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adventures in second language acquisition – my first gleanings

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Some 35 years ago a new science was born. Now called cognitive science, it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since.

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct 1994.

The above words, from over 20 years ago, now seem a little overblown. My experience as a general absorber of sciency stuff suggests that it’s still a bit premature to speak of a science of language, but of course we know more about it than ever before. My hope is to bring whatever knowledge I can glean from some of the fields mentioned above to my understanding of language in general, and second language acquisition in particular, with a view to helping others to acquire the English language, which is my job.

My method is to start in medias res, as an innocent little fish dropped into the vast ocean of knowledge about the subject that I hope and expect to find online and elsewhere.

My first encounter as I bob about in this ocean, is this video, which introduces me to what the speaker calls ‘the zone of proximal development’, and the ‘five stages of second language acquisition’. On a slide, the zone of proximal development (ZPD, in case I need to refer to it again) is defined as ‘the difference between what a student can do without help and what a student can do with help’. The speaker, Jane Hill, a Managing Consultant for English Language Learner Effectiveness, starts by telling SLA educators that they would benefit their students by teaching not only content but ‘the academic language of the content’, and presumably this ZPD is part of that academic language, as will be the five stages, not yet enunciated.

I have to say that in my fifteen years or so of teaching ESOL I’ve never mentioned the ZPD, nor any 5 stages, to learners. I do have a vague memory of coming across this ZPD concept years ago, but it obviously didn’t stick particularly well. Not surprisingly, if the definition given above is a generally accepted one, for it makes little sense to me – but I won’t dwell on that for now, except to say that I might look up this ZPG notion elsewhere to see if a better definition or elaboration of it can be found. Hill herself does elaborate further, by saying that we should know ‘where students are, and where they’re capable of working to with the help of a knowledgeable other’, and I find this more comprehensible but still problematic. We try to find out where learners are by listening to and reading (and assessing) their productions, and testing their reception of our productions and the productions of others (e.g. English texts). This isn’t always an easy process as their production and reception can vary from day to day and between tasks. And surely it’s even harder to find out ‘where they’re capable of working to’. This is partly because learners are in our class for only a matter of weeks and it’s hard to measure or even to discern progress. The better students seem uniformly and constantly to be at a higher level than the strugglers who seem constantly and uniformly struggling. Test scores aren’t a straightforward indication of progress as each test is different and some, such as essay tests, have a strong element of subjectivity in assessment. SLA, for most adult learners, is a long, slow and partial process, it seems to me.

So, with these doubts and uncertainties in mind I’ll continue with Hill’s slightly annoying presentation of the five stages of SLA. Annoying because of the condescending infant-teacherly tone and because she’s clearly presenting them as facts to be poured into us rather than as someone’s theory. Anyway, she begins with what she describes as a modelling of good teaching. She introduces the five stages of SLA (concepts which we as learners aren’t aware of) by connecting them to the five stages of first language acquisition, concepts which we are apparently familiar with (though I for one have never heard of this breakdown of my language acquisition into five stages – but I’m keen to learn!).

Hill starts by gushingly asking us to remember how our kids acquire their first language. I’ve never had kids, but I’ve certainly observed them, and with great interest, so I can cheerfully concur with her slide-supported enumeration:

  1. preproduction –  about 9 months (no verbalisation, minimal comprehension, some yes & no head movements, some pointing and gesturing)
  2. early production – about 12-14 months (limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of keywords & familiar phrases, present tense only)
  3. speech emergence – age?? (good comprehension, simple sentence production, grammar and pronunciation errors, misunderstands jokes)
  4. intermediate fluency – age? (excellent comprehension, few grammatical errors)
  5. advanced fluency – (near-native usage)

However, no linguistic prizes for guessing this is just a handful of post stages picked out in the continuous process from no language to full language production, with 5 being a more or less arbitrary number. The ZPG seems too vague a concept to be of much practical use, and in all my years of teaching I’ve never heard a colleague fretting over how to get a learner over the early production stage into speech emergence, say. Another problem is that this admittedly bare-bones presentation says nothing about the difference between SLA and learning the L1, except to say that the stages are similar, but not exactly the same. But it seems to me the differences are very significant.

The difficulty I’m becoming aware of here is a very scary one. I don’t think I’ll be able to make much headway in understanding SLA without understanding language itself and how we acquire it. And I suspect that nobody fully understands that.

