Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Synapse, Vol. 1, issue 6

Welcome to the sixth edition of Synapse, a biweekly Carnival, devoted to aggregating the best neuroscience postings and research on the web.

History of Psychology:
Let's learn our lessons from the history of Psychology. Here, we have a very informative posting from the Neurophilosopher delineating the gradual historical process through which the concept of a Neuron got established. I am tempted to post a snippet from the post, which describes the etymology of this Carnival's name.

Also during this decade Sir Charles Sherrington described the junction between nerve and muscle, and named it the ’synapse’ (from the Greek roots syn, meaning ‘together,’ and haptein, meaning ‘to clasp’) in 1897.

Interesting New Findings:
Dave from Cognitive Daily presents an interesting research that shows that adults and children have different abilities to detect Musical Phrases and that some of the musical abilities, like language, may involve a critical period of acquisition. A lively discussion ensues on the blog!

Linking It UP:
Chris from Developing Intelligence summarizes the latest findings on Memory consolidation and how this new protein kinease M-Zeta pathway and the earlier Armitage-destruction-in-synapse pathways may lead to a futuristic scenario wherein you may be able to selectively forget the memory of one day earlier. This is the psychological equivalent of the morning-after pill!!

News and views:
PsychNotes posts on the same study regarding Kinease M-Zeta and links it to memory maintainence and LTP.

Informed Criticisms:
The Neurocritic takes issue with the popular press coverage of a study published in Nature which purportedly links Parietal lobe with categorization , and gently points that as per the original; article only LIP is involved and the categorization was limited to direction of motion and thus does not take away all that earlier glory associated with the Ventral stream!

In Depth:
If you want to learn more about attentional blink and whether the data can be explained by distracter-interference vs. two-stage bandwidth limited models, then join Chris from Developing Intelligence as he explores the phenomenon in depth.

Theoretical Developments:
In this section, yours truly, extends the observations made by Marc Hauser for an innate Universal Moral Grammar and adds to it concepts like Intention and Consequence Predicates.
Yours truly, also tries to integrate different factors and stages involved in Pretend play and how that may relate to Language acquisition.

Methodological Advances:
Jake from Pure Pedantry highlights the new sophisticated methodology of using c14 isotope levels and the fact that c14 levels in atmosphere changed drastically before and after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 to prove that no new neurons are formed in the adult human cortex.

Future Trends:
The Neurophiliosopher takes us on a voyage of a hybrid nanowire - rat neurons device in which artificial synapses are created between the Neurons and the silicon nanowires.

(Don’t)Try this at Home (take consent of your physician first!):
Village Smitty, from the Hippocampy, lists a simple exercise for balance, posture and spatial awareness that was found useful for a person suffering from cerebellar meningioma.

In Focus:
Last, but not the least, the In Focus cover article for this special Mouse Trap issue of Synapse, that has the theme of Mouse embedded in it- an article by Jake from Pure Pedantry about various methods used for measuring 'depression' in mice and how knocking the TREK-1 gene bestows the same effects on mice as if they had been treated by anti-depressants and also works by the same pathway. Long live the mice!

The next edition of Synapse would be hosted at GNIF Brain Blogger on Sept.17th. Do submit your articles before the September 16th deadline. Submission guidelines here.

Happy blogging till then!

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Synapse Edition 6 : A last call for submissions!

Fellow bloggers!

Its that time of year again, when one needs to take some time out, from the usual blogging activities, to submit one's most interesting posts, for inclusion in the next edition of that esteemed Carnival called Synapse. This is more important than any grant request that you may need to make. So don't forget to nominate your , or other bloggers, best entries from the past weeks for inclusion in the sixth edition of Synapse that would be published right here at The Mouse Trap on 3rd September.

Please submit the entries in time for inclusion on 3rd Septemeber. Submission guidelines here.

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Different stages of pretend play and how they relate to language development

I was browsing through a blog post by Developing Intelligence and came across this link to a talk by Greenfield et al, regarding pretend play capabilities of Chimpanzees and Bonobos. In this, it is asserted that Chimpanzees and Bonobos are able to achieve level4 of pretend play, that is observed in Humans by themselves and if they are scaffolded or guided by Humans in their Zone of Proximal Development, they can also achieve the stage 5 (the highest stage achieved) . The levels were levels of pretend play as described by McCune and Agayoff (2002) and based on descriptions by Piaget (1951). No web searches by me could lead me to the definition of these levels on the web and I would be glad if any of the readers of this blog, who are familiar with these levels, could update me on this by posting in the comments.

However, I did come across some other levels or stages associated with pretend play and could link them up with my previous postings on moral, cognitive, perspective and language development.

To outline my position, I intend to show that pretend play or Symbolic play follows the same stages as involved in language acquisition and the analogy is true for both Language syntax as well as lexicon acquisition. Further, it may be the case, that pretend play stages precede corresponding language stages and are necessary for successful language acquisition in all stages.

First, I would like to distinguish between the form of pretend play and its contents. The form of pretend play may consist of different predicates

  • An Agent that is pretending (or the Role (R))
  • A pretentious or false act (this is the Pretense (P))
  • A false representation of an object (this is the substituted object (O))

Thus, a pretend play P = R P O

The child may start initially start by forming a concept of pretenses as something that is not really true (stage I); start creating pretenses with real life objects e.g. using real life objects in pretentious acts (like pretended talking on an actual mobile) (stage II); gradually combine two of these (using banana as a mobile and pretending to talk on it) (stage III); gradually graduate to elaborate pretensions whereby not only objects stand for something else and actions stand for something else, but also the role assumed by the child may vary, and is usually that of adults (stage IV); and in later stages the roles , object-representations etc may even be novel and not something that the child has encountered in its usual socializing (stage V).

This staged manner is analogous in language acquisition to babbling (whereby one starts creating words), one word speech (whereby one starts using a word for representing a thing), two word speech (whereby one combines actions, nouns etc in two word phrases to create sentences) and finally telegraphic speech (too much bound by rules learned from observation of adults) and finally adult speech based on pragmatics.

More interesting is some stages described in "Multiple Perspectives on Play in Early Childhood Education" By Olivia N Saracho, Bernard Spodek for individual lexicons- like that for object substitution.

Elena Bugrimenko and Elena Sminova have proposed five stages in symbolic play (ages 18 to 30 months)

  • Stage 1 : Children play only with realistic toys and show no interest in object substitution performed by adults
  • Stage 2: Children automatically imitate adult-initiated object substitutions, but do not appear to understand that one object has been substituted for other.
  • Stage 3: Children independently imitate object substitutions previously performed by an adult.
  • Stage4: Children initiate their own object substitutions, but do not rename the objects with substitute names
  • Stage 5: Children originate and rename

It is interesting to note that individual elements of a pretend play like object-substitution, themselves go through developmental stages.

Another interesting study mentioned in "Understanding Child Development: For Adults Who Work with Young Children" By Rosalind Charlesworth refers to the actual pretense act and how that pretense act becomes more complex as the child goes through different developmental stages. In the following example, the 'pretended act of feeding/eating' should be considered.

According to Nicolich(1977), toddlers develop through a sequence of stages in their play, as seen in the following example:

  • Stage 1: Rudy picks up a spoon, looks at it, puts in his mouth, hangs it on the floor, and drops it.
  • Stage2: Rudy picks up the spoon and pretends to eat.
  • Stage 3: Rudy uses the spoon to feed a doll.
  • Stage 4: Rudy mixes up some pretend food in a pan with the spoon. He uses the spoon to put some pretend food in a dish. He then proceeds to eat, using the same spoon.
  • Stage 5: Rudy goes to the shelf. He takes a plate, cup, and saucer and carefully places them on the table. He returns to the shelf and gets a spoon, knife and fork with which he completes the place setting. His mother sits at the table. Rudy says. 'Soup, mom'. He feeds her with the spoon.

