Tag Archives: executive control

Why Are Rocks Pointy?

Pointy rocks at Garden of Gods - mind your bum! (photo Ryan Schwartz)Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”

Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on

When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.

This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.

BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.


Filed under Research

What’s The Meaning of Life?

monty-pythons-the-meaning-of-lifeOne of the striking features of the human mind is that we seek reason and purpose for all manner of phenomena. This tendency to see purpose in the world is known as teleological reasoning…. In other words, “What’s it for?”

The trouble is that when we apply such reasoning to the natural world then we fall into the trap of regarding everything as being designed and hence we are susceptible to creationism.

That’s the theory of my friend Deb Kelemen at Boston University. She has just published a paper in “Cognition” where she reports a study where adults had to rate the following sorts of statements as true or false.

• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil

• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells

• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise

• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align

When they were put under rapid time constraints, adults were significantly more inclined to adopt the teleological stance. When they had ample time, they were still more inclined to endorse teleological interpretations, especially those related to the design of the Earth. It did not matter whether they were believers or not.

She also found with colleagues Tania Lombrozo and Deborah Zaitchik similar patterns of intuitive biases in aging populations with Alzheimer’s Disease. I also wonder whether this is related to Dan Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ where humans deliberately anthropomorphize inanimate things simply because it makes it easier for us to interact with the toaster, the car or the computer if we treat them as if they were alive. Maybe, I’ll ask him next week. (Blatant name-drop).

Anyway, these natural ways of interpreting the world suggests that such ways of thinking never really go away but rather, are suppressed. Arguably, such a bias in our reasoning makes creationism that more easy to accept rather than natural selection which is so counter-intuitive to most people.

Provocatively, my colleague Paul Blooms wonders, “It might turn out that if you put Richard Dawkins or Einstein or whomever [to the test], no matter how expert or educated they are, they might still make these mistakes.”

Now that’s a study I would like to see.

Ok… clearly a more academic post coz I have some meetings coming up where I have to be clever but I will get back to describing the underbelly of mankind shortly.


Filed under Research

Why Did I…..?

Why did I make the next 2 months a nightmare for myself? Take on so much work and commitments and just about everything. This is task overload. My executive functions controlled by brain structures towards the front of my head are going to be overwhelmed over this period and I will have severe difficulty with my reasoning and behavior. This video of performance artist Fuyuki Yamakawa pretty much sums up how I feel at the moment.

FYI he has a bone conduction mike and an electric artificial larynx  – thanx Pink Tentacle


Filed under General Thoughts

The Religious Ecstasy of Pain

imagesThe idea of looking at images of the Virgin Mary while administering electric shocks to the devout just seems too much like some form of modern flagellation or at least Orwellian conditioning experiment. I did not think that sort of experiment got ethical approval these days. I have enough trouble with my own board just on the wording of some stupid consent form that most people don’t understand anyway.  

Yet Oxbridge researchers have reported a study showing that practicing Catholics can tolerate more pain induced by electric shock when they look at portraits of Jesus’s mum compared to a control picture. Non-religious individuals did not show any modulated pain tolerance when looking at the two images. 

religious-imagesJust in case you didn’t know, the one of the left is the Virgin Mary.

Brain imaging also revealed increased activation of the prefrontal regions of the brain which controls and suppresses emotional responses, leading to the very outrageous claim in the report that pain should not be viewed so negatively but has positive association for Catholics. Well there’s a surprise. Talk about a loaded research agenda.

Pass me the spikey belt. I feel the need to give myself a damn good thrashing.


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Sometimes I Feel Like a Headless Chicken

mike-1Last week, I nearly died. I stopped work at my desk computer and looked around for my laptop to begin the long journey home that is my commute. My laptop was not on the chair where I habitually leave it as part of my daily routine. It was gone….OMG!!!… Six months of work not backed up! Books, papers, projects. I panicked and started running around but it was late at night and there was no one to ask. I was convinced I had been burgled. Lots of people from cleaners to workmen have master keys and I have often arrived at my office to find somebody fixing a light, etc. Three years ago, I lost my lab computers from a burglary that put my research program back a year. I thought it had happened again.

I ran around like a headless chicken trying to search every possible location. Then I called home. Have you checked the car? It was there. I had not even taken it out. 

It had been a hard week. Lots of meetings, a new graduate student, projects to discuss and a presentation to the one of my funding agencies. This is what happens when you try to do too much. When you overload the executive functions of your brain, things start to fall apart.

