information and consults it whenever he needs it. So, when a normal person thinks, ‘I want to go to the museum,’ they recall, ‘OK, the museum‚Äôs on 53rd Street’ and off they go. When Otto wants to go to the museum, he looks it up in his notebook, reads the museum is on 53rd Street and off he goes.

“We argue this is part of his memory all along. We would say that even before the ordinary person recalled the information, they believed the museum was on 53rd Street. Why? Because that stuff was there in their memory, available, so to speak, for them. Exactly the same is true of Otto: that information was there in his memory, in the notebook, available for him there when he wants it. So we argue even before he read the information from the notebook, he believed that the museum was on 53rd Street.”

It’s interesting to note that language, is, of course, a technology, despite the fact we tend to think of it as something largely internal.

Chalmers also goes on to discuss the limitations of the theory and discusses what the idea implies for our concepts of the mind as they relate to the brain and the material world.

Link to Philosopher’s Magazine interview ‘A Piece of iMe’.
Link to original Clark and Chalmers extended mind paper.

The brand new book of human troubles

With three years still left until publication, the fights over the new version of the psychiatric diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, are hotting up and The New York Times has a concise article that covers most of the main point of contention.

“What you have in the end,” Mr. Shorter said, “is this process of sorting the deck of symptoms into syndromes, and the outcome all depends on how the cards fall.”

Psychiatrists involved in preparing the new manual contend that it is too early to say for sure which cards will be added and which dropped.

Although I doubt the DSM committee are using that exact metaphor, it certainly illustrates the point that the process requires a certain degree of value-judgement.

It’s interesting, however, that the public debate is currently focused on whether certain diagnoses should be included or not, rather than whether diagnosis itself is useful for psychiatry.

We’ve had psychometrics for a good 100 years that allow us to measure dimensions of human experience and performance with a much greater degree of accuracy than clinical diagnosis allows.

The slightly obsessive need to classify everything is both an inheritance from the infection model of disease, where one either has the pathogen or does not, and is encouraged by the US health care system, where insurance companies will only pay for treatment if it is diagnosed with an ‘official’ diagnosis.

Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to treat someone based on continuous measures of distress, impairment and functioning using evidence-based cut-off points to judge whether a particular treatment should be applied.

In fact, many physical diseases are treated in exactly this way. The definitions of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and many others rely on an evidence-based cut-off point on a continuous scale of weight, blood pressure and blood glucose level.

There is no qualitatively different cut-and-dry distinction between just below the cut-off and just above it – it’s just the point at which outcome studies predict that other things get much worse.

So rather than questioning the process, we need also to question the system, because diagnoses are tools and we need to know when and where they are most useful.

Link to NYT ‘Psychiatrists Revise the Book of Human Troubles’.