Sunday, 11 May 2014

Why do we Applaud?

"If nothing else, there's waves of love pouring over the footlights and wrapping you up"
Eve Harrington.

Clapping or Applause is the most common human body noise that others are meant to hear that doesn’t involve the vocal chords. It is a collective social gesture that we use in groups, usually done an act of acknowledgement of something that has been performed well. We show approval by applause, the question is why do we do this? It has been suggested, by psychologists, that ‘clapping’ arises as a human behaviour from infancy, babies reach out to touch objects but in failing to do so, engage in the next best option, smacking their hands together. An alternative theory, proposed by Desmond Morris in his book 'People Watching, a guide to body-language', is that applause is a symbolic ‘Pat on the back’ for the performer, with one hand representing the others persons back whilst the other does the patting.

The Extended Mind

The extended mind hypothesis was developed by Clark and Chalmers. The central argument of the hypothesis is that cognitive processes assisted by entities external to an inidividual's mind should equally be regarded as cognitive. If an external artefact is used to aid a cognitive process or to expedite a process that can be completed mentally, then that process, too, should be considered cognitive. For example, recording information in a notebook could be considered a source of memory that is external to the individual's physical 'mind'. Traditional accounts of cognition are constrained by an a priori commitment to confining cognition within the physical boundary of the individual. In this respect the extended mind hypothesis is not particularly controversial, people very often use available tools to offload cognitive work. 

Where the hypothesis comes under scrutiny is its treatment of cognitive processes. The hypothesis assumes an understanding of cognition that is pre-existing and confirmed. Cognitive processes are processes that are rely on cognition, whatever those might be. It unclear as to where the original boundaries of cognition are drawn before the authors set out to move the goalposts. Moreover, the extended mind hypothesis is more a theory of extended cognition rather than a theory of an extended mind.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Art as a Juncture

Pamela Lyon and Fred Keijzer present an interesting extension of sense making in their 2007 article. Sense making is a term found at the core of enactive based approaches. Broadly speaking these approaches are a reinterpretation of the traditional psychological approaches to cognition, with a more embodied ideal at their core. In Lyon’s and Keijzer’s article they attempt to extend the existing sense making infrastructure to the social domain.

Social factors are, of course, a massive influence on all of us. The social however is a very difficult thing to quantify and perhaps even escape; even in our isolation we are impacted by the social through thoughts of others and indeed even some thoughts themselves. Lyon and Keijzer put forth a sort of spectrum. On this spectrum individual sense making falls on one end and joint, or communal, sense making falls on the other.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Sum of our Parts

"And that's what I've done. Maintained it for 20 years. This old brooms had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time."
"How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?"
"Theres the picture. What more proof do you need?"

Triggers Broom Paradox raises some interesting questions in the light of the extended mind and embodiment topics that we have looked at in the last few weeks. OK I'm being a little facetious here, I should give this scenario its more respectful moniker - Theseus Paradox. However the question remains as relevant. If we replace the constituent parts of an object piece by piece (and unlike Trigger we only need to consider a single instance of replacement), would it still be the same object. And if that object theoretically was a human or other biological creature would we still believe this to be the case?

These Eyes These Eyes

Emotional labour is a term which refers to the use of body and facial expression to convey emotion. Most of us have worked with the general public at some point in our lives and can relate to the drain that these forms of employment can put on an individual, particularly in terms of emotion. The embedded video here depicts a recent device which is attempting to address this drain. Dr. Hirotaka Osawa has developed a set of glasses which enhance the emotional response of the wearer: the glasses blink, change angle and prolong gaze depending on the action of the person interacting with the wearer. 

While the device itself is fascinating, it is the future of this technology which is of major interest to the field of cognitive science. Dr. Osawa hopes that this technology will lead to the development of similar devices which mimic human smiles and ultimately to the development of whole android faces. The interpretation of meaning from a face is largely dependent upon gestural elements from the eye and mouth areas. Speech interpretation is typically dependent on the sound content of speech but visual gestural elements are also a major part of speech interpretation. In order to develop an emotional android we need to get a better grasp on the gestural elements of speech perception.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Brain Says Pretty/Ugly

The relatively new field of neuroaesthetics has been described as' the study of the neural basis of beauty perception in art'.  Situated within cognitive neuroscience neuroaesthetics endeavors to  uncover the 'neural underpinnings' of the aesthetic response of the perceiver to the features of an artwork. Predominantly focusing on visual art or fine art.  With more recent research efforts  extending  to other art forms such as dance and music. Neuroaesthetics begins with the assertion that any theory of aesthetics must account for it's 'neural underpinnings', seeing kindred the goals of  the nervous system and of artists as seeking to understand essential visual attributes of the world. Semir Zeki who coined the term, claims that artists are like neuroscientists and that all art aims at providing knowledge. 

