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Monthly Archives: July 2004

Dualism and Neuroimaging

I can’t recommend highly enough Descarte’s Baby by Paul Bloom. I never found developmental psychology particularly interesting until recently. Bloom’s book is a great example of why I should have paid more attention to the field. He combines an evolutionary framework and a solidly cognitive approach to address (read ‘speculate on’) the things that are at the very heart of humanness.

One point he makes which doesn’t make it into my review for The Psychologist– which is embarrassingly gushing anyway – is the idea that our innate disposition towards dualism helps explain the popular appeal of neuroimaging research. The amazement that greets an fMRI experiment showing the involvement of the frontal lobe in thinking about whether to ask for a rise, or the involvement of your parietal lobe in thinking about how to assemble Ikea furniture [2] can be reduced to / explained as a simple amazement that anything to do with mind has a correspondence in the brain. Of course, to a cognitive neuroscientist that’s axiomatic. But to the layperson maybe their unquestioned dualism means they are still impressed that cognitive activity produces biological effects.

Persistent dualism might also be part of the reason that the ‘We only use 10% of our brains’ myth is so common. To a neuroscientist it’s a (sorry) no-brainer – Did you think that 90% of that 1.2 kg of your body was just sitting there, with no purpose?!– but many people still think of themselves as eternal souls, not as biological machines. From this point of view it seem entirely plausible that what we perceive as us could be pretty much independent of our brains.


[1] Descarte’s Baby – How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom
Publisher: William Heinemann. Date, Price & Format: July 1st, 2004, ?20 Hardback

[2] I just made these examples up, sorry. But you get the idea.

Links for 30th July 2004

A gob of spit in the face of art

From the first page of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, sander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…

Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris in 1934 but banned in Miller’s native US until 1961. I found a copy for 20p last summer while foraging in the charity shops of Sheffield. I bought it, mostly because I’d heard Tom Lehrer mention it. And because it was only 20p. I read the first page in the kitchen of the house at Steade Road and fell in love with the book immediately. I don’t think that’s happened with more one or two other books (Gormenghast? Catch-22? Can’t think of any others).

The rest of the book doesn’t carry on in the same self-conscious style, but it completely forfills the initial promise. Miller writes from a time-period I associate more with stuffy classist English novelists than with the revolutionary invention of the modern voice (note to self, should have paid more attention to Hemmingway and Orwell). He writes like a beat poet twenty years before Kerouac and the other beat poets. And unlike Kerouac not a single word has gone stale.

It’s the prose equivalent of the heart sutra – neither defiled nor pure – all the transcendence, but with more whoring and drunkeness.


Bless the heart of the British Psychological Society. I’ve just discovered that their email system has a profanity filter which protects their staff from receiving mail containing any vulgar words.

I found this out after emailing the editor of The Psychologist magazine about a research summary we may publish in the magazine. I’ve put the citation which tripped the profanity filter at the end of this post so, gentle reader, please be warned and avert your eyes if you are of a sensitive disposition:

Dong, C., Sanchez, L.E. & Price, R.A. (2004). Relationship of obesity to depression: A family-based study. International Journal of Obesity, 28, 790-795.

update: Jon, the editor, informs me that the offending word falls on their list in between ‘dildo’ and ‘dothead’. Thank goodness the BPS protects employees from this kind of filth…

update 2It has just occured to me that it is a little strange that BPS employees cannot receive emails with profanities in, but they can evidently send them

giving psychology away

I remain skeptical as Philip Zimbardo [1] promises that Psychologists are positioned to “give psychology away” to all those who can benefit from our wisdom. I don’t think we’ve had such a good track record over the years – psychosurgery, electroshock re-education, ECT, psychiatric medication, Freudianism – what makes us so sure that now psychological science is ready to go out and tell people how to run their lives (again).

And even though there are undoubtably true and useful bits of psychological research I think the market could benefit from more skepticism about the truth and usefulness of psychology, not more hard-sell about the wonder-benefits of ‘scientific’ approaches to the mind.

But hey i guess i should shut up until i can get hold of a copy of the full article to read.

[1] Does Psychology make a significant difference in our lives?
By Zimbardo, Philip G. American Psychologist. 59(5), Jul-Aug 2004, 339-351.