It is interesting to observe that in the above examples, the child in stage 1 is developing his sensory-motor abilities to indulge in a pretend act of eating; in stage 2 he actually indulges in a pretend act that is directed towards himself. In stage 3, he directs the pretense act towards someone else ( a doll) , in stage 4 he goes through a sequence of activities and rituals as observed in a normal social context, in stage 5 he indulges in elaborate planning, setting up the stage and understands that other people can also pretend juts like him and directs the pretend act towards another human being.

To develop the staged theory of pretend play further, consider role-playing agent (that is the child indulging in pretense play). The discussion is based on the following stages (doc) available on the web. (italicized comments mine)

Stage I: Imitative Role Play: In this initial stage of play, children try to act, talk, and dress like people they know. Children use real objects as props. They depend on an element of reality in their play. For instance, a child may pick up a telephone and pretend to “talk on the phone like Mommy” or hold a doll and “feed the baby.” One starts developing a concept of a 'pretended role' but needs to ground that with the actual props that are used and this play is a solitary activity.

Stage II: Make-Believe Play: In the second stage, children’s play is enriched by their imaginations. Now less dependent on concrete props for role-playing, children may use a string as a firefighter’s hose, or an envelope may be Mommy’s briefcase. The ability to make-believe moves beyond the scope of real props or costumes. Children also learn to use their imaginations to invent actions and situations. Dramatic play is no longer confined to real-life events. At this stage, children often use such play to help them understand feelings or deal with fears and worries. Point to note that one has developed a concept of 'pretend roles' and does not need to depend on external props for achieving that role. The role-playing is still mostly a solitary activity.

Stage III: Socio-Dramatic Play: Socio-dramatic play emerges at the time children begin seeking the company of others. Socio-dramatic play includes elements of imitative play and make-believe play; however, it stands apart from the earlier stages in that it requires verbal interaction between two or more children. Because of its interactive nature, socio-dramatic play necessitates planning. One child chooses to be the teacher and the other the student; one child can be a firefighter and the other a would-be victim. Because of its more complex story lines, socio-dramatic play requires that children spend a significant amount of time in this type of play. This play, in my view, is characterized by role-play involving two persons. One knows what role one is supposed to play and what the other person has to play and one may even switch roles during the play. This marks the beginning of 'social' pretend play.

To the above stages I will add two of my own stages of role-playing:

Stage IV : Mythological/ Archetypal / adult role playing
: Here the child may enact the different roles played by mythological or archetypal characters that are prevalent in his culture. He may one minute play Ravana, the next Rama, the next Laxmana, the next Jatauyu and the next Sita (all characters of Ramayana). Thus, he starts understanding that one may have different roles and pretenses at different times and a typical sequence of play would involve permuting between different roles in succession. One is exposed to not only the fact that different roles can be assumed sequentially, but also gets exposed to how it feels to act in that particular social role that is prevalent in one's culture. One would normally imitate adult roles and also play with adults (mother) in this role-playing.

Stage V: Novel role-playing: Here the role-playing with peers becomes more important. Also one seeks novel roles like that of an Alien invader and uses the imagination to come up with novel pretend roles. One may pretend to be novel animals - an El-zebra - an elephant that has stripes and runs very fast. One may pretend not to be a 'role' like a doctor, but a 'person' like one’s best friend and say that I am Bill and act like Bill (for e.g. cuddling dolls like Bill does). Thus, one may move from 'pretend roles' to pretend persons' and even go on the do mimicry using voice intonation, gait etc to pretend to be another person!! One has mastered the art of pretend role-playing.

I’ll briefly try to link this up with another post by Developing Intelligence relating symbol usage with Language development/evolution. Please read the post now, as I wont repeat the arguments made by David Premack here and assume that the reader has read them via the above link.

Premack tries to make an argument for uniqueness of existence of language in Humans due to some Symbol manipulation related abilities that we humans have over other apes. I'll not go into the argument whether, and to what extent, these capabilities exist in Apes (I guess Premack is a sufficiently good authority on that), but will try to show how those symbolic abilities unique to humans, as outlined, are involved in the staged development of pretend play.

  • Voluntary Control of Motor Behavior. Premack argues that because both vocalization and facial expression are largely involuntary in the chimpanzee, they are incapable of developing a symbol system like speech or sign language. This relates to the first stage of a pretend act development. Rudy because of the ability for voluntary control of hands can grasp and move the spoon to make a pretend act of eating.
  • Imitation. Because chimpanzees can only imitate an actor's actions on an object, but not the actions in the absence of the object that was acted upon, Premack suggests that language cannot evolve. This is the requirement for Stage 2 pretense act. Even when the object (food) is not there, Rudy can still act, as-if, the food is present and thus pretend to eat it.
  • Teaching. Premack claims that teaching behaviors are strictly human, defining teaching as "reverse imitation" - in which a model actor observes and corrects an imitator. This may be required for third stage wherein Rudy may actually be 'teaching' the doll how to eat. Feeding the doll, gives Rudy an opportunity to indulge in reverse imitation and correction.
  • Theory of Mind. Chimps can ascribe goals to others' actions, but Premack suggests these attributions are limited in recursion (i.e., no "I think you thought he would have thought that.") Premack states that because recursion is a necessary component of human language, and because all other animals lack recursion, they cannot possibly evolve human language. This may relate to both stage 4 and 5 wherein Rudy is able to sequence multiple pretensions (adding raw material, cooking, eating , serving) and thus also acquires the ability to sequence (or recurse or embed) multiple abstract symbolic representations. Rudy may also exhibit stage 5 awareness of ascribing the goal of 'having food' or 'being hungry' to Mom who would thus be willing to collaborate in the pretend play.
  • Grammar. Not only do chimps use nonrecursive grammars, they also use only words that are grounded in sensory experience - according to Premack, all attempts have failed to train chimps to use words with meanings grounded in metaphor rather than sensory experience. This use of metaphorical symbolic representation may be related to the fact that in stage 5 Rudy can draw an analogy between the pretend act of feeding oneself and the pretend act of feeding the m0m. The original act of feeding self that was replaced by the pretended act of feeding self has been replaced and construed as analogous to feeding someone else.
  • Intelligence. Here Premack suggests that the uniquely human characteristics of language are supported by human intelligence. Our capacity to flexibly recombine pieces of sensory experience supports language, while the relative lack of such flexibility in other animals precludes them from using human-language like symbol systems. For this we will have to go to stages 6, 7 and 8:-)

To sum up, there seem to be interesting parallels involved in all developmental stages, be that of Moral development, Language development or Symbolic Usage (Pretend Play) development and this tells us about some of the constraints, templates and guidelines under which development takes place.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Universal Moral Grammer: a case for Intention Predicates, Consequence Predicates and Action Predicates?

There is an interview of Mark Hauser on the American Scientist wherein Hauser discusses Moral Development in humans and animals in context of his soon-to-be-released book Moral Minds.

In brief, Hauser contends, that just like humans are born with an innate ability to acquire language and there exist universal grammatical rules underlying this language acquisition, so too there are universal, innate, unconscious moral rules and they govern the development of Moral Sense. Thus, though different languages may have different content (actual words etc), their form would be constrained by the Universal Grammar that was instrumental during the language acquisition, so too though different cultures may have different moral or ethical systems or values (the actual content), their form would be constrained by the universal, unconscious grammatical rules that constrained the development of that particular moral language.

To simplify things a bit, it is instructive to read up a bit on Universal Grammar as well as familiarize oneself with popular grammars like Generative grammars that are used in linguistics.

Hauser mentions that the "moral grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action". To put that in a simplified (and my own!) form, one may say that every moral sentence (or moral act/judgment) can be represented in the form of a Cause or Intention Predicate (IP), a Action Predicate (AP) and a Consequence Predicate (CP).

Thus, A Moral Sentence S consistent with a particular Moral System would have the form


This is similar to a normal language sentence being of the form Noun Predicate followed by Verb Predicate followed by Prepositional Predicate (juts for sake of example)

The IP,AP and CP may themselves be recursively defined and may be made of either terminals are non-terminals like IP,CP, AP themselves.