Can neuroaesthetics ameliorate theories of art and aesthetic experience? Advocates of this field  readily admonish that aesthetic experience of visual art only begins with the visual analysis and description of the properties of the artwork, that it is a new field and there is a lot of work yet to be done regarding other art forms.  By  adopting a bottom up approach neuroaesthetics focuses  on the importance of the nervous system in breaking down and isolating visual features such as colour, luminance and motion thus highlighting how art makes us aware of the complexities of our perceptual and sensory experience.  

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Talking Plants

'The Happening' is possibly the worse film, I have ever seen at the cinema. The story-line, without giving away too many plot spoilers, is that the trees,decide that they have had enough of humankind pushing them around and destroying the ecosystem, so they decide to fight back. This fight back involves the releasing of a neurotoxin that induces people to immediately commit suicide, so long periods of the film involve people running away from trees. It is dross. But what about the science behind this idea, that plants can identify humans as guilty of crimes against the environment and so pass sentence on them, that too is dross. But the notion that plants communicate with one another and release chemicals, that does hold some truth. The issue though, is that if this could be considered sufficient to say that the plants are intelligent?

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Quantum Soul

It has long been thought that in order for a belief in the distinction between mind and matter, it necessitates a belief in spirituality or religion as well. How the brain produces consciousness remains unknown, but the quantum soul hypothesis offers a rational and scientific explanation. 

There is yet a multitude that is unknown to us, and quantum physics is probably the best example of this. In the words of Richard Feynman "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics".

Friday, 11 April 2014

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are neurons that fire in response to observing an action being performed by another. Although this action is not performed by the individual themselves, activity is provoked in such a way that mimics the activity that would be required to produce the observed action. These neurons have principally been linked to brain regions associated with the motor behaviour including the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area as well as the somatosensory cortex. The key characteristic of mirror neurons is their activation during the execution of a specific behaviour as well as during observation. As the majority of neurons do not appear to respond to both this makes them somewhat unique. 

Since the initial studies on mirror neurons, the mirror neuron system has been attributed to underlying a plethora of social behaviours. Among these are empathy, imitation, theory of mind as well as different forms of social learning. Some proponents take these claims a step further. Ramachandran asserts that the mirror neuron system is a highly evolved neural network that developed contemporaneous to man's first use of tools. In this manner, he posits that the development of this network laid the foundation for the emergence of sophisticated human culture.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

That Smile Ain't Fooling Anyone

Most definitely not a new area of research, but an interesting one at that, many studies in the last few years have looked at the different patterns of activity in the brain when presented with both genuine and fake or forced laughter.  Many studies have been conducted in order to demonstrate and prove this clear distinction.

A recent study, which was conducted by the Royal Holloway University of London, asked participants to choose which they found funny from a series of YouTube clips and subsequently measured their brain activation as they watched the clips and partook in genuine laughter. These were then compared to when the participant was partaking in fake or forced laughter. Two different patterns of ctivation were very apparent.

This and various other studies have found that fake laughter results in higher activity in the medial prefrontal cortex which is an area associated with problem-solving. This may be due to the fact that when we ourselves produce or when we hear fake laughter, we in turn try to figure out why the person (or ourselves) is doing it. It causes some confusion, or perhaps even one could say a disruption to our sense making.
On the other hand however, genuine laughter activates mainly the temporal lobe, the auditory areas and of course is then again linked to dopamine receptors.

So next time you are on the phone, attempting to keep calm and politely laugh as the old woman on the other end of the line asks you how to change the source on her new 42” flat screen TV for the 50th time (true story), you would want to make sure she’s not hooked up to an MRI scanner, her brain activation will lay bare all of your deceitfulness.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Killer whales, dead seals and an active social life.

What makes humans special? This question at one point had a number of distinct answers, tool-making, language, emotions, sense of self, and so served as the perfect opening-line into many an article on the distinctive nature of humans, but they more we learn about our animal brethren, the less clear this distinction becomes. Is it that we are the only species that would think of such a question?

