Monday 27 October 2008


Dear readers, Alphapsy has been dead for over two years, and now its authors are moving to a new website, the International Cognition and Culture Institute, HERE.

Monday 4 December 2006

Encephalon n°12: demandez le menu!

For its twelfth edition, Encephalon is moving to France, chez AlphaPsy; relax, take a seat - this is Olivier, the garçon, speaking - I will give you a tour of the menu our blogging chefs prepared. Yes, that's the Tour Eiffel over there; yes, monsieur, it may look like a reversed pyramidal neuron, from a certain angle. Bon Appétit!


Saturday 2 December 2006

Encephalon Blog Carnival: last call for submissions!

Dear Brains,

The next issue of Encephalon, the cognitive science blogs carnival, will be hosted here on Monday! Don't forget to submit, and thanks to those who already did. I am already having a very good time reading your contributions. See you monday!


Friday 1 December 2006

The Ghost of the Machines

Some historians of technology have surmised that in some areas (like Far East and the West), industrial advance had much deeper roots than its mere hundred years of existence would suggest. This view is enjoying rare and well-deserved attention this week, as Nature discloses a CT Scan reconstitution of the famous Antikythera mechanism, a computerized calendar from roman times. This same day, I discover an article from NBER, published in last october, that states that significant differences in nowadays levels of development, for example that between Europe and Africa, are predicted by their technological level 2.5 millenia ago!

"In addition to being significant, the effect of technology history on current development is large. An increase in the overall technological level from 0 to 1 in 1000 B.C. or in 0 A.D. is associated with an increase in income per capita in 2002 by a factor of 4. A similar increase in the overall adoption level in 1500 A.D. is associated with an increase in per capita income in 2002 by a factor of 18. This is half of the current difference in income per capita between the top and bottom 5 percent of the countries in the world."

I am so enthusiastic about this study that I try to forget about my sheer incompetence in economy and statistics, and say Hurrah, that's exciting!.

Is our modern world that modern? Left: the Faros Beacon of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; right: the Empire State Building.


Wednesday 29 November 2006

In the last volume of Psychological Science

The last volume of Psychological Science has more than its fair share of interesting / funny papers. Here is a little selection.

Dali's "Persistence of Nonconscious Priming".


Monday 20 November 2006

Cooperative Eyes

The Journal of Human Evolution prepares an issue on the evolution of human eyes; two articles are already downloadable on line; one of them by Michael Tomasello and his team. It defends a "cooperative eyes" hypothesis, according to which human eyes evolved to be white around the pupil, because it made our conspecifics' gaze more conspicuous, and hence allowed for increased cooperation in tasks involving joint attention. The function of human eyes would not only be seeing, but also sharing visual information. I offer a dissenting view on this remarkable experiment.

Pictures from Live Science show chimpanzee and human eyes.


Friday 17 November 2006

Is the 'g' factor nothing more than a statistical construct?

Scores on a wide range of intelligence tests tend to correlate positively. From a statistical or psychometric point of view this creates a variable, g that merely indicates the strength of this correlation. If there were no correlation at all, there would be no g, but since the correlations tend to be high, people get excited and many of them take the next step of positing an underlying common cause (also called g). For the psychologists who defend this notion, there is a common variable (modulating, say, the way your neurons fire) that influences on the measures of all of these intelligence tests, thus creating the observed correlation. However researchers from the University of Amsterdam are challenging the common wisdom and suggest an explanation for the correlation that doesn't need a common cause.

This picture has no other purpose than to attract the reader towards a boring post on models of intelligence. Note that the band is called the G factor though, that gives me sort of an excuse.


Thursday 16 November 2006

Adaptation in mind launched tuesday an on-line colloquium about “Representation and Adaptation”. The interdisciplines conferences are among the most exciting intellectual events on the Internet; this one features, among others, Daniel Dennett and Peter Godfrey-Smith, along with scholars from philosophy, AI, and theoretical biology. It tackles the difficult question of how natural selection could give birth to entities as refined as mental representations, while it kept remaining its usual stupid self (full disclosure: Hugo and I are among the discussants, so don't take our word for it, go see the site).

