Agents, social encounters and hallucinated voices

I’ve written a piece for the new PLOS Neuro Community about how the social aspects of hallucinated voices tend to be ignored and how we might go about making it more central in psychology and neuroscience.

It came about because the PLOS Neuro Community have asked authors of popular papers to write a more gentle introduction to the topic, so the piece is based on a PLOS Biology paper I wrote last year.

I’ve met a lot of people who hear hallucinated voices and I have always been struck by the number of people who feel accompanied by them, as if they were distinct and distinguishable personalities. Some experience their hallucinated entourage as hecklers or domineering bullies, some as curious and opaque narrators, others as helpful guardians, but most of the time, the voice hearer feels they share a relationship with a series of internal vocal individuals.

The piece discusses psychology and neuroscience but in the post, I also mention some work I’ve been doing with philosopher of mind Sam Wilkinson. As luck would have it, Sam just published a post about what we’re working on, on the excellent Imperfect Cognitions blog.

It looks at hallucinated voices and the representation of agency and agents. If you’re not used to these terms they can be slightly opaque but they refer to how the mind and brain represents autonomous individuals – be they human, animal, presumed or imaginary – and how that might relate to the experience of having hallucinated voices.
 

Link to A Social Visit with Hallucinated Voices.
Link to The Representation of Agents in Auditory Verbal Hallucinations.

Talk, 28 Oct 2014: The power of reason

I am giving a talk on 28th October at Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s festival of words. Here is the blurb:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures, but Tom Stafford argues against this bleak portrait of human irrationality. He has investigated the psychological science of persuasion by rational argument, interpreting old studies and reporting some new ones which should give hope to those with a faith in reason. Tom tells you how to most effectively change someone’s mind, when people are persuaded by evidence (and when they aren’t) and why evolution might have designed our thinking to work best in groups rather than on our own.

sleep_of_reason

Mostly I’ll be picking up on ideas I outlined in my Contributoria piece: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds? Tickets are £7.50/£6 (cons), the venue is the Showroom Cinema, Paternoster Row, S1 and we start at 7pm (I talk for 45 minutes then there is time for questions). Book tickets by calling the Showroom on 0114 275 7727 or go to showroomworkstation.org.uk The full festival programme is available as a PDF.

Psychoactive plants in season at Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, or London’s Kew Gardens if you’re not from the 1800s, has a fantastic season of events on the science of psychoactive plants that starts on 20th September.

It covers everything from coffee to opium to magic mushrooms and discuss the pharmacology, public policy and ethnobotany of intoxicating plants.

There are a number of installations, exhibitions and events that you can access by paying to get into the gardens as normal, as well as some dedicated talks that require specific tickets.

The full details of the daily talks and films haven’t been announced yet but a few highlights from the published programme seem to be a talk on plant intoxicants in history and culture with the ever-interesting Mike Jay, a living display of mind-altering plants, and a talk on the neuroscience on intoxicating plants.

If you’re going to visit the gardens it’s worth taking a day for it as the tickets are a bit pricey (£15) but as the place is so huge you get good value if you’re there long enough to see plenty of it.
 

Link to details of Kew’s Intoxication season.

Implicit racism in academia

teacher-309533_640Subtle racism is prevalent in US and UK universities, according to a new paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and released last week, reports The Times Higher Education.

Black professors surveyed for the paper said they were treated differently than white colleagues in the form of receiving less eye contact or requests for their opinion, that they felt excluded in meetings and experienced undermining of their work. “I have to downplay my achievements sometimes to be accepted” said one academic, explaining that colleagues that didn’t expect a black woman to be clever and articulate. Senior managers often dismiss racist incidents as conflicts of personalities or believe them to be exaggerated, found the paper.

And all this in institutions where almost all staff would say they are not just “not racist” but where many would say they were actively committed to fighting prejudice.

