By king or cobbler

Photo by Garret Crawford. Click for sourceA thoughtful reflection on the psychology of the New Year, published in 1895 by the acclaimed essayist Charles Lamb in his collection The Essays of Elia.

Every man has two birth-days: two days at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnising our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand anything in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.

Charles Lamb was one of the most celebrated writers of his generation although struggled with mental illness for much of his life and directed a great deal of his energies to caring for his sister, Mary, who was similarly affected by mental disorder and an exceptional talent for literature.

Link to Wikipedia page on Charles Lamb.

Undercover in Accra Psychiatric Hospital

Award winning journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas went undercover in Ghana’s Accra Psychiatric Hospital and has published a hard hitting report on the appalling conditions in one of the country’s main institutions for treating mental illness.

In a spectacular piece of investigative reporting Anas posed as a patient, a trader, a baker and a taxi driver and has reported on institution-wide problems that include drug dealing, abuse, maltreatment, thieving, and medical negligence leading to the deaths of patients.

One of the most striking parts of the report is where he notes a few of the staff members who carry out their roles with due diligence and genuine compassion for the patients in the midst of the systemic failure of the institution.

The neglect, abuse and maltreatment of patients by nurses in the hospital remain one of the most disturbing aspects of life within the hospital. On many occasions, this reporter filmed instances where patients suffering severe fits were left to lie at the mercy of the weather, with nurses totally apathetic. Some nurses were captured beating patients who lay on the ground helpless and writhing in pain. On one occasion, a male patient is seen helping a female patient suffering from epilepsy to get on her feet. After many futile attempts to help the ailing girl, the male patient leaves her on the ground close to a nurse’s office and moves on. Minutes later, a nurse passes by without offering any assistance to the patient. Not far from the patient, three nurses could be seen chatting idly as the epileptic patient lies in pain. When help finally arrives, the patient is beaten mercilessly by the nurses amidst shouts of “get up”, “foolish girl”, “if we beat her she would get up”.

The attitude of nurses is generally so outrageous that the hard work and conscientious disposition of Ken Wholley Brantuo, Alex Baah and a few others shone forth like torch in pitch- darkness.

Francisca Ntow, a young nurse at the hospital epitomised the spirit of care and love that accompanies nursing. With beaming smiles each day, she tries her best to give attention to patients and to find out their state of being. Her shining example gives hope to the future of psychiatric nursing in the country.

If you check out nothing else I recommend listening to a gripping interview with Anas where he discusses his undercover investigation on Ghana’s Super Morning Show

His follow-up piece on abuse of people with mental illness by traditional healers and prayer camps is also a powerful piece of reporting.

Probably one of the most remarkable pieces of mental health reporting you are likely to encounter for a very long time. Truly excellent work.

Link to Exposed: Inside Ghana’s “Mad House” (via TWS).
Link to interview with Anas Aremeyaw Anas on his investigation.
Link to ‘Investigative report: Lies of prayer camps and traditional healers’.

A year in science and sex

Photo by Flickr user cobalt123. Click for sourceDr Petra has two great posts, one looking at the best and worst of sex and science stories from 2009, and another revisiting her annual predictions for the year in sexuality and sexual health.

The best and worst include everything from clitorocentric conspiracies, informed sex education, the Ugandan government, female sex drugs and Shakira (who is clearly still too shy to call).

Additionally, Petra will shortly post her predictions for the coming year online, so you can see how 2010 might shape up.

Link to ‘The best and worst sex (and science) stories of 2009’.
Link to ‘Revisiting my sex predictions for 2009’.

Personals from psychologists

Photo by Flickr user _Dano. Click for sourceAdverts from psychologists in the Personals section of the New York Magazine.

