AlphaPsy

Saturday 30 September 2006

Gay Mirror-Neurons come out

Mirror-Neurons have been losing much of their bourgeois respectability lately; they were supposed to be involved in empathy, imitation, culture, learning, theory of mind... now it turns out that they might be the brain's gateway to pornographic pleasure, and that some of them are gay.

The pictures show Giaccomo Rizzolatti, (straight) discoverer of mirror-neurons, and the beloved Arthur Rimbaud (by Fantin-Latour in the Musée d'Orsay).

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The AlphaPsy Rough Guide to Naturalism

I just posted on the blog a dozen or so primers that Nicolas, Karim and I wrote for the AlphaPsy main site. These are really short introductions to various topics in the fields of evolution, cognition, and culture. It is chielfy aimed at social scientists with no background whatsoever in the domain. Each primer includes a link to the relevant AlphaPsy Bibliography, which is particularly suited for beginners. Again, it is only a very rough guide; it has no scientific ambitions, so don't judge it too harshly. Perhaps I'll try to work it into a Wikipedia entry, since I am told by Dario Taraborelli that there is none for cognitive anthropology.

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Friday 29 September 2006

Mirror-Neurons: a primer

If you have never heard of mirror-neurons, or if you're not sure, then this post is for you! It is part of the AlphaPsy Primers series, a very rough guide to naturalistic anthropology, written for the lay reader.

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We need a cognitive anthropology of religion, not the reverse!

I strongly disagree with Alberto's last post ("a naturalistic religion, why not?"). Trying to get rid of religion altogether, and replace it with an ersatz, is a foolish and dangerous enterprise. The "rationalist" cults, from Robespierre to Ron Hubbard via Auguste Comte, have either failed dismally or proven worse than what they sought to replace.

the picture shows Ron Hubbard, a man who made a lot of money.

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a naturalistic religion, why not?

There has been quite a great amount of heated discussion about the problems created by extant religions (see the last books by Dennett 'Breaking the spell' and Dawkins 'The god delusion'). Even if much more research on cost-benefit is needed, I take as a reasonable conclusion that extant religions are at least not optimal: from a social and political point of view, if possible and everything being equal, we should get rid of them or, more precisely, put something better in their functional place (in any case, for the sake of the argument grant me this conclusion, with all respect for possible religious readers and knowing it is still not proven).

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Thursday 28 September 2006

God is dead? Links between religious thoughts and fear of death.

Atheists (and religious people sometimes too) often think that people believe in God because it shields them from the fear of their own death, or protects them from the idea that their departed loved ones are, well, just dead. Two recent studies confirm this idea: one by showing that being aware of one's own mortality increases belief in supernatural agents and the other by demonstrating that showing contradiction in their sacred texts increases the accessibility of death related thoughts among fundamentalists.


Above, two ways to fight your fear of death: prayer and humour (pick your side).

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Pitt-Rivers haunts the Musée du Quai Branly

On visiting the brand new Musée du Quai Branly in Paris last Sunday, I was amazed to meet the ghost of one of the most outdated anthropologists of the Victorian Age.

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Wednesday 27 September 2006

Darwin under the Black Flag

The Ultra-Left review "Social Anarchism" reviews Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate", and surprise! It is overwhelmingly positive. Are you seated? Then read on:

"We, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature"

Music to my lefty-darwinian ears!

The pictures show PJ Proudhon, the French founder of Anarchism, and a British naturalist.

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Tuesday 26 September 2006

Weeds 'R' us

French environmentalists were fighting the government over Nettles last week (see here), while I was reading The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan. This made me wonder whether weeds and pests could be considered as a very peculiar variety of domesticated species.

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Monday 25 September 2006

Believing in the power of the mind

Social psychologists from Harvard and Princeton campuses report on belief in magical causation from lay people (as far as students from those places can be considered as laid lay persons representative of the general population...). Reinforcing an already strong case for magical thinking, their studies yet deserve some attention for they try to draw a link between causal inferences in mental and physical domains.

