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Monthly Archives: November 2004

saturday the 4th

If you are in london at the weekend, go to the ICA debate on cults which features Jon Ronson, and has Andrew Brown chairing.

If you are in Sheffield at the weekend, come to the benefit gig The Burton Street Project,
57 Burton Street, Hillsborough. It’s ?7/?5 which goes to The Medical Foundation Caring for Victims of Torture and you get ‘an evening of Latin-American music, with Sally Doherty and her Latin Quartet, Hot food (with a Latin-American flavour!), and a licensed bar’ (behind which i will be serving).

the ideal christmas presents, for monkeys

My friend Stephen sends me this by email, saying:

‘… it turns out that Psychology CAN sometimes be interesting – who would have thought it?

Searching for inspiration about toys that are “gender neutral” for use in Theory of Mind stories today, I came across the abstract below. It seems that some researchers got a grant to give toys to a bunch of monkeys and see which ones the boy monkeys liked and which ones the girl monkeys liked. It turned out that the boy monkeys preferred the stereotypical boy-toys (a car and ball) and the girl monkeys preferred the stereotypical girl-toys (a doll and a pot), which is one in the eye for theories that say boys and girls are only different because we socialise them that way.

P.S. Is it just me, or is anything that involves monkeys (even when it’s
psychology) inherently brilliant.’

And the paper is:

Title: Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus)
Author(s): Alexander GM, Hines M
Source: EVOLUTION AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR 23 (6): 467-479 NOV 2002
Abstract: Sex differences in children’s toy preferences are thought by many to arise from gender socialization. However, evidence from patients with endocrine disorders suggests that biological factors during early development (e.g., levels of androgens) are influential. In this study, we found that vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus) show sex differences in toy preferences similar to those documented previously in children. The percent of contact time with toys typically preferred by boys (a car and a ball) was greater in male vervets (n=33) than in female vervets (n=30) (P<.05), whereas the percent of contact time with toys typically preferred by girls (a doll and a pot) was greater in female vervets than in male vervets (P<.01). In contrast, contact time with toys preferred equally by boys and girls (a picture book and a stuffed dog) was comparable in male and female vervets. The results suggest that sexually differentiated object preferences arose early in human evolution, prior to the emergence of a distinct hominid lineage. This implies that sexually dimorphic preferences for features (e.g., color, shape, movement) may have evolved from differential selection pressures based on the different behavioral roles of males and females, and that evolved object feature preferences may contribute to present day sexually dimorphic toy preferences in children.

I emailed him about blogging it and he said

‘After all, just because there might be something about stereotypical boy-toys that inclines boys towards them (and the same for girls with girl-toys) doesn’t mean we ought to encourage and reinforce gender differences through socialisation – I don’t want to promote some kind of wicked is-to-ought fallacy here!’

The Coriolis Effect

If i’ve got this right, the Coriolis Force is a correction physicists use when calculating equations of motion – it isn’t a real force but a factor used to correct for the relative shift in coordinate frames. While the standard (newtonian) laws of motion can predict, for example, where a cannonball will land if fired with a certain force in a certain direction, they don’t take account that, while the thing is in flight, the reference frame (ie where the earth below is) is changing. So, you have to add a correction in – the coriolis effect.

It’s not an insignificant effect – for example nineteenth century gunnery tables, which the navy used to calculate the direction and force of cannon fire, took into account the coriolis effect. When, in the first world war, the British navy fought a battle in the falklands they found all their shot landed 100 yards to the left. Their calculations took account of the coliolis effect, but only as it works in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere the effect is reversed (which is why the water goes the other way down the plug-hole) and so all the aim of the cannon was by a factor of twice the anticipated coliosis effect.

I hope i’ve got it right – i’m not a physicist, so apologies, I’m writing this from memory from an otherwise unremarkable lecture i went to last night – but, basically, how cool is that?

The evolution of the long-distance runner

In Nature, last week, a review of the role of long-distance running in the evolution of the human form. I guess the importance of endurance-based running in human evolution explains the popularity of jogging…

Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Dennis M. Bramble & Daniel E. Lieberman. Nature 432, 345 – 352 (18 November 2004)
Abstract: Striding bipedalism is a key derived behaviour of hominids that possibly originated soon after the divergence of the chimpanzee and human lineages. Although bipedal gaits include walking and running, running is generally considered to have played no major role in human evolution because humans, like apes, are poor sprinters compared to most quadrupeds. Here we assess how well humans perform at sustained long-distance running, and review the physiological and anatomical bases of endurance running capabilities in humans and other mammals. Judged by several criteria, humans perform remarkably well at endurance running, thanks to a diverse array of features, many of which leave traces in the skeleton. The fossil evidence of these features suggests that endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, originating about 2 million years ago, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.

Quoting selectively, for your enjoyment…

The ER [Endurance Running] capabilities of Homo raise several additional questions, the first being whether long-distance running was an important behaviour in human evolution or merely the by-product of enhanced walking capabilities. Traditional arguments have favoured the latter hypothesis;

Yet walking alone cannot account for many of the other derived features in Table 1 because the mass-spring mechanics of running, which differ fundamentally from the pendular mechanics of walking, require structural specializations for energy storage and stabilization that have little role in walking

Considering all the evidence together, it is reasonable to hypothesize that Homo evolved to travel long distances by both walking and running.

ER may have helped hunters get close enough to throw projectiles, or perhaps even to run some mammals to exhaustion in the heat. Although such demanding strategies have been occasionally documented among modern foragers (see ref. 61), they might have been too energetically expensive and low-yield for the benefits to have outweighed the costs.


Another hypothesis to explore is that ER was initially useful for effective scavenging in the open, semi-arid environments apparently inhabited by early Homo. If early hominids were regularly scavenging marrow, brain and other tissues from carcasses, then ER would have helped hominids to compete more effectively for these scattered and ephemeral resources.

Today, ER is primarily a form of exercise and recreation, but its roots may be as ancient as the origin of the human genus, and its demands a major contributing factor to the human body form.

Links for 24th Nov 2004

My research interests

I’ve just updated my page on the Adaptive Behaviour Research Group webpages at the University of Sheffield (here). It seems that, like scars, i have accumulated a collection of interests within psychology. My A-level history teacher was right, I am an intellectual butterfly, flitting from topic to topc (I’m still hoping that she meant it in a nice way).

My (updated) research interests

  • The cognitive neuroscience of decisions; the interaction of cortical and subcortical sites of attentional and action selection; response selection in the stroop task
  • Learning theory approaches to attitude psychology
  • Social attitudes; social networks & social influence
  • Philosophy of science; especially the role(s) of computational modelling in psychology

    Currently, i am working with SUBR:IM (Sustainable Urban Brownfield Regenation: Integrated Management, looking at residents’ perceptions of risk from pollution, feelings of trust in government behaviour and their desires for the long-term management of brownfield sites.

  • Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore

    More attacks on the notion of deliberate agency. Again, emphasis in the abstract is mine. Looking at the data the effects are far larger than i expected them to be (but i expected them to be pretty small)

    Makes me wonder if my motives for liking Sheffield are anything to do with my surname (but not for long).

    Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions

    Brett W. Pelham, Matthew C. Mirenberg, and John T. Jones

    Because most people possess positive associations about themselves, most people prefer things that are connected to the self (e.g., the letters in one?s name). The authors refer to such preferences as implicit egotism. Ten studies assessed the role of implicit egotism in 2 major life decisions: where people choose to live and what people choose to do for a living. Studies 1?5 showed that people are disproportionately likely to live in places whose names resemble their own first or last names (e.g., people named Louis are disproportionately likely to live in St. Louis). Study 6 extended this finding to birthday number preferences. People were disproportionately likely to live in cities whose names began with their birthday numbers (e.g., Two Harbors, MN). Studies 7?10 suggested that people disproportionately choose careers whose labels resemble their names (e.g., people named Dennis or Denise are overrepresented among dentists). Implicit egotism appears to influence major life decisions. This idea stands in sharp contrast to many models of rational choice and attests to the importance of understanding implicit beliefs.

