Monday, 5 December 2011

Moral Psychology in the News

Two papers have caused a flurry of media attention about moral psychology in the past week.

The first, "Virtual Morality", was a replication of the standard Trolley Problem with a twist. Instead of being a pen-and-paper description of the scenario, the study's authors actually produced a virtual reality implementation of it - and found that participants' decisions didn't alter significantly from the standard method of presenting it. Although the virtual reality part is what's caught the media's attention, I found the most interesting point to be the finding regarding the relationship between autonomic arousal and utilitarian choice; the higher the arousal, the less likely the participant is to choose the utilitarian option.

The second article, "Judgement Before Principle", found evidence suggesting that the tendency to judge harmful actions more harshly than harmful omissions arises automatically; the condemnation of harmful omissions is due to controlled cognition over-riding the effect. I've not had the chance to read the paper thoroughly yet, but it sounds like it was a neuroscientific follow-up to Cushman's earlier paper "The Role of Conscious Reasoning and Intuition in Moral Judgement".

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Boston Dynamics - the creator of the Big Dog robot - have released a new video of their latest project, PETMAN.

It's come a long way since this prototype version from two years ago. It's certainly a very impressive project, but I'm really curious to see how it behaves off a treadmill...

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Psychology of Fraud

After the Marc Hauser case last year, it might have been reasonable to think that we wouldn't see another scandal hit psychology for a while (although it'd be a slightly better bet that the Hauser story wasn't finished yet).

Alas, that hasn't turned out to be the case, as a highly cited Dutch psychologist - Diederik Stapel - has been found outright falsifying the data for at least thirty papers (some of which were published in journals as highly regarded as Science). What does this mean for social psychology? I don't know; it's not my field, and the Nature article I linked to above quotes Oxford psychologist Miles Hewstone as suggesting that Stapel's work wasn't actually that influential. So the tentative response is; not much.

I can't say I'm optimistic about the effect it will have on the reputation of psychology as a whole, though. The field really needs to figure out some way to improve its public relations; a case in point is this article, which implicitly suggests that both the recent fraud cases and the sheer number of criticisms from within the field threaten to disrupt the "fragile respectability" that psychology has only "recently" earned. Whether that's the case or not, it's pretty clear that psychology desperately needs to improve its image.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Friday, 7 October 2011

In celebration of Ada Lovelace day...

I encourage you all to take a look at Maggie Boden's work. Her book The Creative Mind was probably one of the main reasons I moved back to psychology and cognitive science, as opposed to purely being interested in the philosophy of mind.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Need an introduction to artificial intelligence?

Stanford is offering a free course here, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Norvig in particular is one of the biggest names in AI - the textbook that he and Stuart Russell wrote, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, is essentially the classic in the field - (Thrun is also ridiculously highly cited, even if I'm less familiar with his work) and the syllabus for the course looks like it covers a lot of ground.

Registration is open until the 9th of October, with the class actually starting on the 10th of October, so sign up if you're interested!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Jane Austen was a Bayesian

... well, no, she wasn't, actually (as far as I'm aware), although the quirkily named paper Prior and Prejudice [PDF] in August's issue of Nature Neuroscience introduces Bayesian inference by appeal to her work. It's an interesting overview of two studies which appeared in the August and July issues of Nat. Neuroscience, and "create convincing links between psychophysical performance and neuronal representations using the formalism of Bayesian inference"; Fischer and Pena's Owl's Behavior and Neural Representation Predicted by Bayesian inference and Girschick et al.'s Cardinal rules: visual orientation perception reflects knowledge of environmental statistics.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Rats and the "Wave of Death"

Bit of a morbid topic for this post, but an article examining what happens in the brains of decapitated rats recently came to my attention. To be fair to the scientists involved, they're investigating whether euthanasia by decapitation is humane, but the idea still seems somewhat... grim.

Issues of personal queasiness aside, the paper did find something interesting;

Remarkably, after 50 seconds (awake group) or 80 seconds (anesthetized group) following decapitation, a high amplitude slow wave was observed. The EEG before this wave had more power than the signal after the wave. This wave might be due to a simultaneous massive loss of membrane potentials of the neurons. Still functioning ion channels, which keep the membrane potential intact before the wave, might explain the observed power difference.

