A stream of unconsciousness

I have just discovered that if you search Pinterest with the keyword psychology you get a wonderfully eclectic stream of psychological images that range from the frosting of pop culture to the depths of profound theory.

In fact, it’s a bit like swimming around in the mind of a psychologist as they slowly drift off to sleep – a kind of whimsical, looping stream of half-verified memories and insights.

Link to ‘psychology’ on Pinterest.

Neurowords and the burden of responsibility

The New York Times has an excellent article about the fallacy of assuming that a brain-based explanation of behaviour automatically implies that the person is less responsible for their actions.

The piece is by two psychologists, John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz, who discuss their research on how attributions of blame can be altered simply by giving psychological or neurological explanations for the same behaviour.

The fallacy comes in, of course, because psychology and neuroscience are just different tools we use to describe, in this case, the same behaviour.

A brain characteristic that was even weakly associated with violence led people to exonerate the protagonist more than a psychological factor that was strongly associated with violent acts….

We labeled this pattern of responses “naïve dualism.” This is the belief that acts are brought about either by intentions or by the physical laws that govern our brains and that those two types of causes — psychological and biological — are categorically distinct. People are responsible for actions resulting from one but not the other. (In citing neuroscience, the Supreme Court may have been guilty of naïve dualism: did it really need brain evidence to conclude that adolescents are immature?)

Naïve dualism is misguided. “Was the cause psychological or biological?” is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.

A better question is “how strong was the relation between the cause (whatever it happened to be) and the effect?”

In light of the Aurora shootings and the prematurely and already misfiring debate about the shooter’s ‘brain state’, this is well worth checking out.

Link to NYT piece ‘Did Your Brain Make You Do It?’ (via @TheNeuroTimes)

Hallucinating body flowers

A curious and kaleidoscopic case of hallucinations reported in the latest journal Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria:

A 95-year-old woman, with four years of schooling, had a seven-year history of DI [delusional infestation]. In the beginning, there were itching and prickling sensations on arms and head. Subsequently, she felt small worms, with different shapes and colors, crawling through her skin or swirling around her body.

After two years, she began to see small pumpkins and flowers coming out of her body and lettuce crawling on the table. She complained of water trickling out of walls and forming puddles on the ground. Occasionally, she saw small children walking on the walls and also worms on the floor and walls.

Sometimes, the parasites set fire to small objects. She became upset with her family and physicians who did not believe her.

The belief that you are infested with hallucinatory parasites is more typically called delusional parasitosis but it is usually not linked to the florid circus of hallucinations reported here, which are more typical of Charles Bonnet syndrome.

Link to case report in Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria.

All time high

The latest issue of The Psychologist has a fascinating article on why time can seem distorted after taking drugs.

The piece is by psychologists Ruth Ogden and Cathy Montgomery who both research the effects of drugs, legal and illegal, on the mind and brain.

The consumption of drugs and alcohol has long been known to warp time experiences. In his much-quoted book Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey (1821/1971) noted that opium intoxication resulted in distortions to the passage of time to the extent that he ‘Sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time’.

Similar experiences were also reported by Aldous Huxley (1954) in Doors of Perception after consuming mescaline and LSD. Drug-induced distortions to time are not only experienced by renowned literary figures: a quick search of an internet drug forum will reveal that many drug users report similar experiences to De Quincey and Huxley following marijuana, cocaine and alcohol use.

The article notes that both the social context in which drugs are taken (e.g. drinking on a night out) and the pharmacological effects of the substances can each add their own ingredients to the time stretching or shrinking effects.

Link to article ‘High Time’ in The Psychologist.

How the FBI sees the psychopath

The latest FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin is a special issue on the criminal psychopath.

Apart from the use of eye-scorching clip-art, it’s notable more what it tells us about how the FBI approaches the concept of psychopathy than necessarily being a great introduction to the topic.

Some of the most revealing articles are written by agents and give advice on how to interrogate the ‘psychopath’ as if it was a single type of person and not a relatively consistent pattern of characteristics found within unique individuals.