Marriage-Minded Jewish Doctor – Successful. 43-year-old behavioral psychologist and entrepreneur. I’m 5’11”, slim, considered handsome, and have many diversified social and cultural interests. More importantly, others judge me to be warm, sensitive, romantic, altruistic and capable of great love and devotion. I’d love to hear from you if you are a highly educated, emotionally mature woman, interested in a relationship leading to marriage. 9896

Slender, Dark-Haired, Very Pretty – Bright, funny psychologist, young 37, blues and jazz fan, seeks witty, sane, attractive man, 30-45. NYM M182

Your Mother’s Dream: 28, handsome, caring Jewish psychologist. Into Jazz, arts, sports. Seeks and interesting attractive woman. Photo/phone. NYM H108

Dynamic, Attractive Psychologist – Seeks secure Jewish man: 30’s. Be sincere, successful and witty. Enjoy NYC and nature. Bio/photo/phone. NYM S910

Tall, Slender, Attractive – Intelligent Black woman, 36, PhD psychologist, seeks warm, emotionally mature, active, successful, professional man, 30-46. Nationality unimportant. Please send letter, photo, phone. NYM B395

Affectionate, Attractive, Caring – Older NJ psychologist seeks attractive woman for a loving, enduring relationship. Please include photo and phone. NYM B341

Beautiful, Slim Jewish Divorcee – 45, successful female media psychologist with private practice, seeks male with usual demographics – but believes in chemistry above all. 9778

Handsome Psychologist – Sincere, down-to-earth, looking for bright attractive woman, 30-45. Photo. 4338

Very Attractive Single Woman – Psychologist / writer, seeks leftist man who is fit, funny and fortyish. NYM P036

Tanglewood anyone? – Lovely picnic, Boston Symphony… Engaging, cheeky LI psychologist, pretty, trim, 60s, understated, seeks like male. 5209

Woman Psychologist – 37, blond, sexy, great sense of humor, optimistic, love to cook and loves the outdoors, down-to-earth, voracious reader, whimsical. I am looking for a sensitive, sexy, successful, witty, generous, smart, kind man who wants an intimate relationship. If this is you, please send a note. 8477

True Romance – Desired by psychologist 44, 5’7″, brown hair, serious artist – with pretty woman, intelligent, passionate, self-reliant, beautiful eyes, sexy smile, any race or age. Please write. 6806

Sensual-Spirited Psychologist – 40something, 5’5″ brunette seeks handsome, humorous, honest professional with strong Jewish consciousness, family values and love of the arts – for joyful, marriage-minded relationship. 4148

Slim Pretty, Jewish Widow – Psychologist, 48; strong cultural interests, liberal politics. Enjoys country, beach. Intelligent, sensitive, emotionally stable woman seeks make counterpart to share life. Photo?/bio/phone. NYM G404

Attractive Psychologist, Male – 38, warm, funny, smart and successful would like to meet a truly beautiful woman (both inside and outside) under 34. Photo much appreciated. NYM G423

Successful Male, PhD, Psychologist – 41, 5’10”, slim, warm, caring, sensitive, health conscious, non-smoker, Jewish (not religious). Seeks vivacious, tender, professionally accomplished woman with depth and emotional resources open to becoming best friend/lover/wife. NYM V320

Pretty School Psychologist – Caring, slim, Jewish woman, 36, with zest for the outdoors, seeks thoughtful, active, attractive, professional man, 35-45, for long-term. Note/photo please. 8624

“How But In Custom – And in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” Jewish psychologist, 36, bright, verbal, attractive, a lover of Yeats, seeks man with romantic heart and high values. NYM K142

Send No Photo – Warm, loving, attractive, sexy psychologist, mother, 47, seeks professional man, 45-58, who values honesty, closeness, simple pleasures. Appreciate meaningful reply. NYM R372

Ten to know

Photo by Flickr user Anna Gay. Click for sourceThe Brainspin blog has a list of ‘Ten Psychology Studies from 2009 Worth Knowing About’ that covers a mix of well-known studies and hidden gems from the last year.

The descriptions, as you might expect, are a little brief and give just the punchline without some of the possible drawbacks but all are linked to the original study so you can them in full (well, at least as far as your access allows).

One of my favourites was number 7, which provides evidence against the common idea that people who connect better with others might be better at detecting lies:

A study in the journal Psychological Science tested the hypothesis that emotional mimicry—the tendency to mirror the emotions of someone we’re interacting with—makes it difficult to identify liars. Nonmimickers were significantly better at identifying liars than mimickers, and thus were harder to fool with the old flim flam sales routine. The reason is that mimicry reduces psychological distance and lowers defenses. Even if someone probably isn’t lying to you, it’s best to keep the cushion in place just in case.

