Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book review: "Free Will" by Sam Harris

There is no question that our attribution of agency can be gravely in error. It is my contention that it always is. (p. 25)

"Free will" is a very short book that you could skim through in about the same time it takes to watch this talk from Harris on the subject of free will. It is also very clearly written. Harris argues that free will, at least as most people understand it, simply does not exist; we are not free agents who are in control of our thoughts or actions.

According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that the victim's screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent. (p. 2)

The opening paragraph is followed by an account of a brutal multiple murder (which took place over a number of hours). Harris segues shortly thereafter into discussion of free will and daily choices of what to eat and drink. The juxtaposition (albeit indirect) may seem tasteless. More pressing is that it really does miss a distinction between decisions to which we do not devote much thought and decisions to which we do. Harris does highlight how some actions may involve a greater degree of conscious deliberation. However, he also points out that those factors that enter into conscious deliberation do so via unconscious mechanisms. Nonetheless, I feel he goes too far in suggesting we do not have free will simply because we cannot control thoughts that come into our conscious awareness-if we have a conscious "veto" over our decisions, as some models of reasoning suggest, then even though we may not control where our thoughts initially come from, we may at least exercise some control over our behaviour.

Harris takes in some fascinating neuroscience research in this area. He highlights a famous experiment demonstrating that in motor regions of the brain (which are associated with the initiation of behaviour) neural activity occurs prior to conscious awareness of the intention to act. However, this phenomenon occurs over the course of a few seconds or less, and is likely of limited influence when it comes to deliberating over a choice carefully, where options A and B might be evaluated repeatedly on several attributes before any overt behaviour is produced by the person making the decision.

Harris outlines a deterministic view of human thought and action, which he feels is incompatible with the idea of free will. Daniel Dennett (who Harris indicates is both a friend as well as an opponent on this particular issue) has defended the idea that determinism may be compatible with at least a modest version of free will. We may accept a deterministic stance whereby someone could only have done x, and not y, given all the factors in their life up to that point, PLUS all the details of their environment. Nonetheless, Dennett argues, if we take the environment (which exists outside of the person's self, and for which they are generally not really responsible for), if the person may have acted differently had some small aspect of the environment been different, then it probably is fair to say that the person has some degree of free will.

The book concludes with thoughts on the moral/ethical implications of free will being simply an illusion. Dennett has weighed in on this issue as well, suggesting that the idea that free will doesn't really exist appears to make people act in a less ethical fashion (because, after all, "how could they do otherwise"?), and indeed both Dennett and Harris cite interesting research suggesting that encouraging a view that free will does exist encourages research participants to behave in a more ethical fashion than if they are encouraged not to believe in free will. Harris does not offer any easy answers to this issue, although he does posit that moral responsibility "overall complexion of one's mind" rather than "the metaphysics of cause and effect". (At this point, I feel he might be alluding implicitly to the point I made above about weighing up options consciously, although he seems to stop short of saying as much).

On the subject of ethics, Harris further suggests that the legal system (e.g. in how it deals with violent offenders) could shift from less of a focus on punishment to a greater focus on safety and rehabilitation. (Such a shift in focus could sometimes lead to longer prison sentences for violent offenders, if they have served a sentence that is considered fair in terms of punishment, but the criminal nonetheless maintains a high risk of committing a similar crime outside of prison).

In conclusion, if you have always had a simple faith that you have more-or-less complete free will, this book will certainly make you think twice about whether this is the case. Although I feel it is not a complete refutation of free will, it is likely to make most readers revise their view of what free will really is. leaving them with a more modest estimate over the extent to which they (and others) are in control.

Related posts:
Book review: "Intuition Pumps" by Daniel Dennett
The autocerebroscope

If you like this post, please follow me on Twitter: @APAllen1

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Reminiscence group work diaries: Part 2

Our initial reminiscence group continues. Following some more personal autobiography, we start to probe memories of broader historical changes/events. I have suggested (taking suggestions from my colleagues and collaborators) the arrival of television and wider availability of cars as possible subjects around new technologies. The topic of television brings up memories of renting a television given the expense of buying one's own, and in turn leads to memories of telephones and the relative lack of availability in past times. One interesting suggestion from the participants was that of the washing machine (an innovation that cut down on a lot of housework).

