Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Defining agency after implicit bias


My name is Naomi Alderson. In 2014, I graduated from Cardiff University and was accepted onto a programme, led by Dr Jonathan Webber, that helped graduates to turn an undergraduate essay on the topic of implicit bias into a publishable paper. My paper, ‘Defining agency after implicit bias’, was published in March 2017 in Philosophical Psychology, and will be summarised here. In writing it, I found more questions concerning agency, cognition and behaviour than I was able to answer; I am going to continue my studies at UCL this September in the hope of getting closer to the truth.

Implicit biases are associations that affect the way we behave in ways that can be difficult to perceive or control. One example is so-called ‘weapon bias’, studied by Keith Payne (2006) among others. Payne showed participants images of gun-shaped objects asked them to make split-second decisions about whether they were guns or not.

He found that many participants were more likely to misidentify harmless objects as guns and to correctly identify guns more quickly if they were shown a picture of a black man’s face than if they were shown a white man’s face, due to an implicit association between black men and guns.

This bias was found even in people with no explicit racial bias and, moreover, was not directly controllable by reflective, deliberative effort: simply concentrating on not being biased was not enough to eliminate its effect.

The resistance of some implicit biases to deliberative control poses a threat to traditional reflectivist accounts of agency, whereby being an agent means being able to deliberatively choose an action and then act it out. If we cannot simply choose to be unbiased, then our implicit biases limit our ability to be agents on this account.

My paper aims to defend and update the reflectivist account of agency by outlining what kinds of control we do have over implicit biases and commenting upon what these forms of control suggest about the nature of agency itself.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Interview with Dan Zahavi on Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology

In this post I interview Dan Zahavi, Professor of Philosophy at University of Copenhagen.


VM: In an interesting study published in Qualitative Health Research you used a phenomenological approach to understand the experiences of self, other, and the world in patients who had recently suffered a stroke and were experiencing hemispatial neglect. Could you say a bit more about the study, and expand on the idea that the findings show the importance of meaning and meaningmaking in the process of rehabilitation?

DZ: That study was investigating first person accounts of neglect soon after a stroke. These were the results from open-ended interviews of 12 participants. Stroke is closely related long-term disability and mortality. And many stroke patients experience hemispatial neglect. What happens is that people no longer notice the left side of their body and the perceptual field. Half of the universe looses meaning and no longer exists for them.

But the interesting part is that even when those parts are now outside of conscious reach, they still make an impact on the experience of self, of others and of the patient's world. And this not only impacts the persons' experiences but also those of their families’ and carers.  So when interviewing the patients, we used the guide of phenomenological accounts of embodied subjectivity to explore the impairments that affected the patients’experiences. 

From the findings we gathered that the patient experience several difficulties that challenge their life experience. For example, people struggle to remember events, to incorporate new knowledge. The person notices the difference between her abilities prior to the stroke and after it. These are very strange experiences and the patients were mostly reluctant to communicate their bodily sensations. 
Many of the problems that we found such as failure to recognize the left side of the body and space or strange bodily perceptions were already present in the neglect literature.

But we analyzed the data from a perspective that took into account the impact of changes and loss in interpersonal relations and spatial freedom (all concepts present in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’ phenomenology) in the embodied experience of neglect. This enhanced the picture that we previously had and supplemented the existing literature for understanding the patients’ subjective experiences.

It is not easy for people to say that they cannot find their hand. People are mostly concerned with being targeted as drunk, delusional, etc. And this not wanting to share unusual bodily sensations creates feelings of alienation from others and loneness. This of course potentially results into the person loosing ability to maintain close interpersonal relationships. So what do we mean when we say that the findings from the phenomenological approach emphasize the importance of meaning and meaningmaking in the entire process of rehabilitation? 

We noticed that the patients’ ability to attend to the left hemispace was enhanced with  reminders that the patient found of some sort of significance. There is the example of a mother with neglect who could hold her baby with the left arm but forgot to attend to other things which were less important and meaningful to her. Some patients responded better to challenges to explore the left when prompts were coming from close friends and family which shows the importance of emotional stimuli. And that is why we propose that people who are experiencing neglect as well as their relatives and close friends need to be able to become more familiar with the manifestations of the experience. And this is possible by understanding patient’s interests, particular life history together with clinical observation.  

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Is Smell an Aesthetic Sense?


Ann-Sophie Barwich (pictured above) is an empirical philosopher and historian of science and the senses at Columbia University. She investigates olfaction as a new model system for neuroscience and looks at the nature of smell for philosophical inquiry about perception (Barwich 2016). For this, she works in close collaboration with the neuroscience laboratory of Stuart Firestein, in addition to interactions with other olfactory labs.

The human sense of smell has a remarkably bad reputation. We are often told to have too poor a nose to appreciate the richness of sensory information that is conveyed through small volatile molecules in the air. Over the past two decades, however, scientific insight has proven many of the predominantly pejorative beliefs about human smell perception wrong. It turns out that our olfactory system is much more elaborate than previously thought, both in its physiological and cognitive functions (Shepherd 2004; 2012; Gilbert 2008; Barwich 2016; Majid 2016; McGann 2017). Still, we also know notably little about our oldest sense. To date, many of the key questions remain unresolved: Is there a natural order underlying the classification of the multitude of odors? How are smells represented in the brain?

In a recent article (Barwich 2017), I addressed one of the most persistent preconceptions about the human nose: Can our sense of smell be a source of aesthetic perception? The majority of opinions in aesthetic studies will give you a negative verdict or ignore the sense of smell altogether. In response, I looked at the reasons for dismissing odors in past aesthetic discourse. These reasons were largely twofold. First, aesthetic experience is commonly considered to be about features of objects, not personal preferences (Carroll 2001). In this context, the assessment of odor quality is held as being heavily subjective. Odors seem to represent phenomenological 'feels' instead of objects (Batty 2010). Second, aesthetic perception has a strong cognitive load. By contrast, olfactory percepts may not possess sufficient differentiation in their content. Rather, they are seen as presenting us with a synthetic experience of an immediate but undifferentiated sensation (Lycan 2000).

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Cognition, Affect, and Motivation

On June 9th, the University of Birmingham hosted a workshop, "Cognition, Affect, and Motivation: Conceptual and Empirical Issues", sponsored by Project PERFECT and the Mind Association. The conference brought together academics and students from philosophy and related disciplines, as well as members of the public, who were interested in issues relating to the interaction between cognition, affective responses and motivation. It aimed to foster interdisciplinary discussion around philosophical questions about the relation between these three drivers of human behaviour.



Maura Tumulty’s talk focussed on how we can take control over our mental states, especially those with strong affective content. Many of our mental states are controlled by our judgements. However, Tumulty discussed states that are in tension with our sincerely endorsed judgements. 





Say, for example, that a person is predisposed to be attracted to smoking although she sincerely endorses the judgement that smoking is bad for her health. Or suppose that someone harbours an implicit bias associating Black people with violent crime but explicitly judges that the bias is wrong.

In such cases, we cannot control our mental states through our judgements. We will continue, for example, to have positive affective responses that are associated with smoking, and negative affective responses that are associated with Black people, that are recalcitrant in face of conflicting judgements. Tumulty discussed how we can take managerial control when our judgements fail to control our mental states, we can adopt methods that control our mental states. For example, I might try to associate smoking with negative imagery by looking at pictures of unhealthy lungs whenever I encounter a person smoking.