Wednesday, 30 April 2008

More sharing

ryanr @ Flickr

So, you asked. I looked. And now I am happy to say, I've found. Here is one of last year's Level 3 online hubs, now integrated into MediaMax. Apparently there were others but they have since been deleted.

Well done to everyone from Level 3 who has uploaded their stuff: excellent work. And for the people using it without uploading anything: tut. (Note, this is classic evo psych thing going on here: there's a group dependent on resources, givers are rewarded and cheaters get punished.)

To the Level 2 people: where are you? There are about 150 people visiting Brain Milk each day, so some of you have got to be Level 2. Upload people.

Language, Thought, Modularity of Mind

dere-street @ Flickr

Is the perception of red altered by having language?
Does the perception change between speakers of different languages?
Can the perception of red affect the lower level properties of language?


Systems in the brain do not interact. Discuss.

How might language affect our perception of the world?

How might the language we speak affect our perception of the world?
(note the universal effect of language/specific language effects distinction between these questions)

Does language have an effect on thought, does the language spoken change anything and can thought have an effect on language and on vision?

To what extent is the mind modular? Discuss with reference to language and perception.

Are the visual and auditory processing systems informationally encapsualted?

Can thought affect the lower-level properties of language?

The language system is impenetrable. Discuss.

The structure of language affects thought and vice versa. Discuss.

Discuss how language and thought interact.

To what extent is language affected by thought?

"We have default modes of thought laid down by biology. Language, however, has the power to usurp these in line with its own ways of carving up the world, even if they do not differ from the biological defaults" (Clevergirl, 2008). Discuss this statement with reference to a variety of experimental methodologies.


Assess the linguistic relativity hypothesis with regard to colour perception.

‘‘[W]e dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language’’ (Whorf, 1956). To what extent has recent research supported this claim?

Our language affects the way we carve up the colour spectrum. Discuss.

Language affects colour perception. Discuss.

In terms of colour, where do you stand on the universal or relativist debate and why?

How have animal studies been used to speak to the linguistic relativity hypothesis?

Discuss how neuropsychological investigation has brought clarity, if any, to the debate over the universal effects of language.

Critically assess the current state of the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

"Language is a system that does language. It does not interfere with our fundamental understanding of the world" (Arandomer, 2008). Discuss this claim.


With reference to evidence from studies on the perception of speech sounds how far can you defend or reject the linguistic relativity hypothesis?

Is the system supporting speech perception modular ?

Speech perception represent an instance of categorical perception. What is the evidence for linguistic influences on these perceptual processes?


What can a comparison of human and non-human animals tell us about language’s role in maths?
Is maths dependent on language?

A patient presents with severely impaired language abilities. Based on other research how would you predict his maths performance?


How might language affect spatial reasoning?

Critically analyse the linguistic relativity hypothesis with specific reference to the domain of space.

Discuss the evidence that language can shape our thinking of space.


Assess the linguistic relativity hypothesis with regard to time.

Our language affects the way we think about time. Discuss.


Assess the linguistic relativity hypothesis with regard to objects.

Our language affects the way we think about objects. Discuss.


Defend or reject the strong Fodorian modularity of mind hypothesis.

Discuss how thought interacts with lower level processes.

Are vision and language informationally encapsulated?

Information encapsulation is, according to Fodor, “the most important aspect” (Fodor, 1983, p.37) or, more strongly, the sine qua non of modularity (Fodor, 2005). To what extent do systems in the mind conform to this aspect?

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Language affects thoughts about life

ucumari @ Flickr

Some more recent stuff, this time for the Language, Thought and Modularity of Mind course: language makes a difference when it comes to knowing what's alive and what's not.

Deluded? Look into my eyes...

Interesting one for the neuropsychiatrists: hypnosis might be useful in treating delusional disorders.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Academic rebellion - being critical

Being critical is something that you will need to scoop the top marks. No news there. But how do you go about it? Of course, I can't tell you how to be critical of specific papers but I can tell you about a mindset that's useful as well as a systematic method of attacking a paper.

When you read papers and books by academics you know you can trust what they are saying, right? Wrong. What you are doing here is handing over your money before you have had a chance to try out the goods.

Conformity is seared into us from our schooling because rebellion gets punished. This carries over into University. Academics are seen as unwavering sources of truth and students should yield to what they profess. Such deference is appropriate if we are talking about manners: they know more than you do. That much buys respect.

But we are not talking about manners; we are talking about finding the truth (that sounds very grand, doesn't it?). The assumption that a piece of writing is automatically correct or worthy just because it has been written by someone with a few extra letters after their name is the enemy of critical thinking.

Instead of holding the author in very high regard and instead of expecting what you are about to read to be true, flip the situation on its head. Hold the author in very low regard and let her prove herself. You need to leave open the possibility that, despite all their training, and their fancy office, and complicated lectures, academics might be wrong.

If you want to be critical take on the attitude of the curmudgeonly fish in the pic at the top: enter all academic waters equipped with incredulity and contempt for the author and their argument and you will become a sharper critic for it (if you need help, imagine they have done you a "terrible wrong"). Start them in the negative and let them buy their way into the positive with their argument. Uncritical people read to be told; critical people read to be persuaded.

Generally speaking, this philosophy should allow you to pick holes in the way people write. If what they have said doesn't convince you of their point, don't buy it. Sentences should build up points, which should overflow into arguments. If you don't feel this happening you have a case to make against them.