Pinker has argued that language is an instinct, something innate, which we don’t learn, or not in any straightforward way, from our parents, or by mimesis. Yet it’s surely clear that without an environment of language speakers we’d get nowhere. A child brought up by wolves, if there ever was one, would not be able to speak a language, because she hasn’t had the opportunity  to learn one, and I’ve heard that children deprived of that opportunity during a certain crucial period in childhood are unlikely to become effective language users thereafter. The near-miraculous thing is that children become sophisticated language users very quickly, and I’m interested in the neurological processes involved, as well as whether our understanding of those neurological processes can help with developing effective SLA.

So language is certainly something learned, but there’s something about us that makes us primed, so to speak, to pick up one of the 7000 or so fully grammarised (if there’s such a word) languages. We also learn to walk, but I wonder how we’d go if we weren’t surrounded from earliest childhood by fully adept walkers whose ambulatory achievements and successes we’re naturally keen to emulate. And in a way, I’m answering my own query – we learn language because we hear it all around us, and we want to share in that human experience, to be like them, because we see clearly, though in a sense unconsciously, the obvious advantages of that communication system. It gets us somewhere in the human world.

I’m also interested in this whole concept of grammar. I’ve read, though without quite grasping it, that children can create grammar out of non-grammatical (or perhaps partially grammatical) pidgin, a collection of keywords cobbled together in the intersection of two languages for the purpose of needful communication. ‘Research’ has found that the children of pidgin users are able to create from these fragments a full-blown grammatical creole, as if by magic. This has been cited by Pinker and others as evidence for an innate faculty. I need, obviously, to learn more about such research and the various interpretations of it.

I don’t want to forget embodiment either. I’ve been very encouraged in my practice lately, teaching EGP, the lowest level of academic English (actually pre-pre-academic English),  by responses to certain simple tasks. I’ve asked learners to come out the front and act out simple sentences, with gestures and facial expressions. These are students who generally have difficulty in forming complete grammatical sentences. So they come out and try saying, for example, ‘Hello class, I want to tell you about a really funny movie I saw on the weekend’, accompanied by laughter, hand-on-chest gestures and what-not. Humour, sadness, fear, anger and so on can all be acted out to the accompaniment of a simple sentence, and what I’ve found is that, after a few practice runs, they become more articulate and confident when they express themselves this way. The words come out with less effort, it seems, when they’re concentrating on the emotion, and I get the impression that they’ve taken some sort of ownership of some English speech acts. I’d be interested to find if there is any work being done to confirm these impressions I have of embodied SLA. It’s not much, perhaps, in the mountainous task of facilitating SLA, but it’s something positive.

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2017 at 8:23 am

CARE and women’s empowerment

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We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion or a nationality, but it does have a gender.

Rebecca Solnit, author and historian


Canto: So the CARE organisation, an NGO with a long history, is perhaps best known to us here due to our former PM Malcolm Fraser becoming the founder of CARE Australia in 1987, and the president of CARE international from 1990 to 1995. It’s one of the oldest humanitarian aid organisations, with its origins in the forties, in that post-war period when international co-operation and healing became something of an obsession. But did you know that in recent times it has directed its focus on the empowerment of women in disadvantaged circumstances?

Jacinta: Yes, this is something we’ve been discovering only recently, and if you go to the CARE website right now you’ll find the leading article there is about women fleeing Syria, often with children, and about the increasing number of female-headed families among Syrian refugees in Jordan and elsewhere.

Canto: Well, that’s illustrative, and as you know I’ve just read Melvin Konner’s book, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, and it has a few pages on CARE and how it has kind of renewed itself in recent times by focusing on female disadvantage, and I think that’s a damn good idea.

Jacinta: Yes, not exclusively of course, but it has been focusing on education and empowerment – those things go naturally together of course – which is more of an issue for women in countries like India and many African countries.

Canto: Oh yeah in many countries, wherever you have extreme male dominance you have women reduced to drudgery, virtual slavery, if not actual slavery, women forced into marriage at an early age, an acceptance of rape within marriage, and of course women and girls deprived of whatever paltry education they have in these benighted regions. And these are the most violent and backward regions in the world, but I suppose we’ve harped on that enough already.

Jacinta: So what specifically is CARE doing for women?

Canto: Well its rebranding, as Konner describes it, began nearly a decade ago with a campaign called ‘I am Powerful’ developed by Helene Gayle, then CEO of CARE USA. It was all about knowledge being power and education being key, and this was focused on in a lot of problem regions, in India, Bangladesh, Yemen…

Jacinta: I read that, in India, of the children not attending school, 80% are female. One of the worst records anywhere, but of course, the percentage of girls not being educated is always higher than boys wherever you look.

