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Monthly Archives: April 2008

‘looking out’

Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’
I said, ‘What thing is that?’
She said, ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’
I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’
Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’
I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’
She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tell you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. What ever it is we dont come naturel to it.’

Russell Hoban, in Riddley Walker, p6

Reed pressed to sell arms fair business

Reed Elsevier, the publisher and exhibitions group, will be challenged tomorrow by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) at its annual general meeting over its failure to sell its controversial defence exhibitions business….However, sources insisted that a sale was a matter of weeks away, with private equity-owned Clarion Events, the organiser of The Baby Show and the London International Horse Show at Olympia, the preferred bidder.

Full article in yesterday’s Times: link

The Constructive Character of Remembering

We must, then, consider what does actually happen more often than not when we say that we remember. The first notion to get rid of is that memory is primarily or literally reduplicative, or reproductive. In a world of constantly changing environment, literal recall is extraordinarily unimportant. It is with remembering as it is with the stroke in a skilled game. We may fancy that we are repeating a series of movements learned a long time before from a text-book or from a teacher. But motion study shows that in fact we build up the stroke afresh on a basis of the immediately preceding balance of postures and the momentary needs of the game. Every time we make it, it has its own characteristics.

Bartlett, F. C. (1995). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge University Press. my emphasis

a rope for the neck of the tsar

If I dig in the mines of the frozen north,
I’ll dig with a will; the ore I bring forth
May yet make a knife – a knife for the throat of the Tsar.
If I toil in the south, I’ll plough and sow
Good honest hemp; who knows, I may grow
A rope – a rope for the neck of the Tsar!”

A nineteenth century jewish anarchist hymn, apparently, quoted in “Jenks, C. (2004). Urban culture: critical concepts in literary and cultural studies. Taylor & Francis.”. I’d love to hear the rest if you’ve got it

Quote #218

It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonising, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!

Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’, 1934

against commuting, for plastic surgery

In Pursuit of Happiness: Empirical Answers to Philosophical Questions
Pelin Kesebir and Ed Diener
Perspectives on Psychological Science
March 2008 – Vol. 3 Issue 2, pages 117–125

Since the early studies showing that lottery winners were not happier than controls and that even paralyzed accident victims revert approximately to their initial levels of happiness (e.g., Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978), the hedonic treadmill theory—the idea that our emotional systems adjust to almost anything that happens in our lives, good or bad—has been embraced by psychologists as a guiding principle in happiness research. In affiliation with the hedonic treadmill model, the set-point theory posits that major life events, such as marriage, the death of a child, or unemployment, affect a person’s happiness only temporarily, after which the person’s happiness level regresses to a default determined by genotype (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996). The implication of these assertions is that no matter how hard we try to be happier, adaptation on the one hand and our temperament on the other will ensure that our venture will remain just a futile rat race with an illusory goal.

Our conviction is that the time is ripe for a revision of hedonic adaptation theories. Accumulating evidence reveals that, even though adaptation undeniably occurs to some extent and personal aspirations do rise and adjust, people do not adapt quickly and/or completely to everything (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener (2003, 2004), for example, have observed in a 15-year longitudinal study that individuals who experienced unemployment or widowhood did not, on average, fully recover and return to their earlier life satisfaction levels. Other studies have shown that people hardly, if ever, adapt to certain elements in their lives such as noise, long commutes, or interpersonal conflict (Haidt, 2006), whereas other events such as plastic surgery may have long-lasting positive effects on one’s psychological well-being (Rankin, Borah, Perry, & Wey, 1998).

perception as the potential for sensation

From O’Regan, J. K., & Noë, A. (2002). A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(05), 939-973:

Particularly interesting is the work being done by Lenay (1997), using an extreme simplification of the echolocation device, in which a blind or blindfolded person has a single photoelectric sensor attached to his or her forefinger, and can scan a simple environment (e.g., consisting of several isolated light sources) by pointing. Every time the photophotosensor points directly at a light source, the subject hears a beep or feels a vibration. Depending on whether the finger is moved laterally, or in an arc, the subject establishes different types of sensorimotor contingencies: lateral movement allows information about direction to be obtained, movement in an arc centered on the object gives information about depth. Note several interesting facts. First, users of such a device rapidly say that they do not notice vibrations on their skin or hear sounds, rather they “sense” the presence of objects outside of them. Note also that at a given moment during exploration of the environment, subjects may be receiving no beep or vibration whatsoever, and yet “feel” the presence of an object before them. In other words, the experience of perception derives from the potential to obtain changes in sensation, not from the sensations themselves. Note also that the exact nature or body location of the stimulation (beep or vibration) has no bearing on perception of the stimulus – the vibration can be applied on the finger or anywhere else on the body. This again shows that what is important is the sensorimotor invariance structure of the changes in sensation, not the sensation itself.

Lenay, C. (1997) Le mouvement des boucles sensori-motrices aux représentations cognitives et langagières. Paper presented at the Sixième Ecole d’Eté de l’Association pour la Recherche Cognitive.

Rock climbing hacks! (now with added speculation)

I’m going to tell you about an experience that I often have rock-climbing and then I’m going to offer you some speculation as to the cognitive neuroscience behind it. If you rock-climb I’m sure you’ll find my description familiar. If you’re also into cognitive neuroscience perhaps you can tell me if you think my speculation in plausible.