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Saturday 23 September 2006

Translocating/Relocating Animal Cultures

(excuse my title ; I read too much Latour this week) Kevin "Niche-Construction" Laland and Vincent M Janik reexamine the case for animal cultures in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. They cast doubt on the relevance of an anthropology-based approach to animal "traditions" and they put forward a new method.

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Friday 22 September 2006

A Primer on Social Cognition

An interesting primer on social cognition has been published in the last volume of Current Biology. Klaus Zuberbühler and Richard Byrne squeeze quite a lot of information in five pages, and their 'tour' of social cognition covers several domains that tend to be forgotten when we focus on human cognition.

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Taper dans l’oeil or taping into our modules?

It has been repeatedly shown that in some domains at least people tend to prefer prototypical stimuli, stimuli that are close to the ‘typical’ exemplar of a category. For example, and even if it can seem surprising, people show a preference for ‘more average’ faces. Piotr Winkielman and his colleagues suggest a new interpretation of these findings. Their interpretation is in terms of ease of processing and the agreeable feeling that accompanies easy processing. They back up this interpretation with some experiments. Even though they couch their theory in domain general terms, I argue that it is good news for views of cultural transmission that rely on modular psychological mechanisms.

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Attack of the Doppelgängers

A team of swiss neuroscientists, by stimulating epileptic subjects in the temporoparietal junction, elicited the illusion that they could feel a presence nearby, whose posture was the same as their own. They said they could feel what this illusory shadow wanted. This casts new light on a myth of popular and (romantic) litterary culture.

(image taken from composer Hilary Kahn's website)

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Thursday 21 September 2006

Reassembling Latour

A review of "Reassembling the Social", by Bruno Latour, a handbook that sums up 25 years of controversial research. Still provocative, Latour happily acknowledges the "wreckage" (sic) of the 'Social Studies of Science' program, and debunks (among other trends in the social sciences) social constructivism. For the more naturalistically inclined, this is an opportunity to see his work in a new light.

(this picture was found on a John Hopkins U. website which does not exist anymore)

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Wednesday 20 September 2006

Listen to the Wisdom of the Elders: and what if they are not wise ?

Children can sometimes see adults as being omniscient, but they realize that other kids are not. However, it sometimes happens that the child is right and the adult wrong (more often than the latter recognize anyway). When a child and an adult disagree, are children able to switch their preferences and go for what the other child says if the adult as proven to be unreliable in the past? A new study published in Psychological Science answers yes.

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Tuesday 19 September 2006

Language evolution: Where is my mind?

The publication of a short review paper on language evolution, and the coming out of a blog specially dedicated to the topic give me the opportunity to deplore the quasi total ignorance of what links language with the rest of cognition, pragmatics, in this blossoming field.

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Sunday 17 September 2006

Know thyself: Yes, but how?

The importance of self-knowledge has often been emphasized, from the traditional lore to the new age gurus. However, there may be very different ways to know thyself. Two of the most important aspects of self-knowledge are autobiographical memory and self-concept and it has been repeatedly shown that these aspects of self-knowledge display wide cultural variations. A recent paper reviews what we know about the developmental roots of these differences and it illustrates nicely some of the more recent and interesting trends in cross-cultural psychology.

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Saturday 16 September 2006

Practical applications of understanding naive biology

Naive biology is set of concepts and cognitive processes that help us understand biological phenomena. A new article sums up the evidence showing that naive biology is a specific domain and, interestingly, suggests some practical applications.

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The face of the thinker

The hindsight bias is the tendency to say after an event happened that “we knew it all along”, that it’s not really surprising. This is a bias because when asked before the event, we wouldn’t have predicted it, but after it happened we think we would have (and because it can be quite irritating). A paper has just come out in Current Directions in Psychological Science that reviews the role of metacognitive thoughts and feeling in this phenomenon, and among the effects mentioned one is quite surprising: people asked to make the face we make when engaged in deep thinking were actually more doubtful towards their answers, as if they had had to think hard to come out with them. Explanation of the experiment.

