2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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ICCHS and Beamish Museum projects

I’ve been quite quiet on this blog for a while. Life/work/study has gotten the better of writing. So, here’s some news about a couple of interesting projects that I’m working on.

Each project takes a different approach to looking at the ways that open air museums interacts with older people – one is more quantitative and focused on object-based reminiscence; the other is more qualitative and looks at holistic engagement through meaningful activities in the museum setting. Both have distinct strengths and challenges but I hope that, in combination, we’ll gain some valuable insights.

ICCHS Research

ICCHS staff are working with colleagues at Beamish Museum to investigate the impact of the museum’s work with older people in two, separate projects.

Beamish Museum is an open air museum which tells the story of life in the north east of England in at different moments in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They use buildings moved from across the region to create period settings. The museum’s staff have been working with older audiences for several years. Originally the sessions took place in one of the 19th Century ‘Pit Cottages’ but recently moved into ‘Orchard Cottage’ which is a 1940s set out as a 1940s farm-worker’s cottage. The sessions have also evolved from conventional reminiscence sessions, making use of handling collections and the immersive setting, into broader sessions, involving sensory stimuli and meaningful physical activity. The aim of the sessions is to…

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Posted in ageing, cultural participation, dementia, measurement of impact, museums, reminiscence | Leave a comment

Memories and stories

In recent months, I’ve become a big fan of Mixcloud. A recent mix of ambient music, included a piece of music from the soundtrack (including dialogue) of Blade Runner, the moment where the replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) knows he is about to die and in a monologue he recounts the things he has seen. Famously, he describes the events/memories as “lost to me now, like tears in rain“. The mix caught me unawares and it prompted me to think about my dad, who died a few years ago…

My dad died shortly before his 90th birthday and, in one of my last visits to him, I managed to prompt him into reminiscing about his life. In the post-WW2 period and up to the 1960s, my dad was an electrician (technically, an electrical fitter) in the RAF and, when I was young, he was wont to tell me stories of his time serving at the RAF base in Hong Kong, so those were the ones I winkled out of him. All his memories are lost to me now, apart from the few I gleaned out of him…

My colleague, Rhiannon Mason, is interested in the cultural aspects of memory. One aspect of this is the way that me memories have an extended life in a family. My dad tells me his memories and, in turn, I might recount them to my children. Thus a memory might have a lifetime of 80 years or more. Or, I can write them here, where they have an uncertain future. So here are two…

My dad worked in Hong Kong at the time the squadrons were in transition from Spitfires to the jet-powered, de Havilland Vampires. When they’re on the runway, Spitfires sit pointing slightly upward because of arrangement of their landing gear. One day, when no-one was anywhere near them, one of the Spitfires fired off the rocket-packs slung under its wings. The rockets slammed into the hillside above the officers’ mess. Thankfully, the heads of the rockets were solid and not explosive so the incident just scared the officers rather than killing them. As an electrician, it was my dad’s job to find the problem and fix it. It turned out that the hot, humid climate was playing havoc with the wiring and the rocket firing switch had shorted. Having claimed to have fix it, dad had to prove it. So the Spitfire was rolled out to the end of the runway where the Spitfire could fire out into sea. [From what my dad said, it seems that there was some concern that the trial might go catastrophically wrong, so his colleagues stood at some distance and my dad rigged a trigger that he could use from outside of the plane. With no little trepidation, Dad set up the trial and fired the rockets… All was well.

Later, the first Vampire arrived. It was the first jet fighter in a squadron in East Asia and it arrived in a series of crates. (Think of a flat-packed aeroplane.) Dad was one of a group of technicians who were told, by a Warrant Officer, to gather in a hangar. There they were told, “Here are the crates with all the parts, there are the instructions, go and build the plane.” Dad and his work-mates had different areas of expertise which complemented each other (though apparently one of them was an alcoholic, so they tucked him away in a corner and got on without him). After some time, they assembled the plane. The Warrant Office congratulated them and then escorted them away; at the same time the officers gathered in front of the plane for the formal photograph commemorating the arrival of the first Meteor. Thus my dad and his colleagues were obliterated from the official memory.

Now… there were other stories too and I have no way of ascertaining the veracity of them, at least not without a lot of time and effort. And even, if I did that, what would I gain? The stories were part of his account of his life and part of my idea of my dad. Perhaps it is better to accept them as such and take them at face value.