Link to ‘Ten Psychology Studies from 2009 Worth Knowing About’.

Going gently

The New York Times has an sensitive and in-depth article about the difficult decision to administer strong sedative drugs to terminally ill patients to ease their suffering at the expensive of potentially quickening their death.

It is, in all but one respect, a very good article, however it does contain a monumentally stupid paragraph:

For pain, the guidelines list opioid drugs, including morphine, methadone and fentanyl.

Doctors say that other drugs used for sedation are ketamine, an anesthetic and sedative popular at rave parties, and propofol, an anesthetic, which was ruled, with lorazepam, to have caused Michael Jackson’s death. In very high doses, sodium thiopental is used as a sedative in the three-drug combination used for lethal injections.

You could link almost any drug (or indeed, any substance – table salt – for example) to some nefarious use or lethal outcome. In fact, some of the most demonised street drugs – heroin and cocaine – have common and legitimate medical uses.

Medicine is always a case of balancing the positive and negatives of any treatment for the benefit of the patient. Context-less examples tell us nothing about this balance.

Other than that, the article is very good and really gets to the core of why end-of-life sedation is such as difficult topic, both emotionally and medically.

Link to NYT article ‘Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death: Sedation’.

The isolation contagion

The Boston Globe covers an interesting new study finding, seemingly paradoxically, that loneliness can be spread from person-to-person and can work its way through social networks.

The paradox is resolved by the important point, outlined by one of the study’s authors, John Cacioppo, that ‚ÄúLoneliness isn‚Äôt being alone, it‚Äôs feeling alone”. In other words, it’s not about having social contact but about feeling like you have meaningful relationships.

This feeling, it turns out, was increased or was more likely to occur when one person had contact with a person who already reported themselves to be feeling lonely.

The paper Cacioppo co-wrote with Christakis and Fowler, published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that having a friend who reports feeling lonely makes a person 52 percent more likely to feel lonely. In another measure, they found that, for each additional day per week a person reported feeling lonely, his friends reported an additional lonely day per month. Not only that, having a friend who has a friend who feels lonely makes a person 25 percent more likely to feel lonely, and at three degrees of separation (a friend of a friend of a friend) the odds are still increased by 15 percent…

The spread of loneliness seems to have its own particular characteristics. Women, for example, seem to be more susceptible than men. Also, the more lonely people a person knows, the more likely she herself is to become lonely. That trait distinguishes loneliness from something like alcoholism: Having an alcoholic friend increases your odds of becoming an alcoholic, but having three alcoholic friends makes you no more likely than having just one…

Distance also seems to matter to the spread of loneliness. The authors found that living close to a lonely friend was more likely to make their loneliness contagious Рif the friends lived more than a mile apart there was no significant effect. This was in contrast to obesity, which, Christakis and Fowler have found, doesn’t require physical proximity to spread. In other work, the two have found that an obese friend who lives in the next state can still make you more likely to gain weight.

Not mentioned by the Globe article was the interesting finding that loneliness spreads most strongly through mutual friends but only weakly through family members.

The study, which you can read the study in full as a pdf, was drawn from data from the famous Framington Heart Study which tracked the health of a small community over many years and, rather fortuitously, asked who was related to and friends with who, initially for the purposes of tracking people down if the researchers lost contact.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘The loneliness network’.
Link to PubMed entry for loneliness study.
pdf of full text of study.

The Edison Brainmeter

The Psychologist has a fantastic article on one of the first psychological ability measures, created not by a psychologist but by the inventor of the domestic light bulb, Thomas Edison, who devised his trivia-based ‘brainmeter’ test as a way of selecting employees.

Although earlier tests had been in use, such as the prototype of the modern IQ test created by French psychologist Alfred Binet, they were designed to detect disability rather than ability – specifically, to identify children with learning difficulties.

Edison’s test was quite different though. It consisted of a 163 seemingly unconnected obscure general knowledge questions of which the pass mark was arbitrarily set at 70%.

