Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category
Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:
Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.
Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?
Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.
Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?
Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.
Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.
Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.
Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?
Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.
Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.
Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.
Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.
Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.
Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?
Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.
Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.
Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.
Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.
Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?
Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…
Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.
Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.
Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….
Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?
Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…
Canto: So I’ve just read a book that details experiments highlighting the effects of, for example, colour, odour, physical comfort and ’embodied metaphors’ on mood, decision-making and creative thinking…
Jacinta: Embodied metaphors?
Canto: I’ll explain later, or not. What I want to do here is lay the groundwork for a future PD talk on how these findings can improve our educational settings and teaching.
Jacinta: So you’re saying our environment can be manipulated, perhaps, to bring out better results in students?
Canto: Yes, think about it. Will sitting in a soft chair help you to think more creatively or efficiently than sitting in a hard chair? Will standing or walking around improve your thinking? Don’t forget Harry Stottle and the Peripatetics. And can these effects be measured? What about the temperature of the room? The view from the window? Inside or outside?
Jacinta: Okay, so can you give me some solid research data on anything that can improve, say, test scores?
Canto: For a start, don’t ask females to indicate that they’re female on the test booklet when they’re sitting a mathematics test. Their results will be impaired. The very act of writing that they’re female apparently brings to mind the idea that girls can’t do maths. The same has been found with African-Americans and maths. This phenomenon is well known in the literature, and has been called stereotype threat.
Jacinta: Okay, but is this really an example of what you were talking about? I thought it was all about the effect of colour, temperature, lighting etc?
Canto: I’m talking about embodied cognition, or physical intelligence, and yes that research is an example – by getting someone to write their gender before sitting a test, it makes them more aware of their gender; their embodiment is brought to mind. But I’m going to give some quite striking examples of the influence of the colour red on test results. A team of American and German researchers conducted a number of experiments, the first involving 71 American undergrads. Each subject was tested individually. They were told they’d be given an anagram test, in which they had to unscramble sets of letters into words. These were of medium difficulty. After a practice run, the students were randomly divided into three groups. All students were given the same anagram tests on paper, with one difference – each participant was given a number, but with one group, the number was coloured red, with another the colour was green, with the third the colour was black. The number on the top of the paper was called to the subjects’ attention at the beginning of the test, with the excuse that this was necessary for processing. The difference in the test results was striking – those who saw a red number at the top of each page performed significantly worse than the green and black groups.
Jacinta: They saw red, and fell apart? But why would they do that? Has this study been replicated? Maybe the group with the red numbers were just bad at anagrams?
Canto: Good questions, and of course it’s the sort of study that could easily be replicated, but the results are in line with similar studies. Unfortunately I could only read a brief abstract of the original study as the detail is behind a paywall, but all these studies have been written about by Thalma Lobel in her book Sensation: the new science of physical intelligence, and, according to her, this particular study took into consideration the abilities of the groups and made sure that this wasn’t the cause of the difference. Also, the same researchers did a follow-up test in Germany, with altered experimental conditions. Instead of using anagrams they used analogy tests, such as:
legs relate to walk like:
1 tongue to mouth
2. eyes to blink
3. comb to hair
4. nose to face
Jacinta: Right, so the correct answer is 2, though it’s not the best analogy.
Canto: Well, eyes to see might be too easy. Anyway, 46 subjects were given 5 minutes to come up with 20 correct analogies. The analogies were presented on paper, each with a cover page. The subjects were divided into 3 groups and the only difference between the groups was the colour of the cover page. The first group had red, the second green, the third, white. This time their exposure to the colours was shorter – only seconds before they were asked to turn the page, and they weren’t exposed to the colour during the test itself, after they’d turned the page. Still the results were much the same as in the first experiment – exposure to the red cover page resulted in poorer scores.
Jacinta: Sooo, red’s a colour to be avoided when doing tests. What about the other colours? Were any of them good for improving test scores?