Think about a paper like the great 'Honda Cog' ad (or Guinness' not-so-cheap knock-off): if everything 'just works' then you have yourself a brilliant paper. If, however, something along the argument of the paper breaks down then the whole trick falls apart preventing solid conclusion, then you can bring it to the marker's attention.

Taking a modular approach to criticism is useful and makes attacking a big paper much easier. In the introduction, does the author set up all the logical links for the study's motivation? Or is there something shaky on which the rest of the paper is predicated?

Is the method the correct one? What about confounds that might have been forgotten? Sometimes something as subtle as having a blind open or closed in a room can make all the difference (e.g. Li., P., & Gleitman, L. (2002). Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition, 83(3), 265-294).

Have the statistics been carried out properly? Have they used ANOVA but violated its assumptions (e.g. normal distribution). In the discussion, have these stats been interpreted correctly? Do the data really support the conclusions? Have they made a causal link where it is only possible to make a correlational one? Is there perhaps an alternative, more parsimonious explanation; if they report the sound of hooves and conclude zebras, are horses not a more likely answer? One actionable thing to do is write down how the argument is set up in numbered form, taking each proposition by itself. This helps you to see the weak assumptions made by re-authoring the paper yourself.

So today's takeaway nugget: be incredulous, contemptuous and modular and be a better critic for it.

Watch something

kevinsteele @ Flickr
Don't resign your TV to the bin during revision: it's probably good for you.

I am a little bit addicted to shows and spent way too much time watching them during revision. You may think it is very weird advice to promote this activity during what are your most important exams to date. Surely you should be working? Well, all work and no play makes Jack more than a dull boy: it makes him lose the rag. Many of you will have left it a tiny bit too late and be slogging it - or will be soon. Slogging it is fine but working every second of the day is counter-productive because when you stretch quantity across the day quality gets thinner.

Punctuating your revision with entertainment means you work fewer, better hours. It gives you something to work to - nothing like dangling a carrot for yourself - and it stops you going revision crazy. Well, that was my justification anyway. Here are a few series that you might like to get into - allowing yourself only one, oh go on, two episodes a day. Seriously, self-control required. Shows are linked to streaming content where possible.

South Park
The Simpsons
Alan Partridge
Family Guy
American Dad
Green Wing
The Mighty Boosh,
The US The Office (different to ours but still great)
Trailer Park Boys
Arrested Development (this is one of the sharpest shows ever written; I can't find it online though)
Peep Show
Thick of It

Prison Break

Greys Anatomy
Six Feet Under
Brothers and Sisters
Dirty, Sexy Money
Californication (only for the prurient though)
The L-Word

and a whole lot more.

Consciousness: summary

razorsmile @ Flickr

A summary on how to revise Consciousness:

1. Get sorted on the philosophy. Do you think functionalism cuts the mustard? If not, make sure you have a strong case for it. There's always a question on this.

2. Organise the various theories; get intimate with them. If you're clever you'll create your own (psst: steal little bits from everyone else's and call it yours). A3 paper might be handy here.

3. Go through the evidence - stuff like behavioural data, neuroimaging, brain damage, sleep and wakefulness, attention and arousal - and match it to the theories. What supports what and what undermines what? Now you can write about good and bad theories. There is always a question on this.

That is all.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

How to reference in exams

thomashawk @ Flickr

I mention this now because some of you will be starting to learn references some time soon.

The APA says that with three to five authors the first reference to a paper includes all authors. Subsequent citations in the same essay may refer to the paper by the principal author plus "et al." For six authors the correct format is (Principal author et al., Year).

Obviously you do this for coursework essays, but when it comes to exams I think it is fine - and all the lecturers I have asked agree - to relax this a bit. Please do check with the individual lecturers, but this is how I did it:
  • 1-3 authors all named first then "et al" after that
  • 3+ authors, do "et al"
Again, be sure to check this is acceptable, but it's just a nice little way of cutting down the memory load - some of those psychologists have crazy names. The fewer you need to remember the better.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Consciousness: questions

thomashawk @ Flickr


On the basis of neuropsychological data reject two theories of consciousness.

Discuss three theories of consciousness. Reject two of them and support one.

Discuss a theory of consciousness, explaining how it might account for sleep and waking, anaesthesia and coma data.

Is consciousness localised?

Is consciousness a property of the brain?

What evidence should a theory of consciousness account for? What is the best theory that does this?

Discuss some of the philosophical problems of consciousness.

What are the ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ problems of consciousness? Discuss an attempt to solve the ‘hard’ problem.

Is the study of consciousness a scientific or philosophical endeavour?

The Department for Children, Schools and Families contacts you asking for a 1500 word brief on what to include in a new A-level called 'Consciousness'. Write this brief explaining, with justification, what to include.

Discuss how consciousness might arise out of the activity of nervous brain tissue.

Brain Damage - Cortical

Cortical damage tells us little about the nature of consciousness. Discuss.

What do brain damaged patients tell us about consciousness?

Consciousness is a product of the cortex. Discuss.

What can split-brains tell us about consciousness?

Can a language-based theory of consciousness be supported by cortical brain damage data?

Brain Damage - Subcortical

What can subcortical damage tell us about consciousness?

Discuss the role of subcortical systems in the maintenance of attention and cortical arousal.

A scientific paper reports that damage to a small region of the subcortex leads to an obliteration of consciousness. The authors conclude that they have localised consciousness. Have they?

What role might the thalamus play in consciousness?