Canto: Even in Australia?

Jacinta: Well, I’m guessing, but we’ve not quite reached gender equality, and then there are migrants coming from heavily patriarchal societies…

Canto: Anyway the research they did showed the knock-on effects of education for women and girls. Educated girls postpone motherhood, have fewer kids, healthier kids, better educated kids, and this transfers to the next generation and the next in a multiplier effect.

Jacinta: And educated women earn more, suffer less abuse, are healthier…

Canto: So they’ve done great work in developing schools in Benin and Sudan and other trouble spots, places where educated women were a novelty. But it’s not just education, they’ve been providing safe havens for women against male violence within refugee camps in Kenya and Sri Lanka where they had such brutal suppression of the Tamils. And they’ve been involved in microfinancing, along with other NGOs and banks. Because over the decades they’ve found that loans to women are more effective than loans to men.

Jacinta: Hmmm, I wonder why that would be.

Canto: Well, some have disputed it, but it might be that because women are generally more collaborative and group-oriented, social pressure between women ensures that they put the loans to better use, repay them more promptly and so on. CARE is also combining microloans with training in health, governance, human rights and such. This raises consciousness on the importance of education and health, and this is indicated in increased household expenditure in these areas. It’s been noted that microfinance-only programs tend to be more abused, often because the women get leaned on by male relatives.

Jacinta: Okay, so I think you’re right, we need to get rid of men. Gene editing, with this new CRISPR Cas-9 technology and further developments, should make it all straightforwardly possible soon enough. In time we’ll be able to edit the genes of embryos to make them all female. Or maybe we’ll keep about 10% of them as males for reproductive purposes, and as fun toys and slaves around the house. Forget the bloody moslem brotherhood, I’m only interested in the moslem sisterhood, and forget mateship, which emerged supposedly out of the ‘Great’ bloody War, and fuck ‘we band of brothers’, which came from Shakespeare’s bloody Henry V, the battle of bloody AgitpropCourt, with Harry’s band of bros splattering the Frenchy band of bros for larks and sparks. Yep it’s time.

Canto: Well thanks for that. We’ll talk again, women willing.


Written by stewart henderson

September 25, 2016 at 9:42 am

bonobos and us – lessons to be learnt

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Let’s be sexy about this

Bonobos separated from chimps maybe less than a million years ago, according to some pundits. We haven’t yet been able to determine a more precise date for the split. So which species has changed more? Have chimps become more aggressive or have bonobos become more caring? Is there any way of finding out?
It’s not just about genes its about their expression. It will take some time to work all that out. Brain studies too will help, as we move towards scanning and exploring brains more effectively and less invasively.
But surely we seek not just to understand the bonobo world but to change our own. Who wouldn’t want a world that was less violent, less exclusionary in terms of sex, more caring and sharing, without any loss of the dynamism and questing that has taken us to to the very brink of iphone7?
That last remark will date very quickly… Nah, I’ll leave it in.
So we can learn lessons, and of course we’re already on that path. Advanced societies, if that’s not too presumptuous a term, are less patriarchal than they’ve ever been, without losing any of their dynamism. On the contrary, it can easily be seen that the most male-supremacist societies in the world are also the most violent, the most repressive and the most backward. Some of those societies, as we know, have their backwardness masked by the fact that they have a commodity, oil, that the world is still addicted to, which has made the society so rich that their citizens don’t even have to pay tax. The rest of the world is supporting tyrannical regimes, which won’t change as long as they feel well-fed and secure. Not that I’d wish starvation and insecurity on anyone, but as Roland Barthes once said at one of his packed lectures, the people standing at the back who can’t hear properly and have sore feet must be wondering why they’re here.
Maybe a bit of discomfort, in the form of completely shifting away from fossil fuels for our energy needs haha, might bring certain Middle Eastern countries to a more serious questioning of their patriarchal delusions? Without their currently-valuable resource, they might wake to the fact that they need to become smarter. The women in those countries, so effective on occasion in forming coalitions to defend their inferior place in society, might be encouraged to use their collective power in more diverse ways. That could be how things socially evolve there.
Meanwhile in the west, the lesson of the bonobos would seem to be coalitions and sex. We’ve certainly arrived at an era where sexual dimorphism is irrelevant, except where women are isolated, for example in domestic situations. The same isolation also poses a threat to children. The bonobo example of coalitions and togetherness and sharing of responsibilities, and sexual favours (something we’re a long way from emulating, with our jealousies and petty rivalries) should be the way forward for us. Hopefully the future will see a further erosion of the nuclear family and a greater diversity of child-rearing environments, where single-parent families are far less isolated than they are today, and males want to help and support and teach children because they are children, not because they are their children…

