Thursday, 28 February 2013

For Harmony and Strength? Thoughts on Joint Action in Japan.

Wa, meaning ‘harmony’, is fundamental to Japan’s national self-image. Over the course of the twentieth century, Japan has been portrayed again and again as a particularly harmonious and ordered society. The Japanese are often said to have an elevated tendency towards group identification, willingness to self-sacrifice for group interests, and conformity – indeed, these are repeatedly emphasised as being central to the national character in Japan’s endlessly proliferating Nihonjinron literature (Nihonjinron refers to the body of ideologically motivated academic literature on the uniqueness of Japan’s society and culture. This literature generally features a homogenised picture of Japanese society set up in binary opposition to an individualistic West). Two classic formulations of these ideas were the social anthropologist Nakane Chie’s Japanese Society (1970), in which she proposed that Japanese society was vertically stratified according to company affiliation and loyalty to one’s immediate in-group as opposed to horizontally stratified according to socio-economic class, and psychologist Takeo Doi’s Anatomy of Dependence (1971), wherein he suggested that amae, a kind of paternalistic exchange of protection and indulgence in return for loyalty, constituted the glue that bound Japanese society together. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Mind Maps

I was reading the other day about a mind map software that facilitates the user to create a mind map, and then about some guidelines to make mind maps, and I remembered one of my ex-colleagues at the university who always used mind maps for studying, but they appeared to me as these complex maps where nothing can be understood from an outsider view. And of course! That's what they seem like. Maybe because all of us picture/organize things/thoughts differently. So the question is are these mind maps transferable? Or are they an efficient study method?

Division of the brain

During this course, we have avoided using the term 'brain', and the past convention that our mind controls our actions. With my first post, I challenge this term, with the following talk that I find extremely interesting. It is about brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor who suffers a stroke, and is able to study the effect of the stroke on her brain, using the gained knowledge from her research.

This talk is focused on the division of the brain in the left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere and tries to make sense about what happens when one of them stops, and to define what is the role of the left-hemisphere, and right-hemisphere respectively.

Embodiment and 'The Hard Problem'

First off, I apologise for the corny picture. I could not resist. Consciousness is a good topic for these things. It’s mysterious still, an undiscovered country, theoretically up for grabs and thus ripe for colonisation by idiosyncratic, metaphysically consoling worldviews lending themselves to expression in gauche pictures. Why not celebrate that a little? Now, on to the post.

On the shoulders of Ants...

I have always been fascinated by ants since my childhood in Canberra spent poking about at giant anthills, cruelly pouring water in one hole just to see the ants evacuating from another. Even small children are impressed at the level of coordinated effort of ants en masse, and the immense strength of the individual ant, which makes one think that they are truly a super-evolved species. A popular primary school classroom project in Australia was to allow an ant colony to develop in a sand-filled fish tank so the kids could witness the intricate tunnels and caves at close quarters. And my brother must have had ants in his pants too, as his degree show in interactive design was based on close-up video footage of an ant colony which he had started himself - I've asked him to resurrect this site so I can share. He subsequently donated the ant colony to the zoo, and I think he was quite upset to part with it!

Science Blogs is a great source of weird and wonderful nuggets of discovery and it had a great feature on myrmecology (the study of ants) last weekend "Down the Ant Hole" which describes how a social biologist called Walter Tschinkel poured molten metal into subterranean ant-holes, incinerating the poor ants, in order to make metal casts of their interior...

Monday, 25 February 2013

Intergalactic Cognitive Science

There is a call for papers out from the newly founded Intergalactic Journal of Science.  The special issue will address "New Perspectives in Intergalactic Cognitive Science".

Cognitive Science is expanding at an exponential rate. However, the field is in need of unification. A unification of the how and why of the great diversity of cognitive architectures. A unification of the experiental contents now believed to be so diverse. A unification of scientific method, now varying per stellar community.
 And you thought the Topics module was pushing the envelope?

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Shaman in the cave: a sham?

Cave art: a stage for Shamanic performances?

Hamatsa Cannibal Shaman (Edward S. Curtis, 1914)
The 'Ice Age Art' exhibition at the British Museum (February - May 2013) brought together over 250 objects created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, "from the age of the painted caves" (Cook, 2013).

The exhibition's Catalogue presents a selection of cave paintings alongside the portable artworks to enrich the viewer's appreciation of the context within which the small pieces were made.