“…small talk, fidgeting with cell phones or notepads, or showing uncertainty regarding seating arrangements can communicate to psychopaths that interrogators are nervous or unsure of themselves,” says one article, “psychopathic individuals view this as a weakness”.

Well, that’s that then.

Despite some overconfident conclusions, several of the articles do give some good accounts of actual cases and the issue remains an interesting peek into how the FBI sees the psychopath.

Link to latest FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (via @crimepsychblog)

Is mental health a smoke screen for society’s ills?

Somatosphere has a fantastic account of the debates rocking the world of global mental health – the still nascent field that aims to make mental health a world priority.

The idea itself is sound in the general sense, but there is still a lot of argument about what it means to promote mental health and much discussion about whether ‘global mental health’ is just a means of exporting Western ideas and diagnoses in a sort of 21st century globalisation of the mind.

I am always a little struck by the fact that the ‘global mental health’ movement seems mainly to focus on Asia and Africa.

For example, the lack of participation of Latin American mental health professionals and advocates is striking in both the headline-making publications and the key conferences.

This is a pity as Latin America has developed a unique perspective on mental health that, by reading the debates covered by Somatosphere, would be very relevant.

If you want to get your head into the space of this particular Latin American approach, have a think about this analogy.

How would you react if instead of supporting the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, you were told the major problem was that people were being affected by a mental illness called ‘post-discrimination stress disorder’?

I’m sure it would be possible to come up with a valid and reliable ‘PDSD’ diagnosis that could be agreed upon and would genuinely predict behavioural and psychological distress and impairment – the experience of racism is known to predict mental health problems and the discrimination of the civil rights era was extreme.

Arguing for more resources to be put into treating ‘post-discrimination stress disorder’ when the civil rights movement was almost at breaking point in the 1940s and 50 would lay you open to accusations of ‘putting up a smoke screen’ and ‘making a distraction’ when what was needed was social change, not an attempt to pathologise black people.

The question that you may be asking, and many Latin American psychologists have asked, is whether we should be instead focussing on inequality and violence to improve mental health.

The Western focus on disorders, they argue, can distract and blind us to societal problems. Instead of preventing oppression, we pathologise its victims.

This approach was born out of a field called liberation psychology that made exactly this point.

One of the founders was a remarkable chap called Ignacio Martín-Baró who was a Spanish priest who trained as a psychologist and worked in El Salvador during the Salvadoran civil war.

He was eventually murdered by a government death squad because of his theories, which at least shows their power if not their popularity.

Unfortunately, liberation psychology has become heavily politicised and you often hear variations of “Martín-Baró’s work means you must support my left-wing views” from proponents.

This is a shame because Martín-Baró’s work was often making a more profound and over-arching point – that there is no such thing as an apolitical act in mental health, and, indeed, in health care in general.

For example, the West’s understanding of the victims of war, torture and displacement in terms of PTSD and other diagnostic labels is largely due to the experience of treating refugees who have fled these horrible situations.

In this context, PTSD makes sense in the West because it has the implicit assumption that the person is now safe (after all, it’s post-traumatic stress disorder) and that the experiences and reactions described in the diagnosis are, therefore, inappropriate.

However, if you live in a war zone, intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge and avoiding reminders of danger could be considered quite a reasonable reaction to the constant experience of death and violence.

When you meet people who do live in war zones, who would clearly meet the criteria for PTSD, they rarely complain about their mental state. They’re usually more concerned about the actual dangers.

They’re concerned about torture, not intrusive thoughts about being tortured – the threat of rape, not rape-related anxiety.

So, the hard question becomes: are we really helping by sending professionals and training locals to recognise and treat people with, for example, PTSD?

And this is where Martín-Baró drew his inspiration from. The way we understand and treat mental health problems, he argued, is always political. There is no absolute neutrality in how we understand distress and those that think so are usually just blind to their own biases.

And this is what the global mental health movement is wrestling with. And needless to say, there are plenty of biases to overcome.

Big Pharma pushes theories as adverts for its medication. Western mental health professionals can see themselves as healers of people who don’t necessarily need healing.