Written by stewart henderson

September 10, 2016 at 6:54 pm

group think revisited, or how to improve your mind

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Confirmation bias (and the benefits of social reasoning) in a nutshell:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? Luke 6: 42 New International Version


The argumentative theory of reason

The recent New Scientist collection, Being Human, includes an essay, ‘The argumentative ape’, by Dan Jones, which is worth reading and contemplating for any teacher involved in encouraging her students to think richly about current ethical or political issues. In my college, NESB students study ‘English for academic purposes’, which involves a lot of basic grammar and vocabulary at the lower levels, and academic presentations and essays at the higher levels. In these ‘discussion’ or ‘argument’ essays and presentations, students are required to examine the pros and cons of some chosen activity or decision, such as the proper driving age, the consumption of GM food, or even whether humanity has benefitted or blighted our planet.

However, there seems to be a contradiction in asking students to write, and be examined on, individually written ‘discussion essays’, when discussions and arguments are group rather than individual activities. More importantly, if we want to improve our students’ understanding of current issues, perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on group discussion than on individual analysis.

This is hardly a new idea. The ancient Athenians, founders of democracy – decision-making by the people – built their city around the agora, a gathering place for public talk and argument. This design was quite deliberate, as all Athenian citizens were required to contribute to discussions from which civic decisions were made.

‘The argumentative ape’, however, provides contemporary evidence about the evolutionary importance of argument in human society. It describes a thesis put forward by European researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, that human reason evolved not so much to assist us in more clearly understanding our world, but to argue, to persuade, to convince others of our position, our right-ness. So, it evolved socially. And there appears to be some evidence for the more general ‘social brain’ hypothesis, in that a clear correlation has been found between the number of individuals in a primate group and the average brain size of that particular species.

Now one essential problem here should be obvious, as it was to Socrates in his battle with the sophists. The most persuasive arguments aren’t necessarily the best. So it’s natural that along with persuasiveness, skepticism would have developed, as humans sought to evaluate competing arguments.

Through scepticism we’ve identified many types of fallacious reasoning, and ways we have of convincing ourselves in the process of trying to convince others. Confirmation bias, or motivated reasoning, probably tops this list, as it is extremely pervasive if not universal. As Mercier points out, using confirmation bias seems counter-productive if you wish to arrive at correct results, for example in scientific research, but it can be highly effective in argument, as your bias commits you to garnering a multitude of arguments for your position while ignoring, and thus rendering insignificant, all arguments against. If we accept an argumentative theory of the evolution of reason, then, we will see confirmation bias not as a flaw, but as a device to strengthen our own arguments, and the ability to detect such biases would in turn be a device to undo or diminish the arguments of others.

how individual reasoning is affected by the larger group

Experimental psychologists have found many ways in which our reasoning can be affected or manipulated. Take, for example, the framing effect. It has been found, and regularly confirmed, that how the same problem is worded will affect our decision. Jones presents the scenario, used by psychologists, of a small village of 600 people threatened by a deadly disease. In scenario one, if Plan A is adopted, exactly 200 people will survive. If plan B is adopted, there will be a 1 in 3 chance that all will survive, and a 2 in 3 chance that none will survive. When this scenario is presented to subjects, the majority invariably choose Plan A. However when, in scenario two, Plan A is framed with the slight difference that exactly 400 people will die (with no change to Plan B), this is enough for the majority to flip over to Plan B. This consistent result has been explained in terms of ‘loss aversion’ – we prefer to avoid the explicit loss of life as expressed in the change to Plan A in scenario two. Significantly though for the argumentative ape hypothesis, this loss aversion bias is strengthened when we have to justify our decision to a larger group. We have a ready-made justification as expressed in the framing. It’s probable that we always have in mind what the larger group, or ‘society’ will think of our decision, but when this need to justify ourselves is made explicit, the ready rationalisation is more likely to be adopted.

Other effects of apparently faulty reasoning, such as the attraction effect and the sunk-cost fallacy, have been detected in psychological studies, and all have been shown to be enhanced when there is an explicit need for justification. The ‘argumentative’ thesis claims that we tend to choose the most easily justified option rather than what might be best.