Not so for Mike, the famous headless chicken who lived without a brain for 2 years. There again, birds can get by with just a brain stem. Sometimes I wonder if that is not such a bad thing.

Now that I have recovered my precious laptop, I have spoken to my IT guy who will provide me with an external drive that automatically backs up everytime I come into the office. His name is Mike.

Have you got any good “headless chicken” moments?


Filed under General Thoughts

Don’t Mention the War!

Sometimes trying to avoid saying the wrong thing makes us more awkward. I referred to this in a previous post when I described the role of the front part of your brain in inhibiting intrusive thoughts and behaviors. Following a bang on the head, our hapless hero Basil Fawlty was unable to stop mentioning the war to his German guests. A new study by Evan Apfelbaum and Samuel Sommers just published in Psychological Science (one of the top psychology journals) has shown that this piece of comedy is true. There is a paradoxical effect of depleting mental control over social awkwardness.  The summary of the paper is,

“Executive control is usually a good thing when it comes to regulating behavior. But in certain circumstances, such as interracial interactions, many people’s regulatory strategies (such as avoiding mentioning race in racially mixed company) may be misguided and actually hinder rather than help the interaction. In a discussion of diversity issues with an other-race partner, participants whose regulatory abilities were depleted by a previous task were less inhibited and less prejudiced, and enjoyed the interaction more, than those in a control group.”

In other words, we become awkward the more we try to stop saying anything that might be offensive. So maybe it is better to say what is on your mind…… I think not.

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Filed under Research

Losing Control Enhances Your SuperSense

It is really difficult these days to get psychology studies published in journals such as “Nature” and “Science.” They tend to be dominated by more material sciences unless of course, you can show a picture of a brain operating whilst someone is thinking. (I am always amazed that people find such images so convincing – I mean we all know thinking takes place in the brain and not your big toe!). Anyway, it is always worth plugging papers in the field of psychology when they appear in such prestigious journals.

This month I was particularly delighted to see a paper in “Science” by  Whitson & Galinsky who demonstrated manipulation of the SuperSense by getting people to remember times when they lacked control.

Very simply, participants had to recall events in their lives when they felt a loss of control. After recalling such an episode, adults were tested on all manner of stimuli where there were ambiguous events (see below).


Do you see a picture in any of these?????

Whitson & Galinsky found adults who experienced a loss of control see more illusory patterns, develop more superstitions, perceive more conspiracies and form illusory correlations in the stock market. Their SuperSense had been stimulated! 

The authors argue that loss of control leads us to become hypersensitive to possible patterns. That’s one of the reasons that stress leads to an increase in supernatural thinking. In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization. No wonder those stock market traders are clutching their rabbit’s feet.


Filed under Research

Talking GaGa

I just got back from a trip to Paris, visiting the various sites in search of inspiration. There is so much good material in a city steeped in history, culture, religion and gargoyles.

It was in Notre Dame Cathedral where I was intrigued by a drop-in confessional in practice. Behind the glass wall, was some unknown believer opening their heart to the resident priest. I could not resist an illicit photograph. Apparently they were talking to Father GaGa! Ok a cheap jibe at a Catholic ritual but you must admit, it is pretty funny.

Confession is supposedly good for the soul. But if you don’t have a soul then it is good for the mind. Guilt can be a corrosive mental state and so I expect that much of the benefit of confession must be the relief of “getting it off one’s chest.”

 This is because intrusive thoughts can be surprisingly difficult to avoid and in attempting to do so can use up so much mental effort and resources. The more one tries to ignore or forget a thought the harder it becomes. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner describes this in his white bear studies. In these experiments participants were asked to ignore the image of a great white bear. The trouble is that once you have been told not to think about something, there is a paradoxical increase in the strength of the idea such that it soon becomes an overwhelming obsessive thought. These automatic thoughts are the sorts of ideas that seem to have a life of their own.

If you are immature, brain-damaged or have an anxious personality then you are likely to suffer from intrusive thoughts. The character of Basil Fawlty was arguably deficient on all three counts and hence his hilarious “don’t mention the war” sketch. If you have not seen this, then prepare to wet your pants as you watch this (and major apologies to all my German friends).

But back to guilt and confession. A cynic might argue that religion first makes us suffer from guilt and then provides the antidote through ritual. Where do the rest of us non-believers confess or do we need to?


Filed under Research