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Monthly Archives: February 2004

‘Satan’, er, i mean ‘green’!

Still on the look out for cognitive neuroscience bloggers i’ve found Brain Waves, Cog News, Psychscape, Brainworld and, also, Cognitive Engineering, who reports on hearing a radio evangelist evoke the Stroop effect to explain the temptation of evil. Apparently:

?just like you need great concentration and will-power to prevent reading the name of the word, you need great strength to prevent the temptations and influences of Satan.?

I hear the nascent field of neuro-theology beckoning!

Inner speech – I’m talking to myself again

I’m still worrying about the development of individual perspective. The evolutionary psychologist in me is absolutely skeptical of the idea that our cultural development might have created a radical change in individual self-consciousness (a Jaynesian rewrite of the software of self-perception).

Can we be confident that a change in the historical expression of individual perspective is a different thing from the fundamental experience of individual perspective in history? (If only Nagel had written What Is It Like To Be A Pre-Renaissance Artist instead). By assuming there is a fundamental human experience to look for, am I already too deeply enmeshed in the fascistic reductionism of biological psychology?

So, ultimately, this is the question: can our experience of ourselves as agents be altered by our culture. Or perhaps more useful, how can our culture affect our experience of ourselves? Next week: cross-cultural evidence. But this week: developmental evidence.

Young children speak to themselves all the time. In fact the majority of their utterances are self-directed rather than other-directed. This is strange for something – language – which is an ability which can only be learnt in a social context. Laura Berk has written a good introduction to this Why Children Talk to Themselves.

As they get older the tendency for self-talk diminishes – it becomes internal speech. A child who is learning not to speak aloud can be developmentally reverted by being made to perform some tricky task. They then need self-instruction to help guide their actions (i seem to remember some experiment in which the participants – either adults or children, i can’t remember now – were forbidden from self-instructing aloud and their performance decreased. Need to chase the details).

So, obviously, externalising thoughts as speech does cognitive work – we can then operate on those representations, and this reflexion is in turn easier if those representations are placed in our short-term auditory memory with the force that comes from them being made physical sounds rather than merely sub-vocally articulated.

Inner speech seems analogous in some way to the development of silent reading – it’s so natural now that it’s hard to spot that it needed to be invented. The question is would inner speech be discovered independently by each child during development, or would it need to be culturally discovered. Imagine if, as an adult society, we never developed the use of inner speech. We would be forced to rely on actual social interaction to perform the cognitive work of internal speech.

This might be a reason why privacy was a non-concept before the modern period – the cognitive costs were too high. It might explain why adults so often tell children off, and each other, for talking to themselves – it’s the historical legacy of a culture that had to learn to internalise speech.

A bookish personality

You’re Brave New World!
by Aldous Huxley
With an uncanny ability for predicting the future, you are a true psychic. You can see how the world will change and illuminate the fears of future generations. In the world to come, you see the influence of the media, genetic science, drugs, and class warfare. And while all this might make you happy, you claim the right to be unhappy. While pregnancy might seem painful, test tube babies scare you most. You are obsessed with the word "pneumatic".

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

(via Neil)

Calling all cog sci bloggers

I’ve added to the links on the left – I’m trying to compile a list of bloggers with an interest in the cognitive sciences. Andrew Brown is hilarious with wide interests, including evolution and consciousness. Carl Zimmer is authoritive on evolution and biology. Steven Johnson has just published Mind Wide Open. Ade is a friend of a friend who i shamelessly google-stalked, and she linked to Casper, who also seems to have somethings to say about cogsci. I just stumpled across Jef Allbright while looking for something else and he seems to have enjoyably eclectic interests.

Incidentally, the blogger Andrew Brown of helmintholog isn’t the Andrew Brown who is a friend (and occassional co-author of mine) or the Andrew Brown who is chair of the advertiser’s association!

So, does anyone know any one else for the list?

