Freud’s not dead

Sigmund_Freud.jpgNewsweek has a special edition on the legacy of Sigmund Freud and its relevance for the modern mind and brain sciences.

The issue includes several articles and takes a comprehensive approach, looking at Freud’s early life as a neurologist, and interviews Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel about the influence of Freud on modern psychiatry.

The issue is also accompanied by a podcast interview with Kandel and psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman (section on Freud start’s 18 minutes 40 seconds in).

Link to ‘Freud in Our Midst’ (via Anomalist).


I’m a bit late to the neuroword party with this one, but here goes:

Neuroessentialism – the belief in, or tactic of, invoking evidence, or merely terms, from neuroscience to justify claims at the psychological level. See also neuromysticism, neurobollocks.

There’s a mild example of this in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of An Elephant which is an otherwise excellent book:

“One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors – conceptual structures like those we have been describing. The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”
(p73, which you can also view here)

He’s talking about frames (psychology). He’s advancing a claim that frame-incompatible facts get rejected (psychology). What do the statements ‘The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry’ add to the argument? Nothing. They do not provide any evidence nor do they even provide any information – everything psychological is represented somehow in the brain, and knowing that conceptual frames exist in neural circuits doesn’t help us figure out anything about their properties. The statements are contentless.

There’s no need to pick on Lakoff particularly, it is just what I’m reading today. Far more offensive examples of neuroessentialism abound (Brain Gym springs to mind). This is in part because neuroscience is a technical and sexily complicated discipline, and in part because of the mistaken belief that evidence at a lower level of description somehow has explanatory precedence over that at a higher level of description (cf physics envy). Many claims about human psychology are adequately and entirely addressed at the level of behaviour with no need to invoke neuroscientific evidence. Indeed, for many psychological claims neuroscience can add little or nothing to our assessment of their truth. Taking for example this claim that frame-incompatible facts get rejected, knowing that frames are embedded in brain tells us nothing, but even knowing how frames are embedded in the brain may not be as useful as it first appears. Whatever neuroscientific facts we discovered about frames, the final judgement of the truth of this claim would rely on answers to questions such as is it true that frame-incompatible facts tend to get rejected? In what range of circumstances is this true and how can it be affected? The last word would be behavioural evidence, regardless of what information was provided by neuroscience.

Post-traumatic growth

accident_blur.jpgTrauma has been traditionally considered as intrinsically pathological. Some psychologists are now arguing that although damaging, the experience of trauma can also inspire some people to change in positive ways.

The concept has been named ‘post-traumatic growth’ and is the subject of significant debate among contemporary researchers and clinicians.

The debate is covered in a recent article for Psychology Today where proponents of both sides of the argument make their case.

The article relates the experience of trauma to activities such as ultra-marathon running where competitors may run hundreds of miles and push themselves to physical and psychological exhaustion in an attempt to achieve new goals.

A slightly more weighty article on the topic appeared in a 2004 article in the Psychiatric Times where psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun aimed to explain how such personal development could occur after extreme experiences.

One thing which is still not clear, is how many people experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ and whether it is more than optimistic thinking after the event, as research into the phenomenon is still relatively thin on the ground.

Link to Psychology Today article “The Hidden Side of Happiness”.
Link to Psychiatric Times article “Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology”.

Consciousness exists to make itself unnecessary

While we’re thinking about the nature of free conscious choice, this is extremely relevant. John Bargh, in this chapter – Bypassing the Will: Towards Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior [1] – takes evidence from several different subdisciplines and argues that consciousness – that thing which gives us our experience of deliberate control – exists exactly to make automatic, ‘unwilled’, behaviours possible.