Canto: No, not in these experiments. And again, Lobel assures us that the study controlled for the variable of differential ability. The researchers conducted other studies on a range of participants – using verbal and non-verbal (e.g. mathematical) tests, and the results were consistent – exposing subjects to the colour red, and making them conscious of that colour, resulted in poorer scores.
Jacinta: And they have no explanation as to why? Presumably it’s some sort of connotative value for red. Red is danger, red is embarrassment…
Canto: Nature red in tooth and claw – but red is also the heart, the rose, the Valentine. Red has all sorts of contradictory connotations.
Jacinta: So isn’t it the way that red is seen in our culture? What about controlling for cultural connotations, however contradictory?
Canto: You mean trying it out in Outer Mongolia, or a remote African village? It’s a good point, but you know red is the colour of blood..
Jacinta: And of my life-producing vagina.
Canto: Yeah but look at the wariness with which women are treated for having one of those. Anyway I’m not sure they’ve done the study in those places, but they’ve varied the settings – labs, classrooms, outdoors – and the age-groups and the test-types, and the results haven’t varied significantly. And they did other tests to measure motivation rather than performance.
Jacinta: So you mean how seeing red influenced people’s motivation? Presumably negatively.
Canto: Yes. The same research team tried out an experiment on 67 students, based on the assumption that, if you’re an anxious or under-confident employee, you’ll knock on the boss’s door more quietly, and with fewer knocks, than if you’re a confident employee. That’s assuming you find the door closed, and you don’t actually know why you’ve been asked to see the boss. Reasonable assumptions?
Canto: So here’s the set-up. The 67 students were told they would be taking one of two tests: analogies or vocal. The students were shown a sample question from each of the tests, to convince them of the process, though it was all subterfuge basically. They were given white binders, and asked to read the name of the test on the first page. They found the word analogies printed in black ink on a coloured rectangle. The colour was either red or green. Next they were asked to walk down the corridor to a lab to take the test. The lab door was closed, but it had a sign saying ‘please knock’. It was found that those who saw the test title on a red background consistently knocked less often and less insistently.
Jacinta: So they were de-motivated and made more anxious simply by this sight of red. Again, why?
Canto: Learned associations, presumably. Red with danger, with anger, with disapproval.
Jacinta: But – just seeing it on a binder?
Canto: That’s what the evidence says.
Jacinta: Okay – I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced, but all this is a bit negative. Granted we could avoid exposing students to red just in case it inhibits learning, but what about studies that show what might be done to improve learning? That’s what we should be aiming for, surely?
Canto: Okay, so now we’ve eliminated the negative, I promise to accentuate the positive in the next post.
Jacinta: Good, we really need to latch onto the affirmative, without messing with Ms In-between…
Jacinta: Let’s talk about power. Imbecilic and nasty macho rulers have disgraced our planet for centuries, and their female counterparts have been few and far between. Let’s take a look at some current fruitcakes.
Canto: I wouldn’t say imbecilic – people who get to these positions always have smarts, but often not the kind of smarts that we hopeful underlings value. Okay, let’s go to Poland. Andrzej Duda is Poland’s President, though not its King. That title belongs to another dude, who’s been dead for near on 2000 years (and some say he never existed), and that dude’s mum is Queen. Both in perpetuity, presumably. It’s not known exactly what powers have been conferred on this duo, but a recent ceremony installing the new but very old King, and attended by Duda, gives an indication. During the ceremony, this statement was made:
Rule us, Christ! Reign in our homeland and reign in every nation – for the greater glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the salvation of mankind.
I’m not sure how Poland’s neighbours have responded to this clear threat to their sovereignty, but surely the international community should be on high alert about Poland’s intention to conquer the world via this apparently indestructible dictator (it seems their Queen owes her status solely to being the King’s mum). We shouldn’t let the ambitions of ISIS entirely dominate our thoughts at this time. Duda is, needless to say, a devotee of the most patriarchal organisation in the western world, an organisation that has been intent on world domination since its formation.
