Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Chinese room

Computational psychology, computational cognitive modeling, and or if philosophy is your thing computational theory of mind all explore the essence of cognition via and by specifying computational mechanisms, structures, and processes. Given the complexity of the human mind and its manifestation in behavioral flexibility, process-based computational models may be necessary to explicate and elucidate the intricate details of the mind. Put simply, these espouse the notion that the human mind or the human brain is an information processing system and that thinking is a form of computing; a discipline lying on the border between artificial intelligence and psychology and a mainstay of cognitive science.

Models in cognitive science may be roughly categorized into computational, mathematical, or verbal-conceptual systems although a variety of symbolic “cognitive” models are proposed in Artificial Intelligence. Symbolic systems are usually broad and capable of a significant amount of information processing; however, not rigorously matched with human data.
Instead of symbolic models that rely on a variety of complex data structures that store highly structured pieces of knowledge a resurgence of neural network models has relied upon simple, uniform, and often massively parallel numerical computations.
Many have also argued against computational theories of mind. Some have used thought experiments to demonstrate obvious deficiencies. The Chinese room is once such experiment. Imagine that there is a man in a room with no way of communicating to anyone or anything outside of the room except for a piece of paper that is passed under the door. With the paper, he is to use a series of provided books to “answer” what is on the paper. The symbols are all in Chinese, and all the man knows is where to look in the books, which then tell him what to write in response. It just so happens that this generates a conversation that the Chinese man outside of the room can actually understand, but can our man in the room really be said to understand it?

This is essentially what the computational theory of mind presents us with; a model in which the mind simply decodes symbols and outputs more symbols. It is argued that perhaps this is not real learning or thinking at all. However, it can be argued in response to this that it is the man and the books together that understand Chinese.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Doing away with the is word

Now I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading and writing about the quantum. More and more I’ve been searching for  connections that seem to bind elements of the quantum with  consciousness and our perceptions of reality. At the same time, I am a huge fan of Albert Ellis and his work in rational emotive behavior therapy. Of course we shouldn’t expect to be loved just because we love.

Albert Ellis also advocated the use of E-Prime, especially in writing, as a way to avoid muddled and blame-based thinking that distresses psychotherapy patients. According to Ellis, rational emotive behavior therapy "has favored E-Prime more than any other form of psychotherapy and I think it is still the only form of therapy that has some of its main books written in E-Prime."

E-prime you ask?

Alfred Korzybski, in 1933 proposed that we should abolish the "is of identity" from the English language. And, in 1949, D. David Bourland Jr. went further and proposed the abolition of all forms of the words "is" or "to be.” An English without "isness" now known as E-Prime, or English-Prime.
By and large, however, E-Prime has not yet caught on either in learned circles or in popular speech.
Oddly, most physicists write in E-Prime a large part of the time, due to the influence of Operationalism -- the philosophy that tells us to define things by operations performed -- but few have any awareness of E-prime as a discipline and most of them lapse into "isness" statements all too frequently

1. The photon is a wave can be re-written to read - The photon behaves as a   wave when constrained by certain instruments

2. The photon is a particle can be written such as:  The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments.

3. John is unhappy and grouchy can be re-written to read John appears unhappy and grouchy in the office.

Sure, the first example becomes an operational formulation when rewritten in English Prime and may appear of interest to philosophers and scientists of an operationalist bias, but consider what happens when we move to the second example.
Clearly, written in Standard English, "The photon is a wave," and "The photon is a particle" contradict each other, just like the sentences "Robin is a boy" and "Robin is a girl." Nonetheless, all through the nineteenth century physicists found themselves debating about this and, by the early 1920s, it became obvious that the experimental evidence depended on the instruments or the instrumental set-up (design) of the total experiment. One type of experiment always showed light traveling in waves, and another type always showed light traveling as discrete particles.

3.         To be or not to be,
            That is the question. Hamlet


To live or to die,
I ask myself this.

While teaching at the University of Florida, Korzybski counseled his students to eliminate the infinitive and verb forms of "to be" from their vocabulary, whereas a second group continued to use "I am," "You are," "They are" statements as usual. For example, instead of saying, "I am depressed," a student was asked to eliminate that emotionally primed verb and to say something else, such as, "I feel depressed when ..." or "I tend to make myself depressed about … demonstrating the application of general semantics to psychotherapy.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Is precognition a reality

I was having a chat today with an old friend and colleague Jen (not her real name). Once again and as we do every year reflect on the year we had, obligatory observations about the pace by which the years are passing us by and something Jen had first told me about more than 10 years ago. Jen contracted type I diabetes after a protracted illness when she was 16 years old. She is now in her 40’s and practicing medicine in a large hospital. What makes this tale interesting is the fact that Jen had read about diabetes when she was just seven years old. She says she remembers clearly that day and how she had formed a belief that she would one day contract the diseases. Jen’s story is not an isolated case. Over the years I’ve had countless such conversations – admitingly some much more convincing than others.