Thus we may have different types of Moral languages - ranging from type 3 or regular moral languages to type 0 or unrestricted.

Only sentences that are valid and as per the rules of the Moral language would be 'right', while sentences that have been rejected by an automata as not belonging to that grammar would be 'wrong'. Thus, an algorithmic implementation of judging acts as moral or immoral can exist.

Hauser, also mentions some interesting observations.

  • When consequences of an action are same, one (even children) differentiates based on whether the act (or lack of it!) was accidental or intentional.
  • If an act was accidental and leads to the same consequence, one still distinguishes whether the act was hasty, due to negligence or carelessness or something which normally should have been performed, but skipped.
  • He also discusses, that even when consequences and intentions are same, say in active and passive euthanasia; still based on the nature of act - viz. the fact that in former one is actively ending life by administrating poison, while in other one is passively letting the person die by removing life-support - our moral judgments are different.

Hauser doesn't go on to develop from these observations a full-fledged universal Moral grammar, or maybe he does so in his book, but I take the liberty here to relate this to my own theories of Moral devlopment as well as my analysis of Kohlberg's theory and see how this Universal Grammar affects the acquisition of Moral Sense in a developmental staged manner in Humans.

To make the analogy clear, consider language acquisition in Children. There is a clear developmental pattern to all language acquisitions and this is independent of the language learned. The child begins by babbling, follows up with one letter words (either nouns or verbs), then goes on to construct two letter words, this is followed by a telegraphic speech phase wherein multi-word sentences are created, but there is too much grammeticalisation and finally the adult usage of multi-word grammatically correct sentences that are pragmatically used.

Within these broad stages, there are universal features found in all languages like usage of inflection and intonation to denote exclamation or interrogation without changing the order or content of words used to denote a normal sentence. For example, normal sentences like

“Dad is coming"

when spoken with different inflections and intonations can either represent an exclamation or an interrogation viz.

"Dad is coming!"

"Dad is coming?"

This is true for all languages and this ability to use inflection also develops later and in a staged manner. Similarly prepositions are learned later than say nouns, verbs or adjectives in all languages.

To focus discussion back on Universal Moral Grammar and acquisition/development of Moral Sense, what I propose is that different stages of Moral development reflect the mastery of some rules of this universal grammar.

In stage I of Moral Development, one is babbling in the sense that one is trying to formulate a coherent moral judgment about any act. One has still not learned/ identified the 'words'/ 'acts' that form the moral lexicon (of the moral culture in which this moral sense is developing) and as such judges an act based on whether it is personally rewarded or punished. One has started forming the concept of 'consequence' of an act, but that consequence is defined by how the society around us responds to a particular act, rather than on any intrinsic property of the act. The concept of Consequence Predicate is beginning to form and one starts judging an act based on the 'good' or 'bad' consequence it had and this consequence is learned by feedback provided by society/parents.

In stage II of Moral Development, one is in the holophrastic speech stage in the sense that one has realized the acts that lead to good consequences and those that lead to bad and undesirable consequences. In this stage one may also start realizing the difference between accidental acts or intentional acts and value intentional acts over accidental ones. Still the child would be using either the schema of Intention or that of Consequence to judge an act. It may not be possible for him to combine the two schemas together and analyze the situation not only on the basis of consequences as well as on the basis of intentions.

In stage III of Moral Development, one may start combining two moral predicates like "Intention" and "Consequence" to form combinations and then judge whether the moral act is inline with his moral system or not.

For example, the terminals for Intention Predicate could be 'good', 'bad', 'selfish', selfless', 'accidental', 'active', 'casual' etc and the terminals for Consequence Predicate could be 'good' , 'bad' , 'maximising' ,'minimising' ,'disruptive' ,'constructive', 'long-term' etc

The combination of these two 'words' in stage III of Moral development may lead to different value judgments of a moral act, based on taking into account both the consequence and the intention.

In stage IV of Moral development, one may start refining the moral judgment statements, by taking into account Action Predicate terminals like 'inactive', 'casual', 'careless', 'lazy', 'lethargic', 'vigorous', 'vibrant', 'thoughtful' etc and combine these with IP and CP to form more complex 3 or more words sentences. One would also start refining IP, CP and AP as recursively embedded in each other and thus consisting of more than one words each, but the construction of moral sentences or judgments would be overtly grammatical just like telegraph speech.

In stage V of Moral development, not only would one rely on syntax, but would be using pragmatics to inform the construction of Moral Judgments. One would have reached an adult stage of taking into account different consequences, intentions, actions and their combinations to arrive at a moral judgement.

The above was focused more on development of Moral syntax.

Another way to see how moral lexicon develops is to consider the development of vocabulary for the Consequence Predicate.

In stage I, one may use the words 'good-rewarding' and 'bad-punishing' in the CP and the consequences would be judged based on whether they are rewarded by society (parents) or punished. This stage leads to formation of the concept 'good' as relevant to consequences; and acceptance of the 'good' over 'bad' as part of one's moral lexicon.

In stage II, the words used may switch to 'good-for-self' and 'good-for-other' in the CP and one may start distinguishing on the moral judgments based on whether the consequence is good for self or for others; with 'good-for-self' taking precedence over 'good-for-others'.

In stage III, the words used may switch to 'good-feeling-self' and 'good-feeling-other' in the CP. In this stage, the Consequence is judged more favorably if it leads to feelings of goodness or that of being a good person. Again, 'good-feeling-self' may be preferred over 'good-feeling-others'.

In stage IV, the words used may be 'good-for-society' and 'greatest good for greatest people' in the CP. Here Consequences are classified as per whether they benefit the society as a whole or at least the greatest number of people that are involved(including oneself).

In stage V, the words used may be 'good-for-life', 'good-for-property', 'good-for-happiness' etc and here too one may prefer 'good-for-life' over all other including 'good-for-happiness' or words learned in previous stages like 'good-for-society'. At this stage the lexicon used would be reflecting the maturity reached in stage V, with individual rights being upheld and individual universal values (like human rights) preferred over societal duties or obligations to others under the social contract.

Just like for Consequence Predicate, it is easy to show, that words for Intention Predicate also keep changing and getting added as one goes through moral developmental stages.

One may start with a distinction between, 'accidental' and 'intentional' intentions and refine them with more terminals like 'selfish intention', 'intention to help other', 'intention to be happy', 'intention to make happy', 'altruistic intention to help society', or 'intention to reform society/ upheld human values'

I'll leave the discussion for now and would like to hear from readers how they intuitively feel regarding the Universal Moral Grammar and what experiments can they suggest to prove or disprove the theory?

Endgame: As Moral Judgements do not just involve atrributing whether a moral sentence (or moral act) belongs to the moral grammer (is right) or not; but also involves comparision between competing Moral Acts and a classification as to which act is 'better', is the analogy to Language a bit restrictive? or is it that an act is either right or wrong; and that all 'right' acts are equivalent and chosing any 'right' act (of the many possible) does not make a difference?

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Encephalon Edition 5 now online

The Encephalon Edition 5 has just been published at the Developing Intelligence .

The articles range from analysis of Potassium channels gating (that has turned out to be analog gating rather than digital gating) and the resistance of TREK1 (a gene used in K channels) knockout mice to anti depressent and the possible effect of anti-depressants via this TREK1 pathway to those focusing on depiction of psychoses in novels of Philip K dick and the technology used to make the movie A Scanner Drakly

There are many other interesting articles including some posted earlier on this blog. Have a nice read and Enjoy!

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Male and The Female Brain: from Back to Front and from Left to Right

I have been reading too many commentaries on The Female Brain (and also read an online chapter from the same today), so please excuse me if I too jump into the fray with my own discovery of a Dorsal visual stream bias in Males and a Ventral visual stream bias in Females. This is a novel departure from the usual left brain /right brain argument and deserves some attention!!

