A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beyond the Brain: Embodied Minds

Continuing coverage of Beyond the Brain, by Loise Barrett. The book presents much of its material in a way that will push the average reader's comfort zone, but not smash their cherished ideas head on. This is a reasonable stylistic choice and, overall, a great strength. The next two posts will talk about the book's presentation of embodied cognition, hopefully giving fair balance to the places where the book did a solid job, and where it could have hit a little harder.


"Embodied" has become a bit of a buzz word recently. Most people who use the term seem well intentioned, but seem to have little clue about the full implications of their thoughts. Those who use the term lightly seem merely to mean that they do not believe in a non-corporeal soul or mind-independent-of-the-body. What they do not seem to understand (and what I mean when I say they use the term 'lightly') are the radical implications of such statements for reshaping psychology.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Beyond the Brain: Intro

Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, by Louise Barrett was released earlier this year. I just finished writing a review of it for PsycCritiques (The American Psychological Association online journal that used to be the printed Contemporary Psychology). So, first things first: Highly recommended.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Memory and X-men Origins

Flipping through the TV channels, I caught the last 10 minutes or so of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. For those who don't know, Wolverine is a 'mutant' who's special power is that he can heal himself from virtually any injury. While Wolverine is most well known for having a metal skeleton, complete with metallic claws that grow out of the top of his hands, that is the result of an experiment he was able to live through due to his healing powers. In the original three X-Men movies, Wolverine did not remember much of anything about his past, including the metal-skeleton experiments nor did he remember Sabertooth, a character that, by comic-book cannon, he should have known very well. The Origins movie happens well before the events in the original trilogy. I gather from the last 10 minutes, that it focused on the metal-skeleton experiment, and heavily involve Sabertooth. "How are they going to handle this?" I wondered. Turns out, they had a good plan. The leader of the experiment loads a gun with six bullets and tells someone he is going to go shoot Wolverine in the head. "It won't kill him," the interloper states plainly, "even if you blow his head off, it will grow back." The leader is undeterred, "His brain will grow back, but the memories won't."

Six shots later, three in the head, and Wolverine is on the ground, out for the count. After his healing powers kick in, he wakes up... sans memory. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The dog tags around his neck give him his name, and the ensuing brief bits of conversation indicate that he doesn't know even his close friends. It is a very clever way to explain the memory loss. As a movie or comic-book gimmick, I give it high marks. But it plays off of a clearly impossible view of how the brain works. The mix of materialism and dualism creates an odd double-think about the relationship between ability, memory, and neural structure. That is, the gimmick works because it plays off of the horrible way in which lay people think about the relationship between the brain and mental abilities... and this way of thinking is encouraged by at least some cognitive psychologists.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fixing Psychology (Mission Statement: Take 1)

Doug Candland gave the Arthur Staats Lecture for Unifying Psychology in 2010. He was a strong influence during my undergraduate education, and has been a trusted adviser since. Though he has feigned asking me for advice many times -- I say 'feigned', because it often seems to be an extension of an oral exam we started over a decade ago -- he seemed to be actually asking for my advice when we talked about what he might say in his lecture. I'm not sure how much I influenced the talk, but I was quoted once. The title of his talk was "The End of Psychology." During the conclusion, he gave the caveat that he could be completely mistaken, that one of his students had told him "Psychology can not be over, it never really began."

Psychology is broken in many, many ways. It is broken at every level. At the lowest level, Intro Psych is one of the most poorly conceived courses in the college curriculum; at the highest level, the arguments of famous 'top researchers' are based on faulty premises or are more oriented towards public appeal than any scientific value or philosophical rigor. Further, psychology is broken at its core. The dominant framework of cognitive psychology has failed, and while much of the field has accepted that in practice, they deny it in discourse. That is to say, many people are trying to modify, supplement, distort, or even abandon the traditional computer-metaphor for the mind, but they are unwilling to give up the associated vocabulary, and they want to retain the basic questions that the computer-metaphor implied. This is just misguided: Yes, we have memory, but the idea that our having-memories works nigh identically to computer "memory" is wrong. Yes, we perceive, but the idea that our perceiving-the-world works nigh identically to computer "encoding" of "input" is wrong. More than a minor revision is needed.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ecological and Social Psychology - Minds as Perceivable

There is a great team working on a social psychology chapter for the incipient Eco-Psych (Perception-Action) Textbook: Reuben Baron, Bert Hodges, Kerry Marsh, and Ben Meagher. I was especially grateful to have others volunteer to write that section, because my views on the matter are too biased. The textbook should be focused on ideas that are, at least amongst ecological psychologists, not controversial. My views derive from E. B. Holt's attempt to create a behaviorism that could capture the full complexity of William James's work, which lead to an approach that might be labeled "Descriptive Mentalism." Holt was one of Gibson's key mentors in graduate school, Harry Heft and others have noted Holt's sustained influence on Gibson, and I suggested a few years ago that there is plenty more good stuff to be found in Holt.

This suggestion was made in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, or IPBS. The journal was founded in 1965, and the 'P' stood for "Physiological" until Jaan Valsiner became editor about a decade ago. Jaan has been working (successfully) to revitalize the journal by encouraging ongoing dialog, including both comment-legnth and article-legnth responses. A few paragraphs in the initial IPBS article were about Holt's relevance to ecological psychologists interested in social psychology, and responses ensued. The initial attempt was superficial, as it was only one of many points in the paper. A more focused version of the argument (taken from here) is shown below. It is worth noting explicitly that the goal was to explore what an 'ideal' contribution to social psychology would look like: "The type that makes it crucially important that [the contributors] are ecological psychologists; the type of contribution that only someone acting as an ecological psychologist could make. That is, the type of contribution that would allow someone to claim that Ecological Psychology had contributed to Social Psychology, rather than merely claiming that the same people had done both ecological research and social research."