Rock-climbing is a sort of three-dimensional kinaesthetic puzzle. You’re on the side of rock-wall, and you have to go up (or down) by looking around you for somewhere to move your hands or feet. If you can’t see anything then you’re stuck and just have to count the seconds before you run out of strength and fall off. What often happens to me when climbing is that I look as hard as I can for a hold to move my hand up to and I see nothing. Nothing I can easily reach, nothing I can nearly reach and not even anything I might reach if I was just a bit taller or if I jumped. I feel utterly stuck and begin to contemplate the immanent defeat of falling off.

But then I remember to look for new footholds.

Sometimes I’ve already had a go at this and haven’t seen anything promising, but in desperation I move one foot to a new hold, perhaps one that is only an inch or so further up the wall. And this is when something magical happens. Although I am now only able to reach an inch further, I can suddenly see a new hold for my hand, something I’m able to grip firmly and use to pull myself to freedom and triumph (or at least somewhere higher up to get stuck). Even though I looked with all my desperation at the wall above me, this hold remained completely invisible until I moved my foot an inch — what a difference that inch made.

Psychologists have something they call affordances (Gibson, 1977, 1986), which are features of the environment which seem to ‘present themselves’ as available for certain actions. Chairs afford being sat on, hammers afford hitting things with. The term captures an observation that there is something very obviously action-orientated about perception. We don’t just see the world, we see the world full of possibilities. And this means that the affordances in the environment aren’t just there, they are there because we have some potential to act (Stoffregen, 2003). If you are frail and afraid of falling then a handrail will look very different from if you are a skateboarder, or a freerunner. Psychology typically divides the jobs the mind does up into parcels : ‘perception’, (then) ‘decision making’, (then) ‘action’. But if you take the idea of affordances seriously it gives lie to this neat division. Affordances exist because action (the ‘last’ stage) affects perception (the ‘first’ stage). Can we experimentally test this intuition, is there really an effect of action on perception? One good example is Oudejans et al (1996) who asked baseball fielders to judge were a ball would land, either just watching it fall or while running to catch it. A model of the mind that didn’t involve affordances might think that it would be easier to judge where a ball would land if you were standing still; after all, it’s usually easier to do just one thing rather than two. This, however, would be wrong. The fielders were more accurate in their judgements — perceptual predictions basically — when running to catch the ball, in effect when they could use base their judgements on the affordances of the environment produced by their actions, rather than when passively observing the ball.

The connection with my rock-climbing experience is obvious: although I can see the wall ahead, I can only see the holds ahead which are actually within reach. Until I move my foot and bring a hold within range it is effectively invisible to my affordance-biased perception (there’s probably some attentional-narrowing occurring due to anxiety about falling off too, (Pijpers et al, 2006); so perhaps if I had a ladder and a gin and tonic I might be better at spotting potential holds which were out of reach).

There’s another element which I think is relevant to this story. Recently neuroscientists have discovered that the brain deals differently with perceptions occurring near body parts. They call the area around limbs ‘peripersonal space’ (for a review see Rizzolatti & Matelli, 2003). {footnote}. Surprisingly, this space is malleable, according to what we can affect — when we hold tools the area of peripersonal space expands from our hands to encompass the tools too (Maravita et al, 2003). Lots of research has addressed how sensory inputs from different modalities are integrated to construct our brain’s sense of peripersonal space. One delightful result showed that paying visual attention to an area of skin enhanced touch-perception there. The interaction between vision and touch was so strong that providing subjects with a magnifying glass improved their touch perception even more! (Kennett et al, 2001; discussed in Mind Hacks, hack #58). I couldn’t find any direct evidence that unimodal perceptual accuracy is enhanced in peripersonal space compared to just outside it (if you know of any, please let me know), but how’s this for a reasonable speculation — the same mechanisms which create peripersonal space are those which underlie the perception of affordances in our environment. If peripersonal space is defined as an area of cross-modal integration, and is also malleable according to action-possibilities, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that an action-orientated enhancement of perception will occur within this space.

What does this mean for the rock-climber? Well it explains my experience, whereby holds are ‘invisible’ until they are in reach. This suggests some advice to follow next time you are stuck halfway up a climb: You can’t just look with your eyes, you need to ‘look’ with your whole body; only by putting yourself in different positions will the different possibilities for action become clear.

(references and footnote below the fold)

My intuition is that this is the area around which we feel ‘an aura’ if someone reaches towards us; this is completely unsubstantiated speculation however


Gibson, J.J. The theory of affordances. In R.E. Shaw and J. Bransford,
eds., Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing, Erlbaum Assoc., Hillsdale. N.J., 1977.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc, US.

Kennett, S., Taylor-Clarke, M., & Haggard, P. (2001). Noninformative vision improves the spatial resolution of touch in humans, Current Biology, 11(15), 1188-1191.

Maravita, A., Spence, C., & Driver, J. (2003). Multisensory integration and the body schema: close to hand and within reach, Current Biology, 13(13), 531-539.

Oudejans, R. R., Michaels, C. F., Bakker, F. C., & Dolne, M. A. (1996). The relevance of action in perceiving affordances: perception of catchableness of fly balls., J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform, 22(4), 879-91.

Pijpers, J. R. R., Oudejans, R. R. D., Bakker, F. C., & Beek, P. J. (2006). The role of anxiety in perceiving and realizing affordances, Ecological Psychology, 18(3), 131.

Rizzolatti, G., & Matelli, M. (2003). Two different streams form the dorsal visual system: anatomy and functions, Experimental Brain Research, 153(2), 146-157.

Stoffregen, T. A. (2003). Affordances as properties of the animal-environment system, Ecological Psychology, 15(2), 115-134.

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