At the same time, I’ve been stuck with a quandary – is it possible, somehow, for our brain to have the potential to predict what will happen in the future? Is our brain, a system ultimately based on properties of quantum mechanics, be capitalising on phenomena that could aid our survival.

It turns out that in 2011, one of the most notorious scientific supporters of precognitive phenomena, Cornell University’s Professor Daryl J. Bem, urged researchers to attempt to replicate his time-reversed experimental findings, in order to create a database that as it grows, will increasingly allow for a more scrupulous analysis of precognition research.

Bem and colleagues have since published a meta-analysis based on this database that included 90 experiments from 33 laboratories across 14 different countries involving 12,406 participants. The analysis yielded an overall positive Hedges’ effect size (~ difference between 2 means), albeit relatively small, in favor of the theory that a persons’ cognitive and affective response in the present can be influenced by events in the future that are yet to occur. This was coupled with pretty strong statistical significance (p=1.3×10-11) indicating that the experimental results are not due to chance.

Are these results due to precognitive thought? A good question indeed…

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Mask Of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality

The Mask Of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality

During a case discussion involving patients in custody recently a colleague made reference to Milton Cleckley’s  The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-called Psychopathic Personality.” I’d heard of the book given that it’s considered to be a seminal work and the most influential clinical description of psychopathy in the twentieth century. I had to read it…

Right off, the book starts with a poem – not a poem by an antisocial but perhaps one for an antisocial. The poem is reproduced in many forums including an internet-based Psychology and Mental Health forum. Here it is:

“From chaos shaped, the Bios grows. In bone and viscus broods the Id. And who can say Whence Eros comes? Or chart his troubled way? Nor bearded sage, nor science, yet has shown. How truth or love, when met, is straightly known; Some phrases singing in our dust today. Have taunted logic through man's Odyssey: Yet, strangely, man sometimes will find his own. And even man has felt the arcane flow. Whence brims unchanged the very Attic wine, Where lives that mute and death-eclipsing glow. That held the Lacedaemonian battle line: And this, I think, may make what man is choose. The doom of joy he knows he can but lose.” Cleckley

This book is now in its fifth edition – first published in 1941. Cleckley recalls how the first edition was based primarily on experience with adult male psychopaths hospitalized in a closed institution. During the ensuring decades a much more diverse group of people became available. Female patients, adolescents, people who had never been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, all in large numbers, became available for study and afforded an opportunity to observe the disorder in a very wide range of variety and of degree.

Since the first edition of this book, revisions of the nomenclature have been made by the American Psychiatric Association. The classification of psychopathic personality was changed to that of sociopathic personality in 1958. In 1968 it was changed again to antisocial personality. Like most psychiatrists I continue to think of the people who are the subject of this book as psychopaths and will most often refer to them by this familiar term.

One of the most striking things about this book is born in its seemingly incorruptible America – an era where deals are considered legal contracts by handshakes and man’s word is gold. The government seems to care about its citizens. Here,  lawyers and judges and police officers have a certain amount of sympathy for the patients he’s worked with; they know these people aren’t quite right because they keep committing idiotic crimes that really have no pay-off, but they aren’t legally insane.

What I found most interesting about this book, perhaps it’s just me, the overwhelming sense of paternalism and male chauvinism. While women are mentioned as having jobs, it’s understood that of course they do that until they follow the natural course of life and get married and have children. A case study of one woman was particularly curious. The woman was considered to be a “deviant” and show signs of psychopathology merely because she was a lesbian and had the audacity to say that she did not want to be married. No worries—she was soon “cured” of those two unnatural conditions. Deviant behaviour abounds in this book. There is even a  chapter titled: “Homosexuality and other consistent sexual deviations.” Sure this is written in the early twentieth century but the incredible stereotypes are noteworthy to say the least. Sections deal with The psychopath as businessman, The psychopath as man of the world, The psychopath as gentleman, etc where are fascinating.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Fleshy Part of the Thigh - the God Particle

I’ve always thought the sixty-ninth episode of the HBO series, The Sopranos - The Fleshy Part of the Thigh to be one of the deepest and most confronting of the many excellent episodes in the series. I had the chance to watch it again last night.

Tony, in hospital faces his own mortality after being shot by his demented uncle. In the next room, Da Lux, a rapper who was shot while leaving a club is being comforted by his manager and family. We over hear his manager telling his client that getting shot will boost record sales. Da Lux is clearly distressed and in pain.