This "wave of death" is suggested by the authors to reflect "the ultimate border between life and death". The question arises as to whether this wave is irreparably damaging to the cells involved, something which the authors apparently intend upon researching in future.

On a somewhat related note, the authors also argue that conscious brain activity probably vanishes a scant few seconds after decapitation, making the process a reasonably humane method of disposing of unwanted rodents.

A related study, published more recently, develops a computational model to attempt to account for this "wave of death" phenomenon. Of particular note is the end of the paper, where they argue against the wave as a biomarker of clinical death;

Irreversible functional damage due to oxygen and
glucose deprivation most likely occurs from damage to synapses,
rather than from cell death itself. In line with this perhaps
surprising result, cells from neocortical slices from adult human
brain obtained several hours postmortem, can survive for weeks in
vitro. We therefore reject the claim in the paper by van Rijn
et al. that this particular phenomenon can be used clinically to
determine brain death. In fact, this wave does not imply death,
neither of neurons nor of individuals.
In summary, our simulations and the data presented from
experimental physiology show that the ‘‘Wave of Death’’ reflects
the sudden change in membrane potential due to anoxic
depolarization, that is a direct result of the Hodgkin-Huxley
dynamics and ion concentrations. Although the wave is indeed a
typical signature of the final membrane voltage changes of neurons
suffering from severe oxygen and glucose deprivation, it is not a
biomarker for irreversibility.

A pair of pretty interesting papers, all round. Hopefully they'll inspire some fascinating follow-up research.

Rijn CMv, Krijnen H, Menting-Hermeling S, Coenen AML (2011) Decapitation in Rats: Latency to Unconsciousness and the ‘Wave of Death’. PLoS ONE 6(1): e16514. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016514

Zandt B-J, ten Haken B, van Dijk JG, van Putten MJAM (2011) Neural Dynamics during Anoxia and the “Wave of Death”. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22127. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022127

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Blocking in Learning

Sometimes I stumble across a really simple concept that I feel like I should have known, and perhaps even at one point did know. "Blocking" is just one of those concepts, which I found in David Shanks' Annual Review of Psychology paper Learning: From association to cognition.

The basic idea is pretty simple. In classical conditioning, when a neutral stimulus is presented alongside an unconditioned stimulus that generates an unconditioned response, that neutral stimulus normally becomes a conditioned stimulus that causes a conditioned response. The classic example is, quite obviously, Pavlov's dogs; the smell of food (US) caused salivation (UR). When a bell was rung (NS) at the same time as the dogs' food was served, the dogs eventually began to salivate when they heard the bell - a conditioned response. The dogs had learnt to associate the bell with being fed.

That's all well and good. If, however, a second neutral/conditioned stimulus is introduced after an association has been made between CS1 and the US, and presented consistently with CS1, then little to no association will be made between CS2 and the US. To demonstrate with a thought experiment; if I make an association between, say, eating peanuts and having an allergic reaction, then experiencing an allergic reaction after eating peanuts and drinking beer won't make me associate beer with an allergic reaction. The association between CS2 (beer) and US (allergic reaction) has been blocked.

It's simple enough, but I found the effect interesting due to the implications it raises as to how the learning process actually works in humans and other organisms.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The BPS on the APA's DSM

So the British Psychological Society have published a response to the American Psychiatric Association's development of the DSM-5, the forthcoming edition of what is frequently (and perhaps worryingly) referred to as the "bible" of mental illness. The response is public and worth, at the very least, a quick read. Some points I found noteworthy;
"The Society recommends a revision of the way mental distress is thought about, starting with recognition of the overwhelming evidence that it is on a spectrum with 'normal' experience, and that psychosocial factors such as poverty, unemployment and trauma are the most strongly-evidenced causal factors. Rather than applying preordained diagnostic categories to clinical populations, we believe that any classification system should begin from the bottom up – starting with specific experiences, problems or ‘symptoms’ or ‘complaints’."