Links for 26th July 2004

Job Security

I’ve only ever heard two kinds of arguments or implied arguments about laws which enforce job security

(1) From the worker-perspective: they are good. Job security improves quality of life, peace of mind, etc.

(2) From the company-perspective: they are bad. Job security hinders flexibility, stops rapid responding to changing economic conditions, etc

Now I’ve only been passively absorbing information on this and I’m not claiming to have made anything like an active search for alternative arguments, but I suspect that the fact that I haven’t encountered a third kind of argument reflects the fact that it isn’t made as often, or as clearly-

(3) From the company-perspective: they are good. Commitment to job security encourages companies to seek out sustainable and stable business strategies.

Not just good, but good for everyone! I wonder if the argument isn’t made because it is a two-time point / second-order kind of argument, rather than a simple ‘If X happened i could/couldn’t do Z’ kind of argument. You need to represent a more profound kind of counter-factual to think about this third line of reasoning; not just if the company needed to downsize it couldn’t, but because downsizing is harder the company would alter circumstances so that it would be less likely to need to downsize.

Understanding sampling

Thanks to Kat for this, from

People ? often do not have a good sense of the limitations of sample-based research. Warren Cordell, chief statistical officer at Nielsen for many years, devised a wonderful visual explanation for [the United States] Congress, which went as follows. The picture (below) is comprised of several hundred thousand tiny dots (the population).

The three smaller pictures contain 250, 1,000 and 2,000 dots (the samples). They are ‘area probability’ samples of the original picture, because the dots are distributed in proportion to their distribution in the picture. If we think of homes [or persons, consumers] instead of dots, this is the sampling method used for most media research studies.

Now move back 30 inches or so. When the eye stops trying to read the dots, even the smallest sample provides a recognisable picture (you can use top-line data). But you would have trouble picking her out of a group of women based on the 250-dot sample (do not try reading demographic breaks). At 1,000 dots, if you squint to read the pattern of light and dark, you would recognise her in a group (now you can read major demographics). At 2,000 dots, you see her more clearly – but the real improvement is between 250 and 1,000 – an important point. In sampling, the ability to see greater detail is a ‘squared function’ – it takes four times as large a sample to see twice the detail. This is the strength and weakness of sample-based research. You get the general picture cheap, but precision costs a bundle.

Links for 19th of July 2004


I wanted to post this as a comment on onemonkey‘s post about cool german words but i couldn’t get it to work so…

Weltschmerz, literally “world-pain”
[OED] ‘A weary or pessimistic feeling about life; an apathetic or vaguely yearning attitude’

Interesting Times

It would be prejudicial to the national interest and the conduct of the government’s foreign policy if the English courts were to express opinions on questions of international law concerning the use of force by the United Kingdom and other states which might differ from those expressed by the government and advanced by it in the conduct of international relations.

– Permanent Undersecretary of State Sir Michael Jay, July 1st

As James said, “Come again? Government accountability? Separation of judiciary and executive? Wishy-washy liberal nonsense…”

Or as Michael Jay might have said “The government does what it likes and we do what we’re told”

Will chips in

If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara

Phil Ochs, musician, 1940-76

Quote #42

When the Tao is lost, there is virtue.
When virtue is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is the law.
The law is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 38

Links for 15th of July


The young sea squirt swims the oceans. When it finds a comfortable rock to settle down on it attaches to it by the head and proceeds to digest its own brain – a brain which would be of no further use during an uneventful future of filter-feeding.

Sea Squirts, aka tunicates, also aka urochordata, are more than just a curio from marine biology. Sea squirts are more closely related to humans than any other invertebrate group – evolutionary biologists reckon that they resemble the ancient last common ancestors of all vertebrates.

The brains they have in the larval form are really just a rod of nerve cells, a notochord. But it’s this notochord, found in its most primitive form in the sea squirts, which defines the phylum to which all birds, fishes and mammals belong. We humans could, ultimately, be just a development on the larval form of these slimy plankton eaters.

Nicol suggested to me that this means there might be a genetic switch which could still be flipped in humans, and would give us a strong urge to press our heads to the nearest rock face, digest our brains and move no more.

I think maybe it’s already happened, except that the switch is memetic, not genetic. The rock is a sofa and the digestive juices responsible for atrophying our brains are the emissions from the TV.