NB: note à ceux qui lisent AlphaPsy en traduction Google : interdisciplines est aussi un site en langue française.


Monday 13 November 2006

Un Air de Famille (Family Resemblances)

Are kinship coefficients written on your face? Two recent studies, one in PNAS, (see also here), the other in the Journal of Vision, suggest that they may be, or at least that we can read them fairly well. But, as I want to argue, these studies ignore the effects of empathy, and generally of living together, on facial similarity.

Picture: Details of The Marsham Children by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin; from the Journal of Vision).


Friday 10 November 2006

How to stop academics from drinking coffee

The figure of the academic addicted to coffee is a well known one. To some extent they are right: caffeine (in the right dosage - approximately a double espresso) does increase awareness and helps to concentrate. However, in the wrong dosage, you might end up doing things as this poor spider that is a little high strung (ahah) on caffeine:

(Picture found on the wikipedia entry on caffeine)

Your coffee drinking friends might tell you that they are no spider, and that coffee only has good sides. Well, if they are academics, you can try this line: people under caffeine are more easily swayed by arguments.


Thursday 9 November 2006

Questioning Animal Conventions in the Lab

While social psychologists are lamenting Homo Sapiens' conformist biases (see Nicolas' post), primatologists are on a quest to prove that chimps can be as stupidly sheepish as we are - what we despise in humans we praise in chimps as a token of "imitation", which, among primatologists, is roughly synonymous with culture, hence with everything fine and elegant. I would like to point out several inconsistencies in the concept of socially-learned convention, as it is used nowadays, for example in this recent paper by Kristin Bonnie, Victoria Horner, Andrew Whiten, and Frans de Waal.

Horner's panopticon: the experimental apparatus of the study.


Tuesday 7 November 2006

Art's Pattern Language

This is an extremely speculative post exploring multimodal perception in artists. It was primed by this fascinating paper written by " a multimedia conceptual artist (...) working on a series of projects that explore the nature of rainbows and the music of waterfalls in relation to the forgotten universal language of Solresol, invented by Jean François Sudre in the mid-nineteenth century" (surely the guy has organized his whole career to contend for the Hype Curriculum World Prize) and by Chris Chatham's no less interesting reflections on visual pattern recognition in musicians.

James Peel, Goldberg Variations Series, after Bach, Variations no. 4, 2005.


Monday 6 November 2006

On conformism among social psychologists

In a previous post on deliberative democracy, I said that people often attack deliberative democracy on the ground that people are conformists; and they do so by relying on Asch’s famous experiment. This experiment, although one of the best known in social psychology, has suffered from a widespread misunderstanding. In a recent and very challenging paper, Hodges and Geyer reassess Asch’s experiment: a must read.

Picture shows an advertisement to plebiscit Général de Gaulle in France. "Vous êtes la majorité" means "You are the majority".


Sunday 5 November 2006

Justice for all ?

In a recent chronicle in Slate about charity, Tim Harford gives a good argument against the idea that charity is a proof of altruism.

If these do-gooders really were motivated by the desire to do good, they would be doing something different. It would almost always be more effective to volunteer less, work overtime, and give more. A Dutch banker can pay for a lot of soup-kitchen chefs and servers with a couple of hours' worth of his salary, but that wouldn't provide the same feel-good buzz as ladling out stew himself, would it?

He also raises an interesting question about the diversity of beneficiaries. Is it selfish to give to a great variety of organisations (you'll enjoy pointing to 10 different charities and saying, "I gave to all those!") or, as I see it, do we seek a fair distribution of gifts among beneficiaries ?


Saturday 4 November 2006

Campaign Chronicles III

Is Ségolène Royal a rawlsian ? The favorite candidate for french socialist primary elections for presidential election, Ségolène Royal, has suggested to give up the “carte scolaire”, the french system that compels parents to put their children in the particular school of the urban area they live in. The system intends to bring together children from different social classes. By renouncing social diversity, is the potential socialist candidate moving aside for rawlsian principles of justice commanding to favor “the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”?


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