Researchers see an untapped gold mine of data and local scientists see a way out of what seems like a limiting and unglamorous academic life distant from the shining lights of Northern Hemisphere High Science.

So when we talk about ‘mental health literacy’ are we talking education or propaganda? It’s not an easy question to answer or, for many, to even think about.

The Somatosphere piece is one of the best guides to this debate I’ve yet read. Essential reading.

Link to Somatosphere on ‘Global Mental Health and its Discontents’

BBC Future column: Why we love to hoard

Here’s last week’s column from BBC Future. The original is here. It’s not really about hoarding, its about the endowment effect and a really lovely piece of work that helped found the field of behavioural economics (and win Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize). Oh, and I give some advice on how to de-clutter, lifehacker-style.

Question: How do you make something instantly twice as expensive?

Answer: By giving it away.

This might sound like a nonsensical riddle, but if you’ve ever felt overly possessive about your regular parking space, your pen, or your Star Wars box sets, then you’re experiencing some elements behind the psychology of ownership. Our brains tell us that we value something merely because it is a thing we have.

This riddle actually describes a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. The parking space, the pen and the DVDs are probably the same as many others, but they’re special to you. Special because in some way they are yours.

You can see how the endowment effect escalates – how else can you explain the boxes of cassette tapes, shoes or mobile phones that fill several shelves of your room… or even several rooms?

No trade

To put a scientific lens on what’s going on here, a team led by psychologist Daniel Kahneman carried out a simple experiment. They took a class of ordinary University students and gave half of them a University-crested mug, the other half received $6 – the nominal cost of the mug.

Classic economics states that the students should begin to trade with each other. The people who were given cash but liked mugs should swop some of their cash a mug, and some of the people who were given mugs should swop their mugs for some cash. This, economic theory says, is how prices emerge – the interactions of all buyers and sellers finds the ideal price of goods. The price – in this case, of mugs – will be a perfect balance between the desires of people who want a mug and have cash, and the people who want cash and have a mug.

But economic theory lost out to psychology. Hardly any students traded. Those with mugs tended to keep them, asking on average for more than $5 to give up their mug. Those without mugs didn’t want to trade at this price, being only willing to spend an average of around $2.50 to purchase a mug.

Remember that the mugs were distributed at random. It would be weird if, by chance, all the “mug-lovers” ended up with mugs, and the “mug-haters” ended up without. Something else must be going on to explain the lack of trading. It seems the only way to understand the high-value placed on the mugs by people who were given one at random is if the simple act of being given a mug makes you value it twice as highly as before.

This is the endowment effect, and it is the reason why things reach a higher price at auctions – because people become attached to the thing they’re bidding for, experiencing a premature sense of ownership that pushes them to bid more than they would otherwise. It is also why car dealers want you to test drive the car, encouraging you in everyway to think about what it would be like to possess the car. The endowment effect is so strong that even imagined ownership can increase the value of something.

Breaking habits

The endowment effect is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology to favour the way things are, rather than the way they could be. I call this status quo bias, and we can see reflections of it in the strength of habits that guide our behaviour, in the preference we have for the familiar over the strange or the advantage the incumbent politician has over a challenger.

Knowing the powerful influence that possession has on our psychology, I take a simple step to counteract it. I try to use my knowledge of the endowment effect to help me de-clutter my life. Perhaps this can be useful to you too.

Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it. Quite reasonably, I would ask myself whether I should throw this away. At this point, although I didn’t have a name for it, the endowment effect would begin to work its magic, leading me to generate all sorts of reasons why I should keep an item based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable I found it. After hours of tidying I would have kept everything, including the 300 hundred rubber bands (they might be useful one day), the birthday card from two years ago (given to me by my mother) and the obscure computer cable (it was expensive).

Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

Let this anti-endowment effect technique perform its magic for you, and you too will soon be joyously throwing away things that you only think you want, but actually wouldn’t trouble yourself to acquire if you didn’t have them.

And here’s the thing… it works for emails too. If someone sends me a link to an article or funny picture, I don’t think “I must look at that”, I ask “If I hadn’t just been sent this link, how hard would I endeavour to find out this information for myself?”. And then I delete the email, thinking that however fascinating that article on the London sewerage system sounds or that funny picture of a cat promises to be, I didn’t want them before the email was in my possession, so I probably don’t really want them now.

