Early Summer Shut-Down

I usually shut down for a month in August to recharge the blog-batteries, but this year I think I need a longer recharge period. Lots to do in the months ahead, a considerable need to spend some time doing nothing much… it all points to a suspension of some routine activities. There may be occasional notes on things, or longer posts if the spirit takes me, and you’ll get updates on those if you sign up to the Feedburner thing (look right, and down). See you in September (-ish).

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Cognitive Futures 2017

Last year I was able to attend the annual ‘Cognitive Futures in the Humanities’ conferences in Helsinki. Briefly mentioned here. This year, no such luck: it happened in the middle of my exam marking period, and I couldn’t see how a trip to Stony Brook, NY, could be managed. Still, belatedly, regretfully, I thought I’d point to the programme info here, which is pretty comprehensive in the modern style. It gives a good idea of what cogs we cog-crankers are cranking at the moment.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Reforming Methods

* Romy Lorenz, Adam Hampshire, and Robert Leech, ‘Neuroadaptive Bayesian Optimization and Hypothesis Testing’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2017), 155-67.
* Siobhán Harty, Francesco Sella, and Roi Cohen Kadosh, ‘Mind the Brain: The Mediating and Moderating Role of Neurophysiology’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2017), 2-4.

This is a second post in a row about issues in experimental design. Even though I rarely design experiments myself, it’s important to understand what sort of compromises are accepted, and what sort of changes are underway. These are two essays about how the methodology of cognitive science could improve, not least to address the ‘reproducibility crisis’. Various solutions have been suggested to deal with the current situation, in which a failure to replicate a number of well-known experimental findings has cast general doubt on methods and conclusions. There is a worry that various biases in the system — for example towards the publication of successful rather than unsuccessful experiments — that obscure the true shape of the discipline. One suggestion is ‘preregistration’, a move towards open-ness in the publication of data and methods so that everything is open to scrutiny.
      Lorenz et al. are proposing a different solution, which is to take advantage of two technological advances. The first is the development of real-time analysis of brain imaging, which means that experimenters can broaden their hypotheses and designs, and can observe neural functions in a more flexible way. The other advance is in the use of ‘active sampling approaches’, where the selection of samples is made by the computer, which progressively ‘learns’ according to an algorithm defining how to refine and direct the search. More ground can be covered, and the criteria for the choices involved (including the algorithm itself) can be made public.
      They give an example which, I think, helps get this across. Some cognitive tasks ‘recruit a combination of spatially overlapping yet distinct frontoparietal networks’, and ‘understanding their exact functional role remains a challenge’. It seems possible that the method described, involving more flexible testing of brain activity and a search mechanism based on emerging facts rather than on the scientist’s expectations, could help uncover what links to what.
      It’s not the easiest read — there’s a description of ‘experiment space’ in 2D and 3D that (I’ll be honest) is presumably metaphorical but how, and to what extent, I don’t know. And I suppose this tends to change the point at which the scientist’s choices impinge, rather than eliminating them (as if that were possible). However, people are worrying about cognitive science at a pretty basic level so maybe there are ways in which machine learning can help.

Harty et al. look at experiments on behaviour and argue that they aren’t sufficiently designed to account for ‘the critical antecedent of behavior, the brain’. It’s time, they say, to take into account how neurophysiology affects ‘mediating or moderating’ roles. Some variables are taken into account regularly: gender, age, socioeconomic status, level of education, and others. But brains are very complex, and there may be pertinent physical reasons why this individual, and this one, but not that one or that one, respond in a certain way to a behavioural stimulus: ‘We should endeavor to design our studies and analyze our data in ways that can address questions about why, how, and for whom the experimental manipulation is effective’.
      They hope that this will improve ‘prospects for reproducibility’: the more accurately the experiment is designed, the more parameters that are covered, the better. Also there is the possibility that this could lead to more ‘personalized cognitive interventions’ — not just experiments, then, but better applications in general. I have sometimes find myself worrying that distinctions taken by experimenters as stable (e.g. the ‘gender, age, socioeconomic status, level of education’ mentioned above) are a lot more subtle than they are taken to be, but there’s got to be an interplay between categories (can’t do without them) and refinements.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Hypothetical and Real

Colin Camerer and Dean Mobbs, ‘Differences in Behaviour and Brain Activity during Hypothetical and Real Choices’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 46-56.