Bargh talks about cases where the individual’s behavior is being “controlled” by external stimuli, not by his or her own consciously-accessible intentions or acts of will. and they are not aware of the true causes of their behavior. These exist, he says, not despite conscious control, but because of it

In a very real sense, then, the purpose of consciousness — why it evolved — may be for the assemblage of complex nonconscious skills. In harmony with the general plasticity of human brain development, people have the capability of building ever more complex automatic ‚Äúdemons‚Äù that fit their own idiosyncratic environment, needs, and purposes. As William James (1890) argued, consciousness drops out of those processes where it is no longer needed, freeing itself for where it is…Intriguingly, then, one of the primary objectives of conscious processing may be to eliminate the need for itself in the future by making learned skills as automatic as possible. It would be ironic indeed if, given the current juxtaposition of automatic and conscious mental processes in the field of psychology, the evolved purpose of consciousness turns out to be the creation of ever more complex nonconscious processes.

[1] Bypassing the Will: Towards Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior by John Bargh (2004), in The New Unconscious; ed. R. Hassin, J. Uleman, & J. Bargh. Oxford University Press.

Does advertising erode free will

Ah…now here’s the nub of the argument: advertisements erode free will, they are manipulations designed to subvert conscious judgement (I paraphrase Clay Shirky at Shirky mentions one particular judgement bias, that of super-sizing, but the general form of bias should be familiar to anyone who has been reading Mind Hacks, and/or my recent posts about advertising (like this one). Quoting Shirky

Consider the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’, where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will ‚Äî the patron has already made a calculation about the amount of money they are willing to pay in return for a particular amount of food. However, when the question is re-asked, ‚Äî not “Would you pay $5.79 for this total amount of food?” but “Would you pay an additional 30 cents for more french fries?” ‚Äî patrons often say yes, despite having answered “No” moments before to an economically identical question. Super-sizing is expressly designed to subvert conscious judgment, and it works.

Shirky believes this is much more serious than just unfair advertising.

Our legal, political, and economic systems, the mechanisms that run modern society, all assume that people are uniformly capable of consciously modulating their behaviors…[These] days are now ending, and everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.

In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain

Previously I argued that creating changes in people’s behaviour didn’t necessarily mean that people were being coerced, or that their will was being taken away from them. The demonstration of influences on behaviour doesn’t knock down any strong version of free will – the kind of free will which is entirely unaffected by anything else doesn’t seem like a variety of free will worth wanting.

People faced a similar dilemma in the nineteenth century when statistics were first compiled of suicides. If we can predict from census records that the number of suicides in a parish in a year will be around seven, where does that leave the free will of those who ‘choose’ to kill themselves that year? Are you taking away the freedom of the seven people who now have to die to fulfil your prediction? (Philip Ball discusses the science and philosophy of this in his book, Critical Mass). Most people, now, would probably be happy to say that just calculating the statistic doesn’t effect anything. But with the case of interventions – either marketing strategies or psychology experiments – which have the explicit purpose of changing behaviour, it isn’t so clear that we can happily say that individual freedom isn’t being unfairly manipulated. Cialdini’s point about suicide contagion makes me worry that there is no clear line between persuasion and coercion, between biasing people’s judgements in small ways, over unimportant decisions, and fundamentally changing the way people make decisions about some of the most important things in life.

I’m happy to throw my hands up at this point and say I’ve no idea what the right way to resolve this is. Free will seems to dissolve as you draw away from it – as an individual I don’t feel manipulated, but when i look at other people – especially groups of other people, it seems like I can see manipulation going on. Has anyone got any useful conceptual structures I can borrow to see me through this?

Cognitive psychology of belief in the supernatural

american_scientist_2006-03.jpgThe current issue of American Scientist has an excellent feature article on ‘The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural’.

It argues that our ability to reason about other people’s intentions underlies many common supernatural beliefs. In other words, we have a tendency to see intentions and consciousness even in mechanical aspects of the world.

The author is psychologist Dr Jesse Bering who has been using cognitive psychology to try and understand areas that are traditionally tackled by philosophy, such as belief in souls, causation and existential meaning.

In one experiment, Bering used puppets to describe a story in which a mouse is eaten by an alligator. Children of different ages were then asked to describe the mouse’s ability to feel or know things after its death.