Besides these changes that occurred relatively gradually, we also discuss distinct, one-off events. The visits of Pope John Paul II and John F Kennedy are recalled, along with the extent to which the two figures were idolised at the time. The Irish Times archive proves to be a good place for finding relevant images to provoke memory of these events.

A second historical session touches on elections and referendums. There seem to be numerous resonances with the present. With Brexit ongoing, a poster from the 1973 referendum on joining the EU (then EEC) threatens the potential of a deeper division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The potential for next year to see a referendum on 1983's eighth amendment has re-ignited the often bitter debate around the issue of the legal status of abortion within Ireland.

Although I want to keep things reasonably focused on the past (albeit this can be through the lens of comparison to the present), discussion of the 1983 referendum that introduced the eighth amendment leads into a discussion of more general thoughts/opinions about the issue/ethics of abortion. This is obviously something that has to be handled with sensitivity in larger groups with potentially quite diverse (and deeply held) views.

The boundaries between the political and social can become somewhat blurred. Discussion of economics relating to the referendum to joining the EEC eventually segues into a discussion of work practices in a particular industry, and how these skills gradually became outdated (unless one was working in a small company making bespoke material). Sometimes the history of one's society can be a more emotive topic than that one's own personal life, or at least particularly where one bleeds into the other.

Although I'm still trying to work out if/how this form of reminiscence is therapeutic, the participants in the group certainly seem to have enjoyed discussing their memories with us, and with each other. With the pilot group wrapping up, I'm looking forward to starting up new groups in multiple venues in 2018. Roll on next year!

If you're interested in this project, you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook: follow @RecallEire.

Related posts
Reminiscence group diaries: Part 1
Oral history and psychology

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reminiscence group session diaries: Part 1

The project I am currently involved in examines the impact of reminiscence (via group participation) on autobiographical memory and learning of new information (as well as other factors such as executive function and mood) in older adults. The first group is currently running at a single location-in 2018 we plan to have groups running in multiple sites.

Halloween 2017. The first session got off to a slow start, with a low attendance (perhaps given the day that was in it). Nonetheless, we had an interesting discussion provoked by an activity of drawing a map of one's route to primary school as a child. Most lived quite close to their school, but in a way this allowed for a more detailed discussion of the buildings passed on the way to school. It was interesting to note that one might think one had forgotten these things until they are recalled.

The first few weeks are more focused on personal autobiography, although we are also interested in people's memory of historical events. (I'll cover this more historical content in the next post on this topic next month!) Thinking of the functions of reminiscence, maintaining one's sense of identity and giving an illustrative lesson to others have been identified as two positive reasons for using reminiscence. These two functions seem to come together when people think of their kids; they seem to draw on their own experience as young adults as a means of advising their young adult children. But older adults in turn identify with their children, and perhaps often see them as an extension of themselves.

One of the biggest influences on the content of the sessions is "remembering yesterday, caring today", which was devised for work in patients with dementia, but is actually quite easily adaptable to healthy older adults as well. I'm also currently reading the book "Working more creatively with groups" by Jarleth Benson. He takes quite a psychoanalytic approach to groupwork (a lot of references transference and counter-transference). A lot of the anecdotal material in the book seems to be based on work with clients experiencing mental health problems (often anxiety or depression), but with this caveat in mind there's quite a bit of practical advice with broad applicability too. For example, a number of chapters dedicated to the different stages of the life of a group. With this 6-week group already nearing its end, I need to re-read to chapter on bringing a group to a close. This in particular is important, as we want to do follow-up visits with participants after the group has ended.

The participants so far in this first group do seem to be enjoying the process, and discussing memories in a group with people of a similar age. If you're interested in this project, you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook at @RecallEire. The website should be live very soon-watch this space!

Related posts
Time out of mind
Days of future past

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Aesthetics and the psychology of creativity

I have misgivings about the autonomy of aesthetics and the philosophy of mind

Joseph Margolis, The Cultural Space of the Arts (2010)

Given my interest in the psychology of creativity as well as in philosophy (specifically philosophy of mind), it has been remiss of me up until now not to have more of an interest in the area of philosophy known as aethetics. Having recently developed a curiosity for it, I sketch a few initial thoughts and aesthetics and psychology below.