Also… memories are pliable, both in their external form and their neural encoding. When we reconstruct a memory and recount it for others, we shape the memory to make it more tell-able, more story-like. We fit it into socially acceptable forms that work in the moment. In re-telling the memory, we also change the way that it is encoded in the neural structures of our brains. So the events, even if they actually happened, probably didn’t happen quite the way I have recounted them – they were probably more haphazard and less story-like.

But, apart from the structure, what is the difference between a memory and a story? The recounts above were memories for my dad and they are part of my memory of my dad but for anyone who reads them they are just stories. When trying to decide between possible accounts of psychological phenomena, one question that is often asked is – is this account parsimonious? A parsimonious account of memories and stories might well be that, neurologically, they are dealt with in the same way. A memory might well just be a story that sits in a particular network of associated ideas. So we share our stories/memories so that they won’t be lost in the rain just yet.

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Not so contemporary after all

I confess, I was feeling quite contemporary reading this almost-up-to-date psychology and behavioural economics on the elusive nature of the self. Julian Baggini’s book, ‘The Ego Trick‘ (2011) was an eye-opener into the moral and legal issues created when we lose the idea of the unitary self and start to think of decision making as an outcome of rival ‘modules’ in our brains. I’ve been wrapping my head around that one ever since.

So, imagine my dismay when I discover that the debate began centuries ago!

I’m in the middle of reading Roy Porter’s (2003) ‘Flesh in the Age of Reason‘. In this book, Porter explores the shifting understandings of the self and the relationship between body and mind/soul during the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain. In Chapter 4, Porter explores the work of the philosopher, John Locke. According to Porter, Locke’s critique of Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ led to all sorts of difficult questions about the nature of the self “Could there be any stable, constant, individual self at all? If there could, what was its nature and how did it grow?” Locke’s conclusion was, apparently, experience lay at the heart of knowledge and self-consciousness accompanied all experience; therefore the “self-consciousness which defined and sustained the ego was ‘the condition of being awake’.”

One of the problems with this was that, self-consciousness was not continuous. Every day, each of us sleeps and our self-consciousness is thereby broken into discontinuous, daily fragments. Other problems lay lurking in this idea..

Locke, it seems, had a side kick in a man called Anthony Collins who was less careful in his statements and more willing to get into a good debate. He wrote:

“If a man charges me with a murder done by some body last night, of which I am not conscious; I deny that I did the action, and cannot possibly attribute it to my self, because I am not conscious that I did it. Again, suppose me to be seized with a short frenzy of an hour, and during that time to kill a man, and then to return to my self without the least consciousness of what I have done; I can no more attribute that action to my self, than I could to the former, which I had supposed done by another. The mad man and the sober man are really two as distinct persons as any two other men in the world.”

This was written at the turn of the 17th to 18th Century. Any sense of smug self-congratulation went out the window when I discovered this 300 year old debate covering the same topic. To be fair, the terms of the debate have changed and the contemporary responses to these challenges are quite different to those of the Enlightenment. Still, it’s humbling to realise that 3 centuries worth of catching up to do.


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Vexatious Objects

I was following a chain of references, in search of a possible dissertation topic, when I came upon the book “Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and their Representation” (2007), edited by Margolis and Laurence. I was really only after one chapter but I took my chances with a few of the others, just in case.

To my surprise the first part of the book comprised 5 chapters looking at the place of objects in philosophy. It turns out that there place is somewhat vexed and slippery. There is an inherent ambiguity to objects that philosophers find troubling. (I confess that I read the first chapter, ‘Social Ontology and the Philosophy of Society’ by John Searle, and then decided that was enough philosophy for me.)

As far as I can grasp, actually setting out a clearly delineated class of things called artefacts is difficult. An object may be made of many different objects that loose their identity when assembled but the assemblage loses its corporate identity when taken apart. The example of a bicycle was given. But there is also an ambiguity because the class of artefacts involves some difficult decisions about the role of human intentionality in their creation and their relationship to the human body. The latter point is interesting because it relates to some more commonplace ambiguities that surround what is (or is not) an object. Take, for instance, a small pottery house that I can hold in my hand; no problem here, it is an object and a piece of mass produced decorative art. Now think about a house that you might live in; isn’t that an object? Do we perceive, and think about, the house differently just because of its size? I’m conflating philosophy with psychology, which the authors are keen not to do, but it points to a full-blown debate that was found in the later sections of the book, which were more focused on psychological issues. Do we think about objects, or certain categories of objects, in particular ways because of the class that they are in? (More on this later.) And, how do we arrive at those classes?