Jacinta: And many women in the country are going bunta about the Catholic-diseased government’s plan to ban abortion outright and to impose heavy penalties on non-compliance. Though I should point out that the current PM of the ruling ‘Law and Justice’ Party (PiS) is female, and that’s where the real power lies. The President’s position is largely ceremonial.
Canto: Yeah, like the female cheerleaders for cloth bags in Islamic countries.
Jacinta: Yeah, chuck out the muslin, Muslims. Are they made of muslin? That’d be kind of poetic injustice, wouldn’t it.
Canto: Okay, let’s move south south-east now. Recep Erdogan is the current boss of Turkey, and hopes to be so until 2029. He’s a real macho, a former Islamist who saw the error of his ways after a spell in jail in 1998. Professing to be a moderate conservative, he created the Justice and Development Party (ADP) and led it to victory in a number of elections. So, after terms as Prime Minister he became President in 2014 and has since been expanding the power of that position, previously a ceremonial one.
Jacinta: Watch for any party with ‘justice’ and law’ in its title. They tend to be hard-liners. It’s unlikely that Turkey’s disgusting record of violence against women will improve under this bullish nationalist, who of course opposes abortion in all but the most extreme circs. Honour killing, sex slavery and domestic violence are massive problems in this country, where women are under-educated, under-employed, under-paid and under-valued. Turkey is, or was, keen to join the EU, but it’s opposition to admitting the truth about their Armenian genocide is just one of many obstacles. The position of women in Turkey is another. The recent failure to remove Erdogan seems to have hardened his sense of destiny, so he’ll be cracking down on all dissent and boosting his power in a typically macho way.
Canto: So now let’s head north again and vastly east to the supersized nation of Russia, spearheaded by Vlad the Imperator – not to be confused with the historical Vlad the Impaler, as there are some minor differences in their manner of disposing of their enemies.
Jacinta: Yeah, Vlad the Imp is another macho authoritarian leader unwilling to brook criticism or even scrutiny. Reporters without Borders has ranked the country 148th in terms of press freedom, and the deaths and silencings of independent journalists over the past twenty-odd years have underlined the brutal corruption within the Imp’s regime.
Canto: Sounds very Czarish. But at least women aren’t shat on quite so much there – unless they happen to be journalists.
Jacinta: Yes women are highly educated and highly integrated into the workforce, and two income families are the norm, but clearly the Imp’s a social conservative….
Canto: Right, so worse than your common or garden murderer then?
Jacinta: Well, as usual with these macho types, he’s dizzy with homophobia. He’s bosom buddies with a gang of thugs called the Night Wolves, whose principal raison d’etre is to smash the shit out of homosexuals.
Canto: Strange how some people make use of the only life they have on this planet.
Jacinta: So we seem to be in the grip of a wave of macho thuggery, and all we can do, sadly, is patiently chip away at it, through mockery, smart undermining, argument, evidence, and a kind of faith in a better world. Meanwhile, on with the horrowshow.
Canto: So we head south to China. Of course it has a sorry history of foot-binding and other forms of mistreatment, though probably no worse than elsewhere in the partiarchal past. China is now being transformed more rapidly than possibly any other country in history, and the world is waiting for its profoundly anti-communist government to rip apart at the seams, though there’s little sign of it as yet. The current General Secretary of China is Xi Jinping, a conservative hard-liner who relishes the abuse of human rights. Under him are the members of the standing committee of the Politburo, all men of course. While we know virtually nothing about these characters, we have fairly reliable information that the Chinese dictators slaughter more people annually than are killed by government decree in the whole of the rest of the world put together. In fact, I find China’s very lengthy record of human rights abuses too unbearable to read, and the Tiananmen Square massacre is still fresh and raw in my mind.
