Against the high cult of retreat

Depending on who you ask Naomi Weisstein is a perceptual neuroscientist, a rock n roll musician, a social critic, a comedian, or a fuck the patriarchy radical feminist.

You stick Weisstein’s name into Google Scholar and her most cited paper is ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ – a searing critique of how 60s psychology pictured the female psyche – while her second most cited is a study published in Science on visual detection of line segments.

Although the topics are different, the papers are more alike than you’d first imagine.

Her article ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ was originally published in 1968 and became an instant classic.

She looked at the then current theories of female psychology, and at the evidence that supported them, and shows that the theories are pitiful – largely based on personal opinion and idiosyncratic interpretations of weak or non-existent evidence.

Moreover, she shows that all known differences at the time could be accounted for by social context and what was expected of the participants, rather than their sex.

It’s a masterpiece of evidence-based scientific thinking when feminist psychology was, and to a large extent, still is, heavily influenced by postmodernism and poststructuralism – theories that suggest that there is no objective reality and science is just another social narrative that has female oppression built into its knowledge base.

Weisstein, who also had a huge impact on perceptual science, had little time for what she considered to be ‘fog’ and ‘paralysis’:

I’m still wearing my beanie hat, aren’t I? I don’t think I can take it off… Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypothesis generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential. It only asks us to make sure that our observations and replicable and our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is to objective reality…

Whether or not there is objective reality is a 4000-year-old philosophical stalemate. The last I heard was that, like God, you cannot prove there is one and you cannot prove there is not one. It comes down to a religious and / or political choice. I believe that the current feminist rejection of universal truth is a political choice. Radical and confrontational as the feminist challenge to science may appear, it is in fact, a deeply conservative retreat…

Poststructuralist feminism is a high cult of retreat. Sometimes I think that, when the fashion passes, we will find many bodies, drowned in their own wordy words, like the Druids in the bogs.

A recent academic article looked back at Weisstein’s legacy and noted that she has been a powerful force in a feminist movement that typically rejects science as a useful approach.

But she was also a pioneer in simply being a high-flying female scientist when they were actively discouraged from getting involved.

Link to full text of ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’.

The free will rebellion

A popular mantra of modern neuroscience tells us that free will is an illusion. An article in the New York Times makes a lucid challenge to the ‘death of free will’ idea and a prominent neuroscientist has come out to fight the same corner.

Neuroscientists began making preparations for the funeral of free will shortly after Benjamin Libet began publishing his experiments in the 1980s showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move.

Since then, many more neuroscience studies have shown that brain activity can precede conscious awareness of specific choices or actions – with the implication that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect that plays little role in our actions and reactions.

The idea that ‘free will is an illusion’ is now consistently touted by neuroscientists as an example of how brain science is revealing ‘what really drives us’ and how it explains ‘how we really work’. But philosophers, the conceptual engineers of new ideas, have started to find holes in this popular meme.

Probably the most lucid mainstream analysis of why neuroscience isn’t killing free will has just been published at The New York Times where philosopher of mind Eddy Nahmias takes the mourners to task using a narrow and largely irrelevant definition of free will.

So, does neuroscience mean the death of free will? Well, it could if it somehow demonstrated that conscious deliberation and rational self-control did not really exist or that they worked in a sheltered corner of the brain that has no influence on our actions. But neither of these possibilities is likely. True, the mind sciences will continue to show that consciousness does not work in just the ways we thought, and they already suggest significant limitations on the extent of our rationality, self-knowledge, and self-control. Such discoveries suggest that most of us possess less free will than we tend to think, and they may inform debates about our degrees of responsibility. But they do not show that free will is an illusion.

Nahmais makes the point that the ‘death of free will’ idea makes a fallacy he calls ‘bypassing’ that reduces our decisions to chemical reactions, implying that our conscious thinking is bypassed, and so we must lack free will.

He notes that this is like saying life doesn’t exist because every living thing is made up of non-living molecules, when, in reality, its impossible to understand life or free will without considering the system at the macro level – that is, the actions and interactions of the whole organism.

Interestingly, a similar point is made by legendary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in an interview for Salon where he discusses his new book on free will. He also suggests it’s not possible to understand free will at the level of neurons without making the concept nonsensical.

These contrasting concepts about free will may yet be solved, however, as Nature recently reported on a new $4 million ‘Big Questions in Free Will’ project which brings together philosophers and cognitive scientists to work together to understand how we act in the world.

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?’
Link to Salon interview with Michael Gazzaniga.
Link to Nature piece ‘Taking Aim at Free Will’.

Radio 4’s brilliant brain season now being scattered

BBC Radio 4’s Brain Season is in full swing, which, in typical BBC fashion, is both brilliantly conceived and chaotically scattered over their webpages like a drunken farmer chasing birds off his field with a seed planter.

A good place to start is the brain season blog post which lists all the programmes in the season and links to their programme page and separate podcast page (if one exists). It may or may not be being updated as new material comes online.

Probably the best of the season is the History of the Brain series of which five of the ten programmes have been broadcast at the time of writing and which are all available on a single permanent temporary podcast page.

You could go to the separate and unlinked programme information page that has a few more details and the streamed audio but I’d advise against it as it’ll only encourage them.

The one-off Mind Myths and Life Scientific programmes, the latter featuring neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, have to be downloaded from their respective podcast pages (here and here) but if you read try the page months after the broadcast date you’ll have to click ‘Show all episodes’ and scroll down to find the episode from the entire list.

The awesome looking programme The Lobotomists apparently won’t be released as a podcast at all, so unless you live in the UK and can catch it on the streaming service within the next two weeks, you’ll have to stick it up your arse.