Complex Adaptive Systems and political economy

Below are two sets of notes. The first on Philip Ball’s Critical Mass: A new Physics of Society. The second on Dan’s thesis Do we need nature?. This title is taken from the Economist/Shell essay competition, by the way. The winner of this year’s competition is a sharp retort to the question Do we need nature? – An interview with a Fungus on the topic Do we need mankind? Containing the marvellous observation (by the fungus)

Poor quality information tends to ferment into low-grade entertainment. Under the sulphurous glare of continuous, worldwide news broadcasts, human institutions ? government, military, religious, the culture itself ? became subjects of human amusement. This unrelenting, self-referential entertainment left a large part of mankind chronically inebriated and fundamentally uneducable.

There’s more. It’s a good read. But not strictly relevant to these notes, which cover the application of systems theory to economics and politics.

Critical Mass (Philip Ball)

Notes on Critical Mass: The Physics of Society by Philip Ball (2004, William Heinemann).

Also informed by his appearence on at the ICA on the panel debate Dying of Consumption and lecturing at the Royal Institution.

Philip Ball’s massive tome is full of ideas, but I can’t but help but feel that he’s not saying anything radically new. This might come from having lived with Dan and hence being happily privilaged in my available head-food.

Anyway, he’s a very British writer. Unlike those other guys (Gladwell, Buchannan) he doesn’t read like someone who spends half their time in business consultancy seminars. He reads like someone who is too well read for their own good. The historical and philosophical context he gives to the ideas is a joy, although not really as motivating as the high-octane brashness of the New World science writers on the same topic). His deconstruction of conventional economic theory (more of this at the NEF debate than in the book perhaps) is classic and convincing.

The material is what you might expect, but done by someone with a rigourous background in the hard sciences. Self-organisation, phase transitions, emergent dynamics (slime moulds, flocking behaviour), chaos, attractors, bifucation points (and hightended senstivity to noise at the same), power-laws (aha, a Power Law, i hear you say, the signature distriubtion of mutual influence amoung sub-units of a system), small worlds, preferential attachment (DLA) networks, evolutionary game theory…

There’s a nifty demo of crowd dynamics at

An interesting observation: the tension between predictive scientific social models and individual free will has a historical ancedent in the nineteenth century discovery of statistical regularities in population statistics. 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 (or don’t choose) to kill themselves there? The use of such statistics was deeply controversial at the time, in a way that’s hard to fully appreciate now.

The important point
The value of a physics of society is that it is an attempt to understand how global phenomena can arise from local actions. Philip Ball is saying that, yes, there is a kind of intelligence to the group (but not that it is sublime).

Thinking about the studies that inform Critical Mass, and Dan’s thesis, what other lessons are there from CAS? (I’m going to adopt Dan’s term and use CAS – Complex Adaptive Systems – to subsume a whole managerie of theories dealing with dynamic, iterated, evolutionary, chaotic and/or computational models of both the cellular and agenic types).

– non-linearity. Don’t always look for [simple] causation, don’t say small things can’t have big effects and don’t always expect big things to cause large changes .

(see the discussion of, e.g., ‘broken windows theory’ in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point)

– theory won’t do the work for you. You must investigate each system and establish it’s workings

– we need to recognise that markets are constructions and, alhtough they operate in complex and adaptive ways, we inevitably play a role in defining the framework within which they operate.

(as if buying and selling are acts divorced from culture! As if culture isn’t a political construction! Ha!)

– level crossing. There is reciprocal causation between individual and group behaviour (Remember mamet on polls)

I think – and I should credit many hours squabbling with ralph for this – the use of CAS in politics and postmodernism are grappling towards a way to express the same kind of ideas, to talk about the same kinds of, non-intuitive, systems. There is the same deconstruction of agency, the same willingness to cross levels of analysis, to recognise the the validity of multiple similtanous views rather than stick dogmatically to one paradigmatic/ideological view.

Another observation by PB(in response to a question on catastrophe theory at the RI lecture): Catastrophe theory ‘came and went’ because it was a phenomenological theory.
(reminds me about the stuff in my thesis about explanation. What constitutes an explanation? A theory which connects a phenomenon to the behaviour of more fundamental elements. Catastrophe theory just posits a dynamic without an attempt to investigate the instantiation of that dynamic. Sounds familiar…).