Jacinta: Okay so let’s reduce it to statistics – where does Reporters without Borders place China in terms of press freedom? And what about the treatment of homosexuals – always a good sign of macho infantilism?
Canto: China’s ranked at number 176 in terms of press freedom, out of 180 countries listed. Just above Syria, North Korea and other such havens. On the other hand, attitudes to homosexuality aren’t particularly hostile, though legal changes have a time lag on the west. Clearly the dictators don’t see it as a major threat – they don’t seem as murderously imbecilic as Vlad the Imp on the subject. So where next?
Jacinta: Well for our final stop let’s head further south to the Phillipines, whose molto-macho leader seems to love the headlines…
Canto: Actually, when I looked up macho Filipino pollies, the list of sites all dealt with one Ferdinand Marcos.
Jacinta: Interesting point – the current Prez of the Phillipines, a macho scumbag by the name of Rodrigo Duterte, is naturally a great supporter of scumbags of the past, and wanted to honour the former dictator – the second most corrupt polly of all time, just behind Scumbag Suharto, according to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International – with a state funeral, but due to receiving plenty of blowback in the country he opted to return the dead scumbag corpse in secret. Now, many argue that Duterte is a reformer who doesn’t belong to the any of the super-rich families who basically own the Phillipines, but his murderous war on drugs shows he’s no friend of the poor either. He has obviously given sweeping powers to the police – always a focus of macho brutality everywhere, with the odd honourable exception – with the inevitable corrupting result. Extra-judicial killings are now a daily occurrence in Filipino cities, and who knows what the death toll will end up being. He’s also flirting with martial law, but that’ll have to wait until his power is consolidated. I’ve no doubt, though, that that’s what he wants for his country.
Canto: He’ll sell his soul for total control?
Jacinta: It’s the ultimate macho fantasy, lived out by Attila, Genghis Khan, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Leopold II, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Pavelic, Ho Chi Minh, Tito, Mao Zedong, Brezhnev, Kim Il Sung, Pinochet, Suharto, Amin, Pol Pot, Mobuto, Hussein, just to name a few.
Canto: Yeah, but let’s face it, women would be just as bad if they were allowed to live out their macho fantasies…
A young person I know is studying psychology probably for the first time and she informed me of the stages of early childhood psychological development she has been told about – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. I’d certainly heard of the first two of these, but not too much of the others. A quick squiz at the lists of Dr Google led me to Freudian psychosexual theory, which naturally raised my scepical antennae. And yet, despite my limited parental experience I’ve noted that babies do like to put things in their mouths a lot (the oral stage is supposed to extend from birth to 1 -2 years), sometimes to their great detriment. So, personality-wise, is the oral stage a real thing, and does it really give way to the anal stage, etc? I’m using the oral stage here to stand for all the stages in the theory/hypothesis.
These stages were posited by Freud as central to his hypothesis of psychosexual development – though how the phallic stage is experienced by girls is an obvious question. His view was that our childhood development was a matter of fixation, at various periods, on ‘erogenous zones’. After the oral stage, children supposedly switch to an anal stage, which lasts to 3 years of age – presumably on average. These switches might be delayed, or brought on earlier, in individual cases, and sometimes an individual might get stuck at a particular stage, denoting psychosexual problems.
So how real are these stages? Are some more real than others? What is the experimental evidence for them, do they exist in other primates, and if they exist, then why? What purpose do they serve?
It seems that Freud, and perhaps also his followers, have built up a whole system around these stages and how individuals are more or less influenced by any one or a combination in the development of their adult personalities, and since the degree of influence of these different stages and the way they’ve combined in each individual is pretty well impossible to recover, the theory looks to be unfalsifiable. There also appears to be the problem that psychologists can usually only track back from the adult’s personality to speculate about early childhood influences, which looks like creating a circular argument. For example, if an individual presents as an overly trusting, dependent personality, this may be cited as evidence of fixation at the oral stage of development, because children fixated at this stage are believed to develop these personalites in later life. The only way out of this impasse it seems to me is to define this oral stage (or any other stage) more carefully, so that we can accurately identify children who have experienced a prolonged or fixated oral stage, and then return to them to observe how their personalites have developed.
