Richard Feynman on thinking processes.

Feynman said that there are no miracle people, and anyone can do what he did if they put their mind to it (my thoughts here). Yet there’s one domain in which Feynman clearly had a natural gift in — curiosity! This is exemplified by the little experiments he describes in the video below, where he learned how accurate his sense of time was and what things affected this sense. He’d count to a minute in his head and learn that when he got to 48, a minute had passed. Then he tested what else he could do while doing this, and he could read but not talk.

At the end of the video he says “Now I’m starting to talk like a psychologist, and I know nothing about that!” Let’s test that theory. Here’s the video.

For the lazy, when Feynman told mathematician John Tukey about this, Tukey could do the reverse — talk but not read. The reason was that Feynman would talk to himself in his head, while Tukey would see an image of a clock ticking over. Feynmann suggests this could be because people think differently, and if you’re having trouble getting a point across, it might be because what your saying is more difficult to translate into the other person’s favoured modality than it is your own.

I don’t know if he’s right about that latter point, but he’s certainly right about the rest. We have multiple cognitive “modules” in the brain which are specialised to different functions, and it’s possible to bring different modules to bear on a task. For example, our working memory, which is the cognitive process in use whenever you’re consciously “doing” something (like Feynman’s counting task) has a number of different components. I discuss these here. Each of these components has limitations, but your brain can use all the components at the same time.

When Feynman started counting in his head he was employing the phonological loop, and when counting lines in a book he’s using the visuo-spatial sketch pad. These are different “modules,” that’s why he could do both tasks at the same time. Talking uses the phonological loop, so when he tried that, he’s asking too much of the module (which in most people would be fully occupied by the counting) causing him to mess up on the task.

For Tukey, the reverse is true. He visualised a clock, occupying the visuo-spatial sketch pad but leaving the phonological loop free. So he could talk freely but as soon as he tried to read, he messed up.

Some experiments even take advantage of this fact, by having participants count out-loud as they perform some other task, so they occupy the phonological loop as they test some other cognitive module.

It’s also true that different people have different preferences in terms of how the process information, and cultural differences play a big role in this. So at the end of the video, Feynman was being a little unfair on himself when he said he knew nothing about psychology!

Alan Wallace on scientific dogmatism and materialism

Alan Wallace, a Buddhist and writer on consciousness and meditation, talks about what he sees as the dogmatism and idolatry of the current, materialistic scientific paradigm.

While I have some questions about materialism that no one has been able to answer, I don’t agree that the focus materialism is a form of idolatry. It’s just the framework into which all the other empirical data best fits. If another model came along that fit the data better, or data came along that did not fit the model, the prevailing paradigm would change. It would change slowly I’m sure, because paradigms do, but it would change. It’s a bit unfair to talk about current scientific models as if they are not works in progress — even if they slow, perhaps too slow, to change.

Since there’s a finite amount of time and money that can be invested into consciousness research, it makes more sense to start your investigations from the standpoint of the most supported, the most accepted and the most validated paradigm, which is the material model. So you start from here, you make assumptions from here and then test them. A difficult question then becomes, at what point do you know that you’ve exhausted all the avenues of this model, and should start looking to others?

Wallace says that a better way to study consciousness is to use our immediate experience, through our own observations, because this is a direct experience of consciousness, unlike second-hand self-report or brain imaging data. But I don’t see how this can answer the fundamental question – whether consciouness emerges from matter, as the materialistic view proposes, or whether matter emerges from consciousness, as the Buddhist and other views propose. How would introspection answer that?

Observing the mind might well let you understand it, it might show you, as Wallace describes, this blissful second “layer” of consciousness, which Wallace claims does not arise from matter. How is it possible to know this from introspection? If you answer “You have to experience it to know,” then that’s an argument to authority (to people who have already experienced it) and I won’t be convinced by that, but at the very least it’s testable and a million times better than “you must have faith.” That it takes years and years of meditation to test this hypothesis is somewhat inconvenient, but at least its falsifiable.

But let’s say I do experience it. How do I know it does not arise from matter? How can introspection separate something that does not arise from matter and never did, from something that does but has changed through years of mental training?

The problem with the gaming/cognitive functioning link

As someone who spent countless hours in his youth playing Doom, Street Fighter II and other effective ways of making time speed up, I really want the link between computer gaming and enhanced cognitive functioning, which I’ve mentioned before, to be true. It would validate every hadoken, justify every gib. But although the evidence is promising – encouraging even – it’s not quite there yet. Walter Boot, Daniel Blakely and Daniel Simons published a review in 2011 pointing out the distance we have yet to go before we can be sure about StarCraft’s place in our cognitive training routine.

Remember these guys?

Firstly, we have the problem of demand characteristics in some of the non-experimental studies — the ones that take a group of gamers and compare them to non-gamers on various cognitive abilities. Gamers need to come out on top here to even consider video games as cognitive enhancers, of course, but even if they do, it doesn’t mean that games are causing the difference. Perhaps the gamers had these cognitive advantages to begin with, and that’s why they take so well to the games. Or perhaps they were more motivated to perform well during the testing.

Many such studies specifically advertise for experienced gamers. Other research has shown that if you think you’re likely to perform well on a certain task, you’re sometimes more likely to do so. This problem is particularly relevant when you consider that many gamers will be aware of the news reports linking gaming to cognitive enhancement, and may have some idea that this is what the researcher is testing.

The way around this is normally to do an experiment — take a group of people, preferable non-gamers, and give them a battery of cognitive test. Then randomly split them into two groups, tell one group to play video games for a few weeks and the other group not to, then give the same tests again. You’ll then see if the video gamers have improved relative to the non-gaming group.