Confirmation bias for me, scepticism towards you, and how it pans out

While this may seem a pessimistic outlook on our use of reason, the counterbalance lies in our ability, from clear evolutionary need, to identify and so counter the faulty arguments of others. This pattern follows a familiar evolutionary trajectory, in which a predator evolves a means to capture its prey, leading the prey to develop a defence mechanism to protect itself against the predator. Scepticism helps us to avoid being sucked in and ‘devoured’.

The result for group reasoning is that bias and the scepticism can balance each other out, leading to a greater recognition of the weaknesses in our own opinions and the strengths in those of others. And experimental evidence backs up this result. To quote from Jones’ article:

In one convincing study, psychologists David Moshman and Molly Geil at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at performance in the Wason selection test – a simple card game based on logical deduction. When thinking about this task on their own, less than 10 per cent of people got the right answer. When groups of 5 or 6 people tackled it, however, 75 per cent of the groups eventually succeeded. Crucially for the argumentative theory, this was not simply down to smart people imposing the correct answer on the rest of the group: even groups whose members had all previously failed the test were able to come to the correct solution by formulating ideas and revising them in light of criticism (Thinking and Reasoning, vol 4, p 231).

He also points to research indicating that groups are more creative in their thinking than individuals (see sources below).

Implications for teaching, or how to best facilitate the best group thinking

Evidence from a series of studies by Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania suggests that a group’s individual skills are not the best predictor of the group’s overall performance in problem-solving. These studies were designed to measure the ‘collective intelligence’ of the group, in something like the manner of IQ tests for individuals. She found that those groups who scored highest were the most inclusive, allowing maximal participation within the group. Sensitivity to the moods and feelings of others helped groups to score highly, and the best groups were those with the greater number of female members, presumably because females have a greater social sensitivity.

Group thinking can, of course, backfire. Groupthink in fact has long been seen negatively, but this is because people with the same cognitive biases often congregate together, as with political parties and religious organisations, or gravitate towards similar professions, such as the police or the military. In such groupings it’s often the case that the group moves collectively to quite extreme positions. Where group thinking would be expected to work most effectively is precisely in a college for NESB students from different cultures and backgrounds, in which individuals are challenged by widely different but (hopefully!) cogent opinions.

As educators, we need to consider the best outcomes for our students. Clearly there is pressure, in an individualised results-based system, to push for individual skill in argumentation, with the resultant high test scores. However, the evidence for group interaction in improving students’ understanding of the many issues focused on in essays and seminars at the higher levels is clear. Of course the situation is complicated by the fact that many students at EAP2 and EAP3 levels still don’t have the  grammatical and lexical skills to present cogent arguments in English, so that it’s often hard to determine whether their difficulties are those of reasoning or of language. Even so, I believe it is vital to take advantage of the cultural diversity of students’ experience and knowledge (even within identical language groups) to encourage interaction that will challenge biases and create awareness of a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this will enliven their thinking both within the college and in their studies beyond Eynesbury.


Some sources are found in the links. Here are others.

D Sperber and H Mercier,”Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory”, Behavioural and brain sciences: Published online March 2011. Mercer elaborates on the theory very interestingly in a video on this website

Williams Woolley, Anita, ‘Collective intelligence in human groups’, April 2012: Center for Collective Intelligence:

D Moshman & M Geil, 1998 ‘Collaborative reasoning: evidence for collective rationality’. Thinking and reasoning V4 issue 3:

Written by stewart henderson

November 26, 2015 at 6:57 am

distributed consciousness – another nail in the coffin of human specialness

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for more on this, the whole conference is available online

I wrote a piece here called ‘Animals R Us’ a few years ago because I was annoyed at certain contemptuous remarks directed at animals – a rather large set to be contemptuous of – and also because I’ve always disliked the idea of human specialness so beloved of some of our religious co-habitants. I was also thinking of the remarks of Marilyn Robinson on consciousness, which I critiqued even more years ago. Atheists, she argued (wrongly) don’t take enough account of consciousness (with the inference that if they did, they’d be more accepting of a supernatural being, presumably). So I’m happy to briefly revisit the complexities and the consciousness of non-humans here.