 Archaeologists versus Evolutionary Psychologists 


The purpose of the cave paintings is an enigma that has yet to be resolved. The commonly held view among archaeologists is that these paintings were a 'stage set',  a backdrop to shamanic performances (Lewis-Williams, 2002). The (more conservative) evolutionary psychologists view 'shamanic' behaviour as 'aberrant' "exceptions to the normal rule of early religion" - from Amazon's description of 'Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief'  (David S. Whitley, 2009. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books), here.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Art and Distributed Cognition

Corban Walker (b.1967 Dublin) is a talented New-York based sculptor whose minimalist work encourages viewers to reexamine the way they conceptualise, navigate, and interact with their surroundings. The work pictured to the left is called "Please Adjust" and was a hit at the Venice Biennale 2011 where it was exhibited in the Irish Pavilion alongside some of his other work. He describes this sculpture's meaning as twofold; it is both a representation of the recent economic instability and resulting chaos in Ireland, and also, on a more personal level, an externalisation of all the mundane challenges that he encounters in his everyday life.  At 4 feet tall, Corban's experience of his built and social environment is quite different to most, but he is aware of the power that art and sculpture have given him to communicate his perspective to the world.

With Corban in mind, I recently delved into an essay entitled "Art and Cognitive Evolution" by Merlin Donald from The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (2006) which has some great insights into the "cognitive engineering" processes by which artists materialise two- or three-dimensional forms. According to the author, "Art is always created in the context of distributed cognition"...

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Big Cheese in Robotics

Ever since the conception of robotics, scientists have tried to reconcile natural and artificial life. While the idea of an artificial representation of natural life (ex. animats, robotic pets) has become relatively commonplace, there is a more intriguing avenue of exploration: the artificial manifestation of natural intelligence.

A hybrot is a hybrid robot, a “hybrid of living and robotic components.”  A hybrot has a robotic body but is controlled by a cultured network of living brain cells, with most using cells from rat brains. First created in 2002 by Dr. Steve Potter (see here), a professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, the functionality of hybrots is obviously quite limited. Nevertheless,  all actions taken by a hybrot are in direct response to neuron-to-neuron interactions. Hybrots are even capable of interpreting input from the external environment and adjusting their behavior accordingly, as seen in this video (note actual hybrots look NOTHING like the above picture).

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The most complex simulation... or the biggest waste of money?

If a lot of money is given to some research projects (and not to others), there is always argument. And if research projects promise to tell us about “what we are deep inside” (and this is in everyday conversation becoming more and more synonymous with “what our brain looks like”), there is always excitement.

No wonder that one of the two research projects to be sponsored by the EU with 1,000,000,000 euro (yes, nine zeros!) triggered exactly those two responses: the Human Brain Project (HBP) will surely be one of the most controversially discussed scientific endeavours over the next few years time. It has the ambitious goal to create a computational model of the brain, bringing together all levels of organisation from genes to ion channels in the cell membrane, looking at nervous cells as well as processes while we decide if we rather have cheese or jam on our toast.

Henry Markram, leader of the project and neuroscientist in Lausanne, said that whereas the 60,000 papers that brain researchers put out every year are all “beautiful, fantastic studies — but all focused on their one little corner: this molecule, this brain region, this function, this map”, the HBP would integrate these findings. And this– as Markram and his fellows believe – would enable them to create a “physical model of brain circuits on silicone substance “.

That is not an apple

Inspired by reading Francois’ post about the Google „Brain“ Project and the neural network that was able to discriminate faces and “other high-level concepts” with a chance of 15,8% (I leave it to the reader to decide if that is impressive or not), and probably also in the mindset of various posts discussing our fear of technology, I remembered this project proposal by the artist Adam Harvey I came across a while ago: He tried to find out, when an apple is no longer an apple.

Or less radical: What does someone haves to do, to make an apple stop appearing as such to the Google Image Search algorithm? The answer seems to be: Not much. To put a few colourful dots on it is enough to obscure it for the machine (and asked to find similar pictures Google Search comes up with a lot of colourful dotted toys instead of apples).
On a technical site, this only seems to show that similarity judgements used by Google Image Search are not the same mechanisms that are used by humans to discriminate between different objects and to categorize them (as the underlying shape of the apple, its possible practical purposes and its biological origin make it clear to us that we see an apple, regardless of how many dots it has on it).

