Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mirror Self-recognition in Monkeys; Really?

A new article regarding the mirror test of self-recognition is making some pretty large waves.

The mirror test is fairly simple; apply a mark to some agent's forehead, so that the mark isn't visible unaided, then provide the agent with a mirror. If the agent rubs - or seems generally curious - about the new mark on its own head after looking at it in the mirror, then that's evidence that the agent recognised the reflection as being itself - self-recognition. Adult humans pass the test, small children don't. A few non-human animals pass, as well - great apes, dolphins, elephants.

What's interesting about this new study is that monkeys normally fail the test; what's different in this study? Instead of placing a mark on the monkeys, the monkeys had received implants for a prior experiment; in previous research into whether monkeys possessed mirror self-recognition (MSR), only a mark was used - one that only provided a visual stimulus, not a tactile one. We might assume (reasonably) that the implant provided an additional tactile stimulus, so the monkeys were receiving two forms of novel stimulation from this new addition to their forehead. This, presumably, provided the extra salience necessary to make the monkey pay attention to its reflection - and perhaps make the connection that this reflection was virtually identical to its self.

More discussion (and videos of the monkeys) here and here; I found Frans de Waal's comment that self awareness may occur on a gradual scale both interesting and very reasonable. This new study might not demonstrate that monkeys have self-awareness in the same way that humans do, but it may well demonstrate that they have the capacity for a relatively high degree of self awareness.

Rajala, A.Z., Reininger, K.R., Lancaster, K.M., & Populin, L.C. (2010), Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Do Recognize Themselves in the Mirror: Implications for the Evolution of Self-Recognition. PLoS ONE, 5(9): e12865. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012865

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Wired Mind

Vaughan Bell posts a lot of interesting articles on his website, Mind Hacks, but this paper by Bavelier, Green & Dye particularly caught my eye. It's a discussion of the interaction between modern technology and cognition; quite rightfully, the authors take it for granted that technology affects cognitive development. That, in and of itself, is a fairly trivial statement - everything we interact with affects our cognitive development, surely?

The important question is how modern technology is affecting our cognition. To further specify the question they should be seeking to answer, the authors also note that referring to "technology" as a single entity is as ridiculous as suggesting that there is only one kind of "food"; if one asks "How does food affect physical development?", your answer is going to vary wildly depending upon what type of food you investigate. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that the same is true for technology; what type of technology is involved in cognitive development is important.

The discussion that follows from this clarification is fairly interesting, and pleasantly devoid of the sensationalism that talk of technology's effect on the mind can sometimes contain. The authors seem fairly hopeful that newer technologies may eventually lead to improved theories of learning - something which I share their optimism for. Video games, in particular, seems particularly useful within the context of psychological and neuroscientific experimentation, and I know some game companies actively work with researchers in an attempt to benefit their own designs - Valve, as a good example, has an in-house psychologist.

So the cognitive sciences can benefit from utilising modern technology in research, and designers of modern technology can benefit from utilising the research of the cognitive sciences. Seems like a win-win scenario, doesn't it? Maybe - hopefully - there will be a proliferation of communication between the two areas in future.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Planning Process

Finished my MSc yesterday, and since I currently have no job or firm PhD position, I have a little bit of free time. This post is just me clarifying my own thoughts on what I want to be writing about over the next few months. I'll be aiming to get at least some of these papers published, but who knows whether that will actually happen*.

Dissociative Identity Disorder and psychological moral status: Following on from my MA dissertation and as a response to an argument by Tim Bayne, I want to claim that if we accept Derek Parfit's view of personal identity than integrative treatment of DID does not necessitate the destruction of a full moral agent - which Bayne suggests might be the case if we accept a psychological theory of moral status. A very, very condensed version of this paper was presented at the INPP's 13th annual conference, and is available on my page.

Theoretical unification of psychology; is it feasible, and is it desirable?: Something that's pretty explicit in psychology as a whole is the lack of conversation that researchers in the various sub-fields have with each other. Cognitive psychologists don't talk to social psychologists don't talk to developmental psychologists don't talk to behavior analysts don't talk to... There are exceptions to this, of course, but for the most part the sub-fields are rather distinct and can sometimes feel like entirely different subjects. The question, then, is this; should psychology attempt to close the gap between its sub-fields, as some have suggested, or should it embrace this distinction for providing different perspectives on a single phenomenon? I genuinely think this is an important question about psychology as a field, and that there's not nearly enough discussion about it.

Conscious awareness of advantageous strategies in the IGT: My MSc project. Despite submitting it for my course, I'm still not entirely happy with it, and thus feel the need to give it a bit more polish over the next few weeks.

Wagering methods as a measurement of conscious states; how reliable are they?: Kind of a theoretical addendum to my MSc project. There's been a bit of discussion by writers such as Anil Seth about what wagering methods of confidence are actually measuring, and I'm not entirely sure that I agree with previous interpretations - or at least, I think that the topic deserves a bit more discussion.

Now I just need to start writing, I suppose.

*Pessimism; that very British virtue.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Creative Machine

I'm uncertain about exactly how common this intuition is, but it seems that fairly frequently people find the idea that a program - an artificial intelligence - could be creative is ridiculous. The thought that we can develop a cognitive model of something as uniquely and irreducibly human as creativity seems absurd, right? How could a model or program ever account for works like this;

The problem with such an intuition is that it appears that cognitive models of creativity are possible. The music playing in the video linked above was written by a program, trained by its creator - David Cope - to write music he enjoys listening to. There are some good links about theories behind cognitive views of creativity and an example of another artistic program, AARON, on this page.

One of the earliest projects in artificial intelligence, DENDRAL, was even explicitly designed to generate and test scientific hypotheses. I would call that, too, a form of creativity, although much of the literature on creativity tends to focus on the artistic side rather than the scientific one. How different the two forms of creativity are, I'm uncertain; food for thought, perhaps.