Two miscellaneous quotes:

By developing mathematical and computer models of the spatial patterns of communities ranging from traditional villages to modern towns, Hillier and Hanson have shown that urbanisation tended to increase and diversify people’s interactions up until the time when new templates for planning were introduced during the Industrial Revolution
– p173 (see Hillier & Hanson (1984) The Social Logic of Space. CUP, p266).

Batty and Longley calculate that between 1820 and 1962 the fractal dimension of London increased from 1.322 to 1.791
– p186

Do we need nature?

Notes on Dan Olner’s Do We Need Nature? Master’s Thesis; 2004. Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. (basic topic: Complex Adaptive Systems and political economy).

The point for me was:
Both the left and the right utilise CAS to justify a faith in the self-organising nature of either markets and/or social movements. Further, it is astounding that the left don’t appear to realise that they are echoing the traditional rational of the right. And it’s astounding that both sides appear not to question the assumption that spontaneously emerging outcomes will be desirable.
– the leftist view, says dan, is characterised by the belief that ‘right’ action will crystallise into the world directly .

(in my thesis I made a contrast between emergent explanations and transparent explanations – ie those in which the functionality of the sub-units is directly manifested in the functionality of the whole. It seems analagous).

(i think the Axelrod stuff on evolution of altruism / iterated game theoretic approaches to ethics is relevant here. As an example, we might instinctively asign absolute pacifism a kind of moral superiority, but if we take a (socially) wider view, immediate retribution is kinder to everyone because it discourages future law-breaking)

– the rightwing view, in my opinion, is characterised by the failure to acknowledge that markets are willful creations of culture, not an independent realm resting outside of culture.

We’re still a long way from absorbing this way of thinking and truely moving to the next level in our thinking. To wit, to quote Dan (p12)

Presuming that such dynamics did exist, what do political actors do about it?

What indeed. I think we need to understand CAS, not so we can stand in awe at their function (although we should do that too), but so that we can develop laws, institutions and habits which work with physics of society rather than against them (this was how Philip Ball concluded last week’s lecture at the Royal Institution. I thought it was platitudinous at the time, but now I think he’s spot on. This is the area where we need to focus our attention).

On the political theory side of things, Dan discusses the way political ideologies define what is natural and use that to say what can and cannot be interfered with legitamately. He also makes an observation that seems the complement of one of Philip Ball’s. Dan says: political ideologies always try to recruit science to legitimise their claims – so we should be wary when listening to political claims involving science. Philip says that, historically, those who attempt to use the scientific method to derive political convinctions usually end up merely deducing the conclusions that they were theoretically pre-disposed prefer – so we should be wary when listening to scientific claims involving politics.

Dan also observes that CAS-style thinking is taken to indicate the bankruptcy of carterian rationality. ‘Yes!’ I’d say. And i think this comes through from Critical Mass as well. There is no ‘utopia theory’, in the sense of a theory which will provide your solutions in advance. If there’s any way to use CAS politically it is in the rejection of grand-narratives (how postmodern), a skepticism of ideologically-led prescriptions. We can use these concepts in understanding complex systems, but they aren’t going to do the work for us. Each complex system will be different and we will need to do the work ourselves in finding out how. Don’t theorise – investigate!

Perhaps one moral. Evolution has done quite well with designing complex systems. Evolution is a tinkerer. Let’s tinker.

Further to this, there was an interesting In Our Time a few weeks ago about Lamark. The panel discussed the strands of evolutionary theory which connected with Lamark (and his famous fallacy). Seems Lamarkianism is part of a deep vein of evolutionary thought which emphasises organism-environment interaction to a greater extend than individually, and intra-individually, focussed neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Something to be aware of.

What’s wrong with mob rule?

Just finished David Mamet’s A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays and one essay Poll Finds started me thinking about problems with democracy and choice (a hopeless task!).