That’s my tip for managing my clutter. If you have any others, let me know.

The rebirth of hypnosis

I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about the re-emergence of hypnosis into the scientific mainstream despite the fact that the technique is still associated with stereotypes.

The piece has been oddly titled ‘hypnosis is no laughing matter’, which kind of misses the point, because no-one laughs at it, but many scientists do find it uncomfortable because of its long-running associations with stage shows, high-street hypnotists and the like.

The sub-heading also suggests that the article is about the revival of hypnosis as a ‘clinical tool’ when the article only discusses the use of hypnosis in the lab.

However, get past the headings and the piece discusses the genuinely interesting cognitive science of hypnosis and suggestibility.

The recent research is interesting not so much because we are learning about hypnosis itself, but because it is helping us understand some quite striking things about the fundamentals of the mind.

Amir Raz and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal reported that it was possible to “switch off” automatic word reading and abolish the Stroop effect – a psychological phenomenon that demonstrates a conflict between meanings, such as where we are much slower to identify the ink colour of a word when the word itself describes a different hue. Furthermore, when this experiment was run in a brain scanner, participants showed much lower activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex, an area known to be particularly involved in resolving conflict between competing demands, and the visual cortex, which is crucial for recognising words. Although this may seem like a technicality, to the scientific world it was a strikingly persuasive demonstration that hypnosis could apparently disassemble an automatic and well-established psychological effect in a manner consistent with the brain processes that support it.

One of the other exciting areas is the use of hypnosis to temporarily induce altered states of consciousness that can then be studied in the lab. More of that in the article.

Link to Observer article.

Berlin cognitive science safari: report

So I’m back from my time in Berlin at the BMW Guggenheim Lab. As announced previously, I was there to give a talk about how perception works, and how cities control our perception. If you’re a regular mindhacks.com reader nothing I said would have been earth-shattering – it was a tour through some basics of perception and attention. I’ll just highlight two points:

Perception is about meaning. We so effortlessly transform visual input into percepts that we can forget what a difficult task it is. Fortunately we have a heap of dedicated brain machinery to do this for us. A common mistake is to think of perception as mere projection on an inner screen. Part of this fallacy is to think that perception is trivial, but another important part is to think that perception is about the production of images of some sort. Perception is the production of meaning, not the production of images. Our associations and experience are incorporated in the act of perception, so that they are intrinsic to the perceptual act (not somehow added “on top”, or as an after thought). This goes so way to explaining why foreigners appear so stupid in cities. In know that personally I feel my IQ drop at least 15 points as soon as the plane touches down in a foreign country. Native city dwellers have learn to read the city, through experience forming webs of association that build up into symbols. This allows them to instantly perceive what different scenes in the city mean for how they should act. Here’s an example I used in my talk.

Outside Berlin Zoo, looking for the underground: which way should I go? The visual sign for the U-bahn actually forms a tiny fraction of the visual field, so small that I’d bet it is invisible to the majority of my peripheral vision. To a resident of Berlin the way to the tube is obvious, perceptual learning ensures that they don’t even have to think about which symbol to look for, or what it means. The accumulation of thousands of pieces of perceptual expertise is what makes us natives in a city, and what renders us flailing when abroad.

Attention is co-constituted with history and the environment. What we notice depends on what we are seeking, what we have previously experienced and the world around us. We can choose to look for something, or concentrate on something, but our attention can also be driven by factors outside of our
direct control. Advertisers know this, and hence we get bright adverts, moving adverts, and the plethora of adverts which use faces and particularly eyes. Light contrasts, movement and human eyes are all elements which are fundamentally wired into the operation of our visual system. Advertisers are using them to perform a subcortical hijack of what we look at as we navigate the city. The psychology of advertising is a different talk, in Berlin it occurred to me that attention could be a useful, concrete, model generally for thinking about how our agency is spread between self and world.