What do studies of sub-cortically brain-damaged patients tell us about consciousness?

"Time is as important as space in the neurobiology of consciousness" (Adude, 2008). Discuss.


Is attention consciousness?

What can the study of attention tell us about consciousness?


What can we learn about consciousness from the study of sleep and waking?

What can REM sleep in particular tell us about consciousness?

The time the majority of humans spend unconscious at night is one of the most fertile periods for the understanding of consciousness. Discuss.

How can the neurobiology of sleep be useful in supporting or rejecting theories on the nature of consciousness?

"Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. Actually, the neurobiology of dreaming (REM) may be the royal road to the understanding of consciousness." (Abloke, 2008). Discuss.


Will machines ever be conscious?

Assess the arguments for and against the claim that the brain is functionally equivalent to a computer.

Criticise functionalism.

Is the problem of consciousness one that can be addressed scientifically?

“If all that matters is the computation, we can ignore the brain’s wiring diagram, and its chemistry, and just worry about the ‘software’ that runs on it” (Dennett, 2001). Critically evaluate this functionalist argument.

Can cognitive psychology provide a complete account of consciousness, or are alternative approaches required?

The film The Matrix takes as an assumption that human consciousness can be represented computationally. Can it?

Why might the "whir of information processing" (Chalmers, 1995) be insufficient for explaining first person experience.

"Consciousness is not borne of algorithm" (Antifunctionalist, 2008). Discuss.


In the last posts in this mini-series on Consciousness we were philosogeeks, the one sitting on the edge of the party worrying about things like whether girls actually exist, whether human minds can ever understand girls and how the hell to chat them up.

We are now going to be neurofunkers and just assume that girls exist and we can understand them. Neurofunkers aren't practising their chat up lines by themselves in the corner; they're out there using them, seeing what happens, throwing away the duds and refining the good ones (if I have lost you in this weird club, substitute 'girls' with consciousness and 'chat-up lines' with 'theories'.)

As neurofunkers you create and test theories. But what should a good theory do? At its most basic I would say that it should predict the most with the least. That is, it should make predictions and it should be parsimonious (Hawking, 1996; Popper, 1963). It should explain.

But what should it explain? Broadly speaking, the answer is experience, in sickness and in health. So, any decent account of consciousness should have an answer for sleep and wakefulness, how anesthesia works, how brain damage has the effects it does, how attention and arousal work, how normal functioning operates and possibly even the point of consciousness, its function.

I won't go into too much detail but here is a list of the theories you should all have a good knowledge of:

Multiple Drafts Theory -
This is the theory of Dennett and Kinsbourne (1992), which suggests are brains are running multiples processes concurrently. Does all this information collect in some centre? They argue that this is not the case, “…the Multiple Drafts model avoids the tempting mistake of supposing that there must be a single narrative (the "final" or "published" draft) that is canonical - that represents the actual stream of consciousness of the subject” (p. 185).

Micro-Consciousnesses -
This position states that the brain is a parallel processor with many different consciousnesses arising from modularity. The champions of this idea are Zeki and Bartels (1998)

Consciousness from Language -
According to some, language allows outputs from other brain areas to be commonly understood and integrated to form conscious experience. The main advocate of this position is Gazzaniga (1995).

Consciousness from meta-representation -
It is entirely possible that rather than language (like this is written in) being the overall interpreter of brain wide functions some other system is involved in re-representing information from disparate brain areas into one unifying ‘language’. It might be this representation that is responsible for consciousness. Such is the view of Singer (1998) who says, “Brains capable of processing signals at a conscious level seem to have the ability to represent the outcome of their distributed computational operations in a common format. These metarepresentations comprise protocols not only of sensory and motor processes but also of the state of value-assigning systems. Thus brains that have consciousness possess a representational metalevel at which internal states are explicitly represented: they have what one might call an inner eye function....." (p.1829)

Representational Theories of Consciousness -
According to this position the brain is a reality emulator, representing the world in neural code, which once complex enough can create consciousness. Damasio (1998) says "[l]iving creatures such as we are, produce core consciousness when [they are] caught in the act of representing themselves when they represent other things." For Domasio the brain uses structures designed to map both the organism and external objects to create a fresh, second-order representation. Other champions of this position are Pare and Llinas (1995) and Llinas and Pare (1996). Sensory input, according to these authors, amends the current model in the brain. It is worth restating this point because their argument is subtle. Sensory input does not lead to internal images in the brain but alters the pre-existing model. In particular, they suggest that 40Hz resetting allows for the model to be changed. The whole position is quite well captured by Humphrey (2002), “Now imagine that a new form of sense organ evolves, an ‘inner eye’ whose field of view is not the outside world but the brain itself" (p.75).

Graded representation -
According this position the quality of information is critical to consciousness. The proponents of this position are Farah and Feinberg (1997) and broadly speaking the higher the quality of information the greater probability there is of it being associated with consciousness. Note similarities with Chalmer's panprotopsychism 'information theory' and how this view is essentially non-eliminative materialism.

Multiple Consciousnesses -
The suggestion with this position is that there may be qualitatively different types of consciousness. For instance, Block (1995) suggests there is access consciousness (A) and phenomenal consciousness (P). Another position put forward by Damasio (1998) suggests the existence of core and extended consciousnesses. He says, "[b]oth are internal phenomena of the mind but core consciousness is more basic than the extended variety. Extended consciousness depends on core consciousness. Both occur amount of willpower can either make them happen or prevent them from happening" (p.1880). Yet another position advanced by Bogen (1997) suggests there is a central core or ‘me-ness’ to experience, which he links to subcortical areas, in particular the intralaminar nuclei of the thalamus. The content of this experience, he argues, is linked to activity in the neocortex.