The latest research reveals more and more the distributed nature of consciousness, and some of this research is summarised in ‘Triumph of the zombie killers’, chapter 1 of Michael Brooks’s book At the edge of uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by surprise. He brings up philosopher David Chalmers’s 20-year-old claim about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, that it doesn’t appear to be reducible to material processes. In fact, Chalmers went further, saying ‘No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.’ Well, forever is a long long time and I wonder what Chalmers would have to say now (I’ll have to check out his more recent pronouncements). In 1994 he used a zombie analogy, suggesting that you couldn’t know whether we were surrounded by zombies, or ‘pretend’ humans, since the sense of self-awareness essential to consciousness cannot be identified or described by methodological naturalism. It’s been difficult to provide a coherent theory to account for this subjective feeling, and Daniel Dennett took the view a couple of decades ago that consciousness is essentially an illusion, or rather an evolved way of dealing with the world which captures the elements of reality we need to get by, and then some. That’s why we can so often be fooled by our brains. We have perceptual glitches and blind spots. An obvious example is the human eye, which only focuses sharply on a tiny area, using the fovea centralis, a patch of densely packed photoreceptor cells only a millimetre in diameter. The rest of our visual field is seen in much lower resolution, and without colour. But we’re not aware of this because of the eye’s movements, or saccades, which average 3 per second. The time between one sharp focus and the next is ‘blacked-out’ of consciousness, creating an illusion of seamlessly moving vision. The analogy with film is obvious.

This evolved use of sight to be ‘good enough’ helps explain our ‘change blindness’, which has been highlighted by a number of recent experiments, and which has been exploited for decades by professional magicians. It also helps explain why we don’t notice mistakes in editorial continuity in films, which are even overlooked by editors, because they involve ‘irrelevant’ background details. This evolved use of eyesight to help us to make enough sense of the world as we need to, as economically as possible, is something shared by many other creatures, as researchers have declared. Consciousness researchers gathered together at Cambridge in July 2012 and issued a ‘declaration on consciousness’, summarising recent findings on consciousness in non-human animals and in infant humans:

Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours… humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates

It’s a vitally important point that’s being made here. Even to call consciousness an emergent property is misleading, as it suggests that we’re still hung up on the consciousness label, and on detecting the point at which this phenomenon has ‘emerged’. Previous tests for consciousness are gradually being found wanting, as what they test has little to do with the more expansive understanding of consciousness that our research is contributing to, more and more. What’s more, serious damage to, and indeed the complete loss of, such areas of the human brain as the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, all vital to our self-awareness according to previous research, haven’t prevented subjects from articulating clear signs of consciousness and self-reflection. There’s no ‘place’ of consciousness in the human or mammalian brain, and signs of intentionality and individual personality are cropping up in a whole range of species.

Early researchers on chimpanzees and other highly developed animals were often dismissive of claims that they were being cruel, citing ‘anthropomorphism’ as a barrier to scientific progress. We can now see that we don’t have to think of animals as ‘human-like’ to recognise their capacity for suffering and a whole range of other negative and positive experiences and emotions. And we’re only at the beginning of this journey, which, like the journey initiated by Copernicus, Kepler and others, will take us far from the hubristic sense of ourselves as singular and central.

Written by stewart henderson

July 29, 2015 at 10:05 am

the ‘as if’ principle: or, how to cultivate happiness

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William James – a surprisingly fun guy

The following post is based entirely on Richard Wiseman’s book Rip it up, which should be better known, but perhaps it is, I don’t know.

William James, Henry’s more interesting big brother, was one of the world’s first professional or academic psychologists, though I’d say more academic than professional. His most significant contribution to psychology was the utterance of a single simple sentence: ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’ It sounds anodyne and not particularly original – I’m sure a lot of us have imagined from childhood that acting as if you’re a knowledgeable, intelligent person might make people treat you like one, even if it’s all BS. I know I have.

The fact is, though, that a ton of research has shown that James really was onto something. I’m going to present an annotated list of the research, but first, some background to James’s thinking. He followed a well-worn track for original thinkers (if that’s not a contradiction, which it is) of deciding that the common-sense view of ‘x’ isn’t true, or at least needs considerable tweaking (think Newton on motion, Einstein on space and time, etc). The common-sense view on emotions is that when we feel anxious, we sweat; when we feel happy, we smile; and when we feel sad, we weep. This seems pretty well unarguable. Here’s what James himself had to say:

Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, ‘Of course we smile, of course our heart palpates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!’

But James had learned to be wary of the obvious, and his thoughts about emotion and behaviour were piqued by one of Darwin’s most important books, The expression of the emotion in man and animals, in which he noted how easily and reliably we can identify the emotions of others from their facial expressions. James took this in another direction. Maybe if we took more notice of our own facial expressions we would gain more insight into how we were feeling. Then he took it a step further: Maybe if we changed our expressions we could change our emotional state.

James got a little carried away with his own insight, as you do. He imagined that we really had got the causal connection round the wrong way. As he put it:

You do not run from the bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of it because you run from it.