After the talk was the real highlight – a cognitive science safari where we went out into the city and tried out some interventions based on classic experiments from psychology. Demonstration of strange allure of a crowd all looking the same way worked reasonably well (looking up is definitely more attention-capturing than horizontal gaze). So did ‘reading’ someone’s country of origin from their appearance alone, but the real treat of the tour was the change blindness ‘door’ experiment

This video shows one run of the experiment (thanks to tour particpant Hans Huett for taking it. Jump to about 0:50 for the action). We can see Matt Craddock and another volunteer (sorry, I didn’t catch your name) waiting for an unsuspecting member of the public. After engaging him in asking for directions, Yunus (my Berlin fixer) and Jakub Limanowski (mindhacks.com reader and volunteer), arrive from around the corner, carrying the door. After swopping Matt for Jakub we can see the member of the public continuing giving directions as if nothing has happened – he was blind to the change! Later we tried a more extreme change, swopping an older, shorter, beardless gentleman into Matt’s place – again it worked, asking the question of just how extreme a change you could make and the phenomenon still work.

The moral of this story is not that many people are stupid, just that attention is a double-edged sword. The good citizens of Berlin focus hard on giving directions, not on monitoring the identity of their interlocutor for signs of an improbable change. Yes, the phenomenon shows how much of the environment we are not aware, but it is also a back-handed tribute to our ability to focus our attention where we want.

No, the web is not driving us mad

Oh Newsweek, what have you done. The cover story in the latest edition is an embarrasing look at non-research that certainly doesn’t suggest that the internet is causing “extreme forms of mental illness”.

The article is a litany of scientific stereotypes and exaggeration:

The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.

This is an amazing list of mental illnesses supposedly caused by the internet but really Newsweek? Psychosis? A condition ranked by the World Health Organisation as the third most disabling health condition there is and one that is only beaten in its ability to disable by total limb paralysis and dementia and that comes ahead of leg paralysis and blindness.

We’re talking schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder here. The mention of psychosis even makes the front page, of one of the most respected news magazines in the world, so this must be pretty striking evidence.

So striking, in fact, that it would probably turn psychiatric research on its head. We have studied the environmental risk factors for psychosis for decades and nothing has suggested that the internet or anything like it would raise the risk of psychosis. This must be amazing new scientific evidence.

So what is the evidence to back up Newsweek’s front page splash: a blog post, a quote and a single case study.

The rest of the article is full of similar howlers.

But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed.

“This is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change,” says Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford Univer…

Oh Christ.

A 1998 Carnegie Mellon study found that Web use over a two-year period was linked to blue moods, loneliness, and the loss of real-world friends. But the subjects all lived in Pittsburgh, critics sneered.

They didn’t sneer. They looked at the follow-up study, done on the same people, by the same research team, that found that “A 3-year follow-up of 208 of these respondents found that negative effects dissipated”.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is only possible to report on the first of these findings without the second if you’ve not read the research or are aiming for a particular angle. Why? Because if you type ‘internet paradox’, the name of the original study, into Google, the name of the follow-up study – The Internet Paradox Revisited – comes up as the second link.

If you’d read any of the actual literature on the topic, you’d know about the follow-up study because they are two of the most important and some of the few longitudinal studies in the field.

The article also manages the usual neuroscience misunderstandings. The internet ‘rewires the brain’ – which I should hope it does, as every experience ‘rewires the brain’ and if your brain ever stops re-wiring you’ll be dead. Dopamine is described as a reward, which is like mistaking your bank statement for the money.

There are some scattered studies mentioned here and there but without any sort of critical appraisal. Methodological problems with internet addiction studies? No mention. The fact that the whole concept of internet addiction is a category error? Not a whisper. The fact that prevalence has been estimated to vary between 1% and 66% of internet users. Nada

Sadly, these sorts of distorted media portrayals have a genuine impact on the public’s attitudes and beliefs about mental illness.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the article is that it doesn’t include any critical voices. It’s mainly people who have a book to sell or an axe to grind.

The internet will apparently make you psychotic if you only listen to the three people who think so. Or Newsweek, that is.

Link to ‘Is the Web Driving Us Mad?’