Binding -
If there are indeed multiple consciousnesses or a host of parallel systems working away to solve their specific problems and consciousness experience is holistic then either this is an illusion or somehow these disparate sources of information are bound. Thus functional specialization must be overcome by functional integration. Ignoring the possibility that it is an illusion for the moment, there are a number of different versions of this binding idea:

Cartesian Theatre/Localized Processes -
First, binding could occur at convergence zones in the brain either locally or globally. This is the idea that information is integrated in space. Schacter et al (1988) is a supporter. According to these authors there is a single 'Conscious Awareness System' in the brain. This system is separate from perceptual, cognitive and action systems and has the special function of generating conscious experience. A similar stance is taken by Posner and Rothbart’s (1998) who suggest that the cingulate gyrus is the organ of focal awareness and consciousness. Milner (1995) makes the claim that the dorsal pathway is unconscious whereas the ventral pathway is conscious. Crick and Koch (1998) make the claim that visual consciousness (although not visuomotor abilities) may reside in the frontal lobes. Baars (1998) who theorizes that converging information in special areas are lit up by attentional processes. Dehaene & Naccache (2003) also advance a similar theory called the Global Workspace Model, this is a good theory and you should know about it.

Distributed consciousness -
Instead of a localised area in the brain for consciousness this position states that consciousness might be more distributed throughout the brain. This is the position of Kinsbourne (1992).

Temporally bound information flow -
Second, binding could be synchronized. That is, information could be integrated in time. This is the view of Pare and Llinas (1995)Llinas and Pare (1996). According to these authors the sensory input updates the various parallel system of the brain which is bound together using a 40Hz temporal oscillation. They suggest the thalamus is crucial in mediating this oscillation.

Function -
Epiphenomenalism -
This is the idea that consciousness serves no function but is rather an emergent property of a system as complex as the brain. Consciousness in this view has no function to speak of. The often-used analogy is that consciousness is like smoke over the factory. See also Velmans (1991), ‘Is Human Information Processing Conscious?’ He finds a lot of it isn't, so why the need for consciousness?

Adaptive -
As Humphrey (1987) (slightly inaccurately) put it, “either we throw away the idea that consciousness evolved by natural selection or else we have to find a function for it” (p.378) (It is slightly inaccurate because of course it doesn't need a function, it could be epiphenomenal.) To my mind, asking this question is of fundamental importance. Historically, psychology was satisfied to describe behavioural phenomena – it was a descriptive science. All that changed when the gene-centred view came into the arena. Instead behavioural scientists were apt to ask, “What function a certain behaviour served?” Only really by the 1990s had scientists begun to accept that humans were not exempt from this logic. The idea that consciousness may have some function is a very recent one although I believe it is one of the most crucial questions we can ask. Recognizing the function served by consciousness could be the key to understanding it. A number of theories abound about the function that consciousness serves.

Gray (2004), for instance, suggests that the brain is a massive parallel processor, although these servoprocesses, as he calls them, are not infallible ones. For this reason the brain must have some sort of error detection. By modelling the world including its enduring features such error detection can occur by comparing expected and actual models.

Dehaene and Naccache (2001) have suggested that consciousness is for i) durable and explicit information maintenance, ii) novel combinations of operations, and iii) intentional behaviour all constitutes such mental operations that require consciousness.

Ramachandran & Hirstein (1997) say qualia states allow information to be kept ‘alive’. This occurs because qualia states endure in short-term memory.

According to Gregory (1998) qualia may allow the present to be flagged in contrast to past knowledge.


The job your revision should take into this delightful subject is to match up the evidence to these theories not just positively, as in 'this supports this', but negatively so that you can say 'this evidence puts a spanner in the works for...' I say this last bit because you'll see in the past papers quite a lot of the questions ask you to rip another theory apart. This will set you up to do just that.

My advice is to set out all the theories on big bit of paper and then go through the course notes adding data that supports or rejects. Have a couple of favorite theories and preferably create your own.

Also have a couple of bad ones to talk about (psst - Gazzaniga [1995] is flimsy. Also panprotopsychism can be taken down a notch with a crisp argument for functionalism). There is always a question asking you to support or reject a theory with evidence or discuss the scientific progress into the problem of consciousness. Knowing how theories and data dance with each other will set you up nicely for this.

Also keeping theories in the forefront of your mind will hopefully keep a lid on the feeling of being overwhelmed by the thousands of papers you could read in this area. Just like I said in an earlier post, without a course blueprint you can't properly be selective. Well, without theories to constrain your choice of evidence you'll be lost in Consciousness.


paulwatson @ Flickr

Someone has very kindly provided me with the 3rd year exam timetable. It is now on the right column. If you are a second year, please do email/comment your timetable in too.

You're about to...

As I've been put in the mood for Consciousness today (that phrase does weird things if you over-think it), I was reminded of this recent Nature Neuroscience paper, a rehash of the classic Libet paper. Read it here.

How to chat up consciousness

patrisha @ Flickr

Ok, last time I said how there were those who liked to talk about chatting up consciousness and those who actually did it. Here we are going to cover the former and specifically talk about what the problem is and how to approach it. This is a difficult area to get your head around. Let's try and make it a bit clearer.