Enclothed Cognition

Yes, this post is about another study that some may argue only adds to the evidence for the weakest and most trivial version of embodied cognition (like the coffee cup experiment). However, some results of this nature aside from their intrigue, are thankfully not found formally published on the likes of but rather and in this case, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, thus it has my attention at least. In this  2012 study, Adam & Galinsky hypothesised  that wearing a piece of clothing and embodying its symbolic meaning would trigger associated psychological processes. It is well known and has been shown in the literature, the effects that people's clothes can have on the perceptions of others. For example, it was found that clients are more inclined to return to formally dressed therapists than to casually dressed therapists (Dacy & Brodsky, 1992) and high school students' clothing styles influence perceptions of academic prowess among peers and teachers (Behling & Williams, 1991). Also, in a 1996 experiment where participants were shown faceless images of a man in a bespoke suit and images of the same man in an 'off the rack' suit, they rated the man wearing the bespoke suit considerably higher on 4/5 dimensions (confidence, success, salary and flexibility) but not trustworthiness. So when the appropriate suit wearing occasion arises, we should all invest in well tailored ones so we can positively enhance the image we communicate to others!?! What is less well researched however, is the influence of the clothes that we wear have over ourselves. Although previous research has shown that a sports team wearing 'black' kits were more aggressive than the non-black wearing team (the referee even thought so), research into the effects of clothing on people's own perceptions and behavior is limited. 

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Therapeutic robots...cute or creepy?

In attempting to take a closer look at extended cognition, I went off on a tangent when I found a report on a documentary about a robot which is being used to aid treatment with dementia patients in several countries. Paro is a personal robot developed in Japan by Takanori Shibata in the early 1990’s. A baby harp seal with soft white anti-bacterial fur, huge dark eyes and long eyelashes he is designed to interact with and respond to five areas of sensory stimulation. Unlike a real baby seal, Paro is diurnal so that he is ‘awake’ at the same time as the humans who interact with him. He responds to touch, light, sound, temperature and posture and his battery recharger is designed to look like a baby’s pacifier. He can turn his head in the direction of a voice, move his flippers, bat his eyelashes, squeeze his big eyes shut when he is stroked gently and his body temperature is always warm. All in all he is, as they say in Japan “Kawaii!”...irresistibly cute!
Designed for therapeutic use with dementia patients, a harp seal was chosen because it is not as familiar an animal as a dog or a cat and yet is very appealing. Robotic dogs and cats soon fall short of our expectations, as do humanoid robots, but we don’t know much about baby harp seals other than their ‘cuteness’ so we are more willing to accept the interactive capabilities given to them by the designer. Usually used in elder-care setting such as nursing homes, little Paro responds to being cuddled and stroked by patients and remembers what he did to elicit a positive response from the patient so he can repeat the action. His role is to improve the socialization and psychological well-being of patients, trigger emotional attachment and aid relaxation. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Magnets and the Moral Compass

Can magnets affect morality? It sounds like bad science-fiction however a team in MIT have found a real basis for this claim. The right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) had been previously attributed to moral judgements. The region showed increased metabolic activity in response to reading about a person’s beliefs about a non-moral issue e.g. intending to do harm.
In criminal law “the act does not make the person guilty unless the mind is also guilty” see Mens rea (meaning guilty mind). The impact of this on the study means that beliefs and outcomes are separate entities at least in the eyes of the law. The research team used transcranial magnetic stimulation, focusing on the RTPJ to observe any changes in a subject’s interpretation of a questionable scenario.  

Embodied vs. Disembodied Approaches to Language and Conceptual Processing: Finding a Middle Ground

In the last two decades, Embodied cognition approaches have been gaining increasing popularity among researchers concerned with the study of the neural organization of Language. The version of embodiment that has attracted the most attention is the so called ‘strong embodiment’ or ‘full simulation’ approach (For a useful review of the different flavors of embodiment that deal with language and semantic processing I recommend this paper). In a nutshell, strong embodiment views conceptual content as being “reductively constituted by information that is represented within the sensory and motor systems. According to the embodied cognition hypothesis, ‘understanding’ is sensory and motor simulation.” (Meteyard et al., 2010). This view of embodiment was met with even greater enthusiasm with the discovery of mirror neurons.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Google X's neural network

At a time when Research & Development divisions are frequently seen as luxury for companies, Google had established one of them a few years ago in the most secret way possible. Google X Lab, the young R&D division of Google, is charged with confidential projects such as Google Glass or driverless cars, and only little information is filtered.  Even though those two projects sound very cool and will probably be part of our future, I would like to bring your attention to another project which is the Google Brain project. It consists of creating large scale artificial neural networks, exploiting the ridiculous amount of processing power that Google owns.