Younger children were more likely than older children to attribute thoughts, desires and even biological states to the mouse, suggesting that the idea of an afterlife is more likely to be intuitive and not one that is learned through ongoing cultural experience.

Jesse is interested in how some of the beliefs surrounding these issues might be influenced or related to common aspects of the mind that have evolved to solve other, more practical problems of life and survival.

The article is only available in the print edition, or online to subscribers, but Jesse has kindly offered to provide a copy of the article to anyone who contacts him by email.

Link to summary of article from American Scientist.
Link to homepage of Dr Jesse Bering.

Reasons why you don’t exist

miss_frizz.jpgThe band of reality skeptics over at The Huge Entity have finished their series of Reasons Why You Don’t Exist.

As we mentioned previously, there’s a contribution from our very own Christian Jarret, and a number of other authors pushing their own brand of mind altering concepts.

Gerry Canavan questions the concept of ‘you’ as a unitary conscious experience and Thomas Herold takes aim at free will.

Jaime Morrison argues with himself on the reliability of information provided by perception and comes to the conclusion that neither of him exists, and Daniel Rourke questions whether the world as we experience it is just another reality-bending trick the brain has evolved to use.

…and there’s more where those came from.

Link to ‘Reasons Why You Don’t Exist’.

Internet mind control and the diagnosis of delusions

transmitter_sunset.jpgA recent paper in the medical journal Psychopathology has analysed the links between websites of likely-delusional people who publish their experiences of ‘mind control’ on the internet, and has concluded that they challenge the psychiatric criteria for the diagnosis of delusions.

One of the defining features of a delusion is that it should not be a belief “ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”. Nevertheless, some researchers have noted that there is no clear measure of what is ‘ordinarily accepted’.

It is also possible that cultures or subcultures could be based around beliefs that would otherwise be diagnosed as delusional. Until now, however, there have been no obvious examples of such subcultures identified.

In the Psychopathology paper, ten websites reporting psychosis-like ‘mind control’ experiences were identified. The reports were anonymised and independently blind-rated by three psychiatrists who confirmed that they reflect experiences stemming from psychosis.

The links between the websites were then analysed using a technique called social network analysis that allows the social network of the authors to be inferred.

This analysis suggested that the authors of the reports were part of a ‘small world‘ social network, based around the content of likely-delusional beliefs (click here to see the network structure in a popup window).

This contradicts the current definition of a delusion, suggesting that it is becoming increasing redundant as technology shapes and re-shapes social networks.

It also suggests that, according to the current definition, anyone can ‘cure’ themselves of a delusion by using the internet to find or form a community of others who share the same belief!

Importantly, however, the researchers make clear that this research does not imply that all of the internet ‘mind control’ community are psychotic, as reports were chosen to specifically reflect psychosis-like experiences.

It is interesting, however, that the identified authors are also likely to be an active part of a wider, non-psychotic community, who may have similar, although differently motivated, concerns.

Link to abstract of study.
PDF of paper.

Disclaimer: This paper is from my own research group.

Cognitive science café

chocolate_cake.jpgPsychologist Tania Lombrozo has collected suggestions for the menu of the fictional (but delicious sounding) cognitive science caf√©. It’s both full of psychology in-jokes and gives a lighthearted crib-sheet for some of the most influential thinkers in the field.

Some of my favourites include:

The Turing Tester
Half Brie with apricot jam on a French roll, half vegan alternative ‚Äî we bet you won’t know which is which!

The Wason Cheese Selector
Grilled Portobello mushroom with cheese. If cheddar, then sesame bun. (Please check your order carefully.)

The Piagetian
A sandwich in four stages: sensational baguette, quantities of Swiss cheese that are anything but conservative, the concrete crunch of walnuts, and a dash of Cayenne pepper lead to this sandwich’s formal elegance.

PDF of ‘Shepard’s Tables: A Cognitive Science Caf√©’ (via Mixing Memory)

Cognitive psychology & advertising

Here’s another approach to understanding how adverts work – cognitive psychology, as discussed in this Wired article from 2002 (thanks Lauren!)