"While some people find a name or a diagnostic label helpful, our contention is that this helpfulness results from a knowledge that their problems are recognised (in both senses of the word) understood, validated, explained (and explicable) and have some relief. Clients often, unfortunately, find that diagnosis offers only a spurious promise of such benefits. Since – for example – two people with a diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘personality disorder’ may possess no two symptoms in common, it is difficult to see what communicative benefit is served by using these diagnoses. We believe that a description of a person’s real problems would suffice."
On gender dysphoria;
"Of particular concern are the subjective and socially normative aspects of sexual
behaviour. We are very concerned at the inclusion of children and adolescents in
this area. There is controversy in this particular area – the concept of a ‘diagnosis’ of
a ‘psychiatric disorder’ disputed.

Labelling people who need help as ‘ill’ may make supportive and therapeutic
responses more difficult."
On neurocognitive disorders;
"We have no specific comments on these disorders, other than to say that, in our
opinion, the use of diagnostic labels has greater validity, both on theoretical and
empirical grounds in these areas."
On paraphilias;
"We believe that classifying these problems as ‘illnesses’ misses the relational
context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems. ... of particular concern are the subjective and socially normative aspects of sexual behaviour. It is a matter of record that homosexuality used to be considered a symptom of illness. The Society would not be able to support considering sexual differences as symptoms of illness.

We, finally, have severe misgivings about the inclusion of “Paraphilic Coercive
Disorder” in the appendix. Rape is a crime, not a disorder. Such behaviours can, of
course, be understood, but we disagree that such a pattern of behaviour could be
considered a disorder, and we would have grave concerns that such views may offer
a spurious and unscientific defence to a rapist in a criminal trial."

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Checking In

I haven't completely forgotten about this blog, just so any readers know, and I should be giving it a redesign at some point in the near future.

While I'm here, some (very) quick thoughts on a BBS paper that hit headlines a few weeks back - Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber's "Why do humans reason?" The vague premise of the article is that humans developed the ability to reason primarily as a method of devising and evaluating arguments in social settings.

To Mercier and Sperber, reasoning is both a primarily social phenomenon, and also a uniquely human one; they even explicitly state that "there is no evidence that [reasoning] occurs in nonhuman animals or preverbal children". This possibly counter-intuitive claim is because they make a distinction between reasoning and inferences, the latter of which are unconscious processes. They do clarify that what they're calling "reasoning" is also referred to as system 2 reasoning in dual process theories (with "inferences" being system 1 reasoning), which is language I'm considerably more comfortable with. But anyways.

There's definitely merit to their proposal (as suggested by the large proportion of respondents who are supportive of the paper, which is - as far as I know - a rarity for BBS articles), but I suspect that Mercier and Sperber are a little too quick to dismiss the alternative (or, perhaps, complimentary) hypothesis that (system 2) reasoning evolved in order to facilitate long-term planning.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Keele's philosophy department not to be closed

Thanks to campaigning by students, faculty, alumni and others, it appears that Keele's administration has decided to not pursue the possible plans to close its philosophy department and centre for professional ethics. The university will still be attempting to reduce costs in the departments concerned and their respective schools, but closure is apparently off the table and there will be a fresh intake of students this September.

A good day for UK philosophy. Congratulations to all at Keele.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Possible closure of philosophy department at Keele University

Worrying, and not just because it's my alma mater. Keele isn't the first UK university in the past few years to attempt to close its philosophy department - Liverpool tried unsuccessfully, Middlesex successfully - but it's still very disappointing to see another institution attempt to shut down research into one of the oldest academic subjects.

Facebook group for saving philosophy at Keele
Facebook group for saving the Centre for Professional Ethics
Peter Kail comments on Brian Leiter's blog
New APPS has a brief post about the potential closure
Iain Brassington comments at the BMJ Group's blog
Andrew Willetts discusses the background of the proposal on his blog Political Details

There was also a petition calling for an emergency general meeting of Keele's student union, which has apparently been successful.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Quantum Mind?

I can't say that I hold much sympathy for theories of either consciousness and/or cognition that invoke quantum mechanics, and I'm well aware that it's hardly a majority view, but after reading that Searle has apparently recently endorsed the view I became curious as to how many proponents there actually are.

Penrose and Hammeroff are, of course, the most famous quantum mind theorists; Penrose's two books The Emperor's New Mind (1989) and The Shadows of the Mind (1994) being the main explications of his idea that human thought features some non-algorithmic elements. There are plenty of critical replies to both ENM and SotM; Grush & Churchland (1996), Tegmark (2000) and Chalmers (1995) being some of the more well known names who have published responses.