It has been often commented that the dorsal visual stream is specialized for location (and motion). Considering the combination of motion and location, one can easily see that if males process this stream more easily/predominantly then they are good at driving:-) and parking cars:-) vis-a-vis females who may not process data in this stream as preponderantly as in the Ventral stream.

Now, it has also been commented that the ventral stream is specialized for things like shape, color etc all of which enable us to identify the object. Thus, this stream is specialized for identifying objects. If women have more preponderant processing here, they would definitely be good at skills needing to treat objects like a whole- for ex relating to a person, recognizing faces etc.

I got thinking along these lines by reading a excellent commentary on Developing Intelligence regarding visual binding and you must read it before proceeding further.

As per the research mentioned there, it was experimentally found that object-location condition evoked longer looks from infants only when the objects were toys. It is evident that this ventral stream is a predominantly mean stream with focus on worldly objects and toys (I guess they had used cars as toys!)

It was also found that the object-identity condition evoked longer looks only when the objects were faces. Thus, the ventral stream it seems is tailor-made for females with their emphasis on interpersonal relationships and faces and persons as opposed to the more objective world of Men. Pardon me if reading too much Gilligan etc has gone to my head.

To me this seems as compelling evidence that not only do the female and male brains differ from left (hemisphere) to right, but also from front to back!

This post is written with a tongue-in-cheek but also takes forward some of the concepts like object and motion permanence that I mentioned earlier. It seems we need to distinguish now between object-identity permanence, object-location permanence, object-motion permanence and object-binding permanence!

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Celebrity Worship, Personality and Temperaments

There is an interesting article published in the Psychologist, regarding the psychology behind Celebrity Worship.

The Celebrity worshipers are classified on the following three dimensions (obtained by Principal Components Analysis):

  • Entertainment-social. Fans are attracted to a favorite celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a source of social interaction and gossip. Items include ‘My friends and I like to discuss what my favorite celebrity has done’ and ‘Learning the life story of my favorite celebrity is a lot of fun’.
  • Intense-personal. The intense-personal aspect of celebrity worship reflects intensive and compulsive feelings about the celebrity, akin to the obsession tendencies of fans often referred to in the literature. Items include ‘My favorite celebrity is practically perfect in every way’ and ‘I consider my favorite celebrity to by my soul mate’.
  • Borderline-pathological. This dimension is typified by uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies about their celebrities. Items include ‘I would gladly die in order to save the life of my favorite celebrity’ and ‘If I walked through the door of my favorite celebrity’s house she or he would be happy to see me’.

The article goes on to relate these dimension to Eysenecks Personality dimensions:

Specifically, the entertainment-social factor of the Celebrity Attitude Scale reflects some of the extraversion personality traits (sociable, lively, active, venturesome), the intense-personal factor of the CAS reflects some of the neuroticism traits (tense, emotional, moody), and some of the acts described in the borderline-pathological subscale of the CAS seem to reflect some of the psychoticism traits (impulsive, antisocial, egocentric).

It goes on to discuss the social and developmental aspects with special focus on the predominantly teen phenomenon of celebrity worship. It is theorized that Celebrity Worship is part of 'parasocial' relationship building and plays a role in the transition from parental attachment to peer attachments as a function of increasing emotional autonomy.

Here I start seeing parallels between the Teen's particular style of Celebrity Worship and the infant's reaction to Strange Situation test measured by Ainsworth and theoriesed by Bowlby.

In the Strange Situation test the group of infants which has a secure attachment with parent, protested and cried on separation, but when the mother returned, they greeted her with pleasure and were easy to console. They were securely attached. Could a person with this form of attachment style (the Extraversion secure trait), in its adolescence when building a parent-like role-model relationship with a Celebrity display a similar attachment style as displayed in infancy. The attachment would give pleasure, would be fun to talk about and provide as a basis (talking matter) for other peer relationships. Is this not the Entertainment-social style?

The second group of infants in the Strange Situation test was characterized by a lack of distress during parental separation, and avoidance of the parent upon return. This group was called insecurely attached, and avoidant. Is it not possible that this attachment style , that is characterized by attachment from a distance and no anxiety on separation , but a general anxiety (Neuroticism trait) in general, lead in adolescence to intense-personal style of seeking a parental figure in the Celebrity, which purports to be personal, and is a substitute for the lack of parental bonding and is itself more of a facade. As the article notes, "an intense-personal interest in celebrities was best predicted by low levels of security and closeness with parents." What is apparent is that this intense 'relationship' with the celebrity is juts another facade and a repeat of the pattern of insecure or avoidant attachment as the relationship is more about oneself then about the celebrity.

The third group in the Strange Situation Test was labeled ambivalent or anxiously attached, and tended to be clingy from the beginning and afraid to explore the room. They became terribly anxious upon separation, yet displayed angry and resistive behavior upon the parent's return. This may indeed follow up in adolescence as celebrity worship of the Borderline/Pathological type where one loves as well hates (in the sense of distressing or harming the celebrity if favors not returned) the one who has been substituted for the parental figure. One is not really clear about the feelings as the role of impulsive (Psychoticism trait) behavior is too much!

This makes us pause and consider whether the attachment style displayed in infancy was due to bad parenting or a result of some 'trait' factor associated with the temperaments of the infant? Does one come endowed with some temperaments like that proposed by Buss and Plomin? Do the attachment styles in infancy and Celebrity Worship styles in adolescence based on the developmental unfolding and fixation of the same underlying trait tendencies? Below are the traits observed by Buss and Plomin in infants:

1. Emotionality-impassiveness: How emotional and excitable were the babies? Some were given to emotional outbursts of distress, fear, and anger -- others were not. Could the high emotionality tilt lead to insecure attachment and intense-personal celebrity worship? Is achieving impassiveness a developmental task that these kids are not able to achieve (due to a mix of inherent traits as well as nurturing provided)?

2. Sociability-detachment: How much did the babies enjoy, or avoid, contact and interaction with people. Some babies are “people people,” others are “loners.” Does the high sociability lead to secure attachment and later to Entertainment-social fixation on celebrities? Is achieving detachment too a developmental task?

3. Activity-lethargy: How vigorous, how active, how energetic were the babies? Just like adults, some babies are always on the move, fidgety, busy -- and some are not. This dimension may be related to ambivalent and active forms of stalking behaviors. Maybe too much activity (hyperactivity) is not too good and cultivating a bit of lethargy is a developmental task?

4. Impulsivity-deliberateness: How quickly did the babies “change gears,” move from one interest to another? Some people quickly act upon their urges; others are more careful and deliberate. This could be strongly related to the ambivalent attachment and later borderline-pathological celebrity worship characterized by impulsiveness and lack of successful traversal of developmental task of cultivating deliberativeness.

I'll leave this topic for now, just noting briefly that the intense-emotional worshippers also have low cognitive flexibility. As they have been shown to be related to Neuroticism, it is little wonder. People with high Neuroticism also develop disorders like Depression whereby one sort of falls into learned helplessness- a fixed cognitive schema and inflexibility in trying new things, cognitive coping actions. This needs cures like cognitive behavior therapy where new modes of cognition and action are taught. A lack of cognitive flexibility thus fits nicely with the Intense-Personal celebrity worshippers.

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Development of Perspective Taking : a pre-requisite for different stages of Moral Development

There is an interesting post on Edie NeuroLearning Blog, that focuses on some recent findings that empathy/interpersonal perspective-taking is correlated with high activation in sensory-motor areas. This is as opposed to the baseline condition in which a third party or 'bystander' perspective is undertaken.

Of more interest to us here is the Robert Selman's developmental stage theory of perspective-taking and how that relates to the Kohlberg's Moral Development theory we have discussed earlier.

As per Robert Selman, the interpersonal perspective-taking or the related role-playing (stepping in someone else's cognitive perspective) ability develops through distinct stages and he outlines five of them starting from undifferentiated perspectives in which one is not really able to distinguish between different perspectives to 'bystander' or third party perspectives tainted with social/cultural influences.