The editors allowed the debate between the authors of different chapters to come out. In many ways, it was a familiar argument. Are we born with hard-wired modules for thinking about different kinds of objects in certain ways (Mahon & Caramazza, Chapter 10) or are we born with a powerful, domain general learning mechanism that allows infants to rapidly learn about the properties of objects in their world (Mandler, Chapter 11). Actually, Chapter 15 (by Hauser & Santos) proved to be an excellent guide to this debate, both in the way that they laid out the terms of the debate and in the way that they were open about their own position.

Hauser and Santos are particularly concerned with mental concepts of tools and seek to understand the way that such concepts function through behavioural experiments with non-human primates. Firstly, Hauser & Santos define mental concepts. Humans and other animals can attend to perceptual differences between objects and respond to them differently on that basis but that does not necessarily imply that they have a concept of an object. “Concepts are not mere collection of features, although featural distinctions certainly play a role. What makes the conceptual distinction more interesting […] is that particular [mental] tokens of a class are situated in relationship to other tokens and the organisation of tokens is mediated by a particular theory of how they cohere.” (p. 269). This theory of tokens requires categories to group objects within that they might be treated differently.

Hauser and Santos outline the positions in the debate about the origins of tool concepts in the following schematic:

A rough guide to conceptual theories of tools from Hauser & Santos.A rough guide to conceptual theories of tools from Hauser & Santos.

They identify with Group 3 in this schematic and their reasons for doing so are interesting. Their work with tool-using and non-tool-using primates indicates that “when monkey and apes use an object as a tool they use different featural criteria than when they use an object as food or a landmark and [other non-human primates] recognise that shapes, size, material and orientation are relevant featural dimensions for a functional tool, while colour and texture are not. On contrast, [amongst other examples], when tamarins classify and object as a landmark, they use colour and shape as relevant dimensions but ignore orientation.” (p. 282) […] “At a general level, these findings lend support to the domain-specific view of concept acquisition. Even at very early ages and in the absence of task-relevant experience, non-human primates seem to parse the objects in their world into meaningful global categories – tools, food, landmarks and animals. Such evidence suggests that non-human primates may have innate biases to interpret their world in domain-specific ways.” So, on this work, primates “are biased to distinguish tool-like objects […] and these biases facilitate experience-based learning about different kinds.” (p. 283)

All well and good, this seems to resolve the debate. However, the book “Origins of Object Knowledge” (edited by Hood & Santos) was published in 2009 (i.e. 2 years after this book) and, in that book, the debate showed no signs of having abated.

Notwithstanding this apparent resolution, the editors included another chapter to frame the debate. In Chapter 6, “Artifact Categorization: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, Malt & Sloman make a very different point. They argue that the very notion of ‘categories’ of objects is deeply problematic and the experiments used to investigate how object categories function in human psychology are deeply flawed. Their review of experimental methods shows that those methods do not replicate the way that people make judgements about objects particularly well, thus the conclusions drawn from those experiments can be questioned. Actually, they end (p 123) by saying that “no coherent account of artefact categorisation is possible and ‘categorisation’ is not a coherent field of enquiry”!!

Malt & Sloman (p 121) state “that psychologists talk of artefact as coming in ‘kinds’, where kinds are taken to be stable, psychologically real groupings. [However, they argue] that not only are the psychologically meaningful groupings not stable, but there are no bounded groupings in conceptual space except by virtue of names associated with objects. These arguments suggest that the notion of psychologically real artefact kinds is not viable.” Instead, it is better to “consider them to be flexible and situation dependent. That is, each time mental activities take place that result in a grouping of artefacts, one could say that an artefact has been formed.” (p 122).

This bit really messed with my head! The other chapters that I read, whilst referring to each other, did not refer to this one, which I take to be an indication of how unpopular these ideas were. At the same time, the language of artefacts as flexible and situation-dependent groupings echoes the language of Self-Categorisation Theory, which states that  self-identity is neither fixed nor stable  but emerges in every moment from context-dependent social judgements. The idea that we might deal with the identities of objects in the similar manner to the way that we deal with our own is quite appealing and has the virtue of parsimony. I haven’t had a chance to follow this lead and, given that this topic seems unlikely to lead to a feasible dissertation question, I might never do so but it is food for thought.

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I probably first heard David Eagleman talking on Radiolab and, following that, added his book ‘David Eagleman – Incognito’ to my list of books-to-be-read. I finally managed to get there, a mere 4 years after he first published the book.

What was interesting in Eagleman’s ideas is his argument (based in research) that it is better to think about the brain as a conglomerate of rival functions rather than as a single, coherent whole. So, think about Kahneman’s slow, rational vs quick, emotional problem solving. (Reyna’s verbatim vs gist decision making functions would also fit here, though Eagleman doesn’t mention this.) Both of these functions are operating in our heads and in each situation one or other of the rivals wins out and that determines our response to the situation. There may not be just 2 rival functions at play, this was just an example. Out of this flow a number of helpful insights.