First, make notes about what the problem is.

I find this is best stated by Chalmers (1995). You need to read this paper. Here you go. Briefly, he indicates that consciousness has two problems: the easy one and the hard one. The easy one is equivalent to the daily findings of cognitive science: how memory, attention, vision and so on work. Chalmers says these problems have computational solutions. In his words, the hard problem of consciousness is “the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field."

Second, make notes about approaches to solution of this problem.

I'd split them up like this:

Fuck it. We'll never know

Also known as mysticism this view explains the problem by denying that science will ever be able to explain consciousness. This was a position popular in the scientific community until about 30 years ago. At the centre of the issue is that while consciousness is the most piquant subjective experience, science is objective - and never the mismatch shall be resolved.Searle (1998), however, argues that this problem arises from a confusion about two different kinds of objectivity. The first kind of objectivity is something that is epistemically objective (or know as fact), like “The building has two front doors”. Epistemically subjective information would be something like, “The doors of the building are unattractive”. The second flavour of objectivity is ontological (that something exists). Thus returning to the building one will find the two front doors existing. However, ontological subjectivity would be feeling pain from closing one’s finger in a door. What Searle argues is that science concerns itself with epistemic objectivity and not epistemic subjectivity. However, he also claims that it can concern itself with ontologically subjective events.

There is also a related view that consciousness is something that is systemically insoluble by humans minds (maybe the dolphins or mice know?). You can find this in the writings of McGinn (1989, 2000)

It's not a problem

There are those who explain the problem of consciousness by denying it's actually a problem. Dennett (1993) is one of these. He suggests that “[p]ostulating special inner qualities that are not only private and intrinsically valuable, but also unconfirmable and uninvestigatable is just obscurantism." (p.450). To this Searle (1998) replies, "I would not have thought that this thesis - that consciousness could be treated separately from consciousness was widely held until I discovered it in several recent books on consciousness (Crick 1994, Edelman 1989). The basic idea is that the problem of qualia can be carved off from consciousness and treated separately; or better still, simply brushed aside. There are not two separate problems, the problem of consciousness and then a subsidiary problem the problem of qualia. The problem of consciousness is identical with the problem of qualia, because conscious states are qualitative states right down to the ground. Take away qualia and there is nothing there." (p.1938). I love academic cat fights.

Another approach under this category is to suggest that integrated holistic conscious experience is an illusion. Proponents of this view suggest that the brain has many parallel processes occurring and we make an error in assuming these processes are connected. Dennett (1991) is the principle advocate of this position. One problem I have with this is that consciousness does have an objective ontological reality to us - it's there now, it's the feel of your arse on the seat - and that needs to be explained (maybe a broader explanation than that of just arses though.) Bechtel (1995) also agrees that we must question the notion of a unified consciousness and he offers a way out suggesting that qualia may not be an objective fact but rather an illusion mediated by language. This idea of grand interpreter is also in Gazzaniga's work.

Physical accounts of consciousness

Then there are the physical account of consciousness. They assume that our current understanding of the world is good enough to understand consciousness (eventually).

Digital functionalism - a biggie. Worth knowing lots about this. At its most basic it says that consciousness is maths. Once we understand the brain's maths we understand consciousness. There are lots of objections including:
- Inverted spectra/qualia (Block and Fodor, 1972)
- Multiple realizability (Block, 1980)
- Intentionality (Searle, 1980)
Then there are the rejoinders. Read the article I wrote on Functionalism for more.

(Note, I call this digital functionalism. This means 1s and 0s. Neurons on or off. I would consider quantum explanations still functionalist because they are still computational, just the mechanics of the computation are of a different flavour. This might be a handy technicality for an essay on functionalism. That is, you can knock down digital functionalism and replace it with quantum functionalism.)

Eliminative Materialism - This position is essentially a reductionist one advocating that science can deconstruct higher order properties into lower order properties of the physical world. Once we understand every neural interaction, we understand consciousness. This is just functionalism given a neural reality.

Non-eliminative Materialism - Like eliminative materialism this position suggests that consciousness can be explained by the physical world. However, unlike eliminative materialism it is impossible to understand higher order properties simply by reference to the lower order properties. Rather at certain levels of complexity there are emergent properties of a system. As Searle (e.g. 1998, 2000) asks, ‘Is a single water molecule wet?’ Again, this is functionalism and a more sensible functionalism in my view. You can't explain the Internet by talking about a single line of code in the Google system. See Churchland and Churchland (1997) for more.

Exotic physics - There are those that think (digital) functionalism is an adequate way of explaining consciousness, like Nagel (1993). He suggests that “…it is inevitable that the pursuit of [an account of consciousness] will lead to an alteration of our conception of the physical world.” (p.3). He thus goes onto to claim that, “[i]n the long run, therefore, physiological psychology should expect cosmological results." (p.3). Penrose (1994) and Hameroff (1998) are the key proponents of this type of fundamental revision. More recent examples include explorations of deep quantum chemistry by Ventegoot et al (2006). A good review can be found in Faber, Portugal and Rosa (2006). Note: you don't need to understand quantum physics to talk about this.

Non-physical accounts of consciousness

Chalmers (1995) comments on such exotic mathematical theories of consciousness: "At the end of the day, the same criticism applies to any purely physical account of consciousness. For any physical process we specify there will be an unanswered question: Why should this process give rise to experience? Given any such process, it is conceptually coherent that it could be instantiated in the absence of experience. It follows that no mere account of the physical process why tell us why experience arises. The emergence of experience goes beyond what can be derived from physical theory."