Game of Drones

I was quite struck last week by the video we watched of Big Dog, the robot developed by DARPA to act as a pack mule to accompany armed forces in combat. Big dog is a sign of the major strides being made in robotics and all of us who had not seen it in action were suitably impressed, not least by the way big dog seemed to be perfectly in tune with the background music.

The Importance of Scientific Communication

How do people learn about science today? An important duty for scientists is conveying their discoveries to others in the community. It is known that the approach to science and to scientific questions is changing over the years. Almost everyone (9/10 of the internet users [1]) utilizes search engines like google in order to find information. This means that websites, blogs and web resources are the new science bible, especially for the public. The Internet gives access to knowledge to many people and this is good, but they could easily be mis-informed and their opinion might be shaped by the use of incorrect resources. For example "Just the tone of online comments can shape how readers feel about technology" (here is the article).

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Implicit Dualism, Dead People's Minds and the Sweet Hereafter

Within cognitive science and philosophy of mind, poor Descartes receives near-constant castigation over his doctrine of substance dualism. Centuries of cultural and intellectual indoctrination with the ‘suppurating wound’ of dualism are frequently held to blame for the fact that we find it difficult not to split the mental and the physical into two separate metaphysical categories. We are told that western thought was led astray by dualism, essentially a philosophical formalisation of the old religious dogma of an immaterial soul separable from a material body. But what if we humans are all actually dualists to begin with?

Friday, 15 February 2013

Embodied cognition and cognitive ergonomics: designing for mind and body

There have been a number of experimental studies providing evidence for the weakest (and most trivial, according to Wilson) version of embodied cognition theory, the one stipulating that states of the body can affect our behavior and social judgements (these body states being themselves influenced by factors in the external environment, such as temperature or texture).

The most influential of these studies were conducted by John Bargh and his team. In the coffee cup experiment, they found that participants were more likely to attribute positive character traits to an unknown individual if they were previously holding a warm cup of coffee as opposed to an iced cup of coffee. In an another study, they found that the type of chair participants were sitting on (hard, and cushion-less vs. soft and comfortable) could influence their willingness to compromise in price negotiations. In a related experiment involving the sense of touch and its influence on how we make social judgements, participants were asked to solve a jigsaw puzzle prior to reading and evaluating a passage describing a social interaction. The participants who were given a puzzle containing rough pieces were more likely to perceive the interaction as difficult and adversarial compared to participants who were in the ‘soft puzzle‘ condition. The results of these experiments suggest that basic tactile sensations resulting from our interactions with objects can play an important role in the shaping of higher social cognitive processing.

The Spiritual and Supernatural: Science or Speculation?

Mind, psyche, self. All of these terms identify the same general idea, a concept central to the field of cognitive science. Another name for this idea is soul. This term however is rarely used in scientific literature because of its associated religious connotations and the skepticism they invite. Nevertheless an abundance of theories and beliefs surround the idea of the soul, including the existence of spiritual energy or qi (), near-death and out-of-body experiences, past lives, an afterlife, and supernatural beings, including ghosts, demons, and angels.

While dismissed as issues of theology or anthropology in the past, some scientists have begun to investigate these phenomena. Consider, for example, the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS), an institute within the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavorial Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

fMRI Studies Indicate that up to 50% of Researchers are Bad at Statistics


fMRI, along with other imaging techniques brought to bear on research into the brain/mind relationship, can often seem like the only reliable way to get hard data out of a very messy area. In principle it seems neat, clean and rigorous: expose a subject to some stimuli, or ask them to think particular thoughts or perform a particular action, then check what brain activity correlates with this stimulus. Having done this, and observed the fMRI readings, Bob's your uncle- the areas of the brain showing most activation are involved  in generating the particular feeling, action or thought in question.

However, while brain scanning can no doubt teach us an awful lot, the most valuable thing that many papers using such readings in their data can tell us is that their authors are rather poor at statistics.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Synchrony of Brains and Bodies

Riitta Hari and colleagues have a new and short piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences entitled "Synchrony of brains and bodies during implicit interpersonal interaction".   It summarises a behavioral and EEG study [1] that looked at coordination within and across subjects.  The task is a simple mirroring task in which participants point in synchrony within a small area.  Interestingly, in the EEG data, they found
"intersubject behavioral synchronization (that was increased after the training task) was associated with increased inter-brain, but not intra-brain, phase locking in the theta (4–7.5 Hz) and beta (12–30 Hz) bands."