As I’ve been reading Psychology, I’ve come across a number of arguments between different groups of academics, each supporting some different position on some aspect of cognition. So there are at least 2 positions regarding object cognitions in early infancy; 3 broad positions regarding visuo-spatial short-term memory ad infinitum. Sometimes the groups just throw evidence at each other, sometimes they just seem to speak different languages and ignore each other. In either case, there is an impasse. Eagleman argues that the rival functions theory offers a way around these impasses. He argues that each function is a solution to a problem that has been created through evolutionary processes; furthermore, mutations don’t stop occurring just because a good solution has developed so the brain may contain many different solutions to a given problem. Hence different positions in an argument may all be correct. There may be some evolutionary built-in object cognition modules and there may also be powerful domain-general learning mechanisms that allow infants to rapidly learn about objects in their environments.

The rival functions theory also has something to say about ‘cognitive reserve’, an issue relevant when thinking about an individual’s resilience in the face of the cognitive slights of dementia. Since the rival functions theory posits the possibility of many different but overlapping functions it addresses how, through a rich and varied life we can be strengthening these different functions. Then as one function is impaired because of damage to the brain, other functions can take over that role and the person as a whole can continue to function.

One of the things that Eagleman is arguing against is the idea that the neural basis of ‘the self’ resides in some single location within the brain. Rather he wants to argue that the self emerges out of the rivalry of the different functions and their resolution. He suggests that consciousness, whatever it is, is a means for resolving difficult situations where rival functions are in conflict but cannot be resolved. One example he gives is of a male stickleback’s responses when a female stickleback enters his territory. The male is observed to oscillate between the fight/defend territory response and the mate with female response. Consciousness allows us to deal with this in a more adaptive way. The temptation is to think that this is where the self is but he is resistant to this idea. When pressed about it on Radiolab, he asserted that there was no central judge or resolver that presided over the rival functions but skirted around the issue of how rivalry is resolved. Towards the end of the book, it becomes clearer that he think this is an issue that has yet to be sorted out. He is committed to a materialist (but not reductionist) answer that sees a role for culture, society etc..

What the rival functions theory opens up, for me, is the idea that there are many possible responses to a situation. Each function offers a different way of responding and the context plays a role in deciding which function gains the upper hand and shapes the person’s behaviour. So, when thinking about object handling, this would suggest that there is not a single, cognitive solution to the problem of ‘this person is handing me a weird thing to hold’ but a menu of responses. It is an integrative approach, so that rather than saying well it could draw on autobiographical memory or it could draw on more critical/creative responses, the rival functions approach say that both of those are always latent. The challenge then becomes one of discovering the menu of possibilities and the factors that lead us to choose particular options in particular situations.

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Language and action

I recently finished reading ‘Language & Action in Cognitive Neuroscience’ (Coello & Bartolo, 2013). It’s one of those edited books with every chapter from different authors, which allows debates and tensions within a field to emerge. It’s also a treasure trove of academic delights, exploring how language and action are more tightly integrated than might previously have been thought.

All the papers draw on an extensive body of knowledge and, broadly, situate themselves within the ‘embodied cognition’ tradition. There’s lots of good stuff in the book so I’m just going to summarise the bits that struck me as relevant / interesting. (Everything that follows is drawn from the book, unless stated otherwise.) Since I’ve got to start somewhere, I’ll start with our beginnings in infancy.

Verbal communication is a specialised form of motor action – muscles, tendons and bones are all carefully coordinated in order to create sounds that (eventually) mean something. Alongside verbal communication there is non-verbal communication, gesture. Evidence from studies on infants indicates that verbal and gestural communication develop in close synchrony during early infancy. Rhythms in gesture match rhythms in sound making. Eventually there is a fractionation of the two, verbal communication begins to outstrip gestural communication, perhaps as infants discover the potential of talk. Nonetheless, speech and action are never completely disassociated.

Learning to speak, at some point is accompanied by learning to write. Learning to write is about learning movements of fingers, hands and wrists to achieve certain (parts of) letter-shapes. Through this hand motor control, control of the mouth (to sound the letter) and the visual representation of the letter are all integrated. Research, with infants in different language communities, has shown that memory for letters is also memory for action. There is, however, an important difference between learning to write and learning to type. In writing, there is a necessary relationship between the motor actions and the letter-shape; this doesn’t hold in typing, where the lay-out of the keys is arbitrary. Thus children who learn letters through writing show a better memory for letter shape than those who learn through typing.

The relationship between language and action is clearly two-way. One of the chapters cites work done with English-speakers on the use of ‘this’ and ‘that’. Generally, people have a sense of the field of space that they can act on. The research found that English-speakers would refer to objects within that field of action as ‘this object’ and those outside the field as ‘that object’. However, if the same speakers were given tools that extended their reach in some way then some of then participants unconsciously changed their sense of what was in their reach and changed the labelling of objects accordingly. Presumably, as we develop and age our sense of the space we can act on changes and the balance between this and that will shift.

However, mostly of the work in the book looked in another direction. A lot of attention focused on the role of action within language.

To go back a step, alongside mirror neurons (or the mirroring response, wherein neurons involved in the control of action fire in response to observing someone carrying out an action), it seems there may also be ‘canonical neurons’ wherein the neurons controlling graps fire in response to seeing an object that is to be grasped. The function of these neurons is clearly a subject of on-going debate but part of their function seems to be to prepare the observer for action.

So, a lot of the work reported in the book looked at how language also evokes similar rehearsals of action. So, in the phrase, ‘The student pushed the textbook away from her’, the worked ‘pushed’ evokes activity in the neurons used to control the action of pushing. Likewise for other action-verbs, the word evokes the relevant neural response but not enough to make our limbs twitch.

There are all sort of nuances and debates that are covered in the book but which I am skimming over. For instance, how far can you move into the metaphorical domain (away from the concrete action) before the response no longer occurs. For example, ‘He’s pushing drugs.’ – is that too much of a metaphorical use of the verb? Researchers are exploring this.

For me, a more significant debate, which the editors drew out, was the question of whether this rehearsal of action is really part of the mental representation of the word. I noted in an earlier blog, how research indicates that semantic representations are distributed and multi-modal. So it is entirely reasonably to suppose that these motor actions are an intrinsic part of the word. Some researchers clearly argue for this, others argue for a different interpretation. The alternative is that the action-rehearsal is not part of the representation of the word but that the representation is linked to other neural networks that, in turn, link to the pre-motor cortices. (There is some evidence indicating that when we hear a word it evokes activity in regions just anterior of the regions in the pre-motor cortex that are responsible for action. However, the pre-motor cortex is, apparently, very complex and a subject of on-going research.) On the other side, lesion studies (i.e. studies of people who have, through some mishap, suffered damage to specific parts of the brain) show a much more direct link between the two. Some studies have shown that people who have damage to parts of the pre-motor cortex are impaired on certain types of word comprehension test!

Whichever way the argument goes, the function of this link will not be changed. Only one of the authors really explored this and, as noted for mirror and canonical neurons (above), they suggest that the outcome of this link might be that it prepares us for action on the environment. Hearing the word may make us a little bit more ready to do the action. A side-effect of the action-language link is that it means that our understanding of an event becomes considerably richer as the mental representation involves more and more modalities. One paper talks about how the brains of dancers are considerably more active in more regions of the brain (compared to non-dancers) when they are watching a routine they have practiced themselves.

2 questions have come to mind through reading the book:

(1) Baddeley’s model of working memory (which I’ve not written about in this blog but which I’ve been studying these last few months) splits working memory into a central executive, which manipulates information, and 2 modality specific slave systems for short-term storage (one which is phonological-lexical and one which is visuo-spatial). At quite a late stage in the model’s development, they shoe-horned most of the other modalities, including tactile and kinaesthetic, as inputs into the visuo-spatial slave system. Given the wealth of evidence presented in this book on the integration of action and language, it seems to me that it may have been more sensible (if slightly counter-intuitive) to posit tactile and kinaesthetic modalities as inputs into the phonological slave sytem. I wonder why he and his co-workers didn’t do that?

(2) Given results from the lesion studies, I wonder what this implies for people in their fourth age. Oftentimes, people’s physical abilities begin to atrophy much later in life. This can be because of things like arthritis but it can also be a consequence of the regimens of care that inhibit people from exercising. I observed this with my own father-in-law, whose ability to walk diminished rapidly in care. Does physical atrophy lead to neural atrophy? If so, given that lesions to the pre-motor cortex have a negative effect on comprehension, would physical atrophy have a similar effect?
Coello, Y. & Bartolo, A. (Eds.) (2013). Language and Action in Cognitive Neuroscience. London & New York: Psychology Press

Posted in ageing, Cognition, Language, Motor control, Objects, rehearsal | Leave a comment