We now know, though, that it isn’t that the causal connection is reversed, it’s that it runs both ways. Yes, we smile because we’re happy, but it’s also true that smiling makes us happier. And that’s just the start. James was no experimental psychologist – more of an armchair ideas man, so it took a while for this idea to catch on and be tested, but in recent decades we’ve really caught up. So here’s the evidence – and I’ll number and describe the research pieces (they’re not all empirical research, as you’ll see, and they’re in no particular order) and provide academic details, if any, at the end.

1. Volunteers were first asked to smile or frown, then report on their feelings. Then the experimenter, James Laird, decided a more reliable method was needed. He told the subjects he’d be examining electrical activity, and placed electrodes at various facial muscles. He explained that their emotional state might affect the experiment, so asked them to report on their feelings. In fact the electrodes were fake. Then they were asked to manipulate their faces into what we would see as happy or angry expressions, though emotional terms were never used. Instead they were asked to draw their eyebrows up or down, to purse or spread their lips, to clench their teeth, etc. Those whose faces were ‘forced’ into smiles reported feeling significantly happier than those who frowned – who felt more angry. When asked why, they had no ready answer – few attributed it to the facial manipulations.

2. Constantin Stanislavsky was the ‘inventor’ of method acting. He encouraged actors to experience real emotion through behaviour – the key idea being ‘if I was really experiencing this emotion, how would I behave?’ Many famous actors have used the ‘magic if’ principle to great effect.

3. Other psychologists, inspired by Laird’s research, used other tricks to change people’s facial expressions, such as getting people to use ‘ee’ words (as in ‘say cheese’) or ‘eu’ words (as in ‘ooh yuk’), which produced similar results to (1). A German team told half of their subjects to hold a pencil horizontally between their teeth, forcing a smile, while the other half held the pencil with lips only, forcing a frown. All results supported the power of the ‘as if’ principle.

4. Volunteers were attached to a machine that monitored heart rate and skin temperature. They were asked first to think of an event that made them feel angry, and to try to relive that event as intensely as possible. Then they were asked simply to manipulate their faces into a recognisably angry expression. These two separate tasks were repeated for other emotions – surprise, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness. Not surprisingly, heart rates and skin temperatures changed considerably when the first of the tasks were carried out, in line with the emotions being experienced. More surprisingly, the same effects were measured when the subjects simply manipulated their faces. This experiment, first carried out with western subjects, was repeated with subjects from a remote Indonesian island. The results supported the idea that the ‘as if’ principle is universal among humans.

5. Participants were placed in a brain scanner and asked to contort their faces into a fearful expression. This time there was no need to ask subjects for feedback. Instead, scientists measured directly the activity in the amygdala, known to be highly associated with fear responses.The experiment provided strong evidence that the ‘as if’ principle has a definite effect on the brain.

6. A national survey was conducted in which people rated their cheerfulness levels, from 1 (not at all cheerful) to 7 (very cheerful). 45% of the population rated themselves from 5 to 7. Then a study was conducted involving some 26,000 internet respondents. Participants were randomly assigned to various groups and asked to engage in activities designed to make them happier (e.g. encouraged to feel grateful, to relive happy memories, etc). One group was simply asked to smile for a brief period every day. When participants were asked to rate their happiness after the exercises, those who simply smiled had the most positive results. (no research data available)

7. In a study designed to determine whether walking style influenced emotional state, subjects were asked to take a 3-minute walk in 2 ways. One half were asked to take long strides, swing their arms and hold their heads high. The other half were asked to shuffle and look at their feet. The first half afterwards rated themselves significantly happier than the second half.

8. Sabine Koch has conducted research which reveals that people feel happier when they move in a fluid way, and avoid sharp, straight movements. She focused particularly on hand-shaking. She trained some experimenters to shake hands in a smooth flowing way, and others to shake hands more jerkily. Koch then asked people who’d been subjected to these different handshakes how they felt. Those subjected to the flowing handshake felt considerably happier, and closer to and more trusting of the experimenter (I like this one).

9. Clinical psychologist Emmett Velten wanted to create a happy atmosphere in the lab. He experimented by dividing volunteers into 2 groups, handing each a stack of 60 cards. For group 1, the first card, which the subject was asked to read aloud, said ‘today is neither better nor worse than any other day’. The next card read ’I do feel pretty good today though’. The subject slowly read through the whole stack, which contained increasingly positive messages. Group 2’s cards simply contained statements of fact, such as ‘The Orient Express travels between Paris and Istanbul’. After the read-through, the subjects in group 1 reported feeling in a ‘wonderful’ mood, while group 2 subjects reported no change. This striking effect led to a number of similar experiments.