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Thursday 14 September 2006

Jerry Fodor does some neo-pragmatism bashing

In a piece in the London Review of Books, Fodor 'reviews' (conducts a mounted attack on would be closer to the truth -- but is there a truth?) the last book by Michael Frayn: "The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe" (Fraser). Fodor is acid and also truly funny to read. Here are some nuggets.

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Wednesday 13 September 2006

Washing Away Your Sins

A nice paper by Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist in Science about the "Macbeth effect" : a threat to one’s moral purity induces the need to wash. This effect revealed itself through an increased mental accessibility of washing-related concepts, a greater desire for cleansing products, and a greater likelihood of taking antiseptic wipes. Furthermore, they show that physical cleansing alleviates the upsetting consequences of unethical behavior and reduces threats to one’s moral self-image.

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Rorty vs. the Moral Mind (bis)

Olivier (see here) pointed out several mistakes in Rorty’s review of Marc Hauser’s last book on morality. I’d like to follow up on his work since I think Rorty’s conception of morality is even more to blame than he thinks.

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Tuesday 12 September 2006

In praise of babies

No news in this post: its only aim is to remind us of how socially savvy babies are. A review paper in press in trends in cognitive sciences sums up the evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience. And I’ll take the opportunity to suggest another contender for the Cutest Science Paper Award.

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Sunday 10 September 2006

Diplomatic to a fault

A review of JM Balkin's "Cultural Software : a theory of ideology", released for free today, under a Creative Commons license. This weird book purports to reconcile Dawkins and Gould, Derrida and Dennett, Sperber and Geertz, Hegel and Darwin, under the controversial banner of Memetics.

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Saturday 9 September 2006

Conscious? Her brain tells us so.

When asked to imagine herself playing tennis or visiting her house while being fMRI-scanned, a young patient in vegetative state proved able to activate corresponding brain regions, Science reports. Brain imaging tools - besides fueling media with nicely illustrated stories - might prove a promising complement to today's behavioralist assessments of impaired conscious states.

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Friday 8 September 2006

the "Autism Epidemics" Scare is back

10 years ago, a supposed Autism Epidemics was blamed on peanut butter, mercury in vaccines, drugs, asbestos, television (or whatever you're mad at) ; today, claims of an autism epidemics are back, more solidly grounded. An Israeli study disclosed this week reveals that father's age increases the risk for autism.

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Ségolène Royal on "naive morality"

The favorite candidate for the french socialist presidential primary elections, Ségolène Royal, talked a few days ago about the value of “naive morality”. Is she aware of psychological works on “naive theories” arguing that we have innately prepared intuitions about physical objects, numbers, other people’s psychology or morality ?

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Tuesday 5 September 2006

Baby monkeys make faces

The AlphaPsy 2006 'Cutest Science Paper Award' goes to the description of facial Imitation in newborn Rhesus Macaques, by the Parma research group.

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Sunday 3 September 2006

Is Diamond's worldview sustainable?

Ten years after "Guns, Germs and Steel" new pieces of evidence have shown up that challenge Jared Diamond's popular explanations of the downfall of native american empires, and the fate of Easter Island.

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Saturday 2 September 2006

French ID steps into the light

Le Monde enquires about a French "university" that supports neocreationists claims. Sadly, the journalist is not nearly critical enough and the paper ends with a plea to reintegrate theology into scientific studies and a criticism of the secularism of French scientists. This is annoying and a bit scary.

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Friday 1 September 2006

6 chimps play chinese whispers

In a paper published online in PNAS (early edition), Horner, Whiten, Flynn and De Waal report how chimpanzees faithfully transmit new skills to their peers, who transmit them to others, and so on. A particular gesture can be preserved for 6 cultural "generations".

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Modularity in Psychological Review

A new paper on modularity has been published in Psych Rev. This theoretical paper fiercely (and nicely) defends the notion of modularity against a set of repeated attacks from different corners. Since modularity is a central aspect of (at least one of) the attemps to bridge evolution, culture and cognition, it's good news for us that such a paper has been published in the most notorious psychology journal.

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