    different languages, different dyslexias

    Readers of Chinese use different parts of the brain from readers of English, write Brian Butterworth and Joey Tang

    This guardian article is interesting in it’s own right – different phonological and visuo-spatial requirements of reading english vs reading chinese, ‘Chinese dyslexia may be caused by a different genetic anomaly than English dyslexia’, etc – and also because it is an example of two scientists turning their research into popular news form themselves – bravo them and bravo the guardian for letting them do it.

    subliminal interpersonal attraction

    A bit of a killer for notions of personal agency and/or sacred nature of love:

    How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Js: Implicit Egotism and Interpersonal Attraction

    Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004, Vol. 87, No. 5, 665-683

    John T. Jones, Brett W. Pelham, Mauricio Carvallo, Matthew C. Mirenberg

    From the perspective of implicit egotism people should gravitate toward others who resemble them because similar others activate people’s positive, automatic associations about themselves. Four archival studies and 3 experiments supported this hypothesis. Studies 1?4 showed that people are disproportionately likely to marry others whose first or last names resemble their own. Studies 5?7 provided experimental support for implicit egotism. Participants were more attracted than usual to people (a) whose arbitrary experimental code numbers resembled their own birthday numbers, (b) whose surnames shared letters with their own surnames, and (c) whose jersey number had been paired, subliminally, with their own names. Discussion focuses on implications for implicit egotism, similarity, and interpersonal attraction.

    Links for 16th of November 2004


    I have turned on anonymous commenting on the site, so you can comment without leaving an email address. Ideally i’d have it so you leave an email address, but it doesn’t get displayed on the site – but i haven’t worked out how to do that yet (if anyone who knows MT can provide clues i’d be grateful).

    Previously it only displayed your email if you didn’t put in a website, but since not everyone has a website this isn’t ideal.

    Update: Aha! I’ve fixed it. I’ve turned anonymous commenting off, but now if you only leave your email address it isn’t visible on the website (although i should get to see it so i can reply to you personally if need be).

    Here’s how i did it had to edit the ‘Comment Listing’ template (through the web interface) so that

    <$MTEntryAuthorLink show_email="0"$>

    Before it was set to spam_protect=”1″ but it evidently wasn’t working.

    Thanks to Matt for advice and to the MT support forums (here and here) for getting me started

    Links for 10th of November 2004

    Sage Advice

    From Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men:

    “Are you listening?”
    “Yes,” said Tiffany.
    “Good. Now … if you trust in yourself …”
    “… and believe in your dreams …”
    “… and follow your star.. .” Miss Tick went on.
    “… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Good-bye.”

    (via Articulatory Loop)

    Hello Joni Mitchell

    The man with the incredibly long beard and tiny bicycle rode up to our camp and asked if Joni Michell was with us. My first thought was Isn’t she dead? (i was thinking of Janis Joplin). I worried that the dust-covered hippy was trapped in some sort of flashback, on a doomed search for an icon of those lost decades. One thing i was certain of though, and i told him: Sorry, she isn’t here.

    Of course, I was wrong.

    The guys next to our camp had built an eighteen foot scaffold-platform. It gave a great view of the whole festival – you don’t have to get very high up in a flat desert formed of an ancient lake-bed to get a good vantage over everything else. So one day, at dusk, I climbed the platform, and took some photos; including this one of our camp:

    Someone from one of the other camps saw me and called up to ask if she could join me. I said sure, and got ready to snap a picture of her as she pulled herself onto the platform. When she was safely on i said Hi, I’m Tom

    Hi, she said, I’m Joni.