As a result Chalmers offers up panprotopsychism because the explanatory gap between the easy and hard problems of consciousness will never be bridged by a) functionalism, b) a radical revision of our understanding of matter or c) by assuming that to understand consciousness is beyond the capabilities of the human mind or science. Panprotopsychism argues that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. He suggests "that a theory of consciousness should take experience as fundamental....a theory of consciousness requires the addition of something fundamental to our ontology as everything in physical theory is compatible with the absence of consciousness".

Chalmers argues that the Universe’s basic feature is information and this can be either physical or phenomenal. This view is therefore a dualist one, although one compatible with the scientific world view. Information is something, according to Chalmers, that is over and above the properties of physics. Chalmers indicates that this position might indicate how the experiential arises from the physical. Furthermore, this experience is graded according to the level of complexity of the system. "Where there is simple information processing, there is simple experience, where there is complex information processing there is complex experience. A mouse has a simpler information processing structure than a human, and has correspondingly simpler experience; perhaps a thermostat, a maximally simple information processing structure, might have maximally simple experience?" This theory is important because it is alone in creating the explanatory bridge between matter and experience.

Nonetheless the critics have attacked; for example, Searle (1997): "What is it about the functional state that does the job of 'giving rise' to consciousness? It is he says, information. Not information in the ordinary common-sense meaning of the word in which I have information about how to get San Jose, but in an extended 'information theory' sense, in which any physical 'difference that makes a difference' in the world is information. According to Chalmers conception of information, rain hitting the ground contains 'information', because it makes changes in the ground. But if consciousness arises from information in this sense then: consciousness is everywhere. The thermostat is conscious, the stomach is conscious, there are lots of conscious systems in my brain of which I am unconscious, the Milky Way is conscious, there are various conscious systems in any stone..and so on...This absurd a direct consequence of attempting to explain consciousness in terms of 'information' in this denuded technical sense of the word....It is to Chalmers credit that he sees the consequences of his views; it is not to his credit that he fails to see that they are absurd.” (pp. 155-156).

Overall, if you get the philosophy of consciousness sorted you'll have a sure question to answer come the exam. To date, there has always been a question about it. Note that frequently the question "Can science explain consciousness" or some variation of it appears. Just because the word science is in there doesn't mean you have to talk about science. You can easily take that question on at the philosophical level (i.e. you could answer 'No, science can because science is based on functionalism and functionalism doesn't work' or whatever.)

Next time we'll move on to more specific theories of consciousness and what sort of things you should be doing in your revision with them.

Revising Consciousness

I've had a question about how to revise consciousness, which gives me an excuse to talk about it, something I have been itching to do for a bit. Consciousness is a feisty course and you could devote a career to it and still have more to read (although Semir Zeki, I have heard, claims he has read every single paper ever written about vision. Must have been nothing good on TV that weekend.) Because the course is unlike any other in this respect, I'll talk about the specific approach I took to revising it.

The first thing to make clear is that there is no answer at the end of the revision road with Consciousness. You won't reach a point, like you might in other courses, where it suddenly clicks and you understand it. Even the guys whose living depends on studying it freely admit they know next to nothing about it. Along with a Theory of Everything it is probably the biggest question in science. The nice thing about this is that there is professor-student parity. As long as you don't depart from logic and explain stuff, any new account is a good one. In other words, Consciousness is a course in which to flaunt your creative and critical prowess.

The second thing is to toss out the window the need for a definition of consciousness. One thing definitions carry is theoretical baggage. Definitions come after solution to the problem and in the grand scheme of things the problem of consciousness hasn't really got dent in it. This may feel a bit uncomfortable as you have always been trained to define your terms. Let it go! If you do need to cling to something just call consciousness 'all first person experience'.

Next I would ask what the course is getting at, the course blueprint. I think this captures it:

The philosogeeks and the neurofunkers

The study of consciousness is a bit like a party. You have the people sitting around the edges talking about how to chat the girls up and then you've got the people on the dance floor doing just that. These are the philosogeeks and the neurofunkers.

The philosogeeks are really interested in how you approach the problem of consciousness. They worry about how we can explain first person subjective experience using third person objectivity. Some think it's not possible: consciousness is something that science wont crack. Others contend that a fundamental revision of our understanding of the physical world is needed to understand consciousness and make it amenable to science. Others still say that everything is fine and dandy: science has the muscle to get a hold on consciousness.

The neurofunkers, on the other hand, just get on with it. They just assume that pulling girls is possible. Where they differ is in their exact ideas about consciousness. For example, some argue that consciousness is localized to specific brain areas whereas others advocate that consciousness is distributed across the brain. Many of these different positions are supported by evidence from healthy subjects' behavioural data, brain damage; attention and arousal studies; sleep and wakefulness – in short, neuropsychological data.

Thus, the course is dualistic: half explores theories of consciousness whereas the other half examines neuropsychological data and how they can support or undermine those theories. Now, at least, you can organise you thinking around these two things. It is possible to concentrate more heavily on either of these areas, depending on what you prefer but knowing both gives you more power in exams.

In the next posts what I'll do is talk a bit about philosophy first and then move onto neuropsychology.

Friday, 25 April 2008

More Brain

Discovery documentary on the brain. Probably wont live up to the ambitious title of "Everything you need to know about the brain" but might add colour to your knowledge.