Before we proceed further, it is instructive to distinguish between perceptual perspective-taking or point-of-views as outlined by Piaget and more emotional-cognitive theory-of-mind perspectives as elaborated by Selman. The 'impersonal' point-of-view tasks that piaget used (for eg in the famous point-of-view task whereby a Christmas tree was obstructed from point of view by hills. See figure) rely more on whether one can literally see from the point of view of another person and is restricted to purely perceptual phenomenon. While egocentrism would correspond to undifferentiated perspective taking (stage 1) of Selman as it involves inability to distinguish one's own perspective from those of others, Decntering would be akin to taking third party perspectives (stage 4) of Selman. Piaget's decentration may be a necessary (but not sufficient say in the case of people with Autism) condition for the development of third-party perspectives stage of Selman.

Thus, in the ensuing discussion all references to perspective-taking would be in the theory-of-mind emotional-cognitive sense and not in purely perceptual terms.
Consider as an example a story presented to children who are then asked on what the protagonist would do and how others would react to it.

Holly is an 8-year old girl who likes to climb trees. She is the best tree climber in the neighborhood. One day while climbing a tree she falls off the bottom branch but does not hurt herself. Her father sees her fall, and is upset. He asks her to promise not to climb trees anymore, and Holly promises.

Later that day, Holly and her friends meet Sean. Sean's kitten is caught up in a tree and cannot get down. Something has to be done right away or the kitten may fall. Holly is the only one who climbs trees well enough to reach the kitten and get it down, but she remembers her promise to her father

The first stage of Selman is based on Undifferentiated Perspective whereby one attributes one's or protagonist perspective to everyone else's. One may have a concept of perspective or Theory-of-mind but may suffer from an inability to attribute any other perspective to anyone else distinct from one's own. Thus typical response are like "The child predicts that Holly will save the kitten because she does not want it to get hurt and believes that Holly's father will feel just as she does about her climbing the tree: "Happy, he likes kittens"

This also relates to Kohlberg stage 1 in the sense that one comes to realize that one can have a 'moral' perspective on a subject. This 'moral' perspective though is undifferentiated from what the society has imposed in the form of rewards/ punishments . One confuses others moral perspective (father says this is right" with ones own "this is right" and sort of has an undifferentiated moral sense. Everyone should behave like this.

The second stage of Selman is the social-informational perspective whereby one comes to realize that not only there exits a perspective, but that it can be different for different persons. Nevertheless, despite the realization that the perspectives can differ ( based on say the different information that each may have) the preponderant tendency is to consider one's perspective as valid and by exchanging information attempts to make others perspective inline with one's own. Thus a typical response may be " When asked how Holly's father will react when he finds out that she climbed the tree, the child responds, "If he didn't know anything about the kitten, he would be angry. But if Holly shows him the kitten, he might change his mind." The attitude is typical of a person who realizes that someone may have a different perspective, but that perspective is not valid and is due to lack of information.

This too relates to Kohlberg's second stage which is marked by self-interest and deal-making . One realizes that people may view things from different 'moral' perspectives, but also there is a preponderant tendency to favor one's own moral perspective (that is based on self-interest) over others moral or ethical perspective. Thus there is relativism, but a relativism that is skewed by self-interest. Also exchanging or del-making as a way to align self-interest or different moral /ethical perspectives is the norm.

The third stage of Selman is marked by self-reflective perspective taking which marks the first empathetic perspective taking whereby one sees, thinks and feels from other person's perspectives using first person. This is literally stepping in someone else's shoes and truly seeing as if the situation concerned oneself. This not just a logical realization that someone can have a different perspective but also realizing that that perspective can be equally valid given the other person's unique situation. Thus one thinks and feels like the other person and can both suffer and enjoy the outcomes of situations as they unfold from the other person's perspective. The emphasis is on understanding. And empathy. Thus the typical responses like " When asked whether Holly thinks she will be punished, the child says, "No. Holly knows that her father will understand why she climbed the tree." This response assumes that Holly's point of view is influenced by her father being able to "step in her shoes" and understand why she saved the kitten. "

This too relates well with Kohlberg's third stage marked by interpersonal relations. When one has developed empathy and understanding, one is guided by ensuring that the dealings are ethical in the sense that they make people feel good , enable one to be viewed favorably by others (realized as a good and genuine person) and generally lead to good relations. Empathy and understanding leads to valuation of individuals as similar to oneself and thus equally valuable. All moral/ethical conduct is guided by the dictum of good outcomes and relations between all (and especially those closely empathized with) parties concerned.

The fourth stage of selman becomes possible by the appearance of third-party or 'bystander' perspectives whereby one has decentred in the emotional/cognitive personal sense and can see a situation not only from first and second person perspectives of interacting parties, but also from that of a neutral bystander. This includes the ability to keep multiple perspectives in mind at the same time. One does not see from this perspective and then from the other - one looks at the entire big picture or view and understands that different people are having different perspectives. Thus typical responses include " When asked whether Holly should be punished, the child says, "No, because Holly thought it was important to save the kitten. But she also knows that her father told her not to climb the tree. So she'd only think she shouldn't be punished if she could get her father to understand why she had to climb the tree." This response steps outside the immediate situation to view both Holly's and her father's perspectives simultaneously. "

This also relates closely to the Kohlberg's fourth stage marked by conventional focus on social order. The ability to keep multiple 'moral' perspectives in mind at the same time and the ability to abstract and construct a big picture from these perspectives enables one to come up with the concept of the social morality, or morality that is not governed by different moral perspectives of the participating actors, but is based on the effects these acting persons have on the big picture, the social fabric. Thus the criteria of any ethical actions is adjudged as to how it influences the social fabric - does it lead to maintenance of social order- the third party neutral moral playground and its rules - or is it subversive to it. This is as opposed to the earlier ethical thought and action based on interpersonal focus on individual's morality. The stage now becomes more important than the actors.

The fifth stage of Selman derives form maturation of this to a societal perspective, whereby one realizes that the neutral third party perspective is not really neutral but influenced by the societal and cultural context in which the bystander lives and is reflective of those values. One realizes that one can have different neutral perspectives on a situation, each of which would be colored by the values that are dear to the social and cultural context in which the situation occurs and which dictate what a neutral perspective is. One may realize that some values are desirable and others are not and that the perspective that is informed by desirable values is more preferable. The typical response thus are "When asked if Holly should be punished, the individual responds, "No. The value of humane treatment of animals justifies Holly's action. Her father's appreciation of this value will lead him not to punish her."

This too corresponds well with Kohlberg's fifth stage with the emphasis on Social Contracts and individual rights. When one realizes that the neutral third party perspectives cannot be neutral with respect to the fundamental values and human (or cat in our example) rights that inform such perspectives, then one realizes that while one has societal duties in the form of maintaining the social order which allows for resolution of conflicts between individual moral perspectives, one also has a duty to ensure that the societal laws, mores, traditions are such that they upheld this rules and regulations that are best suited to the human condition. One not only has duties, one also has rights that one can expect from the social fabric. Here one may play with different social values before coming up with a set of values that one deems are amenable to making most interactions viewable from a neutral perspective. One discovers one's moral self and takes activism other measures to ensure that ones moral sense is inline with external social fabric in which one lives.

There is an interesting twist to the whole thing. It seems that moving to higher perspective stages involves taking in more and more information to form ones perspective. This bodes well for the information age. As more and more information becomes available at our fingertips, and we realize novel methods of integrating that information to form better perspectives, our moral sense and actions should also continue to be on upswing.

Selman himself has compared his work to Kohlberg's stages. I don't have access to the article, but others may find it interesting.

More later on the qualitatively different 6, 7, 8 stages. (which I'll have to work out from thin air!)

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Synapse vol 1, issue 5 now online

Synapse vol 1, issue 5 is now online at the Retrospectacle.