The test was considered by be nonsense by psychologists of the day, lacking both statistically validity and a proven connection with other mental abilities, but it became wildly popular and became a frequent media topic:

After the complete test was leaked to newspapers, the questions spread across the country in a national craze. ‘If You Cannot Answer These You’re Ignorant, Edison Says,’ declared one Pennsylvania newspaper, while police in Massachusetts picked up a deranged young man claiming that he was on the run from assassins who were after his book of Edison test answers, ‘valued at $1,000,000’.

Journalists gleefully sprang Edison questions on politicians, professors and captains of industry. New York‚Äôs governor failed; so did the mayor of New York City, its police commissioner and, rather alarmingly, its superintendent of schools. One particularly enterprising reporter tracked down Edison’s son Theodore, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also failed. ‚ÄòDad would find me amazingly ignorant,‚Äô the younger Edison admitted.

His father faced a media circus: the Fox movie studio ran mock Edison tests of biblical trivia to advertise its ‘super-screen spectacle’ The Queen of Sheba, while ads for Vogue magazine assured women readers ‘Never mind the Edison questions! All you need to know is how to be becomingly dressed’. Others were more seriously interested in its value: within days, the Eastman Kodak company announced a similar test for its employees, and the elite Groton School in Massachusetts extended its use to applicants.

The article goes on to explain that Edison’s ‘brainmeter’ test was the inspiration for the American college entry exam, the SAT, which is still in use today.

There turns out to be a few articles on Edison’s test in the archives of The New York Times, my favourite, from 1921, being titled “EDISON BRAINMETER DIVIDES THE CRITICS; Comments on Questionnaire Continue and About One-Half Are From Scorners. COLLEGE MEN NOT SOOTHED Suggestion That Chess Game Would Be a Better Test Meets With Favor From Players.”

Link to The Psychologist article ‘163 ways to lose your job’.

Full disclosure: I am an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist and I file all knowledge under the categories ‘psychology/neuroscience’ and ‘miscellaneous’.

Trend setters may only be visible in rear view mirror

Photo by Flickr user victoriapeckham. Click for sourceI’ve just found this excellent Fast Company article from last year challenging the idea that there is a ‘tipping point’ in fashions or trends driven by small numbers of highly connected people who have a disproportionate influence over which new products or ideas become popular.

The piece is based on work by Duncan Watts, a physicist and sociologist, who created numerous computer simulations of how trends move through society in a similar way to how medical scientists model how diseases spread.

One study has suggested that the role of key highly influential people in starting fashions or trends is likely to have been vastly overstated. This conclusion has rattled the cages of many in the marketing world who have been focussed on identifying and targeting ‘trend setters’ for many years.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion…

Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they’ve broken out. “They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they’ve identified the people who did it first, and then they go, ‘Okay, these are the Influentials!'” But who’s to say those aren’t just Watts’s accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn’t their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?

However, Watts’ work is largely based on computer simulations. These have the advantage of having to be based on very explicit well-defined descriptions of the phenomenon, which many of the more popular accounts are not, but have the disadvantage or having to include various assumptions and simplifications about what actually happens when people pass on ideas.

The Fast Company article is interesting as it looks at how some core marketing ideas are being tested by Watts, and how the public relations world is reacting to having some of their assumptions questioned.

Link to Fast Company article ‘Is the Tipping Point Toast?’

The obscure tools of language

The Economist has an article based on rather a daft premise (‘in search of the world’s hardest language’) that nevertheless manages to cover numerous interesting ways in which diverse languages demand mental somersaults from the speaker or require that the speaker has to think about the world in specific ways.

Beyond Europe things grow more complicated. Take gender. Twain’s joke about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to do with physical sex. “Gender” is related to “genre”, and means merely a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes.

Linguists talk instead of “noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see. George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal (spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including “women, fire and dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them.

The article is clearly inspired by psychologist Lera Boroditsky’s recent article for Edge on how language affects how we reason about the world, but it has a wider scope and is a fascinating look at the diversity of the spoken word.

Link to The Economist article ‘Tongue Twisters’.

New issue of Contemporary Psychotherapy

A new issue of the sleek internet magazine Contemporary Psychotherapy has just appeared online and is well worth checking out if you’re interested in the art of psychological treatment.