10. One group of participants were asked to read aloud a short paragraph describing how their friend had thrown them a surprise birthday party. Another group read a story about how a family member had been diagnosed with an illness. The participants’ moods were genuinely affected, as if these stories were true.

11. On reading about the medical benefits of laughter, Dr Madan Kataria went to a local park with some friends. They told each other jokes and laughed loudly. It became a regular thing and soon grew into the first laughter club. When the jokes started becoming offensive, he tried a new tack, employing the as if principle. He found that laughing out loud as if you’ve heard a great joke had much the same effect (no research data)


12. Research based on laughter clubs has been carried out in the USA. Subjects were split into 3 groups. Group 1 spent a minute smiling, group 2 spent a minute laughing aloud, group 3 spent the minute engaged in an activity requiring a similar physical effort to laughing, but with no amusement factor (howling like a wolf). Group 2, the laughing group, felt happiest afterwards, followed by the smiling group. The howling group reported no effect.

13. Another popular ‘fun’ activity is dancing. Researchers split 300 students into 4 groups. Group 1 participated in an hour-long aerobic exercise class, group 2 in a body conditioning session, group 3 in hip-hop dancing, and group 4 went ice skating. Due to feel-good endorphin release, all groups felt happier afterwards, but the hip-hop group were happiest (not precisely an illustration of the ‘as if’ principle, but fuck that, let’s dance). Other research has shown that non-competitive, easily-learned dance moves have the most positive effect on mood.

14. Not surprisingly, another activity which has an overwhelmingly positive effect on mood is singing. In one experiment, choristers were asked to sing sections of Mozart’s Requiem, against controls who only listened to recordings of the piece. The singers reported far higher levels of happiness.

Okay, that’s enough. I’ve taken these research pieces entirely from the first chapter of Wiseman’s book, which focuses on happiness. Other chapters deal with romance and relationships, mental health, and the art of persuasion. Among many insights, the importance of role-playing is emphasised throughout. That’s to say. it’s not just a matter of thinking yourself in others’ shoes, but wearing those shoes that effects change. The notorious Stanford prison experiment, and the famous blue eyes, brown eyes experiment are two classic, albeit largely depressing, accounts of the power of role-play, but clearly it can be used to more positive effect. One of the most inspiring aspects of Wiseman’s book, for me, is to show that change might be easier than we think (and again that’s a two edged sword, depending on the nature of the change). The call to action is very useful, especially if, like me, you tend to be more wedded to thinking than to doing.

1.Laird, James D. (1974). “Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality of emotional experience”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29(4): 475–486. doi:10.1037/h0036125.

2. Merlin, Bella. 2007. The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. London: Nick Hern. ISBN 978-1-85459-793-9.

3. Strack, F et al. (1988) ‘Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-77

4. Levenson, R W et al (1990) ‘Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity’, Psychophysiology, 27(4), 363-84

5. Lee, T W et al (2006) ‘Imitating expressions: emotion-specific neural substrates in facial mimicry’, Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 1, 122-35

7. Snodgrass, S E et al (1986) ‘The effects of walking behaviour on mood’. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association convention.

8. Koch, S C (2011) ‘Basic body rhythms and embodied inter corporality: from individual to interpersonal movement feedback’, in W Tsacher, & C Bergomi (eds), ‘The implications of embodiment: cognition and communication’ (pp151-71), Exeter: Imprint Academic

9. Velten, E (1968) ‘A laboratory task for induction of mood states’, Behaviour research and therapy, 6, 473-82

10. Hatfield, E et al (1995)’The impact of vocal feedback on emotional experience and expression’. Journal of social behaviour and personality, 10, 293-313

12. Neuhoff, C & Schaefer, C (2002) ‘Effects of laughing, smiling and howling on mood’, Psychological Reports, 91, 1079-80

13. Kim, S & Kim, J (2007) ‘Mood after various brief exercise and sport modes: aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ice skating ad body conditioning’. Perceptual and motor skills, 104, 1265-70

14. Clift, S et al (2010) ‘Choral singing and psychological well-being’, Journal of applied arts and health, 1, 19-34; Kreuz, G et al ‘Does singing provide health benefits?’ Proceedings of the 5th triennial ESCOM conference, 216-19

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2015 at 3:09 am

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.


Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.


Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.


Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.