Speaking of Chalmers, he himself has expressed some sympathy for the possibility that quantum mechanics might be linked to consciousness (Chalmers, 1996; 2002). I can't say that I received the impression whilst reading him that he thinks the possibility is likely, however; he merely thinks that it's an option that shouldn't be ruled out, similar to his views on panpsychism.

Henry Stapp is one name I occasionally hear in relation to quantum theories of mind, but I literally know almost nothing about his work.

Searle's (2007) argument, which caused me to start thinking about this topic, is as follows;

Premise 1. All indeterminism in nature is quantum indeterminism.
Premise 2. Consciousness is a feature of nature that manifests indeterminism.
Conclusion: Consciousness manifests quantum indeterminism.

I'm not sold on the truth of either premise (I'm honestly not knowledgeable enough about physics to either agree or disagree with the first, and the second seems untrue), but it's nonetheless an interesting claim. I've yet to properly read through the book which contains this argument, so perhaps Searle will manage to convince me of its veracity.

Apart from the views listed above, I can't really think of (or find) any other major proponents of quantum mind theories. If anyone stumbling across this blog can give me reading recommendations, I'd appreciate it!


Chalmers, D.J., (1995), "Minds, machines and mathematics", Psyche, 2(9), 11-20
Chalmers, D.J., (1996), The Conscious Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Chalmers, D.J., (2002), Consciousness and its place in nature, in (S. Stich & F. Warfield, eds) The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind, Blackwell
Grush, R. & Churchland, P.S. (1995), "Gap's in Penrose's Toilings", Journal of Consciousness Studies, 21, pp. 10–29
Penrose, R., (1989), The Emperor's New Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Penrose, R., (1994), Shadows of the Mind, New York, Oxford University Press
Searle, J., (2007), Freedom and Neurobiology, Columbia University Press
Tegmark, M., (2000), "The importance of quantum decoherence in brain processes", Physical Review E, vol 61, pp. 4194–4206

Monday, 7 February 2011

Female PhDs in Psychology

There's a curious graph making the rounds, made by Kieran Healy, regarding the percentage of US PhDs awarded to women in 2009. Most of the discussion I've seen regarding said graph is related to the remarkably low levels of female philosophy PhDs (~30%), which is interesting enough, but the findings for psychology seem equally surprising to me; apparently over 70% of psychology PhDs were awarded to women. Why the skew?

I could wax lyrical about psychology possibly being a stereotypically female field and thus naturally attracting more women to it, but that would be mere conjecture. Let's look at the data, which Kieran helpfully provided. My first question is; what exactly is that "psychology" datapoint on the "Selected Disciplines" graph showing? Is it all psychology fields aggregated together, or merely generic psychology PhDs? I remain unsure; in the detailed data, "psychology/general" shows ~68% women, whereas "psychology/aggregated" shows ~66% - neither of which match the ~72% displayed on the "Selected Disciplines" graph.

Regardless of where that >70% figure cames from, the aggregated total for all psychology sub-fields is still very much female-dominated. Breaking that aggregate down into its components, however, yields some fairly interesting results; cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics is the most evenly distributed field, with 48% of PhDs being issued to women. Experimental (62%), physiological (63%) social (64%) and family (65%) psychology all show a slight female bias.

The really female-dominant fields, however, are counselling (76%), clinical (77%), school (77%) and educational (78%) psychology. The most female-heavy subfield is, without a doubt, developmental and child psychology, with apparently 85% of all PhDs issued being awarded to women. It's probably unsurprising that the female-heavy areas of psychology are the ones most associated with stereotypically "feminine" subjects; other educational subjects display an equally high percentage of PhDs issued to women.

So what this data shows us, then, is that generic psychology is not as female-slanted as it appears at first glance; rather, much of the subject seems to be surprisingly well-balanced in terms of gender population, with some certain subfields overwhelmingly populated by women. Not to say that this is a bad or undesirable state of affairs; I just thought that the initial placing of psychology was curious, and wondered what the explanation for it might be.