The encroaching realization that our uniqueness wasn't as unique as we had envisaged, was not taken as that disappointing by all, as some saw this as an opportunity to better understand what it is to be human. But the more we learn about animals, specifically mammals, the more we learn about how their isn't just one way of being, to which all other animals are striving towards, all less successfully than us, but that there are many ways to exist in this world. Some of which, could be viewed as superior to the human approach. And this evidence doesn't always have to come from primates, which are somewhat boring from an evolutionary perspective, given their linear narrative. Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are much more interesting from an evolutionary perspective, having come from the sea, lived on land and returned to the sea but it is the Orca, or to use it’s more appropriate name, The Killer Whale, that can provide some fascinating insight on social interaction.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Free Will and the Cognitive Revoltuion

One of the more hotly debated topics among philosophers, especially in modern times, is whether or not we possess the much coveted thing commonly labelled 'free will'. This concept is usually described as the ability to make choices which are to some extent (this factor being decided by what side of the philosophical fence you stand on) unconstrained, and can in this way be said to be freely chosen. The existence of this somewhat elusive quality is pertinent not only to meta-physicians and abstracted philosophers, but bleeds into many areas of life, both in an academic sense and at a very personal level for each of us. As regards the former, the question of whether people make choices in a free or determined manner has huge consequences for scientific areas such as biology, sociology and especially psychology (behaviorism representing the deterministic side of things in this case), and for the entire area of law and ethics in general. Regarding the latter, as a living breathing human being, it is of huge concern to me and I would hope most of you whether or not our actions are at least in some sense our own. Religious concerns are obviously heavily invested in this topic also, with many of our friendly Western monotheistic religions taking a more deterministic view of things.

Within the area of cognitive psychology, both new and old, I have rarely seen mention of this issue, but it has always seemed to me to be one of the more important aspects which the study of us as cognitive agents touches upon and must eventually deal with in order to fully describe and explore the experience of a living organism.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A Little Bit of Empathy

The debate on Autism has traditionally centred to a large degree on Empathy. At the core of understanding of the was that suffers lacked empathy - there was a substantial amount of baggage that would come along with accepting a fact like that.

The interpretation is rather crude, to a large degree inaccurate and puts narrow constraints around what empathy is, various types of empathy and how empathy may be presented. It situations where it has been demonstrated that people with autistic disorders can show very clear empathy, it is often argued that there is a difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

Optic Universe

“What it means and what it is are not separate, as we have been led to believe” (Gibson, 1972, p. 410)

I read this article by Harry Heft concerning J. J. Gibson’s work a number of weeks ago. While it is always a treat to read iterations of Gibson’s writings it was the first time I had come across the above quote. Throughout all of the weeks since, this quote has stuck with me. I think there is a deep message here that is necessary for all scientific and theoretical endeavors to embrace.

While the idea that humans are the centre of the universe was expelled a few centuries ago I still feel there are trace elements of this ideology in all of us. Perhaps religion is a cause of this, perhaps genetics. Whatever the cause, it does seem that at a very deep level we are biased towards the human-centric. We have a tendency to view our conceptions of reality, of science, of whatever, as being the absolute factual. For us of course humanity plays a central role in our understanding and rightly so our explorations into science will be molded by this bias. Yet as amazing as all of the progress we as a species have made, we are still subservient to the greater force that is nature.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014



The extent of the similarity of human nature has continuously been a topic of debate; we all have different likes, dislikes, motives and goals that propel us in our daily lives. The subjective character of experience means that it is impossible to know how our own worlds (or umwelt) differ. However, a universal theme of human existence and cognition has always been man’s search for meaning. We all want a meaning from life, be that meaning derived from god, family or wealth. This is the basic principal of Logotherapy; that individuals have an innate desire for meaning in their life and that there is always a meaning to life (Redsand, 2006).   

Why did we invent Music?

Music is something that has been central to humanity, well since forever. Or that is as far as we can tell. The archaeological record shows that where-ever we find humans, we find musical instruments. The oldest known musical instruments, flutes made of bear bones and mammoth ivory, have been found in Germany and dated to 42,000 years ago, which matches the time at which homo-sapiens were moving into Europe. And to hear what these flutes may have sounded like, some have been reconstructed and can be heard here, Given the complexity of the instruments and that other musical instruments made of material less likely to survive in the archaeological record, it can be assumed that the use of musical instruments dates back further.
The importance of music to people may have been lost in recent years, while the advent of various personnel music playing devices has allowed for everybody to engage in the art of listening to music, the actual practice of making music has become confined to those with ‘musical talent’, but in many societies everybody engage in dancing and music-making.The evolutionary origin of music has been a matter of some debate. Darwin argued that it was due to sexual selection, that music served an adaptive function, in that it was used to charm the opposite sex. Some have argued, such as Dan Sperber and Steve Pinker, that it an evolutionary parasite, that in our development of the necessary skills for language, that is the ability to process complex sound patterns that vary in pitch and rhythm, that music arose as a by-product of this, a pleasant but entirely useless from an evolutionary perspective.