An additional curious note about tunicates is that they use a rare metal, vanadium, to bind oxygen in their blood, rather than iron (like humans) or copper (like squid). What this means for the sofa/TV/brain digestion analogy I don’t know.

What is power

Something about Leunig at his best leaves me speechless. It’s the expression of that idea, but without leaving me any referrent I could pass on to anyone else. I’m left, dumb, pointing, mouthing “look! look! That’s it!”

omnia mutantur, nihil interit

Five years ago there was a Kronenberg 1664 advert with a fantastic french hip-hop track on it. I promised my girlfriend I’d find out what it was and get a copy.

Well, thanks to this site and my housemate‘s CD collection i’ve found it.

Apologies for the small delay, but, Naomi, if you still want the track I now have a copy and it’s Mc Solaar’s A La Claire Fontaine from his album Prose Combat.

I liked you better when you were drunk

Stumbled upon this spoofed vid of George Bush and Tony blair singing a duet of ‘Enduring Love’ to each other this morning.

It set me looking for more spoofed vids and i came across this vid of Dubya drunk at a wedding. Lots has been made of Dubya’s drug and alcohol problem, and all the sites I found hosting this video held it up in mockery and/or condemnation. But i have to say, loath him as I do, i found myself warming to him during the inpromptue interview he inadvertently gave at the wedding.

George, please drink more and bomb less.

a maturational timetable

The order in which different brain areas reach maturity must be crucial to how activity-guided development creates functional specialisation (there’s good stuff on this in Rethinking Innateness). Here’s a maturational timetable (via) for different brain areas:

Notice that it’s areas associated with audition that finish myelination first (in the womb), and the neocortex which finishes last (about 25 years later).


Elman, J., Bates, E., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking innateness: A connectionist perspective on development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

What kind of response is conscious experience

Like a dutiful embodied cognitivist i believe that what we’re doing affects how we think. Or, on a more mircoscale, that the task we’re engaged in affects the how we process the stimuli we’re sensing. Not just how we process the stimuli in the sense of the parameters of the processes used to deal with it, but that the actual processes themselves alter – and not always in ways we have personal insight into.

So, as part of my duties i was re-reading Goodale & Milner’s (1992) classic paper “Separate visual pathways for perception and action”. They discuss research that shows that motor systems aren’t fooled by various illusions – so that with things like the muller-lyer illusion, our fingers reaching to grab the object are not fooled in the same way as our eyes are fooled in providing us with information on size. They go on to say:

The functional modules supporting perceptual experience of the world may have evolved more recently than those controlling actions within it

But that’s just an aside. The question that jumps out at me is, if the type of response affects stimulus processing, what kind of response is conscious experience?


1. Goodale MA, Milner AD (1992). Separate visual pathways for perception and action. Trends in Neurosciences, 15(1), 20-25.

Office supply catalogue reads like mid-period Radiohead sleeve notes

Artificial plants which are so real, you’ll be tempted to water them. They are virtually maintenance free – just give them the occasional dust down and they will last for ever. Your chosen display is carefully packed to reach you fully arranged and ready to site where you want to enhance your interior environment. Packed with full care instructions.

The increasing growth of call centres and open plan offices have made screens ever more popular. Greater numbers of people now work within single areas and this has naturally been accompanied with an increased need to control these environments. Optical distractions and disruptive noises can affect productivity, cause agitation and be detrimental to staff welfare. Desktop screens can divide working areas to give a sense of personal space while still enabling group interaction. Personal items such as photographs can also be pinned to screens to create an individualised and more inspiring work area.

Not fiction – emailed to me by my friend James from office catalogue he was using at work.

Links for 1st July

Rat vs Man, part 2

Like i said, the rat is more spinal cord than cortex, whereas the human is more cortical than spinal cord by a factor of nearly forty. Does anything else happen as we stagger up up the phylogenetic ladder? Well there’s a whole lot of crinkles added…



Let the record show

Extending the war into Iraq would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Exceeding the U.N.’s mandate would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.

From “Why We Didn’t Remove Saddam” by George Bush [Sr.] and Brent Scowcroft, Time Magazine, 1998

Via Let the record show: 10,000 civilian casualties so far.