You’ll probably not be surprised that I’ve lots of sympathy for experimenal psychology as a method for understanding adverts (as opposed to, say, semiotics). A conventional experimental cognitive psychology approach to understanding something about advertising would be:

1. Have an idea, e.g., I think Factor X makes people buy more stuff
2. Come up with an experiment which involves two situations which are identical except for the presence/absence of Factor X.
3. Include some measure which is a good enouch approximation for the behaviour ‘buying’ (it could be actual purchases, or it could be something like memory for the product, or extent of positive feelings for the product, which we just assume will convert into sales)
4. Do the experiment, write up the results, let the rest of the (psychology) world criticise your experiment
5. Do follow-up experiments to re-test your idea and counter criticisms.

Or something like that anyway. Here’s an example from the Wired article:

One example: At the University of Texas at Austin, cognitive science professor Art Markman gave a group of hungry people a few bites of popcorn. Another group got no food. Then he showed his volunteers pictures of products – DVD players, shampoo, cars, French toast. The group whose appetite had been whetted with popcorn had a harder time concentrating on the nonfoods. One obvious implication, Markman says: Food samples may actually hurt nongrocery sales.

Now the strength here is that you both check if there is an effect at all, and you narrow down the possibiliies so that you have a rough idea what is causing it (again, cf a semiotic approach). The weakness is that even though you’ve shown an effect in the lab, you’re not sure it will operate outside of the lab (the problem of generalisability), and you’re not going to be sure that, even if it does operate, it isn’t made irrelevant by some other factor that you weren’t looking at with your experimental lens. So, for example, maybe wetting people’s appetites does make it harder for them to concentrate on non-foods, but maybe in real life most people don’t wet their appetites before shopping for non-foods, so the finding is irrelevant. Or maybe everyone wets their appetites, so the supermarket needn’t worry about giving away samples – we’re all peckish anyway. Or maybe we’re more likely to buy non-foods when we’re not concentrating (concentration being the thing actually measured in the experiment), so being peckish actually helps non-food sales.

Anyway, so lots of things could be true, and it takes more than a simple lab study to work out which factors are dominating, but the great virtue of the experimental method is that it gives strong hints as to what sorts of things can be operating and – just as important – what sort of things can’t affect behaviour.

Decoding Advertisements

Judith Williamson’s ‘Decoding Advertisements’ is a classic look at the semiotics of advertising – about how adverts construct and promolgate meaning, necessarily involving the customer in a system of signs and symbols, as a token in that system. It’s a great book and, in some sense, a forerunner of Naomi Klein’s book on Brands, No Logo

I’m going to talk about it because it is exactly not what I am interested in in terms of advertising and psychology.

The first advert discussed in the book (shown below, p18 in the book) is an advert for car tyres. The advert shows a car stopped just before the end of a jetty; the text reports how they drove the car 36,000 miles and then did an emergency stop to test the quality of the tyres. They stopped fine – in other words, ‘these are good tyres’. But – aha! – says Judith Williamson – that is just the overt message of the advert. The covert message of the advert is captured in the image


The outside of the jetty resembles the outside of a tyre and the curve is suggestive of its shape: the whole jetty is one big tyre…The jetty is tough and strong, it withstands water and erosion and does not wear down: because of the visual resemblance we assume that this is true of the tyre as well. In the picture the jetty actually encloses the car, protectively surrounding it with solidity in the middle of dangerous water: similarly, the whole safety of the car and driver is wrapped up in the tyre, which stands up to the elements and supports the car. Thus what seemed to be merely a part of the apparatus for conveying a message about braking speed, turns out to be a message in itself, one that works not on the overt but almost on the unconscious level; and one which involves a connection being made, a correlation between two objects (tyre and jetty) not on a rational basis but by a leap made on the basis of appearance, juxtaposition and connotation.