We have no idea where the similarly awesome looking series Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Society will turn up after its first broadcast on November 15th. Probably the B-side of a rare 1973 James Brown recording that has only recently become available after copies were found in the basement of the original recording studio.

Radio 4 also has a page with interviews and profiles of some of the scientists featured in the series but you can’t find out which are specifically linked to the brain season so you’ll have to…


Link to brain season blog post page.

A theory of the bipolar economy

If you’re convinced that the current cycle of the boom and bust economy is due to the collapse of collateralised debt obligations secured on oversold mortgages that destablised the European market due to its reliance on cheap loans from an artificially inflated US market – think again!

A 1935 Psychological Review article proposed a ‘manic-depressive psychoses’ theory of economic highs and lows based on the idea that the market has a form of monetary bipolar disorder.

Manic-depressive psychoses of business

Psychological Review, Vol 42(1), Jan 1935, 91-107.

Morgan, J. J. B.

An analysis of the various theories offered to explain the business cycle of alternate booms and depressions shows that all these theories are based on a superficial study of symptoms, rather than on an analysis of the real causes, which the author believes are psychological in nature.

Business is compared to a patient suffering from a manic-depressive psychosis, in which the boom period parallels the manic phase and the subsequent slump parallels the depressive phase. It is argued that, in business as in the individual psychosis, the manic period is not a period of real optimism or even over-confidence, but is really a period of fear, for which the excessive speculative activity is a compensatory mechanism.

This fear is induced by a lack of confidence in the credit system and a desire to beat it. Two alternative solutions are offered: one is to strengthen the credit system by building up a group of heroic leaders; but this is utopian at present. The other is to discover a better defense mechanism and adopt it.

I suspect when Dr Morgan thought of a ‘better defense mechanism’ he wasn’t thinking of a bunch of unemployed people and students camping out in the local financial centre.

The article was apparently mentioned by economist Robert Shiller at a talk at the ongoing Society for Neuroscience conference.

Link to article summary (via @carlzimmer)

The rise and fall of ‘space madness’

‘Space madness’ was a serious concern for psychiatrists involved in the early space programme. A new article in history of science journal Endeavour tracks the interest in this ‘dreaded disease that never was.’

Much to the surprise of NASA mental health professionals, those who volunteered to be astronauts were neither “suicidal deviants” nor troubled by their separation from the earth, but the media ran with the ‘space travel as psychic trauma’ idea anyway.

‘In answer to the question, “‘What kind of people volunteer to be fired into orbit?” one might expect strong intimations of psychopathology’. Or so thought two Air Force psychiatrists selected to examine America’s first would-be astronauts. Researchers of the 1950s who considered the problem of human spaceflight often speculated that such work would attract only suicidal deviants, and that merely participating in such a voyage would overwhelm the human psyche of otherwise healthy people. The popular culture record of the time seemed to confirm their suspicions, with science fiction films frequently offering up megalomaniacs, egotists, and religious fanatics terrorizing planets in their cinematic space cruisers.

It is not surprising, then, that the psychiatrists working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1959 feared the worst of the men selected to be America’s first astronauts: that they would be impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers. The examiners, though, were surprised – and a little disappointed – when tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses. Flying jet airplanes in Cold War America had conditioned the men to control their fear, and even the most spirited among them were effective in orbit.

The idea that humans could travel into space and not be traumatized by their experiences, though, was unpalatable to large numbers of journalists and screenwriters, who expected that such journeys would produce some form of psychic transformation. By the early-1970s, popular culture depicting unhinged astronauts became commonplace, even as NASA’s astronauts demonstrated a remarkable ability to absorb the stresses of long-duration spaceflight. A Space Age malady with no incidence among human populations, ‘space madness’ is the stuff of Hollywood: a cultural manifestation of popular fears of a lonely, dehumanizing, and claustrophobic future among the stars.

Unfortunately, the article is locked, because the likes of you and me would just make the place look scruffy, but we covered some of the early discussion on what might cause ‘space madness’ previously on Mind Hacks.

And if you’re interested in the modern astronaut psychology don’t miss a 2008 article from The Psychologist on how NASA select their space travelling colleagues.

I would also like to mention that if someone from NASA is reading that I am free at *any time* to start astronaut duties. I also already own a space pen and am fully competent in its use.

Link to locked article. Not very space age, is it?
Link to previous Mind Hacks piece on space madness.

The appliance of psychological science

The BPS Research Digest is celebrating its 200th issue with a series of articles from well-known psychologists that describe how psychology has helped them out in everyday life.

There’s a whole stack of people involved who have written on everything from love to scientific thinking to child rearing.

Both myself and Tom have contributed pieces but my favourite is from Ellen Langer who has spent many years studying the effect of stereotypes about old age on older people:

At age 89 my father’s memory was fragile – he was showing his years. One day we were playing cards and I began to think that I should let him win. I soon realized that, if I saw someone else behaving that way, I’d tell her to stop being so condescending. I might even explain how negative prophecies come to be fulfilled, and I’d go on to explain that much of what we take to be memory loss has other explanations.

For instance, as our values change with age, we often don’t care about certain things to the degree we used to, and we therefore don’t pay much attention to them anymore. The “memory problems” of the elderly are often simply due to the fact that they haven’t noted something that they find rather uninteresting. And then, while I was weighing whether to treat him as a child because part of me still felt that he would enjoy winning, he put his cards down and declared that he had gin.

There are many more great pieces at the link below.

Link to BPSRD ‘Psychology to the Rescue’ series.