Of course there are other problems with the theory. There needs to be a clearer explanation, it seems to me, of how these apparently erogenously-related stages are marked into personality traits in later life. The relationship between an obsession with putting things in your mouth, or sucking, licking or otherwise craving and enjoying oral sensations, and a dependent, trusting personality, is by no means obvious. In fact, some might go as far as to say that, prima facie, it makes about as much sense as an astrologically-based account of personality.
Perhaps if we look at the oral stage, or claims about it, more closely, we’ll find something of an explanation. In this description, we learn that the libido, or life force, gets fixated in the oral stage in more than one way, leading to an ‘oral receptive personality’ and an ‘oral aggressive personality’. The first type, which is a consequence of a delayed or overly fixated oral stage, is trusting and dependent, the second is dominating and aggressive, due largely to a curtailed oral stage, apparently. Those who experienced a longer oral stage in childhood are supposedly more likely to be smokers and nail-biters as adults, though I’m not sure how this relates to being a dependent or trusting personality.
In any case this hardly takes us further in terms of evidence, and it’s worth noting that the site in which this is mooted is described as ‘integrated sociopsychology’. Dr Steven Novella, in the most recent episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, warned about the use of such terms as ‘integrative’, ‘functional’ and ‘holistic’ used before ‘medicine’ as a red flag indicating a probable bogus approach. I suspect the same goes for psychology. Obviously the website’s author is a Freudian, and he makes this statement as to evidence:
What is undoubtedly disturbing to the ‘Freud-bashers’ is how much evidence has accumulated over the years to say that, in broad terms at least, if not always in detail, Freud’s observations pretty much stand up so many years later.
However, other psychology sites I’ve looked at, which don’t appear to me to be particularly Freud-bashing, have pointed to the lack of evidence as the principal problem for Freud’s stages. Of course the major problem is how to test for the ‘personality effect’ of these stages. Again I think of astrology – someone dedicated to astrological causation can always account for personality ‘deviations’ in terms of cusps and conjunctions and ascendants and the like, and this would surely also be the case for the confounding influences of our various cavities and tackle, so to speak.
Some 20 years ago a paper by Fisher & Greenberg (1996) suggested that Freud’s stages and other aspects of his early childhood writings should be scientifically examined as separate hypotheses, in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately I can find little evidence that evidence has been found for the oral stage as a marker for later personality development – or even looked for. This is probably because most scientists in the field – experimental psychologists – have little interest in these Freudian hypotheses, and little funding would be available for testing them. They would surely have to be longitudinal studies, with a host of potentially confounding factors accounted for, and the end results would hardly be likely to convince other early childhood specialists.
I’ve said the theory looks to be unfalsifiable, but I’m not quite prepared to say outright that it is. It seems to me that the oral stage, with its obvious association with breast-feeding, and the obvious association between prolonged breast-feeding and dependence, at least in popular culture, is the one most amenable to testing. The later Oedipus/Elektra complexes, associated I think with the phallic stage, seem rather too convoluted and caveat-ridden to be seriously testable. I must admit to a residual fondness for some of Freud’s theories of development though, however unscientific they might be. Though I was never interested in the strict form of the Oedipus complex, because my father was by far the weaker of my parents, I felt it offered some insight into relations with the dominant parent – struggle, rivalry, attempts to overthrow. I also agreed with his general view that early childhood is absolutely crucial to our subsequent psychological development, and I found his ego, id and superego hypotheses enlightening and fascinating. Polymorphous perversity, sublimation and the pervasive influence of libido also tickled my fancy a lot.