The magazine is aimed at psychotherapists and deals with everything from the bricks-and-mortar issues of running a practice to relationship dynamics in couples and families.

However, it doesn’t wander off into the thickets of theoretical jargon and makes a good read if you’re just interested in the world of therapy.

Link to Contemporary Psychotherapy.

Dealing with data of the damned

Photo by Flickr user Jungleboy. Click for sourceThere’s an interesting article in Wired about how scientists deal with data that conflicts with their expectations and whether biases in how the brain deals with contradictory information might influence scientific reasoning.

The piece is based on the work of Kevin Dunbar who combines the sociology of science with the cognitive neuroscience of scientific reasoning.

In other words, he’s trying to understand what scientists actually do to make their discoveries (rather than what they say they do, or what they say they should do) and whether there are specific features of the way the brain handles reasoning that might encourage these practices.

One of his main findings is that when experimental results appear that can’t be explained, they’re often discounted as being useless. The researchers might say that the experiment was designed badly, the equipment faulty, and so on.

It may indeed be the case the faults occurred, but it could also be the case when consistent information emerges, but these possibilities are rarely investigated when the data agrees with pre-existing assumptions, leading to possible biases in how data is interpreted.

Dunbar is not the first to tackle this issue. In fact, the first to do so is probably one of the most important but unrecognised philosophers of science, Charles Fort, who is typically associated with ‘Fortean’ or anomalous phenomena – such as fish falling from the sky.

Fort did indeed collect reports of all types of anomalous phenomena (interestingly, almost all from scientific journals) and used them as a critique of the scientific method – noting that while scientists say they reason from the data to theories about the world, what they actually do is filter the data in light of their theories and frequently ignore information that contradicts existing assumptions – hence, ‘damning’ some data as unacceptable.

This was later echoed when philosophers and sociologists started studying the scientific community in the 20th century, noting that the scientific method was not a clear practice but more of a tool in a wider consensus-forming toolbox.

Probably the most important thinker in this regard, not mentioned in the Wired article, was the philosopher Paul Feyerabend who noted that researchers regularly violate the ‘rules’ of science and this actually promotes progress rather than impedes it.

The article goes on to discuss research suggesting that part of this bias for information consistent with our assumptions may be due to differences in the way the brain handles this information.

Curiously, the piece mentions a 2003 study, where students were apparently asked to select the more accurate representation of gravity in an fMRI scanner, but unfortunately, I can find no trace of it.

However, a 2005 study by the same team, where participants where asked to match theories supported to different degrees by the data they’d seen (to do with how drugs relieve depression), came to similar conclusions. Namely, that brain activity is markedly different when we receive information that confirms our theories compared to when we receive information that challenges them.

In particular, contradictory information seems to activate an area deep in the frontal lobe (the ACC) often associated with ‘conflict monitoring’, along with an outer area of the frontal lobe (the DLPFC) associated with sorting out conflicting information, likely by filtering out some of the incompatible data so it is less likely to be registered or remembered.

There is clearly much more to scientific reasoning than this, as it is vast and complex both within individual researchers and between groups of people. I was particularly interested to read that breakthroughs were most likely to come from group discussions:

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

Although it turns out that discussion with people from a diverse range of people is most important – having a room full of people who share assumptions and expertise tends not to lead to creative scientific insights.

Link to Wired article on scientific reasoning.

Kim Peek has left the building

Image from Wikipedia. Click for sourceNature.com reports that the remarkable Kim Peek, inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rain Main, has passed away.

Despite clear and disabling difficulties in day-to-day living, Peek accumulated an encyclopaedic knowledge of numerous subjects areas, could read two pages of a book at once and could instantly calculate the day of the week for any given date.

For many years Peek was thought to have autism, but scans completed in 1988 by neuroscientist Daniel Christensen and colleagues indicated that there were significant brain abnormalities, most strikingly a malformed cerebellum and an absence of the corpus callosum – the bundle of fibres that connect the two hemispheres of the brain.

Among other findings, this suggested that the most likely diagnosis was a genetic condition called FG syndrome.