In his Critique of Judgment, Kant argued that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (if I understand Kant's argument correctly). We do not/should not refer to the object itself in trying to discern its beauty, but rather the subject who is observing the object and their subjective appraisal thereof.

In an influential paper, Beardsley and Wimsatt posited that there is an "intentional fallacy"; although we may assume that the intention of the author can be read from a literary text, this is not the case. They rightly pointed out that the poet (for example)'s intention should not be the key yardstick for judging a piece's quality, and furthermore if the intention is not clear in the poem itself, the critic will look for information outside of the poem (e.g. an interview with the poet, a critic's or teacher's appraisal of the work). The poem does not simply belong to the poet, the critic, or both, but rather to the public at large.

Running these ideas together, we cannot assume that artists put their creativity "into" their work, which then "holds" this creativity until someone "unlocks" this creativity from the finished piece sitting in a gallery, on a bookshelf etc.

A question of interest to me, then, is whether an aesthetic sense (by which I mean the ability to have an aesthetic reaction to some creative work) is necessary for creative cognition. In stage theories of creative thinking, one of the latter stages involves appraising a creative product (this contrasts somewhat with Beardsley and Wimsatt's separation of judgement and production of creative work). Without aesthetic appreciation, is such a process possible?

This is a pressing question for artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to creative cognition. If a particular domain (say, musical notation) can be mapped out in conceptual space, then AI with good memory, rule-learning and a random output generator can generate outputs which it can compare against its memory for novelty and against certain criteria for a genre/form etc. Nonetheless, is there any reason we should think that AI has a subjective reaction to creative work? How can AI distinguish competent musical composition from a really great or deeply moving piece of music, or at least that which is deeply moving to a human?

For a broad overview of philosophical issues surrounding creativity and how they intersect with psychology, I would recommend the article linked below:

Gaut, B. (2010). The philosophy of creativity. Philosophy Compass, 5(12), 1034-1046. 

Related posts
But is it creative?
Where does the mind begin and end?
Two different ways

Saturday, October 28, 2017

2sp00ky: The psychology of tension and suspense

While browsing youtube one evening, I happened across an interesting analysis of the opening scene of Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds". The author of the video draws upon a paper I had previously been unaware of: "Towards a general model of tension and suspense". Authors Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch take on a topic that, although it has piqued the interest of psychologists as far back an Wilhelm Wundt, has been surprisingly under-examined in recent times. Furthermore, when it has been examined, it tends to be in a specific context (e.g. film OR sports OR music), as opposed to trying to develop a more general theory.

They define tension and suspense as: "affective states that (a) are associated with conflict, dissonance, instability, or uncertainty, (b) create a yearning for resolution, (c) concern events of potential emotional significance, and (d) build on future-directed processes of expectation, anticipation, and prediction." 

Quite a mouthful, but it captures the complexity of tension and suspense. There are some points here as well that are sometimes missed in those who create works designed to induce suspense. In inferior horror narrative one comes across characters with whom it's difficult to feel empathy for, hence (c) above is missing.  

In a footnote, the authors distinguish between tension and suspense, whereby suspense arises in anticipation of a specific outcome, whereas tension is a more "diffuse" or general feeling where the anticipated outcomes are not so clearly specified. A suspenseful short film I can think of is "He dies at the end"It creates a strong sense of suspense quite quickly, as the messages from the computer become increasingly specific to the protagonist. This contrasts with "Hungry Hickory" from the same director, which creates an eerie sense of tension, although for much of "Hungry Hickory" there is arguably not much suspense, as there is no clear antagonist like the "messenger" in "He dies at the end". Nonetheless, Stefan and Koelsch assert that both tension and suspense are driven by a similar underlying psychology.

Although most emotions are dynamic, tension may be a particularly dynamic emotion (compare how relaxed contentment may continue indefinitely until interrupted to how tension usually "builds" towards a feared or desired resolution). Examining tension at one particular moment may only tell us so much. In fact, if we want to study these phenomena empirically, we probably can't rely on simple stimuli like static images or brief sounds, but rather have to look at more complex stuff life movie scenes, books or pieces of music. I recall a final year psych project that used the film "Wolf Creek" as a means of inducing fear. (I consider it one of the most tense movies I've seen, although a lot of people who have seen it disagree). The researcher got people to watch the film the whole way through-I can't recall if fear was measured throughout the viewing of the film, but it seems a pity that tension and suspense were not measured throughout the viewing as well. Where ongoing feelings of suspense are not captured, this might be a example of a much more pervasive issue in psychological research, whereby researchers do not gain the maximum amount of data from participants' time and investment in the research. 