I think it’s fair to say that Freud has had a greater influence on popular culture than on science, but it has been a profound influence, and overall a positive one. The term ‘observations’, rather than theories, seems better to describe his contributions. In writing about the libido and the pleasure principle, inter alia, he accepted our instinctive animal nature, and gave us ideas about how to both harness it and overcome it. Notions like the id and the superego seemed to give us fresh ways to think about desire, discipline and control. His ideas and concepts tapped into stuff that was very personal to us in our individual struggles, and his universalising tendencies helped us, I think, to look sympathetically at the struggles of others. Libido itself was a banner-word that helped release us from the straight-jacket of earlier sexual thinking – or avoidance thereof.
It’s also probably unfair to expect from Freud’s pioneering work anything like the scientific riguor we expect and really need from psychology today. Certainly he was far too firm about the rightness of his most speculative work – I read The Interpretation of Dreams as an ideas-hungry teenager and was impressed with its first-half demolition of previous dream theories, but the second-half presentation of his own theory struck me even then as ludicrously weak, though it had the definitely positive effect of putting me off dream-interpreters for life (a dream that can be interpreted is a dream not worth having, and that’s their greatest gift to us). It’s more what he drew attention to that counts. His concept of the unconscious doesn’t really cut it today, but he made us start thinking of unconscious motivations in general, and much else besides. I’ve never been to an analyst, but I think one benefit of the psychoanalytic movement is to help us realise that there’s no normality and that we all carry baggage of guilt, anger, fear and frustration. For all its failings, his was a humanising enterprise.
We had to line up to get our passports checked, walking through a pointless zigzag of blue cordons and then we had to wait to be called by one of 3 or 4 inspectors. They all seemed admirably forensic in their analysis, which meant the queue moved very slowly, giving me ample time to scrutinise their scrutiny. I’m sure my limited knowlege of Hungary as a struggling ex-communist nation was infecting my impressions. In the eighties I had a near-fetish for so-called eastern bloc literature; Konwicki, Brandys, Kundera, Skvorecky, Havel, mostly Czech and Polish writers mapping the fortunes of non-conformity under ultra-conformist regimes. But that was 30 years back in my eternal-present existence. I was finally called to a checking station by a hunched, pinched elderly woman, about whom it was easy to imagine all sorts of inhumanity, either suffered or perpetrated. She looked as if she really hated me – or her job, or foreigners, or her country, or herself. In any case she didn’t spend much time on my fresh, near-virginal passport, and handed it back with a look of profound contempt. Or maybe it was just a 50-year rictus.
So with dampened spirits we were released into a small sign-holding crowd; our assignment was to seek out the ‘Travel Marvel’ sign. Over time I discovered that the ‘travel’ tag was part of an attempt by our hosting company – half-hearted at best (which was a good thing) – to convince us that we were travellers in the tradition of Marco Polo (the notorious 13th century tourist) rather than mere tourists.
Our man with the sign was a tall balding young Hungarian who shepherded four of us into a waiting kombi van while extolling half-heartedly (or again, so it seemed) the virtues of his city. Our two fellow-travellers were also Australian, leading me to at least two discomforting prophecies; all the cruisers would be coming on two by two, and they’d all be Australian. And also, they’d all be kipping the night at our Budapest hotel. Only the third turned out a failure.
It was a longish ride into town. The back seats had no seat belts, presumably not de rigueur in Hungary. We passed through a large resi-area, its colourful houses looking decidedly run-down, their steep-sloped roofs dark with what I assumed was mould. And lots of abandoned factories, railyards and carparks jungled with vegetation. It was all very green. Closer to the centre, the buildings got more solid and Euro-impressive, an architectural style I’ve hit upon, which is basically defined as ‘not much in existence in Oz’, yet still they looked a bit neglected. I had an odd sense of the guilts about my thoughts, that I was judging the place way too harshly. The cold drizzly weather was surely affecting my judgment. There’s getting to be a real accumulation of solid evidence that such externalities as temperature affect mood and hence judgment far more than we’d like to admit.
