Field of Science

Galileo -- Smarter than you thought

It is often said of cognitive scientists that we have, as a group, a memory that only stretches back about 10 years. This is for good reasons and bad. Methods change and improve constantly, constantly making much of the literature irrelevant. Then there is the fact that there is so much new work, it's hard to find time to read the old.

This is a shame, because some of the really old work is impressive for its prescience. A recent issue of Trends in Neurosciences carried an article on Galileo's work on perception. Most people then -- and probably most people now -- conceived of the senses as passing along an accurate representation of the world to your brain. We now know the senses are plagued by illusions (many of them actually adaptive).

Galileo was on to this fact. His study of the moon proved that perceptions of brightness are constantly subject to illusion. More generally, he noted -- contrary to the popular view -- that much of what we sense about the world is in a real sense an illusion. Objects exist, but colors and tastes in an important sense do not. It's worth presenting a few of the quotes from the article:

I say that, as soon as I conceive of a piece of matter, or a corporeal substance,...I do not feel my mind forced to conceive it as necessarily accompanied by such states as being white or red, bitter or sweet, noisy or quiet, or having a nice or nasty smell. On the contrary, if we were not guided by our senses, thinking or imagining would probably never arrive at them by themselves. This is why I think that, as far as concerns the object in which these tastes, smells, colours, etc., appear to reside, they are nothing other than mere names, and they have their location only in the sentient body. Consequently, if the living being were removed, all these qualities would disappear and be annihilated.

see also:

A wine's good taste does not belong to the objective determinations of the wine and hence of an object, even of an object considered as appearance, but belongs to the special character of the sense in the subject who is enjoying this taste. Colours are not properties of bodies to the inuition of which they attach, but are also only modifications of the sense of sight, which is affected in a certain manner by light.

Marco Piccolino, Nicholas J. Wade (2008). Galileo Galilei's vision of the senses Trends in Neurosciences, 31 (11)

Another language blog

My favorite language blog remains Language Log. However, I was informed of a very interesting blog on language. Like Language Log, it's focus is not empirical research (as is the focus here). But the group of authors do regularly hit on interesting phenomena in language and have insightful things to say about them. I recommend that you check it out.

Do Bullies like Bullying?

Although Slate is my favorite magazine, and usually the first website I check each day, I've been known to complain about its science coverage, which typically lacks the insight of its other features. A much-too-rare exception to this are the occasional articles by Daniel Engber (full disclosure: I have attempted to convince Engber, a Slate editor, to run articles by me in the past, unsuccessfully).

Yesterday, he wrote an excellent piece about a recent bit of cognitive neuroscience looking at bullies and how they relate to bullying. Researchers scanned the brains of "bullies" while they viewed videos of bullying and reported that pleasure centers in the brain activated.

In a cheeky fashion typical of Slate, Engber questions the novelty of these findings:

Bullies like bullying? I just felt a shiver run up my spine. Next we'll find out that alcoholics like alcohol. Or that overeaters like to overeat. Hey, I've got an idea for a brain-imaging study of child-molesters that'll just make your skin crawl!
Obviously, I was a sympathetic reader. But Engber does not stop there:

OK, OK: Why am I wasting time on a study so lame that it got a write-up in the Onion? Hasn't this whole fMRI backlash routine gotten a bit passé?
Engber goes on to detail a number of limitations to the study, including how the kids were defined as "bullies" (some appear to be rapists, for instance) and also how "pleasure center" was defined (the area in question is also related to anxiety, so one could reasonably argue bullies find bullying worrisome, not pleasurable).

The second half of the article is a plea for better science reporting, one that I hope is widely-read. Read it yourself here.

How the Presidential Campaign Changed the English Language

Languages change over time, which is why you shouldn't take seriously any claims about this language being older than the other, or vice versa. A language is only old in the same sense that a farmer can say, "I've had this axe for years. I've only changed the handle twice and the head three times."

Language change is probably slowed these days by stasis-inducing factors like books. However, rapid communication means that new phrases or ways of speaking can be disseminated with lightning speed. Here is an interesting article about the effect McCain & Palin's drill, baby, drill has had on the English language.

A Bush-administration flunkee's unfortunate statement that reporters -- but not members of the Bush administration -- are members of "what we call the reality-based community" led to an interesting shift in the way Progressives speak. The compound adjective "reality-based" has become part inside joke, and part simply a new word. I suspect "real America" will similarly entrench itself in the English language.

Don't blink, you'll lose the election!

Sarah Palin has been clear on one subject: You can't blink. While people argue about whether this is a good administrative philosophy, there is no actually scientific evidence that it is good campaign strategy.

The International Journal of Psychophysiology recently published an abstract that claims that from 1960-2004, the US presidential candidate who blinked most during the debates got fewer votes than his opponent in every election. For those counting, that is every election which has featured televised debates.

The point of the abstract, interestingly, is not to predict campaign outcomes. The point was to study eyeblinks. Specifically, there are hypotheses about what elevated rates of blinking might suggest, such as a lack of focus or a negative mental state. The question the researchers were asking was whether observers pick up on eyeblink rates and make judgments or predictions based on them. This *might* suggest that they do.

It's important to note that this is a published abstract, not a full paper, so it is difficult to evaluate the methods used, though presumably they involved counting eyeblinks.

On more psychologists in Congress

Dennis Shulman is an ordained rabbi with a clinical psychology Ph.D. from Harvard. He is the New York Times choice for the New Jersey's 5th district. In the interest of greater representation of psychologists in Congress, he's mine, too.

Still, I wouldn't mind if a psycholinguist ran for Congress.

Physics is for wimps

Matt Springer may not have been throwing down the gauntlet in his Oct. 21 post, but I'm picking it up. In a well-written and well-reasoned short essay, he lays out just what is so difficult about the study of consciousness:

PZ Myers, as is his wont, recently wrote here that after his death he will have ceased to be. In other words, his experience of consciousness will have ended forever. Can we test this?
He goes on to describe some possible ways you might test the hypothesis. It turns out it is very difficult.

[PZ Myers] could die and then make the observation as to whether or not he still existed. If he still did he'd be surprised, but at least he'd be able to observe that he was still somehow existing. If he didn't still exist, he's not around to make the observation of his nonexistence. So personal experimentation can't verify his prediction.
Springer goes through some possible ways one might use neuroscience to test the hypothesis. None of them are very good either. In the end, he concludes:

Where am I going with this? Nowhere, that's the point. Clean experimental testability is why I like physics.

Now, I like physics, too. I almost majored in it. But I like cognitive science more for precisely this reason: developing the right experiment doesn't just take knowing the literature or being able to build precision machinery, though both help. What distinguishes the geniuses in our field is their ability to design an experiment to test something nobody ever thought was testable. (After that, the engineering skill comes in.)

Hands thrown up.

Many people threw up their hands at answering basic questions like how many types of light receptors do we have in our eyes or how fast does a signal travel down a nerve cell ("instantanously" was one popular hypothesis) until Hermann von Helmholtz designed ingenious behavioral experiments long before the technology was available to answer those questions (and likely before anyone knew such technology would be available).

However, while Helmholtz pioneered brilliants methods for understanding the way the adult mind works, he declared it impossible to ever know what a baby was thinking. His methods wouldn't work with babies, and he couldn't think of any others. A hundred years later, however, researchers like Susan Carey, Liz Spelke and others pioneered new techniques to probe the minds of babes. Spelke managed to prove babies only a few months old have basic aspects of object perception in place. But Spelke herself despaired of ever testing certain aspects of object perception in newborns, until a different set of researchers (Valenza, Leo, Gava & Simion, 2006) devised an ingenious experiment that ultimately proved we are born with the ability to perceive objects (not just a blooming, buzzing confusion).

"I study dead people, everywhere."

I'm not saying I know how to test whether dead people are conscious. I'm still stumped by much easier puzzles. But a difficult question is a challenge, not a reason to avoid the subject.