Thinking spaces

I'm getting quite interested in how architecture affects the mind; what kind of things make us work well and make us creative. The briefest of looks into the literature shows that there's not much on it (2nd years take note: 3rd year project - oh dear, I sound like a lecturer). Anyway, now you are all back in Bristol I thought it might be nice to talk about some places to work.

First off, the Arts and Social Sciences library. I find the inside of this building as depressing the outside (anyone else think the windows look like they have been crying?) There is no fresh air, the lighting is artificial, some idiot will invariably answer their phone with total disregard for anyone else and, to top it all, you feel like you are a maze rat:

I don't think the ASS is a great place to spend your time (don't take me out of context on that one). It is handy when other places are closed or there is simply no space elsewhere. It does have some redeeming features though. Dotted about the building are microfiche rooms. Apart from being pleasantly odd to pronounce, these double up as great 'discussion suites'.

On the first floor there is also a deaf studies room, which is normally empty and can be used for this too. The fact that there are no windows in them puts a limit on the amount of time you can be in there. More than half an hour and you'll come out lighted roasted.

Other places that make you feel like you have just completed an international flight include the main computer room next to the ASS and the Level 4 Psychology computer lab. Generally, these places suck the energy out of you - it's something do to with negative ion depletion, I think - are poorly ventilated and badly lit.

Lots of you will opt to work in these places but just in case you find them as unremittingly bleak as I did, here are some more life-affirming places in which to gaze into the middle distance and wonder if there are other words besides 'darta' that Simon Farrell likes to add his own special zing to:
  • The biology library; fresh air, natural light, Internet available
  • The physics library; big discussion area, natural light, Internet and windows
  • The geology library (off to the right of the law library in the Wills Memorial Building); windows, Internet, old dark wood (there's something about it that makes you feel like you should be working)
  • (The law library is ok but lawyers are vehemently possessive about it and I swear some of them have actual crossbows under their desks ready to take down those not of their ilk)
  • The Epi bar during the day is good for discussions as no one is there. Actually, no one is there in the evenings either.
  • The various quiet spots dotted about the Union: 3rd floor looking out to Clifton is good, Avon Gorge and Anson Rooms are empty most of the time (except around exams), Internet near Epi bar, there's also another computer room behind the girls' loos on that floor
  • And if everyone in your flat/house is at the library or they are working too, why not stay at home?
I haven't sampled these locations but you might want to give them a go:
And when the weather is nice:

Speed reading

A few of you are wondering if I know anything about speed reading. I don't. But Keith Rayner a cognitive psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst does: "There is no such thing as speed reading...Not if your definition of reading is comprehending text." So, don't rush reading, you'll just have to read it again to understand it and that takes up more time than just reading slowly.

(If any of you are wondering how these question are being asked, scroll down the page: there is an email address at the bottom of the stuff on the right.)

Thursday, 24 April 2008

How to note: the nitty gritty

toke @ Flickr

We have established a few things for note-taking. First, know what a course is about. This is vital for restricting your revision to the relevant stuff and being able anticipate questions that might be coming. Second, it's best to start off your research with a review paper or several introductions to recent papers. I am working on a post which has all the review references I ever read in one place. Sit tight for that one, it's gonna be useful, especially for people who have had a rather too leisurely Easter break.

Before that, some more on note-taking.

Use your own words. Copying swathes out of paper is tempting because of the illusion of progress it creates. There are several problems with this. First, revision is reduction, so you are immediately failing in this respect.

Second you may understand the material now as the implicit logic is still kicking about in your minds from reading the paper, but when you revisit the notes in a month's time you'll kick your past self when the logical steps are not there and you simply have to go back to the original paper, obviating the initial work.

The other thing about using your own words is that you are exploiting the generation effect, the fact that when you produce information (as opposed to just reading and copying it) you remember it better (e.g. De Winstanley & Bjork, 2004). Converting key ideas into metaphor is a step further because of the deeper level of processing required, which better ossifies the ideas in memory.

Next, shorthand or prose? Prose. We all think we have a special shorthand that saves us massive amounts of time but which we later struggle to decipher. There's a lovely bit in Extras when Darren is jotting down the name of Andy's proposed show in his special shorthand:

Darren Lamb: What's it called?
Andy Millman: "When the Whistle Blows".
Darren Lamb: [writing] "When the W Blows".
Andy Millman: Don't just write "W" you'll forget what the W stands for.
Darren Lamb: "When the Wind Blows".
Andy Millman: "Whistle"!
Darren Lamb: Got it. [writing]
Darren Lamb: "W" equals "Wind".
Andy Millman: "Whistle"!
Darren Lamb: [writing] "When the Whistle Blows".

"Don't just write "W" you'll forget what the W stands for" is good advice for revision too. In your notes you should write in prose. Or at least prose in lists. Short hand is bad for laying down logic, it's bad to come back to, as Darren illustrates, and what's better, practising writing just before exams or sharpening your nib for months in the lead up to them?

So 1) use your own words and 2) use them in prose.


yanivg @ Flickr

Revising for psychology is a bit like trying to drink from a firehose: there's so much to get in and only a limited amount of time and mental willpower with which to gulp it all down. To keep your mouth open for longer and let you swallow faster it's no wonder so many people take to nootropics, the lovely technical term for drugs what make your noggin work better.