There was nothing too dilapidated about the Mercure-Korona though. We were greeted by a charming Hungarian (presumably) damosel and taken to our ‘privileged’ bedroom suite. I don’t know why we were treated as Privileged Guests at the hotel – my TC tried to explain but I didn’t get it – but it meant not only a room with the Biggest Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (didn’t take a pic as I’d not yet switched to the camera-clicking mode which is the sine qua non of the tourist), but elite breakfast in the elite dining room, set in a sort of glass bridge overlooking a mall. Budapest was looking up.
I’ve been incommunicado for the last longest 24 hours of my life due to marathon (but OK common as muck for some) double hemispheral flights – north-south, east-west – and traveller net-availability issues, wholly predictable but probably eminently solvable if I had that ideal 13-y-o techwiz TC at my side, and I don’t mean to thus disparage my current uncommonly wise TC. But more of that enervation in due course, let me pick up the soi-disant story from my arrival at good old Adelaide airport.
Adelaide airport has been a rare destination and even rarer point of departure for me over the years. I’ve already described my first adult plane trip here, but didn’t focus much on the airport itself, and why would I as I’m fast learning that airports are generically unmemorable. No major disquisition on airport culture here, as if I could, just some vagrant impressions.
Just a couple of weeks ago my college colleagues were jokingly comparing Adelaide to the various city airports that they, as bona fide middle-class westerners of varied ethnic provenance, have processed through. They agreed that unlike other international airports, good old Adelaide airport is never busy, and they mean never busy busy. This is supposedly a stain on dear old Adelaide, this pretty little ornamental place that’s never choked with tourists or business conventioneers. I regularly feel stabbed to wounded pride for its putative dreariness, especially come festival time when over the past no less than 40 years now I’ve overheard chitchat among Big City visitors in which bright young things are informally instructed in sneering at small-city try-hardism by their smartarse seniors. Yet, take this, I just read somewhere that Adelaide is among the five most liveable cities in the world. Probably fifth. And that’s funny, I’ve no idea who makes these random pseudo-quantative studies but whenever I hear that Adelaide is one of the 10 or 50 or whatever best cities for xx (which I often hear) I always assume that it comes in 9th or 10th or 47th or 49th or something and I don’t know whether that’s just me following the fashion of putting Dear Old Adelaide down or me being quite rational, sort of. E.g., if DOA came 3rd on a list of 10 or 50 or 100 best x’s, you wouldn’t crow about it by saying ‘up yours, we’re in the top 100 cities for women over 75 sporting dreadlocks’, say. We’d surely boast ‘hey bro, toke on that, we’re in the top 5′, or ‘we is numero trio!’ Dang right. I would say that’s a top x rule in psychological statistics, if there is such a field, and dang right there is. If your city is in the upper half of a ‘top x statistical measure’, say 23rd out of 50, you must, for the purposes of most effective preening, divide the denominator [in this case 50] by the largest whole number [in this case 2] which provides a new denominator [in this case 25] that remains larger than the numerator [in ths case 23]. Only we’re not, sensu strictissimo, talking numerators and denominatora here… Am I being too pedantic?
Okay so I’ve run out of words and I’ve not even started on Adelaide airport yet (which would only take a sentence or two anyway). So at least I’ve arrived and I’m posting this from the lobby of the Mercure-Konica hotel, Budapest.
Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…
Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.
Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.
Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.
Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.
Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.
Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.
Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.
Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.
Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.
Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.
Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:
Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.
Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.
Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.
Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:
Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.
Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.
Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?
Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.
Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:
Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.
Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.
Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?
Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.
Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:
Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.
Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.
Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.
Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?
Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:
In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”
And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.
Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.
Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…
Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?
Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:
In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.
So these true interests of mankind…
Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.
Canto: Well, precisely…
Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…
Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.
Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?
Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.
Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?
Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.
Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?
Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?
Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.
Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.
Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?
Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?
Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.