This issue of the Synapse features interviews; introductory descriptions of topics as varied as eye movements and sleep disorders; cutting edge news on developments like HAR1's light-to-prominence; detailed analysis of niches like bird songs and circadian rhythms and much more. Go to the Retrospectacle to catch on.

There is also an article on Childhood Poverty and Neurocognitive Development and this takes forward the debate on effect of socio-economic status on IQ and cognitive abilities that have been earlier mused on by me earlier on the mouse trap.

As usual, a post from this blog features in the Carnival.

The Next synapse, i.e. Synapse Vol 1 Issue 6 would be hosted right here at The Mouse Trap on September 3, 2006. So don't forget to drop in then and also drop in your submissions for that edition in the meanwhile. Submission guidelines are right here. Deadline for submissions - one minute before midnight, September 2,2006!

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

A glimpse of my Memome!

Ok, I have taken the gauntlet and decided to expose 5 of the memes that make my Memome.

This post is courtesy Retrospectacle.

The rules: "Go here and look through random quotes until you find 5 that you think reflect who you are or what you believe."
  • They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.

Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987), The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

  • You can't turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.
Bonnie Prudden

  • Our greatest pretenses are built up not to hide the evil and the ugly in us, but our emptiness. The hardest thing to hide is something that is not there.
Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

  • When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.
John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)

  • The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.
Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)
OK these were 5 of my memes. Now its your turn. Truth or Dare!

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Moral dilemmas and what they tell us about moral development

There is an interesting article on Rationality Vs. Emotivity influence in moral decisions and a commentary on the same by Thinking Meat.

As per that article, different decisions are reached in a situation that mandates one to choose a life of one person vis-a-vis that of 5-6 other people, depending on how the situation and moral action to be taken is presented. The hypothetical situation is that of a train/trolley running on a track and 5-6 people unaware of the impending train on the tracks ahead.

In one version of the situation, you can press a lever to divert the train to another track, on which only one person is present, and thus save 5-6 lives by compromising on one life. Most people, when the situation is presented thus, opt for the option of pressing the lever.

In the second version, you can push another person on the track, so that his impact will slow the train down and thus lead to saving of the other 5-6 people down the track. In this situation people usually choose not to throw the person on the track. Also experiments have revealed that emotional centers of the brain are engaged while making this decision.

While some theorizing is going on that the (imagined) action of pushing is not preferred due to the emotional reality of touching and pushing someone to end his life and that this particular (imagined) feeling leads to the decision not to throw the person on the track, let us focus more on the rational or deliberative part of the decision making.

It would be instructive to get familiar with Kohlberg's excellent Moral Development Stage theory for further discussion.

From the point of consequences , the two situations are the same. One life vs many lives and the choice lying with the user (you). Also, perhaps equal societal punishment or recognition based on your choice. Thus, any Moral reasoning employing piaget's first stage or Kohlberg's first stage focusing on reasoning on the basis of consequences or societal punishment/rewards does not solve the dilemma as to why one would act differently in two situations. In both situations, one may be guided by a 'rule' or social dictum like that 'many lives are better than one live'.

From the point of self-interest and relativity(Kohlebrgs second stage), the dilemma doesn't make sense as neither the one person that needs to be sacrificed nor the many other that will be saved are either you or related to you. So the dilemma doesn't solve for a person on second stage. In both cases he should make the same choice based on self interest and that choice may be not making a choice (neither pushing the person, nor pressing the lever) and thus being saved of any consequences that result from the making of choice.

From the point of Conventional morality employing good interpersonal stage of reasoning (stage 3 of kohlberg) the question would now become rephrased as what a 'good' person would do. Also, in absence of information about whether the one person about to be sacrifice is 'good' or the 5-6 to be saved are 'evil' and should not be saved or vice versa, he has no rational basis to make decisions. The one factor that may influence his decision is the proximity of pushing a person down, which may not fit in with the self-perception as a good person and this may explain to a certain extent the skew towards not pushing a person to save lives of others. In this stage of thinking pushing a lever and pushing a person may have different connotations.

From the perspective of social order (stage four), this dilemma presents a challenge. Before deciding which way to act, one would need to deliberate on whether the social order demands that one life be sacrificed to save many more, whether one need to take life of someone to prevent deaths of many others (this can be framed as should a dangerous murder be sentenced to capital punishment) . Another deliberation can be what if all those whose life is at stake are innocent and differ only in the fact that sacrificing one innocent life early on can save many innocent lives later. This is the typical hostage scenario whereby you may have to release terrorists, in order to save an innocent life in the moment that is kept as hostage, only to discover later that this has resulted in many future deaths of victims of those terrorists. In such cases where one knows that one innocent life stands in balance for 5-6 innocent lives further downstream, one still has to make a decision and the consideration primarily is on what precedent it would set. How it affects social order. Would one start taking hostages often ? Thus, sacrificing one life may be the option chosen. These deliberations may lead to the insight that though it may be emotionally repelling one may need to push the person oneself in order to keep up the social tradition of saving maximum number of innocent lives.

From the point of Social Contract and Individual rights (the fifth stage), it may seem that the life of every single individual is very valuable and maybe equally valuable. One may gain insights as to the fact that no amount of property is as precious as even a single (human) life. If this dilemma involved a choice to blow the (goods) train that was carrying vast amounts of wealth in order to save all the lives involved, then one may choose that. As the question is currently framed, there is not much ground on which to decide whether to sacrifice one person or many others. One may deliberate on the greatest good for greatest number of people and thus chose to sacrifice one person, so that many others can see much more years. Again, one may take into account the fact that the one person to be sacrificed is child ( and has many more years of life) and thus needs to be saved in contrast to 5-6 people who are old ( and thus wont see much life). One may even employ the reverse analogy and see that one old man (who has vast amount of wisdom) needs to be saved as he is of greater use to humanity then a child in which one has not invested much. All these deliberations involve and individualistic regards as to the value of life and value of unrealized potential or accumulated experience. What is important is the reasoning involved.

I wont go to stage 6 (universal principles) as Kohlberg himself has sort of retracted the sixth stage, but would hint that from that stage the dilemma gets interesting with discussion of life as a means or life as an end coming into picture. This is mentioned in the original Boston Globe article and is what Hauser is elaborating on. As per Hauser, one may be utilizing a universal moral principle (like universal grammar of language) preceding any rational or emotive deliberation to resolve such conundrums. In this universal scheme Life as Ends may be more acceptable than life as Means. Framed this way given a choice between saving a child and saving an old man, one would always choose a baby (as he/she has more years of life (and end in itself) ) over the old person. Only when one treats Life as a means of achieving something (knowledge? ) one may value an old person over a baby.

But before concluding , I would like to link these stages of moral development with my own theories of 8-stage development.

The first stage is based on finding out rules of society and are authority based. The cognitive task is to find correct associations between behaviors and results (punishment/rewards) and find an accurate view of how the Reality out there is. A similar development process leads to attainment of Trust (knowing that rewards are in plenty) in child's development in Erikson theory. In moral development one develops capacity to link consequences to actions.

The second stage is based on seeing things from ones own point of view and is based on self-interest. One realizes points of view of others , but does not empathizes and is more of a deal making attitude. The cognitive task is to choose for oneself what would benefit one the most. In eriksons framework this leads to Autonomy (will) whereby one can decide for oneself. In Moral Development this takes the form of graduating from society's dictums to a relativist position whereby one can choose what is beneficial to oneself in the moral sense (that is what fits one's morality). One develops the capacity to choose over different options/ viewpoints.

The third stage is based on focusing on how the moral decisions is governed by interpersonal relationships. Here concepts like 'goodness' , empathy, motives become important. One starts thinking in terms of effects ones actions have on others and vice versa. This cause-and-effect interactionist view that goodness is an end in itself and that what goes around come back governs many of the moral decisions. The Cognitive task is to understand and appreciate the effects of one's actions on others. In erikson's framework this takes the form of Initiative or Purpose whereby one tries to co-operate with others and either lead or follow to accomplish goals. In Moral Development this takes the form of realizing that one has the capacity to do good and one should use that capacity.