The majority of you will use nootropics during revision and exams. 'Not me, I'm clean', you're thinking. Well, yes you, if you gulp your nootropic down from a nice paper cup or can. Coffee, tea, Red Bull, Relentless (who have a great new site) - some people must drink their own body weight in this stuff if the bins in the library are to be believed (and I think they should be. I mean what kind of crazy scamp would go around just filling bins with empty cups and cans? Mind you, those library porters look pretty unhinged...)

Anyway. Adenosine. That's where we start. Adenosine looks a bit like a man holding balloons. Maybe. The important thing is that it has a dulling effect on the nervous system and it builds up in the brain over the day. The beauty of caffeine is that it's got it in for adenosine, to that point that it blocks its production (in neuroparlance it's an adenosine antagonist; Fisone, Borgkvist and Usiello, [2004]). This is what keeps you sharp.

Instead of glugging from a jug of coffee at the start of the day, a better strategy is to have small, frequent doses (Wyatt et al, 2004). One big hit and the adenosine will get back up again; with repeated, small smacks to the face it will stay down. So, in effect, it keeps sleep just around the corner; however, it doesn't knock it off the map. Use caffeine to ward off drowsiness but don't let it substitute any of your normal sleep (Wyatt et al, 2004)

So that's staying alert done. Does this drug have any other effects? Well it speeds up various mental process, including things like faster digit vigilance reaction time and improved visual information processing accuracy (Haskell et al, 2008).

Lesk and Womble (2004) also found that if you are focused on one thing caffeine may pump up short-term memory (by increasing short-term plasticity within the phonological retrieval system). This has also got support from Koppelstaetter et al (2008). (Although the long-term memory situation isn't so hot for caffeine; Han et al., [2007].)

So caffeine does have ergogenic - work improving - qualities and you are probably better off having it to keep you zippy during your revision and let you drink more from that firehose. Just space it out and don't let encroach on your sleep.

I would add a caveat though: if you are an anxious person you may want to give it a miss. This is because the antagonizing of adenosine is anxiogenic - anxiety causing - which you wont need if you are already in this state (e.g. Childs et al, 2008).

Religion and The Brain

Horizon documentary, God On The Brain:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Ramachandran, the Temporal Lobes and God:

Part 1

Part 2

Amnesia: Clive

Split brain: Joe

Lasering depression

khazaei @ Flickr

In a first, scientists have isolated hyperactive parts of the brain in depressed patients using a laser dissection microscope. They found differences at the molecular level relative to controls, which could explain the hyperactivity and pave the way for new therapeutic strategies. This is great stuff for Neuropsychiatry folks.

Wang, S-S, Kamphuis, W., Huitinga, I., Zhou, J-N & Swaab, D.F (in press). Gene Expression Analysis in the Human Hypothalamus in Depression by Laser Micro-Dissection and Real Time PCR: the presence of multiple receptor imbalances. Molecular Psychiatry

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Language (Level 3)

Pink Floyd | Keep Talking | " For millions of years mankind lived just like animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk" Ah, what an opening. The question is: how did we 'learn' to talk and what cognitive tricks let us do it?


Sorry, can't find my general ones.


Language and Thought

Are there universal effects of language on thought?

To what extent is linguistic relativity a reality?

A journalist states, "Languages do not determine thought but they can bias it." To what extent is she correct in saying this?

"Perception of colour, sound, and space are free from influence by language" (Anabosultist, 2008). Discuss.

Spoken word recognition

Discuss the problems afforded by the nature of natural speech that must be overcome in order to establish an accurate model of speech perception?

With reference to empirical data, discuss competing theories of how an individual segments speech.

How can humans understand speech with such ease when this ability has never been replicated by computer scientists?

Is speech perception strictly a ‘bottom-up’ process?

How might humans go about understanding spoken utterances? Try to provide evidence from a wide range of methodologies.

Speech is sequential, variable and continuous. How does the language system overcome this?

Sentence and discourse processing

Discuss the evidence relating to garden path- and constraint-based models of sentence processing in terms modularity.

Is sentence processing modular?

How has eye tracking procedures helped researchers build a model of how sentences are processed?

Interactive models of speech processing explains the majority of empirical evidence and as such should lead researchers to abandon modular theories. Discuss.


Do bilinguals have a separate system governing their second language?

Why might connectionist models be useful to understanding bilingual lexical memory?

How is a bilingual’s lexical memory organised?

How does late bilingualism speak to the issue of critical periods?

Speech production

What can speech errors tell us about speech production?

Speech production according to Garrett (e.g. 1992) is serial and sequential. Assess this claim drawing on speech error analysis.

What have speech errors done for our understanding of speech production?

Which are more instructive: analysis of speech errors or experimental evidence? Illustrate your answer with example from speech production research.

Are semantic and phonological stages separate in speech production?

Discuss how the human cognitive system might achieve speech production.


Critically evaluate 19th century neurolinguistic models in the light of more recent evidence.

Discuss the history of neuolinguisitcs. What has changed since the 19th century?

What has neuroimaging contributed to our understanding of language processing in the brain?

Critically discuss to what extent recent developments in neuroimaging have advanced our understanding of psycholinguistic functions.


Is language innate?

What can non-human language studies tell us about human language?

Is language 'special' or just a biproduct of having a big brain?

Put Jackendoff’s theory of the development of language into a broader evolutionary and linguistic context.

Critically evaluate the debate between nature and nurture in early language acquisition.

Humans are born with a predisposition to acquire language. Discuss.

Language is learnt. Discuss.

Evaluate the evidence for the domain specificity of language.