We make awful choices as collectives – look at the newspapers we choose, the television we watch, the music we buy, the fast-food chains we make rich. But I have faith that we’re better than that. So why do we allow ourselves to be sold it? I’m convinced that part of the answer is the difference between what we’d really like and what we’re willing to put up with; Another part is the increasing size of markets; and partly it’s a culture of hype and fear that has chosen to put quantity over quality at ever turn (or am i starting to sound like a hysterical lefty?). But here’s another point, from Mamet, a bizarrely conservative liberal…

The viscious aspect of the poll is that it submerges the individual’s responsibility of choice…the person who answers the poll has no responsibility; they are asked how they feel at any given moment, and the very inducement to answer is this: you will have no responsibility for how these statistics are used: you are free, you are, in fact encouraged to answer as self-interestedly as you wish: for a moment there are no restrictions on your libido.

…As pollings has replaced voting as the method of electing our officials, our capacity to stand alone, to think alone, to be content while being in the wrong has all but evaporated….our acceptance of the poll is our rejection of our own thoughts or ideas because to hold them in opposition to ‘majority opinion’ is not as important as to be thought ‘right.’ And there we have American Fascism, in which we become our own dictator, and have forced on ourselves the will, not of others, but of the lowest aspect of ourselves; and this slavery has been forced on us not by the threat of death or torture, but by the threat of the momentary discomfort of being in the wrong.

Given what we know about the power of social influence we should expect essentially arbitrary, but majority, positions to gain strength. An obsession with polling can on exacerbate (more iterations!) this feedback between perceived group position and individual standing. (see also Arrow’s Possibility Theorum; via Crooked Timber).

Can we conclude that there are situations where too much information/communication is (democratically) a bad thing? Is this one of the points where the libertarian (and, incidentally standard economic) theoretical notion of the individual breaks down in the face of human socio-cognitive biases?

What should i do with my life?

Two quotes from Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life. An annoyingly complacent piece of American self-help literature on the one hand, but on the other I’m a sucker for bite-sized wisdom…

Three guys laying bricks are asked why they’re doing it. The first guy says, ‘I’m doing it for the wages.’ The second guy says, ‘I’m doing it to support my family’. The third guys says, ‘I’m helping to build a cathedral.’


…it is likely that we fall in love with people who bring out the part of ourselves that we’d like to see more of.

Am I Somebody Yet?

An unusually hysterical, but i thought zeitgeist-catching, article from the guardian – Bums and Deceit. You can kind of tell it was written by someone under the influence of lots of painkillers (and daytime tv)

…when you look like Barbra Streisand after three weeks under water and your pain relief is preventing you from tying, or even recognising, your own shoes, then you’re in the perfect condition to stay at someone else’s house and watch cable TV. So now I finally have a proper grasp of what’s important in modern life. And mainly it’s tits…
…I am now completely up to speed on the vital issues of the day. Is your sofa new enough? Are your teeth white enough? Is there enough fat in your arse to inflate your head in case of emergency? And are you spending enough? Because if you’re only spending what you’ve got, that’s not enough – you need to be IN DEBT. Not just a little bit overdrawn, I mean proper, wake up screaming, selling your underwear, Russian roulette in Soho basements to win back your kidneys debt.

This article, Celebrity nobodies, by Piers Morgan has an anecdote which just drips with the existential devestation of our celebrity culture. It is the audition for one of those Pop Idols-type programmes.

a young, totally anonymous woman called Tara looks at the camera and squeals: “Oh my God, everyone’s looking at me – they don’t even know who the camera is here for but they think I am someone. I might be someone … am I someone yet?” Told “not yet”, she replies: “But I will be soon won’t I? I love it!”

Photo Galleries working

I finally managed to get the PHP for my photo gallery working. Seems that PHP 4.2.0 and higher have a different default value ‘register_globals’ (it’s now set to ‘off’) meaning that you need to explicitly pass variables between functions. All i did was add $_REQUEST[‘var’]; in two places and it started working again.

It also means that I can host my friend Hugh’s photos and feel very jealous of his Nepal-Thailand trip.