The Fourth stage is based on focusing on maintaining the social order. One again gets obsessed with societal laws and more, but now does not see them as rules to be followed, but norms which the society has and which are for the good of the society. Thus, these 'good' norms are internalized and ones moral thinking behavior geared around maintaining the norms so that society can function as a whole optimally. The concept of Social duty forms and one feels obliged to return to society what one gets from it. The Cognitive task involved are to understand that one is part of a bigger society, to understand the complexities involved in social interactions and to learn the fragility of social fabric and the need to preserve it as the social fabric is responsible for the large amount of learning that individual suffers by indirect means like observational learning. In Erkison's stages one develops Industry or a sense of competence that they can also work as effective members of a social group. They learn to follow rules followed by their peers or self-imposed by themselves as part of games etc. In the Moral Development this takes the form of realization that one has some moral duties towards the society in which one lives.

The Fifth stage is characterized by focus on Social Contract and individual rights. On makes moral decisions based on the fact that one has voluntarily negotiated a social contract with others on ones' own terms that have included a strong focus on enjoying some rights as part of that social contract. Here, Kohlbergs notion of roles may be appropriate. One plays with different roles (as a moral agent) that one has to play while living in a society and instead of playing the role that his society may demand, turns the tables around and says that I as an individual be;live in these moral rights and duties and that this is my limited social contract with the society. In a sense one has defined one's role and negotiated a personal contract based on that role and feels that neither the individual nor the society-at-large is under any other moral obligations. The cognitive tasks involved are gaining insights into what moral action or thought that one believes in are and how one can consistently use those moral rules while living in a society. The discovery of a moral self is the culmination of these 5 stages of moral development. As an outcome one may end with a rigorous personalized set of moral rules. In Eriksons theory this is equivalent to the similar (ego)Identity achievement of a n adolescent whereby one plays with many roles before deciding on one that one plans to stick around with. In Moral Development this is akin to forming a strong, personal moral sense (self) vis-avis not having a particularly integral sense of having a personal moral sense / conscience.

It's interesting to draw parallels here with my earlier posts on Cognitive Maps whereby in stages 6, 7, 8, if the development is not proper one may regress to earlier stages and suffer from pathologies like regression, fixation or displacement to out groups. I propose that if after achieving a moral self if one does not continue to develop along quantitatively different next three moral stages, one may regress to earlier dysfunctional moral stage when faced with stress situations.

What these 6, 7 and 8 stages of moral development are? Wait for the next mail!! A tantalizing hint that 5th stage may involve another way of achieving moral-ego-integrity (more akin to how moral sense develops in females as per Gilligan) and the 6th stage may involve literally stepping in someone's else's shoes as if you are that person and then resolving a conundrum.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Predicting the future and the Phillip K Dick association

There is a post at Mind Hacks on Phillip K Dicks and how he makes use of psychology in his novels. That post made me curious as to who Philip K Dick was and to my surprise I discovered that many of my most-liked movies like Paycheck and Minority Report are based on his writings. Also that some movies on my hitlist like Blade Runner are also based on his novels. Amazing indeed and I hope to read some original works of Philip K dick soon. Would like to find out if the readers of this blog too find his more-or-less gripping account of predicting the future in Minority Report and Paycheck enticing.

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Unification of psychology in either direction

There is an interesting endeavor going on at PsyBlog to document the unity of psychology journey and current issues.

I got hooked to the same as I am also currently reading Consillience by E. O. Wilson and thus on the lookout for unified theories. Thanks to Mind Hacks via which I discovered this thread.

As per the Tree of Knowledge of Henriques, Psychology (on the mind plane) sits between Biology (on the life plane) and social Sciences (on the culture plane). He bridges the efforts of Skinner (towards the biological end of the spectrum) with Freud (towards the sociological end) as under the umbrella of psychological domain.

What interests me, is my own obsession at the two ends of the spectrum. While the Cognitive Map and research of Tolman seems to me a marking phase in psychology where behaviorism led way to the more cognitive approaches belonging to psychology proper; I am also intrigued by Conceptual Metaphors and linguistics which sits at the intersection of psychological phenomenon like thoughts and cultural phenomenon like language and its effects (the sapir-whorf hypothesis).

Hopefully my idiosyncratic tastes in Psychology would help the readers onwards on their own journey of unifying the Psychological stream of inquiry.

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Now I see it, now I don't : object and motion permanence

Cognitive Daily has a good article summarizing the findings of recent study on 4 month old babies and how they perceive moving objects.

The study utilizes the fact that babies look longer at stimuli that are interesting or what they perceive as novel. The results of the study indicate that if a moving ball is occluded by a stationary object, then the motion prior to occlusion and posterior to occlusions would be perceived as the same motion if the time of occlusion or length of occlusion is small.

This is an interesting finding from two angles. First this study necessitates that one distinguish between object permanence and motion permanence. The former seems to be an easy to achieve property relying only on the static stimuli and should be judged only by the fact as to whether a child gropes for an object that has now been occluded and is out of sight. The latter, viz. motion permanence implicitly assumes that object permanence has been achieved. It doesn't make sense to say that two motions that were temporally or spatially close are the same if the object undergoing that motion was not existent even when occluded.

Thus, these experiments provide further evidence that Piaget had misjudged the capacity of babies to achieve object permanence.

Endgame: does the existence of two visual pathways : one specialized for motion perception and other for location/shape/color/object mean that object permanence and motion permanence may be achieved at different ages and may have different underlying prognosis?

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Encephalon #4 is online now!

The fourth edition of Encephalon is now available at the Neurocritic.

The articles range from speculation as to how the mapping of Neanderthal genome can give clues to human brain evolution to how Magnocellular pathway used for Motion processing may be more prone to neural plasticity and may be differentially affected in conditions like autism, dyslexia or deafness.

The other focus of the carnival seems to be (debunking of) lie-detection techniques and also biochemical focus on classification of stimulants/ psychedelic and how to dope test the athletes based on chemical properties.

Two articles form this blog also featured.

Have a nice read.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

A pitch for vegetarianism

There is an interesting post on Brain Wave related to country-wide differences in conditions that lead to higher level of oxytocin /estrogen and how these levels of oxytocin are correlated to the level of trust.

As per the study, some factors like the consumption of healthy food consisting of vegetables and fruits, and other factors like clean environments are directly related to average levels of Oxytocin in the population. Also, the same factors are shown to be correlated to levels of trust in the population. It is instructive to note here, that Oxytocin mediated Tend-and -Befriend response to stressful situations has been posited in females as opposed to fight-or-flight (male) response.

What is even better is that Trust and happiness are found to be correlated. Moreover, greater levels of trust are correlated with better economic environment. Thus, a sure way for a country to become both prosperous and happy is to focus on factors that raise the national Oxytocin levels - HUGS and fresh vegetables and foods!

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Conceptual Metaphor Theory: The ship for all seasons

There are some articles online by Lakoff, that pertain to the Conceptual Metaphor theory and are a must read for anyone intrigued by that figure of speech called Metaphor. For a layman, Metaphor is when a literal reading of a sentence/phrase has to be abandoned and the utterance understood 'figuratively'. This definition may be more appropriate to the Novel metaphors / image metaphors that rely more on conjuring up image-schemas to make sense. The 'figure of speech' or 'figurative speech' descriptions may themselves be part of the conventional metaphor "LANGUAGE IS DEPICTION" and are explained by mappings between language: an abstract target domain being mapped to a more concrete source domain of (cave art) symbolic depictions/illustrations. While some concepts would be represented by symbols in the source domain of art representation, others would be not be representational, but based on form of figure would be equivalent to actual physical objects (hieroglyphics). Thus, the very definition of (novel) metaphor is grounded in Conceptual metaphor theory.