    So, Joni Michell, whereever you are, hello – and here’s that picture I got of you:

    I’ve got the last lot of photos back from the festival, and they’re now up at the gallery i made

    straight answers on stripping

    The Guardian’s The Feminist column provides a straight answer on a thorny moral question:

    Q: I’ve found out that my fiance’s best friend is planning to take him to a strip club on his stag night. It’s not the kind of thing he would normally want to do, and I hate the thought of him going. Do I ask them to make other plans?
    A: Stripping is often regarded as a difficult and complex issue. Surely women should be allowed to strip if they want to, the argument goes. After all, some strippers say they are empowered by the experience; others, that it gives them an erotic thrill. And the money allows them so much freedom! And they’re providing such a fantastic service for socially disabled men. This is basically the same argument that is rolled out in defence of prostitution and other “sex work” (a terrible expression: never use it). But actually there is nothing difficult or confusing about stripping: it is straightforwardly wrong. Men who ought to know better leave these clubs with the impression that sometimes it’s OK to treat women like lumps of meat – it is not. Ideally, your fiance will come to this conclusion all on his own. But just in case he doesn’t, you should probably explain to him pretty carefully how you feel. Strip clubs humiliate and degrade women, and you will be degraded the moment your partner walks into one: this is the time to side with the Andrea Dworkins of this world, not the Annie Sprinkles.

    (emphasis in the answer mine)

    The Filing Problem: Some More Replies

    And just a couple more comments which arrived by email, on the filing problem, and solutions

    GP Says:

    I opt for the ‘disorganised piles in boxes’ approach, and a brain which alway knows that ‘I’ve read something about that somewhere, now what was it and what did I do with it…’. It doesn’t work very well, but neither has it ever crashed…
    If you come up with a good system let me know!

    JS Says (in ps)

    PS. My colleague, Dan, (who’s very into data visualisation) mentioned – which probably doesn’t help too much, but is quite cool. Dan says “if your brother wants to talk about self organising maps, I’m more than willing”.

    Quotes about investigating the brain

    Some quotes from Eric Chundler’s page of quotes about the brain:

    The peculiar fascination of the brain lies in the fact that there is probably no other object of scientific enquiry about which we know at once so much and yet understand so little.

    Gerd Sommerhoff (from Logic of the Living Brain, 1974)

    I am often reminded of the image that one might just as well try to understand the sort of people that live in a city like Los Angeles by looking at the traffic patterns on the freeways, as to look at the transmission characteristics in the brain and expect to tell what sort of houses the people lived in, and whether they had Picassos on the walls or perferred the music of the Beatles.

    W. Ross Adey (from The Mind: Biological Approaches To Its Functions, 1968)

    Since the brain is unlike any other structure in the known universe, it seems reasonable to expect that our understanding of its functioning – if it can ever be achieved – will require approaches that are drastically different from the way we understand other physical systems.

    Richard M. Restak (from The Brain. The Last Frontier, 1979)

    But if the brain is not like a computer, then what is it like? What kind of model can we form in regard to its functioning? I believe there’s only one answer to that question, and perhaps it will disturb you: there is no model of the brain, nor will there ever be. That’s because the brain, as the constructor of all models, transcends all models. The brain’s uniqueness stems from the fact that nowhere in the known universe is there anything even remotely resembling it.

    Richard Restak (from The Brain Has A Mind of Its Own, 1991)

    Links for 4th Nov 2004

    ramachandran interview

    An interview I did with V S Ramachadran has just appeared in the November issue of The Psychologist magazine (free online access in six months time, if you want the PDF now email me).

    Not all of our conversation made it into the published article, so here is an extra bit of text that has nowhere else to be. Prof. Ramachandran had been speaking at the Winchester Festival of Art and the Mind about the psychological laws which underlie the construction and appreciation of visual art:

    TS : You say your “universal laws” may pertain to less than 10% of art…the remaining 90% of variance being driven by culture. But couldnt an art historian argue that it is precisely this 90% thats interesting about art? Isn’t the universal 10% just about perception rather than art?

    VSR : Well it depends on what you mean by “interesting”… the question is interesting for whom? Art historians are interested in the 90% .. its what they do for a living. Scientists, on the other hand, are interested in precisely the 10% that cuts across cultural boundaries.