Top of the pops

If you live in Sheffield people will occasionally tell each other that it is the 4th largest city in the UK. Then you have to spent time trying to work out what the others are. Of course it depends where you draw the boundaries. But provides this list:

City Population
London 7,074,265
Birmingham 1,020,589
Leeds 726,939
Glasgow 616,430
Sheffield 530,375
Bradford 483,422
Liverpool 467,995
Edinburgh 448,850
Manchester 430,818
Bristol 399,633

Which i think goes to show that size isn’t everything. Incidentally, if you live in Sheffield and need reminding, there’s a list of good things about the city here

– 7.2% of Sheffield’s working population are employed in the creative industries, well above the national average of 4%
Sheffield is officially the safest city in the UK (according to Government statistics)
– One third of Sheffield is within the Peak District National Park (no other UK city has a national park within its boundary)
– Sheffield is England’s greenest city, containing 150 woodlands and 50 public parks
– Half of the City’s population live within 15 minutes of open countryside
– Sheffield offers the highest level of funding assistance anywhere in Europe for inward investors

And now Sheffield is lonesome for her heroes!

Events in london

Just a few things coming up in london.

World Music by Steve Waters at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre. The premiered in Sheffield last year. The play has stayed with me since that time. I’ve seen more moving, or more engaging plays (not that it was in anyway emotionally flat or boring) but I don’t think i’ve ever seen a play that left me thinking for so long. Over the last month or so – and remember this is six months after I first saw it – I think I’ve finally decided on what I think the message of the play was. I’m going to see it again with a bunch of guys (including these two) and I can test out my theories on them.

The play has two settings: an african village, in a Society that sounds suprisingly like Rwanda, twenty years ago and the corridors of the European Parliament in the present day. Geoff Falen, then a naive gap-year student, now a socialist Euro MP, is torn between loyalties to his friends, his family and his principles. I didn’t think any play with scenes in the European Parliament could be gripping, but this is.

Also coming up in london is a talk on the 5th of March by Manuel DeLanda
at the Tate.

a New York based philosopher and science writer with an exceptionally cross-disciplinary body of work. Often drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, he has written on nonlinear dynamics, theories of self-organization, artificial life and intelligence, chaos theory as well as architecture, and the history of science. DeLanda is currently a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Columbia University. His publications include War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History and Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. DeLanda will be joined by Olafur Eliasson and Doreen Massey.

Bring it on.

At the recent anti-apathy / NEF event I found out about London Farmer’s Markets – which have to be one of the best things in the world. Buy fresh produce, meet the people who grow it, and cut out the middle man (supermarket) giving you cheaper food and them more profit. A full list is available here. (Incidentally the next NEF roadshow is in Vauxhall on the 18th of Feb)

quote #9

An example of implicit academic knowledge maybe? This simile, which Nicol told me last night, is actually pretty true and funny, trust me.

A Nature paper is like a red sports car that flashes past at 100 mph. A paper in Journal of Neuroscience is like a Rolls-Royce that cruises passed at a comfortable pace

Researching science

I’ve been thinking about how you find out the facts – the scientific facts – on a topic. As an academic you develop a set of prejudices, almost unconsciously at times, which help you deal with the riddle of too much information. You know what kind of paper makes it into Nature, from your field. You know how much to trust something published in Trends in Neurosciences compared to Perceptual and Motor Skills (for example). You’re also plugged in to a structure (the Academy) which provides easy access to colleagues, journals, conferences and hence filters and recommends information. You’re immersion lets you develop a judgement for how plausible new information is – you can spot bullshit.

Move out of the University, or move fields, and you lose some or all of that. If you’ve never worked as a professional academic, then you don’t even know what you’re missing. Do you even know that publication in peer-reviewed academic journals is the gold standard for any data? That for many scientists, evidence can in some way be said not to exist until it is peer-reviewed?

Anyway, I wrote some notes for the BBC intranet (research.gateway > science for anyone able to look there) which i’ve also put here. Anyway, if anyone can think of things that should be known by documentary researchers who don’t have a scientific background, but who are researching scientific topics let me know.

From psychology/neuroscience i’ve realised that Behavioural and Brain Sciences have a free on-line archive and so does CogPrints. Both potentially useful if you’re looking for papers to get started on a topic and you don’t have library access.