This episode also has one of my favorite quotes scribbled on a card.   While having his wound dressed the day before surgery, Tony speculates that Janice is responsible for the card - the Ojibwe saying "Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky,"

After learning that Pastor Bob and his followers oppose female contraception, Tony asks them if their God disapproves of Viagra too. Da Lux invites Tony to watch a boxing fight at his hospital room on satellite TV. While watching the prize fight, Paulie moans about how alone everyone is, Schwinn discusses the interconnectivity of all life, telling them how no event or entity can be understood independent from the rest of the world referencing the work of Erwin Schrödinger, Quantum mysticism, and Da Lux agrees with Schwinn: "everything is everything, I'm down with that." 

Schwinn has ideas that are at odds with the beliefs of Pastor Bob, who again visits Tony later and tries to encourage him to find his spirituality. Tony confides to Schwinn he is starting to believe they are all part of something bigger.

Schwinn’s interconnectivity remark - What sounds like a casual remark is of course anything but. It’s the genius of the writers that set up and make room for reflection. Here, mortality, psychology, religion, quantum physics, art and moralism collide.

Interconnectivity, or as Tony puts it “we are all part of something bigger” isn’t, of course, a new idea. Our perception of things, the world is not just an esoteric topic confined to philosophy, but one of neuropsychology, brain structure and function, physics and more. Consciousness, as imperceptible and inexplicable as it may be, could well be at the root of everything we experience. Not just what we think, but what we see, what we feel.

The temporal lobe assigns meaning to whatever stimuli hit our senses. In short, it is the temporal lobe that gives us meaning to what we see, what we hear, etc. Temporal lobe damage can affect our ability to assign meaning to normally familiar objects. And interestingly, in some cases of temporal lobe damage that cause temporal lobe seizures, such patients can be overwhelmed with spiritual and emotional feelings beyond the norms of human experience.

So where, or how does the discovery of an elementary particle such as the Higgs boson sit? The Higgs boson, or the “God particle” explains how elementary particles gain mass by interacting with other particles within an invisible field of energy. Sure, the 2013 Nobel prize went to Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of the United Kingdom for the theory of how particles acquire mass. This was borne out when researchers confirmed the existence in 2012 of the God particle.

But, Where did the thought of the Higgs boson come from? Does this particle exist only in our mind? Can it be manipulated by our thoughts? Is it possible that matter isn’t so much a thing as it is a perspective? If so, could it be that by changing this perspective we might discover that our essential nature isn’t matter-based after all?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

Years ago Fedex ran a series of advertisements in which they noted; “Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming and incredibly expensive.”  Much has been written in relation to the psychology, dynamics and science of waiting. The truth of this assertion can't be denied.  Few of us haven’t felt these emotions at one time or another. And many of us would have seen the collapse of queues in various forms and places. I recently watched this disorder (mob behaviour) arising suddenly from a perfectly ordered (behaved) queue outside a Sydney Apple store. I shall say more on this in a minute.

It’s understandable that in some, perhaps many  waiting situations there is no visible order to the waiting line. Waiting for a train on a busy platform comes to mind. Shopping for sales on Boxing day is another. Here the level of anxiety can be quite high and the group waiting resemble less a queue and more a mass of humanity. Instead of being able to relax, each individual remains in a state of nervousness about whether their priority in the line is being preserved. But what about an orderly queue? The assumption here is that a first in, first out (FIFO) system prevails.  Sasser, Olsen and Wycoff (1979) showed that one of the most frequent irritants mentioned by customers at restaurants is the prior seating of those who have arrived later.

And, in 1982 social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling described the broken windows theory. Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters. I’m not suggesting here that an orderly queue of people waiting optimistically for their new shiny gadget would over time track the theory of broken windows. However I am proposing that the smallest of triggers, perceived or otherwise, can drive a well-ordered queue that’s been maintained for many countless hours if not days to collapse rapidly and violently - the scene, as it turned out outside that Apple store in the very early hours of the morning.

In 1985 David Maister provided some insight in the psychology of waiting lines.  He proposed the following:

  • People want to get started.
  • Anxiety makes waits seem longer.
  • Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits
  • Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits
  • Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits
  • The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait
  • Solo waits feel longer than group waits

So what turned people, mostly adults, who were otherwise waiting their turn patiently and enthusiastically into a mob of lawless, aggressive queue jumpers requiring the intervention of a significant number of police officers that threatened delaying the opening of store?

For starters, you could argue that there was an element of that “uncertain wait.” Rumours were spreading, as they do, up and down the large queue that the said shiny gadget was in short supply and therefore many will miss out. Also, the idea that “unfair waits are longer than equitable waits” was beginning to take hold. People were reserving places in the queue for their family and others.  Many in the queue were complaining that the queue in front of them was getting progressively longer than behind them. And, now that I’m thinking about it… was the product of such perceived value that it justified the multi-day wait? Perhaps so… but only until the next new new thing!