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Black Cat: Existentialism in Cognitive Science

We've all seen the videos—YouTube’s library of “adorable kittens” is famous and infamous among students and teachers everywhere. While most of these cats love life and everything in it, one in particular has a more grim outlook. His name is Henri.

Henri puts a new spin on a classic question of philosophy of mind and cognitive science: what is it like to be a cat? “My thumbs are not opposable. Yet I oppose everything… I am like a pendulum that does not swing.” “I am free to go. Yet I remain… I alone feel this torment.” “I try to tell the doctor about my depressive state and my growing disillusionment with the world… They pronounce me healthy, as always.” While undeniably bleak, the musings of “le chat noir” provide an interesting framework for the analysis of the mind: the “not-human.” The implications of this statement go beyond mere animal cognition; while it is easy enough to anthropomorphize Henri, the existential philosophy behind his ideas is much more interesting when considered in light of artificial intelligence and neural networks.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Learning by Watching, and Doing

There are many different ways in which learning can occur, with some appearing to offer unique advantages over others.

Hands on experience has the appeal of engaging the subject extensively, however the flipside of this is a greater cognitive load that can inhibit the ability to 'take a step back' from the task and gain a greater overview. For more on this see the work of Bandura, 1977.

Recent research by Hoover, Giambatistaand and Belkin (2012) compares direct experience and vicarious learning approaches to learning and concludes that an integrated approach is best, with vicarious learning preceding direct experience.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

From Cognition to Dognition: does your dog possess Theory of Mind?

I came across an article on ‘Dognition’ yesterday on Scientific American, under the category ‘Mind & Brain’, and I was ready to dismiss it until I looked up the Duke University Canine Cognition Center (yes, it’s a real thing!), where I found a collection of fascinating papers on dog psychology and cognition (Tomasello even co-authored a few of them!). I will summarize a few of their findings, which I personally found pretty mind blowing.

In this paper by Brian Hare, it was suggested that dogs might be regarded in some respects as more intelligent than chimpanzees. Indeed, in a series of experiments conducted to test dogs and chimps’ ability to solve problems by relying on humans’ social cues, it emerged that dogs might be closer than primates in possessing a theory of mind. Hare defines T.o.M as the ability to think about the thoughts of others; it can be seen as providing the developmental basis for much of what is considered unique to human cognition.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Lumosity - the ultimate in brain reification?

So-called "Brain training" has been a consistent self-help theme ever since Cognitive Science and Neuroscience began to be popularised in the mid-60s, when the concept of left/right brain hemispheres was pounced upon and enthusiastically applied to many different fields of endeavour.  This of course had the effect of compounding the reification of the brain, crystalising the mind/body dualism as well as notions that you are either artistic or mathematical, dexterous or inventive etc etc.  

I remember my own grandfather (an amateur artist and full-time beret-wearer) devouring the 1979 manual "Drawing from the Right Side of Your Brain" and for the remainder of his retirement years was locked in a mortal struggle to overpower his left hemisphere and become a great artist.  Unfortunately nobody told him that this was a doomed excercise, as Brian D.Cohen points out in the Huffington Post "if you bother to read a how-to book, you're left-brained".  

So I was interested to stumble across Lumosity the hugely popular "brain-training" program (they call it "cognitive enhancement") which claims to "take advantage of the brain’s innate neuroplasticity to help shape it into a more effective, powerful organ''.. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Is free will just one big illusion?

A 2008 study entitled 'Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain' has added weight to what some may deem 'unbelievable' findings by previous studies, which suggest (yes, you read the title correctly) that our decisions have, in fact, been predetermined before we are even conscious of making one. A group of researchers with affiliations to the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig Germany and the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin set about confirming these findings by addressing some open questions that were apparent within previous published work in the area. One of the most notable studies in this area is that of Benjamin Libet's 1985 study where participants were instructed to press a button as soon as they felt the urge to do so, during which time their electrical brain activity was recorded. This study revealed that the participants' conscious decision to press the button was preceded by a few hundred milliseconds by a negative brain potential (the so-called ‘readiness potential’) that originates from the supplementary motor area (SMA) which is a brain region that is associated with motor preparation. Due to the findings that the recorded brain activity in the SMA routinely preceded participants' conscious decisions, it has been proposed that the brain had unconsciously made the decision to move even before the participant was aware of it.