Perhaps the best profile of Peek, co-written by Christensen, appeared in Scientific American [pdf] which captured both the man himself and discussed the science behind his remarkable abilities.

He was also the subject of numerous documentaries and you can view one of the best of them, Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man, on YouTube.

UPDATE: SciAm have made their article on Kim Peek freely available on their website as a tribute.

Link to announcement from Nature.com.
pdf of excellent SciAm article ‘Inside the mind of a savant’.
Link to documentary Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man.

Sampling from the stream of consciousness

The New York Times has a fascinating article revisiting a classic problem in psychology of whether our accounts of our individual ‘streams of consciousness’ have any useful role in the scientific understanding the mind.

Many of the early studies in psychology relied on people simply reporting ‘what they thought’ and got a bad reputation due to the rather haphazard ways in which studies were conducted.

In part, this led to a swing in the other direction, where the extremes of behaviourism suggested that not only were these methods useless but that the ‘stream of consciousness’ played no causal role in our behaviour – in effect, it was seen as uninteresting mental fluff.

Thankfully, mainstream psychology has moved on and now often tries to integrate conscious experience with objective observational data, but this isn’t always the easiest of tasks either practically or theoretically (indeed, the difficulty is the basis of the ‘hard problem‘ of consciousness).

Recently, psychologists have developed the experience sampling method to try and make sample the stream of consciousness a little more systematic. It involves giving someone a device that beeps randomly and when it sounds, they have to record exactly what they were thinking about or have to rate a certain aspect of the current psychological state.

The resulting mental freeze-frames are remarkably diverse.

On the third day of Melanie’s experiment, as her boyfriend was asking her a question about insurance, she was trying to remember the word “periodontist.” On the fourth day, she was having a strong urge to go scuba diving. On the sixth day, she was picking flower petals from the sink while hearing echoes of the phrase “nice long time” in her head.

These dispatches from the front lines of consciousness might be useful to a novelist seeking authentic material. But can they contribute to a scientific understanding of the mind?

Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside, says after-the-fact interviews should be treated with caution: one cannot assume the subjects will be honest, or that they are not twisting their answers to conform with their own biases, or telling the experimenter what they think he wants to hear, or simply filling in details they forgot.

The article is riffing on the recent book by Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel called Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic and a recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies where the debate was opened out to a range of cognitive scientists for their views.

Link to NYT piece ‘Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves’.

Super thinker

Superman in the pose of Rodin’s statue The Thinker outside the headquarters of Bancolombia in Medell√≠n.

I’m not quite sure about the intention of the statue as in the UK it would probably be considered an ironic take on the stereotype of the financial whiz kid and unfortunately I found it on the weekend so there was no-one around to ask.

However, popular culture is well represented in serious art here, in a large part due to the influence of Medell√≠n’s most famous artist, the painter and sculptor Fernando Botero.

The psychological effects of brain theories

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting piece on how giving people information suggesting that neuroscience undermines our everyday concept of free will can alter our ethical behaviour.

The post discusses two experiments where participants had been given information suggesting that free will was an illusion – one passage taken from Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis that argues against the everyday concept of free will on the basis of neurobiology.

It seems even these relatively brief encounters with information arguing against free-will had a noticeable effect on behaviour:

It turned out that students who had read the anti-free will quote were significantly more likely to cheat on the mental arithmetic test; their exposure to some basic scientific spin – your soul is a piece of meat – led to an increase in amorality. Of course, this is a relatively mild ethical lapse – as Schooler notes, “None of the participants exposed to the anti-free will message assaulted the experimenter or ran off with the payment kitty” – but it still demonstrates that even seemingly banal materialist concepts can alter our ethical behavior.

In another study, information on a “disbelief in free will” reduced people’s willingness to help others and increased the amount of unhelpful behaviour toward others.

The issue of free will in neuroscience is complex, but it is interesting that the information provided doesn’t bear directly on the issue of whether it is best to help other people or not.

Clearly though, biological explanations have an association with the idea that people are less in control of their actions, as we also know from other studies.

Science tends to assume that theories are not neutral in that they affect how we look at the world as researchers, but it is interesting to find out that this also happens on a personal psychological level as well.

Link to Frontal Cortex on ‘Free Will and Ethics’.