BBC Future column: Why I am always unlucky but you are always careless

From lost keys to failed interviews, we blame other people for mishaps but never ourselves, because assuming causes helps us to make sense of the world.

When my wife can’t find her keys, I assume it is because she is careless. When I can’t find my keys I naturally put it down to bad luck. The curious thing is that she always assumes the opposite – that she’s the one with the bad luck, and I’m the careless one.

When we observe other people we attribute their behaviour to their character rather than to their situation – my wife’s carelessness means she loses her keys, your clumsiness means you trip over, his political opinions mean that he got into an argument. When we think about things that happen to us the opposite holds. We downplay our own dispositions and emphasise the role of the situation. Bad luck leads to lost keys, a hidden bump causes trips, or a late train results in an unsuccessful job interview – it’s never anything to do with us!

 This pattern is so common that psychologists have called it the fundamental attribution error. And there’s a whole branch of psychology that investigates how we reason about causes for things called attribution theory. The fundamental attribution error is a good example of a quirk in the way we reason about causes, but it isn’t the only one. Despite the name, it may not even be the most fundamental.

Seeking causes

Psychologists are interested in attribution of causation because it tells us important things about how the mind works. To illustrate this, imagine you see a man asleep under a tree, and a leaf fluttering down to land on his head. As the leaf touches his head he wakes up and shouts “Yikes”. Anyone watching this scene would assume the man woke up because of the falling leaf.

 But this simple statement is remarkably difficult to prove – you have no direct access to the cause, just the before (a leaf) and after (“Yikes”). We automatically assume the cause. We talk about it like it is a thing – somehow in the middle between the leaf and the man, but really it is just an assumption, not a thing. And indeed, some new information could come along and force us to reconsider our assumptions. We might find out later that a philosophically-minded ant had come along and, just at that minute, decided to bite the sleeping man’s hand.

 So our causes are assumptions, based on what we perceive but with an extra bit of imagination. They are necessary assumptions. Without looking for causes we would be stuck with a confusing picture of the world. Rather than say “the falling leaf caused the man to wake up”, we have to take everything into account and say the following. “The leaf fell. The grass did the same as before. A bird flew between two trees one hundred and thirty yards away. I lost my keys. My Romanian aunt’s clock in my Romanian aunt’s house continued ticking (on and on and on). The man woke up.”

 Assuming causes in this way lets us make sense of the world. Not only is it easier to describe, the descriptions tell you how to make things happen (or avoid them – for instance, if you want the man to stay asleep next time, catch the leaf). In this way, attributions are psychological magic that help us control the future. No wonder psychologists find them interesting.

Built on sand

 The fundamental attribution error is just a continuation of a wider pattern: we blame individuals for what happens to them because of the general psychological drive to find causes for things. We have an inherent tendency to pick out each other as causes; even from infancy, we pay more attention to things that move under their own steam, that act as if they have a purpose. The mystery is not that people become the focus of our reasoning about causes, but how we manage to identify any single cause in a world of infinite possible causes.

 Even the way I described cause-seeking as an “inherent tendency” is part of this pattern. I have no direct access to what causes the results of experiments that have made me think this, just as I would have no direct access to what caused the man to wake as the leaf fell. I assume a thing, hidden, somehow, underneath the experiments – an inherent tendency for humans to identify each other as causes – which I then rely on to tell you what I’m thinking.

 That thing might not exist, or might have a reality very different from how I describe it, but we are forced to rely on assumptions to make sense of the world, and these assumptions create a reality of causes and essences that seems solid, despite its uncertain foundation.

 This all might sound overly philosophical, but once you are switched on to this tendency to invent essences you’ll hear them everywhere. Generalisations or stereotypes such as “women can’t do maths” or “Americans don’t have a sense of humour” also rely on an invented essence of a sex, or of a nationality, a term that some psychologists have called ultimate attribution error. These views don’t have a concrete existence. They are based in imagination, and are subject to all the psychological forces that are at play there.