Suspense and tension may be experienced in the current moment, but they generally draw on cognition relating to the future. Watching a film, we wonder what's going to happen when the protagonist walks through the door. The difference between suspense and tension becomes more important here I think, whereby we can think more clearly about a specific future event if we know what the possible outcomes are. The youtube analysis I mentioned at the beginning highlights how Tarantino can heighten the emotional engagement of the viewer during a long scene by shifting from tension (where the audience is unsure of exactly what's at stake) to suspense (by revealing, halfway through the scene, what the stakes are).    

Just last year an interesting thesis appeared online (although you have to request it to get  copy) that took quite an experimental approach to examining tension/suspense experiences in response to various different film clips. The perhaps rather aptly named Keith Bound proposes a rather physiological model of tension/suspense. He has investigated his model in people who enjoy horror movies using physiological recording of electrodermal activity (a measure of autonomic nervous system activity, tapping into "fight or flight" physiology) as well as qualitative methods. 

In Bound's view, we can differentiate "momenty fear" (lasting 1-3 seconds-the infamous jump scare) from "extended fear" (lasting for longer periods). Bound suggests that electrodermal measurements tap unconscious responses to fearful stimuli that are complemented by conscious verbal report of individuals' responses to, say, a scary film. He also notes that jump scares are more likely to be verbally reported than aspects of atmosphere that evoke a more prolonged but low-level sense of anxiety or dread, even though such factors heighten electrodermal activity.

It does concern me that horror film makers in particular seem to be focused more on jump scares-perhaps focus group approach is vulnerable to people being more inclined to remember (and therefore mention) jump scares over atmosphere or more subtle aspects of tension and suspense evoked by scary movies. 

P.S. Boo! 

Related articles:

Lehne, M., & Koelsch, S. (2015). Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense. Frontiers in psychology6.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Thoughts on oral history and psychology

"It is not by speeches and majority vote that the great questions of our time will be decided — as that was error of 1848 and 1849 — but rather by iron and blood." Otto von Bismarck

Memory is a key subject in the psychology; one might think it would follow that how people talk about history should be an obvious area of inquiry within psychology. Since I have started working with Dr Richard Roche on research concerning reminiscence and memory, I have started reading a bit about oral history (i.e. the study of history via interviews with those who witnessed historical periods or events). However, although oral history has interacted with disciplines such as education, sociology, and gender studies, a search of the terms "oral history psychology" returns slim pickings. There is an ongoing project by the  British Psychological Society conducting oral history with psychologists on the subject of their own discipline, as well as an interesting study using oral history methods to predict divorce, but otherwise very little of direct relevance to these two areas.

Ronald Grele and others remind us that oral history is constrained to what people can remember, and we know that human memory is fallible. Although we have our own introspective insight into the limits of memory, researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus have indicated how we may place more faith in our memory than might be justified. The cognitive and developmental psychology of memory is also helpful in detailing predictable faults in typical memory and its development over time (e.g. consider the reminiscence bump, or the tendency for people to have greater autobiographical recall for events occurring over a certain period, usually from around adolescence to early adulthood).

However, oral historians have also pointed that, with a critical perspective, even narrators who are unreliable may be informative in their own regard. An intriguing essay from Kathleen Blee discusses her experience of conducting oral history with female former members of the Ku Klux Klan; people who were involved in the Klan at a time when it was a dominant force in their communities. When Blee (herself a white woman) would challenge the interviewees on some of the points they were making, they often did not moderate their racism. Blee got the impression that they were treating her challenges as "public talk", and that they could always return to a "private talk" where overt racism can be assumed as the norm. There are interesting parallels here with the false consensus effect, whereby one assumes that one's own views are closer to those of others than might actually be the case. As long as the veracity of oral historical accounts can be contrasted with other sources, a more nuanced picture of the intersection of time and mind can be built up.