Monday, 24 January 2011

“When discussing psychological research, what surprises every economist or physicist is that psychology has no theory.”

Psychology, as subjects go, tends to have a fairly bad reputation regarding its scientific credentials. For the most part I think that reputation is unfounded (perhaps unsurprisingly), but one persistent criticism stands out – the argument that psychology lacks any sort of unified theory, a necessity for a field to qualify as scientific under a Kuhnian viewpoint.

An article written by Gerd Gigerenzer was recently published in the journal Theory and Psychology discussing this state of affairs, and what he thinks can be done to solve it. In short, Gigerenzer’s view is that psychologists are currently failing to integrate their findings into overarching theories, and – perhaps more importantly – must learn how to construct such overarching theories in the first place.

To go into slightly more depth about the content of his paper, Gigerenzer bemoans how psychologists are generally “content working within the confines of their own small territories”; contemporary psychology is, he suggests, “a patchwork of small territories, resem­bling, to use a political metaphor, Italy or Germany before unification around 1870”. The insinuation is made that psychologists are skirting around this issue; Gigerenzer notes that he has written about the lack of over-arching theory in psychology before, and that those papers are amongst his least cited.

He makes the proposal that theory construction should be taught to students of psychology; not exactly an unreasonable suggestion. Many current theories in psychology, Gigerenzer argues, differ from those in other subjects on a number of dimensions – “The nature of parameters in a theory … formal versus verbal theories, optimization versus heuristic processes, as-if models versus process models… domain-specific versus domain-general theories...” – and that student psychologists need to be taught that the construction of good psychological theories should mirror the construction of good theories in other fields. The possibility of physics envy aside (and, perhaps, economics envy?), it’s hard to find fault with this proposal.

A large chunk of Gigerenzer’s paper is then dedicated to explicating two specific elements of teaching theory construction; the first being the study of the history of previously developed theories. One of the main methods of theory generation in psychology, Gigerenzer suggests, springs from the adaption of psychologists to a new tool; what he calls the tools-to-theories heuristic. Examples he gives of such theories include signal detection theory arising from the Neyman-Pearson hypotheses testing method, and Bayesian theories of cognition arising from Bayes’ theorem. The second element that he then discusses is the art of spotting things which claim to be theories, yet are not. Gigerenzer’s most prominent example of such “surrogate theories” is the classic “Why does opium make us sleepy? Because of its dormative properties”; the theory doesn’t actually explain anything about opium’s effect, it merely redescribes the effect using different terminology.

Gigerenzer’s proposal is certainly an interesting one, although I’m not sure optimism is warranted when wondering whether psychologists as a group will listen. Perhaps the most pertinent question that it raises to my mind, though, is; why does psychology seem so averse to theory unification? At what point did that become a quality of the field? Gigerenzer certainly isn’t the first to notice it; Hans Eysenck, in his last submitted paper (published after his death) argued that the unification of disparate psychological subfields was necessary in order to produce theories with greater explanatory power. Howard Gardner has noted that psychology seems to be fracturing, with some aspects of the field apparently merging with cognitive science and neuroscience (those aspects probably being the ones I fall into), and some blending into cultural studies.

The theoretical unification of psychology still seems like a work in progress, which is… disappointing, I suppose. Despite the possibility of further fragmentation (the myriad of post-cognitivist views springing to mind), though, I can’t help but be optimistic about the future of the field.


Esyenck, H.J. (1997), Personality and Experimental Psychology: The Unification of Psychology and the Possibility of a Paradigm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(6), 1224-1237

Gardner, H. (1992), Scientific Psychology: Should we Bury it or Praise it?, New Ideas in Psychology, 10(2), 179-190

Gigerenzer, G. (2010), Personal Reflections on Theory and Psychology, Theory & Psychology, 20(6), 733-743

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Emotion recognition

I'm still on a fairly extended holiday, and just wanted to post something brief about an interesting article in the NY Times which discusses the technology of a company called Affectiva. The most notable product that Affectiva offers - from my limited perspective - is their Affdex expression recognition technology, which is designed to detect the affective state of an individual.

I'm of the opinion that machines which interact with humans regularly are eventually going to require some manner of a theory of mind, and Affdex seems like an impressive piece of progress towards that possible goal.