    Secondly I prefer to use the phrase “Aesthetic universals” or “laws” rather than “laws of ART”. Art is a loaded word that has now come to mean anything and everything that anyone wants to call “art” – such as Damien Hirst’s pickled cows- and thats not a good place for a scientist to start. If you dilute the meaning of the word art to encompass any entity – then there isn’t much to study.

    Third your suggestion that the 10% I’m calling “universal laws” applies only to the earlier less interesting perceptual component of art rather than aesthetic response is based on the now out-moded strictly modular hierarchic bucket-brigade view of perception put forward by David Marr, Fodor and other AI researchers who knew very little about the brain. The boundary between where perception ends and where visual aesthetics begins isnt all that clear cut.. in fact there are probably innumerable feedback messages from high level object parsing, limbic emotional circuits, and so called perceptual principles of object segmentation … these feedback signals are what generate the multiple “aha” signals for each partial glimpse of object-like chunk; “Ahas” that the artist exploits. As I said its “visual foreplay before the climax of recognition and arousal”.

    an enslaved global market

    First, watch this – What Barry Says – not just because it is damn impressive, but because it will make the rest of this post make more sense.

    Now, I agree with a good part of this movie, but when the narrator suggests that America would invade France or Britain this is silly and unhelpful. First, the US government wouldn’t order the invasion of France except in the most extreme of circumstances – we know they like to bomb people, but they like to a) bomb people who don’t matter so much (ie everyone who isn’t white) and b) have the pretense of legitimacy (more on (b), below). Secondly, suggesting the US might invade France or Britain – and including the line at the end which was something like “none of us really matter to them” – makes the message unnecessarily divisive. It pits America and Americans against the rest of the world. If you swallow that message you’ve just accepted the worldview of the people who are running the show. Really it’s a dangerous cabal in the american government who are waging actual wars on other countries but also wars on human rights, democracy and civic life within the west too, and with the complicity of all western governments. Yes, “none of us really matter to them” but ‘us’ is the majority of people in the world, and ‘them’ is the elites, and the corporations they control. Being American doesn’t mean you’re benefiting from corporate sponsored perpetual war, and suggesting so – or even just leaving the implication open like this video – is totally wrong headed and harmful. Love america, the cradle of the best and the worst, just hate the government- get it straight!

    So back to the first thing – the invasion of Britain and France. Cycling in today, I was thinking that maybe, bear with me on this getting the US army to invade the UK might actually be the way forward. I mean, what better way to demonstration to everyone the ultimate logic of hegemony? I’m not sure what kind of thing would be sufficient to induce the US to invade our green and pleasant land (suggestions on a postcard…) but it would be a marvelous proof – to people here, to people in the US, to the whole world – of the ruthlessness of empire and a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the idea ‘if US economic interests are sufficiently threatened they will stop at nothing to re-secure them’. The scenario would have to be pretty extreme to get this to happen (maybe global oil reserves vanish overnight apart from a new, multi-billion gallon, oil-well discovered under Pontefract) but could it happen?

    But then i got to thinking about the reasons why, although the cold structural logic of the such an invasion is impeccable, it would never happen. When you glimpse the structural logic of international relations, see the strings pulling the puppets, you can be excused for getting initially entranced by it. You want to explain the whole show in those terms – and indeed any explanation would be incomplete without them – but there is other logic operating. Governments that pretend to democracy must include that ritual as part of their operation. The problem with a hard structuralist’s cynicism is that it denies the value of this ritual, and thus becomes self-fulfilling. If we cease to believe that democratic institutions – things like voting and parliament – are relevant then our apathy will make them irrelevant. The illusion that is democracy will be stretched as far as public cynicism will allow it. On the other hand, our effort and commitment to the illusion can make governments respect it. They must maintain the illusion, and we must make sure that doing so is hard. Who cares if it is an illusion for which beaurocracies (corportate and non-corporate) have no need for? These structures are pilotted by individuals, individuals who will only suffer so much dissonence before they will change their actions.

    All of this demonstrates that i am a liberal through-and-through and hence a) make me sick and b) will be first against the wall when the revolution comes.