Paul Thompson has pointed out how local history in particular might give the inhabitants of a town or community a sense of context or meaning for where they live. Historians, and the documents available to them, have typically given preference to shifts in political power rather than a description of everyday life and how it changes over time. Indeed, where the history of ordinary people's lives is dealt with, is in generally in aggregate. However, oral methods (the study of history via interviews with those who witnessed historical periods or events) can open up other lines of historical enquiry (e.g. family life in the past). Consequently, where historians or others raise concern that an oral history may not be statistically representative, they may be missing what some of their colleagues are really aiming for. Grele argues that really what matters is whether an oral history represents "typify historical processes". Thus, oral history may be seen to be judged by the qualitative standard of transferability rather than the quantitative standard of generalisability, and like qualitative enquiry, there is scope for probing meaning, as opposed to getting a quantitative measure from a representative section of the population. Furthermore, the opportunity to probe the day-to-day lives of people in the past offers a greater chance to apply psychological insight to our history.

Oral history is often conducted in older respondents. When I imagine some interviewing me in 40 years, I imagine a future where posts on social media may be used in an effort to capture the zeitgeist. Of course, this will raise other issues, such as the substantial risk of such content being lost over the decades (bebo anyone?). Consider also the echo chamber effect, that leaves many users of the internet with arguably not much greater breadth of information than their grandparents had. In any case, a full understanding of human memory in the broadest terms should invite more psychologists to start talking to historians and archivists.

Related posts
Time out of Mind
Days of future past

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Time out of mind: historical events and memory as therapy

Image result for paintings old storyteller

"It is understandable that, as long as the historical sea is calm, it must seem to the ruler-administrator in his frail little bark, resting his pole against the ship of the people and moving along with it, that his efforts are moving the ship. But once a storm arises, the sea churns up, and the ship begins to move by itself, and then the delusion is no longer possible. The ship follows its own enormous, independent course, the pole does not reach the moving ship, and the ruler suddenly, from his position of power, from being a source of strength, becomes an insignificant, useless, and feeble human being.

Tolstoy, War and Peace

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner

University staff of around my age are surprised at the latest crop of undergraduates not having any recall of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York (no doubt older generations are more used to the necessary historical amnesia of younger generations). I imagine when I am a very old man, and when my generation are dying out, there will be a desire to share memories of this event with a younger generation who have no direct recall of its occurrence*.

When the oldest living person is interviewed, besides the usual silly season fodder about them smoking every day/eating too much fat, one fact that invariably gets mentioned is a famous person they met, or a famous event they witnessed, or even just that they were around in a particular century. Basically, something that no one else living today could have direct physical experience of themselves. There is a strong drive to capture these direct memories before they are lost to the death of a generation.

Reminiscence therapy involves speaking with people (often in a group format) about their past. Unlike many psychodynamic therapies, there is not so much focus on uncovering causes of maladaptive behaviour in the present. There is evidence that this therapy can benefit autobiographical memory, including in patients groups such as those with some level of memory impairment, although benefit may depend on level of engagement. A number of approaches to reminiscence therapy focus on the individual's life history, encouraging reminiscence of events such as starting a first job, going to school, weddings etc. However, there is also some precedent for using not just people's personal past, but also historical events in reminiscence groups-a study from Iceland developed reminiscence material that included not only aspects of everyday life in the past, but also specific events but also the Althing anniversary festival.

The use of historical events allows not only for integrative reminiscence on the part of those people completing the therapy, but also for the production of oral history. There are interesting research questions here with regard to how people talk about their memories of bigger historical events. If typical life review involves integrating various aspects of personal autobiography, then integrating historical events, particularly those which have some emotional resonance for an individual, is a logical next step. Of course, we should heed Tolstoy's words of the individual's impotence in the face of the sweep of history. If the aim is increase a person's self-efficacy, their powerlessness in the face of major historical events (particularly traumatic events) has great potential to undermine this. Nonetheless, with managed expectations, people may draw strength from acknowledging their own role in social movements (e.g. protesting against a war, or indeed fighting in a war perceived as just).

Related posts
Days of future past

*...notwithstanding new technologies that may appear in the meantime-perhaps I will just be able to give them a neural implant/transplant...