This seems like a clear case of the operation of implicit biases – where there is a contradiction between people’s egalitarian beliefs and their racist actions. Implicit biases are an industry in psychology, where tools such as the implicit association test (IAT) are used to measure them. The IAT is a fairly typical cognitive psychology-type study: individuals sit in front of a computer and the speed of their reactions to stimuli are measured (the stimuli are things like faces of people with different ethnicities, which is how we get out a measure of implicit prejudice).

The LFHE paper is a nice opportunity to connect this lab measure with the reality of implicit bias ‘in the wild’. In particular, along with some colleagues, I have been interested in exactly what an implicit bias, is, psychologically.

Commonly, implicit biases are described as if they are unconscious or somehow outside of the awareness of those holding them. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been shown to be the case (in fact the opposite may be true – there’s some evidence that people can predict their IAT scores fairly accurately). Worse, the very idea of being unaware of a bias is badly specified. Does ‘unaware’ mean you aren’t aware of your racist feelings? Of your racist behaviour? Of that the feelings, in this case, have produced the behaviour?

The racist behaviours reported in the paper – avoiding eye-contact, assuming that discrimination is due to personalities and not race, etc – could all work at any or all of these levels of awareness. Although the behaviours are subtle, and contradict people’s expressed, anti-racist, opinions, the white academics could still be completely aware. They could know that black academics make them feel awkward or argumentative, and know that this is due to their race. Or they could be completely unaware. They could know that they don’t trust the opinions of certain academics, for example, but not realise that race is a factor in why they feel this way.

Just because the behaviour is subtle, or the psychological phenomenon is called ‘implicit’, doesn’t mean we can be certain about what people really know about it. The real value in the notion of implicit bias is that it reminds us that prejudice can exist in how we behave, not just in what we say and believe.

Full disclosure: I am funded by the Leverhulme Trust to work on project looking at the philosophy and psychology of implicit bias . This post is cross-posted on the project blog. Run your own IAT with our open-source code: Open-IAT!

Freaky brain tongue graffiti

You wait all year for neuroscience themed graffiti and then two come along in a week. This was found on Carrera 31 in Medellín yesterday morning.

It turns out that over the years I’ve managed to collect a fair amount of brain-themed graffiti for Mind Hacks, which you can browse at your pleasure here.

And with that, I leave the booming, buzzing confusion of Medellín and head back to the sustained attention of London.

Taste illusions

I’ve just found a 2008 review article on the multisensory perception of flavour that is full of fascinating examples of taste illusions and demonstrates the surprisingly complexity of the gustatory system.

The following is one of my favourites. The article first makes the interesting observation that the majority of odour names refer to objects and most non-object odour names like ‘acrid’ and ‘pungent’ actually refer not to smell but to felt sensation.

Another manifestation of the object-based nature of olfactory perception is the constant error made, when eating, of attributing to taste what really belongs to the sense of smell. The error of localizing the odors coming from food as originating in the mouth has been termed the olfactory illusion. It has been compared to the ventriloquism effect, that is, the influence of visual cues on the identification of the location of a sound source. Green (2001) has provided a similar explanation for the fact that although flavor is perceived by receptors on the tongue, in the nose, and even in the eyes, the brain interprets the overall sensation as originating from within the mouth. According to Green, all of the sensory information is localized in the mouth in order that we associate this information with the food being consumed, in the same way that we typically use both touch and vision to localize a point on our bodies.

The paper is by psychologists by Malika Auvray and Charles Spence and it’s sadly locked – but someone has handily a put a pdf online.
 

Link to journal hosted locked article (via @velascop)
pdf of full text.

Brain digger in Medellín

A digger scooping the brain of a blue man, found earlier this week in Medellín, on Calle 67, just by the metro station Hospital.

The text translates as ‘changing forests for cement’ but has been scratched on after the original artwork, presumably by someone who isn’t familiar with the industrial brain digger industry and its interest to Colombian graffiti artists.