Lets us start with an example of metaphorical mapping given by Lakoff: " LOVE IS A JOURNEY" with the metaphorical mapping deconstructed as (emphasis mine)

-The lovers correspond to travelers.
-The love relationship corresponds to the vehicle.
-The lovers' common goals correspond to their common destinations on the journey.
-Difficulties in the relationship correspond to impediments to travel.
Although I would have preferred to frame the "LOVE IS A JOURNEY" AS "LOVE IS A VOYAGE (OF DISCOVERY)" so as to remove the burden of having a well defined destination as a goal for the journey by a relatively carefree discovery (about each other) as the destination/goal of Love, yet, in keeping with the "LOVE IS JOURNEY" metaphor it is instructive to note that the VEHICLE (of source domain) is mapped to relationship (of target domain) and the word relationship contains "ship" a popular vehicle for traversing difficult terrains like the sea. More interestingly, many similar associated words like friendship, courtship, companionship too have the word 'ship' embedded in them.

To elaborate, while "relationship" to "vehicle" mapping is present in the "LOVE IS JOURNEY" metaphor, the mapping is of superordinates in the sense that the "VEHICLE" itself is abstract and can be a ship, a car, a boat; also while Lakoff doesn't mention this, the relationship can be substituted by companionship/ friendship in case of some other related metaphors like "FRIENDSHIP IS A JOURNEY". What Lakoff does discuss is some sort of inheritance hierarchy whereby the structure of a base metaphorical mapping like "PURPOSIVE LIFE IS A JOURNEY" is inherited by a derived metaphors like "LOVE (LIFE OF TWO) IS A JOURNEY" or "CAREER (upward purposive) IS A JOURNEY".

To have more clarity on the 'conceptual' part of the conceptual metaphor theory consider metaphors that we normally use for some concepts like time (already discussed earlier in one of the posts), quantity, quality, category etc.

The first of these semantic concepts is "CLASSICAL CATEGORIES ARE CONTAINERS" metaphor. Here, an item (object) can be either 'in' a category (container) or outside of that category( container). Of course a third possibility exists that the item "is and is not" in that category(is on the surface of the container), but this is not discussed by Lakoff.

The other mappings like "QUANTITY" of an object is spatial direction "UP" is based on the 3-D internal representation of Cartesian space and relies on our commonsense concrete observations like a pile grows in upward direction when more quantity is added, or that a fluid in a container rises up when more liquid is poured in. Thus we have statements like 'the crime graph soared up while the economy dwindled.'

The "QUALITY" of an object (or linear scales measuring it) is a "PATH" metaphor, again uses the underlying structure of path whereby the movement is in front direction (possibly radial direction) direction and is based on the fact that distance in the radial direction is equivalent to more or less of a quality. Thus, statements like 'in terms of Intelligence he is way ahead of you'. It is interesting to note that PATH metaphors rely on angular geometry concept (with the travelers or subjective origin) always present implicitly in the metaphor.

Another interesting metaphor is the underlying structure mapping time. Hereby, "TIME IS MOTION" (OF AN OBJECT/ OF A SUBJECT THOROUGH A LANDSCAPE).

Of the first of these dual Time metaphors exhibiting duality of object/landscape, time is motion of object assumes that Future Time is (someone/thing personified) coming towards us and past time is receding from us. This leads to expressions like The time will come when... The time has long since gone when ... The time for action has arrived. That time is here. In the weeks following next Tuesday.... On the preceding day, ... I'm looking ahead to Christmas. Thanksgiving is coming up on us. Let's put all that behind us. I can't face the future. Time is flying by. The time has passed when etc

It is instructive to note that Aymara have a reverse metaphor , whereby their backs are towards future. Logically this makes more sense as FUTURE is not visible to us (unless we have good predictive powers ) and so should come from behind us and surprise us, while past is there for us to see till eternity and should be in front of us. Anyway, this metaphor representation too represents the TIME as linear motion. What is more interesting concept is that of time as circular (and thus periodic/ rhythmic) Motion. The interesting metaphor here would be standing close to a merry go round and watching events flow past oneself. Here too differences can arise based on whether one is watching things in counter-clockwise motion or clockwise motion. Interesting to note that many concepts related t time are circular(spherical/ rhythmic) in nature and even concepts of clockwise rely on concept of clock/time.

The other metaphor for time is TIME AS MOTION OVER A LANDSCAPE. This I believe is no different from first one,except in the sense that it relies more heavily on "NO MOTION" . Thus when the passage of time does not lead to any noticeable changes (CHANGE IS MOTION), then one may be apt to treat the time as a location. The examples given corroborate this.
  • He stayed there for ten years.
  • He stayed there a long time.
  • His stay in Russia extended over many years.
  • He passed the time happily.
  • I'll be there in a minute.
Even the last example illustrates that not much will happen in the 'minute' and thus minute is exemplified as a location/container.

A very important metaphorical mapping discussed is of EVENT structure.
The EVENT domain is mapped to basic concrete domains of space, motion and forces.
  1. States are locations (bounded regions in space).
  2. Changes are movements (into or out of bounded regions).
  3. Causes are forces.
  4. Actions are self-propelled movements.
  5. Purposes are destinations.
  6. Means are paths (to destinations).
  7. Difficulties are impediments to motion.
  8. Expected progress is a travel schedule; a schedule is a virtual traveler, who reaches pre-arranged destinations at pre-arranged times.
  9. External events are large, moving objects.
  10. Long term, purposeful activities are journeys
I would like to distribute this in my 8-fold path with the first five of these describe the event in terms of the entities involved. The next 3 in terms of the context or environment in which the event happens.

  1. States are confinements of space.
  2. Changes are movements
  3. Causes attributed are underlying forces amongst the objects/ force field.
  4. Outward Observable Actions are equivalent to self-propelled motion with no observable external cause
  5. Purpose or reason for the event is mapped to there being destinations or goals.
  6. Means used to achieve the event-happening is mapped to there being paths (multiple) for the purported destination and choosing of one path over others.
  7. There are 3 factors affecting outcome when one means(path) is chosen- difficulties mapped to impediments to motion in the path; subjective assessment of progress mapped to scheduled milestones in the path; and unpredictable and outside control other (synchronous) events mapped to external large moving bodies ( that may curve the time space). It also interesting to note that large , moving objects are conceptualized in terms of Things, Fluids and Horses ( in the last of which balance is required to control the motion).
  8. Finally, The events that are meaningful (have purpose and right means etc) and are extended are equated to Journeys or voyages though time-space.
Lakoff also maps this event structure to duality of object-location whereby events may be attributes possessed or happening in a location (space time). Thus, one can either be 'in trouble' or 'have trouble'. In the former case one is conceptualizing the event (trouble) as being confinement in some space-time that is associated with trouble. In the latter, one is conceptualizing trouble as a possession or attribute that one has.
In my view the right framing is one that uses location metaphors as that is more related to paths, journeys etc. rather than object metaphors which necessarily signify events (even related to other persons) as objects of gratification.

While time is sometimes personified while doing CMT, another interesting case is that of DEATH usually personified as a drivers etc. This bodes well with other metaphors like BODY being a VEHICLE/CONTAINER for traversing this sea of life and transcending to other other end. The death personified serves as a driver taking one from life domain to the other transcendental domain. No surprise in MATRIX revolutions, Sati meets NEO while the DEATH driver for the train is coming to take NEO to the underworld (of death).

Before closing would like to add a few notes on poetical metaphor or Novel metaphor (which will deserve their own posting). I believe they involve conjuring of actual images in the mind to work and are slightly different from conventional metaphor. They may in time become entrenched and lead to conventional metaphor.

Before closing I would like to point to one previous post on this blog, whereby just like " NATION is A SHIP" metaphor , I compare a COMPANY to a RIVER-RAFT.
Also , In my earlier poems I have been heavily using metaphors like COURTSHIP is LIKE FISHING and GROUP OF FRIENDS IS like a SHIP.

Finally, here is a list of some common metaphors outlined by Lakoff.

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