Is this true? Do the qualities of the jetty occur to us and transfer to the tyres? Does this happen covertly, on an ‘almost unconscious level’. Does this magic bypass the normal rational monitoring of our thoughts? Well, it could be true, maybe. But also, something like it could be true – maybe the image really plays the role of a phallic symbol and suggest to the viewer thoughts of masculine strength and durability. Or maybe something contradictory but similar in style is true – does the image suggest danger, when the tyres are meant to make you feel safe, so that really it is a bad advert. Or maybe people just like to look at a nice picture of a jetty in the sea. Or maybe they like the curves of the jetty, and this makes them feel positive about the thing they see at the same time (the logo of the tyre manufacturer). All of these things could be true – I don’t believe Judith Williamson has any more idea than us which are true, and this is why I’m not interested in the semiotics of advertising at the moment.

The argument advanced in ‘Decoding Advertisements’ misses a critical step. Can it be shown that covert visual imagery affects consumer’s buying behaviour? I don’t doubt that covert visual imagery exists, nor even that in some circumstances has an effect, but does it have an effect in adverts? Till the whole class of influences talked about is demonstrated to be in operation, why should I believe these analyses of adverts are any more than psychoanalytic-spook stories?

So, while I’m alive to the use of decoding adverts using semiotics, the first stops on my investigation into adverts will be

  • the experimental evidence which shows that adverts do have an effect

  • and

  • the experimental evidence on what sorts of things affect behaviours

  • By ‘sorts of things’ I mean general categories like ‘new information’, ‘social influence’, ‘status’, ‘sex appeal’, ‘positive emotions’ – all things that at first glance seem more likely to be factors in adverts’ success. I’ll leave the fine, critical-theory, detail for later, and until I can be persuaded that, in an advert, a jetty is more than just a jetty.


    Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars. You can get a flavour for the book from this discussion, which includes examples. Judith Williamson is a flag on the fantastic semiotics black run.

    Cracking the neural code

    phrenology_head.jpgThere’s a piece in this month’s Adbusters magazine on ‘cracking the neural code‘ as part of a feature on ‘Big Ideas of 2006’:

    Chances are you have never heard of the neural code. And yet, from both a practical and philosophical perspective, the neural code is the most important remaining scientific mystery. Analogous to the machine code of a digital computer, the neural code is the software, set of rules, syntax, that transforms electrical pulses in the brain into perceptions, memories, decisions. A solution to the neural code could – in principle – give us almost unlimited power over our psyches, because we could monitor and manipulate brain cells with exquisite precision by speaking to them in their own private language.

    The article is full of sci-fi speculation, but notes that it is grounded in current scientific developments and particularly the developing field of neuroprosthetics.

    Link to ‘We’re Cracking the Neural Code, the Brain’s Secret Language’.

    I want my NTV

    film_cell.jpgTo follow on from a recent post on videos of neuroscience talks available online, the National Institutes of Health have an additional 129 neuroscience lectures available as streaming video.

    The topics cover everything from Dopamine and Motivated Behaviors to A Different View of the Primary Visual Cortex.

    Some of the talks are on topics completely new to me, like one on ‘ghrelin‘ – which sounds like something you’d find in a health food shop – but I’m sure all will become clear.

    Link to NIH Neuroscience Videocasting.

    Handbags at 40 paces


    Clinical syndromes are not God’s gift to cognitive neuropsychology: a reply to a rebuttal to an answer to a response to the case against syndrome-based research.”

    Caramazza and Badecker get their slap-down in early during a heated 1991 debate on whether it is best to study the symptoms or syndromes of brain injury when attempting to theorise about normal cognitive function.

    Link to PubMed entry for Caramazza and Badecker paper.

    The Mind-Body Problem – Who Cares?

    Guy Claxton said this a few years ago in the Journal of Consciousness Studies:

    Any discussion of the causal status of conscious experience has to start, therefore, with the recognition that what appears to be a dispassionate enquiry is actually a question of life and death importance to which there is only one permissible answer.

    The preceeding context is given below the fold…

    Continue reading “The Mind-Body Problem – Who Cares?”