So they’re going to tell me about the difference between real and imaginary? Excellent. The premise is more modest than that, but a very important one, I think. Many experiments test how our minds work by seeing how we react to hypothetical scenarios or stimuli ‘that lack some realistic features’. Do these necessarily elicit our true responses, the ones that would arise in reality, which is what the experimenters are pursuing?
      For example, that classic question: there’s a runaway train, and it’s going to run over five people, but if you press a nearby lever, then you’ll divert the train with the consequence that it will run over one person. What would you do? My reaction tends to be that I refuse to think about something so contrived. But perhaps I’m intimating that my answer would be meaningless, that all the nuances of reality (can anyone see me? how hard is the lever to pull and is it right by me? etc.) would influence things, and that you just can’t imagine what you’d do. I’m probably too grumpy for hypotheticals these days.

It seems there is evidence that brain activity of various kinds is different in some ways (though there are lots of overlaps) when choices are hypothetical rather than real. There are also differences between realistic and unrealistic visual stimuli. There has been some research into the field. Camerer and Mobbs note that there has been interest in creating ‘ecologically valid’ experiments, something I briefly mentioned here. They’re interested in the ways that real decisions involving future consequences ‘may resemble hypothetical thinking’. In the end they acknowledge the sorts of choices that can’t be made real in an experimental context (e.g. ‘highly rewarding, highly aversive, temporally distant, and morally charged’ ones). And they’re interested in how more realistic methods (e.g. ‘virtual reality, or bidirectional social interactions’) could bridge the gap.
      This whole issue resonates with me: the way the imagination works, what makes things real and/or realistic in the mind, how the act of imagining changes the ways we think and act in the world. These are things that the study of poetics has focused on for millennia. You might say literature has always been the home par excellence of realistic hypotheticals. It’s intriguing to find parallel issues being considered in experimental design. Now — I don’t want to so this again, to do what I so often do, but… there’s no time right now to say more than that.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

Dream Dynamics

Jennifer M. Windt, Tore Nielsen, and Evan Thompson, ‘Does Consciousness Disappear in Dreamless Sleep?’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 871-82.

Recently I’ve been wondering (only a bit; I have exams to mark) about what leads us to consider how our minds work. The pursuit of knowledge is an end in itself, oh sure, but there are external prompts as well. For the seventeenth century poets I read, for example, there was a theological motive: to know if you were truly feeling faith, a more or less impossible task, you might try to monitor and understand the workings of your own cognition. What about today? Well, a lot of psychological research is carried out in and around economics, business, and marketing faculties: shopping rather than salvation. In the careers of Kahneman and Tversky (biography enjoyed here, worried about here, both interstitially) military service posed a set of questions.
      Well this sort of thing was somewhat on my mind when I read the piece by Windt et al. It’s about dreaming, mind-wandering, and consciousness, and it made me think of recent forays into the subject here and here. In those posts I was suggesting that the writers of Medieval dream vision poems might have interesting things to say about the ways in which our minds work unintentionally. Motivated by their wish to make links between the imagination and the everyday, to pursue unworldly truths in worldly forms, they found themselves spectating upon unintentional shifts of focus and attention, and representing them as moments of poetic inspiration.

Windt et al. are working on the different things that happen when we’re asleep. Rather than focusing on REM sleep as usual, they use ‘serial awakening paradigms’ to find out about the previously featureless landscape of ‘dreamless sleep’. Having bothered their poor subjects (‘somnonauts’, I want to call them) sufficiently, and evaluated their reports, they claim to have rendered that landscape featureless no more. They find that people report on sensations and experiences in dreamless sleep, and there are distinct and interesting subtypes. For example, some of the time the ‘immersive character of dreaming’ is missing; some of the time the ‘simulational character of dreaming’ is missing. There may be ‘selfless’ states, and ‘contentless’ states. Ultimately they’re arguing that we need to have a more multi-faceted, multi-dimensional understanding of consciousness, and its lack: it’s not just a single spectrum from ‘on’ to ‘off’.
      This definitely broadens the field in which my poetic dreamers could find themselves. Literature has explored fringe-conscious states in a variety of ways, sometimes (as in the dream visions) aiming to reproduce or harness the sort of cognition that goes on, just off the grid. Unfortunately (I really do have exams to mark) there’s no time to deal with this properly now.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk