Archive for June, 2009

Ekman emotion recognition test

Monday, June 29th, 2009


I’m looking at Paul Ekman’s FACS system at the moment, the pictures that he uses to illustrate the system are pretty amusing. This, for example, is from an article in The Guardian asking “Can You Decode These Emotions?”


It’s a bit like Japanese rockabilly or something. It all looks right but there’s something missing. The girl’s face is composed in the right way, the muscle movements are right, and yet her eyes are completely devoid of the emotion. It strikes me that the test is somehow a little compromised as a result. A few months ago I did an interview for a news channel and the journalist interviewed an academic about Ekman’s work for the piece. The academic claimed that Ekman has been largely discredited and that it is generally accepted that the purpose of facial expressions is as communication. Therefore they don’t reflect the internal state of the subject. Which, just about anyone can tell you, is complete nonsense.

If something has evolved for a specific purpose, it doesn’t mean that it works on a conscious level. Walking, for example, is a learned trait, unlike facial expressions, and yet we don’t think about putting one foot infront of the other. We only think about expression when we want to use our body for communication on a conscious level. And a lot of the time we aren’t very good at faking internal states. If someone is playing a role in a social situation, it’s often expected of them, but much of the time we aren’t fooled by the performance. Which I think is one of the reasons why great actors are fascinating. A good performance is really a sort of willed self-delusion aided by research, observation and hard work.

Jake and Dinos Chapman interview

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Iraq close combat

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

This video has a quality to it that’s remarkable. A group of young soldiers alternate between trying to flush out some insurgents from a building and pounding it with heavy fire. Eventually they hit it with a barrage, go back in and find the corpses. It’s the mixture of palpable terror and the weird spacial relationship between them and the insurgents, that makes the video so extraordinary. There’s only a few feet between the spot where they’re being shot at and flee for their lives, screaming, to the place where they feel safe enough to let their weapons drop and curse in frustration. As if it’s a game or a hunt. Their dialogue is also amazing- there’s a rawness to it that says everything about their youth and the pressure they’re under.

“Psychiatric diagnoses are less reliable than star signs”

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

This is brilliant- a Times online article about Richard Bentall, who’s book “Doctoring the Mind” is out in September. He rages against the biomedical model and the failure of psychiatry to work with patients in psychotherapy, relying instead on drugs. A familar story, but there’s some astonishing stuff here. Not least his conviction that it would be better to be treated in Nigeria than in london, because “In Nigeria, people with severe mental illness tend to be looked after in an extended family system or by supportive religious leaders, who tell them not to worry about hearing voices.” Hence the recovery rate is better. Or that whilst the studies published by drug companies about SSRI drugs seem to show that they work, they suppress data, which when added to the mix under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that they work only slightly better than placebos. Anyway, if you know anyone who’s on this shit, and if you live in New York then chances are you do, point them to this article.

Babies are useless

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

A few weeks ago Seed magazine ran a short interview with Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist who has recently published a book called “The Philosophical Baby”. “Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer” she asks. She goes on to make the case that during this period of uselessness, the child is free to explore the physical world as well as possible worlds through imaginative play- and that new ways of looking at the world spring from childhood;

Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.

Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created —  using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.

Ignoring the fact that they’ve developed a computer model of development (?!), In February I posted about an article called “Delusional Realities” in which Shaun Gallagher argued that “in the spirit of embodied, situated and phenomenological views of cognition,” the delusional subject “does not live in the one unified world of meaning that is defined objectively (in a view from nowhere), but in multiple realities, sub-universes or finite provinces of meaning.” The interviewer asked him; “This is a philosophical approach to answering a psychiatric question, but do you also think it has implications for other areas of philosophy? For instance, does showing that people can experience alternate realities suggest that to some extent aspects of objective reality are just shared beliefs about the world, and does this suggest that our ideas about the world are more constructed than we normally think of them as being?” Shaun Gallagher replied “I think one of the big questions underneath all of this is, you know, how do we actually think about the mind – what is the mind?…And everybody agrees, it’s not a Cartesian substance, but then there’s a huge amount of talk among a lot of philosophers about beliefs and desires and mental states, and then there’s a huge amount of talk about brain states.” Which brings us back to Alison Gopnik and her study of babies;

Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change. And we’re starting to understand how that change takes place at a very detailed neurological and computational level.

Richard Dawkins interviews Stephen Pinker on evolutionary psychology, language etc

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Via 3quarksdaily

Memories are made of this (protein);

Friday, June 19th, 2009


This, apparently, is the first image of memories “being made”. The bulbs in the synaptic strings are new proteins created when new memories are formed;

Research (into what happens on a molecular level when memories are formed) has focused on synapses, which are the main site of exchange and storage in the brain. They form a vast but also constantly fluctuating network of connections whose ability to change and adapt, called synaptic plasticity, may be the fundamental basis of learning and memory.

But, if this network is constantly changing, the question is how do memories stay put, how are they formed? It has been known for some time that an important step in long-term memory formation is “translation”, or the production, of new proteins locally at the synapse, strengthening the synaptic connection in the reinforcement of a memory, which until now has never been imaged.

Seems like a pretty good excuse to quote Nietzsche; “”I,” you say, and are proud of the word. But greater is that in which you do not wish to have faith- your body and its great reason: that does not say “I,” but does “I.”"

Trance states

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Mind Hacks has an interesting post giving links to videos and articles about trance states in various cultures;

Trance is usually described as involving ‘dissociation’ – originally defined by the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet as the ‘unconscious compartmentalisation of normally integrated mental functions’.

Dissociation is thought to underlie a wide range of phenomena, including hypnosis, reaction to trauma, trance and some forms of spirit possession, hysteria, conversion disorder and, more controversially, multiple personality disorder.

One of the best guides to the range of experiences and the possible neuroscience behind these states is an excellent article by anthropologists Rebecca Seligman and Laurence Kirmayer.

One notable omission from the list on Neuroanthropology is video of the female possession rituals of the Zar Cult from Northern Sudan which has been quite widely discussed in the anthropology literature.

There’s some brief footage of it online and in another video anthropologist Gerasimos Makris discusses the structure and social meaning of the possession rituals.

Wallpaper Sex Issue

Friday, June 12th, 2009

The Wallpaper July Issue is devoted to sex and features a video and stills they commissioned for “Immersion”. You can see the video above, or go to their site, where the screen is a lot bigger. A friend of mine saw the images in the magazine and pointed out that they’re stylistically very similar to my gamer kids pictures, and had I considered exhibiting them together? Bless. But it was gratifying that the thought occurred to him as soon as he saw the images. The experience of doing the shoot was actually really nice, very relaxed and easygoing. The idea was to create a shoot that didn’t feel like a shoot- and certainly in the kitchen area, where the crew were, it felt like an open house rather than a studio. It’s an area that I’ll develop further, for sure.

Anna, an acquaintance who works at Jezebel, put up a story on the Wallpaper video. It’s pretty clear from the comments that people like the subjects of the video, which is great. Normally when you watch a porn video your brain is almost short-circuited by the action- I posted quite recently about how fMRI studies show that the brain starts simulating sex as soon as you see the action. So it’s interesting to record this type of activity without the part of the image that’s going to limit it to titillation. And I think the combination of that, with the further intimacy of them talking about their experience of porn is quite powerful. However, if they came across badly or were unsympathetic, it would be exploitative.

“Play” by Samuel Beckett

Sunday, June 7th, 2009