But the same problems exist as with the non-experimental studies. The gamers know they have been gaming and might deduce that they are supposed to perform better on the cogntive tests in a follow up. This is why placebo control groups are used — both groups would play video games, but the placebo group would play one that is not expected to bring any cognitive benefits, usually a slower paced game like Tetris. However, if the tests used more closely resemble the action video game than Tetris, you can make the case that the expectancy effect is still in play. The design of the experiment is not sufficient to pry the two possibilities apart conclusively (for example, by asking participants whether they expected to improve, although even this has it’s own problems), even though it might make more sense intuitively that the video games are working.

Further muddying the waters, some studies have failed to find a difference between gaming and non-gaming groups in both experimental and non-experimental tests.

Where to go from here

This might be disappointing, but there is some evidence of cognitive benefits caused by video games. We just don’t know why, or what conditions or individual differences are most amenable to such effects. Boot, Blakely and Simons propose that future studies should meet the following criteria (no study yet published has managed to meet them all):

  • Covert recruitment (participants aren’t told the nature of the study)
  •  The paper should detail the recruitment method
  •  Experimental studies should be conducted
  •  Participants should be screened for familiarity with the idea that gaming brings cognitive benefits, and whether they expected the gaming they did in the study to enhance their test results
  •  The placebo control games should offer equal expectancy effects on the performance of the cognitive tests
  •  Neuroimaging should be used to help pry apart expectancy effects versus actual cognitive changes

If gaming has any chance of non-domain specific cogntive enhancement, the results could be used to help fight age-related cognitive decline, help people in their personal development (working memory may be more closely linked to academic success than IQ), and give teenagers the world over valid excuses not to get off the PlayStation. So it’s worth spending the time andmoney getting to the bottom of this.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go play Call of Duty. For science.


How to improve social anxiety by training your attention

In 2009 Brad Schmidt and colleagues published a clever treatment for social anxiety disorder. Before I describe it, a short “spoiler” alert…

If, as i suspect, you are reading this looking for a self-help treatment for social anxiety, I recommend that you do not read this article, as knowing the nature of the experiment might negate its effects (or it may not; I don’t know, but it surely can’t help you so let’s stay on the safe side).

Instead, try to get hold of the computer program used in the study. The best lead I have is Richard McNally’s lab who tested an iPhone, iPad and android app of the program. There might be an ongoing study you can take part in, or you could try requesting a copy of the app for your own use.

End of spoiler alert

Hypersensitivity to threats is a feature of social anxiety disorder. Where one person sees a disgusted facial expression and ignores it to continue chit-chatting, the person with SAD will focus on this facial expression and take it as evidence that they are being poorly judged.

They are negative evaluation detectives, scanning and interpreting social situations in a way that paints them negatively. For whatever reason, an adaptive behaviour — making sure we’re not pissing off our allies — has become maladaptive, leading to anxiety.

Threat? Photo: massdistraction

A potential treatment, then, would be to re-train the attention not to focus on negative facial expressions so much. This is what the program aims to do. Here’s how it works.

Participants are presented with two pictures of people, one displaying a threatening facial expression, the other a neutral one. The pictures stay for a while and then disappear, and one picture leaves a letter in its place. Participants press a key to indicate which face left the letter behind. They are told to do this as fast as they can.

The trick is that 80% of the time the letter appears behind the non-threatening face so that over time, participants are being trained to move their attention away from threatening faces. With less attention paid to them, there’s less opportunity to infer negative judgements. The fact that participants have to press the keys quickly is important here, like a “gamification” effect to increase engagement and attention.

Participants completed eight 15-minute sessions on the program, two per week for 4 weeks. Could such a short, simple game really make real-world differences in social anxiety disorders? Well this is only one test and it needs to be repeated, but the results were impressive. After 4 weeks, 72% of participants no longer met the criteria to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, compared with 11% in the control group. The results remained in a follow-up four months later.

So, yes, so far it seems it can.

How to increase testosterone and decrease cortisol through bodylanguage

When I hear about the mind-body connection, it’s almost always in reference to how the mind can influence the body. From athletes visualising their performance to the latest Quantum Bollocks on the self-help shelves, the message is the same: Where the mind goes, the body will follow.

Amy Cuddy says the reverse is also true — the body affects the mind. When people are told to hold dominant body language positions for two minutes, their cortisol decreases, their testosterone increases and they are more apt to engage in risk-taking. By “dominant body language,” think head-held-high, taking-up-space Superman types of poses.

A pose so dominant you can wear bright red underpants on top of your trousers and no one gives a shit. Photo: HystericalMark

More generally, we also know that forcing people to smile reliably influences perceptions. If you do a psychology degree you have to conduct a few psychological experiments for practice, and in mine, this was one of them. Everyone in the class had to recruit two people to rate how funny a cartoon was. But before they did, one of them had to hold a pen using their lips, while the other held it in their teeth without it touching their lips (forcing a smile). When the data were pooled, the people who had just forced a smile gave higher ratings. The implication here is that if you simulate the body language of someone who is finding something funny, you’re more likely to actually find something funny.

There are some interesting possible applications of this. Before a job interview, Amy suggests, you should go to the bathroom and throw your arms in the air. You could do the same before a big date, or a workout maybe. The other thing to keep in mind is to avoid submissive body language generally — don’t slouch or close yourself up in situations where you’ll need to be assertive.

One problem here though, is that Amy only used two conditions — high power and low power. Does high-power body language boost these hormones, does low-power body language decrease them, or is it both? It would have been useful to include a “neutral power” body language position too.

My money’s on both, meaning use the high-power body language whenever possible but settle for neutral in situations where it’s not appropriate to do your best Superman. It’s not recommended during a job interview, for example, unless you’re auditioning for the role of Superman.

Here’s Amy: