Category Archives: psychology

Writers! I need YOU

My day job has the title ‘psy­cho­logy lec­turer’, which means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent people. Part of my time is spent con­duct­ing research. I’m involved in quite dis­par­ate top­ics: one minute I’m help­ing prove dogs can be a bit thick; the next I’m try­ing to fig­ure out fun­da­ment­als of the lan­guage pro­cessing system.

Since September, I’ve been look­ing into the psy­cho­logy of fic­tion. It’s a vast topic. From the per­spect­ive of the writer, one small part involves the cre­at­ive act of get­ting words on paper. What pro­cesses are involved?

Writers! I need YOU.

Are you inter­ested in con­trib­ut­ing to the wobbly, baroque edi­fice that is sci­ence? I’d like to run a study look­ing into cre­ativ­ity and writ­ing. I can’t say much more at this stage. But if you’re inter­ested, please let me know. This won’t involve any great time invest­ment, and there’s no need to visit my lab.

Small print: You’ll need to be over eight­een, have nor­mal or corrected-to-normal vis­ion, and be a nat­ive English speaker.

★ The End of the Beginning

My, hasn’t time flown? I sat down to update my blog this after­noon cer­tain in the know­ledge that my last entry was about a month ago. It turns out I pub­lished my retire­ment speech in mid August.

I thought it would be worth­while provid­ing an update on my books. Several people have been kind enough to ask after them. As you know, I’m intend­ing to release them as free ebooks, but one or two prob­lems have cropped up in the course of mak­ing this hap­pen. The main issue is that releas­ing Deja Vu (orFlashback, or The Amber Rooms) for the Kindle — my pre­ferred ebook reader — seems to require a US bank account. That is, it requires a US bank account if I want the book to be the ebook store, which I do. Stephen J Sweeney has poin­ted me in the dir­ec­tion of a pos­sible ser­vice that might let me do this and keep the books free; I’ll get round to look­ing at that in the New Year.

One option is to leave the ebook files as naked links, here on my webpage, but I doubt most people would find their way here and have the tech­nical know-how to trans­fer the con­tent to their device. The store is still the best way to go.

Meanwhile, there are some­what irrit­at­ing defi­cien­cies in the file formats used by ebook read­ers and the vari­ous tools that a user can use to cre­ate them. To take one example, I used Apple Pages to cre­ate an ebook of Deja Vu and it rendered fine on the iBook applic­a­tion for the Apple iPad. Then Apple released an update to the applic­a­tion and sud­denly the ebook has extra line spaces. Go figure.

Am I writ­ing fic­tion? That would be telling. I cer­tainly have more time for blues gui­tar, learn­ing a bit of pro­gram­ming, and con­cen­trat­ing on my aca­demic career. Happy New Year to one — and, indeed, all.

★ Re: Your Brains

There are easy prob­lems and there are hard prob­lems. Examples of the former include build­ing a space elev­ator, put­ting a man on the moon, and cur­ing can­cer. They are redu­cible to steps that make sense within our the­or­et­ical con­cep­tion of how the world works. They are dif­fi­cult but there is no reason, yet, to con­sider them impossible. We might, for example, fore­see­ably con­struct a virus that infects the cells of its host to recon­struct his or her DNA accord­ing to the per­fect model those cells once held.

But when the ele­ment of impossib­il­ity is intro­duced, we might call it a hard prob­lem. Answering ‘What is mean­ing?’ is a hard prob­lem. Likewise free will. Likewise con­scious­ness. These three con­cepts are endur­ing. They are also likely to be fic­tions from which even the most hard­boiled thinker can never fully sus­pend her dis­be­lief. These fic­tions are some­what like books we can never close.

Our defin­i­tions of ‘com­puter’ are prob­ably dif­fer­ent, gentle reader. I use it to mean a class of machines that pro­cess inform­a­tion, and this class includes clocks, ther­mo­stats, the brain, and my MacBook Pro. The reac­tion to my use of this word in the con­text of the human mind is typ­ic­ally one of dis­be­lief and centres on a desire to be excluded from a list of things that do not appear to share essen­tial human char­ac­ter­ist­ics with us. (Clocks have no mean­ing­ful internal life; they have no choice but to tell the time once they are wound; they are not able to con­sider the world.)

I men­tion this because the semantic bound­ar­ies of such terms are crit­ical to any dis­cus­sion. When the bound­ar­ies are made por­ous, or trampled under boot, the debates are rendered obscure.

This is the weight on my heart this morn­ing upon read­ing an edited chapter from Marilynne Robinson’s book Absence of Mind. Robinson’s prose is elab­or­ated to the point of fog­gi­ness. It would sur­prise me if even a philo­sopher could decrypt the nuances of her argu­ment. To repeat, these con­cepts are as hope­lessly dis­tant to the human mind as stars to a tele­scope; they’re hard enough to see without someone mon­key­ing around with the tripod.

Let us say the mind is what the brain does. This is a defin­i­tion that makes the mind, whatever else, a par­ti­cipant in the whole his­tory and exper­i­ence of the body. Pinker offers the same defin­i­tion, but mod­i­fies it dif­fer­ently. He says, “The mind is what the brain does; spe­cific­ally, the brain pro­cesses inform­a­tion, and think­ing is a kind of com­pu­ta­tion” – exclud­ing the felt exper­i­ence of think­ing, with all its diverse bur­dens and colorations.

The exclu­sion of the felt exper­i­ence of think­ing is a prob­lem with natur­ism, i.e. the applic­a­tion of object­ive, verbal descrip­tions to phen­onema (like felt exper­i­ence) that are essen­tially sub­ject­ive. This is not a prob­lem that psy­cho­lo­gists — or any­one else, for that mat­ter — has been able to fig­ure out yet. It’s a hard prob­lem and the prob­lem is not with Pinker.

Later, she cri­ti­cises a fla­vour of evol­u­tion­ary psy­cho­logy (the sci­ence of view­ing the mind as a machine optim­ally designed for its envir­on­ment) like this:

Might there not be fewer of these inter­fa­milial crimes, hon­our killings, child aban­don­ments, if nature had made us straight­for­wardly aware that urgen­cies more or less our own were being served in our propagat­ing and nur­tur­ing? There is more than a hint of dual­ism in the notion that some bet­ter self – the term seems fair – has to be dis­trac­ted by ingra­ti­at­ing pleas­ures to accom­mod­ate the prac­tical busi­ness of biology.

This is not fair and it stretches Pinker’s quite defens­ible prop­erty dual­ist approach in order to imply that, being dual­ist, it some­how inher­its the flaws of extreme sub­stance dualism.

Later still, Robinson rolls up her sleeves and enters into another dif­fi­culty: the dis­tinc­tion between mind and soul. Unfortunately, this takes her back to another lin­guistic conun­drum that may not have an asso­ci­ated conun­drum in the sense of how the words are typ­ic­ally employed. It has only been since the renais­sance, as far as I’m aware, that we have been able to con­sider the mind as some­thing non­phys­ical but not neces­sar­ily syn­onym­ous with a super­nat­ural entity such as the spirit. To blend these, then sep­ar­ate them arbit­rar­ily, adds an ele­ment of obfus­ca­tion that, again, makes these dif­fi­cult pos­i­tions still more dif­fi­cult to understand.

It would be pre­ju­diced of me to imply that artists (even an Orange prize win­ner) should play in their own fields and leave the philo­soph­ical pas­tures to those who know them bet­ter. For a start, the dis­tinc­tion between art and sci­ence is a per­ni­cious one, and, second, philo­soph­ers (not to men­tion psy­cho­lo­gists like me) don’t know the answers either. These are hard ques­tions. But there is a danger that lin­guistic vir­tu­os­ity can take on the form of leger­de­main. The topic demands clearer treat­ment before any­one can do the impossible and pull a bunny from the hat.

★ My girlfriend on Three Counties Radio

Check out my clever girl­friend talk­ing about her research into string pulling and cats on BBC Three Counties Radio. Be sure to listen to the very end, when you’ll find out the iden­tity of her dream driv­ing instructor.


If the Flash player above isn’t work­ing, you can access the audio file dir­ectly here: Britta on Three Counties.


Britta has just been inter­viewed for BBC Radio Kent.


Click here for the raw sound file.

And on BBC Radio Solent.


Click here for the raw sound file.

And here’s a video of the cats in action:


As of this moment, the Guardian art­icle fea­tur­ing the cat research is rated as ‘most read’ on the Guardian site. As ever, the com­ments con­tain plenty of trolling, idiocy, redund­ancy, mis­spelling, and the occa­sional sens­ible state­ment. Go, Web 2.0!


Peter Wedderburn, a vet blog­ging for the Telegraph, has this to say.


Under Scott Pack’s ongo­ing blog theme, “Is it just me or are all journ­al­ists shite?”, we can file this brief art­icle in the Independent. Not only does the journ­al­ist, Kate Proctor, get the sex of my girl­friend wrong, she mis-reads sev­eral key facts.

How to Talk to a Professor

Michael Leddy, over at Orange Crate Art, has some great tips for stu­dents on how to approach a pro­fessor. Being US-based, there will be dif­fer­ences for UK stu­dents. Don’t call someone a pro­fessor unless they really are a pro­fessor — oth­er­wise they’ll think you’re tak­ing the piss.

Some of my best col­lege memor­ies are of talk­ing with my pro­fess­ors in their offices. I was a shy kid (still am!), and I treas­ured the chance to ask ques­tions and try out ideas dur­ing office hours. Sitting with my coat and books piled on the floor, I found my way into the pos­sib­il­it­ies of genu­ine intel­lec­tual dia­logue. You can do that too.

Orange Crate Art: How to talk to a professor

Academia’s big guns fight ‘Google effect’

An inter­est­ing piece over at the Grauniad sug­gests that aca­demic search engines (which have been, at points, the very bane of my life) are ‘less mediocre’ than Google but lack user-friendliness.

Scores of aca­demic search engines provide a heavy­weight altern­at­ive to the com­mer­cial ones and work against what Brighton University’s pro­fessor of media– Tara Brabazon has termed “the Google effect” — a tend­ency towards mediocrity.

Yeah, maybe. But Google will often pull up the pages of aca­dem­ics who put pre-prints of their papers online, sav­ing us the rig­mar­ole of try­ing to get a full text ver­sion of a paper via a uni­ver­sity lib­rary only to hit that ‘com­puter says no’ mes­sage at the end.

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