 In more prosaic domestic moments, when it feels like such bad luck that I can’t find my keys, yet my wife seems so careless when she can’t find hers, I know I’m performing psychological magic. I’m observing the myriad events in the world and imagining things – my bad luck, her carelessness – which I use to explain the world with.

 With the knowledge that these explanations can only ever be built on sand, I know to be a bit more careful about how I use them.

My most recent column for the BBC Future website, the original is here

Projecting Nabokov

American Scholar has an excellent article on the use of psychology in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov – most famous as the author of Lolita.

As is now standard for literary criticism the article includes lots of florid prose and a spurious reference to ‘mirror neurons‘, but get past the flouncing and it’s a brilliant look at perhaps the most psychologically engaged author of the 20th century.

It’s not just that Nabokov’s novels are beautifully observed, insightful and run through with references to psychological theory, but also that he was a fierce combatant in the ‘Freud wars’:

Famously, Nabokov could not resist deriding Freud. And for good reason: Freud’s ideas were enormously influential, especially in Nabokov’s American years, but his claims were hollow. Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, perhaps the greatest of science essayists, declared in his book Pluto’s Republic, in terms akin to Nabokov’s, that Freudianism was “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century.” Nabokov saw the intellectual vacuity of Freudian theory and its pervasiveness in the popular and the professional imagination. He thought it corrupted intellectual standards, infringed on personal freedom, undermined the ethics of personal responsibility, destroyed literary sensitivity, and distorted the real nature of childhood attachment to parents–the last of which has been amply confirmed by modern developmental psychology.

Cynics, and especially cynics of a Freudian persuasion, might suggest that if you’ve written a novel about paedophilia, the last thing you’d want is people probing your unconscious motivations and so Nabokov’s objections could be understood as a form of projection.

Others might suggest, and especially those of a non-Freudian persuasion, that orthodox psychoanalysis needs to inspire no other motivation in its critics as it is so patently ridiculous that it doesn’t even make good farce.

Actually, Freud wrote so widely, revised his ideas, contradicted himself, hit on genuine insights, and shamelessly embarrassed himself, all in equal measure, that to say you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ Freud is like saying you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Greek classics.

Link to article on Nabokov as psychologist (via @ferrisjabr)

Made for PR Neuroscience

Times Higher Education has a short but revealing article about a ‘neuromarketing’ company called MindLab that keeps getting ‘accidentally’ associated with the University of Sussex.

The ‘accidental’ association is not what makes the piece interesting, however, as it also gives an insight into a type of marketing that relies on the hype of neuroscience to make the news.

Mindlab International measures psychological reactions to brands or products using a “scientific approach” that “offers PRs an extra way to add a newsworthy element to PR campaigns”, founder David Lewis-Hodgson told PR Week in 2006…

Previous research by Mindlab has found that reading is more relaxing than listening to music or going for a walk, in a study commissioned by the maker of Galaxy chocolate as part of a campaign to give away 1 million books.

It has also been reported that a Mindlab survey, commissioned by the maker of Rocky, a chocolate bar, found that an estimated 25 million adults in the UK have been injured during a tea or coffee break.

In April this year a “neurological study by Dulux [the paint company] and the Mindlab International Laboratory at Sussex University” that measured the “physiological arousal” prompted by the imagining of various activities found that “women find a redecorated room just as pleasurable as sex”, the Huffington Post reported.

Yes, you read that correctly, and if I ever become old, bitter, and want to sabotage someone’s illustrious career in neuroscience I’m just going to write a piece of software that adds ‘the Huffington Post reported’ to the end of all their scientific papers (however, I digress).

What’s interesting is that simply making something appear like a neuroscience study is enough to get it and the associated product in the news – to the point where companies can now base their business model on the practice.

Neuromarketing is the study of the neuroscience of marketing – a genuinely interesting field that, contrary to what neuromarketing companies will have you believe, has absolutely no practical benefit at the moment because no-one has yet demonstrated that a neural response is a better predictor of the key outcomes than a behavioural response.

This, however, is more like neuro-spin-marketing, as it relies on people believing the hype of neuromarketing to get branded pseudo-studies into the media.

Buyer beware.

Link to THE piece on MindLab (via @sarcastic_f)